Long ago, in the timeless realm we call Literature, a certain fox, we’ll call him Reynard, dragged a stinky red herring across the trail of a certain Court poet, sending the yelping hounds who were after his identity up a false trail, where they’ve been barking up one wrong tree after another ever since. That red herring was the name William Shakespeare. Dragged across the poet’s paper trail––the published plays that in performance, twenty years earlier, had launched the London Stage, it did what it was meant to do, it gave the author and his company the freedom they needed to keep on producing the plays that gave the actors a living and their world a good cry, a much needed belly laugh, and those inclined to philosophy something to think about.
This red herring was successful in protecting the true author from the rage of the puritans who ran the nation, uptight ideologues, hungry for social power, who feared and hated the forces unleashed by the London Stage, forces that we know today as the English Literary Renaissance. Unable to control it they sought to kill it. This protective maneuver on the part of the Company, probably born of exigency, a dodge put into effect during a moment of desperation, perhaps not intended to last as long as it has, has in fact lasted for centuries.
Despite the evidence that’s been provided over the past 200 years, it seems we are still stuck in a scenario where the hounds continue to chase each other around in circles, only now there’s a herd of authorship scholars who follow after them, their shouts unheard in the clamor. Isn’t it about time we put an end to this absurd waste of energy?
I say leave the hounds to their sport, stop confronting the ersatz gurus of the Birthplace Trust on their territory, something that does nothing but distract us from the real field of inquiry. Leave the English Departments to their publications and pronunciamentos, and take the issue to where it should have been from the begining, to the political history of the period when Shakespeare was writing. When you haven’t enough data on a topic of interest, you turn to what we call “proxy data,” material that surrounds the issue, that doesn’t touch on it directly, but that if put in place, shows the shape and nature of what’s missing. If you can’t find enough material to work from the inside out, work from the outside in. It’s time to turn away from the failures of the university English Department, and walk across the hall to the History Department.
We have the plays; what does it matter who wrote them?
It matters!! Only a culture that has allowed its literature to become divorced from its history could tolerate such a remarkably stupid credo. Divorced from history, from the ground out of which it grew, literature loses its relevance. Divorced from literature, the stories that bring a particular time and place to life, history loses the pulse of life. Bereft of the human drama that gives it meaning, history is little more than a laundry list of dates and names. Divorced from each other, both lose their purpose, their true meaning.
This divorce was actually taking place during the time that Shakespeare (we’ll have to call him that), was writing and his Company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, later the King’s Men, was producing his plays. Ancient studies were being divided: religion into superstition on the one hand, the early Church fathers on the other; alchemy into philosophy on the one, the science of chemistry on the other; astrology into folk psychology and medicine on the one, the science of astronomy on the other. Similarly history was being divided into story on the one hand, historiography on the other. This division of inherited materials into literature over here and history over there was eventually enshrined in the university curriculum, and from there into the secondary schools where it continues to discourage young people from developing an interest in either Literature or History.
The storehouse of Sin
In England the division was amplified by the passions of the Reformation which saw the division as a conflict between God and the Devil, with God on the side of History, and the Devil on the side of literature. History was truth, while Literature, which they called Poetry, they saw as a tissue of lies, deadly lies that entrapped men’s souls and led them down the primrose path to the fiery furnace. The respected Shakespeare scholar, Prof. Lily B. Campbell, is one of the rare English profs who could see the forest for the trees. As she wrote in Chapter X of her Shakespeare’s Histories (1945): “History versus Poetry in Renaissance England”:
In order to understand the place of history in the English Renaissance we must turn to the attacks made upon poetry . . . first by the adherents of the Reformation and later by the Puritans . . . . These attacks on poetry are not today so well known as are the defenses of poetry and particularly the great defense offered by Sidney. Nevertheless, the defenses of poetry cannot be fully comprehended unless we remind ourselves that defense is always organized to resist attack. (85)
One of the earliest attacks came in 1569, shortly after the plays in question began to escape the Court for which they were written to entertain the public at the London theater inns. As James Sanford wrote in his translation of Cornelius Aggripa’s 1530 Vanity and Uncertainty of the Arts and Sciences:
Poetry, as Quintilian writeth, is another part of grammar, not a little proud . . . that in times past the theaters and amphitheaters, the goodliest buildings of men, were erected not by philosophers, not by lawyers, . . but with exceeding great expense by the fables of poets, an art that was devised to no other end but to please the ears of foolish men with wanton rhythms, with measures, and weightiness of syllables, and with a vain jarring of words, . . . to deceive men’s minds with the delectation of fables . . . . Wherefore it [the Stage] doth deserve to be called the principal author of lies, and the maintainer of perverse opinions.
In November 1577, Bishop Thomas White preached against the Stage from the pulpit at Paul’s Cathedral, a sermon that, when printed, filled 98 pages. “See,” he cried:
the multitude that flocketh to them and followeth them; behold the sumptuous theater houses, a continual monument of London’s prodigality and folly. But I undersand that they are now forbidden because of the plague. I like the policy well if it hold . . . for a disease is but . . . patched up that is not cured in the cause, and the cause of plagues is sin,. . . and the cause of sin are plays; therefore the cause of plagues are plays.
In 1579, former playwright Stephen Gosson wrote in The School of Abuse, a pamphlet that the Church saw to it got published in the thousands and distributed all over London:
Cooks did never show more craft in their junkets [desserts? sauces?] to vanquish the taste nor painters in shadows [paintings] to allure the eye, than Poets in Theaters to wound the conscience. There set, they abroche strange consorts of melody to tickle the ear, costly apparell to flatter the sight, effeminate gesture to ravish the senses, and wanton speech to whet desire to inordinate lust. . . . Let us but shut up our ears to Poets, Pipers and Players, pull our feet back from resort to Theaters and turn away our eyes from beholding of vanity, the greatest storm of abuse will be overblown and a fair path trodden to amendment of life. Were not we so foolish to taste every drug and buy every trifle, Players would shut in [up] their shops and carry their trash to some other country.
Writers of fiction fought back. First Thomas Lodge in 1578 against Gosson’s diatribe: “Who then doth not wonder at poetry? Who thinketh not that it procedeth from above?” As Nashe snarled at Sanford in Piers Penniless (1593):
As there be those that rail at all men, so there be those that rail at all Arts, as Cornelius Agrippa [in his] De vanitate scientiarum, and a treatise that I have seen in dispraise of learning, where he [Sanford] saith, it is the corrupter of the simple, the schoolmaster of sin, the storehouse of treachery, the reviver of vices, and mother of cowardice, alledging many examples, how there was never man egregiously evil but he was a scholar; that when the use of letters was first invented, the Golden World ceased, Facinusque inuasit mortales: how study doth effeminate a man, dim his sight, weaken his brain, and engender a thousand diseases.
To no avail––the Crown had departed from the Reformation’s humanist creators, following the Church into the art-hating tenets of Calvinism. Campbell quotes “the most direct attack upon poetry as lying” with which she was familiar, the translation by Sir Edward Hoby of a French diatribe titled Politic Discourses upon Truth and Lying (1586) which he dedicated to his uncle William Cecil, patron and overlord of the English press. Campbell comments:
the description of poetry as poison mixed with honey, the emphasis upon pleasure derived from poetry as suspect, the reiteration of Plato’s contention [in The Republic] that passion and vice are replenished by poetry, are all familiar, but it must be noted that all other charges are made subordinate to the main thesis of the chapter that poetry is lying. (92)
As Sidney, whose response to Gosson in 1580 was finally published in 1590, put it: “Now for the Poet, he nothing affirmeth, and therefore never lieth: for as I take it, to lie is to affirm that to be true which is false. So. . . the historian, affirming many things, can . . . hardly escape from many lies.”
Campbell notes that Hoby’s Chapter 36 is dedicated to the consideration “of backbiters, mockers, and evil speakers, and why the comedians, stage players and jugglers have been rejected,” and that plays “infecteth more the spirits and wrappeth them in passions then drunkenness itself.” She quotes:
And for as much as comedies are compounded of fictions, fables, and lies, they have of divers been rejected. As touching plays, they are full of filthy words, which would not become . . . lacqueys and courtesans and have sundry inventions which infect the spirit and replenish it with unchaste, whorish, cosening, deceitful, wanton and michievous passions . . . . And for that besides all these inconveniences, comedians, and stage players do often times envy and gnaw at the honor of another, and to please the vulgar people, set before them sundry lies and teach much dissoluteness and deceit, by this means turning upside down all discipline and good manners [so that] many cities well governed would never at any time entertain them. (92-3)
Thus wrote Burghley’s nephew in 1586, when the London Stage was in its ninth year, teetering on the verge of disaster. Written while the nation was suffering the increasing severity of Burghley’s war on Catholic recusants and puritan dissidents, six years after his brutal execution of St. Edmund Campion and nine before the equally brutal execution, by his son Robert Cecil, of the Jesuit poet Robert Southwell, we should consider that perhaps it was less the poets’ “filthy” language that inspired this outburst on the part of his nephew than how they did “often times envy and gnaw at the honor” of the Cecils.
Though Burghley may have tolerated the Stage back in the 1560s when Philip II blamed him for the satires that were defaming his Spanish Majesty, it’s clear that by 1586, he was in the mood to trim both the London Stage and the commercial Press; perhaps cut them to the ground; perhaps uproot them entirely. It’s Polonius, accepted by all as a portrait of Burghley, who critiques the dedication of Hamlet’s poem to Ophelia: “To the beautified Ophelia”; “That’s an ill phrase,” says Polonius, “a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase.” We can be sure that this exchange has far more meaning than today’s so-called critics would give it.
Seen from the perspective of English history, the Renaissance, when it finally arrived, had to find its way past the Reformation fears of Satan. This is the major reason for the form that it took in England, and for most of the literary anomalies that academics have failed to explain, including, first and foremost, the mystery surrounding the identity of the playwright who is easily found, had the slightest attention been paid to the evidence of history, deep within the Court community. Had there been any genuine attention paid to the history of the period, it would also be clear long since that Shakespeare was not alone in this, but that most of the literature produced during this first early Spring of England’s Literary Renaissance was produced by men and women who took almost exactly the same route he did, hiding their identities behind a flock of standins, supernumeraries, and initials.
Forget the English Departments
We need to approach the mysteries surrounding Shakespeare, of which his true identity is but one, others pertaining to the identities of the authors who wrote under the names Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, Thomas North, Arthur Brooke, John Lyly, Robert Greene, and a dozen others. History will show where these are located in time, and who besides the authors were involved, the powerful and wealthy patrons who made these efforts possible, the publishers and printers who took risks in publishing them, all easily located once the background of dates, current events, known personalities and conflicts are in place. With the stage set by history, we’ll have a picture that no one can argue with.
But to do that we need the help of historians. Those readers who seek an end to the questioning, the beginning of certainty, join in the quest for history majors, free thinkers who can see beyond the limits proscribed by the Stratford biography, probably located in London, certainly in England, individuals with access to the archives where documents never explored by authorship scholars remain to be examined. We need patrons with the wherewithall to provide funding for such a project, who can keep it moving until the university History departments––yielding to the thrill of establishing the great Shakespeare at the Court of Queen Elizabeth––open their doors to the authorship question.
Urge schools to combine literature with history.
By bringing a piece of the story of our lives to life with not just the events of the time, but the way the writers and artists who lived it then saw it, by accenting the story part of history, by connecting stories to the events that gave them birth, we’ll be putting the Humanities back on the road to importance. We’ll be turning fear into understanding, existential despair into acceptance and love, something has been the goal of literature ever since Plato set out to tell the world the truth about Socrates.
It’s time we told the truth about Shakespeare to those who are ready to hear it, and quit trying to tell it to those who are committed to ignorance.