They all knew each other

It’s hard for us today to understand why a writer would wish to hide his identity.  We live in a society where, to get ahead in life, one must become known to as many people as possible.  We go to particular colleges where we can meet the right people, we “network,” we get on websites like Facebook and Myspace, we are fascinated by celebrities; magazines and television people make their livings reporting on their lives and showing pictures of their faces.

This is one reason why so many Americans, young ones in particular, are focused on achieving fame.  In a world where there are so many people, such quick turnovers, such constant movement, changes in personnel, entire companies relocating over vast distances, even to foreign countries, a trend that’s been spreading and expanding for generations, more and more there seems to be no other way to feel important or needed than to become world famous, or at least as famous as possible.  For this reason we have a hard time understanding why someone would actually not want to become famous.  In a world where fame seems necessary to establish identity, it seems unnatural that a writer would want to hide his identity to the point where it could get permanently lost.

We need to keep in mind how very small were the communities involved in this question.  If we don’t we’re in danger of being so blinded by today’s world-view that much of what this story is about won’t make sense.  Where today we have thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of publishers and published writers, hundreds perhaps thousands of would-be playwrights, far more than any one person can know personally or even that they exist, Elizabethan readers could count the published writers of that time, those they could identify, on the fingers of one hand.

While today we see the world more as an ocean of vast if vague possibilities, dotted here and there by islands of what is known, all of it subject to change, most Elizabethans still saw themselves as members of a handful of small overlapping communities that saw only occasional changes.  Think in terms of a small town, where changes to the population occur only through childbirth, death, and the occasional newcomer out to find better work or escaping from trouble somewhere else. Think in terms of a high school where no one ever graduates, where the football captain and the homecoming queen take those roles with them into old age.

This stable universe was changing; economic pressures and other factors made it seem to many at that time that there was far less stability than their fathers had known, but seen from today’s perspective, it was stable to a degree that most of us no longer expect or even understand.  Unconsciously we always have the sense that there are many unknown people out there just beyond the perimeter of our consciousness.  If we are uncomfortable with the people around us, we can make changes, get divorced, move to a different neighborhood, get a different job.  Their options were far fewer.  Basically they were stuck with each other.

They were also stuck with themselves, that is, everyone they knew knew everything there was to know about them, about their family history, for good or ill, ugly rumors, misbehaviors, plus their own feelings of guilt and oppression.  Until we understand this we won’t understand what the Revels meant to them, those annual moments of emotional release, of social reversal when they could hide their burdensome identities and play at being the Hobby Horse or the Green Man.  Until we understand this we won’t understand what the birth of the London Stage meant to the Elizabethans.

So please try to keep in mind that this story calls for a cast of tens––not thousands, not even hundreds.  There may still be an unknown figure here and there that time will reveal, but for the most part, be assured that every role in this scenario was played by someone well known to the others, and probably well known to history as well.  This in itself should suggest at least one reason for their need for secrecy.  With this and with every other factor, think small town, think small town high school.

The other major factor to keep in mind is dates.  The series of events I propose is based primarily on a time structure of dates that unfold within the reality of the small size of the educated Elizabethan arts community and the necessary conclusion to be drawn from that fact, which is that they all knew each other very well.  Everything good, everything bad.  With this comes some understanding of the author’s power and consequently his need for secrecy.  He was the Hobby Horse of his community, their Martin Mar-Authority figure.  He was their Green Man.

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4 responses to “They all knew each other

  1. I have always thought that if there was someone besides William of Stratford, then everyone (who mattered) would have known about it. Not being immersed in the times, however, I cannot consider how far the secret would have spread. That is, the inner ring would have known to keep quiet while the sparse next ring might blab. The massive outer ring would not realize that a work was authored at all.

    A somewhat modern example might be Liberace’s sexual identity (and I hope you haven’t already used this example!). There must have been an inner ring who laughed themselves silly that people were surprised. There were probably a few others who discovered something they weren’t supposed to know and blabbed it to their tiny circle. No one would have written anything down. Finally, the rest of the word wakes up to three-inch headlines. What?!?? What sort of lot has our feather-boaed, rhinestone-encrusted friend fallen in with, Maybel?

    Returning to the past: other than hints from contemporary critics, few blabs have survived to today. But that seems reasonable as I take it from previous posts that just like in somewhat modern-day Las Vegas, no blabber of the times would have been foolish enough to write down their blabs.

    Other than some name changes in the plays, perhaps instigated by families, are there no specific examples of someone incensed at Shakespeare? Again, from my light reading of the subject, I have only heard of vague reasons for closing down a play or theatre; usually the plague. I don’t recall any specific complaints against any particular play, unless Marlowe wrote it. (I recall the boys troupe got in trouble, but am not sure over what.)

    While I have no justification for believing so, I can imagine the censor bypassing the glover’s son and coming directly to the writer with complaints. I can appreciate your vision of William of Stratford being “handled” when he came to town.

    The 1604 to 1623 part is harder to understand. I can understand Bruce Lee or Tupac Shakur having a greater output after death than in life, but in both cases, their demises were prominent. Was DeVere’s shame in 1604 that he was on an allowance? Or was it more a case of accumulated shame where the details were forgotten but the shame remained? The manuscripts were obviously saved, but what was the incentive to publish them twenty years later?

  2. hopkinshughes

    The question of how the secret of Shakespeare’s identity was kept keeps coming up because most people today still don’t see it for what it was. The gulf between literature and history has become so wide and so firmly set in our minds that the two now seem to belong to different worlds, fiction vs. reality. Beginning in grade school and extending on through the university, English departments today remain blissfully ignorant of history and History departments ignorant of literature to such an extent that they take no interest in those moments, really quite frequent, when the two merge.

    I’ve given some examples of this and perhaps should give more. Certainly Oxford and Bacon would not have been ignorant of how literature influenced politics and vice versa going back to the Greeks, nor would the barmy jacketed crew have thought the two had nothing to do with each other as they stood in the pit eager to catch what extemporaneous commentary on current personalities and politics flashed by in spontaneous exchanges not all that different from our Saturday Night Live, and a lot more dangerous and therefore exciting to a society that was still a very long way from believing in freedom of speech or taking its protections for granted.

    Try to imagine a world where half or more of the population had to make a secret of their religion or risk a grisly execution; a world in which in which parents spent hundreds of pounds getting their sons apprenticed to an artisan or tradesman whose duty was to teach the youth the secrets of his craft (hence the word “crafty”); where the word “secretary” still meant someone in charge of his masters secrets, where the desk called a secretary was where a person kept his or her secret papers locked up. Imagine a world where having a master was the only key to survival; where telling the secrets of one’s master meant losing any chance of ever having another master; where certain secrets were dangerous and could mean a life in prison, or no life at all; a world where there were no magazines or tabloids where former retainers could “blab” even if they dared to do so.

    Consider the London Stage, where talented performers were suddenly in a position to work yearround, not just on holidays, where the money they were making was putting them in a position of importance, making it possible for them to buy land and rub elbows with the great, where the material they performed was examined by government and church censors for anything that might cause a riot, and where one little secret was the key to all their success, so that letting it be known would have meant disaster, for them and for their playwright, the goose that laid their golden eggs. Consider the small number of company patrons and shareholders who knew the truth, all others knowing only that this was one of those questions that one simply never asked.

    Consider the nature of that secret, that being divulged would have made known the dangerous connection between the author and the principals and powers of the Crown and Court, between the fools and villains he put onstage and the important personages upon whom they were based, between the events of the day and plots taken from history and ancient tales.

    Consider how even today the 20th-century press acted as one in hiding the extent of Franklin Roosevelt’s disability or John Kennedy’s sexual escapades. Consider how thoroughly the secret of the atomic bomb was kept by the very large community that was involved in creating it, and consider the likelihood of how many similar secrets related to national security are created and maintained by government agencies around the world every day. Consider that the man who wrote the plays was related to the men who created secrets of this sort, and what it would have meant for his identity as a popular playwright to have been revealed, not only to him and his company, but to the fool who dared to reveal it.

    One of the things that we don’t understand today is how powerful Oxford was simply because he was a peer. Read the list of prerogatives of peers, compare that with the constraints that most people lived with, and you get some idea of how much social power he wielded, how much impact just his name would have had, how thrilled his retainers were to belong to someone so important. Call it the revenge of democracy, that this kind of power is so little understood today. We really have no equivalent today. (You’ll have to raise your sights way above Tupac, Bruce Lee or Liberace.)

    Even our most powerful politicians are weaklings compared to those who ruled the European nations until World War I. While these were born into power and held their offices for life, handing them on to their sons, if they had them, or their daughters’ husbands, in today’s democracies, political leaders are helpless to retain their power if they or those who appointed them are voted out of office. The closest to this we can come are the so-called political dynasties like the Kennedys and the Bushes, but they can’t begin to touch the kind of power wielded by the Plantagenets, the Tudors, or the Stuarts or the great families of the peerage who were their supporters. and whose grip on office could only be loosened by a bloody revolution like the Reformation.

    As for Liberace, because he was of no importance to politics or history, a better example would be J. Edgar Hoover’s cross dressing, a secret that was probably known to thousands of persons, none of whom let out so much as a single peep. Why? Because of his deadly power, of course. Consider how Hoover and his secret lasted through five administrations, with no reporter ever lifting a finger to reveal it or president daring to replace him.

    By “incensed at Shakespeare” do you mean Oxford? (Shakespeare the playwright was never more than a name on a title page.) One of the main reasons why Oxford hid behind someone else’s name was to avoid being assassinated for lampooning the great and powerful. He may have escaped assassination, but surely he was lamed, not for seducing Ann Vavasor, but most likely for publicly portraying her defender, Sir Thomas Knyvett, as Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet. As for William, he obviously annoyed the Lord Chamberlain’s Men as we see from Jonson’s lampoon of him as Sogliardo in Every Man Out.

    The censors got the plays directly from the actors. They would have had no traffic with the author, no matter who he was. In any case, they certainly knew Oxford, and he knew them (Tilney, Buc, Bancroft, Whitgift) very well and was quite aware of what he could say and what he couldn’t. (He warned Marlowe, who wouldn’t listen.) He was also aware of how to get past them by means of subtle wordplay, the kind of arcane references to history and myth that they would not have known (caviar for the General), and the kind of ambiguity that Dick Desper informs us was one of the tricks the Jesuits taught the missionaries they sent into England to turn the political tide back to Catholicism.

    This is long enough, so at some point I’ll respond to the many issues raised by your final paragraph in a blog.

  3. Thanks for the post. I am good with De Vere being clever enough to pre-censor himself while still getting some licks in. I am doubtful that Walsingham, Tilney, Buc, Burghley, et al. would not know who the real author was.

    My trouble (and maybe I have to learn to believe you when you say that censors dealt with the companies and not the writer) is what if someone demands that a censor punish William of Stratford? The censor could say, I have dealt with Mr Shaksper and you can be assured that he will never offend again. But if he does offend again… The censor couldn’t stick up for Shaksper. He couldn’t say, I know he has gone over the line this time, but just consider the amount of good that he has done up to now….

    I guess I have to consider that the censor would beat on the head of the company and William of Stratford would skate.

    “One of the main reasons why Oxford hid behind someone else’s name was to avoid being assassinated for lampooning the great and powerful.” To me (and what do I know?), Oxford would not have to worry about getting branded or having a limb chopped off, but he might have to be defended by the Queen and maybe spend some time in the penalty tower. I would think that he could get away with anything; that he would be too big to fail completely. I can see, however, that if he used his own name, a lot of unwanted attention would be brought onto the censors and the company by those who had had a beef with De Vere.

    Is there something I’m missing–perhaps that an insult from a glover’s son doesn’t matter, but does matter when it’s from the Lord Chamberlain? That seems backward, to me. I think you once clarified that by this time, writers were thought of as creators and not merely stenographers, so that would not really have been an out for William of Stratford. Maybe William of Stratford would have been regarded as an innocuous tradesman while a De Vere would have been thought of as a seditious author had the secret come out?

    I should probably reread your posts rather than ponder outloud the imponderable.

  4. hopkinshughes

    “I am good with De Vere being clever enough to pre-censor himself while still getting some licks in. I am doubtful that Walsingham, Tilney, Buc, Burghley, et al. would not know who the real author was.”

    I guess I wasn’t clear. Of course they knew that Oxford was writing for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (Walsingham was dead by the time the LCMen formed, with him it was the Queen’s Men). What might not have been known, by Burghley at least, was exactly what was his and what wasn’t. That he knew how not to offend should be obvious because he got away with it. That Marlowe didn’t is obvious because he didn’t get away with it.

    “My trouble (and maybe I have to learn to believe you when you say that censors dealt with the companies and not the writer) is what if someone demands that a censor punish William of Stratford? The censor could say, I have dealt with Mr Shaksper and you can be assured that he will never offend again. But if he does offend again… The censor couldn’t stick up for Shaksper. He couldn’t say, I know he has gone over the line this time, but just consider the amount of good that he has done up to now….”

    No doubt there were such moments. Exactly how the authorities handled them is anyone’s guess; probably in a variety of ways depending on the nature of the complaint. Some useful authorship research could be done by reading Vol IV of E.K. Chambers’s The Elizabethan Stage, close to 200 pages of what he labelled “Documents of Criticism” and “Documents of Control.” After this one gets the idea of what this new phenomenon, the London Stage, was up against.

    And certainly no one would complain about Shaksper, because no one knew who he was. Read Ten Eye-witnesses. Theater-goers who could read knew that a William Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, for instance, because that was the name on the title page of the published play. But that’s all any ordinary play-goer would have known.

    “I guess I have to consider that the censor would beat on the head of the company and William of Stratford would skate.”

    The censor would take it to Burghley, Burghley would take it to the primary patron, Sussex, Walsingham, or Hunsdon, depending on the year, and the patron would take it to the actors or the author, depending on the nature of the complaint. That’s my guess. That complaints were at a peak in the mid-90s seems clear from the nature of the men Elizabeth chose to take Hunsdon’s place when he died in 1596. That was a hard time for the LCMen.

    “‘One of the main reasons why Oxford hid behind someone else’s name was to avoid being assassinated for lampooning the great and powerful.’ To me (and what do I know?), Oxford would not have to worry about getting branded or having a limb chopped off, but he might have to be defended by the Queen and maybe spend some time in the penalty tower. I would think that he could get away with anything; that he would be too big to fail completely. I can see, however, that if he used his own name, a lot of unwanted attention would be brought onto the censors and the company by those who had had a beef with De Vere.”

    Exactly. Like Goldman Sachs, the Earl was too big to fail (it can help to see the peers as similar to powerful modern corporations), but not too big to be trimmed of his resources, which is clearly what happened to him after Walsingham’s death. The authorities had ways of dealing with the peers without making it obvious enough to cause gossip.

    “Is there something I’m missing–perhaps that an insult from a glover’s son doesn’t matter, but does matter when it’s from the Lord Chamberlain? That seems backward, to me.”

    But seen as written by a provincial with no insider connections, no one but insiders would catch the insult. This is one of the best arguments that the author had to be a Court insider. Only such a one knew how to insult so subtly that only the one insulted and his friends knew it was happening. Knowing that, they might fume, but since it remained unknown beyond their circle their honor would remain untouched. Touchstone’s witty diatribe on the various levels of insults in As You Like It gives us clues to this phenomenon.

    “I think you once clarified that by this time, writers were thought of as creators and not merely stenographers, so that would not really have been an out for William of Stratford.”

    You’ve got it backwards. Only the educated and sophisticated regarded contemporary poets as anything but scribblers (ancient poets were another matter). Genuine respect was developing in France and Italy, but not yet in England. But again, no one would have connected William the man with the plays until 1623.

    “Maybe William of Stratford would have been regarded as an innocuous tradesman while a De Vere would have been thought of as a seditious author had the secret come out?”

    As Ramon Jiménez has made clear, no ordinary playgoer knew anything about “William Shakespeare.” To them he was nothing but a name on title pages (that is, if they could read, which most could not). They didn’t know where he lived or what he did. The few who thought about it would have assumed that it was a punning pen name used to cover the true author. As for Oxford’s name coming out, there is no “if.” It couldn’t happen. If it had, we’d be telling a very different story, or probably no story at all. The amount of time it took to get the works published testifies to the effort it took to get him published.

    “I should probably reread your posts rather than ponder outloud the imponderable.”

    Yes, some answers lie in other posts and pages, but I don’t mind answering questions that keep coming up. It’s not an easy scenario for modern readers to understand, and everyone who gets it gets it at a different point.

    Don’t forget to use the search field. Just type in a keyword and a series of pages comes up that deals with that point.

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