Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.

Review: Peter Moore’s Lame Storyteller

This year the world of Oxfordian scholarship benefits by the publication of books by two of its most important scholars, Peter Moore and Richard Roe, both gone whence no traveller returns.  Roe’s long awaited Shakespeare’s Guide to Italy will be out sometime later this year, but Moore’s Lame Storyteller is available right now and I urge everyone who cares about the Authorship Question to get it while you can!  Get it, read it, and talk about it!  Whether your interest is to acquire a deeper understanding of some of the more knotty issues or to argue effectively with Stratfordians, Peter Moore is your man, for no one has ever put the argument more succinctly.  For instance: “The conventional biographies of the Bard that keep appearing, some of them written by professors, are best classified as fiction” (333).  You can’t say it better than that.

Or how about the

overly zealous professors of the school called the New Criticism (now obsolete), a powerful force in academia in the early and mid-twentieth century.  The New Criticism insists that a poem stands alone and must be examined without regard to any background––historical, cultural, or linguistic.  There is something to be said for this approach, if it is not carried to excess.  There is no reason why a Literature professor needs to to study the Battle of Balaclava in order to appreciate Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade,” but we would surely be astonished if the professor heatedly insisted that there had been no such battle. (320)

Unlike most Shakespeareans (and Oxfordians) Moore’s arguments are largely based on history, proving, to me at least, that this is absolutely the most fruitful way to deal with the authorship question.  As a collection of self-contained articles, this is a book you can dip into whenever you’ve got a few minutes and that will never fail to leave you with something important to think about.  It offers solid nutrients for newcomers to the authorship question with heaping spoonfuls of Beluga for the generals.

At a certain point in the early 1990s, Moore realized that he was never going to get his Oxfordian research published in a mainstream journal, so he began submitting articles on points that reinforce the Oxfordian argument, but without mentioning Oxford.  He got a number of these published in Notes & Queries, The English Historical Review, and Cahiers Élizabéthians, among others.  The editor has divided these essays, putting those about Shakespeare (without reference to Oxford) together in the first half of the book, those about Oxford in the last half.

Alan Nelson’s stunning gullibility

Readers who were outraged by Nelson’s Monstrous Adversary will find solace here.  Lengthy and detailed, cool and deft, Moore gets to the heart of Nelson’s problem.  Following some (well-deserved) praise for the Berkeley prof for his generosity in providing us with so much important material in his book and on his website, plus an acknowlegement of his credentials: “readers should recognize an obvious professional” in his field (English Lit)––Moore strikes at the core of his weakness: “Unfortunately, Nelson cannot do history” (288).

This of course is nothing new.  We’re stuck with any number of English professors who, when it comes to the historical imperative, can’t tell chalk from cheese.  Just a little more training, just a little more respect for the broad view, just a little more help from the History Department, and the impossibility of a Stratfordian Shakespeare would surely have been apparent long since.  But sadly History Departments are as wary of literature as English Departments are of history.

Following closely through Nelson’s depiction of six episodes in Oxford’s life, Moore shows how the professor purposely (the better word might be uncontrollably) chooses the worst possible interpretation of the facts, sometimes to a ludicrous degree.  For starters he notes how Nelson takes seriously the reports that

Oxford copulated with a female spirit, saw the ghost of his mother and stepfather, and often conjured up Satan for conversations.  Nelson then explains in detail where, when and above all, how Oxford carried out these ungodly deeds.  Unfortunately Nelson neglects to inform his readers that Howard and Arundel listed these items among the outrageous lies regularly told by Oxford.  In other words, although neither Howard nor Arundel expected their contemporaries to believe that Oxford actually committed such acts, they failed to anticipate the stunning gullibility of Nelson. (289-90)

Moore follows this with Nelson’s notion that the poet Nathaniel Baxter would have had the insane gall in 1606 to “honor” Oxford’s daughter, by then the Countess of Montgomery, with a poem in which Baxter’s term “hopping Helena” refers to Oxford’s having acquired syphilis while in Italy (290-91), then hurrying back to England so he could infect her mother and her subsequent siblings.   The absurdity of this should be clear, but not to Nelson, whose hammer-like hatred of Oxford makes every fact look like a big fat nail.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

Again and again, Nelson sides with Oxford’s enemies, however vile.  Dismissing both of Oxford’s most obvious efforts to get a military command as his own fault, Nelson ignores the influence of the Queen’s primary military leader, the Earl of Leicester.  Since Oxford must always be in the wrong, ipso facto, whoever opposes him must be nothing less than the soul of honorable duty.  That Leicester was Oxford’s rival for Elizabeth’s affections during the years that the elder Earl’s hopes of marrying her were at their height, is, of course, irrelevant.  History is clear on the subject of Leicester’s failings as a military leader, but hey, why bother with history?  Boring!

This is most obvious in Nelson’s frequent references to the efforts by Henry Howard, Charles Arundel, and Francis Southwell to destroy Oxford’s reputation in 1580-81.  To Nelson, that their testimonies were obviously driven by the need to save their own skins is simply beside the point, as is the fact that both were later found guilty of the very plotting that history clearly shows drove Oxford to accuse them.  Nelson would rather see it as Oxford’s “willingness to to betray his erstwhile friends” due to his “hatred and resentment of the whole Howard clan” (258).  Rather than use the hindsight of history to give a balanced view of what happened that December day in the Queen’s Presence Chamber, Nelson takes everything the plotters said as gospel, blandly relying on them as reliable sources throughout the rest of his book, even taking its title from a statement by Arundel, a rascal who fled the country shortly after to escape further charges of treason.

Although we are grateful for the documents and information Nelson provides, that mustn’t blind us to the fact that his purpose is not to do history, but only to reinforce his premise that Oxford was simply too wicked to be Shakespeare.  As Moore complains, with Nelson “the question of credibility never arises . . . .  The critical testimony of Francis Southwell does not appear, even in a footnote” (300).  That Southwell’s testimony is crucial to the truth, well, so what?  Nobody will notice, certainly not Nelson’s colleagues, who, equally lacking in historical fundamentals, are unlikely (unable?) to require anything more rigorous.   But Moore makes up for Nelson’s fault, providing us with the missing documentation, as well as the kind of historical perspective that lets us see clearly what Oxford’s accusers were up against.

Moore ends this section with what should be the most pertinent point of all, namely that, despite Oxford’s obvious failings: throwing away his family fortune, failing to “shoulder his share of local and national responsibilities,” and “fathering a child out of wedlock,” somehow he managed to retain both the Queen’s favor throughout her long lifetime and that of King James as well.  As Moore puts it:

How did the Queen react to Howard and Arundel’s accustaions that Oxford tried to murder her favorite, the Earl of Leicester, her Principal Secretary, Sir Francis Walsingham, her vice Chamberlain and favorite, Sir Christopher Hatton, Lord Worcester and all his household; Lord Windsor and all his household; as well as a string of other prominent courtiers, including Sir Walter Raleigh and Philip Sidney, not to mention the accusations of buggery, atheism, sedition, disrespect to her own person, etc.? . . . . she refused to take action. . . . (299)

That both monarchs should have continued to support the monster––James referring to him at one point as “great Oxford”––might suggest something fundamental about the Earl’s character and how he was seen by at least some rather important members of his community.  But not, of course, by Nelson.

The Shakespeare Clinic

Another ongoing argument that gets Moore’s attention is the Claremont College word study by Elliot and Valenza that Ward Elliot keeps claiming proves Oxford could not have written the Shakespeare canon (282-87).  After a very helpful breakdown of the various tests involved––noting that Oxford actually matched Shakespeare on some of them––Moore explains in brief and simple terms, first: why these tests can’t be taken seriously as proving anything, and second: how, if read properly, they actually do more to point towards Oxford than away from him.

The most absurd tests are probably the three involving punctuation wherein E&V show their stunning ignorance of the history of publishing!  Elliot’s claim that “Shakespeare loved compound words” would be more truthful had he said that it was his typesetters who loved them.  But there’s no need to go into detail here; the article is available on the Elizabethan Review website where those who are focussed on this issue will find the kind of detail and clarity that’s hard to find elsewhere.

Misdating the plays

In “The Abysm of Time,” Moore delves into the dating question, swiftly making the most salient points.  Noting that the present scheme comes from the venerable E.K. Chambers (1930), he informs us that”virtually every post-1930 student of the dating issue agrees that Chambers’s dates are too late.”  Having listed an impressive array of dissenters, Moore offers the “astonishing” fact that although “nearly every authority who discusses the subject agrees that Chambers’ dates are too late, . . . yet those dates still stand. . . .  in short, Chambers dead is stronger than his successors alive” (156-7).   Why did the otherwise rigorous Chambers squeeze the plays into this unlikely timeframe and why do his successors, even those who see where he went wrong, continue to follow the same faulty scheme?  Because, however unlikely, they must conform to the narrow window of time allowed by the Stratford biography.  Chambers himself admits that he was forced to fit: “ this order of the plays into the time allowed by the the span of Shakespeare’s dramatic career” (I.253, qtd by Moore, 158).

Moore notes the four general errors made by Chambers in his construction of Shakespeare’s chronology (as summarized by E.A.G. Honigmann), 1) that he relied on Meres; 2) that he interpreted Henslowe’s “ne” as “new”; 3) that he treated flimsy earliest possible dates as firm evidence; and 4) that he assumed that Shakespeare improved other men’s plays.  Moore includes the interesting fact that Chambers himself was well aware that he was wrong on three of them (159).  When the timeframe is adjusted for these errors, the plays lose their current moorings, invariably drifting back into the 1580s where they part company with William, who, born in 1564, was far too young to have had anything to do with their creation.

Moore follows this with notes on another set of problems created by the late dating, the early plays that to anyone unencumbered by the Stratford bio, seem obviously to be early versions of Shakespeare’s history plays, among them The First Part of the Contention and The True Tragedie of Richard Duke of York which later became 2 and 3 Henry VI;  The Troublesome Raigne that became King John; and Taming of a Shrew that became Taming of the Shrew.

Much Latin and more Greek

In 1994, Moore published a brief article in the SOS Newsletter that boils down the age-old argument over Shakespeare’s education into a single easily understood point.  Focussing on the two most important studies on the subject, T.W. Baldwin’s 2-volume tome on the English grammar school education and Sister Miriam Joseph’s detailed examination of his knowledge of rhetoric and logic, these

show that Shakespeare mastered Latin rhetoric and logic so fully that he could unobtrusively weave it throughout his English plays and poems.  More to the point, he did this with such art that it went unnoticed for over three centuries.  In other words, Shakepeare assimilated the educational equivalent of two years of university study, however and wherever he received it. . . . (218)

Considering the nonsense that has been written by certain modern Holofernes out to disprove Shakespeare’s education by showing where his Latin and his grasp of legal terms weren’t up to modern professional standards, I particularly appreciate Moore’s intelligent comment:

. . . all of us start forgetting the day we leave school––which of us could pass today the final exams of our first year in college?  Excellent though his memory may have been, I cannot see Shakespeare’s brain as a trap from which nothing ever escaped. (218)

Only a writer with the kind of education that we now know was given Oxford, one who acquired it through no effort or cost to himself, could have treated it as cavalierly as did Shakespeare, tossing off a half-remembered quote from Ovid or Homer as unself-consciously as a wealthy teenager in dirty jeans throws himself into his grandmother’s original Aubusson-upholstered Louis XIV armchair.

The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised

Moore’s title refers to Shakespeare’s view of himself as shown in the Sonnets.  That lame, poor and despised were not terms easily applied to William of Stratford has caused centuries of Shakespeare scholars to dismiss the Sonnets as romantic fantasies, once again ignoring history, this time the history of the sonnet.  A centuries-old vehicle for telling the truth, that is, the truth about a poet’s romantic feelings, for by tradition most poets hid the identity of their beloved and sometimes their own identities as well for  what should be obvious reasons.  If taken as history would suggest, the Sonnets were clearly written by someone suffering from feelings of low self-esteem, a picture that fits Oxford as he was in the early ’90s when it’s clear most of them were written.

His wife dead, no heir to his title, estranged from his daughters and his inlaws, in bad with the Garter Assembly, at rock bottom financially, Oxford could well have seen himself as poor and despised at this time. And as for lame, one of the better arguments for Oxford as Shakespeare, however subtle, is the athleticism of his early years.  Winning twice at the tilts, fencing, playing tennis, bowling, his dancing was such that the Queen once tried to use it to impress her foreign envoys––all of which suggests a physically active nature that fits the dramatic force of Shakespeare’s writing.  Carolyn Spurgeon makes action the keystone of his style, as most clearly revealed by his use of action verbs.

So the wound Oxford received from one of Knyvett’s retainers in 1582, though perhaps not so deep as a well, was probably enough to slow down what till then had been a very active lifestyle.  And although a lame leg would have been no deterrent to a man on horseback, perhaps it was during his short period in Holland as a commander of cavalry that he realized the full extent of his disability, for how was he to lead troops if ever he happened to lose his horse?  With walking, running, dancing no longer the safety valve they once had been, here was one more thing driving him to replace his dreams of military leadership with the desk, the pen, and the living stories of the Hotspurs of the past.

“Whose name one silent letter bounds”

An example of the riches offered by Moore is his condensed roundup of comments by Shakespeare’s contemporaries that point towards a hidden figure central to the early stages of the Elizabethan literary revolution:

A fair number of contemporary writers commented on Shakespeare, but only one did so in a way that implied he actually knew the man, that one being Ben Jonson.  Others spoke of him respectfully, but often strangely, in a way that would make sense if he were a nobleman who lost caste by association with the public stage.  What else are we to make of: “And though the stage doth stain pure gentle blood, yet generous [i.e., aristocractic] ye are in mind and mood”?

Edmund Spenser: “Pleasant Willy” in Tears of the Muses and Action in Colin Clout; Ben Jonson: revision of Sejanus and Epigram 77: “To one that desired me not to name him”; Thomas Edwards: the “center poet” in the prologue to Cephaus and Procris; Sir John Davies: Orchestra; and John Marston: a great writer “whose silent name/one letter bounds” in Sourge of Villanie; all mention some important writer who had to be referred to by a pseudonym or who could not be named at all.  (332)


Among the many issues he discusses, Moore offers important information on recent scholarship on the six signatures; interesting thoughts on Thomas Edwards and the identity of “Adon deafly masking thro” (224); important insights into the truth about the Peyton letter (239); and examples of what the term “ever-living” meant back then (241).  For those whose chief interest is the series of poems Moore calls “the ultimate fusion of intense emotion and poetical skill,” that “ought to form the centerpiece of any biography of their author” (18)––the editors provide four chapters from Moore’s as yet unpublished book on the Sonnets.

Moore provides important information about some of Oxford’s family situations, attributing the breakup of his marriage to the interference of his wife’s parents, including a close look at Ldy Burghley’s dictatorial interference with his household while he and Anne were staying at Wivenhoe early in their marriage (250).  Elsewhere he adds to our knowledge of Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth Vere by going into detail not available elsewhere on the behavior of her insanely jealous husband, the Earl of Derby (252-8).


I feel it proper to note that, for me, Moore’s writing has been a godsend, strengthening my nerve on a number of issues that without the support of his viewpoint would have me out a limb, all by myself, shaking and quaking.  First, there’s his emphasis on history.  Second, the way his historically-based viewpoint led him to identify the Earl of Essex as the the Rival Poet of the Sonnets (simply put: Who else could it have been?).  Third, the importance of Shakespeare’s education (214).  Although he did not know of my work on Smith (or else did not choose to acknowledge it), everything he says about what Shakespeare knew is pertinent, notably his knowledge of Christian theology, in particular the Book of Common Prayer (47).  In several of his articles, Moore pushes the Shakespeare timeline back to the mid-1580s, not unique to either of us, but a cornerstone of my scenario.  He notes how both Anne Cecil and her daughter Elizabeth were tormented by slanderous rumor (253, 54, 57), a theme I see as central to the lives of all women at that time, including the nature and behavior of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Sidney, and Ann Vavasor.

This is not to say that we agree on everything.  Moore’s effectiveness as an anti-Stratfordian lies largely in his native conservatism; he simply can’t play fast and loose with the facts as the Stratfordians are so wont to do.  When confronted with a gaping anomaly, rather than ignore it as they do, or attempt to fill it, as I do, he simply notes it, leaving it where he finds it.  This means that he never questions the authorship or death of Robert Greene, which leaves him unable to get any further with Groatsworth than the idea that it was written by Henry Chettle.  He never questions the identity of Spenser, Nashe, or John Webster.  He doesn’t see that the Privy Council theater patrons of the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men had reasons for the cover-up that were just as strong as Oxford’s personal need to secure his children’s futures.  But these are minor issues when compared with the importance of his work as a whole.

I can’t possibly do more here than touch on a few of the points that mean the most to me, but what I can say to those who truly care about this issue is buy this book! When you buy Oxfordian scholarship of this calibre, you not only inform and entertain yourself, you suggest to the living authorship scholars (of which I am still one) that our work is valued, and that it’s worthwhile to keep at it.

Thanks are due to editor, Gary Goldstein, former editor of The Elizabethan Review, whose excellent introduction provides a background to Moore’s life and work, and to his diligent Oxfordian publisher, Uwe Laugwitz of Germany.  A nice, sturdily bound paperback (stitched rather than just glued), this is a well-produced book and one that should hold up through years of use.  My only suggestion would be that if it should ever require a second edition, an index would be most helpful.

A can of politic worms

One of the problems with getting academics to pay attention to authorship research is that it’s cross-disciplinary in ways that leave it outside the various boxes into which most universities put their studies.  Who has credentials in not just English Lit but European Renaissance History, plus the Psychology of Creativity, plus Linguistics?  The authorship question falls not just between two stools, but three or four.  As a result, no one department is properly constituted to take the issue seriously.

Perhaps the most difficult aspect for all of these is the issue of falsification.  Academics can handle the idea that anomalies arise naturally in history, literature and science, but only through simple misunderstandings or misreadings arising out of ignorance.  They’re not trained to accept misunderstandings created on purpose.  English Lit profs are puzzled and annoyed by the problems created by the massive use of falsification in the works of the time, but like dedicated field workers deluged by rain, rather than turn their attention to the rain, they do their best to minimize or even ignore it.

The hiding of Shakespeare’s identity by his publishers is only one small example of the kind of shape-shifting that was not only not all that unusual, it was the norm during the era we study.  Most of the works that concern us were published with great care taken to blur some or all of the facts about when they were written, by whom, for what purpose, and if living persons were being addressed, who they were.  This was true, not only of the small percentage of published works that fall into the category of imaginative literature (plays, love poems, bawdy tales, novellas) but things like pro or anti-Catholic screeds and dissident polemics like those of Martin-Marprelate, while contemporary historians dealt with problems by simply ignoring the more sensitive issues.  All this to stay out of trouble with a government that was behaving more and more like Stalin’s or Hitler’s every day.  Authors, publishers, printers, later editors, all had very good reasons for hiding some or all of the facts we seek. Everything we study has to be examined keeping in mind the possibility of this kind of dissimulation.

Again and again the question in hand takes us back to the fact that the community we are discussing was so very, very small.  Where none of us today are likely to know personally the authors of the books that interest us, it was the opposite then.  For us today, when reading a book, even one by an author whose name we know, the thought never enters our mind that the name is a phony or that the front material has been created to distract us from the true authorship.

For the small percentage of the Elizabethan community who were capable of reading these books back then, the possibility was always in mind that, no matter what the name on the title page, it was probably written by someone they knew, if not intimately, then by sight and/or reputation.  In a city of under 200,000, a best seller was one that sold 1200 copies.  Imagine a publisher today being satisfied with such a number.  Where today we are awash with new titles every week in mega-bookstores with miles of shelves, there was a handful of bookstalls in St. Paul’s Cathedral churchyard, run mostly by the printers or their publishers, where weeks could go by without the appearance of something new.

Yet it’s the small size of this community that’s one of the major factors that makes it possible for us to sort out who wrote what and when.  Once we’ve identified the writers and come to know their dates, situations, attitudes, fears, goals and perspectives, we’ve got some real controls.  Styles are helpful, but only when we keep in mind that styles were changing rapidly throughout the entire period.  Some of the writers we study delighted in imitating each other; some hoped to hide their authorship by creating several completely different styles; in some a later editor may have cut or added lines for any one of a dozen reasons.  Stylistic crossovers may mean the same person wrote both works, but it may also mean that one was the other’s student at the time of writing, or that the two were working closely together at the time those works were being written.

In short, it’s absolutely necessary to know as much as possible about the men and women who were writing then, and their probable reasons for writing a particular work at a particular time.  This is where the Stratfordian dating has caused so much trouble, offsetting the origin of Shakespeare’s works by as much as two decades.  Shakespeare’s creation is so central to everything else, plays, poetry and novels, that the misdating of his works and misinterpretation of his purposes has created a mess that’s taken centuries just to begin to unravel.

We not only need to know the writers, we need to know how they related to each other.  Since they (or their descendants) left us next to nothing by which to judge, we have to rely on what is revealed by their recorded actions and by clues in their works.  We also need to know who were their enemies, who was out to stop them, whom they were praising or attacking in their works, whom they loved or hated and who loved or hated them.

To understand how individuals came to hate or depend on each other in that far off time  it’s necessary to understand the social and political forces in play.  Persons who shine as enemies in the histories were often in close contact with each other and so shared many moments of apparent good fellowship, a necessity for the dispense of business.  Underlying animosities might come to the fore and should be kept in mind, but not everything can be explained by them.  Shakespeare explores once such dichotomy in Coriolanus where the personal attraction between the Roman general and the Volscian Aufidius overwhelms their enmity as military adversaries.  Shakespeare revels in the attraction of opposites.  He is a past master of the romance of passion, something that thrives on opposition and the thirst for forbidden fruit.

On the level of the Court and the great gentry families, if you go back far enough, everyone was related to everyone else––so merely finding a family connection or an ancient family enmity says nothing about the potential relationship between two individuals.  It can add weight to more solid evidence, but by itself it means very little.  Brothers could become just as bitter enemies as two men who were taught to hate each others’ families in the nursery.  Lawrence Stone identifies the innate enmities between eldest and younger brothers created by the system of primogeniture, where boys grew up knowing that the oldest brother would inherit most of the wealth and all the titles.  He claims that the only family relationship that wasn’t stressed in any way was that of brother and sister (Family xx), but even they were often strangers to each other, having been separated early on and raised apart, sometimes at birth.

A number of forces worked to create enmities as well as alliances.  Common interests, beliefs, educations, sexual biases and the simple emotional response of true friendship, could play as much of a role as could ambition, jealousy, envy, and paranoia which, given the rigid traditions that bound them all, were certainly rife at the time.

Okay, let’s look at Shapiro

I said I wouldn’t, but a reader has asked about three particular points in the last section of Shapiro’s book, where he explains his personal view of the authorship question, so I figured I might as well deal with as many of his points as seemed worth discussing.

The main problem with Shapiro’s defense of William of Stratford as author of the Shakespeare canon, is the same problem all Stratfordians have, namely an unshakable belief that the name Shakespeare as used in publications could not possibly mean anyone or anything other than the man who was born with it.  This makes it impossible for them to respond to the Authorship Question in any real way because it prevents them from seeing that, at that time in history, such a name could rather easily have been used for another purpose.

Over and over Shapiro’s points are useless as arguments because to him the word Shakespeare can only mean William of Stratford.  Of course this works for readers who share his blind spot, but for those who have done enough reading or had enough experience of life to see that the man with the punnable name could not possibly be the real author, it’s all just wasted space.

Take for instance his point regarding the many comments on Shakespeare by his fellow writers, that “stretch without interruption from his early years in the theater to his death in 1616” (234).  This falls by the wayside because he’s assuming that in praising the author they mean William when what they so obviously mean is the author.  Apart from Greene’s “Shake-scene,” which wasn’t about either William or the author, Shapiro quotes one writer after another, all their praise of Shakespeare utterly and totally beside the point, since not one of them touches on anything that would lead us to think that they knew or believed that the author originated in Stratford, had a father named John, dealt in wool, or anything that might connect the author in any way, subtle or obvious, with William of Stratford.   Not that the London writers would necessarily have mentioned Stratford even if the author had been William, but the point here is that this rehearsal of praise by Shakespeare’s fellow writers carries no weight whatsoever in the authorship debate.  Of course they praised their great contemporary, but where’s a single point that shows that the Shakespeare they were praising was the one who came from Stratford-on-Avon in Warwickshire?

This brings us to Ben Jonson, whose dedicatory Ode in the First Folio is a classic example of the sort of fudging that cries out for disambiguation.  As evidence,   Jonson’s Ode does more for the opposition than it does for its putative author, since the only thing that connects it to William is the phrase “sweet swan of Avon.”  This contributes nothing to the apparently difficult business of directly identifying the author for although a river by this name flows through the Stratford in Warwickshire, another Avon flows past the Wiltshire estate of Jonson’s great patron, the Earl of Pembroke, Lord Chamberlain of the King’s Household, patron of Shakespeare’s Company, the King’s Men, and the book’s dedicatee.

There is one more reference to Stratford in the introductory material in the First Folio, though no less ambiguous.  Leonard Digges, Jr. provides a poem that contains the line, “thy Stratford moniment.”  During the final years of Oxford’s life, his official residence was a manor in Hackney, three miles from Stratford-at-Bow where the ancient Roman Road crosses the River Lea, continuing northeast to Oxford’s childhood home with Smith at Theydon Mount and beyond that to lands ruled by his ancestors.  If, as I believe, Oxford escaped domesticity once again to finish his writing during the final four years of his life in the Forest of Hainault, he must needs have crossed the river at Stratford, that being the only crossing over the River Lea, and headed northeast another 12 miles to Havering-at-Bower.

So which Stratford does he mean?  Which Avon?  And why doesn’t he make it more clear?

As for Jonson “proudly” listing Shakespeare first as one of the actors in his first play for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, please note, again, that this information comes from someone whose entire career was spent working for Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men, from whence cometh every single piece of evidence linking the name Shakespeare to the London Stage and the works that made them wealthy men.

Shapiro’s mention of William Camden, who listed “William Shakespeare” as one of  eleven “pregnant wits” (237) in 1605 is even more ironic, for among Camden’s comments on the important personnages from the various towns and counties throughout English that make up the bulk of his Britannia, the only names he mentions from Stratford-on-Avon are John de Stratford, Hugh Clopton, and George Carew (Jiménez 1).  But, how could he not mention that pregnant wit, Will Shakespeare?  How indeed?  Shapiro likes the term crushing for what he considers a potent thrust.  I’d call this crushing.

Even more crushing is the evidence from Michael Drayton, whom Shapiro characterizes as a “fellow native of Warwickshire and a leading poet and dramatist” who “may have known Shakespeare longer than most” (238) and whose admiring verse about him he quotes.  But what Shapiro fails to note is how Drayton ignored his supposed friend in his book Poly-Olbion.  Published in 1612, this description in verse of England, while it comments on the important personages from each county, ignores both Stratford and William Shakespeare (Jiménez 3).

If Shapiro’s got an explanation for either of these gargantuan lacunae I’d like to hear it.

Shakespeare’s familiar face?

Shapiro points to the number of Shakespeare’s plays published from 1594 on (a genuine fact), from which he leaps to the conclusion that Shakespeare was “one of the most familiar faces in London” (224), a logical fallacy if ever there was one.  I read The New Yorker and am well-acquainted with the names of the more frequently published contributors, but I could pass any one of them on the street without recognizing them in person.  And as it turns out, the man who was born with the name William Shakespeare was anything but well known in London.  In his article Ten Eyewitnesses, historian Ramon Jiménez outlines in devastating detail how William of Stratford remains a total blank as either a playwright or an actor throughout the entire period of Shakespeare’s popularity, utterly unremarked by the actors who produced the plays, utterly unremarked by his own townsfolk and relatives!

Buc’s “testimony”?

As witness to Shakespeare’s Stratford identity, Shapiro calls upon George Buc, Master of the Revels from 1610 to 1622, who knew (and honored) the Earl of Oxford, and who also wrote that “Shakespeare” told him that The Pinner of Wakefield was written by a minister who enacted the leading role himself.  Again we see the strange Stratfordian blindness to the central issue, since, again, to theater people like Buc, “Shakespeare” would have meant the author!

Committed to protecting his friend’s privacy, of course an insider like Buc would refer to the source of this information by the name he used for theater matters, not by the name he was bound to protect! Now, whether or not we Oxfordians are right, the fact that Shapiro and his colleagues think this is any kind of an argument shows better than anything we can say how utterly clueless they are about the argument itself.  It’s like a six-year-old arguing with a four-year-old over whether or not there’s a Santa.  He simply doesn’t want to believe it.

We see the same problem with his next argument, i.e., that Shakespeare had no control over his plays because in those days plays were owned, not by their authors, but by the acting companies that purchased them.  This again is an argument with little foundation, for even Ben Jonson had enough control over his own plays by 1616 to publish them as a collection.  In any case, since Oxford was a peer of the realm and a lifelong patron of acting companies with relatives and patrons of his own on the Privy Council, were he also the author of the plays that bore the name Shakespeare, then of course he (and his relatives on the Privy Council) had considerably more power over what happened to his creations than would a yeoman’s son.

Again, the argument only works if you believe that William could write, which we don’t––based on the evidence of the six shaky signatures and the utter lack of any evidence of letters, etc..  So there goes that argument, round and round in the usual circle:  William was the author, the author could write, therefore William could write and the signatures were lopsided and close to illegible because he had the palsy, or was dying, or, or, or, or . . . .   Anything to keep from facing the truth.

The hyphen?

The argument about the hyphen is interesting but hardly compelling one way or the other.  It’s true that hyphenation was largely controlled by the printer’s compositor.  It’s also true that fictional names were often hyphenated, but then they were also often left unhyphenated.  One facet of this argument that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere but here is that hyphenating Shakespeare between Shake and speare forces a particular pronunciation that turns the name into a pun: “shake spear,” whereas most of the spellings from Stratford suggest the name, if hyphenated as pronounced in Stratford, between Shaks (or Shax, or Shags) and peer, would have been “shax peer,” which implies nothing.

Shapiro notes that only 600 of the estimated 3,000 plays produced during the Elizabethan era were printed, and that none of these, “so far as anyone knows,” were printed under someone else’s name  (226).  Ah, there’s the rub!  True, the valiant authors who took such risks to get great works of fiction into print managed to cover their trails to the extent that there are many things that “so far as anyone knows” can’t be documented.  But it’s also true that “truth is truth though it be hid at the center,” and there is always a way to get at it by digging a little deeper and using one’s God-given common sense, not to mention that most indispensable of all tools when dealing with Shakespeare and his audience, one’s God-given sense of humor!

How “typical” was anonymity?

Ignoring his own statement that Shakespeare was “one of the most familiar faces in London,” Shapiro suggests that a playwright anxious about being identified could simply have let the play be published anonymously, for “nobody would notice and nobody would care” (226).  It may well be that this was what the Lord Chamberlain’s Men were hoping at first, since beginning in 1594, all the Shakespeare plays published until 1597 were published anonymously.

And it’s just as obvious that, for whatever reason, this wasn’t satisfactory since from 1597 on, almost everything published had the Shakespeare name on it (or at least W.S.).  What reason does Shapiro give for the first three-and-a-half years of anonymity before switching to a name in 1597?  None, beyond the statement that anonymity was “typical. ”  How “typical” was it in 1565 when Gorboduc, a first in English theater history, was published along with the names of both its authors? Ten years later, when the next two plays of importance in literary history, The Supposes and Jocaste, were published in One Hundreth Sundrie Flowres, the (supposed) author of both plays was also identified.  So I guess publishing plays anonymously wasn’t all that typical after all.

Shapiro scoffs that a writer who craved anonymity would dare to attribute his published plays to a well-known actor who could be hauled in for questioning, thus supposition is supported by more supposition, for the truth is that Shakespeare was not well known as an actor either.  Facts are facts, and the fact is that nowhere is there a dependable reference of any sort to Shakespeare as an actor––that is, again, except on statements issued by the LC/King’s Men or by clerks simply writing down what they’d just been told.  Compare these with the number and kind of anecdotes about about the genuinely important and well-known actors of that time: Bentley, Tarleton, Alleyn, and Kempe come to mind, it’s clear that William Shakespeare’s acting, whether fictional or real, was insignificant, since the only comment on it ever discovered states that “he was said to have played old men,” hardly a recommendation for the kind of talent that Jonson awards him by putting his name first in his list of actors in several of the plays he wrote for Shakespeare’s company.  More likely, it suggests a dodge on their part, since no role played by an actor would disguise a man so completely as that of an old man’s wig, beard, and shambling affect.

Shaxberd?  Who dat?

Shapiro wants to see the name of the author of the plays given at Court in 1604  (for Oxford’s daughter’s marriage), inscribed as “Shaxberd,” as “powerful evidence” of William’s authorship (228), but if William was “one of the most familiar faces in London,” how is it that the Court scribe in 1604 not only didn’t know how to spell his name, he didn’t know the name itself well enough even to make a good guess.  “Shaxberd” is not only a misspelling, it’s a mispronunciation, for Shaxberd sounds nothing like Shakespeare!  Clearly there was a Court scribe in 1604 who knew so little about the author (or his standin) that he could only write the name as he heard someone else pronounce it, someone who also, it seems, either did not know the author and/or did not how his name was spelled or how it was pronounced.

A man of the theater?

Shapiro makes a big thing out of the fact that Shakespeare had to be a man of the theater, skilled in writing for particular actors.  This of course is true, but where are the facts to back his knee-jerk assumption that the writer was William?  Where are the facts that go beyond the handful of documents created by or about the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the sole source of evidence that he was either an actor or a sharer?  And how are we to compare William’s connection to the theater when his name shows up nowhere in any record of an acting company until he’s 26 years old, and who, it seems, leaves London at the peak of his career to return to suing neighbors in his hometown for piddling amounts of money, whilst apparently ignoring the publication of his plays?

How then does William as a man of the theater compare with Oxford, who created entertainment for the Court in his early twenties; had his name on the lease of the Children’s theater at Blackfriars in his thirties; was listed as “best for comedy” by Meres in his forties; had his life story touched on in almost every play that bears the Shakespeare name; and had every reason to hide his identity as author of plays that tell, not only his and his family’s story, but damaging insider views of the leading personalities at Court and in the government?

The Court epilogue?

The Court epilogue to Henry IV Part Two that Shapiro believes was spoken by the author himself to a Court audience at some point in the latter half of the ’90s decade:

First, my fear; then, my curtsy; last my speech.  My fear is your displeasure.  My curtsy, my duty.  And my speech, to beg your pardons.  If you look for a good speech now, you undo me.  For what I have to say is of my own making.  And what indeed (I should say) will (I doubt) prove my own marring.  But to the purpose and so to the venture.  Be it known to you, as it is very well, I was lately here in the end of a displeasing play, to pray your patience for it, and to promise a better.  I meant indeed to pay you with this, which if (like an ill venture) it come unluckily home, I break, and you, my gentle creditors, lose.  Here I promised you I would be, and here I commit my body to your mercies.  Bate me some, and I will pay you some, and (as most debtors do) promise you infinitely.  And so I kneel down before you, but indeed, to pray for the Queen. (232)

Where is there any evidence that this or any other such epilogue was ever intended to be spoken by the play’s author?  And even if playwrights ever did speak such epilogues themselves, why on earth would this one include his personal remarks in a playscript given to the entire company?  For that matter, why even bother to write it down?  Surely such a moment would be more conversational than programed.  Point being: Shapiro profers no evidence that this speech was intended to be spoken by the author of the play, first because it would make no sense, and second because there’s no evidence!

What we do have in the way of evidence are twelve Shakespeare plays in which such an epitaph is included in the playscript, and in every one it is an actor who is to remain alone onstage at the end in order to address the epilogue to the audience.  Among such are Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Pandarus in Troilus, Rosalind in As You Like It, and Prospero in The Tempest.  So the actual probability is that the Court epilogue was written for the same actor who spoke a similar epilogue for the public, published just before this one in 1600, namely Will Kempe, a comedian familiar at Court since the early ’80s at least.

Written in Kempe’s style, the wording suggests that the actor who was intended to speak it was the lead in whatever play had recently displeased the Court.  This, as Shapiro suggests, was most likely its immediate predecessor, Henry IV Part One, a play that caused a Court scandal over its use, or rather misuse, of the name Oldcastle, the original name for Falstaff and the role played by Kempe in both plays.

The most displeased courtier would have been William Brooke, a descendant of the original Oldcastle, who was regarded as a regular Reformation saint by his Cobham descendants.  William Brooke, Ld Cobham was also at that time Lord Chamberlain of the Queen’s household and thus the patron and overseer of Shakespeare’s company.  Since Cobham, for reasons of his own, was acting against the interests of the company he was supposed to be patronizing by blocking their use of the theater at Blackfriars, it’s understandable that the angry author struck back by sticking his ancestor’s name on the naughty fat knight, an act of defiance perfectly understandable if commited by someone of Oxford’s exalted status, but near suicidal if by someone like William.

As for “all that begging and curtsying” noted by Shapiro, while not appropriate for a courtier, how does it better suit William of Stratford than Will Kempe, who having played the role in Henry IV Part One, played the same role in Part Two, gave the first version of the epilogue in the public performance of Part Two, and who, if in trouble over “Oldcastle,” would have been required to make amends with just such a statement?  And it was Kempe, not the author, whose portrayal of the naughty knight would have reduced the Court audience to the kind of hysterics that would have infuriated Cobham, and so it would, again, have been Kempe, speaking for the whole company, whose job it was to make the necessary apology.

Shapiro finds significance in the line: “What I have to say is of my own making . . . .”  What this actually suggests is that with Kempe’s tendency to extemporise in mind, the author was doing what he could to force the comedian to take responsibility for any ill-considered departures he might make from the script while directly addressing the Court audience.  That Kempe left the LCMen at about this time and took off on his own comedy tour is a known fact, though it is not known whether he did so by his own choice, or whether his departure was a decision made for him by the company, or perhaps by some higher authority––the Lord Chamberlain perhaps?

In any case, there’s absolutely nothing in the nature of this anecdote to suggest that it was the author of the play who spoke the epilogue.  Nothing, that is, but a desperate desire on the part of a Stratford apologist  to find something, anything, that shows William as a participant in the London theater scene––the same desperate desire that fuels the constantly repeated claim that Robert Greene had William in mind as the “Johannes Factotem” and “Shake-scene” of Groatsworth.  As we’ve explained at length over the past twenty years, there’s no one who could possibly have filled that role in 1592 but the actor Edward Alleyn, England’s first superstar and recently turned stage manager at the Rose.

Rutland’s impresa?

Shapiro shares his gullibility in these points with most Stratfordians, but he’s largely on his own with the contention that it was “Mr. Shakespeare and Richard Burbage” who created the impresa for the Earl of Rutland in 1613 (231), for most orthodox Shakespeareans are inclined to take this with salt.  The notion that either Shakespeare or Burbage would step out of their exalted roles as playwright and leading actor of what was by then the King’s own royal company to do something so lowly as make something with their hands for a mere handful of shillings, or that the earl would request it of them, is patently absurd.  Rutland may have turned to his friends at the theater knowing that they had the connections for getting props made for plays, but that they made it for him themselves makes no sense.

Whatever the explanation, it’s clear that attempting to base a theory of identity on such dissociated bits smacks of desperation.  Consider the kind of rich and authentic background we have for Ben Jonson, or even Christopher Marlowe, as compared to puzzling little fragments like this, and you can see how void is the the history of the period with anything supportive of the Stratford claim.

An example of Stratfordian fudging

Shapiro: “Shakespeare had been writing plays for five or six years before one of them, Titus Andronicus, was finally published in 1594.  Its title page advertised the names of the playing companies who had performed it, not who wrote it.  This was typical.  Even the most celebrated plays by the most popular Elizabethan dramatists appeared anonymously.  We have no documentary evidence that Christopher Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine, and if not for a casual allusion by Thomas Heywood in the early seventeenth century, Thomas Kyd’s name would not be linked to his masterpiece from the late 1580s, the Spanish Tragedy” (226).

This is an example of how events can be misread when seen without the necessary background.  February 1594, when Titus was published, was the beginning of the end of the chaotic period––1588-1594––when the newborn theater industry was in most danger of being destroyed by its government and church enemies.  Marlowe, author of London’s first superhit, had just been assassinated, while within four months Marlowe’s patron and patron of the company that produced it, would be poisoned to death.  That Titus and the two other Shakespeare plays published that spring were published anonymously just then can’t be seen as “typical” of anything.

The statement that “even the most celebrated plays by the most popular Elizabethan dramatists appeared anonymously,” blandly ignores the fact that Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Kyd, or, more accurately, Shakespeare, Marlowe and Lyly, were not just the most popular Elizabethan dramatists in 1594, they were the only Elizabethan dramatists in 1594!

Fact: there was no such thing as a professional playwright in Elizabethan England in 1594, nor would there be until Ben Jonson arrived on the scene later in the decade!  This was the dawn of the English Renaissance!  This brief period (from 1587 when Marlowe had his huge success with Tamburlaine) was the real birth of the English commercial stage as something more than a rich man’s toy.  In fact, if we eliminate Lyly, (whose biography places him in the company of empty names like Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe), we have only two “most popular Elizabethan dramatists,” during the short period of 1594-1597: Shakespeare and Marlowe.  And since we know how Marlowe’s attempts to function as a professional served him, we’re left, between 1593 and 1597, with only one: Shakespeare!

And so, without plunging into deep background, suffice it to say that with Shakespeare’s plays getting no accreditation, it’s no surprise that whoever published Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in 1590 left his name off the title page for the same reasons, whatever they were.  As for Kyd, it’s so doubtful that he wrote anything but (perhaps) the translation of Tasso that’s the only thing that actually bears his name, that any comments on the authorship of The Spanish Tragedy belong to a separate discussion.

Shakespeare’s death

Shapiro’s argument that we authorship folks make too much of the lack of response to William’s death once again is utterly beside the point, as once again he confuses William’s person with the works of Shakespeare.  Pointing to the publication of several of the plays three years after Williams’s death, in what way does this show concern for the man himself?  After a description of the success of this publication and details, all beside the point, he makes what is a much more cogent comment:

Shakespeareans are still a bit mystified by the motives behind the Pavier quartos.  Whatever led to their publication [in 1619], it’s obvious that surprisingly little time elapsed from news of Shakespeare’s death to determined efforts to see his collected plays in print” (241).

One might almost guess that the Grand Possessors had been waiting for the proxy to pass out of reach of any questioning before they moved to publicize his connection with the canon.  And how about the fact that the finished book didn’t reach the bookstalls until a few months after Stratford’s wife too had passed on in August of 1623?

Shapiro’s comments on the dedicatory poems raise the issue of Leonard Digges, Jr., author of one of the poems in the Folio, and of another in one of its later editions.  Digges was the grandson of the scientist Leonard Digges, an in-law of Sir Thomas Smith, Oxford’s tutor for the most formative years of his life.

No doubt there is more grist for my mill in Shapiro’s book, but this has gone on long enough.  I must admit he has put one thing better than anyone else I’ve read, namely the paragraph on the  “syndicate” that formed to produce the First Folio (241).  I’m also pleased to note that he mentions my name as the author of an article published in Shakespeare Matters and makes frequent reference to articles published in The Oxfordian during my tenure as editor.  His list of Oxfordian scholars, articles, books, etc. in the final Bibliographic Essay is perhaps the most complete anywhere in hardback.  Like Alan Nelson and so many other orthodox scholars, we’d be a lot less well informed without him.

Too bad however that the right hand still remains so ignorant of what the left hand is doing; or perhaps I should say, that the left brain of English Literature (the Lit Crit crew)  remains so utterly ignorant of what the right brain does (the artists themselves), then, now, and forever, world without end.

The Real Authorship Question

The Authorship Question is a lot bigger than just who wrote the Shakespeare canon.  Bigger, wider, broader, and deeper.  The problem isn’t just who wrote the works of Shakespeare, it’s more like who wrote everything that qualifies as fiction during the English Literary Renaissance?  We have half a dozen genuine candidates for the role of Shakespeare, what about them?  They can’t all have been Shakespeare.

Forget about the group theory, that is, any idea that a group of writers worked together on the plays the way they do today on screenplays.  That’s nonsense.  No great and unique work of literature every got written that way.  That’s just as idiotic as the idea that Marlowe came back from the dead or that a 16th-century woman wrote Shakespeare.  Let’s be serious.

And what about the other writers who have biographies just as weak as William’s?  What about Robert Greene, whose later works sound so much like early Shakespeare, yet who has almost nothing in the way of a biography?  Why should we know so much about Ben Jonson and nothing about Greene, whose career was only a little shorter than Jonson’s?  What about Edmund Spenser who somehow managed to escape Marlowe’s fate despite his transparently anti-establishment beast fables?  Or Thomas Nashe, who simply vanished after the Isle of Dogs disaster, unlike his co-authors who both wound up in jail?

What about John Lyly, who despite the popularity of his plays and Euphues novels, never published or produced another thing for the last 18 years of his life?  Or Francis Bacon, who published nothing for the first 36 years of his life?  What about the playwright John Webster, who has absolutely nothing in his documented biography to suggest that he was anything but the son of a coachmaker?  What about George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, Thomas Kyd, and all the other authors with dodgy or nonexistent writer’s bios?  And this is only the merest glance at the true size and scope of a question in which Shakespeare’s role is only one small factor, however large it’s loomed over time.

Since it seems the English Lit folks won’t, or can’t, make sense of this, it’s time to have a go at it from the History side.  Fitting together personalities, biographies, dates and locations, I’ve pieced together a broad overview that explains this mess, one that fills in the gaping anomalies and creates a scenario that accounts for almost all the problems that the authorship scholars denote, be they Oxfordians, Stratfordians, Baconians, or Marlovians.

But first it’s necessary to understand why it happened the way it did.

The nature of the Reformation

It always boils down to terminology, to words.  Much as they avoided the truth about the 20 years of war that tore the English society apart in the 17th century by calling it, or part of it, The Interregum, English historians have sugar-coated what should be called the English Revolution by calling it the Reformation. Yes, it was the English version of the Reform movement that was sweeping northern Europe at that time, but it was also, perhaps even more so, a political revolution.  And although it didn’t reach the chaotic depths of the French or Russian Revolutions in later centuries, for those who were most at risk, it was just as devastating.

Hundreds of English families were torn apart, sons fled to the continent, parents imprisoned, their properties confiscated.  Hundreds were burnt at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, for the crime of wishing to pursue the religion of their fathers, or of attempting to create a new one with only minor differences from that chosen by the State, or for assisting friends and family members who were in trouble.

Church properties were given away, churches and other religious buildings were torn down, their stone used to build houses for the reformers and their friends.  Law were passed, taking away the rights and prerogatives of those who refused to join the revolution, penalizing them with heavy fines, rewarding those who turned them in to authorities, thus opening the way for blackguards to destroy their neighbors and take their properties through false accusations.  Where is there a difference here between what happened during the Elizabethan era and what happened in France and Russia and is still happening in places like Somalia, Burma, and East Timor?

What happens to important writers during times like these?  Consider the atmosphere in 1775 when the members of the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the witticisms that accompanied the signing of what many believed would be their death warrant.  Others who believed in the new nation refused to sign out of fear of British vengeance, of what it would do to their families were they to fail.  Consider the fates of writer Alexander Solzenitzen and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov during the Stalin years, of playwright Vaclav Hamel during the Russian attack on the Czech Republic, of Chinese writers under Chairman Mao.  Consider the fates of Rousseau, Ovid, Cicero, the list goes on.  Why would England during its great revolution be any different?

Revolutions make changes in many other arenas than politics or religion.  Consider how the French called each other “Citizen” during the Revolution, how the Russians called each other “Comrade”; how Stalin banned all art but the monumental worker style, or the Nazis burned the paintings of the “decadent” German expressionists, allowing only a cheap calendar style based on German folk sentiment; how they allowed only works by “Aryan” composers to be played at concerts.

When Oxford began writing, the atmosphere wasn’t all that different from the attitudes of the German “reformers” of the 1930s and ’40s towards anything but sentimental folk art.  Fear of self-expression is evident in the works of Reformation pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham.  The standards during Oxford’s youth were different, but they were equally low––C.S. Lewis calls it the “drab era.”  That Oxford used his status to create an opening for Renaissance ideals and ideas, not only for himself, but for other younger writers in whom he saw talent, is demonstrated in the prefaces he wrote for Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan.  He knew from early on that he would have to dissociate himself and his name from the works he published.  He simply had no choice.  And thank God he did, or the English we speak today would be a different language.

Oxford used an age-old trick, publishing his and others’ works (chiefly Bacon’s though perhaps others as well) as though by someone who was not in any position to know the persons they were satirizing or the issues they were addressing.  Those in a similar position who came after him used the same tactic, Bacon until the late 1590s and Mary Sidney until 1621.  There may have been others as well.  This continued for a relatively brief period, beginning with the earliest publications in the 1560s, and ending at about the time the First Folio was published.

Which is not to say that no one ever used this ruse again, or that no one during the period ever published under their own names.  However, once the pattern is revealed, it becomes clear that those writers who wrote creative, original fiction, poetry, plays, pamphlets, novellas, and who stood to suffer if their identities were known, used pseudonyms or the names of persons they paid to act as proxies.  Those who refused to conform, either to a style that the government would accept or to the use of phony names, were doomed to suffer, as witness Christopher Marlowe and to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson.

This, then, is the reason for the mares nest that is the literary history of the English Literary Renaissance, and nothing that the adherents of the Stratford story have to say will make a particle of sense until they begin to accept this as the background to the creation and publication of the works of Shakespeare, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and a dozen others with similar problems.

The smoking canon

We hear all the time from both sides that we have no firm proof of Oxford’s hand in Shakespeare’s plays, no “smoking guns.”  The fact is that we have dozens, scores, hundreds of perfectly acceptable facts, the kind that in a less controversial inquiry would never be questioned.  Some are more obvious than others, but when they’re all connected they provide a perfectly understandable picture of Oxford’s creation, not only of the plays and poems of Shakespeare, but of the London Stage and the English periodical press that bore them.   The problem is not finding answers, we have the answers, it’s getting the media to pay attention.  Hey, this guy created you!  Aren’t you curious?

Lacking direct evidence, we turn, as does every historian working earlier than printing, with proximity, timing, identification, anomalous absence or a combination of these.  Here are a few of our “smoking guns”:

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s metaphors reflect all the special interests of Oxford’s tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, with whom he lived and studied from age four to twelve.  The Law, Greek and Latin literature, English history, horticulture, distilling, medicine, astrology/astronomy, falconry, have all been noted by scholars as areas in which Shakespeare showed an unusual level of knowledge.

Proximity and identification: Shakespeare’s primary sources reflect titles in Oxford’s tutor’s library list.  Even some of the more arcane sources are to be found there.

Proximity and identification: Half of Shakespeare’s plays take place in the towns in Italy that Oxford visited in 1575, a personal experience reflected in the numerous references to things that only someone who had been to those towns at that time could possibly have known.  (Oxfordian scholars have provided all the evidence for this that anyone could ever require; hopefully some day some of it will be available in hardback).

Proximity and timing: The London commercial Stage, the venue in which Shakespeare’s genius took form, was created within months of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576. It came to life in two locations, the small private indoor theater for the wealthy in the Liberty of Blackfriars, which Oxford must have known from his documented involvement in Court entertainments in the 1560s and early ’70s; and at Burbage’s big public theater, located on land still largely controlled by his companion from Cecil House days, the Earl of Rutland.

Proximity and timing: The innovative round wooden theater built by Burbage in Norton Folgate in 1576 was based on a design by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius (as shown by mainstream scholar Frances Yates).  During Oxford’s childhood with Smith he was privy to a Latin edition of this ancient work that he could easily have researched again on his return from Italy.  In a visit to Siena he may even have seen such a round wooden theater in action, built by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio as a dry run for his great marble indoor Teatro Olimpico, built a few years later on the same Vitruvian principles of sound amplification.  The Italians were immersed at the time in creating the most beautifully resonant wooden stringed instruments ever made.

Identification: Shakespeare’s plays reflect events in Oxford’s life, most notably seven that focus on a situation that reflects the breakup with his wife that took place on his return from Italy in 1576.  Pericles, Cymbeline, All’s Well, Much Ado, A Winter’s Tale, and Othello, all involve a villain who breaks up a marriage or engagement by suggesting to a highly suggestible man that his wife has been unfaithful.  There’s even a hint of this scenario in Measure for Measure (Angelo’s cruelty towards Mariana) and in Hamlet (his otherwise mysterious harassment of Ophelia).  In Oxford’s life this villain was his cousin, Ld Henry Howard.

Identification and anomalous absence: Several early history plays that are commonly regarded as sources for Shakespeare’s history plays, feature Oxford’s antecedents in speaking roles: The True Tragedy of Richard the Second features the 9th Earl, The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth features the 11th, and The True Tragedy of Richard the Third features the 13th; all of them playing, to a greater or lesser extent, the roles they actually played in history. While rewriting these plays in the 1590s As Richard II, Henry V, and Richard III, the author kept the characters based on the ancestors of other well-born patrons of the London Stage like the Stanleys (Ld Strange’s Men, Derby’s Men), the Pembrokes (Pembroke’s Men), and Howards (Ld Admiral’s Men).  He eliminated all the speaking roles for the ancestors of only one of these patrons, the Earl of Oxford.

Proximity: After returning from Italy in 1576, Oxford left his former residences in the West End and Central London, moving north and east to Bishopsgate where he renovated a manor walking distance from all four of the commercial theaters then in operation in London, to the south, the two City theater inns, the Bull and the Cross Keyes, to the north in Norton Folgate, Burbage’s big outdoor Theatre and the smaller Curtain.

Proximity and timing: By 1580, when Oxford set up housekeeping at Fisher’s Folly in the theater district of Shoreditch, he happened to be located one door from where 14-year-old Edward Alleyn lived and worked at his parent’s Inn, the Pye (later known as the Dolphin).  Later, as the lead in Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, Alleyn would become the first superstar of the London Stage.

Proximity, timing, and identification: In the 1580s, during his early years at Fisher’s Folly, Oxford’s secretaries included the authors of poetry, plays and novellas Anthony Munday (author of Zelauto, dedicated to Oxford), John Lyly (author of plays for Paul’s Boys), Thomas Watson (author of Hekatompathia, A Passionate Century of Love), and George Peele (author of The Arraignment of Paris) all known by historians as members of what they term the “University Wits.”  Other members of this group can be connected to the Fisher’s Folly group though less obviously, among them Thomas Lodge (author of Rosalynde, the source for As You Like It), Robert Greene (author of Pandosto, the source for The Winter’s Tale), Thomas Kyd (whose Spanish Tragedy has a close relation to Hamlet) and Christopher Marlowe, whose plays contain a number of shared tropes with Shakespeare.

Proximity and identification: All the other candidates for Shakespeare that one hears bruited about were individuals closely connected to Oxford in some way.  Francis Bacon was his cousin and his neighbor during his teen years; the Earl of Derby was his son-in-law; Mary Sidney was his youngest daughter’s mother-in-law; Emilia Bassano was his neighbor in her childhood and was raised and educated by his sister-in-law.  With Oxford as Shakespeare, all of these, most notably including Marlowe, can be even more closely connected.

Identification: The one identification that most mainstream scholars is that Ld Burghley, the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet. They fail to mention that he was also Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, which suggests that his daughter, Oxford’s wife, was the model for Ophelia, that Queen Elizabeth was the model for Gertrude, and the Earl of Leicester was the model for the murderous Claudius.  Would you eager that everyone know that you had written something accusing one of the most powerful men in England of murdering a rival, or the Queen of complicity?  And these are only one example of other identifications of important Court figures that can easily be made if Oxford is seen as the author.

Timing and identification: The first seventeen of Shakespeare’s Sonnets are known as the “marriage sonnets” because they urge the “Fair Youth” to marry.  That the Fair Youth was the young Earl of Southampton has been agreed upon by enough scholars to accept it as fact.  These seventeen sonnets have been dated (by scholars unknown to each other) to the early 1590s at a time when the teenaged Southampton was being pressured by his guardian, Ld Burghley, to marry Oxford’s daughter.

Identification: Emilia Bassano, whose profile perfectly fits that of the Dark Lady of the Sonnets, grew up near Fisher’s Folly.  In her teens she lived with and was educated by the Countess of Kent, Oxford’s sister-in-law.  In her late teens and early twenties she was the mistress of Ld Hunsdon, the Lord Chamberlain who founded The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the acting company that grew rich on Shakespeare’s plays.  That the Lord Chamberlain’s Men could also be seen as the company of the Lord Great Chamberlain is the kind of double meaning that Shakespeare was so fond of.  There are a number of contemporary documents in which the Lord Great Chamberlain is referred to simply as “the Lord Chamberlain.

All the world of London knew Oxford as the Lord Great Chamberlain, a title he was born to, one that represented 17 generations of support for the English Crown.  They knew he’d been the Queen’s ward, that he was the son-in-law of the Queen’s Lord Treasurer, that he’d had the temerity to break off with his wife, Burghley’s daughter, and that he’d gotten one of the Queen’s maids of honor with child for which he’d been banished from the Court for three years.  All of London knew this about him.  So let’s consider how the Queen, Burghley, and the many other Court figures he portrayed, many in a less than kindly light, some as out and out villains, might have felt about all of London knowing that it was the Lord Great Chamberlain himself who, as Shakespeare’s Cleopatra put it, had thus “boyed” them on stage for all the world to hiss or laugh at.

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

They all knew each other

It’s hard for us today to understand why a writer would wish to hide his identity.  We live in a society where, to get ahead in life, one must become known to as many people as possible.  We go to particular colleges where we can meet the right people, we “network,” we get on websites like Facebook and Myspace, we are fascinated by celebrities; magazines and television people make their livings reporting on their lives and showing pictures of their faces.

This is one reason why so many Americans, young ones in particular, are focused on achieving fame.  In a world where there are so many people, such quick turnovers, such constant movement, changes in personnel, entire companies relocating over vast distances, even to foreign countries, a trend that’s been spreading and expanding for generations, more and more there seems to be no other way to feel important or needed than to become world famous, or at least as famous as possible.  For this reason we have a hard time understanding why someone would actually not want to become famous.  In a world where fame seems necessary to establish identity, it seems unnatural that a writer would want to hide his identity to the point where it could get permanently lost.

We need to keep in mind how very small were the communities involved in this question.  If we don’t we’re in danger of being so blinded by today’s world-view that much of what this story is about won’t make sense.  Where today we have thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of publishers and published writers, hundreds perhaps thousands of would-be playwrights, far more than any one person can know personally or even that they exist, Elizabethan readers could count the published writers of that time, those they could identify, on the fingers of one hand.

While today we see the world more as an ocean of vast if vague possibilities, dotted here and there by islands of what is known, all of it subject to change, most Elizabethans still saw themselves as members of a handful of small overlapping communities that saw only occasional changes.  Think in terms of a small town, where changes to the population occur only through childbirth, death, and the occasional newcomer out to find better work or escaping from trouble somewhere else. Think in terms of a high school where no one ever graduates, where the football captain and the homecoming queen take those roles with them into old age.

This stable universe was changing; economic pressures and other factors made it seem to many at that time that there was far less stability than their fathers had known, but seen from today’s perspective, it was stable to a degree that most of us no longer expect or even understand.  Unconsciously we always have the sense that there are many unknown people out there just beyond the perimeter of our consciousness.  If we are uncomfortable with the people around us, we can make changes, get divorced, move to a different neighborhood, get a different job.  Their options were far fewer.  Basically they were stuck with each other.

They were also stuck with themselves, that is, everyone they knew knew everything there was to know about them, about their family history, for good or ill, ugly rumors, misbehaviors, plus their own feelings of guilt and oppression.  Until we understand this we won’t understand what the Revels meant to them, those annual moments of emotional release, of social reversal when they could hide their burdensome identities and play at being the Hobby Horse or the Green Man.  Until we understand this we won’t understand what the birth of the London Stage meant to the Elizabethans.

So please try to keep in mind that this story calls for a cast of tens––not thousands, not even hundreds.  There may still be an unknown figure here and there that time will reveal, but for the most part, be assured that every role in this scenario was played by someone well known to the others, and probably well known to history as well.  This in itself should suggest at least one reason for their need for secrecy.  With this and with every other factor, think small town, think small town high school.

The other major factor to keep in mind is dates.  The series of events I propose is based primarily on a time structure of dates that unfold within the reality of the small size of the educated Elizabethan arts community and the necessary conclusion to be drawn from that fact, which is that they all knew each other very well.  Everything good, everything bad.  With this comes some understanding of the author’s power and consequently his need for secrecy.  He was the Hobby Horse of his community, their Martin Mar-Authority figure.  He was their Green Man.

That darn name!

Who was Shakespeare?

If we anti-Stratfordians are ever successful at raising the issue, the question will someday be opened where it belongs, in the Halls of Academe; academe, a word that the true author took from Greek, knowledge of which he had acquired in childhood from his tutor, the man who put Homeric Greek on the curriculum at Cambridge university in the 1540s.

Meanwhile we can work to unravel the Gordian knot that prevents so much discourse from taking place, that the author’s protectors so cleverly left in the way of discovery.  Because the name means different things to different people, we never get past the first confusion.  To me and others who have realized that William of Stratford simply could not possibly have written the works of Shakespeare, the name Shakespeare has come to mean the author of the works, so we are agreed that the name does not mean the man who was born with it, it refers to the man who made it famous, whoever he turns out to be.

“I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”

Shakespeare is, and always has been, less a person than a body of work.  We refer to Shakespeare as we refer to Mark Twain or Lewis Carroll.  When we speak of Lewis Carroll, we don’t mean Charles Lutwidge Dodson, the stammering Oxford math professor, or to Mark Twain as Samuel Langhorne Clemens, the quondam steamship tyro and printer’s apprentice, or Ellery Queen as the Brooklyn cousins who made up the name for their author cum fictional detective; we mean their works, their books, their stories.  Just so, when most of us speak of Shakespeare we don’t mean either William of Stratford, deer poacher,  butcher’s apprentice, or Edward de Vere, rascally Earl of Oxford––we mean the plays and the poems that continue to delight us.

It’s the name Shakespeare that brings on the confusion over the authorship, so if we’re to understand each other, if we’re to sort out the confusion caused by the name, we need to define what we mean by it.  When I began writing about Shakespeare I stuck the name Hopkins (that of a revered ancestor) in between my given and my family name for this very reason, to distinguish me from the 13 other women named Stephanie Hughes I found when I googled my name.  (By now there would probably be 113!)

We need names in order to communicate with each other.  And, although, as the Bard himself put it, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet; conversely, to call a daisy a rose would cause confusion.  Just so, when it comes to dissecting the authorship problem, since  it is his name that has been the primary cause of confusion, it is to eliminate that confusion that I refer to William Shakespeare of Stratford as William of Stratford––as English a name as ever was.

Where there is cause to write his family name, I spell it Shakspere, one of the more common spellings used by the clerks in his home town and before the world followed the version used by the London acting company on the various title pages and documents that ever since have constituted the paper trail meant to demonstrate authorship.  Since we would never have known or cared anything about William of Stratford had it not been for the great writer who used his surname, I believe it’s the writer who made the name famous who deserves it, not the man who traded it for a big house, a coat of arms, a monument in his local church, and the right to call himself “Gent.”  William’s defenders should be satisfied by this decision, for clearly the man was well-paid for its use, and so far as we know, he never complained.

In any case, it’s far from clear that the name as we know it from the title pages and legal documents was the same name, either as spelled or as pronounced, by William and his family and their Stratford neighbors. Spelling, of course, was all over the map in those days, and Shakspere was a rather unusual name.  Although there were other Shakespeares in England at the time, they were not numerous, and most of them lived in Warwickshire where it was spelled in almost as many different ways as there were clerks and scriveners to inscribe it in the town record books, where the variety of spellings reflects their interpretations of how they heard it.  We have no spelling of the name by any of the Shakspere family, since none of them could write their names, including, obviously, William himself.

Some of these spellings strongly suggest that the name was not pronounced as we pronounce it today.  Spellings that begin with “Shaks,” “Shacks,” “Shax,” or “Shags” suggest that, for William’s family and neighbors, the first syllable ended, not after the e, giving the a a long sound (as in bake or rake), but after the s, giving it a short sound (as in axe or sacks).  In addition, the occasional spelling of the second syllable as “pyere” or “pyeer” suggests that this part of the name was similar to the French pronunciation of the name Pierre.

In our view, the most likely derivation of the name was an anglicization of the French given name, Jacques-Pierre, which was, and still is, pronounced “Shax-pyair,” or, “Shak-es-pyair.” (The French pronunciation has some soft g in it, but is really closer to sh.)  As French for James PeterJacques-Pierre was a favorite with French Catholics, as it combines the names of two of the Galilean apostles, James and (Simon) Peter.

The French have always liked double names; there are a handful of Jacques Pierres on (I’m particularly taken with the California vintner: Jacques Pierre Schlumberger.)  Since we can finally accept  the evidence that the Shakspere family were Catholics, it’s a good bet that, on his father’s side, William was descended from a French workman or bond servant (of the sort often known only by their given names) who imigrated to England at some point during the Norman diaspora that followed the Conquest in 1066.

Among scores of other possible spellings that have been accumulated by scholars from the scrolls and ledgers that constitute what remains of Stratford town records, the modern spelling, S-h-a-k-e-s-p-e-a-r-e, does occur, but it was not the predominant spelling until the 17th century when the title pages of his plays and published references derived from them had made the long a spelling famous.  As for the pronunciation, surely it was pronounced as we do today by those who bought the published plays in London, while in Stratford the pronunciation continued as it had always been.  Thus over time, as the fame of the canon spread, the pronunciation changed from from the Stratford “Shax-pyair” (accent on the second syllable), to today’s “Shake-spear” (accent on the first).  Why the change?  Because the second spelling and the pronunciation it evokes, creates a pun.

The name’s the game

I believe that William Shakespeare was chosen as stand-in or proxy for the nation’s leading playwright primarily because of his name.  He had other virtues, for instance that he was located far enough away that London gossip would not reach his community of wool dealers and ale brewers anytime soon.  That he was illiterate was also a boon, because he would not try, as did Anthony Munday, to palm off his own work on printers as that of his famous boss.  As a member of a well-known Catholic family, in that cruelly prejudiced time, he knew how to keep a low profile, and as a man with a large family to care for and no great skills of his own, the money was most welcome.

But his real selling point was none of these, for these could be found in hundreds of Williams throughout the land.  It was the addition of his wonderful surname that won him the great windfall, because although spelled William Shakespeare, a name that could be proven to be the real name of a real person, it also holds a magnificent anagram, one that could not possibly be an accident: Will I am shake spear. “I am Will” who “will shake [a] spear!”

This punning anagram, sailing past the heads of the hoi polloi (and today’s academics) signaled to the inner circles of his audience––those with an ear for puns––that the author himself was a fictional being like his own Doll Tear-sheet.  If they were among that elite minority who could read the Greek philosophers and dramatists in their own language and liked to refer to themselves as Athenians, they would catch the reference to Athena, patron goddess of Athens, always portrayed with a spear in one hand and a helmet of invisibility on her head.  And should  anyone tried to publish their own stuff under that name, or otherwise cause the hidden author grief, he would shake his spear at them.  Though but a little spear, the kind one dips into an inkwell, it drew blood all right, so much so that to stay alive and keep on writing, the Athenian who shook it on the London Stage had to keep his helmet of invisibility on at all times.

I believe that it was in this manner that an anglicized French name that had no connection with shaking a spear became, through a slight modification in spelling and pronunciation, the pen name of England’s greatest and most famous writer.  And it was also in this manner that William, son of John, husband of Anne, father of three, acquired the biggest house in Stratford, and was able to give his wool-dealer father the social elevation he craved, providing him with a family coat-of-arms and a monument in the local church, himself acquiring enough money to invest locally in land and in buildings in London, hoard grain in time of famine, and take his Warwickshire neighbors to court over a handful of silver.

Anti-Stratfordians should never sneer or laugh at William, for it’s largely due to his ability to keep his mouth shut over two long decades that “the grand possessors” were finally able to get the First Folio published.  One scholar’s term for William, “prudent,” seems particularly apt, and though his great silence was no doubt based on self-interest (and perhaps a bit on his suspicion of neighbors out to bring grief to recusant Catholics), it has worked worked well for us, for the true author and his actors, and for the wider worlds of the Theater and English letters.

Shake spear and Deep throat

Why on earth would any author as great as the one who called himself Shakespeare want to hide his true identity?

Those of us who’ve researched the issue hear this question all the time and find it hard to answer.   The clues left by Ben Jonson, the Pembrokes and John Hemmings, by Oxford and his family, show that they were good at disinformation.  Shakespeare’s patrons, friends and colleagues lived in a time when keeping secrets was a survival technique.  By hiding the truth about him, by turning the author into a working class entrepreneur with no connection to the Court or national politics, they protected him and themselves from a world of trouble, and left us with a world of confusion. How do we explain to 21st-century readers the bind they were in?  Perhaps a couple of fairly recent situations from American history can help make the point.


For those readers who are too young to know more about it than just the name, suffice it to say that Watergate was a government scandal during the Nixon administration that took the nation by storm. So important was this in our history that it’s the reason that every cover-up of government malfeasance, however minor, now gets “-gate” attached to its name.  What caused this storm to break was the publication in The Washington Post of information derived from a series of clandestine conversations between two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, with an individual known to them only as Deep Throat.

Deep Throat was a joke-name used by someone in the White House to hide his identity.  Either he or someone from a level even higher than that of the American president, had decided to do what he could to topple the Nixon administration (possibly before some even more deadly secret got revealed).  He did this by systematically leaking clues to Woodward and Bernstein that they then followed up on, publishing the results in their newspaper.  In this way, Deep Throat’s clues eventually led to an investigation of the White House; the resignation of the president, and prison terms for several members of his staff.

If those of you who are too young to remember Watergate are wondering whether the name Deep Throat meant anything in particular, yes it did; it was the title of a well-known (if ridiculous) pornographic movie of the time.  But the important point is that until recently, not a single soul, not one willing to speak anyway, knew for certain the identity of the man who informed on the White House to The Washington Post and by so doing changed the course of history. Lots of people may have thought they knew, but the fact is that nobody (who would speak) knew for sure.

Several years ago I saw a round table discussion on television with a number of the players from that era.  There were a couple of Nixon’s key men, his attorney, Leonard Garment, the writer Gore Vidal, the journalist who broke the story, Bob Woodward, and some of the other journalists that made hay out of the story and wrecked, or almost wrecked, the careers of others present.  All of them old men, some facing the grave, they sat in a row on stage and before cameras to discuss the events that had torn their lives apart so long ago.

The discussion remained polite until the question of the identity of Deep Throat arose, and then it blew up.  Such wrath was roused by this question that the moderator could not keep order.  The old men shouted at each other, gesticulating fiercely and talking over each other so that none could be heard.  Suffice it to say, that so many years later, among those who were most intimately involved, there was still no agreement on the identity of Deep Throat; or, if someone did know at that time, no willingness to reveal it. (Since first writing this in 1997 his identity has finally been revealed.  We now know that he was William Mark Felt, number two man at the FBI.  Or at least, that’s the agreed-upon story.)

That said, let’s play around with this real scenario just a bit.  What if Felt had been a closet writer of fiction, a sometime playwright, so that when the time came to blow the lid off the White House, he chose to do so, not through phone calls to The Washington Post, but by means of the very popular television program, Saturday Night Live.  Knowing that practically the entire nation watched SNL every week, what if he wrote skits in which the president and his staff were satirized with names like Nixoff, Snitchell, Erlickplate, and Holdefort.

When these skits ultimately led to a government investigation of the White House, and the administration was successfully toppled, it was time for Deep Throat to let go of his false persona and return to the real world where he had an identity of importance.  But the popularity of his TV skits had made it inevitable that someone would publish them in book form.  By then the name Deep Throat had become so linked with the material that the publishers were forced to use it on the title page.  However, they still couldn’t let anyone know who had actually written it; indeed, most of them, perhaps all of them, were themselves still in the dark about the author’s true identity.  The joke name, Deep Throat, would have certainly led to questions, perhaps to a dangerous investigation, so they finally came up with the name William Diepthrote, unusual perhaps, but not impossible.

Then, when the book became so popular that talk shows wanted the author for interviews, they had to scratch around to find somebody named Deipthrote.  Luckily they found a community of Pennsylvania Dutch, several of whom were named Wilhelm Depthroot.  One of these proved amenable to trimming his Old Testament beard and to slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation of his name.  He was also capable of smiling and nodding and telling a few anecdotes in his funny accent which allowed him to pass as the slightly eccentric author on Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett.  But since William Diepthrote wasn’t nearly as entertaining in person as were his skits on SNL, soon he was no longer asked to appear on the talk shows.  He returned to his farming community, where he bought the biggest house in town and invested in real estate, with a profitable sideline in no-questions-asked high interest loans.

While we’re on the subject of pseudonyms and the U.S. government, here’s another scenario.  This one goes back a bit farther than Watergate.

The Hollywood Ten

During the 1950s a certain Senator Joseph McCarthy of Illinois, with the help, interestingly enough, of the central figure from the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon, at the time just the junior senator from California, managed to get Congress worked up about the possibility that any number of American institutions were riddled with Communists and that consequently America and all it stood for was on the brink of collapse.  Finally, like the hubristic ancient Greek who flew too near the sun, McCarthy fell to earth when he tackled the army, but before he self-destructed he managed to do some terrible damage to the community of screenwriters who up until then had provided Hollywood with its best screenplays.  Ten of Hollywood’s top screenwriters went to prison, not because they were Communists, but because they refused to play McCarthy’s game and to tell under oath whether they were or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.

Some had been Communists for a time, but others who had never been party members also refused to answer, claiming that their rights as free Americans were violated by being forced to answer the question.  “The Hollywood Ten,” as they came to be known, lost their jobs, their six-figure incomes, and their careers, as did scores of other writers, actors and producers who, when asked by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to name names of friends and colleagues whom they knew to be members of the Communist Party, refused to answer on principle.

Although McCarthy was thoroughly discredited, these writers remained on the studio blacklist for years, some for the rest of their lives, not so much out of any patriotic fervor on the part of the studios as out of greed, for as long as the writers were on the blacklist, the studios were able to hire them at a much cheaper rate than formerly, when they were free to bask in their true identities and high reputations.  In the end it backfired, for out of desperation to break free from this kind of oppression, when one group of actors and producers broke free and began hiring blacklisted artists, it spelled the beginning of the end for the studio system.

Point being: because of the blacklist, a writer who refused to give up writing, was forced either to write under a pseudonym, or to use standins; he simply had no choice. For years, standins accepted the applause, standins stood at the Academy Awards and received the Oscars that should have gone to the real writers of films like Bridge on the River Kwai, Spartacus, Exodus, and Lawrence of Arabia.

Neither of these examples are perfect fits to the problems that faced Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  Our times are very different and the forces that kept Oxford silent on his authorship are not the same.  After all, getting blacklisted wasn’t as bad as what happened to Christopher Marlowe.  But one thing is the same, writers have always had to use dodges to get the story out.  As Alec Wilder said in American Popular Song: “. . . theater has always dared.  It has troubled princes and prelates alike. . . . no other art has so consistently taken such extravagant  chances in provoking authority.”

Oxford had a choice, be open about his writing and be forced to stop, or play the game as it was played then, and keep on writing.  I think he made the better choice.  What do you think?