It seems that a watershed moment for Authorship Studies took place a year and a half ago at the 2011 World Shakespeare Congress in Prague, when Dr. Stanley Wells, the eminence grise of Shakespeare Studies, General Editor of the Oxford Series and honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, not only mentioned an article from the 2002 edition of The Oxfordian, but dwelt rather heavily on it in his lecture––even more surprisingly, naming its author, Andrew Werth, and the fact that he’s an Oxfordian; “For which we mustn’t condemn him,” said Wells, provoking an appreciative titter from the audience. Hey, after centuries of being ignored, a little paternalism ain’t so bad.
The article in question, “Shakespeare’s Lesse Greek,” makes the case for the author’s knowledge of Greek, still widely regarded as an impossibility. In an easy style, devoid of mind-numbing geek-speak, author Andrew Werth laid out the facts that make it evident to all but those indoctrinated from undergraduate days with Stratford cult beliefs, that there’s enough evidence of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek literature that during his time were not yet translated into Latin or English, that suggests that Ben Jonson’s dismissive phrase in the First Folio: “though he had small Latin and less Greek . . .”, was either a cheesy attempt to damn his rival with faint praise or, simply––for whatever reason––flat out lie about his education.
Some of Werth’s points are dismissed by Wells as “vitiated” by recent “discoveries” of Shakespeare’s collaboration with writers like Fletcher, Jonson, and Peele (our turn to chuckle) . Yet, said he, “in other respects they seem strong.” As indeed they are! Good for you, Dr. Wells, and good for me and Andy, and Dan, and Charles, and Bill, and all those who, years ago, when The Oxfordian was still in the planning stage, saw a moment like this as the very goal at which such a journal would be aimed. There’s no way to know how Andy’s article reached Dr. Wells, but reach it it did! And where one has gone before, others will surely follow.
Wells focuses in particular on the section of the article in which Werth deals with Sonnets 153 and 154, the final two of the collection. As a pair, these two form a category all their own. Though the versification of these two is no different from the rest of the sonnets, the subject and tone are unique. The characters addressed in the first two long sections do not appear, nor are these final two cast in the same intimate and passionate mode as the rest.
Obvious translations, Wells mentions Helen Vendler’s theory that they were school exercises, another example of the current academic eagerness to amplify the capacities of the Stratford grammar school to the level of a university (and not a little ridiculous considering the poems’ naughty sophistication), but on point as impersonal examples of a poet’s expertise, the kind that, in Shakespeare’s time were the mark of an accomplished courtier. Poems like these were usually written as a graceful gesture, possibly for the birthday of a patron, or for someone to whom the poet wished to demonstrate his ability to deal with a mundane topic in the most elegant possible manner. First written by a fifth century Greek, the pair migrated from one collection to another, sometimes included, sometimes not. Typical of the kind of divertissment on a minor topic that characterized such poems, these focus on the baths that the Greeks and Romans used as both healing founts and places where men could relax together.
Scholars have tracked Shakespeare’s source for this pair to the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrammata first accumulated sometime in the first century BC, and added to over the years, most notably in the tenth and fourteenth centuries, primarily in manuscript and almost always in the original Greek. Since the beauty of an epigram lies in a tight blend of sense and sound that resists translation, the anthology had continued its passage through time mostly in its original language, with copiers doing as did Shakespeare, rendering personal versions in their own languages, until 1603 when a Latin version was published in England. (Werth explains this in some detail in an end note on page 27.)
Thus the problem for the Academy has always been, where and how did Shakespeare come across these epigrams, and in what language? Although almost as frequently referenced by poets as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s hard to locate anything resembling a solid publishing history for this famous anthology, for with its long history of manuscript distribution, of divisions of text in one version, amalgamations of texts in others, what’s most likely in my view is that the poet transcribed the originals from a manuscript in Greek, either one he himself owned, or that he borrowed from a friend.
Oxford and Essex
My personal view is that these two sonnets were written in 1589-91 as a gesture of friendship towards the Earl of Essex during his rise to power. After inheriting Leicester House in 1588, Essex enlarged and extended it. In 1590 it was recorded as having 42 bedrooms, a picture gallery, a banqueting hall, a chapel, and outbuildings, among them an old Roman bath built on a freshwater spring just steps from the river. I recall seeing early photos of it in a book, which one I can’t remember (along, alas, with a great deal else). It may be the one that still exists at the end of Strand Lane, just north of the Temple gardens. Wikipedia dismisses the possibility that this is the bath in question because it lies where history places property belonging to the neighboring mansion, Arundel House, but so much has changed over the years on this valuable bit of turf, where boundaries that defined the original houses would change with the fortunes of their owners, so what belonged to Essex at the time may well have included it. Certainly his name is all over that area. Or there may have been another bath built over a second spring nearby.
As part of his campaign to raise himself at Court, Essex in the early 1590s was patronizing all sorts of people and projects at the same time that Oxford, having suffered a series of disasters, was in desperate need of support for his Stage. Already pouring his poetic energies into sonnets for the young Earl of Southampton, that he would have recast these choice bits of literary caviar into sonnet form as a means of asking Essex for his patronage is as likely as anything. If, as has been suggested, the poems refer to baths as a cure for the pox, for which Essex is thought to have required medication from the physician Lopez, this would date them to the period in question, before Oxford’s marriage to Elizabeth Tresham in 1592, certainly before 1594 when Essex turned so viciously on Lopez, or 1596 when he was in disrepute for having an affair with Oxford’s daughter, the Countess of Derby. Whoever was responsible for publishing the Sonnets in 1609 must also have had a copy of these poems, and wanting to make sure they got published, stuck them on the end, after the two major sections.
Before exploring Werth’s argument for Shakespeare’s Greek, Wells spent time discussing the importance and universality of Latin. T.W. Baldwin having assured him that Shakespeare must have been competent in Latin due to the probable curriculum of the Stratford grammar school, Wells is happy to accept evidence that allows the author at least some education. According to Wells, the townsfolk of Stratford were wont to converse with each other in Latin while the boys at the Stratford grammar school were so fluent that they were not allowed to speak any other language during school time. Optimistically he adds, “when we discover Shakespeare’s own letters, they will probably be in Latin.”
Certainly there were people in Stratford, and in every English town of any size, who could read and write and even speak Latin, but it would have been a fairly narrow circle consisting of the schoolmaster, his assistant, the town clerk, perhaps even the vicar and a handful of local bookworms. Sixteenth-century Stratford was hardly an intellectual center. It was a manufacturing town whose only importance beyond its own neighborhood was the market it held once a week, primarily to sell wool and other smelly products of sheep-raising like leather, charcoal and paint. To that end, it also brewed and sold a good deal of ale, another smelly process. Students at Eton may have been required to speak Latin at all times, but Eton was a boarding school, which Stratford was not.
According to Wells, what Shakespeare didn’t learn from the Stratford School he learned from the University Wits: Marlowe, Peele, and Nashe, who kindly provided the poor fellow with a “surrogate university,” then were happy to collaborate with him on those plays that seem to lack the necessary Shakespearean verve. That the Wits, who were so committed to mentioning each other in their dedications, never thought to mention their brilliant student and collaborator from Stratford has apparently not struck the good professor, at least, not hard enough to give him pause. As for the local grammar school, surely it was capable of bringing bright boys up to the level where they could enter one of the universities, even further for a particularly brilliant boy, but again, there is absolutely no evidence that William was such a boy. What evidence there is suggests he was unable to write even so much as his own signature.
That Shakespeare understood the lingua franca of all of Europe fits with Wells’s chosen topic: “Shakespeare as a Man of the European Renaissance.” But oh dear, there’s that darned biography again! While thoroughly Renaissance in his writing, it seems Shakespeare was “circumscribed” in almost every possible way. He was not, like Sidney, a courtier, warrior, patron, the embodiment of chivalric ideas, etc. He never travelled. Nor was he versatile, like Bacon, a philosopher, equally fluent in Latin as in English and author of many varied works. According to Wells, Shakespeare was “exceptionally limited”; circumscribed in both ambition and accomplishment, he wrote no books, no stories, nothing but a few poems and plays for the public.
With Oxford as author, such peculiarities vanish. The author is fully revealed as the thorough-going Renaissance man his works suggest. Half the translations on which he based his plays and poems were more likely than not his own doing, published under other men’s names, as were half or more of the plays and novellas attributed to those University Wits that have no biographies to speak of, as well as the Italian tales from books attributed to William Painter, Thomas Lodge and George Pettie. With Oxford, Gulliver stands tall, and the Liliputians diminish to their proper stature.
While Andrew Werth, then an undergraduate at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, has gone on to higher things (a career in music), his opening thrust has since been followed up on by Dr. Earl Showerman, whose series of articles for The Oxfordian and the online journal, Brief Chronicles, dig deep into the facts surrounding Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek drama, adding immensely to Werth’s opening salvo.
Stanley Wells, now in his eighties, is perfectly positioned to open the Academy to the Authorship Question by letting it be known that he would like to see it allow the question a place in the scholarly dialogue that takes place in journals and at conferences. Authorship scholars have been shamefully mistreated for centuries. If someone of Wells’s stature could tilt the scales a little our way, giving us a chance to speak at conferences and in mainstream journals about what we’ve discovered, Shakespeare Studies would take on a terrific new attraction for students, genuine research would begin, and whatever the truth may be would eventually come to light.
We may not have it ourselves, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but what we do have are solid answers to most if not all of the questions that academics have been asking ever since English Departments first came into existence at the universities, which in some cases was not until the second decade of the twentieth century.
A right jolly old elf, Wells has the power and possibly the wisdom, to see the potential to Shakespeare Studies of the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon. Who knows, people might actually begin to read again the classic sources that inspired Shakespeare and so many other great writers. Who knows, those of us who still see ourselves as humanists might live to see another literary Renaissance, something our culture is so badly in need of.
Here’s Wells’s lecture at the World Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011.
(Many thanks to Earl and Marty for passing on the information.)