Reviewed: Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

Diana Price has come out with a new edition of her 2001 Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography.  Having missed the first edition, here was my opportunity to get what must be one of the most important books on the Authorship Question ever published.  For those who haven’t yet read it, particularly those who enjoy fencing with Stratfordians (which I don’t), I urge you to get it, read it, and keep it handy, for it is certainly the definitive text on why William of Stratford cannot possibly be the author of the Shakespeare canon.

Because she does not attempt to answer the second half of The Question––If not William then Who?––she avoids the rancour that inevitably attends any effort to promote a particular candidate.  In this she joins august anti-Stratfordians like George Greenwood and Mark Twain, who made no attempt to pick a winner, perhaps also setting a pattern for important studies that have come along since, most notably Richard Roe’s book on Shakespeare’s Italy, and more recently Stritmatter and Kositsky’s on The Tempest.  By refusing to allow the authorship itself to intrude, the reader’s native common sense is free to function on a particular part of the argument, thus eliminating the dismissive sound byte, as does Roe with the frequently heard dismissal that Shakespeare had his facts wrong about Italy; or Stritmatter with that other constant, that “some plays are too late for Oxford.”

By eliminating the emotionally touchy issues that surround the various candidates, Price allows nothing to take precedence over the stone cold irrefutable fact that William could not possibly have written the Shakespeare canon, or anything else. “Why not William?” must always be answered before readers will be ready to hear who actually wrote the works that bear his name.  Nobody has nailed this primary issue like Price.  Detailed on every point, her scholarship––cool, orderly, thorough, exhaustively supported with solid citations––sets a high mark for the rest of us.  From the lack of any evidence of an education, to his disappearance from London just as the plays that bore his name were hitting their peak of popularity, to the death that went totally unremarked by what had become the vast audience for his plays, she leaves no tern unstoned.

Ah, would that were the end of it!  So long as she wields this end of the stick she can’t be faulted, but unfortunately she must needs turn an utterly convincing localized effort into a self-contradictory theory of everything, ending up in the same weeds where her Stratfordian opponents continue their endless circling.  It would seem that in every respect except the authorship itself, Price is no less a Stratfordian than the academics she scorns, accepting every single darn thing they’ve come up with in centuries of making bricks without straw.  For Price, both Shake-scene and Poet-Ape represent William, a Frankenstein’s monster patched together from every ambiguous figure lurking within the epigrams of his own time and the conjurations dreamed up by centuries of confused theorists.

Dates don’t lie

There’s no real harm in this (to anyone but Price herself), since most of what can’t be disproven can’t be proven either.  However, her notion that William was a hard-nosed financial wizard who bought his way into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then used and abused the connection to make hay for himself by brokering old plays and costumes, is a genuine threat to the truth.  This theory, to which she devotes many pages, is demonstrably without any basis whatsoever in fact.  It’s true that William was as tough-minded as any other businessman when it came to his dealings in Stratford, but there’s nothing to suggest that, until he was adopted by the Company at some point in or shortly before 1595, he had so much as a shilling to invest in anything.

One of the few facts about the life of William of Stratford, repeated in every account from Nicholas Rowe on down to Sam Schoenbaum, is that Shakspere Sr., who throughout William’s early childhood shows up in the record as a successful local entrepreneur, had fallen on serious hard times by the time his son was twelve.  By the 1580s, selling land and dodging creditors had become a way of life for the Shakspere family (Schoenbaum A Documentary Life, 36-40).  Reasons for this loss of standing have caused considerable conjecture over the centuries, suggesting to some that they were Catholic recusants, to others radical dissidents.

Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the Shaksperes were in financial trouble until suddenly, at some point in or shortly after 1596, there was enough money that William was able to buy the second biggest house in town and invest in its renovation.  By then he was in his thirties, so had he been the financial wizard of Price’s imagination, his name would have begun to appear in records of local business transactions well before 1596. That this upsurge in solvency is directly connected to the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in June of 1594 is proven by numerous records, both then and later.  Dates don’t lie.

Price’s notion flies in the face, not only of this well-documented fact of his family’s indebtedness, but also what is known of the structure of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  As noted by everyone who has studied what evidence there is of Shakespeare’s company––most recently Andrew Gurr in The Shakespeare Company (2004)––funding came from the sharers, that is, the six to eight highly-skilled actors who played the leading roles created by Shakespeare (the playwright).  This may be questionable: one of the missing elements in the story as its been told until now is the part played in the Company’s evolution by its wealthy Privy Council patrons.  But this lack of patronage can hardly be resolved by casting the impoverished William as the missing patron.  True, his name does appear in the record on several occasions as a member of this core group of sharers, but even if, let us say, he did supply his share (£100) to rebuild the Globe when it burned down in 1613, the other half of the equation is missing, for time has produced nothing that supports the Company’s claim that he was an actor.

While others have pointed to the fact that, unlike every other member of this core group, all of whom have proven track records as actors with other leading companies before they were recruited by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the name William Shakespeare is not to be found in any theatrical record until 1595, nor has it ever been connected with any other acting company, nor by any contemporary with any particular Shakespearean roles, as is true of most of the genuine actor-sharers.  The one or two references to him as an actor at the time, made in passing, can all be seen as reflecting the role the Company chose to explain his presence, for proving that he was not an actor was just as impossible as proving that he was not a playwright.

In fact Price herself explains in detail why William could not possibly have been the actor the Company would have us believe (32-5).  Noting how during periods when they would have needed all their actors in London, she shows how Schoenbaum locates him in Stratford.  During the winter season of 1597-98, while the Company was performing for the Court from late December through February, records in Stratford have him stockpiling grain and purchasing stone for New Place (Schoenbaum 178).  Since it was a two to three-day trip each way from Stratford to London and back, perhaps longer on icy winter roads, that he could have dashed back and forth is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Shortly after the immensely important occasion of King James’s initial procession through London in March 1604 (for which all the sharers, now the King’s Men, were provided with red and gold livery), it appears that William was in Stratford selling malt (a component of ale) to a local apothecary (34), something that required his attention through June, a period when the Company was busy reopening the Globe after the plague closure of the previous year, and during which several Shakespeare plays were performed at Court for the Company’s all-important new patron, King James.  So unavailable was William for this last, as its playwright anyway, that the clerk that noted the plays that would eventually bear his name, spelled it Shaxberd.

William did not pay––he got paid.

William’s fortune did not come to him from any enterprise he’d undertaken before signing on with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  To make money it’s necessary to have money, something it’s clear that neither he nor anyone in his family had until he was taken on by the actors.  Yes, he was a hard-nosed businessman, and never more so than when he was squeezing them in exchange for remaining silent about the authorship!  From his first notice in the Revels warrant in 1595 until his death in 1616 (and probably until the death of his wife shortly before the First Folio was published seven years later), from first to last, all records of his investments can easily be seen as the Company’s investment in his silence.  Had he been the investor she imagines, had he been the sharer he was made out to be, he would have left shares in his will, as did the real sharers, the actors.

Since no books have survived to reveal how Hemmings, the Company’s manager, handled the flow of funds from at first, just the box office, then after the creation of the Globe, the added portion taken by the house, we have no way of knowing how he managed William’s portion, but that it was not handled in the same way that the money was distributed to the real actors is clear from the absence of any shares in William’s will and no record of any sale of his shares, as there is with the others.  Dealing with William, as with all supernumeraries whose work assisted the production of their plays, fell to Hemmings.  The Mountjoy family, with whom William resided during a brief period in the early 17th century, lived right around the corner from Hemmings. As costumers, the Mountjoys were the sort with whom Hemmings dealt on a daily basis, along with stagehands, scriveners, carpenters, and so forth.

Having divested him of his role as playwright and actor, Price would like to be able to provide him with role with the Company that readers can trust, but because, like the Stratfordians she disdains, she doesn’t know enough about the period to perceive behind the fudging and side-stepping that characterizes all the connections between the Company and the Crown, the deeply political nature of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and their driving need to find a cover that allowed them to get their plays published.  Nor, like most Oxfordians as well as Stratford defenders, does she understand the uses of a name that can be read as a serious name by the public and a pun name by the cognescenti.  William was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (probably in fact by Hemmings, whose hometown was Droitwich, a few miles northwest of Stratford) for the use of his name––and for nothing more!  Everything else, the suggestion that he was a sharer and an actor, was window dressing.  As he provided the necessary cover for their playwright, the terms “sharer” and “actor” were covers for his real purpose.

Lost in a sea of weeds

It’s not possible to cover all the odd postitions taken by Price in her effort to provide a theory of everything, but one more will at least give a sense of where she tends to go awry.  For instance she accepts Warren Austin’s assertion that Greene’s Groatsworth was written, not by Robert Greene, but by Henry Chettle.  Only those who have poked around in the primordial ooze where issues pertaining to the creation of the English periodical press remain seemingly forever bedded, will grasp the strangeness of this choice.

While the three names that dominate this branch of the larger authorship question––Greene, Nashe and Harvey––display anomalies similar to those that have led to questioning William of Stratford, works published as by Robert Greene are not only coherent in subject matter and style up to and including Groatsworth, as the dominant name in English literature throughout the decade preceding the advent of Shakespeare, his name on some 36 works of combined prose and poetry (the five plays were attributed to him posthumously), why on earth pass off this final bit of his canon (meant to be seen as final anyway) as the work of someone as inconsequential as Henry Chettle?

The author of Chettle’s ODNB bio refers to his “shadowy career both as printer and as author: again and again he is associated with a work but is not credited with any part of it when it comes to print.”  She lists 13 of Henslowe’s stringers that, according to Henslowe, worked with Chettle on plays, six of which were published, not one of them bearing his name.  “A further thirteen plays in Henslowe’s diary are attributed to Chettle alone.  Only one . . . was ever printed . . . ; again, Chettle is not identified as the play’s author.”

If we accept the DNB’s assessment of his career, since there is no proof that Chettle actually wrote anything, then Austin’s claim that his language in all his works matches that of Groatsworth and other works by Greene is hardly worth the proverbial tinker’s damn.  Prices’s efforts to explain why a lowly typographer’s apprentice would leap into the pamphlet fray by pretending to be the dying Greene goes nowhere, of course, where could it go?  The word studies that convinced Austin that Greene’s language in Groatsworth matches Chettle’s in Kind Heart’s Dreame, the pamphlet in which he refuted (unpublished) rumors that he wrote Groatsworth, raise questions about all the other pamphlets that sound like Greene but were signed with other names, such as B.R., R.B., Gabriel Harvey and “the renowned Cavaliero Pasquil.”

Maybe Austin was right; maybe whoever wrote Kind Heart’s Dreame also wrote Groatsworth, and almost everything else that was published in pamphlet form at that time, but in the morass of confusion that the true authors of these early pamphlets have left us, the truth about Chettle is not something that Price, or anyone who has written on the subject, has come close to resolving.  Nor will they until they begin to ask the same questions about these writers that have led us to the truth about Shakespeare.

To be or not to be the author

Price takes her argument against William up to the door of the Court, which is where she leaves it.  She makes a case for why the true author had to be a courtier, but will not suggest which one.  Ignorant of the politics of the period, she can give no solid reason why this unnamed courtier should be so reluctant to be named as a poet or a playwright, nor why the cover-up should have continued so long past his death.  Time has shown that nobody today really buys the notion that this long enduring cover-up was due solely to the “stigma of print,” nor should they.  There were plenty of other reasons, personal as well as political why the true author, his family, his actors, his patrons, his in-laws, his monarchs Elizabeth and James, could not and would not ever allow his name to be connected with his works––deadly serious reasons, that no one writing about this today, ignorant of the history of that period, knows or apparently cares to pursue.

The problem for Price, as it is for all who have found it expedient to set the question of the true author aside, is that minus the genius who created the London Stage with his magical works, there is no story.  Efforts to create one without him inevitably fall apart like dough made with all flour and no fat.  As Yeats might have put it, “the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Price has supplied the “rough beast, his hour come round at last,” but who needs him?  Who wants him?  Where is the heartbeat, the thrill, the glory of great achievement in the face of devastating opposition?  Even if there were any truth to her scenario, of what use is it?  Without the author, his story, his relationship to the Stage, the Court, the Inns of Court, the Crown, the commercial periodical press, you end up with a three-legged table.  With the most important leg missing, the table may fit in with your decorating scheme, but if asked to support anything greater than itself, over it goes.

History requires a leading figure, a protagonist.  What would the history of the American Civil War be without the personalities of Lincoln and Lee, John Brown and Stonewall Jackson––a mere string of dates and names of battle locations.  We care about the Civil War because of the stories that came out of it, stories of life and death, of great courage in the face of great danger. What is the life and death issue here?  Where is the hero?  Where is the story?  William is in the way. Price has removed him.  That’s all that matters.

 

 

 

5 responses to “Reviewed: Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

  1. Hi, Stephanie –

    Great post! I don’t own Diana’s book, but I’ve read it. A “side issue” that you neglect concerns the monument – she asserts that there is nothing amiss in the difference between the Dugdale sketch (and engraving) and the current monument. I think that her view has been superseded.

  2. hopkinshughes

    Basically she follows the party line wherever she can, here that Dugdale was wrong. “Many details in Dugdale’s sketch are missing or wrong” says she, “yet overall the sketch corresponds to the Bust.” Well, that’s a howler! When she says “Dugdale drew the tassels of the cushion and correctly positioned Shakspere’s hands,” we can only wonder what she sees; surely not what I see. Compare the original Dugdale image to the Bust. Dugdale’s mustache is nothing like the Bust’s little Van Dyke beard. As for the cushion, as Richard Whalen and Richard Kennedy have pointed out, what Dugdale drew was a woolsack, symbol of John Shakspere’s trade. The “tassels” are the knots in the corners of the woolsack that created handles so workers could move them easily. The hands are nothing like. Dugdale shows them grasping the woolsack; the Bust shows them lying on a flat pillow, holding quill pen and paper. But it’s like this with everything except her argument against William as author. There she can’t be faulted.

    • hopkinshughes

      Stratfordians account for the discrepancy by faulting Dugdale, but as a respected antiquarian whose task was to be precise, we can trust that what he drew was what he saw.

  3. You mention Diana Price on “Poet Ape”, and it raises a question. One of the mysteries that no one addresses (as a response to the “Orthodox” view) is why Shakspere wouldn’t have personally claimed the plays as his own on the financial end of arranging to have them printed. Why wouldn’t HE have been the one to “own” the right to publish (and profit from) “his” plays? He was demonstrably well-off, and business-minded. Though no other playwright published their own works (am I right?), I’ve always believed that that was due to the fact that writers were relatively poor, so they weren’t in the position to be able to invest and risk funds in printing their own works. Shax had money – why wouldn’t he want to profit from the sale of “his” own works (and the sale of old plays, not his own, if he were the “Poet Ape”)?

    I think that the lack of any evidence that this is true is 1. a problem for the orthodox view on the authorship and 2. devastating to the idea that the “Poet Ape” was Shakspere.  If Shax was a “play broker”, wouldn’t there be explicit evidence for that fact, at least at the level of Stationer’s Register records? And I don’t mean the “authorship ascription”. I mean the “record of ownership” of the right to publish. NO such right was ever accorded to Shakspere.

    Without such open, incontestable evidence, isn’t the idea of Shax as Poet-Ape merely a fanciful meme?

  4. hopkinshughes

    Well, it’s been stated frequently that when 16th-century playwrights sold a play to an acting company, they lost their rights as authors. The play then was owned by the company, not the author. That Shakespeare was unique in what appears to be his ability to transfer rights to some of his plays from the Queen’s Men to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, as noted by Andrew Gurr, is an exception that proves the rule.

    As for what we would look for in the record were we to take seriously the notion that he was a play-broker, or in any way the “financier” that she describes, time is better spent reading the history of the period. What she attempts to do is use William to explain the gaping gulf that is the money side of the creation of the London Stage. That’s to be found with the Privy Council patrons of the early acting companies, the Earls of Oxford and Sussex, Lords Hunsdon, Lord Strange, and the Lord Admiral. To them, the Stage was a means for communicating policy to the lords, lawyers and politicians of the West End. If they cared at all about its use as entertainment for the public or, as we see it today, a form of literary artistry, that was certainly not their original motive for supporting it.

    Literary and theater historians may mention this in passing. What they have failed to do, and authorship scholars have so far also failed to do, is connect this in any meaningful way with the nature of the Stage and the means by which it came into being in London in the middle of the 16th century and continued to be protected from those who feared and hated it until it had become too important to the public at some point in the late 17th century.

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