The other question I get is “What made you decide to blog the writings of an Elizabethan cat?” My friends tend to ask this in the pub, looking a tad dazed. And not because they’ve been drinking.
The answer is (of course) the discovery and decoding of the papers in my neighbour’s dress-basket. But there’s more, which I’ll keep as short as possible.
In mid-2014 I was researching a topic that had nothing to do with either cats or Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, when I chanced upon a reference to his refusal to be married to Elizabeth de Vere.
She was the daughter of the 17th Earl of Oxford and granddaughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley. The Earl of Southampton was a teenager. William Cecil was his guardian and, as Elizabeth I’s chief adviser, the most powerful man in England.
Said I to my writing buddy, “That makes three things I like about the Earl of Southampton: he was a patron of Shakespeare, he had his portrait painted with a cat, and he said ‘No’ to William Cecil – not something many people would’ve done.”
“Good for him,” said she, and we went on to discuss our current projects.
Later it occurred to me that was pretty much all I did know about the Earl.
I dimly recalled that, as a young man, he’d earned Elizabeth I’s hostility by secretly marrying his pregnant girlfriend. And that he’d supported the Earl of Essex’s disastrous uprising in early 1601, but his death sentence was commuted to imprisonment. Hence his famous “Tower Portrait” with a cat.
I decided to find out more. One search led to another, and then to a truly fantastic world. Apparently, the Earl and William Shakespeare were an Item.
Few agree on what sort of an Item, but there are some amazing scenarios out there. The Clues! The Codes! The Conceits! Here are my three favourites.
The Love Triangle
Shakespeare’s sonnets tell a story that reveals his heart. He tries to talk a lovely lad (the Fair Youth) into reproducing (presumably within marriage), then declares his own love for him. Alas, the ingrate reciprocates by stealing Shakespeare’s mistress. She’s a Dark Lady.
Shakespeare gives his male beloved a few tellings-off (as only an aggrieved poet with an exquisite turn of phrase could), but stays friends with him. That suggests the Fair Youth is rich. Shakespeare also frets about a Rival Poet, presumably because he too is after financial handouts from said Fair Youth.
But, if the Fair Youth is the Earl of Southampton (as first suggested about 200 years after Shakespeare’s death) then who’s the Dark Lady?
That gets really complicated, because at least half-a-dozen Dark Ladies have been identified over the years. I’m not going there.
Love Child #1
This may be the sequel to The Love Triangle, but I’ll be honest. I haven’t read Professor Hammerschmidt-Hummel’s books about Shakespeare, or the Dark Lady.
However, I gather that when the Earl sneaks home from France in 1598 to marry the pregnant Elizabeth Vernon (historical fact), the child she’s carrying is not his but Shakespeare’s.
And Elizabeth Vernon is a Dark Lady. Among others.
The child is a girl (Lady Penelope Wriothesley) who marries into the Spencer family. One of her descendants (Lady Diana Spencer) marries Prince Charles.
That means Prince William and Prince Harry are descended from Shakespeare rather than the Earl of Southampton. Among many others, of course.
Love Child #2
The Earl of Southampton is the child of Elizabeth I, though it must have been a difficult labour because she never shows him special favour. Apart from not cutting off his head when she has good reason to. Any parent can identify with that.
The 17th Earl of Oxford is his biological father.
So where’s Shakespeare in all this? Well, that depends on who you mean by “Shakespeare”.
The documents in my possession are penned by at least one cat, maybe two, who had the run of several noble households and who must have been privy to Southampton family secrets.
Could Shakespeare himself have come to the attention of the Earl of Southampton’s cat(s)?
Certainly, if he was in their vicinity and gave them something nice to eat. Or left his mark somewhere that offended them.
This has led to a different-but-related industry, namely the Shakespeare Authorship Question, so refer back to the Earl of Oxford. Among others.
More Clues, more Codes.
One way or another, the feline observations I’m transcribing could provide the definitive answer. I look forward to it. And I’m looking forward to a truly luxurious old age regardless.
Who knows what price these smelly old papers might fetch, once I’ve finished with them?