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The Secret of Shakespeare’s Irish Sympathies

Once Again Lord Oxford’s Own Personality Speaks Through the Plays

by Charles Wisner Barrell (©1941)
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“Because a bard of Ireland told me once…”
(Richard III, IV.2.108)

This article was first published in the June 1941 Shakespeare Fellowship Trust Newsletter (American Branch). The italicized emphasis in some paragraphs are all reproduced from the original.

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The Celtic scholar, T.F. Healey, sponsors the whimsical theory in the September 1940 issue of The American Mercury that “Shakespeare Was An Irishman.”

This is probably the one thousand and first effort that has been made to provide a realistic personal background for the elusive Bard. And Mr. Healey’s effort, though undeniably far-fetched, has the virtue of being both readable and stimulating. While the Stratford-on-Avon milieu disappears like a puff of smoke from the Healey dudeen, we are not asked to seek the true answer to Shakespeare’s identity in cryptograms, spirit rappings or other abracadabra. He is considered primarily as a poet, and poetic license is not too rudely violated in claiming his racial affinity to the land that traditionally honors bards.

The harp that once thrilled Tara’s halls would have awakened a responsive cord in Shakespeare’s breast. Of that we can rest assured.

From the Oxford-was-Shakespeare point of view, Mr. Healey’s brief provides new arguments to prove that the personal psychology behind the plays and poems is that of Edward de Vere, “most excellent” of Elizabethan Court poets. For he alone of all the creative “claimants” that have ever been put forward can be shown by authentic documentation to have been accused of harboring sentiments of radical approval for the activities of Irish patriots. And this, mind you, at a time when the expression of such sentiments was a treasonable offense!

Not a line nor a word has ever been found which personally connects Shakspere of Stratford with the Irish geographically, politically, genealogically, or through any of the numerous business deals and legal squabbles in which this citizen figures.

Neither was Sir Francis Bacon ever charged with being pro-Celtic. He was too active and ambitious a politician for any such foolishness.

Roger Manners, the boyish Earl of Rutland (born October 6, 1576), fought against the Irish in the army of the Earl of Essex in 1599.

None of these men can be shown to have been the sympathetic Celt-at-Heart that Mr. Healey analyzes.

The situation is quite different when we begin to thumb over Elizabethan State Papers and long-forgotten publications relating to the 17th Earl of Oxford who lost caste by his addiction to poetry, music and the stage.

Following his denunciation in December 1580 of Lord Henry Howard and Charles Arundel as English spies and conspirators in the pay of the King of Spain, the Earl of Oxford was in turn accused by Arundel of a list of offenses so numerous that Arundel states:

“…to report at large all the vices of this monstrous Earl were a labour without end.”

Written in the Tower in an effort to save his own neck, Arundel’s counter-accusations are hysterically phrased and in certain particulars unprintable. A digest is given in the Calendar of State Papers, Elizabeth, 1581-1590. Captain B.M. Ward made a complete transcript of the material while preparing his biography of Edward de Vere.

Charles Arundel later died on the Continent, a pensioner of Philip II. His written catalogue of Oxford’s “vices” must be accepted with allowances due the testimony of a proven traitor and political termite. But several of his comments on the literary Earl are extremely interesting when studied in connection with the Healey theory.

For instance, Arundel claims that on numerous occasions he has heard Oxford express commendation of the patriotism of “Dr. Sanders and Lord Baltinglas.”

Both of these men were prominent in the Irish “holy war” that seriously threatened English control during 1579 and 1580.

James Fitzmaurice Fitzgerald raised the banner of revolt. He was accompanied by the famous Dr. Nicolas Sanders, who bore a papal legate’s commission. For several months this rebellion caused keen anxiety to the English overlords. It was finally put down with much bloodshed.

In her Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays, Mrs. Clark argues that Dr. Nicholas Sanders is the original of the miracle-worker referred to by Shakespeare under the nickname of “Saunder Simpcox” in 2 Henry VI (II, 1).

Soon after the Fitzgerald-Sanders abortive attempt to throw off English rule, during the summer of 1580, James Eustace, Third Viscount Baltinglas, took up arms against Elizabeth’s Lord Deputy, Arthur Grey. Baltinglas issued a vigorous protest against “the severities and injustice inflicted by Elizabethan officials on the people of Ireland. He repudiated recognition of a woman as head of the Church.” Baltinglas and his followers put up a determined but hopeless fight which finally ended with the leader’s escape to the Continent. His estates being confiscated by the Crown, one house in Dublin was granted to Edmund Spenser who then served the Lord Deputy Grey as secretary.

The objections of Lord Baltinglas to English rule were based on humanitarian and constitutional grounds. He has always been considered an Irish patriot of high principle and stainless character. Lord Oxford may have known him personally. In any event, according to Arundel’s testimony, the playwriting Earl admired Baltinglas as a man of heroic mold despite the latter’s enmity to the English government. This attitude fits the Healey Shakespearean thesis perfectly. It is a fact, moreover, that one of Shakespeare’s marked characteristics is his ability to recognize heroic qualities in the opponents of his dramatic protagonists. The inexplicable treatment of Joan of Arc, who is pictured as a harlot, is the outstanding exception that proves the rule. Is it just another “mere coincidence,” as Oscar James Campbell and other orthodox pundits would have it, that the poetical nobleman here is accused of displaying the same admiration for the valor of an official enemy which Shakespeare so frequently expresses?

The Healey analysis from other angles is equally suggestive of Lord Oxford’s creative hand in the plays. The knowledge of Irish folklore and music which Mr. Healey proves to have been among the Bard’s accomplishments cannot be verified, through any Stratfordian clue. But here again, Lord Oxford is known to have been in close personal touch with repositories of such knowledge.

Edmund Spenser, who secured his first leasehold in Ireland as a result of the attainder of Lord Baltinglas and who lived in the land long enough to become a recognized authority on its customs and folklore, enjoyed the familiar acquaintance of the poet Earl. Spenser’s dedicatory sonnet to Oxford in the 1590 edition of The Faery Queene not only enlists the nobleman’s good will because Spenser needs patronage, but most significantly hails the nobleman as himself a great poet, a beloved initiate of the Muses:

And also for the love which thou cost bear
To th’ Heliconian imps and they to thee,
They unto thee, and thou to them most
dear…

We may with reasonable assurance picture Edmund Spenser as a frequent dinner guest of “the passing singular odd” Earl of Oxford during Spenser’s visits to London. And as the two poets linger over their apples, cheese and wine, we can visualize the bohemian nobleman, famous throughout England for his love of the curious and the outlandish, “as well the histories of ancient times, and things done long ago, as also of the present estate of things in our days,”2 lending eager ear to Spenser’s tales of the wild Irish kerns who worship the moon and do use to make the wolf their gossip.”

The author of As You Like It displays just such familiarity with Celtic folklore when he has Rosalind mock the lovesick chorus of Phebe, Sllvius and Orlando with:

Pray you, no more of this; ’tis
like the howling of Irish wolves
against the moon.

Earlier in the comedy, Rosalind–who, in her disdain for love-rhymes displays the same unusual characteristic that distinguishes Spenser’s Rosalind of The Shepheard’s Calendar–has laughed Orlando’s forest-strewn verses to scorn:

I was never so berhymed since
Pythagoras’ time, that I was an
Irish rat, which I can hardly remember.

Here is not only a reference to transmigration, but to the claim of such Irish historians as Gerald de Barry that rats had been expelled from the Isle of Saints by the Bishop of Ferns, whose books they had probably gnawed and who used rhymes to effect his spells upon the rodents.

We can well imagine both Edmund Spenser and the witty and learned Earl of Oxford mulling over such bits of Irish legend as these. But it is difficult indeed to assume that the Stratford businessman would acquire similar curiosa from nowhere in particular.

“One may ask,” says Mr. Healey, “where Shakespeare got his knowledge of Irish mythology, legend and literature. It formed a phenomenally exceptional knowledge in the England of his day, where it was not even known that it existed. Not to speak of Irish songs and ballads found in the plays. Indeed, the subject of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Irish music alone holds much more than the merit of mere novelty to the ripe Shakespearean scholar. …There are ten…Irish folk-lore songs alluded to in the Plays, but every song is concealed under an alias

As the partisan and well-wisher of such Irish patriots as Sanders and Baltinglas and the personal friend of Spenser, Oxford was well circumstanced, it would seem, to acquire just such knowledge. Moreover, he had one outstanding advantage here which made it possible for him to evaluate and utilize for dramatic purposes the so-called “hidden music of Eire.”

For Lord Oxford was himself a musician of outstanding talent. He even figures in English political history in a musical interlude on the occasion of the execution of Essex for high treason. The story is too well known to repeat in detail here. But all of the Earl’s biographical commentators stress his addiction to music, as well as to poetry and the drama.

By the same token, every musical authority who writes on Shakespeare reaches the conclusion that the Bard had so thorough an appreciation of musical technique that many of his finest stage effects are achieved by the scientific application of this knowledge. Louis C. Elson’s Shakespeare In Music gives many instances in point. His discussion of the wonderful subtlety with which music is employed to characterize Ophelia’s mental collapse is illuminating. Of Scene 2, Act I, in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Elson says: “This scene could easily give rise to an entire chapter of musical comment and elucidation.”

It seems certain that no creative artist possessing technical ability of this high order would be able to conceal it in his person as effectively as the citizen of Stratford did. His most assiduous biographers have been unable to trace a single contemporary reference to their man which offers any musical connotation whatever. To claim for such a will o’ the wisp every personal accomplishment that the author of the plays and poems exhibits, without bothering to substantiate such claims with bona fide documentation, may be acceptable practice in the realm of scholarship presided over by Prof. Campbell and his fellow obscurantists, but it will hardly pass muster among serious students of the Shakespeare problem.

Here again Lord Oxford is the one great concealed poet of his age who can be definitely shown to have embodied in his own person the knowledge and innate ability to meet the musical requirements of “Mr. William Shakespeare’s” creative role, as both Messrs. Healey and Elson define them.

During the 1590 decade the Earl who already numbered among his proteges such Shakespearean “source” writers as Thomas Watson, Anthony Munday, Thomas Churchyard, John Lyly and Robert Greene–not to mention his uncle Arthur Golding--became the acknowledged patron of the famous Anglo-Irish composer John Farmer.

Farmer held the post of organist and master of the children of the choir in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, according to the Chapter Acts of that church, reprinted in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians (3rd Edition). He was one of the most gifted composers and musical arrangers of the Elizabethan era, a pioneer in the fields of the madrigal and counterpoint of different orders.

In 1591 Farmer dedicated his first studies in counterpoint to Edward de Vere, “Earle of Oxenford.” Divers and Sundry Ways…to the Number of Forty, Upon One Playn Song carries a significant statement of its composer’s relationship to the nobleman who, like his prototype in All’s Well, is known to have sold many “a goodly manor for a song”:

“Hereunto, my good Lord, I was the rather emboldened for your Lordship’s great affection to this noble science (i.e., music) hoping for the one you might pardon the other, and desirous to make known your inclination this way…. Besides this, my good Lord, I bear this conceit, that not only myself am vowed to your commandment, but all that is in me is dedicated to your Lordship’s service.”

At this time, as his volume states, John Farmer was living in London “in Broad Street, near the Royal Exchange.”

On August 10th, 1596, the records of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, tell us that Farmer was sworn in as “Viccar Corrall” in place of Robert Jordan, “resigned.” He held this position until 1599, when he appears to have returned to London to resume a close personal relationship to the Earl of Oxford.

During the same year he published another work, which insures his immortality in British musical history. This was The First Set of English Madrigals to Foure Voices. Newly composed by John Farmer, practitioner in the art of Musicque. Printed at London in Little Saint Helen’s by William Barley…Anno Dom. 1599.

Again Farmer dedicates his labors to his “very good Lord and Master,” the Earle of Oxenforde.” The wording of this dedication is so interesting from the personal angle that it should be read at length:

Most honourable Lord, it cometh not within the compass of my power to express all the duty I own, nor to pay the least part; so far have your honourable favors outstripped all means to manifest my humble affection that there is nothing left but praying and wondering. There is a canker worm that breedeth in many minds, feeding only upon forgetfulness and bringing forth to birth but ingratitude. To show that I have not been bitten with that monster, for worms prove monsters in this age, which yet never any painter could counterfeit to express the ugliness, nor any poet describe to decipher the height of their illness, I have presumed to tender these Madrigals only as remembrances of my service and witnesses of your Lordship’s liberal hand, by which I have lived so long, and from your honourable mind that so much have all liberal sciences. In this I shall be most encouraged if your Lordship vouchsafe the protection of my first-fruits, for that both of your greatness you best can, and for your judgment in music best may. For without flattery be it spoke, those that know your Lordship know this, that using this science as a recreation, your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession. Right Honourable Lord, I hope it shall not be distasteful to number you here amongst the favourers of music, and the practisers, no more than Kings and Emperors that have been desirous to be in the roll of astronomers, that being but a star fair, the other an angel’s choir.

Thus most humbly submitting myself and my labours and whatever is or may be in me to your Lordship’s censure and protection, I humbly end, wishing your Lordship as continual an increasing of health and honour as there is a daily increase of virtue to come to happiness.

Your Lordship’s most dutiful servant to command,

John Farmer

Here we have unimpeachable contemporary documentation regarding Lord Oxford’s ability as a musician which should convince the most skeptical that he was fully capable of applying creatively all of the musical technique, taste and feeling which Elson and other authorities find throughout the Shakespearean plays.

The Earl’s relationship to the scholarly choirmaster of the Dublin Cathedral should also help make plain the avenues through which the mysterious Bard acquired his intimate knowledge of the folk tunes of Eire.

As invariably happens when new arguments, based upon bona fide documentation and genuine logic, are presented to identify the actual personality behind the professional mask of “Mr. William Shakespeare,” Lord Oxford’s Irish sympathies, together with his acceptance as a musical colleague by the composer of The First Set of English Madrigals, open up many interesting contributory lines of evidence that the playwriting Earl was the center of the great Elizabethan creative enigma.

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