Shakespeare for snobs?

I pay attention to the blogs that mention the authorship question.  Those that rail against or make fun of it have two points they make consistently (and only two, repeating, like parrots, what they’ve heard from others), that Oxford died before “some of Shakespeare’s plays were written,” and that we’re snobs to think that only a nobleman could have the education.  Well, the first isn’t true, if they’d bother to do some easy research (like read this blog), and the second is true, as they would know if any of them knew anything at all about 16th-century England or the facts, the genuine facts, about William of Stratford.

Shakespeare is so much a part of our lives, only those who spend a lot of time reading or hearing his words realize how often the words and phrases in newspaper headlines, television interviews, and ordinary conversation are his. Reach for a phrase to express the highest thought, and it will usually be his.   He was the great flower of the English Renaissance, and our language and thinking is still permeated with the perfume of his poetic thought. Steeped in the aphorisms of the Greeks and Romans, he turned them into English, beautiful English, the kind only a poet can craft, and made them accessible to those who speak English for as long as English is spoken.

This kind of immersion in the literature of ancient wisdom and the beauties of poetry and rhetoric can’t be picked up in books along the way, even today.   It arises out of high level dinner table conversation with adults steeped in the subject, out of continual application to books that are ready to hand, by stimulating conversation with others who know and love poetry, by hearing beautiful prose and poetry read aloud, and it has to begin early.   In Shakespeare’s case it began with the removal of little Edward de Vere to the home of the great Greek scholar and statesman, Sir Thomas Smith, in 1554, with whom he would study Greek and Latin literature and history and English history for 8 years.

Smith didn’t care for music, so it wasn’t until de Vere came to live with William Cecil in London and was involved in Court activities that he heard live music by professional musicians on a regular basis and acquired training in and keyboard and stringed instruments himself.   Since later he was acclaimed as having enough musical skill to be considered a professional, it may be that Shakepeare’s poetry was the product of one who was at heart a musician, who, as a child was not yet able to make music with instruments, so made it instead replacing the sounds of music with the sound of words, through rhymes, alliteration, and meter.

In his dedication to Shakespeare’s Collected Works, Ben Jonson compared Shakespeare to a smith who must sweat to work the metal at white heat, hammering it into shape.   Those who take the craft of writing seriously know that it takes hours of thought to create prose that’s pleasing to both mind and ear, and although great poetry is sometimes born all of a piece (as was Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening or Coleridge’s Kubla Khan), it can only come from a mind continually steeped in poetic thought.

If there’s one thing that unites the Stratfordians who call us snobs (besides their ignorance), it’s their prejudice against aristocrats.   If it turned out that Shakespeare was a black African, would they call us anti-white?   Do they have some image of Bertie Wooster in mind, helpless without Jeeves?   What about the great aristocrats?  Henry V?  Or Oxford’s own ancestor, the 13th Earl, patron of the arts, the indefatigable warrior who survived an ignominious defeat, the execution of his heir, and imprisonment for ten years to defeat Richard III in battle, handing over the English throne to the Tudors?   What about Lord Byron, the immensely popular poet who sacrificed his life for the cause of Greek freedom?   What about Alexander the Great, son of King Philip of Macedon, who brought Greek civilization to half the world?  What about the painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?  What about Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha?

Oxford was only half aristocrat, anyway.  Although it’s true that his father was the direct descendant of a Norman aristocrat dubbed Earl by William the Conqueror, his mother was simple entry, while Smith, his surrogate father, was the son of a local farmer.   As an artist, Oxford was, in many ways, an outcast from his own tribe who preferred the company of other artists to members of his own class.   There are more reasons than one why his identity as Shakespeare was hidden, but surely the major reason was the way he portayed his aristocratic friends and relatives as characters in his plays, some with cruel satire.  He could satirize them because he knew them! And because they knew it, they would not, could not, allow his identity to be revealed.  Did this “torture” him, as some Oxfordians have held?  It may have caused him moments of frustration, but given the choice between continuing to write, or not, he chose to continue writing.

There was another potentially great poet, one from Oxford’s own class (though on a lower level) who, seeing what it meant to get a reputation as a poet, did choose to stop writing, or at least, to stop using his own name: Thomas Sackville, Ld Buckhurst.  His was the first voice that had anything like the sound that would later transform the language.  He wrote several of the scenes in the first modern play, Gorboduc, produced at Court in 1561, a year before de Vere came to London.  Had Sackville continued, it might have been he who won the glories reserved for Shakespeare (the Poet), but Sackville retired from the poetry arena early, explaining in a poem, Sackville’s Old Age, that such toys were not for him.  Did this have anything to do with Elizabeth’s willingness to promote him, lavishing him with promotions and perquisites that ended by raising him, as the Earl of Dorset, to Oxford’s level, allowing (some might say forcing) Oxford to slide into bankruptcy, giving him almost nothing he ever asked for?

Did the Lord Chamberlain’s Men choose to hide their playwright’s identity behind someone else’s name have anything to do with the fact that only months earlier the only other playwright close to his level, Christopher Marlowe, had been assassinated by government agents?

What do you think?

8 thoughts on “Shakespeare for snobs?

  1. William Cecil didn’t care for music either. According to ‘PATRONAGE, CULTURE AND POWER: THE EARLY CECILS’, ed. Pauline Croft, the first Cecil to patronize musicians was Robert Cecil, William’s son. William was more interested in architecture, gardens and to a lesser extent literature.
    If you think that a group of actors dictated to Shakespeare about his personal safety, you are barking up the wrong tree.

  2. Hmmm. Where did I say “dictated”? What I said, or at least meant to say, was that the company created “the coverup.” Oxford wanted privacy from the start, he needed privacy to function, he had kept his identity covered throughout his literary career up to then, but what the world regards as the “Shakespeare coverup” was put in place and maintained by the LC-King’s Men until all Theater was stopped by the Civil War. In so doing they were following his wish as well as fulfilling their own needs.

    BTW, it wasn’t all the actors who knew the truth, only the five or six genuine share-holders. The “hired men” would not have known, or if they did, they knew enough to keep it to themselves.

    It’s true that William Cecil was not terribly interested in music, or riding, or dancing, or French for that matter, but he knew that these were things his noble wards had to know to be successful courtiers, and so it was his duty to see that they learned these things. The lesson plan he drew up for Oxford shows that, for the teenaged earl, the day began with dancing. Dancing in those days meant live music, and in the house of the Queen’s Secretary of State, that meant professional musicians.

  3. If the late JFK, Junior is the closest I can conceive of an American Edward DeVere, what would be analogous to the shocking discovery that DeVere was a *gasp* playwright?

    What if it were learned that JFK, Junior:

    a) operated a worse than swingers’ club
    b) operated a swingers’ club
    c) was the editor of Hustler Magazine
    d) was a WWE wrestler
    e) was chief writer for Howard Stern
    f) was the editor of Playboy Magazine
    g) was a romance novel author
    h) was a commercial jingle writer
    i) was the author of the early Tom Clancy canon
    j) was the editor of George Magazine
    k) was the author of the Mario Puzo canon
    l) was the author of the later Russell Baker canon

    Would any of these clumsy examples be similar to the case four hundred years ago? Perhaps there is a non-American equivalent, but I cannot come up with one.

  4. Maybe Al Gore (just add ~400 years to DeVere’s biographical dates) would be a better example. What if Gore, himself, had written, *gasp* Love Story?

    Proposing a modern shame continuum is difficult; it would differ with each person. But I wonder if that would not have also been true four hundred years ago.

    Would everyone of the time have felt a common pang of betrayal if they had learned that a seventeenth Earl was churning out such dreck?

  5. fotoguzzi, your question has crossed my own mind: What would be a modern equivalent of de Vere’s necessity for anonymity? To continue your example of JFK Jr: What if JFK Jr had written the novels of Richard Condon, especially “Winter Kills”. Go to Wikipedia and you’ll see what I mean. At any rate:

    I don’t think there’s an understandable modern equivalent; everything today….when people think nothing of begging the public for forgiveness on Oprah….is “what you see is what you get.” Contrarily, my parents, and especially my grandparents, had very distinct public and private “faces”, the latter being known to only immediate family and perhaps a very, very select group of chosen “outsiders”. Much of today’s “what you see is what you get” attitudes and behaviors would have been unthinkable to earlier generations. Imagine what the distinction between the “public face” and the “private face” would have been in the 16th century among the aristocratic English (and most likely those below that status).

  6. It’s very difficult for today’s readers to understand what motivated the 16th-century English in any number of ways. So many things have changed so much. For someone who wants to understand the difference, an excellent book is Lawrence Stone’s The Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800. It’s full of important details, things no one would, or could, imagine without reading his book. He also wrote the book that’s given Oxford a black eye for squandering his patrimony: The Crisis of the Aristocracy, also very interesting.

    But the most interesting of all is Sir Thomas Smith’s De Republica Anglorum, still quoted whenever scholars go into detail on the traditions of government and society during that period. (It’s easy to read since it’s online: Oxford would certainly have known this work, in manuscript until 1583, but written in 1565 while Smith was away in France. It gives an excellent insight into the thinking and style of the man who was essentially Oxford’s surrogate father, the man who got him started on the path he followed for the rest of his life.

    As for a comparison with something today that would convey to a modern reader why Oxford hid his identity, some years ago I came up with what I thought was a pretty good one. I’ll have to edit it (it’s way too long for a blog). When I do I’ll put it up, either as a blog or a page.

  7. I no longer think the fact that Oxford ‘portrayed his family and friends on the stage, some with cruel satire,’ is sufficient reason for him to hide his identity.

    Let’s say there is another reason. If there is, perhaps we’ll find it in the works, just as researchers have found hints that some of his characters represent real people. Are you open to that possibility?

    BTW–I enjoy reading your ideas, appreciate your work, and hope to see you at a conference again, one of these days.

  8. Dear Kathryn,

    There could hardly be a more powerful reason for hiding the author’s identity than the fact that, had the public audience known that Oxford was the author, they would have guessed that Gertrude in Hamlet was based on the Queen of England, that Claudius was based on her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, that Polonius was a portrait of her great Lord Treasurer, Oxford’s father-in-law, that Ophelia was based on Burghley’s daughter, Oxford’s wife.

    As a member of the ancient peerage, Oxford was a child of State. He was not free to act as an ordinary citizen, and so the fact that he based so many of his characters on important persons in the government and society was, had to be, not just his secret, but a State secret.

    He did have other reasons, more personal reasons, for hiding the fact of his identity when his works were published. I’ve dealt with this in a number of other essays. But this was the major reason for the official cover-up by both the Crown company, the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men, and any official who knew the truth, not only for his lifetime but for decades after. Nothing else makes any sense.

    If by your suggestion of “another reason” you mean the Prince Tudor theory, I spent 8 years investigating that as a possibility and have never found the slightest support for it, either historically or in the plays. I put the primary reasons for this in the four pages here on Queen Elizabeth.

    I do miss the conferences and Portland and all my old friends, you included, but unfortunately putting bread on the table has to come first. Thankfully we can now communicate through the blog, which in some ways makes it possible to get things across, and to discuss them more fully than once a year in the chaos of a conference, enjoyable as that may be.


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