Was William the only front?

Was the true author of the Shakespeare canon the only writer to protect his identity by using a front, as Oxford used William Shakspere of Stratford?  No, he was not.  In searching for “the real Shakespeare” I have found anomalies in the biographies of other authors of the period that I feel are just too similar to those that trouble the official Stratford biography to be coincidental.

These biographies share with William of Stratford anywhere from one or all of  his anomalous traits, such as:

  • no evidence of a university education, or, if there is one, the kind afforded a sizar, one who got his degree by working for the college in the kitchen, dining hall, etc.;
  • no evidence of a literary background as revealed in contemporary documents;
  • a biography that shows no artistic traits or connections;
  • financial and social problems stemming from his/their religious affiliation;
  • long dry spells (in William’s case, his “early retirement”);
  • no memorials after death;

Other traits such as:

  • few or only a single work published in his name;
  • long spells of military service or colonizing that take him overseas;
  • reports of misbehavior and malfeasance, time spent incarcerated;
  • peculiar alterations in style, some “Shakespearean,” others less so;
  • no recorded death; merely a disappearance from the record.

Among the writers whose biographies show various combinations of these anomalies are: Arthur Brooke, Richard Edwards, Arthur Golding, Edmund Spenser, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Anthony Munday, Thomas Kyd, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, and John Webster.

Arousing our curiosity even further is the fact that these writers-without-bios are matched by a handful of Court writers-without-works, men––and one woman––who have been remarked upon, both by contemporaries and by modern biographers, for their reputations as writers, yet whose published works are too sparse to support such praise.

Although Oxford is the leading figure in this respect, as we see in the quote from the 1589 Arte of Poesie, commented upon by at least two other contemporaries (Webbe and Meres), also important are the young Francis Bacon, who published nothing (under his own name) until he was thirty-five, Sir Walter Raleigh, whose writing is surrounded by mystery, and Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, who published nothing (under her own name) after she was thirty-five.

These four have all been noted by their biographers as probable authors of much more than has been attributed to them.  In matching them with the sizars, recusants, and rascals who were willing or forced to trade their identities for cash or some other consideration, we will uncover the truth about “Shake-spear” and much else about the period that is exciting and new.

One of the most important factors in any intellectual study is the creation of a theory that defines the case in language both as broad and as succinct as possible. It takes time to arrive at a statement on which all engaged in the study can agree.  There are many false starts at the beginning, and as time progresses, the wording will change as the problems come to be seen from different angles than as first perceived.  The first authorship theory went no further than that William of Stratford could not have written the plays. This we might call, per Einstein, “The Special Theory of Authorship.”  A host of variants did little more than add that they were written by Sir Francis Bacon (or Marlowe, or Derby, etc.) and, finally, by Edward de Vere.  (Those added since may well have played some part in the story, but not through their writing, and certainly not as the author himself.)

As theories develop, they are often forced to include more phenomena than was at first thought relevant.  Thus the ancient theory that the earth was bounded by a giant river was superceded by the theory that the oceans clung to an earth that was round and suspended in space, a theory that surfaced when enough persons had noticed that ships disappeared over the horizon little by little, suggesting that they slipped over a bulge of some sort.  When the round earth was eventually accepted as proven by Magellen and others who circumnavigated the globe, it ceased to be a theory and became a fact.

Just so I propose that the authorship theory now be expanded to include the other 16th- and early 17th-century authors whose biographies show anomalies similar to that of the orthodox Shakespeare.  Just as new information from sea captains forced a change in the theory of the earth’s shape, so information relating to all the authors of this period is transforming the way we should be asking our questions.  Again per Einstein, we offer the following

General Theory of Authorship

Due to social constraints and politics, writers connected with the English Court in the 16th and early 17th centuries used a variety of ruses, including anonymity, pseudonyms and fronts, to hide their identities when publishing their own works.  They did so in order that they would be able to use the commercial Stage and Press to express themselves, to speak openly on political and social issues, and to adopt personae that would otherwise be denied them by laws and social mores.  Thus the authorship trail in many areas has been purposefully blurred, some more than others depending on the status of the individual and the social/political stakes involved for him/her.

Researchers must keep in mind that, although some of the problems they face may arise from the natural obfuscations of Time, others may be purposeful.  To keep these in context, they must therefore regard with suspicion all records that could have been susceptible to falsification or destruction, foremost among them the names and dates on title pages of works of the imagination and the content of their dedications.  Suspicious records must be supported by evidence that could not have been fabricated before they can be taken at face value, persons who stood to gain by this identified and their motives explored.

Some progress has been made in these regards, as shown in the essays and articles here, but much remains to be done.

2 responses to “Was William the only front?

  1. If Oxford and Bacon used other names, the names of real people they knew, acquaintances, employees, or other writers in order to protect themselves from the authorities, did they not think that the people whose names they borrowed would be in jeopardy from the authorities? Why didn’t they use fictitious names that could not be traced?

  2. There would be no danger to those whose names were on the title pages because most of the literature published this way was rendered benign by having unknown or unimportant authors. If the issue was that it was bawdy, well, no shame to a William of Stratford or a Thomas Nashe of Lowestofte. If it was satirical and made fun of important figures, the choice of character names plus the fact that the lower class authors could have no knowledge of the men at the top, was unlikely to inspire comparisons.

    The plays as we have them in the First Folio are the best versions, those that were written and produced for the Court or the Inns of Court. By 1623, there wasn’t nearly the danger that public audiences would guess the connection between those characters based on important figures of the 1580s and ’90s, for most of them were long dead and, without newspapers or memoires, public memories were short (no danger, that is, so long as the true author’s name wasn’t involved).

    The problem for the publishers of the First Folio lay not with the general public, but with the aristocracy. However short the public memory, the aristocracy is based on the length of their memories, which means that to this day they are concerned for the reputations of their ancestors. That acquiring the rights to the plays and the agreement of those concerned required years of negotiation would be obvious to anyone who has followed the troubles that attend the posthumous publication of the collected works of any author whose family has acquired control of his or her papers.

    In a small community like the 16th-century writing establishment, there was no way that a writer with a known style could get away with using a phony name. (If I should publish a biography of the Earl of Oxford under a phony name, one completely unfamiliar to those who read such books, how long do you think that it would take my audience to guess who actually wrote it?) However, the use of a real person meant that suspicions could stop with a simple denial. John Aubrey has left us an anecdote about William that says that “He was not a company keeper; lived in Shoreditch; wouldn’t be debauched, and, if invited to, writ he was in pain.” Or there was another option, to could pick a front who lived too far from London to be a problem, someone like Edmund Spenser for instance. On the page “Who was R.B.,” do a find for Essex, and you’ll find an interesting sidelight on the use of initials, and the risks that authors and publishers ran when too many people knew the truth.

    In any case, your question is important and points to what must have been a genuine concern. I believe that some of the things that were attributed to Marlowe following his death were actually by Oxford, who had them published as by Marlowe because they were too sexy to risk attributing to someone alive ( by then, of course, Marlowe was past questioning). I also think it’s pretty clear that Bacon got very reckless in the early ’90s with Spenser’s name on his Mother Hubberd and again later with Nashe and the Isle of Dogs. Too bad we’ve completely lost track of the real Thomas Nashe. It sure would be interesting to know what happened to him.

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