Hello again! After nine months of silence I’m ready to blog again. The effort that went into creating the final publishable version of THE BOOK I’ve been working on for years hasn’t allowed me the time or the energy for anything else.
Throughout the early 1990s, after being awakened to the authorship question via Charlton Ogburn’s The Mysterious William, I plumbed the university libraries in Boston for more information on the University Wits, a study that eventually led to the creation of The Oxfordian under the auspices of the Shakespeare Oxford Society. For ten years it was my privilege to publish a number of important authorship scholars, after which I left to continue lecturing and to writing for other publications. Hoping to reach a wider audience I began blogging under politicworm.com in 2008. With daily hits reaching near or at 500, by 2014 it was apparent that the material on the blog would have to be organized into a narrative if it was ever to be seen as a coherent whole, chapters in a story with a beginning and an end, in other words, a book. Now to find a publisher willing, perhaps even eager, to challenge the universities. Wish me luck!
Tackling the “Shakespeare Problem”
In digging into the anomalies that have dogged the Shakespeare story from the start, whether associated with his persona, his body of work, or the stage that introduced him to the world, I discovered that every one can be traced to a single cause: the biography of William of Stratford. Remove that, reduce William’s role to that of well paid provider of the magical name, and all the anomalies vanish. The early quartos, impossible to assign to someone born as late as 1564, become the missing Shakespeare juvenilia. The magical voice, appearing here and there under a variety of names from the mid-1560s on, becomes the early voice of Shakespeare.
Who was writing for the Children’s companies that so delighted Elizabeth from her earliest days as Queen? Who was it who was so fascinated from first to last with themes of love, sex, friendship and truth? Who could have had such knowledge of ancient stories, of Roman history, Greek myths, Courtly manners? Story by story, event by event, one individual and only one, from earliest works to final collection, lived a life that so perfectly fits in terms of time, place, events and content, that there is no reason to continue to seek some other solution to Chambers’ “Shakespeare problem.”
As revealed in C.W Wallace’s 1912 account of the birth of the London Stage, that the public theaters appeared almost twenty years before the great Shakespeare was available to make use of them is one of the anomalies that’s made it so hard to give a rational account of how the London Stage actually got born. Few have remarked upon the interesting fact that both of the first two commercially successful purpose-built stages in England opened for business within weeks of Oxford’s return from his year in Venice, where the history of western theater begins, and those who did take note of it in passing drew no conclusions from it.
Consistently overlooked by academics and authorship scholars alike are the wealthy and powerful patrons whose unyielding support led to the creation of the London Stage and the preservation of Shakespeare’s works. The notion that something so powerful (and so politically dangerous) as the public stage, a cultural game-changer on the level of the printing press or today’s social media, could have been created almost single-handed by a part time actor and joiner, the lowliest of trades, has been swallowed whole by the Academy and its precursors for some 200 plus years. While it’s clear that the patrons themselves preferred to keep as private as possible their involvement in creating and promoting that dangerous innovation, the London Stage, there’s no denying their existence and their importance. Of course, where the obvious can’t be denied, it can be ignored. In truth without the patrons (among them Oxford himself) there would have been no London Stage, at least not under the Tudors.
That no one so far as I know has investigated what should be the rather obvious effort to provide a theater close enough to the West End that it could entertain, and potentially influence, the important men from around the nation who assembled there every few years for another convention of Parliament, is equally absurd. That this blindness to the politics of the period have allowed the Academy to continue to claim that there were never any political overtones to the plays is simply mind-boggling in its lack of understanding of the power and nature of the Stage throughout historical time.
True, the plays as they have come down to us from the editors of the First Folio do not dwell on obvious political themes, but as anyone who studies the period knows, both political and religious debates invariably based their messages on events from history and ancient folk and biblical literature. And even had they been aware, the 15-year displacement caused by the Stratford biography renders impossible the clear connection between the play’s origin and the events that inspired it.
Do those whose opinions matter never study the history of the theater through the ages? How can they continue to think that, unlike his near contemporaries Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson (Marston, Chapman, Dekker, Middleton), etc., all of whom were in constant trouble with the authorities for meddling in politics, only Shakespeare remained untouched? If it puzzles them that during Essex’s treason trial Shakespeare’s actors were questioned about performing the highly political Richard II the day before Essex’s attack on the Court yet the author himself was not only not questioned, he wasn’t even mentioned, it has not been enough to make them question the identity of this strangely protected author.
Of course the Elizabethan Stage was just as political as has been every other Stage in human history! Of course it was dominated at the beginning by the playwright whose comedies were safely aligned with Court interests. Attempts to portray it as somehow operating apart from the all-consuming issues of the day are absurd, and in fact, are themselves hard evidence of university politics, the kind that determines what is worth publishing and what isn’t.
Because Shakespeare is so central to the story of the London Stage, and because there is so little evidence on which to build a satisfying history of the Stage as it developed through the 1570s and ’80s, the Academy pretends that there was nothing of any interest before his plays began to be published (anonymously) in the mid-1590s. At the very end of the decade, when the name finally appears suddenly on the title pages of the second editions of two of his most political plays, the Academy, helpless to explain this amazing leap from zero to greatness, concerns itself with things like stylometics and feminine endings, things that only experts like themselves can understand. (Like the little girl in the old New Yorker cartoon, “I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it!”)
In every effort to describe the events of the nineties with respect to the stage, academics refer to actions taken by the government against the theaters as coming from the Privy Council, never bothering to note how greatly the Privy Councils of the 1570s and ’80s differed from the Privy Council of the 1590s. To academics dealing with the Stage, the bloody showdown between the Cecils and the Essex faction is a little rumble offstage, barely audible. The political upheavals of the nineties that gripped the Court and the nation hardly cause a ripple in their comfortable accounts of the deaths of Marlowe, Lord Strange, Lord Hunsdon and James Burbage, and the loss to Shakespeare and his company of their great new Blackfriars Theater, shut down in 1596 by order of a Privy Council dominated by Robert Cecil as demanded by one of his aunts.
It was the truly incredible level of Shakespeare’s learning that finally raised a public demand in the 19th century for the truth about his identity––particularly his knowledge of the Law. Why continue to follow blindly Jonson’s “small Latin and less Greek” since 19th-century jurists like Lord Penzance made plain the author’s unaccountably broad and deep grasp of the Law as it developed under the Tudors. According to Jonson’s biographers, honest Ben, Shakespeare’s contemporary, was famous for his ability to equivocate, that is, to word something so that it could be taken to mean something else, even the opposite. Thus,”though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek” could be understood to mean, “IF thou hadst small Latin . . . .” (According to the OED, #4 under “though” provides quotations where though can be taken to mean if.)
How difficult would it have been after 1920, when Oxford was brought out of the shadows by Looney, to check out his education? How difficult would it have been to follow up on Sir Thomas Smith, clearly stated as not only his tutor, but the one who “brought him up,” as revealed in letters from Burghley to Smith, Burghley to Walsingham, and Smith to Burghley (Nelson Adversary 25)? Until the advent of online resources like Google, every library had a copy of Books in Print, which listed books by name and author. This was where I found Mary Dewar’s 1964 biography of Smith, which contains the crucial fact that Oxford was put with Smith in 1554. And although Dewar failed to give a sufficiently solid citation for her rather specific statement, when Smith’s library is compared with Shakespeare’s knowledge as displayed in his plays, why cling to doubt? Such a placement, particularly at a time of such political upheaval, is totally in line with long-standing aristocratic tradition.
Shakespeare and the “stigma of print”
Most of Oxford’s biographers attribute the hiding of his name to the so-called “stigma of print,” a tradition that tended to prevent members of the Court community from publishing, but they do not make it clear that what was considered verboten were works of the imagination, poetry, tales, and plays, or the fact that such works were damned by the Reformation authorities then in control of publishing as sinful tools of the Devil, pathways to eternal damnation––or that such works were also inclined to satirize those same authorities. While admitting that Polonius was (probably) a spoof of Lord Burghley, the Queen’s great minister of State, why do they neglect what should have been equally obvious, that all the characters in Hamlet were based on members of Elizabeth’s Court? Why so far but no farther?
In 1980, Prof. Steven May, quotable expert on the Elizabethan Court poets, felt called upon to add his bit to the effort to quash the authorship debate, declaiming in a highly publicized article in Renaissance Papers: “Tudor Aristocrats and the mythical stigma of print,” wherein he asserts that “no ‘stigma of print’ is discernible during the Tudor age.” Not until the end does he admit what he should have made clear from the start, that “it was poesy, not the printing press, which our ancestors viewed with suspicion,” so that “the ‘stigma of print’ should give place to the ‘stigma of verse.’” Which includes of course plays, since playwrights were called poets then, and most early plays were written in verse, Shakespeare’s included.
Why not be clear about that distinction from the start? Because to be sufficiently clear about this was simply not to the good professor’s purpose, just as it has nothing to do with the actual record, which shows that the Queen never gave an official position to any of the writers of imaginative literature at her Court, including her godson, John Harington Jr., and Burghley’s nephew, Francis Bacon, both extremely bitter about their lack of bankable recognition. Nor does it acknowledge Thomas Sackville’s explanation for why he, then the Court’s most highly praised poet, as soon as he inherited his title in 1566, gave up writing verse as he explains in his last poem, “Sackville’s Old Age.” As Lord Buckhurst he would climb the Court promotion ladder, ending his days as the wealthy and powerful Earl of Dorset and Lord Treasurer under King James.
Frustrated by the way he was prevented from what in an earlier age would have allowed him as a great peer a significant role in the governing and defense of his nation, it seems from plays like Alls Well that Oxford did not fully appreciate, at least not at first, the fact that by striving to create a living literary language he was doing something far more important and meaningful, or that, by writing for the stage, he was acquainting the illiterate public with the heroes and defining moments in the history of their nation. By the time he died, those who followed him, his patrons and what must have been by then a substantial reading audience (based on the many editions of his published works), who certainly understood the nature and importance of what he had done, as evidenced by the time and effort it took to produce the elegant First Folio, without which he and his plays might have been lost to posterity.
That Oxford suffered financially by the travels in Italy and throughout the Mediterranean that brought him subjects for so many of his best plays, is reflected in Rosalind’s comment from As You Like It: “A traveller! By my faith, you have great reason to be sad. I fear you have sold your own lands to see other men’s; then to have seen much and to have nothing is to have rich eyes and poor hands” (Act IV Scene 1). Aware that no hero was ever remembered by history unless a poet had praised him in memorable terms, as certain of his Sonnets suggest, he believed that they would make the Fair Youth famous someday. Someday that is, not right away, for doubtless, concerned for Southampton’s reputation, it was Oxford himself who must have prevented their publication until his death made it possible for others to profit by ushering them into print.
Given the peculiar absence of facts from this period, we can never hope to reach beyond our present stalemate with the Academy until we find other means to tell what is, in fact, a story just as compelling as any told by Shakespeare himself. Part of that story explains to the satisfaction of any reasonable mind, why at every critical juncture the paper trail vanishes. Why this is so is an important chapter in the story, not simply of how the plays came to be written, but beyond that, by what means and why their provenance came to be erased.
Let’s hear it for conjecture
It will doubtless be argued that because my account relies on educated guesswork to bridge these crucial blank spots that therefore it cannot be “true.” Unfortunately were we to continue to rely solely on what facts remain the truth would remain in the condition in which it has remained for the past 400 years. In the realms of history, in particular the history of literature, even more so of theatrical literature, is not conjecture equivalent to the role of the hypothesis in Science? Do not the “Laws” of Science rest upon an initiatory stage, that of the hypothetical, the pad from which is launched the second stage, the necessary and often prolonged period of experimentation by which the Laws of Science are ultimately revealed? Have not these first guessed-at then proven Laws resulted in the amazing advances in technology that has brought us the life we enjoy today? Where so much is missing, a History devoid of conjecture surely ranks with a Science devoid of hypothesis.
And so I rest my case.