This has been a tough week for a lot of Americans, myself included. Hit with rough words, not once but twice, my sense of myself as purveyor of truths relevant to the Shakespeare authorship question has taken a beating at two levels, first of veracity (factual reliability), and second of artistry (style). The first came from an anti-Oxfordian troll of the sort that tends to haunt social media, but who managed to find his way onto my blog where he snarled at the idea that Oxford got his Shakespearean education from his childhood with the once-famous scholar and statesman Sir Thomas Smith. The second came from an editor who took it upon himself to alter (without my permission) the opening sentence of a recently-published essay on the Cecils’ attempt to destroy the London Stage in the 1590s, because, as he put it, “you are generally wordy” and not inclined to self-edit what he sees as my “sensational word choices” and “long-windedness.” Ouch!
Regarding the troll
Most trollery just get trashed. The advantage of a blog over Facebook groups and other online platforms is that a blogger can reject what’s irrelevant or just plain nasty before it goes public. As a genuine scholar I welcome honest criticism that provides the necessary vetting of fact and conjecture, but when criticism devolves to mudslinging, all possibilty for reasonable discourse is lost. Worthwhile intellectual forums all require a modicum of courtesy; without it anything of value gets lost in the “shock and awe” of battle. What Benedick called “paper bullets of the brain” may not shed blood, but they do tend to kill sweet Reason.
Nevertheless, the issue of what to keep and what to reject gets most critical when, as in this case, Mr. Troll is so well-versed in the history of the issue that the points he raised must be taken into consideration. Cleverly he has perceived that I (stupidly) had based my evidence for Oxford’s Shakespearean education too heavily on two points: Mary Dewar’s 1964 biography of Smith in which she states that Oxford came to Smith during the winter of 1554; and second, the label Smith gave in his notebooks to a room in his home at Ankerwycke, “My Lord’s chambre,” where he lived from 1552 to 1558. Assuming that the latter must refer to Oxford, a lord from birth, since it did not appear that Smith had the sort of connection to any other lord at that time that would merit his having a room named for him, left me open to Mr. Troll’s intelligent suggestion that it could have refered to Bishop John Taylor, a colleague of Smith’s at Edward’s Court, who, as Dewar noted, came to Smith at the same time as the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom. Taylor had died not long after, perhaps, as M. de Troll suggests, in the very “chambre” so named.
That Bishops were honored as Lords, is undeniable, as is the fact that Taylor died not long after arriving at Smith’s. As for the fact that by then the protestant Taylor had lost his post as Bishop and been “deprived” of his office by the catholic Queen Mary, that may not be relevant since the English were always inclined to continue calling their colleagues and friends by their titles, even after they lost them to the interminable political reversals of that dangerous period. As for the troll’s claim that Taylor was “beloved” by Smith, that may be, as it may also be that Smith simply felt indebted to his old tutor for certain estates that Taylor had passed along to him during Taylor’s brief time as Dean of Lincoln (ODNB). Any satisfactory elucidation of these points seeming too far out of reach, “My Lord’s chambre” must now move from reliable evidence for Oxford as the Lord in question to the level of probability. Such is the nature of our inquiry, based as it is on such small bits of evidence, always vulnerable to new insights and information. But how much better it would have been had the discussion taken place in an atmosphere of collegial discourse.
The troll cannot deny that Smith was Oxford’s tutor. That’s a proven fact which can’t be denied, much as he might want to. However, having realized the importance that the nature of the environment surrounding Ankerwycke holds as the source of the imagery that, as shown by Caroline Spurgeon, dominates the Shakespeare canon, Mr. T. attempts to show that it was such a terrible place to live that no one in his right mind would have placed the young Oxford heir there. Based on a letter in which Smith complains about the damp that came with the summer rains, Troll’s effort to dismiss Ankerwycke is pathetic. Had it been as terrible as he claims, Sir Thomas would never have purchased it from the Crown nor taken the trouble to build a 21-room mansion there, nor would he, when he moved to Hill Hall, have passed it on to his brother, whose decendents continued to inhabit the site until they sold it in the mid-17th century. The beauties of that area are still to be seen by the many visitors who visit it each year. The only things missing today are the manor itself and the great royal Forest of Windsor that then lay on the other side of the river to the west. To the south the great wetlands known as the Runnymede Water Meadow still offers nesting ground and a waystation for flocks of migratory birds, including the very ones mentioned by Shakespeare.
As for the editor
As for the editor who spoiled my opening sentence, clearly he differs from myself in his opinion of what constitutes good writing. Perhaps he learned to write where the prevailing paradigm was always to keep it short and to the point, newspaper style. Like the piano teacher who failed to teach me to play because learning to play songs meant less to her than how I held my fingers; he may have been graded on how well he denied himself anything colorful or complex. Perhaps he began on a newspaper, where the prevailing style was aimed at a sixth grade readership. Perhaps he began as a technical writer where color of any sort (description, humor, sarcasm) would be out of place. Maybe that’s where he learned that “wordy” or “long-winded” writing is, ipso facto, bad writing.
I do not now nor have I ever had “a style”! To me, style arises out of what a writer needs to express to a particular audience at a particular moment in time, which means that how he or she writes will be molded by what is to be expressed and for whom. Having worked for years as a copywriter for publishers and ad agencies, I know this all too well. What I prefer of course is to write in the manner of those writers whose works I enjoy reading, people who write with color, with witty asides and the kind of cultural references that only those who have done a lot of reading will catch. This kind of writing makes me feel like my own lifetime of reading hasn’t been wasted; that I belong to an important and exalted elite. I may fail at writing like this, but it’s not for lack of trying.
Regarding long “wordy” sentences
Long sentences have a place in good writing. Is Francis Bacon long-winded? Is Marcel Proust “wordy”? And even if they are, do we care? Sometimes there is just too much to be said on a particular point that to cut it up into separate sentences would damage the integrity, the wholeness, of the thought. Sometimes a particular thought is so important that the writer would actually prefer, should the reader lose his way, that he be forced to return to the beginning of the sentence and read it over again! With well-chosen modifiers and clauses a great deal of information can be packed into a single sentence that if parcelled out into separate sentences would take up half a printed page.
I am fond of 19th-century novels. Written back when there was no competition from radio, television or text messaging, Austen, Galsworthy, Dickens, Henry James, Hardy, Tolstoi, can still bring the reader more completely into another time and place, and keep her in the company of interesting characters for days, even weeks on end. For those who did not live where there were concerts and plays, nothing was too long, no amount of description too tedious, no narrative too elaborate, as the shelves filled with collections in old bookstores attest, but some of these old books can still provide a richness of vicarious experience that few modern novels possess. Hemingway’s terse style, born of his indoctrination as a war reporter, came to replace Scott Fitzgerald’s richer and more colorful style. Description was cut down to a single adjective or two. Evocative phrasing was somehow not sufficiently masculine. Tough guys don’t need modifiers; “Just the facts, m’am.” Finally, not even the facts matter, just the attitude, grim, tired, bored, and very, very dull; interesting plots are replaced by sex, lots of it, all from the male perspective of course. Replaced by sex and violence, plots and characters have become vapid stereotypes.
Ornaments and lights
Maybe I’ve been too influenced by my subject. While I can’t claim to live up to his Shakespearean standard, it’s obvious that, in his time, Oxford had much the same problem with his peers as I had with this editor, for when he began writing, the accepted style was just as restrictive though in different ways. Labelled by C.S. Lewis “the drab era,” the prevailing paradigm at the time that he came to London required stilted, colorless prose, and poetry that could not move beyond the Petrarchan model whereby disdainful dames refused lovers who responded with stultifying morbidity on the likelihood of immiment death. It was a style in keeping with the prevailing religious adherence to Calvinism, with its fear of the Devil and his ability to drag the unwary sinner down to the fiery furnace should he give way for an unguarded moment to the human need for pleasure and happiness.
Nurtured by Smith on the great works of Greek and Roman literature, Oxford’s native creativity could not help but burst these bonds, and that it cost him the approval of his peers, and most particularly of his Calvinist in-laws and their coterie, is evident in the disclaimers that accompany the poetry that first began to be published with his arrival in London. As Oxford puts it in his introduction to Clerke’s Latin translation of Castiglione’s The Courtier:
I shall not write about the great neatness and excellence with which [Clerke] has depicted the ornaments of the virtues in personages of the highest rank. I shall not repeat how he has described the notable viciousness, silly character, uncouth and boorish manners, or unhandsome appearance that exist in those who are incapable of being courtiers. He has represented whatever exists in human conversation, intercourse and society that is either decorous and polite, or unsightly and debased, with such a quality that you seem to see it before your eyes.
The man who wrote about such important matters (even though he was no mean stylist) has been enhanced by this new light of eloquence. For now the Latin courtier has once more shown his face at our court (as if returned from that city of Rome wherein the pursuit of eloquence thrived), having an excellent appearance, equipped with consummate endowments, and wonderful dignity. This is the achievement of friend Clerke, accomplished with unbelievable genius and singular eloquence. For he has revived that dormant sweetness of speech he possesses; for these most worthy matters he has recalled the ornaments and lights he had set aside. Therefore he is to be lauded and heaped with all the greater praise, that he has made such things, great as they are, yet more so by adding these lights and ornaments.
For who has expressed the significance of his words more fully? Or shone a more elegant light on the dignity of his sentences? If more serious matters come up in the discourse, he renders them in words more ample and grave, but if everyday and witty, he uses clever and witty ones. Since, therefore, he employs a pure and elegant vocabulary, writes his sentences with good style, prudence, and clarity, and employs an overall manner of eloquence marked by dignity, an excellent work must needs flow and derive from these things. It strikes me as such, with the result that, when I read this Latin Courtier, I seem to be hearing Crassus, Antony and Hortensius conversing of these things.
Maybe I’ve been spoiled by blogging. No longer constrained to pack the most pertinent information into the first few paragraphs in case the newspaper editor has to cut off paragraphs at the end, no longer forced to keep to a certain length because the magazine must keep its editorial material from exceeding the amount allowed by the space devoted to advertising, perhaps I ramble. But if so there are obviously some who see no harm in it, for after eight years of blogging I still get somewhere between one or two hundred hits a day. Somebody out there likes me, or at least likes the way I write.
“She who must not be named”
At this tense moment in America’s struggle to get a Commander in Chief by the means afforded by our democracy, because the better candidate is a woman, the issue of American misogeny has arisen in ways that it hasn’t since women finally got the right to vote in 1920. If not, then why has this intelligent, supremely-qualified candidate for office been labelled so “untrustworthy” that even her supporters feel they have to accept what appears to be the judgement of the majority? Has history and our own experience not taught us the abiding lesson that to be female is to be, ipso facto, less important, less intelligent, less worthy of high office or acclaim than even the most dangerously unqualified male?
And why else does an editor of a certain scholarly journal feel he has the right to edit my writing without my permission, to justify it by calling me “wordy” and “longwinded” as though somehow, despite his lack of experience, he is qualified to edit and dismiss me in ways he would not dare to had I a name like John or George, for indeed, all he knows of me is my given name, which apparently reeks of unworthiness.
And why else does the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship fail to acknowledge the creator of their scholarly journal, The Oxfordian, which having lasted the longest of any similar journal, and which, during its first ten years, published some of the most important articles ever published by any authorship journal, and which also, during that time, published some of its board members’ articles for the first time? And why does the only reference on the SOF website to the history of The Oxfordian have nothing but this to say?
The Oxfordian, published since 1998, is “the best American academic journal covering the authorship question,” according to William Niederkorn, formerly of the New York Times . . . . In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt (2013), Stratfordian scholar Prof. Stuart Hampton-Reeves adds that under Michael Egan’s editorship (2009-2014), The Oxfordian “deserves credit . . . for insisting on a higher standard of academic rigour.”
A higher standard than what? Who was it that actually set the standard for scholarship that from 1998 to 2009 had The Oxfordian accepted by the Modern Language Association of America and shelved at the Library of Congress?