A little history is a useful thing

I’m back

It’s been almost four months since I’ve blogged or added anything to this site. Why? Because I’ve been in the final throes of finishing the book I’ve been working on for the past eight years, and have literally had no time, or room in this tired old bean, for anything else. Of course it’s not totally finished––polishing, fact-checking, eliminating redundancies, are yet to be done––but thankfully the heavy lifting is over and the bloody albatross cast free, to be trussed and roasted more or less at leisure, hopefully for your eventual reading pleasure. While beating my brains to custard, I’ve been grateful that readers have continued to read and even to comment. Many thanks for that.

Back in 1987, when Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William first gave rise to the question of “Shakespeare’s” identity in my not yet quite so old and tired thinking, I was left with two questions that he had not addressed: first, the Earl of Oxford’s learning: by what means did he acquire the vast Renaissance education that the Academy has been at such pains to deny for four centuries? Second: is it really possible that he was the only writer of that interesting time who managed to create whole canons by publishing under the name of an illiterate nonentity?

It’s taken 30 years to find satisfactory answers to these questions, and many of the pages on this blog, added since its beginning in 2008, address specific aspects of one or the other. But handfuls of clusters of connected puzzle pieces, floating in isolation, do not suffice when what is needed is a narrative, one that explains how such things could have happened, and why they happened as they did.

The question of Shakespeare’s identity is actually only the first of so many questions that have yet to be answered that a full century after Looney’s book we still find ourselves teetering on the brink of a dark, chaotic landscape. Is this merely the normal detritus of history as left by the passage of time? Or has there been a determined effort of some sort to prevent the truth from emerging? On page 123 of TMW Ogburn lists several areas in which a paper trail would disappear at a certain point, sometimes to reappear once the period in question is past. Over the years I’ve accumulated a number of similar anomalies, too many to ascribe to any sort of natural entropy. Yes, there can be no doubt, there has been a great deal of finagling throughout the history of Shakespeare scholarship, beginning with its very inception. The important question is why, and by whom. And although we don’t yet know the full answer to “by whom,” we do now finally have a sufficiently trustworthy answer to “why?”

Despite these breaks in the record, what I like to call “literary forensics” provides us with tools that, much like DNA and infra-red photography, work apart from what standard history deigns to allow. This approach allows us to broaden our examination of those areas where primary data is missing and so to project with some security what it might contain were it intact. Although history pretends to eschew conjecture, restricting itself to deal only with what facts remain, Science knows that where hard facts are not available, conjecture, which it dignifies with the term hypothesis, is not only acceptable, it is a necessity, for without it physics would never have arrived at Probability, Relativity, or a thousand other stepping-stones to our present understanding of the universe.

Thus by acquiring enough “proxy data” to project the most likely nature of the missing content, we can create bridges of conjecture solid enough to connect those areas where established facts provide secure footage, and thus, finally, to a narrative that makes sense. Once established, such a narrative, I do believe, will be the final nail in the Stratford coffin. This of course takes a great deal of time, but where history is concerned, time is not an issue. In fact, however much be lost, Time tends to clear away the inevitable fog of political maneuvering to which History, despite its solemn demeanor of dispassionate rectitude, is uniquely vulnerable. And so let it be with the Authorship Question.

Much has come clear during this process, some of it only over the past twelve months. In reading around the question I’ve tapped into what appears to be a new wave of younger historians of the Tudor and Jacobean periods who seem to be chipping away at some of the darker areas that broach on the AQ. While Oxford remains the violent pet wastrel of historians like Lawrence Stone and Alan Nelson, it would seem that further study, plus a few blasts of refreshing common sense, are blowing the dust off the period when the works in question were being produced. Knowing more about Oxford’s surroundings at the time, the issues and personalities with which he had to deal, we can project with some confidence the reasons why he wrote particular works, thus bringing a new measure of exciting enlightenment, not only to the studies of Early Modern Literature, but to the history of the entire period, which at present lies stifled in layers of ancient political dust.

The present book began as the answer to the first question, where did Oxford get his learning, but in peeling away layer after layer of the truth about the period, his education was so obviously bound up with the politics of the period––and the continuing politics of the Academy––that the story simply had to be carried through to the end––that same End that, as Shakespeare has it, “crowns all.”

Despite all efforts to keep to the barest and most select minimum of evidence per point, trusting to the interested reader to follow up with the titles mentioned and the ample materials available now on the internet, the darned book has become so long that it looks like it will have to be divided into two, first: Educating Shakespeare; second: Shakespeare and the London Stage. (As for my other original question––were there others who used the same tactics to get published?––that must wait for a third excursion into the labyrinth of 16th-century literary politics.)

Will there be a publisher willing to publish such a lengthy report, and, not least, to provide it to those who care about such things, in hardback? Not that paperback or Kindle are out of the question, but for readers like myself, who need a hardback edition of any book that requires space for marginal notes, I simply can’t see it solely in “perfect bound” paperback. Since I desperately need to give some attention to my pocketbook after so many years of scraping by, I’m even thinking of bypassing book publishing altogether, selling it through Amazon a bit at a time. In so doing I would only be following in the footsteps of those heroic creators of the English commercial Press, pamphleteers Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

What thinkst thou, Dear Readers? I’m all ears.

14 thoughts on “A little history is a useful thing

  1. Excellent, Stephanie. I am sure you know that the SOF has used Amazon CreateSpace to publish the latest issues of The Oxfordian and Brief Chronicles, and that Michael Delahoyde similarly used that program to publish his Oxfordian edition of Anthony and Cleopatra, which we had at the conference in Ashland. I would be happy to send you a copy of A&C so you can examine the quality of the production.

  2. First, I eagerly await the launch of your book, be it in hardback or digitally.

    Second, your reference to Charlton Ogburn caused me to pick up my copy to identify the name of his publisher. What caught my eye was that his book had a lovely Forward by David McCullough.

    The latter has a not an insignificant familiarity with the publishing world and seemingly an interest in the AQ.

    Suggestion: give David McCullough a cold call and see where that leads.

    Francis Murphy

    1. I will certainly do that. And as it happens, I share something personal with him, we both have roots on Martha’s Vineyard. Thanks for reminding me!

  3. I was so happy to see your new post today and even more happy to see the news that your book(s) are almost ready to enter the public stage. I’m eagerly awaiting your new books (no matter how many parts they’re in). I’m also open to reading them in whatever format you decide to publish them in. I finally bought a Kindle so I’m ready and even though I understand the love of marginal note space, I will sacrifice that luxury to just have the book in hand.

  4. With all due respect for the interesting and valuable things your research has brought or helped to bring to light or to the attention of many, I object, as a close reader of Ogburn, Jr. to your assertion that, one,

    “… he had not addressed …the Earl of Oxford’s learning: by what means did he acquire the vast Renaissance education that the Academy has been at such pains to deny for four centuries?”

    and, as for,

    “Second… is it really possible that he was the only writer of that interesting time who managed to create whole canons by publishing under the name of an illiterate nonentity?”

    That’s an excellent question and there is certainly nothing wrong with posing it and investigating it. However, Ogburn’s book and his self-assigned brief was, by choice, narrower in scope. His concern was to expound and defend the thesis–which he credited others before him with having previously discovered–that Oxford deserves the credit as the person behind the authorial name of William Shakespeare.

    I think you consistently give Ogburn short shrift. I think that does a disservice to both of you.

  5. I intended no disrespect to Ogburn. Indeed his book was written for a different purpose, part of which was to inform persons like myself about the issue. Had he not written it, or written it differently, I might never have taken up the subject.

    Ogburn was not alone in neglecting these issues; neither Looney nor Ward nor Miller nor Nelson nor anyone until myself gave any attention to Sir Thomas Smith beyond a passing mention of his name, nor has anyone to my knowledge raised the possibility that other writers of the period used stand ins. Years ago I published extensively on Greene in pamphlet form and on my certainty that Mary Sidney is the true author of the John Webster canon.

    It is true that I avoid citing Ogburn when it’s possible to cite someone else. This is partly because I would always prefer to cite a mainstream authority on the little stuff. The other reason is the coverage he gave to the nefarious Royal Incest theory, the “poison pill” of Oxfordian studies that, for me, is best dealt with by pretending it doesn’t exist.

  6. So, for you, the faults of the senior Ogburn in “This Star of England” redound to his son, Charlton Jr.? Or am I missing something?

    1. Fault, not faults, but unfortunately the interminable repercussions that have followed upon it have cast a shadow over what otherwise would have been one of, if not the, most important 20th-century contribution to Authorship Studies.

      I’m not going to comment any further on this issue on politicworm, which I launched in part so I could focus on genuine history and avoid the kind of discussions that for some reason this notion invariably calls forth. Those who delight in it will find plenty of places online where it’s either encouraged or allowed.

      Like the little girl in the old New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”

  7. All the best with your book. Maybe think about talking to someone in the marketing of books before you tackle the editing side of your project. Having an angle is supposed to help with pitches to publishers.

  8. What of De Vere’s published works, how are they assessed? Did he deliberately change his style for works that were published in his name? Are there themes in his works substantially similar to those in the “Shakespeare’s” plays used to highlight a connection with De Vere’s own domestic life (his father-in-law and Hamlet, for example)?

    1. There are no works published under de Vere’s name. There are two that he put his name on as publisher or patron, but they are by other writers (Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comfort, and Clerk’s Latin translation of The Courtier). Several poems were published in anthologies under his initials or some version of his name. Everything he wrote was published as by one of his friends, secretaries, or proxies. Proxies include Robert Greene and William Shakespeare. Works bearing their names contain themes and characters that match persons and incidents in Oxford’s life. William Farina has published a book that makes some of these connections.

      1. Are the plays written (or at least published) after 1604 markedly different from those prior to Oxford’s death? Did he author King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, M for M, A&C, Coriolanus, Winter’s Tale, Henry VIII, Tempest, Pericles, and Cymbeline?

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