but sometimes the Oxfordians do have a point. Inspired by that article I stumbled across last time, I've done a little digging through the DNB and discovered some fun facts about Thomas Howard, fourth and last Duke of Norfolk. They describe him as "a man of contrasts... on the one hand, there was the image of the handsome and mannered outdoor aristocrat.... on the other there was the socially powerful but personally weak magnate who practiced dissumulation."
Howard's public image is best encapsulated in this obersvation by Guerau de Spes, the Spanish Ambassador, as Howard was being led to the tower: "the concourse of people was so large and the shouts so general that a very little more and he would have been liberated." Also, the DNB notes that Howard tended to prefer life in his country estates to life at court, so there is every reason to think about a country inkeeper like Blague being steadfast in his service of "The Good Duke of Norfolk."
But for 30 years?
Howard ultimately wasn't that bright, and concealed his aspirations to marry Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotts, from Queen Elizabeth. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that, if you want to hook up with one of your sovereign's potential rivals, you might want to clear it with her first. It also shouldn't take much wit at all to figure out that, when she catches you in the act and gives you a second chance, don't try to continue your courtship in secret. Howard did both of these, and was convicted of treason and executed. His head came off on 2 June 1572.
Recall my estimation of 1603 as a first-performance date. I felt very good for coming up with that because, when I looked it up in Chambers, he had come to the same conclusion. Having your thought process be in sync with one of the great lions of Renaissance scholarship feels.. you know... good. Of course, even then I was writing of this as a probable latest first performance date. I suppose there's no reason to suspect that it wasn't written sooner, but that creates a strange mystery in and of itself. If Merry Devil is a product of the 1580s or 1590s, why isn't there a either a stationer's register entry for it or a record of its performance? And how did the play come into the possession of the Chamberlain's/King's Men?
Since Chambers has got my back on this one, I think that I'll stick with my 1603 estimation. That, in turn, leads to interesting character questions. Host Blague praising the Good Duke of Norfolk would be a little bit like running into a hotel in the middle of nowhere decorated with Nixon memorabilia. There is something almost absurd about it, but then again, Blague is supposed to be a bafoonish character, and they do absurd things all the time. That's why we laugh at them.
So while our anonymous Oxfordian raises some interesting issues, these seem to me most likely to be issues to resolved "in game." They help inform the character more than they do the date of authorship.