The great anomalies that have dogged Shakespeare from the start, whether associated with his name, his person, his plays, or the theaters that introduced them to the world, all can be traced to a single cause, the biography of William of Stratford. Reduce his narrow if necessary role to that of provider of a name to put in what for four years was the empty spot on the title pages of the published plays, and most of these problems simply vanish.
The authorship of the early quartos, impossible to anyone born as late as William (1564), emerge as the missing Shakespeare juvenilia. That unique voice, appearing here and there under a variety of proxies and pseudonyms from the mid-1560s on, cannot be assigned to anyone but the Bard himself. Who was it that was so fascinated with love, with sex, with friendship, with truth, who had such knowledge of ancient Greek literature, of Roman history, of Court manners and Machiavellian politics? Who in the small circle of poets writing and publishing in London so early in Elizabeth’s reign fills the bill as author of the comedies that made her laugh, performed by the talented boys she loved to watch? Story by story, event by event, one individual and only one, from earliest works to final collection, has the life that perfectly fits in terms of dates, places, events and motivations, the phenomenon we call Shakespeare.
As the work of C.W Wallace shows, that the public theaters appeared almost twenty years before the great Shakespeare arrived to take advantage of them is one of the anomalies that’s made it so hard to give a substantial account of how a phenomenon that, to the people of his time, must have been equal to or even surpassing how those of my generation have been affected by the creation of the Internet. Few have remarked upon the interesting fact that both of the first two commercially successful purpose-built London theaters (one for 20 years, the other for 15 years) were created within weeks of the Earl of Oxford’s return from his year in Venice, where acting troups were crafting the commedia del’arte style that delighted the Italian public and the Courts of Europe.
Among the many things that continue to be overlooked by academics and authorship scholars alike are the patrons whose wealth and political motivations were fundamental to the creation, first of the theaters where Shakespeare’s plays were performed, later to their preservation in the First Folio, in itself something of a publishing phenomenon. The notion that something so powerful as the public stage, a cultural game-changer on the level of the printing press a hundred years earlier, radio three hundred years later, or the Internet four hundred years later, how this could possibly have been created single-handedly by a part time actor like James Burbage, a joiner, the lowliest of trades, has been swallowed whole by the Academy and its precursors for some 200 plus years, none of whom, apparently, have had enough experience of the world of the Theater to understand the sheer impossibility of such a scenario.
Yes, Burbage and a fellow carpenter built the Theatre, but neither he, nor his carpenter, nor (supposedly) his brother-in-law, could possibly have paid for it, or gotten the necessary permission to build it where they did, on the main thoroughfare leading into and out of the City. While it’s clear that the patrons preferred to minimize the extent of their support for this thing that was so detested by the Church and feared by the City fathers, there’s no denying the existence and importance of their patronage. In truth, without the patrons––among them Oxford himself (so long as his credit held out)––there would have been no London Stage, and certainly no Shakespeare.
That no one so far as I know has investigated what should be an obvious effort to provide a theater close enough to the West End that it could entertain Parliament, is yet another blind spot created by the exclusive focus on the life of the wool dealer’s son. Because his biography has forced the earliest possible dates for the plays into the 1590s, displacing some from their true origins by as much as fifteen years, what should be an obvious connection between them and the events that inspired them has forced the Academy to ignore their political overtones. True, most of 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 should know, political arguments were invariably presented as lessons based on familiar stories from history, mythology, or the Bible.
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, John Marston, George Chapman, Thomas Dekker, George Middleton, etc., all in frequent trouble with the authorities for meddling in political or religious matters, that the greatest among them remained untouched by the politics of his day? Does it not puzzle them that during Essex’s treason trial Shakespeare’s actors were questioned about performing Richard II the day before his attempt to attack the Court, yet the author himself was not only not questioned by the authorities, it seems from what has survived that he wasn’t even mentioned?
Of course the Stage was political! Attempts to portray it as somehow operating apart from the all-consuming issues of the day are absurd, and in fact, are themselves evidence of the power of politics today, at both the university levels and that occupied by the New York Times. It was Churchill himself who, when confronted with the Authorship Question, is said to have responded that he didn’t want his “myths meddled with.” Myths? What about History? What about the truth?
But what may be the most significant aspect to this story, namely the fact that the name that finally showed up on what till then had been anonymous title pages––four years after the plays first began appearing in print––was a pun! Obviously, the name William Shake-speare (as it appeared on the first two plays to bear it) was intended to communicate to the sophisticated readers of the day that it was a phony name like Doll Tear-sheet or Cuthbert Curry-knave, one that allowed it to be read by the witty and sophisticated as a declarative sentence: “Will I am [to] shake [a] spear”! Now I ask you, could this possibly have been a coincidence? One that took four years to happen?
What most obviously separates the philologists who took over the newly-created English Departments at the dawn of the twentieth century from the poets of the Elizabethan era is this utter and total lack of any understanding of what makes a poet tick, how words are used to communicate, particularly back when puns were among the many tricks to the wordplay game. The dour puritans who were out to “pluck down” the theaters in the Bard’s own time have been replaced by university philologists who can’t see the glorious Shakespearean forest, pulsating with life and meaning, for the handful of linguistic trees that is all they’re been equipped to recognize by the universities that persist in ignoring every other aspect of the London Stage phenomenon.
Because Shakespeare is so central to the story of the London Stage, and because there is so little evidence with which to create a satisfying history as it developed through the 1570s and 1580s, the Academy must needs cling to the notion that nothing of any importance took place until his plays first begin to be published in the mid-1590s. At the very end of the decade, two years from the beginning of the seventeenth century and five from the end of the Elizabethan era, when a name finally appears all at once on the title pages of the second editions of two of his most devastatingly political history plays, the Academy, helpless to explain this amazing leap from zero to greatness, deals with the problem once again by ignoring it! Even so recently as a few months ago coming up with the tired old notion that Marlowe “helped” their hapless young Shakespeare with several scenes in Henry VI Part One, possibly most of Part Three, something the New York Times heralds as a “bold interpretation.” One doesn’t know whether to laugh or curse!
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 radically the Privy Council of the 1570s under the Earl of Sussex, or of the 1580s under Sir Francis Walsingham, differed from the Privy Council of the 1590s when it was controlled by the Cecils. To academics dealing with the Stage, the historic showdown between the Cecils and the Essex faction, which took seriously what the Stage had to say, is no more than a little rumble offstage, barely audible. Having ignored the events of the previous three decades, academics have no problem with ignoring the Cecils’ efforts to control the London Stage, which by then saw upwards of eight theaters running at once. Does spending one’s life in the ivory towers of a university erase the commonsense understanding of how the first move by all tyrants is to take over, or shut down, the media and kill or drive into exile those who seek to hold them to public account?
The political upheavals of the nineties that gripped the Court and the nation hardly cause a ripple in the Academy’s placid accounts of the deaths of Christopher Marlowe, murdered in 1593 by government agents at age twenty-nine; his patron Lord Strange, murdered the following year at age thirty-six; or how two years later James Burbage, longtime manager of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their Privy Council patron, Lord Chamberlain Baron Hunsdon, both died suddenly and unexpectedly, one in his sixties, the other just turned seventy; all deaths that, coming one after another in quick succession, resulted in decimating the until then booming London theater scene. How can they not see this? How can they fail to ask why?
Ignoring his education
Since it was the incredible level of Shakespeare’s learning––particularly his knowledge of the Law––that finally raised a public demand in the nineteenth century for the truth about his identity, how difficult would it have been, once Oxford was brought out of the shadows by his first biographer, to check out his education? How difficult would it have been to follow up on Sir Thomas Smith, clearly stated as his tutor and as one who “brought him up” in letters from Burghley to Smith, Burghley to Walsingham, and Smith to Burghley? Until the advent of online resources like Google, every library had a copy of Books in Print, which lists biographies by name and author. Why did no one bother to find out more about Smith?
The “stigma of print”
Most of Oxford’s biographers attribute the hiding of his name to the so-called “stigma of print,” the tradition that kept members of the Court community from publishing under their own names, but they do not make it clear that the works in question are all works of the imagination, poetry, tales, plays, or the fact that it was works like these that were damned by the evangelicals then in control of English publishing as tools of the Devil in his eternal task of luring the innocent to destruction? While admitting that Polonius was (probably) a spoof of Lord Burghley (William Cecil), the Queen’s leading minister of State, why do they neglect to suggest what should have been equally obvious, that the rest of the characters in Hamlet can be easily seen as reflections of Burghley’s relatives, of his Mistress, the Queen, of her Favorite (as close to a King as she allowed)? Why so far but no farther? The answer then should be obvious, but why no answer today, when the Queen and all her Court have been dead and gone for centuries? (Not, however, the Cecils; they are still very much around, and may be just as influential as ever.)
In 1980, Prof. Steven May, reigning expert on the Elizabethan Court poets, felt called upon to add his bit to the universal effort to eliminate Oxford from the authorship debate. Declaiming in a highly publicized article in Renaissance Papers, “Tudor Aristocrats and the mythical stigma of print,” he asserted that there simply was “no ‘stigma of print” during the Tudor age. Those who continue to wave this as a flag neglect to add that May finished by admitting 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 plays, of course, since playwrights were termed poets by the Tudors, 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 it was simply not to the good professor’s primary purpose (academic survival), just as it has nothing to do with the obvious fact that the Queen never gave an official Court position to any of the writers of important literature at her Court, including her godson, John Harington Jr., and the brilliant Francis Bacon, both as highly qualified as any of the men to whom she showed preferment, both of whom expressed great bitterness over their lack of advancement. Nor does it acknowledge Lord Buckhurst’s explanation for why, as soon as he inherited his title in 1566, he (pompously) gave up writing verse.
As Buckhurst explains in his (supposedly) last poem, “Sackville’s Old Age,” it was because, as his DNB biographer puts it, “time was passing and his life [had] another course to run.” Moving up the ladder of preferment, Buckhurst would follow in the Cecils’ footprints, eventually becoming the wealthy and powerful Earl of Dorset and Lord Treasurer under King James. But Oxford had no such goal to strive for. Born to a social and political level for which others could only dream, his striving had to be for something else, something greater, in his mind at least, than rank and titles, something that lay beyond the grovelings of politics and greed.
Frustrated by the way he was not allowed to take what an earlier age would have allowed him as a role in the governing of his nation and its military engagements abroad, it seems from plays like Alls Well that Ends Well and Two Gentlemen of Verona that Oxford did not appreciate, at least not at first, that his efforts to create a living literary language, or that acquainting the illiterate public with their nation’s history and its heroes were far more important than, like Sir Philip Sidney, suffering an early death on a foreign battlefield. Impoverished by his travels in Italy and through the Mediterranean, travels that brought him subjects for so many of his greatest plays, as Rosalind remarks in 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.”
The role of conjecture
It will doubtless be argued that my accounts are based on conjecture to too great an extent. Unfortunately were we to continue to rely totally on what facts remain, none of our questions would ever be answered, and we would continue to remain, as we have until now, with only the name on the published plays. Given the mysterious absence of so many paper trails from this period, we can never hope to reach beyond our present stalemate with the Academy unless we begin to acknowledge, and track, informed conjectures like these.
In the realm of literary history, of theatrical literature in particular, is not the conjectural equivalent to the hypothetical in Science? Do not the “Laws of Science” rest upon an initiatory stage, known as the hypothesis, from which the second stage, the necessary and often prolonged period of experiment depend? Have not these resulted in the advances in technology and understanding that we enjoy today? Where so much is missing, history without conjecture is no more substantial than science without hypothesis.
As for the all-important facts that someone (i.e. Robert Cecil, for fifteen years the most powerful English Secretary of State that ever lived) managed to so thoroughly erase, while scores of academics have searched the records in the Public Record Office and other archives for anything remotely connected to William of Stratford, no Oxfordian has ever had the time, or the wherewithall, to do the same for the Earl of Oxford. Should authorship scholars ever be admitted within the sacred halls of Academe, and they be given the opportunity to treat the Oxford theory with the same courtesy it’s been treating the Stratford theory for the past 400 years, who knows what may still be out there, still waiting to be discovered?
7 thoughts on “Out, damned biography! Out I say!”
So wonderful to have you posting again !
love your more global approach to Shakespeare in his time period….context explains and elucidates much
As to Henry VI, presumably you refer to the theatre review from last August. The word ‘bold’ also searches up ten years ago on a Marlowe-Shakespeare blog, in a comment under a post conveying Alex Jack’s theory of Marlovian help with Hamlet :
“I can’t thank you enough for your bold, well-grounded assertions that force us to think outside the box. It’s sad how blind (and dare I say fearful?) academia has become to truth; it’s all about the money…”
And then we have Neil Armstrong (interview in Australia, 2011) :
“… in 1968 — a very bold decision — they decided they would … not only take the third [Saturn V rocket] … and fly it with humans on it, but take it around the Moon. An enormously bold decision.”
Or do i digress ?
“It was Churchill himself who, when confronted with the Authorship Question, is said to have responded that he didn’t want his ‘myths meddled with.’ Myths? What about History? What about the truth?” Yes, in that moment, Sir Winston failed in his duties as a historian of repute–but such a lapse was not unique to one who believed truth should often travel with (his phrase) a “bodyguard of lies.” What would make him behave so? That problem so endlessly provoking and stimulating to “Shakespeare”: politics.
And he still had the Cecils to deal with, didn’t he? Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 5th Marquess of Salisbury, was a member of his government.
And your comment on the proper role of intelligent conjecture (hypothesis) in the sciences, in history, in our study of the arts, should be required reading in every university entrance exam.
Aw, shucks . . .