Why the vast conspiracy of silence?––Michael Egan

Egan:  Why was it considered so disgraceful in Oxford’s case that a vast conspiracy of silence was necessary to conceal the author’s true identity?  After all, the players were licensed by the Court (the King’s Men, etc.) and often played before the monarch. It’s said too that Elizabeth liked the character of Falstaff so much she told Shakespeare to write a play showing him in love.  Thus The Merry Wives of Windsor was eventually performed before Her Majesty to general approbation.  I see no reason why it’s true author, and the author of many a drama played before her and James, would not proudly own up to his work.

Hughes First: “vast conspiracy” is a misnomer.  The word conspiracy suggests a plot to harm or defraud another party, but no one was ever harmed or defrauded by not knowing who was writing the Shakespeare plays.  That is, no one but the academics who have chosen, despite all evidence to the contrary, to adhere to the Stratford biography.  But it was hardly the intention of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to defraud a community of academics that hadn’t yet been born, for to think that their author would someday end up in the hands of pedants was probably the last thing that ever crossed their minds.  To use someone else’s name as they did was in the nature of a legal fiction, that’s all, the purpose of which was simply to protect the author and, not least, themselves, since they depended upon his work for their living.

It’s also wrong to describe the cover-up as “vast.” It was certainly not vast to begin with, and if it ever became vast, it was purely as an adjunct to the immense but unforseeable popularity of the canon, which, over time, has reached an audience that could very well be described as vast, embracing as it does the entire world.  However, during Oxford’s lifetime most members of the Court community were probably aware of what he wrote for the Court, but there was no reason why the entire Court would ever have known who wrote the plays he wrote for the West End audience or for the Queen’s Men.  Certainly the actors of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men knew, his closest friends knew, his patrons knew, but even these would not necessarily have known about everything he wrote.

Writing fiction a disgrace

Next, that writing for the theater, or for that matter, engaging openly in any commercial enterprise, was considered disgraceful for a peer has been addressed (however briefly) by my response to Prof. Egan’s first question.  Oxford, like other noblemen of his time, was brought up to fulfill his inherited role as a social leader whose life must be an example to lesser men.  Here’s another quote from Sir Thomas Elyot, the main authority during Oxford’s childhood on the raising of a nobleman:

indent-21But verily my intent and meaning is only, that a noble child, by his own natural disposition and not by coercion, may be induced to receive perfect instruction in these sciences [music and mathematics].  But although, for purposes before expressed, they shall be necessary, yet shall they not be by him exercised but as a secret pastime, or recreation of the wits, late occupied in serious studies, like as did the noble princes before named.  Although they, once being attained be never much exercised, after that the time cometh concerning business of greater importance. (The Book of The Governor, 1531)

If music and mathematics were considered frivolous, how would writing plays for entertainment  be seen?

It should be noted that the concept of great art was a product of the European Renaissance that had not yet crossed the Channel and would not until launched by Oxford, Sidney, Bacon, Marlowe and Raleigh.  During Oxford’s time, painters were no more than “daubers” or “limners,” writers were “scribes,” composers were “minstrels,” actors were “players,” most of them little better than vagabonds.  That there had been great art produced during the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans was recognized by scholars, but when Oxford, Bacon, and Sidney first began writing, there was no notion as yet beyond their own tiny circles that such a time of greatness could ever come again.

Also, when Oxford began writing, not only was there no concept of Theater as an art, there were no theaters as we know them today.  The word became part of the language only in 1576 when Oxford’s Shoreditch neighbor James Burbage used the ancient term to name what would be the first successful commercial stand-alone theater in England.  Until then, plays were performed in dining halls, innyards, and on temporary outdoor stages.  This underscores one of the problems we run into in discussing Elizabethan attitudes towards theater, actors, writing plays, etc., namely that the theater of Shakespeare and Marlowe was something altogether new in English history, something that sort of gets lost in most histories of the period.

The fact is that until 1576 there were no professional actors, actors meaning men who could depend upon acting as a means to make a living (Bentley Players).   According to the OED the word actor only entered the language in 1581 when Philip Sidney used it in his treatise on poetry.  No theaters and no professional actors meant there were no professional playwrights either, playwright being another word that wasn’t coined until the mid-17th century.  True, some men, even some women, wrote plays from time to time for their private circles with themselves and their friends playing the parts, while Court entertainers wrote plays and interludes as well as music for the Court, but none of these could be considered professionals in any modern sense, nor were any of these plays considered worthy of saving.

By the time King James took the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under his wing in 1604, the fledgling company had survived three decades of attack by every branch of English society except the public and those involved in the business.  It’s a little like the so-called War on Drugs today.  Using recreational drugs is against the law, it’s loudly and publicly condemned by every branch of American society, nary a soul will admit publicly to smoking pot or snorting coke, yet certain foreign countries continue to support their entire economies on American drug use!   Would the adopted son of some high level American statesman allow his involvement in the drug business to be broadcast at large?  Would the son himself allow his involvement to be known?

If comparing Shakespeare’s theater, something that in our time occupies the highest rung on the ladder of entertainment art, with modern drug use seems overdone, one should read the almost 200 or so pages in E.K.Chambers great work on the Elizabethan Stage in the sections titled “Documents of Criticism” and “Documents of Control” that describe seeing plays (must less creating them) in terms very similar to those used today in public discussions of smoking marijuana.  And these are only the pronouncements and diatribes that have survived 400 years of entropy.  My point is not that drug-taking will someday occupy a higher place in our culture than it does today, it’s to show that the opinion of many English in Shakespeare’s time saw theater as just as wicked and dangerous as our culture sees drugs today.

The Merry Wives

Regarding the anecdote about the Queen requesting The Merry Wives of Windsor: as with so much of what comes down to us on the subject of Shakespeare, it’s apocryphal, so it can neither be regarded as fact or be used to support an argument.  What we can take from the anecdote is that this play, like  most of his works, was written for the Court, not the public––a point that most academics don’t care to address too closely because to do so tends to lead away from Stratford.  No doubt the Queen enjoyed the play, most who see it do, but we don’t know that she did or that she asked him to write it, only that someone said she did.  (The first published version of the anecdote came long after the event, in 1702, in a dedicatory epistle by one John Dennis, which was then repeated by Nicholas Rowe in his 1709 edition of the plays.)

As a matter of fact, the best version of the reasons for the writing of MWW is fascinating and funny and just as closely interwoven with Court politics as are most of the plays.  For anyone interested in a closer look at the source of the play and this anecdote, or more broadly in the origin of the character of Falstaff, the book to read is Alice-Lyle Scoufos’s Shakespeare’s Typological Satire (1979), easily obtained from any library. This kind of in-depth investigation is the direction that Shakespeare studies should take, and hopefully will, once salaried scholars are free to bypass the Stratford limitations.

As for Shakespeare owning up to his work, of course the Queen, and most of the Court, knew who wrote Merry Wives and who was being satirized by its various characters.  They also knew that this was not something they would ever reveal to an outsider, not because it was shameful, not because it was gossip, but simply because like all inside matters it was nobody else’s business.

Next: Prof. Egan’s third question:  “Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece are respectable poetry.  Why were they not published under Oxford’s name?”

4 responses to “Why the vast conspiracy of silence?––Michael Egan

  1. Am enjoying this as thoroughly as I did your course – and am delighted to know that now my three adult children have received this first installation. Can’t wait to hear from them, with their reactions. They must be as thrilled as I am to receive what amounts to a wonderful gift from you – Lynn

  2. Great job answering a typical Stratfordian question. You may yourself disagree with the analysis contained in my own 2004 Tennessee Law Review article on Venus and Adonis, but it does supply an answer to Dr. Egan’squestion. A pdf of the article is available here: http://shake-speares-bible.com/pdf/Venus%20and%20Adonis.pdf

  3. Impressive article post on the blog, I share the same views. I wonder why this particular country totally does not think like me and additionally the web publication master :)

  4. The conspiracy theory actually works better when we think of other contenders such as Marlowe who was “supposed” to be dead, or that Mary Sidney, Lady Pembroke (Imagine great women writers/editors) or John Florio(imagine an Italian as an author/editor or idea man, of the greatest English plays, how scandalous even the thought!), or Emilia Lanyier(why so many Emilias recur in Sh’s plays). I do not like close-mindedness of this Oxford Club! Even Oxford would have shuddered…(Hamlet also would have shuddered)
    In my university(Toronto) days and when the controversy was young, a great professor highlighted the FACT that “authorship” was different in Sh’s time.Those who put the Folio edition together knew and why they did not assign the “official” author (or authors)to them is a great mystery or a Great Conspiracy. Shame, fear, embarrassment, political intrigue at various levels, scandal–all must have played a part, and we, five centuries later think we know who wrote what, when, (etcetera, etcetera)….Let us humbly admit that we truly do not know….Presumptuousness and pretentiousness makes us intellectually the poorer for our effort… Someone may know and maybe has some of the originals(some researchers/scholars propose that up to three copies of each play were needed to properly stage a play in Shakespeare’s day(!)
    These are just idle thoughts of someone curious not someone who knows, someone who wishes to know and refrains (with doubt) about the certainties of the Greatest Poet and Dramatist in English Cultural History!

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