King of Shadows

Like the anthropologist who spends thousands of hours sifting through tons of rubble beneath a cliff-side, seeking bits of bone no bigger than the end of a thumb that she hopes will fit the skeleton she’s piecing together of a proto-human aboriginal, so we sift through the texts of the period and, at second hand, through modern critical texts, seeking evidence of things that we have no other means of accessing as we strive to piece together the truth about a great artist. The bits of bone we seek are often no more than a single word, one that bears a particular significance. In our search for the truth about Shakespeare, one such word is shadow.

The word shadow meant more to readers in the sixteenth century than it does today.   Besides a term for the patch of darkness created by blocking the sun’s rays, or a slang term for someone who sticks too close to someone else, or a 1930s Hollywood verb for spying, in Shakespeare’s time it was a metaphor for any kind of copy or reflection. You saw your shadow in a mirror; painters created shadows of reality on canvas: in his 1579 diatribe School of Abuses, Stephen Gosson wrote: “Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts] to vanquish the taste, nor painters in shadows to allure the eye, than poets in theaters to wound the conscience.” Some uses may reflect Plato’s vision of human beings as mere shadows on the wall of a cave, reflections of multi-dimensional spiritual realities in our narrow three-dimensional world.

Shakespeare used the word shadow for all of these; the account in Schmidt’s lexicon of the specific uses in his works fills well over a full page in very small type. He was especially fond of the biblical phrase shadow vs. substance, which for him expressed a world of meaning. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream he uses shadow several times to refer to plays or actors. Replying to Hippolyta’s description of Pyramus and Thisbe as “the silliest stuff that ever I heard,” Theseus opines: “The best [plays] are but shadows, and the worst are no worse if imagination amend them.” When Puck bids adieu to the audience after the last act he uses the term to refer to the characters created by the actors: “If we shadows have offended, think but this and all is mended, that you have but slumbered here while these visions did appear. . . .” Twice Puck calls Oberon, “King of Shadows.” Years earlier, the True Tragedy of Richard III, the first version of Shakespeare’s play, opens with:

Enter Truth and Poetry. To them appears the ghost of George, Duke of Clarence.

POETRY:    Truth well met.
TRUTH:     Thanks, Poetry; what makes thou upon a stage?
POETRY:    Shadows.
TRUTH:     Then will I add bodies to the shadows. Therefore depart,
and give Truth leave
 to show her pageant.

In his prefatory letter to Thomas Bedingfield’s 1573 translation of Cardanus Comforte, Oxford uses the word to mean the reflection of a patron or friend if mentioned in a work of literature that lives for generations long after the friend himself is departed.

Again we see, if our friends be dead we cannot show or declare our affection more than by erecting them of tombs, whereby when they be dead indeed, yet make we them live as it were again through their monument. But with me it happenth far better, for in your lifetime you shall see how noble a shadow of your virtuous life shall hereafter remain when you are dead and gone.

“That shadow of thine”

One of the thousand and one smoking guns provided by authorship forensics is the handwritten note in the Cecil papers from one Thomas Vavasor to the Earl of Oxford, insulting him and taunting him to a duel. Dated January 19, 1585, it’s the final piece in the record of assaults on Oxford and his men by members of the Howard, Vavasor, and Knyvett circle in retaliation for Oxford having “ruined” their cousin, sister, niece and former Queen’s Maid of Honor, Ann Vavasor, who, in March 1581, gave birth to his illegitimate son in one of the royal bedchambers.

Following two months in the Tower and many more under house arrest, Oxford and his retainers were subjected to a year of attacks in the streets of London by Thomas Knyvett and his men. There were four of these “frays” that reached the record, the first March 3, 1582, the final February 21, 1583, three months before Oxford’s reinstatement at Court. Several on both sides were killed, and Oxford himself was seriously wounded in the first. There may have been other lesser incidents that escaped the record, but once Milord was back in the Queen’s favor it’s unlikely the Knyvett faction would have dared to prolong their vendetta.

The note, now in the Lansdowne collection in the British Library, was found among Burghley’s papers. If the date added (in Burghley’s hand), January 1585, is anywhere near the date it was written, this puts it almost two years after the last recorded street fight and Oxford’s reinstatement at Court. But in fact it could have been written at any point from 1582 on, having come into Cecil’s possession at any time after that. Perhaps the answer can be found in the note itself. Here’s the text (spelling modernized) as reproduced by Alan Nelson in his fact-filled (if negative) biography:

If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown. I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits. Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting mind? Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels? If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers. But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse. For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer. (Nelson’s brackets, 295)

Let’s have a close look at what Vavasor is saying:

If thy body had been as deformed as thy mind is dishonorable, my house had been yet unspotted and thyself remained with thy cowardice unknown.

According to Vavasor, if Oxford’s looks were as bad as his morals, his sister would never have allowed herself to be seduced; one more bit of evidence that he was considered good-looking; also testimony that he was not the instigator of the street brawls.

I speak this [because] I fear thou are so much wedded to that shadow of thine that nothing can have force to awake thy base and sleepy spirits.

In Vavasor’s view, Oxford is “base and sleepy” (cowardly and unresponsive to his taunts) because he is “wedded” to (totally involved with) something he calls “that shadow of thine” that prevents him from doing his duty as a nobleman and answering Vavasor’s challenge. Nelson states as fact that by “that shadow of thine” Vavasor is referring to “an unnamed male relative of Oxford’s,” as he scrambles among the names mentioned in connection with Oxford for one that might fit. This is a possibility because the use of shadow then did include such a use. However, that he was unable to come up with a name suggests there wasn’t any such person in Oxford’s life at that time, many of his retainers having dropped away with his banishment from Court. Just recovered from two years of exile and so most likely exhibiting extreme caution with regard to unseemly companions, “that shadow of thine” must refer to something else.

Is not the revenge already taken of thy vileness sufficient but wilt thou yet use unworthy instruments to provoke my unwitting [unknowing] mind?

The “revenge” taken of Oxford’s “vileness” must refer to the wound dealt him by Thomas Knyvett during the first recorded brawl three years earlier. However unwilling to continue to engage in these street fights, Oxford has done something else to provoke the “unwitting” Vavasor. What did he mean by “unworthy instruments”? Since this sentence follows directly on the reference to “that shadow of thine,” it seems most likely that the shadow and the unworthy instruments are connected.

Or dost thou fear [for] thyself and therefore hast sent thy forlorn kindred whom as thou hast left nothing to inherit so thou dost thrust them violently into thy shameful quarrels? If it be so (as I too much [suspect]) then stay at home thyself and send my abusers.

This must refer to one of the recorded “frays” in which only Oxford’s retainers were involved, or to some other for which there is no record. (The reference to Oxford’s “forlorn kindred” is intriguing; who might that be?) This also shows that Milord’s financial straits were already a matter of Court gossip.

But if there be yet left any spark of honor in thee or jot of regard [for] thy decayed reputation, use not thy birth for an excuse, for I am a gentleman, but meet me thyself alone and thy lackey to hold thy horse. For the weapons, I leave them to thy choice, [since] I challenge, and the place to be appointed by us both at our meeting, which I think may conveniently at Newington or else where thyself shall send me word by this bearer, by whom I expect an answer.

It’s unlikely there ever was an answer. Either Oxford handed over the threat to Burghley as Nelson suggests, or more likely, whoever was supposed to deliver it thought better of it, and gave it directly to Burghley, possibly after holding onto it for some time.

Romeo and Juliet

If, as we believe, based on a great deal of evidence provided here and in other locations, that during the mid-1580s, Oxford was not only the playwright who would publish under a series of pseudonyms, he was the author of most of the plays then being performed by the Queen’s Men, as well as the comedies performed by Paul’s Boys at Court in the 1570s, then what Thomas Vavasor meant by “that shadow of thine” must be the the London Stage, which was certainly considered an “unworthy instrument” by many of their contemporaries, particularly by those who’d been skewered by one of his satires.

As for the recent “provocation” mentioned by Vavasor, what else could he possibly mean but the original production of Romeo and Juliet?  Written (I believe) during a rush of feeling following the realization that the silence and lack of response from his lover following her release from the Tower was not due to the perfidious change of heart he so angrily depicts in Troilus and Cressida, the first version of which (I believe) he wrote in 1581, or early ’82, while under house arrest at Fisher’s Folly, having received her beautiful explanation, the poem “Though I be strange,” compelled to make up for his initial loss of trust, he pours his heart into what has become the world’s favorite romantic tragedy.

Most likely the play was ready for production by late 1584 for the audience then gathering in Westminster for the Parliament that would run until the following March. With the 18-year-old Edward Alleyn as Romeo and the 16-year-old Richard Burbage as Juliet, the play would have been performed at the original Blackfriars Theater, located just above the fencing academy where Oxford and his friends were given to practising the routines as demonstrated by actors in the play. (The famous actor Richard Tarleton was reputed to be a master of the defensive art). Impelled by the added passions of relief and desire to make amends for having portraying Ann as Cressida, Romeo and Juliet expresses the feelings that got them both into so much trouble, not so fatal as what doomed the Veronese lovers, but still trouble. Such were the emotions contributing their force to what has been described as the “lyric rapture and youthful ecstasy” of one of the most loved plays in all literature.

Hardly anyone who writes about the close connections between Oxford’s biography and the plots of Shakespeare’s plays fails to connect the street brawls between the Oxford and Knyvett/Vavasor crews and those between the Montagues and the Capulets, or Oxford’s wound with Mecutio’s, “Not so deep as a well . . . but t’will serve.” The strong resemblance between Friar Lawrence and Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, is another important link. Less strong but still relevant are others such as the fact that Arthur Brooke, author of the narrative poem that served as a basis for Shakespeare’s play, was a nephew of George Brooke, Lord Cobham, Burghley’s close friend and his neighbor during Oxford’s years at Cecil House in the 1560s. Unlike Romeo and Juliet, neither Edward nor Ann died, they were not married, and Ann was pregnant as Juliet was not (or she died too soon to know), in any case, these unromantic differences aside, there’s far too much that connects the play and the events of 1581-’85 to brush off their similiarities as mere coincidence.

As for Ann, exactly where she was at this time we don’t know, but following her release from the Tower, the most likely place, based on what usually happened in such cases, would have been to stay with an older, dependable relative, closely connected to the Court, where she would be under surveillance (as her poem reports) until the Queen could decide what was to be done with her. At some point she ended up as the wife of Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s champion, perhaps as a sort of prize for his years of service.

For Ann’s view of the situation, we have the poem she wrote to explain the reason for her silence. Other interpretations and attributions have been placed on this poem, but why not accept the most natural? Poetry is always the quickest path to the heart of a poet, and in those days, it was the path most often taken in matters of the heart, even by those who would have done better to stick to prose. Beautiful, witty, filled with feeling, it remains the sole evidence for whatever it was about her that had Oxford so fascinated. His later attachment to another female poet, Emilia Bassano, the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, plus witty female characters like Beatrice and Kate, suggests that a woman’s wit was as important to him as her looks and her sexuality.

That the play was written for some other audience than the Court should be obvious, for there were lines in it that would have infuriated the Queen, had she heard them. Or, if it was at some point produced for the Court, lines that remained in the First Folio, such as Juliet’s in Act II Scene 1, “O swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,” or Romeo’s:

But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.
Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,
Who is already sick and pale with grief,
That thou her maid art far more fair than she:
Be not her maid, since she is envious;
Her vestal livery is but sick and green
And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

Elizabeth’s colors, as everyone knew, were green and white. Words like these would have been cut for a Court performance. Oxford may have been reckless, but he was not insane.

A close look at Ben Jonson’s Dedication to Shakespeare’s First Folio

At some point in the early 1620s when Ben Jonson set himself to write the “Ode to Shakespeare” with which he and the Pembrokes launched the First Folio, part of the daunting task he faced as lead editor was the need to make a more solid connection between the plays and the putative author, William of Stratford. Twenty years of promoting the plays as by William Shakespeare had made it impossible ever to attribute them to anyone else.

When “Mr. William SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES, HISTORIES & TRAGEDIES” was finally published in 1623, although William himself was beyond interrogation (seven years dead and buried beneath the Stratford church floor), older courtiers and theater folk who had known the real author were still around, so however Jonson approached the delicate matter of Shakespeare’s identity, he was going to have to to find a way to suggest that there was more to it than what met the eye. The ability to  skillfully equivocate, must have been one of the reasons why the Pembrokes knew Jonson was the right man for the job.

For the group that published the First Folio, a primary concern would have been how to address the more highly educated members of London’s audience, who as soon as they read certain of the plays, would understand immediately, if they didn’t already know, the nature and extent of the author’s education. Concerned that anyone who might have pursued the putative author to his Stratford environs (three days ride by horseback on dangerous roads) would have find out that poor William of Stratford could not so much as write his own name, Jonson was forced to flat out lie. Following the odd negation of his opening phrases (attributed by his biographer, Richard Dutton, to the style of his popular epigrams) Jonson groups Shakespeare with the earliest of the Elizabethan writers (where he belongs), then, before comparing him to the greatest of the Greek dramatists, he states flatly that the great playwright could not possibly have read the ancient works that his plays suggest because his learning was limited to “small Latin and less Greek.” (Apparently he didn’t dare say “no Greek”).

With both the true author and his proxy dead and gone, the audience that Jonson was addressing in the First Folio, probably the only one still concerned with the truth about the authorship, would have been the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers’ clerks and scriveners who made a living writing letters for illiterate gentlemen and fair copies for the legal community of Westminster, London’s West End. Since “small Latin” was roughly the learning level of much of this audience, youths apprenticed to trades like printing and bookbinding, students from the nearby Law colleges, actors and writers looking for opportunities, educated women, the close connection between the writing of plays and the selling of cheap pamphlets should be seen as the actual first step towards what today we know as the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the people. By turning gossip into stories and plays into literature, these quickly produced and cheaply sold publications were responsible for launching the English popular press at about the same time that Shakespeare and his actors were creating the London Stage.

Ben Jonson had known both Oxford and William from the mid-to-late nineties when he began his theatrical career with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (It’s very likely that following Jonson’s 1596 incarceration for his part in creating the scurrilous Isle of Dogs, he was rescued from the wiles of Secretary of State Robert Cecil by Oxford and his actors.) Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare as expressed during his conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19) were largely based on his relationship with Oxford.  These (plus certain of his more dignified characters, such as Know-well in Every Man in his Humour or Puntarvolo in Every Man Out of his Humour), while Jonson’s take on William is shown by the character of Sogliardo in Every Man Out. It may be that Oxford and Jonson (and one other) also collaborated on Cynthias’s Revels, at a time when Milord, weary of entertaining the ungrateful Queen, was seeking someone to whom he could pass the baton of Court Impresario––much as Propero attempts to train Caliban in The Tempest. (Like the ungrateful Caliban, Jonson soon repaid Oxford and his company for having saved him by writing for their rival companies at Henslowe’s Rose and the new Children’s company at the Second Blackfriars Theater.)

Jonson’s subversive messages

With the accession of King James in 1603, Jonson found himself in a tight spot between the former supporters of Essex, who were his best audience, and the recently empowered Earls of Northampton and Salisbury (aka Henry Howard and Robert Cecil), Oxford’s ancient and most bitter enemies. According to Dutton, during this period, 1603-1615:

Jonson found himself in trouble with the authorities over his plays on at least four occasions: over the lost Isle of Dogs, for which he was imprisoned; over Sejanus, for which ‘he was called before the Council’ (and perhaps accused both of popery and treason’; over Eastward Ho, when he and Chapman ‘voluntarily’ imprisoned themselves and ‘the report was that they should then have their ears cut and noses’; and over The Devil is an Ass, ‘upon which he was accused. (136)

Although Jonson managed to get off without being cut or hanged (doubtless due to friends in high places like the Pembroke brothers) what Dutton does not discuss until his last chapter, subtitled with a quote from Bartholomew Fair, “Covert allusions: state decipherers and politic picklocks,” where he examines what Jonson called “glancings,” what today we might call “equivocations.” These were statements worded in such a way that they conveyed––to those members of his audience who appreciated such maneuvers––messages that can be read to contradict what they appear to state on the surface (as in his statement that Shakespeare was NOT buried in the Abbey between Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser). Thus it may behoove us to examine a little more closely Jonson’s statement that––“though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”––Shakespeare was just as great as Plautus or Euripides.

Was Jonson equivocating? Does though have meanings other than although? Indeed it does. The OED, after lengthy details on the evolution of the word though from AD 800 and up as it evolved into more recent uses, first states in #1 its standard usage, which is to introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a fact.” However, under #2: we learn that it can also introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a supposition or possibility: even if; even supposing that; granting that.” Under #4 the OED goes even further: “In more or less weakened or modified sense, often nearly coinciding with if, but usually retaining some notion of opposition”!––this followed by a further support for Jonsonian equivocation with, “After negative or interrogative phrases with wonder, marvel . . . where if or that is now substituted.”

Therefore, as the OED suggests, if we read “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” as “even if thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, I would not seek for names (like Lyly or Kyd) but call forth thundering Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles.” Under #5, where the use of that with though is discussed, the OED has chosen a line from King John as its example: “Though that my death were adjunct to my act, by Heaven I would do it!” (Act 3 Scene 3)––meaning, of course, in today’s English, “I will do it even if it kills me!”

Make of this what you will, it should be obvious that the OED backs the suggestion that Jonson, renowned for his ability to equivocate, that is, to state something in such a way that it allows for another very different, even opposite, interpretation, was dealing with the delicate issue of Shakespeare’s education. If this kind of tinkering (something that’s second nature to lawyers, then and now) seems beyond the pale to today’s so-called Shakespeare experts, it’s only because they still haven’t a clue as to what the poets were up to in the good old bad old days of the seventeenth century.

[Updated from an earlier blog of September 9, 2018, titled “Once More into the Breach, dear Oxfordians.” It’s useful to repeat certain important elements of the argument from time to time.]

All for the want of a horseshoe nail

For want of a nail, the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost.
For want of the horse, the rider was lost.
For want of the rider the battle was lost.
For want of the battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Memory is identity. Without memory, without a record of what we’ve done and thought and said, what we’ve heard and seen, a human exists only as a thing, as foreign to itself as it is to those who pass it on a busy city street. “Know thyself,” said Socrates. But to do that we must have memory. Our memories are the building blocks of our identities. They are what make us unique from others, they guide us as we mature. The sunny ones bring happiness and cheer on dark days; the dark ones help to keep us from suffering through repeated error.

History is our word for our collective memory as a people, a culture. To our personal memories it adds the experiences shared by our ancestors. Whether we absorb it from tales told around a winter fire, from lectures, sermons or books, it gives us context; it connects us to our fellows, expands our personal identities and those of our immediate family members to embrace our neighbors, our heroes, our ancestors. It gives meaning to the buildings and streets that surround us, to the art and architecture of our cities, to the songs we sing, the movies we watch, the stories we repeat. It gives us something to be a part of, something bigger than ourselves. “Know thyself,” said Dad, quoting somebody he called Socrates, but who was that? The Greek who used to cut his hair downtown? Without the shared memory we call history, we’d never know.

History is the story of humanity. While Science, Religion and Philosophy all attempt to explain a great deal more than just who we are, History is focussed on us, on what we have done, with, to, and for each other. And at the center of that “we” is always some central figure, some human being whose name and life story are central to a particular area of our shared memory, a story that holds meaning for a particular community, culture, religion, philosophy, the leader, the ground-breaker, the pioneer, the genius whose name we connect, not just with the history of whatever it was they invented or discovered, but the thing itself.

All History, be it the history of France or the American car industry, revolves around the name of its founder. Without that name it’s a story without an opening chapter, an adventure without a hero. If for some reason the name of one of these pioneers gets lost, the entire history of what they found or created can get broken into pieces and dispersed, skewed, distorted, minimized, misunderstood. If somehow we had lost all evidence of the life of Alexander the Great, to what would we attribute the spread of the Greek language over the 500 years from 300 BC to the rise of Rome in 200 AD? What would the history of mathematics look like without Sir Isaac Newton? The history of the Amercian Civil War without Abraham Lincoln? The Russian revolution without Karl Marx? The history of aviation without the Wright brothers? The Blitz without Churchill? The Cold War without Stalin?

Hard as it may be to fathom, this is exactly the problem we have with the history of today’s English language. It’s Greek without Homer, Christianity without St. Paul, Existentialism without Sartre.  In fact, it’s more than these, for the loss of the truth about Shakespeare not only skews and disperses the history of English literature, it’s lost to the history of England the most important of the pioneers of the sixteenth century gathered at the Court of Elizabeth. It’s skewed the history of the language itself. It’s plunged into darkness the bloody birth of the modern media (the fourth estate of government) and modern humanity’s first painful steps towards a functional democracy, of all these stories the most important today, not just to the West, but to the entire world.

What the man known by the pun-name Shake-speare did in the sixteenth century has never been fully understood because, for reasons of political and economic expediency, his primary achievement was passed along by contemporary politicians and historians to an undeserving front man, one whose modest story has skewed this era in English history so badly, that, deeper than ever did plummet sound, it’s buried the truth about these things for over four hundred years.

And all for the want of that horseshoe nail, his real name.

The “Shakespeare Problem”

Shakespeare Studies as taught in the universities today relies largely on the lifetime effort of E.K. Chambers, The Elizabethan Stage, published in four hefty volumes in 1923. Based largely on the earlier collecting efforts of W.W. Greg and his cohorts, it comprises everything located up until then that can be considered relevant to what (expanding coverage from Henry VIII through the early Stuarts) I prefer to call the London Stage. Chambers’s method in his great masterwork was to group the facts as he found or inherited them into sections based on the names of acting companies, theaters, actors and stage managers, and what titles of plays have remained.

Forced to ignore the glaring anomalies with which the official narrative is peppered, problems that by Chambers’s time had long since given rise to The Authorship Question, Chambers deals with these (some of them anyway) in a subsequent two-volume account, published seven years later, titled William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems. Among the many problems that he describes (but can’t resolve) is the weak biography of William of Stratford, which––in over the 1000 pages of these two volumes together, comes to a mere 27 pages. Despite the efforts of numerous authorship scholars to resolve these by means of locating the author’s true identity, among them J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, the first convincing biography of a genuine candidate, Edward de Vere (pronounced d’Vayer), Earl of Oxford, published in 1920, the Academy continues to leave “the Shakespeare problem” on the cutting room floor where Chambers left it back in 1930.

Fast forward to the late 1980s when I first set about to resolve for myself the two questions about Oxford that remained unanswered in Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William. I could not have foreseen how deeply what seemed then as just another passing enthusiasm would lead me into a whole slew of seemingly unrelated historical mysteries. Again and again, I would find that information about Oxford, his great tutor, the statesman and scholar Sir Thomas Smith, had simply vanished, along with all records that must, at one time, have touched on the creation of the London Stage.

Even more disturbing was the glaring fact that in the 1970s, a group of Cambridge University trained Tudor historians had conspired to destroy the career of an innocent (female) historian who had, all unknowingly, supplied a crucial piece of evidence for Oxford as the most likely recipient of Shakespeare’s incredible education. So my book, intended to unearth what history had to say about Oxford and his fellow writers, evolved into a sort of cold case forensic aimed at resolving who was responsible for the obliteration of Oxford’s story, of his creation of the London Stage, and why on earth they would do such a thing.

Thus the book, which began as a simple examination of Oxford’s education, has turned out to be a reconstruction of much of what we thought we knew, not only about English literature of the 16th and early 17th centuries, but its political history as well. To understand what happened to the real Shakespeare, the dark side of the English Reformation has to be examined for its longlasting effects, not just for our better understanding of the literature that survived that period, but equally for the culture that then fled its racks and jails to start a new life in America and Australia, and that has repercussions that have lasted until today.

Perhaps the place to begin this effort to come to terms with our beginnings is with the truth about this great champion of human rights and the arts, and why he and his supporters found it so necessary to hide his true identity. That the Academy that has so successfully blocked our efforts to recover the truth about Shakespeare was formed by the very culture that Oxford attacked, again and again, in his plays, that turned on him in an all out attempt to destroy the plays, their actors and their theaters, had not there been a huge if silent audience that so loved his works that his enemies, fearing to provoke it to a dangerous level of public outrage, were forced to be satisfied with the great lies about the Stage, its primary author, and its origins.

Long story short, the search for the truth about Shakespeare has led to the examination of several other historic and literary puzzles that, as it turned out, stem from, and lead back to, the question of his identity. When, by the mid-1590s, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men under pressure to protect their playbook from being pirated by other companies, were forced to demonstrate ownership by having his plays registered and published, they found themselves in a quandary with regard to what name to put on their title pages. Constrained by the need to continue to hide the identity of their brilliant and popular playwright, it had to be something that that would pass muster as belonging to a real person, while containing enough of a clue to the author’s identity that the questioners would be satisfied, or at least, silenced.

As Fate would have it, Oxford had already used just such a proxy a few years earlier when faced with the need to publish his great narrative poem, Venus and Adonis. Pressured to claim ownership of the plays that were turning London into a national entertainment center, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men did what they could to secure the use of William’s remarkable name (it formed a pun, “Will shake spear,” a clue that would alert the audience that meant the most to Oxford that he was the true author).

Desperate to protect this new power, that of the Fourth Estate in its earliest form, it’s unlikely that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men had any idea in 1598, when they published the second editions of Richard III and Richard II as the work of “William Shake-speare,” how this act of expediency, driven to escape the crushing political disaster that was even then threatening to destroy them and their means of survival, would redirect not only the course of English Literature from then on, but the course of English politics and all that has gone with it ever since, so bound together were the plays with the political situation at that moment in time.

Faced for so long by a publishing establishment totally dedicated to promoting only what the Academy will allow, perhaps the continuing collapse of the old publishing establishment brought about by the recent rise of the Internet, blogging, and Amazon.com, will clear the way for books like this to reach their natural audience. One of the effects so far has been the rise of independent publishers like Forever Press, which has just made available a very readable edition of J.T. Looney’s Shakespeare Identified, the book that back in 1920 first brought Oxford’s claim to authorship to those with ears to hear (and unfortunately also to those determined to do whatever they could to destroy what remains under their control). Available through Amazon for a modest $22, not only was it the first giant step on the path to the truth about Shakespeare, it’s a great read, one anyone who loves good writing can enjoy.

As for my book, we’ll see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I don’t argue with academics

I certainly have argued with them in the past, quite often in fact, and at length: in debates at conferences, online on HLAS (before the mud-slinging made any effort at communication impossible), and during the nineties on Hardy Cook’s SHAKSPER (before he banished the subject, and even, valiantly, for a year or so afterwards), and in print. I’ve gone rounds in person with Ward Elliott and Alan Nelson, and online with Mike Jensen, Gabriel Egan and Tom Veal, sometimes just to see how long they would keep the “he says-she says” going (in Jenson’s case, forever, it would seem). Egan, having risen to the ultimate in academic status, is now one of the worthies on the team that, under the august auspices of the OUP (Oxford University Press), claims that parts of the Henry VI plays were written by Christopher Marlowe!

For a long time I argued just to hear what they had to say, like the optimist in the old joke, thinking there must be a pony in it somewhere. (Nope, no pony, only pony-poop). Then I got curious about the mind set that prevented these otherwise intelligent beings from seeing the problem with their scenario. Rather than argue to arrive at some sort of understanding, which was obviously not working, I kept it going to see where it came to a halt, whether with a burst of ill humor, a slammed (virtual) door, or a silence followed by a retreat to a familiar position of safety. I recalled the saying: “If the facts are against you, argue the law. If the law is against you, argue the facts. If the law and the facts are against you, pound the table!” The table where the academics who draw their status and their livings from the Stratford myth have addressed the question of who was actually capable of writing the plays, has been pounded into splinters.

Over time it’s become clear that the major problems derive from blind spots, blank sections in the record, some of an amazing scope, many occurring just where there should be evidence of literary or theatrical activity. Why did/does the Academy ignore these obviously missing puzzle pieces? It seemed as though such things, things so glaringly obvious to me, were/are simply invisible to them. They ignore them for the simple reason that they simply can’t see the blanks. The academic ability to reason moves along a single track; it does not, because it cannot, recognize where the track vanishes, but moves right on to the next item without noticing that there’s a hiatus. I can only attribute this to a total reliance on left-brain thinking. Having observed the right brain-left brain syndrome at work in American society since early childhood, only later did I learn enough about the differences between these two sections of the brain, separate but entwined, to see how modern education has rendered literary studies impervious to anything but left brain thinking. Understanding began when my mother had a left-brain stroke, with what I could see that meant in terms of what she could still do and what she she was no longer able to do.

I see that American society, at least at the levels of control, derives largely from the same rather rigid formula that gave us the Protestant Reformation. Education in both America and Britain, inherited from a formula developed by Erasmus in the early sixteenth century, whatever it may have been originally, has become dominated by left-brain thinking.

While this is appropriate in areas like math and science (though without right-brain oversight, they too can wind up on some awfully unproductive tangents), it’s seriously misplaced in history, literature, and the arts, where it can turn them into piles of dry facts, drained of their fire and life, their human interest, their emotion, their stories.   I am reminded of an old Southwest American Indian saying passed around during the 1960s regarding the Native-American use of peyote, “White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus; Indian goes into his teepee and talks to Jesus.” With Shakespeare, English audiences weren’t merely informed about Henry V, they heard him speak, they experienced his life. Soon, adopting tricks learned from watching (and writing) plays, novelists began to create the periodical press by writing and publishing stories for what till then had been chiefly devoted to sermonizing.

As I began to see how dominated were the Academy and the Shakespeare Establishment by left-brain thinking, I saw the other side of what happened to my mother. Sure, these people have functioning right brains, otherwise they couldn’t make it to work in the morning, but they don’t use them once they get there. They were discouraged from using them as children in grade school, and by the time they reach PhD level, the ability to communicate, even to think, with anything but the left brain is simply gone. It wasn’t through a single stroke, but a series of itty bitty little stroke, dealt every day, by teachers who fed them answers, rubrics, terms and forms, never asking them what they themselves thought or felt. After awhile the ability to think for oneself simply dries up, and so anyone who incorporates right-brain cognition into his or her worldview is considered a radical, a heretic, a lunatic, or, less pejoratively though still dismissively, someone who “thinks outside the box.”

Following the stroke that damaged her left brain, my mother, an actress and a great talker by nature, could no longer express her thoughts in words, but she could understand everything that was said to her, and her laugh was still spontaneous and appropriate. These left-brainers can talk a blue streak, but they don’t get half of what we’re saying, certainly the most important half, and in an arena where humor was and still is a leading factor, they don’t get the jokes. Tell them that William Shakespeare of Stratford was chosen to stand in for the real author because his name could be read as a pun––“will shake spear”––and they stare in disbelief as though you had just said something so embarrassingly off the wall that they’re at a loss for a response. I recall that of one Stratfordian prof years ago during one of our rare television debates; all he could do was splutter, over and over, “Preposterous! Preposterous!”

Tell them that these writers delighted in puns, that puns were not only vehicles for humor, for laughs, for lude (in Latin simply fun, in Reformation English: lewd), they stare, thinking “so what?” Tell them that puns were also shorthand for subliminal messages, as with Doll Tear-sheet, whose name signals the audience what manner of creature she is, there being no room for a rumpled bed on the Shakespearean stage, and they stare. Tell them the name Will Shake-spear signals the fun-loving, pun-loving 16th-century English audience that he’s a writer who will shake a spear, a being no more substantial than Doll herself, a boy in tart’s clothing, and they stare. Like those who don’t understand puns, and who simply smile and wait for the grins and giggles to vanish, they don’t get it.

Most authorship scholars get it. Shakespeare’s audiences got it. But the descendants of Holofernes who’ve inherited the keys to Shakespeare’s kingdom don’t get it, even when it’s spelled out for them, left-brain style, one word at a time. They are the literary color blind who, constitutionally unable to distinguish between left brain based black and white facts and right brain poetic color, simply can’t get it, which is why I simply won’t argue with them anymore.

Once more into the breach, dear Oxfordians

At some point in the early 1620s when Ben Jonson set himself to write the Ode to Shakespeare with which he would launch the First Folio, part of the daunting task he faced as lead editor was the need to make a more solid connection between the plays and William of Stratford. Twenty years of the King’s Men promoting the plays as the work of William Shakespeare had made it impossible ever to attribute them to anyone else.

When “Mr. William SHAKESPEARES COMEDIES, HISTORIES & TRAGEDIES” was finally published in 1623, although the putative author was beyond interrogation (seven years dead and apparently buried beneath the Stratford church floor), older courtiers and theater folk who had known the real author were still around, so however Jonson approached the delicate matter of the author’s identity, he was going to have to to find a way to suggest that there was more to it than what met the reader’s eye.

Then as now, the major question for the more highly educated members of Shakespeare’s audience, was their inescapable awareness of his education. Concerned that anyone who pursued the putative author to his Stratford environs would soon find out that William could not so much as write his own name, Jonson had no choice but to lie. Following the oddly contradictory style of the opening phrases (attributed by biographer Richard Dutton to the style Jonson often affected in his popular epigrams) and to his perpexing denial that Shakespeare was buried in the Abbey after grouping him with the earliest of the Elizabethan writers but before he compares him to the greatest of the ancient Greek playwrights, Jonson appears to state flatly that the great Shakespeare could not have read the works that his plays suggest because his learning was limited to “small Latin and less Greek.”

With both the true author and his proxy dead and gone, the audience that Jonson was addressing in the First Folio, probably the only one still deeply concerned with the truth about the authorship, would have been the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the lawyers’ clerks and scriveners who made what livings they could writing and making copies for the legal community of Westminster––the community most involved in publishing.  Since “small Latin” was roughly the learning level of this audience: youths apprenticed to trades like printing and bookbinding, students from the nearby Law colleges, actors and writers looking for opportunities, the close relations between the writing of plays and the selling of cheap pamphlets should be seen as the actual first step towards what today we know as the Media, the Fourth Estate of Government, the vox populi, the voice of the People. By turning gossip into stories and plays into literature, these quickly produced and cheaply sold publications were responsible for launching the English popular press at the same time that Shakespeare and his actors were creating the London Stage.

Ben Jonson had known both Oxford and William from the mid-to-late nineties when he first began his theater career with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. (It’s very likely that following Jonson’s 1596 incarceration for his part in creating the scurrilous Isle of Dogs, he had been rescued from the wiles of Robert Cecil by Oxford and his actors.) Jonson’s comments about Shakespeare as expressed during his conversations with with William Drummond of Hawthornden (1618-19) were largely based on his relationship with Oxford (plus certain of the characters, such as Know-well in Every Man in his Humour and Puntarvolo in Every Man Out of his Humour), while his opinion of William is revealed in the character of Sogliardo in Every Man Out. It may be that Oxford and Jonson (and one other) also collaborated on Cynthias’s Revels, at a time when Oxford, weary of entertaining the ungrateful Queen, was seeking someone to whom he could pass the baton of Court Impresario––much as Propero attempted to train Caliban. Also like Caliban, Jonson repaid Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for their support by departing in 1599 to write for their rivals at the Rose and the Second Blackfriars Theater.

Jonson’s subversive messages

With the accession of King James Jonson found himself in a tight spot between the former supporters of Essex, who were his best audience, and the recently empowered Earls of Northampton and Salisbury (Henry Howard and Robert Cecil). During this period, 1603-1615, as Dutton put it

Jonson found himself in trouble with the authorities over his plays on at least four occasions: over the lost Isle of Dogs, for which he was imprisoned; over Sejanus, for which ‘he was called before the Council’ (and perhaps accused both of popery and treason’; over Eastward Ho, when he and Chapman ‘voluntarily’ imprisoned themselves and ‘the report was that they should then have their ears cut and noses’; and over The Devil is an Ass, ‘upon which he was accused. (136)

Although Jonson managed to get off without being cut or hanged (doubtless due to recently acquired friends in high places) what Dutton does not discuss until his last chapter, which he subtitled with a quote from Bartholomew Fair: “Covert allusions: state decipherers and politic picklocks.” In this he examines what Jonson called “glancings,” what today we might call “equivocations”––statements worded in such a way that they actually conveyed to those members of his audience who were on the lookout for them, messages that contradict what they appear to convey on the surface, as in his statement that Shakespeare was NOT buried in the Abbey between Chaucer, Beaumont and Spenser (reminding us of Brer Rabbit pleading with Brer Fox, “O please, whatever you do to me, please, please, please don’t throw me in that briarpatch!” the briarpatch, of course, being Brer Rabbit’s home). Thus it may behoove us to examine a little more closely Jonson’s statement that––“though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”––Shakespeare was every bit as great as Aeschylus or Euripides.

Was Jonson equivocating? Did the word though have meanings other than although? Indeed it did. The OED, after lengthy details on the evolution of though from AD 800 and up as it evolved into more recent uses, under #1 comes the standard usage: “Introducing a subordinate clause expressing a fact.” However, under #2: we learn that it can also introduce “a subordinate clause expressing a supposition or possibility: even if; even supposing that; granting that.” Under #4 it goes even further: “In more or less weakened or modified sense, often nearly coinciding with if, but usually retaining some notion of opposition”!––this followed by a further support for Jonsonian equivocation with, “After negative or interrogative phrases with wonder, marvel . . . where if or that is now substituted.”

Therefore, if, as the OED suggests, we read “though thou hadst small Latin” as “even if you had small Latin and less Greek, I would not seek for names (like Lyly or Kyd) but call forth thundering Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles” etcetera.  Under #5, where the use of that with though is discussed, the OED has chosen a line from King John as its example: “Though that my death were adjunct to my act, by Heaven I would do it!” (Act 3 Scene 3)––meaning, in today’s English, “even if my death . . . .”

Make of this what you will, the OED backs the suggestion that Jonson, renowned for his ability to equivocate, that is, to say something by stating it in a particular way that allows for another very different interpretation, if this kind of tinkering seems beyond the pale to today’s so-called Shakespeare experts, it’s only because they still haven’t a clue to what the English poets were up to back in the early days of the 17th century.

For a closer look at what Jonson was saying in his Ode, check out “Jonson’s Ode to Shakespeare” and “Deconstructing Jonson’s Ode.”

I’m back!

Hello again! After nine months of silence I’m ready to blog again. The effort that went into creating the final publishable version of THE BOOK I’ve been working on for years hasn’t allowed me the time or the energy for anything else.

Throughout the early 1990s, after being awakened to the authorship question via Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William, I plumbed the university libraries in Boston for more information on the University Wits, a study that eventually led to the creation of The Oxfordian under the auspices of the Shakespeare Oxford Society. For ten years it was my privilege to publish a number of important authorship scholars, after which I left to continue lecturing and to writing for other publications. Hoping to reach a wider audience I began blogging under politicworm.com in 2008. With daily hits reaching near or at 500, by 2014 it was apparent that the material on the blog would have to be organized into a narrative if it was ever to be seen as a coherent whole, chapters in a story with a beginning and an end, in other words, a book. Now to find a publisher willing, perhaps even eager, to challenge the universities. Wish me luck!

Tackling the “Shakespeare Problem”

In digging into the anomalies that have dogged the Shakespeare story from the start, whether associated with his persona, his body of work, or the stage that introduced him to the world, I discovered that every one can be traced to a single cause: the biography of William of Stratford.  Remove that, reduce William’s role to that of well paid provider of the magical name, and all the anomalies vanish. The early quartos, impossible to assign to someone born as late as 1564, become the missing Shakespeare juvenilia. The magical voice, appearing here and there under a variety of names from the mid-1560s on, becomes the early voice of Shakespeare.

Who was writing for the Children’s companies that so delighted Elizabeth from her earliest days as Queen? Who was it who was so fascinated from first to last with themes of love, sex, friendship and truth? Who could have had such knowledge of ancient stories, of Roman history, Greek myths, Courtly manners? Story by story, event by event, one individual and only one, from earliest works to final collection, lived a life that so perfectly fits in terms of time, place, events and content, that there is no reason to continue to seek some other solution to Chambers’ “Shakespeare problem.”

Shakespeare’s theaters

As revealed in C.W Wallace’s 1912 account of the birth of the London Stage, that the public theaters appeared almost twenty years before the great Shakespeare was available to make use of them is one of the anomalies that’s made it so hard to give a rational account of how the London Stage actually got born. Few have remarked upon the interesting fact that both of the first two commercially successful purpose-built stages in England opened for business within weeks of Oxford’s return from his year in Venice, where the history of western theater begins, and those who did take note of it in passing drew no conclusions from it.

Shakespeare’s patrons

Consistently overlooked by academics and authorship scholars alike are the wealthy and powerful patrons whose unyielding support led to the creation of the London Stage and the preservation of Shakespeare’s works. The notion that something so powerful (and so politically dangerous) as the public stage, a cultural game-changer on the level of the printing press or today’s social media, could have been created almost single-handed by a part time actor and joiner, the lowliest of trades, has been swallowed whole by the Academy and its precursors for some 200 plus years. While it’s clear that the patrons themselves preferred to keep as private as possible their involvement in creating and promoting that dangerous innovation, the London Stage, there’s no denying their existence and their importance. Of course, where the obvious can’t be denied, it can be ignored. In truth without the patrons (among them Oxford himself) there would have been no London Stage, at least not under the Tudors.

Shakespeare’s politics

That no one so far as I know has investigated what should be the rather obvious effort to provide a theater close enough to the West End that it could entertain, and potentially influence, the important men from around the nation who assembled there every few years for another convention of Parliament, is equally absurd. That this blindness to the politics of the period have allowed the Academy to continue to claim that there were never any political overtones to the plays is simply mind-boggling in its lack of understanding of the power and nature of the Stage throughout historical time.

True, the plays as they have come down to us from the editors of the First Folio do not dwell on obvious political themes, but as anyone who studies the period knows, both political and religious debates invariably based their messages on events from history and ancient folk and biblical literature. And even had they been aware, the 15-year displacement caused by the Stratford biography renders impossible the clear connection between the play’s origin and the events that inspired it.

Do those whose opinions matter never study the history of the theater through the ages? How can they continue to think that, unlike his near contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson (Marston, Chapman, Dekker, Middleton), etc., all of whom were in constant trouble with the authorities for meddling in politics, only Shakespeare remained untouched? If it puzzles them that during Essex’s treason trial Shakespeare’s actors were questioned about performing the highly political Richard II the day before Essex’s attack on the Court yet the author himself was not only not questioned, he wasn’t even mentioned, it has not been enough to make them question the identity of this strangely protected author.

Of course the Elizabethan Stage was just as political as has been every other Stage in human history! Of course it was dominated at the beginning by the playwright whose comedies were safely aligned with Court interests. Attempts to portray it as somehow operating apart from the all-consuming issues of the day are absurd, and in fact, are themselves hard evidence of university politics, the kind that determines what is worth publishing and what isn’t.

Shakespeare’s timing

Because Shakespeare is so central to the story of the London Stage, and because there is so little evidence on which to build a satisfying history of the Stage as it developed through the 1570s and ’80s, the Academy pretends that there was nothing of any interest before his plays began to be published (anonymously) in the mid-1590s. At the very end of the decade, when the name finally appears suddenly on the title pages of the second editions of two of his most political plays, the Academy, helpless to explain this amazing leap from zero to greatness, concerns itself with things like stylometics and feminine endings, things that only experts like themselves can understand. (Like the little girl in the old New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”)

In every effort to describe the events of the nineties with respect to the stage, academics refer to actions taken by the government against the theaters as coming from the Privy Council, never bothering to note how greatly the Privy Councils of the 1570s and ’80s differed from the Privy Council of the 1590s. To academics dealing with the Stage, the bloody showdown between the Cecils and the Essex faction is a little rumble offstage, barely audible. The political upheavals of the nineties that gripped the Court and the nation hardly cause a ripple in their comfortable accounts of the deaths of Marlowe, Lord Strange, Lord Hunsdon and James Burbage, and the loss to Shakespeare and his company of their great new Blackfriars Theater, shut down in 1596 by order of a Privy Council dominated by Robert Cecil as demanded by one of his aunts.

Shakespeare’s education

It was the truly incredible level of Shakespeare’s learning that finally raised a public demand in the 19th century for the truth about his identity––particularly his knowledge of the Law. Why continue to follow blindly Jonson’s “small Latin and less Greek” since 19th-century jurists like Lord Penzance made plain the author’s unaccountably broad and deep grasp of the Law as it developed under the Tudors. According to Jonson’s biographers, honest Ben, Shakespeare’s contemporary, was famous for his ability to equivocate, that is, to word something so that it could be taken to mean something else, even the opposite. Thus,”though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” could be understood to mean, “IF thou hadst small Latin . . . .” (According to the OED, #4 under “though” provides quotations where though can be taken to mean if.)

How difficult would it have been after 1920, when Oxford was brought out of the shadows by Looney, to check out his education? How difficult would it have been to follow up on Sir Thomas Smith, clearly stated as not only his tutor, but the one who “brought him up,” as revealed in letters from Burghley to Smith, Burghley to Walsingham, and Smith to Burghley (Nelson Adversary 25)?  Until the advent of online resources like Google, every library had a copy of Books in Print, which listed books by name and author. This was where I found Mary Dewar’s 1964 biography of Smith, which contains the crucial fact that Oxford was put with Smith in 1554. And although Dewar failed to give a sufficiently solid citation for her rather specific statement, when Smith’s library is compared with Shakespeare’s knowledge as displayed in his plays, why cling to doubt? Such a placement, particularly at a time of such political upheaval, is totally in line with long-standing aristocratic tradition.

Shakespeare and the “stigma of print”

Most of Oxford’s biographers attribute the hiding of his name to the so-called “stigma of print,” a tradition that tended to prevent members of the Court community from publishing, but they do not make it clear that what was considered verboten were works of the imagination, poetry, tales, and plays, or the fact that such works were damned by the Reformation authorities then in control of publishing as sinful tools of the Devil, pathways to eternal damnation––or that such works were also inclined to satirize those same authorities. While admitting that Polonius was (probably) a spoof of Lord Burghley, the Queen’s great minister of State, why do they neglect what should have been equally obvious, that all the characters in Hamlet were based on members of Elizabeth’s Court?  Why so far but no farther?

In 1980, Prof. Steven May, quotable expert on the Elizabethan Court poets, felt called upon to add his bit to the effort to quash the authorship debate, declaiming in a highly publicized article in Renaissance Papers: “Tudor Aristocrats and the mythical stigma of print,” wherein he asserts that “no ‘stigma of print’ is discernible during the Tudor age.” Not until the end does he admit what he should have made clear from the start, that “it was poesy, not the printing press, which our ancestors viewed with suspicion,” so that “the ‘stigma of print’ should give place to the ‘stigma of verse.’” Which includes of course plays, since playwrights were called poets then, and most early plays were written in verse, Shakespeare’s included.

Why not be clear about that distinction from the start? Because to be sufficiently clear about this was simply not to the good professor’s purpose, just as it has nothing to do with the actual record, which shows that the Queen never gave an official position to any of the writers of imaginative literature at her Court, including her godson, John Harington Jr., and Burghley’s nephew, Francis Bacon, both extremely bitter about their lack of bankable recognition. Nor does it acknowledge Thomas Sackville’s explanation for why he, then the Court’s most highly praised poet, as soon as he inherited his title in 1566, gave up writing verse as he explains in his last poem, “Sackville’s Old Age.” As Lord Buckhurst he would climb the Court promotion ladder, ending his days as the wealthy and powerful Earl of Dorset and Lord Treasurer under King James.

Oxford’s life

Frustrated by the way he was prevented from what in an earlier age would have allowed him as a great peer a significant role in the governing and defense of his nation, it seems from plays like Alls Well that Oxford did not fully appreciate, at least not at first, the fact that by striving to create a living literary language he was doing something far more important and meaningful, or that, by writing for the stage, he was acquainting the illiterate public with the heroes and defining moments in the history of their nation. By the time he died, those who followed him, his patrons and what must have been by then a substantial reading audience (based on the many editions of his published works), who certainly understood the nature and importance of what he had done, as evidenced by the time and effort it took to produce the elegant First Folio, without which he and his plays might have been lost to posterity.

That Oxford suffered financially by the travels in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean that brought him subjects for so many of his best plays, is reflected in Rosalind’s comment from As You Like It: “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands” (Act IV Scene 1). Aware that no hero was ever remembered by history unless a poet had praised him in memorable terms, as certain of his Sonnets suggest, he believed that they would make the Fair Youth famous someday. Someday that is, not right away, for doubtless, concerned for Southampton’s reputation, it was Oxford himself who must have prevented their publication until his death made it possible for others to profit by ushering them into print.

Given the peculiar absence of facts from this period, we can never hope to reach beyond our present stalemate with the Academy until we find other means to tell what is, in fact, a story just as compelling as any told by Shakespeare himself. Part of that story explains to the satisfaction of any reasonable mind, why at every critical juncture the paper trail vanishes. Why this is so is an important chapter in the story, not simply of how the plays came to be written, but beyond that, by what means and why their provenance came to be erased.

Let’s hear it for conjecture

It will doubtless be argued that because my account relies on educated guesswork to bridge these crucial blank spots that therefore it cannot be “true.” Unfortunately were we to continue to rely solely on what facts remain the truth would remain in the condition in which it has remained for the past 400 years.  In the realms of history, in particular the history of literature, even more so of theatrical literature, is not conjecture equivalent to the role of the hypothesis in Science? Do not the “Laws” of Science rest upon an initiatory stage, that of the hypothetical, the pad from which is launched the second stage, the necessary and often prolonged period of experimentation by which the Laws of Science are ultimately revealed? Have not these first guessed-at then proven Laws resulted in the amazing advances in technology that has brought us the life we enjoy today?  Where so much is missing, a History devoid of conjecture surely ranks with a Science devoid of hypothesis.

And so I rest my case.

Deconstructing Jonson’s Ode

It’s clear that Jonson admired Shakespeare immensely. Despite the traces of envy in things he said about him to Drummond or wrote in his notebooks, Jonson was a man of taste and intelligence, who, as an excellent writer himself, could not help but be awed by Shakespeare’s talent. Although clever and highly educated, Jonson did not often display genuine eloquence, yet here, inspired perhaps by a deepening awareness of his great rival’s accomplishment, when he speaks about him he comes close to the language of the Bard himself.

In a dedicatory ode intended to introduce to an eager and adoring public Shakespeare’s works in print, the strangely negative tone of the opening lines is usually ignored, probably because there’s no explanation for it. Why should anyone think that Jonson would or could “draw envy” to Shakespeare by mentioning his work and his reputation in print? What dark element is there that Jonson must address before he can begin to sing his hero’s praises? If he felt so strongly about Shakespeare and, despite the dangers he outlines at the start, is willing to express it in print, we can be certain that he is also expressing feelings he shared with the men and women who sponsored the true author, who protected his identity during his life, and promoted the publication of his works after his death.

That it took so long to produce the First Folio is testimony to the difficulties that this group faced. Anyone who has ever been involved with getting the rights to a body of work of an important writer so that a complete works can be published (or has followed such a situation, or read about it) will understand what difficulties must have been involved in organizing the publication of the First Folio, particularly if, as we believe, the Authorship Question was causing problems for both Oxford’s friends and his enemies, as it had been in varying degrees since the 1580s.

What are the difficulties that Jonson treats of at the beginning? He’s not exactly being transparent here, which suggests that this part was written for those who knew what he was talking about. That he begins with it suggests that he thought it was important. Or could the tone be due to his public role as chief cynic, so that he felt it necessary to stick to his trademark attitude, at least as an opener?

“To draw no envy on thy name”

What does Jonson mean when he states that he wishes to “draw no envy” on Shakespeare’s name? Envy was a word used a lot in the 16th century. Apparently a great many people were afraid of the trouble that could be caused by the malice of persons who envy others, who want what they have, something primitive societies envision as “the evil eye.” Since Jonson’s literary community was well past the primitive stage, why envy should seem so dangerous is hard to understand, unless, of course, because it was much easier to get away with dirty tricks, even murder, then than it is now. Since Shakespeare had long been dead, or at least quiet, by 1623, one would think he was beyond the reach of envy.

In any case, once past these initial snarls, Jonson finally gets down to the business of lauding the man whose book he is introducing, who in another context has claimed he loved “next idolatry” (Drummond/Dutton).

Much of what Jonson says in praise of Shakespeare is transparent and needs no interpreting. There are however two lies, untruths, false clues, “glancings,” that he felt it necessary (or was required) to weave into the fabric of his poem in order to shift attention from the true author to William of Stratford.

“Thou art a monument without a tomb”

However ambiguous elsewhere, Jonson was clear enough when he wrote: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room; Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s message throughout this verse and the next is that the book he’s introducing, the First Folio, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs. It seems the author is to have no monument, which is of course untrue of William, who seven years earlier had been buried under the floor of Trinity Church in Stratford under a slab of stone noteworthy for the unfortunate bit of doggeral verse carved into it.

The tradition of burying writers in the floor of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey began in 1599 with the burial of Edmund Spenser on a site probably chosen because Chaucer’s monument, the greatest poet of earlier times, was located nearby. Seven years later the tradition was amplified when a third writer was buried nearby, playwright Francis Beaumont. Still, it seems a bit raw to use his Ode to openly deny the Star of Poets his spot in Poet’s Corner. Why make a point of it?

Two thoughts seem appropriate here. First, following Beaumont’s funeral there may have been a movement to have Shakespeare buried in Poet’s Corner. Why not bury the great one in London’s most prestigious cemetary, where those who admired him could come to honor him without having to take the long trip to Stratford? Surely Shakespeare deserved no less.

Here’s another clue that William wasn’t the author, for had he been, there would have been no reason whatsoever to deny him a place in Poet’s Corner. Jonson’s explanation, that Shakespeare was so great that he needs no such recognition, is about as weak as it gets. It’s also worth noting that Jonson claims he has no tomb and no monument (other than the First Folio). William died in 1616. Seven years later, was the stone with its doggerel platitude not yet laid in the floor of the Trinity Church? Was the Stratford monument not yet in place? If not, then what did he mean by “thy Stratford moniment”? If they were, was he unaware of it? Or was he covering up the truth?

Jonson may simply be using a very old trick in the art of disinformation, namely conveying important information by stating it as a denial. Jonson’s biographer, Richard Dutton, in his chapter on Jonson’s “glancings,” notes that this was one of his favorite tricks. The fact that the authorities repeatedly accused Jonson of doing what he denies is not proof, but it must evoke suspicion. The fact that Jonson so consistently denies it proves nothing either; obviously he was not going to admit it. It is, however possible to construe the denials in the end as protesting too much: in effect, . . drawing attention to something in the writing by publicly insisting that it is not there.” (141).

Jonson may be telling those concerned with Shakespeare’s final resting place that if they want to honor him, they can do so by standing on a spot in the Abbey midway between the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont. Those who cared about the true author and his legacy were people with great influence who could easily have arranged for a funeral ceremony in the Abbey at night, when it was closed to the public. Whether or not Beaumont’s coffin had to be moved matters little; Jonson’s purpose was to point to the spot where Shakespeare lay, beneath the paving stones of the Chapel floor.

Chaucer’s monument was then, as it is today, an upright structure standing on the floor against the wall, but the tombs of Spenser and Beaumont were simply plaques with their names set into the floor, as are so many tombs in the Abbey and in Poet’s Corner. Unfortunately, there’s no telling today exactly where they were then, since plaques from many eras now lie edge to edge beside each other covering the entire area.

What is most probable is that he lies beneath the statue that was placed in the Abbey by the patron who acquired his name in the mid-18th century, the First Earl of Oxford by the Second Creation, whose manor of Welbeck had become the repository of books, paintings, and probably much else as the peers of that period sold or lost their valuables through gambling and as collateral for unpaid loans. The Statue and its meaning to an ever shrinking community of insiders, was created by members of the Grand Lodge of Masons to answer to a higher deity than the gaping and ignorant public.

“But though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”

As we have seen, this line of Jonson’s is what set orthodox Shakespeare studies on the wild goose chase from which they have never returned. Why did Jonson lie about Shakespeare’s erudition and how did he manage to get away with it? How did the obvious knowledge of Plautus, Terence, Euripides, Ariosto, etc., (often in the original language) that Shakespeare reveals in his many neologisms escape Jonson’s readers (those at least who expressed opinions in print) and all orthodox scholars since?

Shakespeare was circumspect about his learning. Unlike Jonson, who liked to parade his education, Shakespeare’s characters tend to reveal the erudition of their creator obliquely, sometimes by satirizing it as the confused versions that live in the minds of lesser intellects who had learning beaten into them by their grammar school teachers. Like himself, his more advanced characters often reveal their learning through metaphors and descriptive phrases that will be only partly understood without an educated awareness of their roots in Greek, Latin, French, or Italian.

Why so modest? Was he ashamed of his erudition? Not ashamed, but cautious, as behooved one whose learning so far surpassed even most of his closest associates. And why bother to use references that no one is going to understand? This was true to some extent when he was writing for the Court, but even more so for the public. And since he obviously wished to remain anonymous, he would have done his best to avoid in his published plays and poems the kinds of classical references that would have made it impossible for those who knew him personally to remain ignorant of his authorship.

Nevertheless, the very plots and characters of his plays plus a thousand tropes that made up the substance of his work revealed much too clearly, particularly to a literary milieu educated in the classics to a degree probably never seen since, the kind of education that could not possibly be ascribed to William of Stratford; not, that is, without some serious tampering with the record. So Jonson had no choice but to lie as forcefully and plainly as possible. Contemporaries may have questioned it privately, but scholarship has declined since then, and scholars of subsequent ages have taken at face value this out and out prevarication. Not that they care about the author anyway since their chief interest in Shakespeare is, and always has been, the text.

Jonson then makes up for his monstrus fib by ascribing to Shakespeare a genius that surpasses the “antiquated” Greeks, attributing to him a mystical perfection that transcends Time. He also attempts to salve the fact that he is attributing (however obliquely) the greatest works ever written up until then to an illiterate nonentity by claiming that, as their “father,” Shakespeare’s god-given “mind and manners” shine through his characters and their stories.

 “Sweet swan of Avon”

These are the only words in the entire First Folio that point, however obliquely, to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon Avon. Although not true, they are not quite a lie. No doubt it was incumbent on Jonson, as Court poet and advocate for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to put something in the Ode that connected Shakespeare the poet with William of Stratford, their chosen proxy. If so, this was possibly the least obvious clue he could have dreamed up. Either that or it could be something most easily translated by those who knew the truth, to a reference to the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes.

As Jonson’s patron, Pembroke and his Court circle could, if they chose, read “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a reference to Shakespeare entertaining the Court community at Pembroke’s home, Wilton, which stands on the bank of the Avon River in Wiltshire. (There are at least nine rivers named Avon in Britain; avon means river in Welsh.) There is a strong possibility that the true author was present for at least one such production in 1603, when the young Earl and his mother, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke and former mistress of Wilton, were entertaining King James and his retinue before they made their royal way to London. The swan was thought to sing only at its death. Since Oxford would die (or rather pretend to die) within a few months of that event, the phrase was appropriate in more ways than one.

Jonson makes up to some extent for these necessary prevarications by giving us some important clues about the true author and how he worked. He compares him (and all true poets) to the hardest working of all artisans, the blacksmith, who sweats as he hammers, beating his work into shape. The term “second heat” refers to the phase in metal-working known as termpering when, having beaten the metal into its initial form, the smith allows it to cool, then reheats it for another round of beating. Jonson seems to be comparising these rounds of heating and cooling, a process that strengthens the metal, to the rounds of revision required by good writing, revisions being the “Art” that “makes” a writer, even the most innately gifted. Revisions over a period of years is a better explanation for the anomalous topical references and alterations in language in some of Shakespeare’s plays than the theory that these necessarily reveal the work of a co-author or later reviser, as those who see him as a commercial hack would have it.

“Shine forth, thou Star of Poets”

But the most important clues of all offered by Jonson as to who Shakespeare was and what he actually did, may be contained in his final lines: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage.” What does he mean by pairing rage and influence, chiding and cheering? Aren’t these pairs duplications? Don’t they mean the same thing? That Shakespeare’s works, returned in their true form in the First Folio, will both condemn what’s wrong with the present and encourage a return to something better? Is he speaking only with regard to the Stage, or perhaps in broader terms, to what the Stage represents, the power to change humanity, to change the way it thinks and acts. Isn’t “rage” too strong a word for just the pretense of emotion generated by an actor and his part? If we knew that Shakespeare meant, not just to entertain, but to move his audiences to action, what sorts of action would he be advocating? What influence? At what did his pun name manifest: I “will shake [a] spear!” Surely this is what Jonson––who himself got into trouble more than once for his satires––meant by influence, rage, and chide.

Finally, regarding the use of the word “envy,” we might note that the initials for Ned (Edward) Vere are NV. Can Jonson’s opening line be read: “To draw no NV on your name”? Is this another instance of stating a fact as a denial? Could he have meant instead to be speaking to those who knew the truth: “To draw on NV as your name . . .”?

Are we reading a too much into Jonson’s Ode, one of the most significant poems he would ever write in a long career of writing just such models of doublethink? For as the academics know quite well and have stated as an interesting feature of the time, that is, when there is no chance of its casting suspicion on the Stratford myth, that this kind of seeking for a satirical subtext was the very passion of the period, wouldn’t the true author’s followers be studying Jonson’s dedication for just such sleights of hand? Wouldn’t Jonson know that they would be expecting to see their hero acknowledged in the subtle ways he demonstrated so often in his many odes and epigrams, doing a little “sweating” himself to produce something worthy of the greatest wordsmith of them all, putting his true feelings for the man that by the time he wrote it, had been dead for almost twenty years?

Hide Fox and all after

In the second scene of Act 4, we find Hamlet alone in a room in the castle, where he’s discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been sent to bring him to the King, who’s just been informed of the death of Polonius. After taunting them with their servility, Hamlet agrees to go with them and, as they exit, he mutters “Hide Fox and all after.” Notes tell us what we could have guessed, that this is the name of a children’s game, the one we know today as Hide and Go Seek.  Why does Hamlet say this?   What does he mean? He isn’t saying it to his former schoolmates, nor to the audience. They won’t know what he means any more than we do. From this point on Hamlet talks in riddles a great deal of the time.

In Hide and Go Seek, the child who is “it” plays the role of a hunted animal, a fox if you will, who is sought by the dogs, the rest of the children. To evade the dogs, the fox must be silent and crafty. When one of the hunters tracks him down, the hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the fox, becomes “it.”  Since no harm comes to the fox in the children’s game, this role is more glamorous than that of a hunter, so there is competition to be “it.” To be the best dog, the one who finds the fox the quickest, then to be the best fox, the one who can outfox the dogs for the longest time––this is the motive force that drives the game.  Hamlet is a prince, born to rule. Refusing to see himself as a victim, he finds a way to cast himself as a winner––in his own mind at least––one who can outfox the dogs.

Hamlet is no longer a child, but until now he has lived a pampered existence.  Blissfully unaware of the murderous animal energies that drive the politics of Court society, he has, like Prospero, spent his life immersed in books and things of the mind.  It has taken his father’s murder to awaken him to the realities of power politics.  Unwilling to believe the ghost without some evidence of his uncle’s guilt, he sets a trap, a play, to determine the truth.  This works, yet it also puts him in serious jeopardy.

Now that Claudius knows that he knows who murdered the Old King, Hamlet, formerly just an irritation, has become a deadly threat.  Further, by killing Polonius, he has given his uncle a legitimate reason to get rid of him. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hamlet needs to get the hell out of his intellectual ivory tower and engage on the level of animal energies with all his wits about him.  Knowing how fear can paralyze action, to encourage himself he summons up a game from his childhood, so that he can act freely, with the élan of a child at play.  Thus it is to himself that he speaks when he mutters “Hide fox, and all after.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is full of clues about the author, but these have led nowhere since there’s nothing to be found in Stratford.  There was no prince in Stratford, living in an Ivory Tower.  This author felt safe in childhood, and what does he do as an adult?  How does he deal with the cruel realities of life?  He plays.  He plays the lute, and he writes plays, in which, as in children’s games, the victims rise when the curtain falls and the show is over to play again the following day in a world of make believe.  This author was someone who felt powerless in the real world of power politics, who found his strength and power in the world of the theater, the world of play.

The fox is safe as long so he remains hidden.  There is nowhere Hamlet can hide his physical self from the King and his henchmen.  But what he can hide are his intentions.  From now on, Hamlet, who is of an open disposition by nature and inclined to reveal his feelings, hides them behind a mask of foolery.  Like Hamlet, his author too hides himself behind a mask––the one we call “Shakespeare.”

Why Shakespeare hid

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was a genius.  We may not agree on who he was at this point, but surely we all agree that he was a genius.  There’s something else we know about him now, something we didn’t realize until recently: he was not only a genius at writing plays and poetry, he was also a genius at hiding.  We’ve been playing Hide Fox and All After with Shakespeare for roughly two hundred years, and still he remains elusive, dim, half––if no longer completely––hidden.  But why?

Hamlet hid his intentions because he was in mortal danger.  Is this a clue to Shakespeare’s hiding?  Was he in mortal danger?

Authors frequently hide behind pseudonyms when they publish works that might get them into trouble with the authorities.  (The list of famous writers who have done this is too long to include here.)  Is this why Shakespeare hid his identity?  Would he have been in trouble with the authorities had they known who he was?

Writers often use pseudonyms when they branch out and try something different, so that they won’t turn away faithful readers used to a different style or genre.  (Again, the list of famous writers who have done this, and are doing it today, is too long to list here.)  Could this be part of the reason Shakespeare hid his identity, so he’d be free to change style and genre whenever he felt like it?

Many writers in the past have hidden their identities because they wished to protect their class status or some professional identity.  Was this the reason, or part of it?

Writers hide from family, friends and fans behind unmarked doors and unlisted phone numbers because they need extended periods of unbroken time to get into the creative zone and stay there long enough to make something happen.  Was this why he hid?   To insure his privacy?

As so many great writers have agreed, great writers create out of their own experience, some of it potentially scandalous and embarrassing to their families, friends and lovers. Did Shakespeare hide to protect his family and friends from a posterity that might connect their private secrets with the plots of his plays?  With his villains and fools?  With the passion of his sonnets?

The early modern period was a time when poets were ashamed to put their names to the poetry they published.  In Shakespeare’s day, poetry, particularly love poetry, was regarded as a “toy,” a foolish pastime that healthy-minded adults gave up with maturity.  Is this why he hid?  Because, once past his twenties, he was ashamed to be known as a poet?

This was a time of fierce criticism of all innovations in word usage, spelling, syntax. The messy experiments of a language getting born led to ferocious condemnations of all attempts to do something new. Is this why he hid? Because he didn’t care to hear himself condemned by ignorant fools?

Another reason has been suggested in an article by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, published some time ago in The New Yorker, titled: “What is a Novelist?” In an effort to explain what motivates a serious novelist, Kundera makes the very interesting point that great writers are haunted by a demon unique to their craft, the awareness that their audience may well be posterity, that their name, unlike that of mere generals and tyrants, may last forever, and in fact, that the fame of generals and tyrants depends on writers, for no one will remember the greatest hero unless some writer preserves his deeds in words. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this when he promised the Fair Youth that so “great was his pen,” that the Youth would be remembered “when tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass are spent.” By separating himself from his name, did he wish to keep his inspiration free from the psychological burden of future fame?

Are any of these the reason? Are none of them the reason? Are all of them the reason? Why do we do anything important in life, marry, divorce, start a family, move to a different town or country, change career paths, go back to school? Isn’t it always for more than one reason?

Problems of understanding the period

To find the fox it is necessary to understand him, how he thinks, what motivates him. Those of us who reject the Stratford biography are forced to deal with several problems that complicate our search for Shakespeare, problems that we must address before we can understand him, before we can feel certain that we’ve found the man himself and not just another one of his colleagues, rivals, patrons or proxies. Most of these problems relate to the immense differences that separate our time from his.

Humans share a great deal across the boundaries of time period, nationality, class, language, skin color, etcetera. We share the need to eat, sleep, be protected from cold and heat, communicate, find work, love, companionship, and so forth, but there are also a great many differences between our time and earlier times, differences between classes and the ways in which we regard class differences, between word usages, between expectations with regard to security, privacy, opportunity, responsibility to family and community, differences between our belief systems today, our views on sexuality today, and those of Shakespeare’s time. Some of these differences bear close examination.

For instance, there were far fewer people then. There was only one real city in England, with a population of less than 200,000, while the larger towns were more like what we consider villages today, and the villages hamlets. Although a wave of restlessness and movement, fueled by economic troubles, was rising, most people still tended to stay in one place and keep to one occupation for their entire lives, resulting in much smaller communities with fewer opportunities for change or advancement. Few people outside the Court community were literate.

The high death rate meant that changes such as transfers of offices and property were brought about more by deaths than anything else, usually causing those who lived longer to have as many as three or more marriage partners. The extremely high death rate among infants caused a set of very different attitudes towards children than what we know today, which in turrn must have affected their attitudes as adults. It also caused women to have as many children as they could so that at least some would live to maturity, which had a great effect on the lives, the health, and the attitudes of women.

The high death rate also made religious tolerance next to impossible. With death an ever present factor it was simply too important to feel secure about what happens afterwards to allow any room for differences of opinion. Today most of us are existentialists who accept uncertainty as the price of living in peace with neighbors of differing beliefs, but that was not yet the case in Shakespeare’s time. Where so much was uncertain, certainty of belief was a necessity.

Apart from religion there were other things we routinely question today that were not yet matters for discussion––at least, not open discussion, including the need for strongly-defined social classes, that prestigious bloodlines should be the determining factor in choosing a leader, and that the political system should reflect a particular religion. Differences like these must be seen as absolutely necessary to our effort to understand both the fox we call Shakespeare and the background wherein we seek him.

There are plateaus in history, long periods where change occurs very slowly. Sooner or later these come to an end, giving way to periods of extremely rapid change, often triggered by a discovery of some sort, or a series of discoveries. This was one such period. For several hundred years following the fall of Rome, change had occurred at a relatively slow and even rate, but with the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance, change began to pick up speed.

As is the case in our own time when immense leaps in technology have shrunk, and continue to shrink, our planet while expanding our concept of the universe, the Elizabethan era saw similar leaps in technology bringing about an equally rapid, changing and expanding world view. Considering how long their world view had remained at the level it held throughout the middle ages, there is no doubt that this process was hugely disturbing to most. Awareness of these changes was spread by another factor, the expansion of literacy.

As a response to the Reformation, beginning in the 1550s and reaching a peak of expansion in the 1580s, an upsurge in the creation of grammar schools and colleges at the universities, an expansion of their teaching programs and rapid increase in their student populations, plus the addition of Renaissance humanist subjects to their curricula, created a supernova of learning. People of all ranks and both sexes were learning to read and write in far greater numbers than ever before while at the same time, the language itself was experiencing rapid change and expansion, a phenomenon that was occurring in every European nation.

That this supernova of learning was as intense as it was, and that it lasted at that level of intensity for only a short period of time, roughly fifteen years, can be seen by corelating the pertinent records with the relevant dates. Change and growth continued after this, of course, but at a far slower rate. Since Shakespeare is one of the two great creators of our modern English language that lived at this time, this supernova of language and learning must be taken into account as we seek his identity. Where does he fall on this steep bell curve of development? Reason should tell us that it must be neither too early nor too late.  Finally, because this authorship question involves the writing of poetry and poetic prose, we need to consider the place that poetry occupied in European minds at that time.

Poetry, so important to antiquity, has lost its significance today because it’s no longer needed as it was then. In Shakespeare’s day, although the need was already gone, centuries of habit continued to regard it with respect as a legacy of the aeons that we dismissively term the “oral tradition.” Before people could read and write, poetry and song were the means with which they preserved their cultures in memory, the vehicles whereby an immensely rich culture was passed from each generation to the next.

Poetry is language woven together through the use of mnemonics, tricks of sound that make things easier to remember because they stick in the mind. There are three major mnemonics: rhythm (or meter), rhyme, and alliteration. These, with the addition of song, are the means with which all peoples who do not write keep their cultures alive.  With the development of writing, people no longer had to keep everything, their history, their traditions, their stories, their wisdom, in their memories, they could simply write them down and refer to them when necessary. Nevertheless, although mnemonics, and eventually poetry itself, were no longer necessary, for the centuries preceding printing, tradition kept poetics alive, so that most ancient works of philosophy, religion, history, science, and medicine continued to be written in some form of poetry. Today we think of poetry as a vehicle for personal and emotional themes, but in ancient times, everything was written in poetry if it was to be kept in memory.

Although it wouldn’t be until our own time that schoolchildren––in America at least––would no longer be required to memorize a handful of poems, Shakespeare’s period, due to the Reformation attitudes towards art and the rapid increases in printing and education, saw the importance of poetry being seriously questioned for the first time.

Renaissance vs. Reformation

The great cultural revolution known as the European Renaissance, imported from Southern Europe, came late to England, and when it arrived it was almost immediately modified by another great cultural revolution, the Protestant Reformation, imported from Northern Europe. They reinforced each other in some respects, particularly in encouraging education, but in others they clashed, creating a tension that continues to exist in the English-speaking culture today. This tension was at high voltage during Shakespeare’s time. While the Renaissance craved art, music and poetry, the Reformation tended to frown on the arts as, at best, a waste of the Lord’s precious time, at worst, tools of the Devil.

Following the period of the most intense growth of education came a second period of rapid change, one that also lasted a fairly short period of time, roughly the two decades that spanned the 1580s and 1590s. During this period language and style developed at a breathless pace.

It began at a pathetically low level. Try reading a few pages of Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Baldassare Cortegiano’s The Courtier. Hoby’s attempt to translate this Italian masterpiece into English is so turgid, so stilted, so convoluted, that over and over, the editor finds it necessary to translate so the reader can understand what the Italian original had intended. Or try some of the jog-trot poetry of Thomas Churchyard or George Whetstone. C.S. Lewis called this the “drab era.” Although education was increasing during this period by leaps and bounds, most teaching was still done in Latin, while English remained as stark and awkward as ever.

But by 1600, two short decades later, the standard had climbed to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached either before or since, that set the bars for every writer of English to come later. This was a bell curve of change so steep it’s almost vertical. While the previous generation saw a supernova of education, the era of Marlowe, Sidney, Bacon and Shakespeare created a supernova of culture.

What caused this abrupt and rapid change? Certainly the preceding upsurge in printing and education had a great deal to do with it. But was there more to it than that?

Birth of the commercial media

This cultural supernova was fueled by an extremely important event in English history, one that, so far as I can see, has not been given its due. This momentous event was the birth of the commercial stage and the commercial press in the mid-1580s. Historians haven’t rated this in proportion to its importance in the history of the English-speaking peoples, not just their literary history, but a far more important development in the grand scheme of things, namely the history of Democracy. As the people of London began to make their will known by the plays they supported and the pamphlets they read, a new branch of government was born: the Fourth Estate, the voice of the people, the vox populi, what today we call the Media, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before the mid-1580s.

Before that, plays and books were dependent on wealthy patrons to get produced.   Following the Edwardian Reformation, when printing took off, roughly 90 percent of everything published were sermons or translations of religious tracts, with five percent how-to books or other works of self-improvement. But with the popularity of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, and of pamphlets like Robert Greene’s romances, a wealthy patron was no longer necessary––for these paid for themselves. Now theater owners and publishers could produce works based purely on their appeal to the public. From this point on, writers began to write what they believed readers and audiences would want to read, rather than what someone thought they ought to read.

This was the beginning of democracy in action, a bloodless revolution––well, relatively bloodless––and, perhaps because it was relatively bloodless, it hasn’t been seen in its true light.  So why did it occur at this particular moment in time?

Hunger for entertainment

For centuries the Church had filled all the entertainment needs of the public at large. Almost every week some Saint’s Day provided an excuse for a feast, while at least once per season there would be a full blown festival lasting for several days, offering an excuse to dress up, dance, feast, drink, play games and make elaborate processions to the local parish church. These gave the people something to look forward to throughout the days and weeks of the year. With the Protestant Reformation, most of this came to an end. Such carryings-on were seen by the early reformers as papistical pandering to pagan disorder. Yule logs were banned––may poles torn down.

For centuries certain inns in London and the larger towns had doubled as theatres when acting troupes came to town. With the loss of the Church calendar, people began to spend more time and more money in the theater inns, to the point where business entrepreneurs like James Burbage and his brother-in-law thought a building dedicated solely to plays might be able to support itself.   This they just barely managed to do until the mid-80s when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine showed that with the right play and the right performers, significant profits could be made from the enthusiasm of an audience willing to pay its penny, not once, not twice, but whenever the play was performed.

As for the commercial press, the same scenario held, though on a considerably smaller scale, since pamphlet sales were limited to the reading public, which at that time was probably roughly five to ten percent of the population. And while a pamphlet might eventually reach 500 readers, a play could reach thousands. According to Thomas Nashe, by 1592, 10,000 people had seen Henry the Sixth.

Later historians may have missed the significance of this revolution, but the Crown, the City and the Church certainly did not. Throughout this period they made continuous and frantic efforts to stop or at least control their growth, and even to banish them altogether. But as a poet once put it: “stop running water and it will rage”––once a revolution has been launched in full force, there’s no stopping it.

By the end of the ’90s, the booming commercial theater and press began to produce a small corps of professional writers. By professional we mean that they could live, or at least hope to live, on the proceeds of their writing­­––something that is difficult at any time, but was, until then, so impossible that no one bothered to try. Point being, there simply were no commercial writers at the beginning of this revolution. There were scriveners who made their living acting as secretaries to the illiterate public at large, who, for a small fee would read to them the letters they received and write letters for them, but this trade was not an art.

In the end it was a small community of university-trained secretaries and tutors to the well-to-do that would provide the budding media with professional writers, but that did not happen until the very end of the century.

As for the actors, until the 1580s most performers had a trade that kept them going between holidays. Once the stage went commercial, and there was work year-round, talented actors simply gave up their “day gigs.”  But the situation was different for the writers who would provide the material that actors and theater owners relied upon. Until the professional writers began to appear in the early 17th century––Jonson, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher––who was doing the writing on which the actors and theater owners––and audiences––relied for their entertainment? The answer is, we really don’t know.

This is a mystery of much greater proportions that just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Who wrote these early pamphlets and plays? Who kick-started this literary revolution? If we go solely by the records, Shakespeare played no part in the production of these first commercial plays from the 1580s. There must have been several hundred plays written by the beginning of the nineties for the various boy companies, the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men. Apart from the occasional one-timer like Udall or Wilson, for all of these we have authors for no more than 17 plays and for these, only four authors: 4 plays from Christopher Marlowe, 9 from John Lyly, 1 from Thomas Kyd, and 3 from Robert Greene [Orlando, James IV, Friar Bacon, ]––and two of the four authors, Kyd and Greene, are no more than conjectures. Since pamphlets required names on the title page, we have a few of these, but for genuinely literary pamphlets, only two names stick out, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

Groups or coteries

First: no lasting revolution was ever engineered by a single individual. Revolutions are always created by groups. They may center around a single inspiring leader, but it requires a group to accomplish any set of common goals or to create an accepted standard. By the same token, great artists, who are almost always revolutionaries of a sort, do not create out of a vacuum. Invariably they have colleagues and rivals, if not equal in genius, then close enough to stimulate them to reach for greater heights.

Second: nothing is so powerful in stimulating human action as competition, whether for food, power, or recognition, even if the recognition is only from a handful of others of like mind.

Third: writers and performers need audiences. And no artist finds a better, more stimulating, audience than that provided by his or her peers. That we see no evidence of any connection between the artists who stand out from this period: Shakespeare, Philip and Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, etc., does not mean, as the academics seem so strangely willing to accept, that they had no connection with each other. Of course they did. Birds of a feather flock together. Just because we don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What does a bear do in the woods? Do we need an affadavit?

So here’s another dog that didn’t bark in the night, another anomaly in the orbit of the visible planets.

And the fact that there is no evidence of what common sense demands––should tell us something else––namely that such a connection was hidden––that concern with each other or time spent together was not something to spread about or refer to in print. What behaviors are acceptable in public and what are acceptable only within the privacy of the family or private coterie is something that every child learns very early, if not at his mother’s and father’s knee, then at the knee of his tutor or her governess.

This can hardly be considered a “conspiracy,” as least not as the Stratfordians derisively term it. Is it a conspiracy when a man and a woman who are married to other partners have lunch together in some out of the way bistro, and then simply don’t tell anyone about it?   Or when politicians from opposing parties get together in private to discuss a sensitive issue and neglect to inform the newspapers?

Very little of what was done and said in those days wound up in the records if the letters that survived with the legend “burn this” inscribed at the bottom are any indication. There’s no reason why writers who were members of different and sometimes opposing coteries would leave any record of their connections with each other, or why those who worked for them would reveal relationships that their employers preferred to remain hidden. There were no paparazzi in those days. Not only was there no yellow journalism in those days, there was no journalism period.

There was not just one fox in this game of hide and go seek, but several. Why? Because this was a revolution and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Were they aware that they were creating a revolution? Maybe, maybe not. But what they were surely aware of was that as soon as the fox was caught the game would be over. This was not a conspiracy, it was a game! At least, that’s what it was at first.

Merry-making

To banish his fears of the horrors of an adult reality, Hamlet strives to return in his mind to a childhood world of play. In the effort to understand Hamlet’s creator, one of the prime factors that has been missed by the so-called experts is this quality of playfulness, or, to use an old English term, “merry-making.” In English we call dramas “plays.” Sixteenth-century audiences called actors “players,” reflecting the source of modern theater in the games and rituals of “merry-making,” the English term for the age-old response of the human animal to the changes in the seasons.

At particular moments during the year, the English of all classes and callings donned costumes and masks and stepped out of their humdrum workaday world into a holiday world of fantasy ritual. These moments occurred most significantly on May Day, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and on several occasions during the winter holidays from November 30th, All Hallow’s Eve, to January 6th, Twelfth Night, then to Shrovetide in early February, also known as Fat Tuesday or, on the Continent, Carneval, the last big blowout before the beginning of Lent. This was part and parcel of the Church calendar as it had been pursued around the year from time immemorial.

But, though they were loosely connected to Christian holidays, these festivals were not Christian in origin. They had grown over the centuries out of pagan festivals, which themselves had grown during even earlier ages out of grim Stone Age rituals––rituals whose significance had been forgotten long before the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s early plays reflect their origins in these rituals. Authorship scholars are proving that the sexual greenwood adventures of May Day, as reflected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the traditional wedding chivaree, as in Taming of the Shrew, were, in fact, written for two such occasions. The teasing and tormenting of authorities or obnoxious neighbors through satires, burning of effigies, breaking of windows, chanting of naughty jingles, which, combined with a hearty consumption of ale, could lead to real trouble, were sublimated and refined by Shakespeare into the vicarious tormenting of stage characters like Malvolio and Falstaff.  Thus were the crude animal energies that were so feared by the reformers sublimated into a the genteel theater event of the present.

In other words, for the first decade of this revolution, the 1580s, this uprush of expression through plays and pamphlets was done, most of it, in the age-old holiday spirit of merrymaking. Quashed by the evangelical reformers, now it was spilling over the ancient time boundaries that until then had kept it contained within the traditional holiday periods, much to the horror of the Church that had created the problem in the first place.

In any case, these folks whose identities we are tracking did what they did in a spirit of good clean fun, or fun at least. Brilliant minds met to create moments of exhilarating hilarity, the tensions and fears of the regime blown away in gusts of laughter, first among themselves at Court gatherings, then spreading to the public theaters and bookstalls. That we can still hear that laughter echoing in the scenes with Falstaff, Nym and Pistol, with Hal and Poins teasing Francis the drawer, is due to Shakespeare’s comic genius. And when Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, saying “dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” we are hearing Shakespeare confront a rising tide of humorless Calvinists that half a century later would shut down his brilliant, funny, witty theater, leaving it cold and shuttered for two long decades. He must have seen what was coming, having given the last word of the play to the puritanical Malvolio: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

These young Court writers were not out to change the world, not at first. Like kids in school, they were just out to have a good time and were not about to let anyone stop them. There’s your conspiracy––a gang of gifted mischief-makers out to torment the self-righteous, a conspiracy among the real Marias, Sir Tobys, Fabians and Festes, between the real Oberon and Puck, between the real Prospero and Ariel, the real Mistresses Page and Ford, the real Hal and Poins.

So who were they?

None of them are unknown to us. All are known to us today, at least for their reputations if not for their actual works. Most of them were courtiers. Courtiers were the only people in Elizabethan society with the leisure to play such games, games that, like cards, dice, dancing and singing madrigals, could only be played by a group. They were also the only ones with an awareness of what was being done by their counterparts at the Italian courts, by Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Tasso.

How did they do it? By using proxies on their title pages.

How are we to tell who was a proxy and who was a real writer?

Because the real writers have genuine writer’s biographies, their works match their life experiences, and we know them today, not just for their works but also by their proven presence in society where they were acknowledged for their writing.  The proxies show only that they lived and died; they show no evidence of a writer’s life; and their purported works do not match their life experience as projected by their biographies. This is not the case only with Shakespeare, but with all but two of the major writers during this two.decade period.

To understand how the creation of the Fourth Estate in Elizabethan times by the emergence of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press attracted the energies of six or seven tremendously gifted individuals who created lift-off for an industry that by the 17th century saw professional writers emerging from the population at large, it’s important to make the point that this was done at the beginning in the spirit of a game, of play, of a new kind of “mumming and disguising,” of new and more respectable forms of “merry-making” to take the place of the old May games that, along with the Church calendar, were being driven into disrepute by the Reformation.

In my view, which is of course, subject to change with the arrival of new facts and insights, there were six major figures in this revolution that came from the Court community: these being Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his cousin german, Francis Bacon (we don’t call him Sir because he wasn’t a knight yet, during this early revolutionary period), Philip Sidney (for most of this period, Philip was not a knight yet either), his sister Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (she was a countess during this revolutionary period), and Sir Walter Raleigh. In addition to the Court writers, there was a commoner who belongs in this top category, Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury.

Just as the history of the Trojan War requires the story of the combatants, their personalities, their goals and ambitions, and their relationships with each other, to understand this revolution of language, we must know the stories of the revolutionaries and of their relationships. Just listing them won’t be enough. The proof is in the story. But we can’t examine their stories, we can’t put them together in a single story, or in a single blog. What we can do in this time, is identify them, affirm that obviously they knew each other’s work, affirm that they must have known each other personally, and that by their works they drove each other to reach for the heights. It was simply too small a community for any other scenario to be possible.

Who were the proxies then, the so-called writers who lent or sold the use of their names so the Court writers could publish anonymously? Whose biographies lack the necessary factors that we must see in a writer’s biography to give it credence?  The men who, I believe, rented their names to the Court writers purely for cash or other forms of remuneration were: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, William Shakespeare, and John Webster.

Other men for reasons of friendship lent their names for one or two publications: among these were: George Gascoigne, George Pettie, Barnabe Riche, and Thomas Lodge. There may be others, but of these we can be fairly certain, for all of them show similar problems with their biographies and with the fact that the nature of the works that they are supposed to have written does not match the nature of their lives as revealed in their biographies.

Scholars tend to be a serious lot. For centuries they’ve managed to ignore the obvious clues that the death of Robert Greene was a joke. Of these clues, the most glaring is that he was said to have died of a “surfeit,” or overdose, of “pickle-herring.” “Pickle-herring” at that time was a traditional name for a clown or comedian, similar to Harlequin or Punch. So the reader is being told, of course, that Greene’s supposed death was due to an overdose of foolery. You’d think that this would have alerted scholars to the game-playing nature of his work, but so far as I know, for over 400 years it has failed to alert a single one.

Much is yet to be puzzled out, much reading of early works is left to do, many word studies created that may now give us some real results since we have better questions to propose, much time spent in thought, yet I believe that it’s fair to state that the most important of these writers was responsible for, in chronological order: the Gascoigne plays, the Pettie canon, the Lyly novels, the Robert Greene canon, and the Shakespeare canon. The second most important was responsible for most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon. And a third is responsible for the John Webster canon and perhaps a handful of plays attributed to other, later writers. That they are grouped this way can be shown, I believe, first, by noting similarities of approach, basic habits of expression, and unchanging personal concerns that transcend all changes in style and genre. And second, through their dates. For instance, it is of utmost significance that the appearance of Shakespeare follows so closely on the demise of Robert Greene and, for another, that Nashe follows almost immediately on the final works of Edmund Spenser.

Finally, the point must be made, that while three of these writers published under other names than their own, the works of the other two were published under their own names. Philip Sidney himself wrote everything, with a few very minor exceptions, that was published under his name, while Marlowe’s plays are all his own. It should also be noted that both of these writers died young, before they were published, while those who published under proxies all lived fairly long lives and all published long before they died. Where Raleigh fits into this picture is hard to tell at this point. Perhaps the few poems that we believe to be his, his marvelous reports and tracts on naval matters, and the history of the world that he wrote towards the end of his life are, in fact, all he ever wrote. Hopefully what poetry was his will become more clear as we investigate his cronies. These are the main players, the authors of most of the important works of the imagination during this earliest period. Others there were without doubt, with possibly equal talent, who chose, for personal reasons, not to develop it in later life. But these six had a passion for writing that could not be silenced, even if for their own good.

What then can I state without equivocation?

First, that the English Literary Renaissance was launched by, not one, not two, but at least six individuals, five courtiers and one commoner, five men and one woman; that they knew each other and inspired each other; and that a number of important and not so important works attributed to other writers are, in fact, the works of three or four members of this group. Second, that their impulse to write and publish grew, at least at the beginning, out of the game-playing spirit of holiday merry-making, and that the hiding of their identities grew out of the same tradition, that of holiday mumming and disguising and that the game turned deadly roughly halfway through this period when “Maxwell’s silver hammer” fell down on Marlowe’s head. From then on the mumming became serious and the disguising a necessity.

Finally, we will not know the full truth about Shakespeare until we’ve unraveled the truth about all the writers of this period, both those who did the writing, and those who took, or have been given, the credit for it. This is the story of, not just one individual, however great, but a group. And it’s a darned good story, and well worth the telling.

[The above is a slightly modified version of a lecture given at the Globe Theater in 2006 for the first of what has become the annual Shakespeare Authorship Trust lecture series.]

“The time is out of joint”

As Hamlet put it, “The time is out of joint, O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right.”  When it comes to the truth about Hamlet and his creator, it’s been out of joint for a very long time indeed.

To tell the true story of Shakespeare a number of things are required that have been overlooked by the academics, whether accidentally or on purpose. The Academy and its precursors have always assumed and continue to assume that the public was Shakespeare’s only audience, the Court seeing what had been written primarily for the public for purely commercial purposes. This has skewed our understanding of Shakespeare’s purpose to the extent that he cannot be properly understood.

The second greatest misunderstanding is the lack of awareness of the importance of the patrons, and their true role in the creation of the London Stage. The third has been the lack of awareness of the political nature of the Stage, as it was then and as it had always been throughout the ages. The fourth, and in many ways the most destructive to the truth, has been the utter blindness to the dimensions and nature of the evidence that should be in the record, but isn’t. Finally, the prosaic nature of the academic mind has missed, and continues to miss, the importance of humor, the sheer joy in the power to create laughter, from the courtier’s slashing wit to the slapstick antics of its clowns, is something that can be traced from the puns that so distressed Samuel Johnson .

The audiences

Right from the start Shakespeare wrote with three audiences in mind: the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public. For the most part, the comedies and wedding plays were written originally for the Court. These escaped to the public due to the hunger for entertainment in a London bereft of its Church Calendar by the Reformation. The deeply philosophical plays, those that deal with issues of social justice and the Law were written primarily for the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, often with Parliament in mind. These are the plays with the more obvious political content, and the ones that the actors had the most trouble getting published. But the public may have actually have been his first audience, if, as we believe, he began by writing for Paul’s Boys almost as soon as he arrived in London.

The patrons

The Academy tends to treat the Privy Council patrons of the major acting companies as mere figureheads, whose only purpose was to provide a legal cover for the actors, with an occasional letter to some official who was giving them grief. The truth is otherwise. Without their powerful patrons on the Privy Council there would never have been a London Stage. It’s clear that some, like the Earl of Leicester, maintained actors as a measure of their social and financial power, but there is little evidence that they influenced their companies’ productions. Others, like the Earl of Sussex, and later Lord Chamberlains like his vice Chamberlains Lord Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, saw the companies they patronized as a means with which to steer public opinion in a desired direction. For them their actors were means to a political end, largely through Parliament. Such a patron was the Earl of Oxford, and while his role as playwright were hidden from the start, there is no argument that he began as a major patron of the Stage.

The politics

One of the constant themes throughout the long history of interpreting Shakespeare is the mantra intoned whenever there’s any suggestion that his works were at all political. While some of these misapprehensions are merely stupid and others are genuinely wicked, this one is both. The only possible excuse they have is that they either never studied the history of the period, or that they forgot it after taking the tests. As historian A.F. Pollard,[1] writing in 1919, put it:

No period of English literature has less to do with politics than that during which English letters reached their zenith; and no English writer’s attitude towards the questions with which . . . political history is concerned is more obscure or less important than Shakespeare’s. . . . Shakespeare himself . . . shuns the problems of contemporary politics. The literature of his age was not political . . . and its political writings . . . were not literature. (History of England: 1547-1603)

The truth, of course, is that throughout its entire history, the Stage has always been political. The Dionysia that was the forum for playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles was used to present political as well as philosophical arguments to the public. If we don’t see the connection, due to our lack of awareness of the politics during that period in Greek history, that doesn’t mean there were none. Seneca was a politician, up to his ears in the politics at Nero’s court. Machiavelli was a politician under the Florentine Medici. And how about Mikhail Bulgakov, Bertolt Brecht, Garcia Lorca, how about Arthur Miller and Vaclav Havel? Playwrights have endured blacklists, exile, the torturer, the hangman and the stake. As Alec Wilder put it in his Introduction to American Popular Song, “theater has always dared. It has troubled princes and prelates alike. . . . Possibly no other art has so consistently taken such extravagant chances in provoking authority.”

That the Academy has ignored the evidence that the first and second Blackfriars playhouses were created on purpose to give access to the MPs who gathered in Westminster every three or four years for one of Elizabeth’s infrequent parliaments does not mean that this was not its primary purpose. It does, however, point to the Academy’s gargantuan ignorance, whether incidental or purposeful, of the history of the period.

But the main problem with our history of the Stage is that most of it is missing.

The missing evidence

This lack of evidence is of two kinds, anything that can tie William of Stratford to the world of the London Stage, and anything that can tie the Earl of Oxford to the works of Shakespeare. These have different causes. Evidence for William is missing for the simple fact that William had no such connections. After four centuries of research, we know as much now as we’re ever likely to know about the illiterate William. The voluminous records collected by Halliwell-Phillipps, Chambers, Schoenbaum and others reach as deep into his family history as it’s possible to go, but in all they’ve produced there is no solid unequivocal third-party evidence that establishes him as a writer, an actor, or anything other than a small town entrepreneur, a buyer of land in Stratford, briefly, an evader of taxes in London, and the source of the name that enabled the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to publish the plays with a name in the author’s slot on the title page. All evidence that appears to confirm his status as an actor or a sharer can be seen as red herrings dragged through the record by the Company’s manager, John Hemmings, whose purpose was to sidetrack inquiry.

As for the missing evidence of Oxford’s involvement in the birth of the London Stage and the British Free Press, E.K. Chambers has provided the evidence for what would nornally be easily located in the minutes of the Privy Council during those periods when the council must have been involved in events that turned on the building of the public stages and the civic upheavals they created. In the first paragraph of Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, page 259), E.K. Chambers comments that “It must be borne in mind that orders relating to plays are probably missing (from the Privy Council register) owing to lacunae”; Latin, not for some paper eating caterpillar, but for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” The lacunae in question are eight instances, listed by their dates and without further comment, in which whole sections of the minutes kept by the clerks of the Privy Council are missing. That these are periods when the Stage was causing public commentary is easy enough to show.

It’s been stated often enough how difficult it is to prove a negative, but here the evidence of tampering is simply too great to ignore. In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s 1984 biography of Oxford he quotes Charlotte Stopes: “The volumes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Warrants, which “supply much information concerning plays and players, [are] unfortunately missing for the most important years of Shakespeare history.” He then quotes Charles Barrell that the official books of Edmund Tilney and George Buc, “Masters of the Revels under Elizabeth and James respectively, together with all office records of the Lord Chamberlain who supervised the Masters of the Revels . . . have hopelessly vanished” (121-22)

C.W. Wallace, complaining in 1912 about the lack of information in the Audit Office relating to payments made for plays, notes, “Perhaps if we had the Books of Queen’s Payments we should find the records as in previous reigns. But no such account books of Elizabeth prior to 1581 seem to be extant” (107-8). 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans. And, as noted by Scott McMillin, the records for the City of Southampton that would normally show payments for touring companies are missing between 1594 and 1603, the period when the young Earl of Southampton, by then Master of Tichfield Manor, would normally have been involved in arranging for plays to be produced at nearby Southampton.

Doubtless a more thorough search than mine would turn up a great many more of these lacunae, all of them easily assigned to Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, Earl of Salisbury, whose control over the record during his years as King James’s Secretary of State was unmatched by any other, then or later, and whose motives, as Oxford’s brother-in-law, were equally unmatched.

The missing joie de vivre

It may be that in one way the academics don’t take Shakespeare seriously enough, while in another way they take him much too seriously. They don’t take him seriously enough to see the immense effect he had on history, that he created modern English, that he was the first to put to their greatest use the first theaters ever built in England, or the sheer impossibility that a genius of his stature could ever have worked as a play-patcher or learned from writers like Daniel or Chapman. On the other hand, when it comes to examining his process, they take him much too seriously.

One of the most obvious qualities that strikes those of us who read him for pleasure rather than grade averages or professional standing, is the humor with which every phase of a play is charged. Johnson castigated him for his predilection for puns, not realizing that such shenanigans were half his motivation in writing. In fact it can be said that there was a fourth audience for whom he wrote, one as important to him as any of the other three, namely the small circle of fellow writers, patrons, and gifted actors, the “generals” for whom he produced his “caviar.”

These were an hilarious folk, addicted to laughter, but of a sort way above the public that the academics in their ignorance propound were his primary audience; men and women delighted by wit derived from Renaissance educations of the highest sort and perhaps a good deal else that we can have no notion of today. That he gave the great comedians of his time, men like Richard Tarleton (of the Queen’s Men), Will Kemp (of the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), and John Lowin (of the King’s Men, later their manager after the death of Hemmings) a stage, an audience, and plots to extemporize upon means nothing to these serious fellows, intent upon squeezing every last drop of significance from how often feminine endings may or may not appear, utterly deaf to the beauty that is the ultimate reason we still read his plays and return again and again to see them brought to life.