Recent questions have raised the enduring issue of fact vs. fiction. I’ve been asked to make it (more) clear where I depart from a structure of known fact to fill in missing areas with a scenario in which areas can’t be supported by the kind of cited facts that historians rely upon, or are supposed to rely upon. I’ve been considering how to deal with this ever since reading Ogburn’s The Mysterious William. Deluged with facts, what was missing was the story. Obviously Oxford was the true author, but how to perceive the living being within this mountain of argument and data?
The problem lies with the difference between facts and story, or truth and fiction, as this dichotomy is so often portrayed. It’s almost impossible to mix them and come up with something that isn’t seen as untrue on the one hand, boring on the other, or both. One touch of supposition and those interested only in so-called hard evidence toss the whole thing in the waste basket as unsupported theorizing. Burden it with documentation and those in search of the story lose interest because it lacks drama. Truth, however, is more than fact. There’s truth in story that can never get relayed from just the facts alone. No one knew this better than the author of the Shakespeare history plays.
At a certain point in researching the period it became clear that the lack of facts––not just on Shakespeare but on all the writers and works from that period––wasn’t simply due to entropy, the dictum that “things fall apart,” or any lack of interest in him in his own time. Facts were missing on purpose, either burned in fireplaces or never exposed to begin with. Confusion was not always due to missing data, but was often intentional. The sources of information relied upon by scholars tracking the stories behind the literature of the period, title pages, entries in the Stationers Register, Revels records, etc., were either purposely ambiguous or flat out false.
Asking why, I began to see a pervasively phobic attitude towards literature, i.e. fiction, i.e. storytelling, that infected the entire culture. Asking why again, it seemed that in rejecting the supersitions and folk tales of medieval Christianity, the reformers in power were doing all they could to throw the baby out with the bath, just as they were doing with the beauties of Renaissance Italian painting out of a Reformation mistrust of Italian sensualism. Poetry was dangerous––the better, the more beautiful the language, the more dangerous. And then there was the age-old threat of dissident voices, so often those of the best writers.
Just the facts, M’am.
None of this is new. All of it has been mentioned, usually in passing, by literary historians, who may question the truth of a title page or two and then go right on repeating the standard account based by earlier historians on those very same title pages! It’s as though archaeologists who discover the bones of a prehistoric human simply leave them lying in the order in which they find them, never making any effort to arrange them so they reveal the shape of a human being. As a result, all we have is a pile of facts, no story, no humans struggling to make their way through the difficulties of their lives, loving and hating each other, just a bunch of names without connections to each other or to the stories told by their works.
When I say “not one” has tried to tell the story behind this pile of real and phony facts, that’s not quite true. Those who’ve tried to make sense of it in human terms (I’m thinking in particular of T.W. Baldwin and Penny McCarthy) have been thrown off by the biggest falsification of all, the substitution of the true author of the primary works of the time with someone of an altogether different, even opposite, nature.
The archeology metaphor works well here, where two bodies having been buried together ages ago, their bones becoming mixed through some earth disturbance so that a pelvis, a set of shoulder blades and bits of both spines have gotten lost. Later, when scientists attempt to sort them out, the result is a single two-headed monster with two sets of arms and legs which they then attempt to sell to an ignorant world as the missing link. In Shakespeare’s case, the historians either doll up the monstrous Stratford grain hoarder cum literary genius with anecdotes and conjectures, or they ignore him and describe the flowers that “probably” grew in his garden.
At a certain point intelligent readers became sick of this paper monster and began to look for something a little more real. They could just manage to make out a shape out there, moving around in the bushes, but it was hard to define. (Francis? Is that you?) Eventually J.T. Looney gave it a name and Charlton Ogburn a wealth of detail, but we’re still stuck, first with the desire to pin the blame on a group, now with the nonsense that almost anyone alive at the time could have tossed off these erudite masterpieces.
My kingdom for a story!
By blogging there seemed the possiblity, finally, of having it both ways. I could tell the story I had begun to perceive some time ago, with links to articles that provide the kind of citations that give at least a minimum of support. With readers able to ask for specifics directly without waiting for an answer to a letter sent through the publisher or finding a booksigning somewhere within driving range, I could finally (I hoped) provide the key to the insight or the missing bit of information that would suddenly (perhaps) bring the scene to life, set the story in motion, for that reader and perhaps others as well.
I’ve only been at this blogging for a few months now and so the story, while complete in my mind, is far from complete here. I’m still working on background material for the 1580s, the most difficult decade partly because there’s so little documentation, but also because it’s then that the heart of the story, the drama, begins to take shape. Because I have to conjecture so much for that decade, I need more supportive material than was required for the 1570s or will be for the 1590s.
If it seems that much of what I write is directed to those readers who have already read the biographies (Anderson, Ogburn, Miller, Nelson), it’s because for you I don’t have to repeat so much, simply filling in a few areas that they ignored (chiefly Oxford’s childhood and education). This way I can concentrate on those areas that provide the reasons why he and the actors and their patrons, hid his authorship, reasons of culture, tradition, politics, and religion, and beyond these, the connections to the important figures of his time that he portrayed and satirized in his plays, points that can’t be made without showing why he would do such a thing and how he managed to get away with it.
If I can reach you, then together we can find ways to communicate the Authorship Issue, not just as a series of talking points, arguments, and facts, but as a story that, motivated by the life force that is our common heritage as humans, simply tells itself. Surrounded as I am by all the stuff I’ve accumulated, it’s hard for me to see the forest for the trees. By telling it this way in bits and pieces, and by answering your questions, it helps put things in perspective.
So please bear with me, and do ask for clarification of those points that, to you, seem little more than wild surmise. My idea of support may be somewhat different than those historians who, when the paper is lacking, simply skip over the anomalies, but be assured, nothing I suggest is spun purely from thin air.