Category Archives: Shakespeare's education

Shakespeare’s small Latin

Poor Ben Jonson!  What a pickle he must have been in back in 1623 when it became clear that it would have to be himself who must tie the final knot in the authorship coverup.  Here were the plays, finally, set in type and ready to print, in versions chosen by those most worthy of the task, most capable of the delicate business of removing the more obvious references to the great figures of the previous reign. The phony portrait was engraved, and the plaque almost ready to install in the Stratford Church.  Now somewhere in the front material there had to be a statement that would point towards Stratford and the man whose name, having made it possible to publish at least half the plays over the preceding thirty years, had become so attached to them that it would have been impossible to attribute them to anyone else, even had that been an option, which it was not.

Jonson was not born a master of ambiguity; it was a skill he had had to learn. Himself a lover of language and the truth, when it came to using his talents for the actors, he had to learn how to maintain the delicate balance between personifying “he who gets slapped” and deniability, in such a way that no one, himself included, would be forced to fight a duel or get called to defend himself in Star Chamber.

But pulling this off was the greatest challenge yet, to render this monstrous lie–– obviously so necessary if the great works were to reach posterity––into something acceptible to the educated minority.  It had taken years to reach this point; now, because the Pembrokes, rulers of the London Stage, were embroiled in a showdown with the King’s tyrannical favorite, that powerful ignoramus Buckingham, the project had to pass the press as soon as possible or, should Buckingham succeed in destroying them as he had Bacon, be lost forever.  Mary was dead.  Bacon was tied up with the ambiguities required for the plaque in the Stratford Church.  It had to be done now, and there was no one but himself who could, or would, do it.  It had been hard enough to find poets to contribute names with a commendary verse, no poets like Michael Drayton, George Herbert, Robert Herrick, or Richard Brome, no playwrights like John Fletcher or William Davenant were persuaded, perhaps not even asked, to contribute a few lines.

The problem was the same one that Hemmings and the actors had been facing since they were finally forced to publish back in 1594, how to present the author both to the public and at the same time satisfy the much smaller but much more influential university graduates scattered around the country and concentrated in the West End.  Until the plays reached print there was no problem; until then no one but the writing community (and the “great ones” who were lampooned) cared who wrote the plays that pleased them.  But with publication came the necessity to give them an author, and it had to be the name of a real person, and with it came a host of other problems, all of them now in Jonson’s lap.

The printer was waiting.  He stared at the blank sheet before him.  This had to be an Ode in the Horatian style, as befitted the great master of the English language.  It had to laud his accomplishments, which could only be done––educated scribblers in mind––by calling on the great dramatists of ancient times, the Greeks: Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, “tart” Aristophanes; and the Romans: Pacuvius, Accius, and Seneca (“him of Cordova dead”), Terence and Plautus.  Ay, there was the rub!––for by mentioning these the question immediately arose, did Shakespeare know them, and if not, how was it that he seemed to know them so well and follow their styles so closely?

How could Jonson possibly compare Shakespeare to these without dealing with the question of his education?  Anyone reading this who actually knew William of Stratford personally would have been aware that he was ignorant of everything pertaining to literature including the Greeks.  They may not have been able to perceive that he was unable to write even his name, but a few feelers thrown out in a conversation would surely have established his ignorance of Greek and Roman literature.  Jonson dealt with this by stating, “though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek, from thence to honour thee, I would not seek” (for names of ancient dramatists) but call them forth to see his plays. This was followed by something about “all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth,” buried in a thicket of verbiage that defies interpretation.

The art of dissimulation, in which he and all his colleagues were, by necessity, quite expert, functioned by accumulating half-truths in such a manner that a statement could be read in almost any way a reader wished.  But this was a flat out lie.  Certainly Shakespeare of Stratford had, not just “small Latin and less Greek,” but no Latin and no Greek.  Equally certain, to those who had studied the Greeks at university, is that there was nothing small about Shakespeare’s Greek.  Fortunately the book was so expensive that only those insiders who knew, or guessed, the truth were in a position to buy it.  Less fortunate has been the result for hundreds (thousands?) of latter day commentators.

Similar equivocations are scattered throughout the front material, devised by Jonson, the Pembrokes’ chosen Court poet.  Stratford is mentioned only in passing, and then not in any way that might separate it from the much better known Stratford at Bowe, just east of central London, where traffic crossed the River Lea into Essex, located walking distance from King’s Place in Hackney, Oxford’s official residence from 1592 until his death.  It is also connected to the word Moniment, which can be taken to mean a monument in the sense of a statue––in this case, a bust––but spelled this way it can also mean a body of work, testament to a writer’s career.  Not only is this a purposeful equivocation, but the full sentence reads that he––that is, his work––is “a Moniment without a tomb.” Since the supposed monument in question, the bust in the Stratford church, is a matter of steps from the immense slab under which William was laid to rest in 1616, how much clearer could it be made that the “moniment” in question was not the bust, but something else, namely the book.

Jonson makes the same point again in the poem that faces the Droeshout engraving, that because the engraver could not portray his wit, the reader must ‘look not on his picture, but his book,” again making the point that it is the book that matters, not the portrait nor the monument.  The point is made again by his statement that Shakespeare is not to be found buried with Chaucer, Spenser or Beaumont,” a clear reference to the only burials in Poet’s Corner previous to 1623, but, “a Moniment without a tomb,” he’s to be found in the book, while it still “doth live” and “we have wits to read, and praise to give.” Thus doth Jonson, while seemingly however cautiously, to identify the author, consistently and continually points away from his physical being, his hometown, face, and burial place. Where was there ever another such an epitaph?

This last, regarding Poet’s Corner, is particularly compelling. It seems evident that the burials beneath the floor in Poet’s Corner as mentioned by Jonson were either covered over or moved from that spot to some other when the great Shakespeare screen was placed there in 1740. Chaucer (reburied there) in 1556, Spenser in 1599, and Beaumont in 1619, were the only poets buried in Poet’s Corner by 1623. Why tell the world that Shakespeare wasn’t buried there, unless perhaps he was buried there, a tried and true method for passing along information while seeming to deny it, Jonson was letting the faithful know where Shakespeare was actually buried.

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Shakespeare: an experiment gone wrong

Edward de Vere was something of a pedagogical Elyot bloggieexperiment.  In their Platonic desire for a Philosopher King, so eager were the humanistic reformers to educate the nobility, that, following Quintilian, Vives and Elyot, they sought to begin them as early as possible on Latin so that they would begin to absorb the wisdom of the ancients and early Church fathers while still young enough furnish their adult minds with the noblest and most idealistic thoughts.  So while the Marian reign had its horrors, it did produce one benefit––to humanity that is––it sent the four-year-old heir to the Oxford earldom, in many ways the most important domain in England, to Sir Thomas Smith, the most highly qualified Reformation teacher in the nation.  No doubt many were watching to see the outcome of this kind of training.  This being the Reformation, you can believe that not all were pleased with the results.

Oxford himself must have experienced this interest as pressure, subtle perhaps, but still pressure, as seen, for instance, in the kind of criticisms and suggestions offered by Roger Ascham in his book, The Scholemaster, written for Cecil right at the time that he was first responsible for educating Oxford and Rutland.  Oxford must have been aware from very early that all eyes were on him.  “To whom much has been given, much is required.”  What a disappointment it much have been to men like Cecil and Ascham and even to Smith when instead of another well-behaved, pious Sidney, who hadn’t begun his studies until the great age of seven, their prime experiment turned to poetry and plays, his vast education little more than grist for the mill of his comedies and love songs.

No doubt his elders gave him time.  Poetry was a pastime of youth, something that, as with Thomas Sackville Lord Buckhurt would surely pass when the weight of mature responsibility awakened him to more important things.   But as Oxford matured, his interest in literature only deepened.  Scorned for his early efforts to join the international community of scholars, he channeled his talents into writing entertainments for the Court.  This Cecil tolerated, probably because they pleased the Queen, perhaps also because he saw opportunities for help with the onerous business of creating the propaganda that was one of his most important weapons in the fight to destroy the political power of the Catholics.

As a peer, born to be a patron of the arts, Oxford had fallen into the trap that Elyot and other pedagogues had warned about in educating the nobility, he became an artist himself, and as an artist, as is always the case with a true artist, he held nothing higher than Art.  This included rank and all the distinctions and constraints that it held dear.  Clear to him from reading Plato was the distinction between the external world and the truth he felt within himself: “for I have that within that passeth show.”  They wouldn’t give him the military command his patrimony required, nor the role in the government for which his training had prepared him, so he would fulfill the one thing he had, besides his rank, his inherited office of Lord Great Chamberlain.

The chamberlain of a Tudor household was a sort of glorified butler, one who ate at table with the family rather than with the staff.  Often a member of the family from a lesser social level, or one whose family was tied in some way to the fortunes of the family he served, he was responsible for the smooth running of the household, including its removals to other locations and its entertainments at the three big turning points of the year, Christmas/Carneval, Easter/May Day, and Midsummer/St. John’s Day.  At the Tudor Court, the Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household had the same functions, plus the honor and responsibility of serving as a leading member of the Privy Council.  It was an appointed position, and although as with all such offices it was often given to the heir of the former Lord Chamberlain, that was only because having been raised at Court, he was often in the best position to fulfill the office.

England’s Lord Great Chamberlain was, and still is, a very different kind of office.  Except for a brief time during the reign of Henry VIII, it’s one of a handful of inherited positions, a vestigial remain from the Middle Ages, when even then all it signified was that this fellow, his father before him, and his heirs after him, was the official best friend of the monarch.  Since the earliest days of the Norman hegemony all that’s required of the LGC is that he appear dressed appropriately for processions in which his place comes after the Lord Privy Seal, and before the Lord High Constable, and that he act as personal attendant to the monarch at his or her coronation, something that generally occures no more than once or twice in a lifetime, or with a particularly long-lived monarch, not even that.  From the very beginning this honorary office had belonged to members of the Vere family, as it still does today, having been shifted to descendants of Oxford’s sister Mary’s husband, Sir Peregrine Bertie (the Earls of Lindsay), when Oxford’s line died out with the death of the 20th Earl.

Looking around for something that could define his ambiguous role in his community, Oxford took advantage of this rather empty office, turning it into something genuine and powerful.  It was probably as surprising to him as to anyone else when out of his genius and the great need of the English public for entertainment was born the Fourth Estate of modern government, what we call the media, which, in those days consisted of the London Stage and commercial Press.

There may be a kernal of truth to the rumor that Oxford ruined his patrimony out of revenge at Lord Burghley, though the proper wording would be out of the necessity to find something for himself in what he’d been left by his father.  Awakening gradually to the horrible mess left by that foolish father; aware, probably from the start, that Burghley, his one and only financial advisor, was more concerned about his own family, their wealth and prestige, than he or they were about him; raised by the parsimonious Smith, whose ascetic diet and modest dress were the foundation of a lifestyle that, once the peacock period of Oxford’s twenties was over, required little more than a secretary, ink and paper; he used his wealth, whatever it was (he could never be sure) and his credit as a peer (for as long as it lasted), to praise his friends, wound his enemies and influence national policy by way of his favorite audience, the lawyers and parliamentarians of the West End.  When his own credit and wealth ran out, he turned to the “angels” that every theatrical enterprise requires, chronologically: the Earl of Sussex, Sir Francis Walsingham, Lord Hunsdon, the Earl of Southampton and the third Earl of Pembroke, all of whom play an important role in their patronage of the great  experiment we call Shakespeare.

Stanley Wells quotes The Oxfordian

It seems that a watershed moment for Authorship Studies took place a year and a half ago at the 2011 World Shakespeare Congress in Prague, when Dr. Stanley Wells, the eminence grise of Shakespeare Studies, General Editor of the Oxford Series and honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, not only mentioned an article from the 2002 edition of The Oxfordian, but dwelt rather heavily on it in his lecture––even more surprisingly, naming its author, Andrew Werth, and the fact that he’s an Oxfordian; “For which we mustn’t condemn him,” said Wells, provoking an appreciative titter from the audience.  Hey, after centuries of being ignored, a little paternalism ain’t so bad.

The article in question, “Shakespeare’s Lesse Greek,” makes the case for the author’s knowledge of Greek, still widely regarded as an impossibility.   In an easy style, devoid of mind-numbing geek-speak, author Andrew Werth laid out the facts that make it evident to all but those indoctrinated from undergraduate days with Stratford cult beliefs, that there’s enough evidence of Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek literature that during his time were not yet translated into Latin or English, that suggests that Ben Jonson’s dismissive phrase in the First Folio: “though he had small Latin and less Greek . . .”, was either a cheesy attempt to damn his rival with faint praise or, simply––for whatever reason––flat out lie about his education.

Some of Werth’s points are dismissed by Wells as “vitiated” by recent “discoveries” of Shakespeare’s collaboration with writers like Fletcher, Jonson, and Peele (our turn to chuckle) .  Yet, said he,  “in other respects they seem strong.”  As indeed they are!  Good for you, Dr. Wells, and good for me and Andy, and Dan, and Charles, and Bill, and all those who, years ago, when The Oxfordian was still in the planning stage, saw a moment like this as the very goal at which such a journal would be aimed.  There’s no way to know how Andy’s article reached Dr. Wells, but reach it it did!  And where one has gone before, others will surely follow.

Wells focuses in particular on the section of the article in which Werth deals with Sonnets 153 and 154, the final two of the collection.  As a pair, these two form a category all their own.  Though the versification of these two is no different from the rest of the sonnets, the subject and tone are unique.  The characters addressed in the first two long sections do not appear, nor are these final two cast in the same intimate and passionate mode as the rest.

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

Obvious translations, Wells mentions Helen Vendler’s theory that they were school exercises, another example of the current academic eagerness to amplify the capacities of the Stratford grammar school to the level of a university (and not a little ridiculous considering the poems’ naughty sophistication), but on point as impersonal examples of a poet’s expertise, the kind that, in Shakespeare’s time were the mark of an accomplished courtier.  Poems like these were usually written as a graceful gesture, possibly for the birthday of a patron, or for someone to whom the poet wished to demonstrate his ability to deal with a mundane topic in the most elegant possible manner.  First written by a fifth century Greek, the pair migrated from one collection to another, sometimes included, sometimes not.  Typical of the kind of divertissment on a minor topic that characterized such poems, these focus on the baths that the Greeks and Romans used as both healing founts and places where men could relax together.

Scholars have tracked Shakespeare’s source for this pair to the Greek Anthology, a collection of epigrammata first accumulated sometime in the first century BC, and added to over the years, most notably in the tenth and fourteenth centuries, primarily in manuscript and almost always in the original Greek.  Since the beauty of an epigram lies in a tight blend of sense and sound that resists translation, the anthology had continued its passage through time mostly in its original language, with copiers doing as did Shakespeare, rendering personal versions in their own languages, until 1603 when a Latin version was published in England.  (Werth explains this in some detail in an end note on page 27.)

Thus the problem for the Academy has always been, where and how did Shakespeare come across these epigrams, and in what language?   Although almost as frequently referenced by poets as Ovid’s Metamorphoses, it’s hard to locate anything resembling a solid publishing history for this famous anthology, for with its long history of manuscript distribution, of divisions of text in one version, amalgamations of texts in others, what’s most likely in my view is that the poet transcribed the originals from a manuscript in Greek, either one he himself owned, or that he borrowed from a friend.

Oxford and Essex

My personal view is that these two sonnets were written in 1589-91 as a gesture of friendship towards the Earl of Essex during his rise to power.  After inheriting Leicester House in 1588, Essex enlarged and extended it.  In 1590 it was recorded as having 42 bedrooms, a picture gallery, a banqueting hall, a chapel, and outbuildings, among them an old Roman bath built on a freshwater spring just steps from the river.  I recall seeing early photos of it in a book, which one I can’t remember (along, alas, with a great deal else).  It may be the one that still exists at the end of Strand Lane, just north of the Temple gardens.  Wikipedia dismisses the possibility that this is the bath in question because it lies where history places property belonging to the neighboring mansion, Arundel House, but so much has changed over the years on this valuable bit of turf, where boundaries that defined the original houses would change with the fortunes of their owners, so what belonged to Essex at the time may well have included it.  Certainly his name is all over that area.    Or there may have been another bath built over a second spring nearby.

As part of his campaign to raise himself at Court, Essex in the early 1590s was patronizing all sorts of people and projects at the same time that Oxford, having suffered a series of disasters, was in desperate need of support for his Stage.  Already pouring his poetic energies into sonnets for the young Earl of Southampton, that he would have recast these choice bits of literary caviar into sonnet form as a means of asking Essex for his patronage is as likely as anything.  If, as has been suggested, the poems refer to baths as a cure for the pox, for which Essex is thought to have required medication from the physician Lopez, this would date them to the period in question, before Oxford’s marriage to Elizabeth Tresham in 1592, certainly before 1594 when Essex turned so viciously on Lopez, or 1596 when he was in disrepute for having an affair with Oxford’s daughter, the Countess of Derby.  Whoever was responsible for publishing the Sonnets in 1609 must also have had a copy of these poems, and wanting to make sure they got published, stuck them on the end, after the two major sections.

Shakespeare’s Latin

Before exploring Werth’s argument for Shakespeare’s Greek, Wells spent time discussing the importance and universality of Latin.  T.W. Baldwin having assured him that Shakespeare must have been competent in Latin due to the probable curriculum of the Stratford grammar school, Wells is happy to accept evidence that allows the author at least some education.  According to Wells, the townsfolk of Stratford were wont to converse with each other in Latin while the boys at the Stratford grammar school were so fluent that they were not allowed to speak any other language during school time.  Optimistically he adds, “when we discover Shakespeare’s own letters, they will probably be in Latin.”

Certainly there were people in Stratford, and in every English town of any size, who could read and write and even speak Latin, but it would have been a fairly narrow circle consisting of the schoolmaster, his assistant, the town clerk, perhaps even the vicar and a handful of local bookworms.  Sixteenth-century Stratford was hardly an intellectual center.  It was a manufacturing town whose only importance beyond its own neighborhood was the market it held once a week, primarily to sell wool and other smelly products of sheep-raising like leather, charcoal and paint.  To that end,  it also brewed and sold a good deal of ale, another smelly process.  Students at Eton may have been required to speak Latin at all times, but Eton was a boarding school, which Stratford was not.

According to Wells, what Shakespeare didn’t learn from the Stratford School he learned from the University Wits: Marlowe, Peele, and Nashe, who kindly provided the poor fellow with a “surrogate university,” then were happy to collaborate with him on those plays that seem to lack the necessary Shakespearean verve.  That the Wits, who were so committed to mentioning each other in their dedications, never thought to mention their brilliant student and collaborator from Stratford has apparently not struck the good professor, at least, not hard enough to give him pause.  As for the local grammar school, surely it was capable of bringing bright boys up to the level where they could enter one of the universities, even further for a particularly brilliant boy, but again, there is absolutely no evidence that William was such a boy.  What evidence there is suggests he was unable to write even so much as his own signature.

That Shakespeare understood the lingua franca of all of Europe fits with Wells’s chosen topic: “Shakespeare as a Man of the European Renaissance.”  But oh dear, there’s that darned biography again!  While thoroughly Renaissance in his writing, it seems Shakespeare was “circumscribed” in almost every possible way.  He was not, like Sidney, a courtier, warrior, patron, the embodiment of chivalric ideas, etc.  He never travelled.  Nor was he versatile, like Bacon, a philosopher, equally fluent in Latin as in English and author of many varied works.  According to Wells, Shakespeare was “exceptionally limited”; circumscribed in both ambition and accomplishment, he wrote no books, no stories,  nothing but a few poems and plays for the public.

With Oxford as author, such peculiarities vanish.  The author is fully revealed as the thorough-going Renaissance man his works suggest.  Half the translations on which he based his plays and poems were more likely than not his own doing, published under other men’s names, as were half or more of the plays and novellas attributed to those University Wits that have no biographies to speak of, as well as the Italian tales from books attributed to William Painter,  Thomas Lodge and George Pettie.  With Oxford, Gulliver stands tall, and the Liliputians diminish to their proper stature.

Shakespeare’s Greek

While Andrew Werth, then an undergraduate at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon, has gone on to higher things (a career in music), his opening thrust has since been followed up on by Dr.  Earl Showerman, whose series of articles for The Oxfordian and the online journal, Brief Chronicles, dig deep into the facts surrounding Shakespeare’s knowledge of Greek drama, adding immensely to Werth’s opening salvo.

Stanley Wells, now in his eighties, is perfectly positioned to open the Academy to the Authorship Question by letting it be known that he would like to see it allow the question a place in the scholarly dialogue that takes place in journals and at conferences.  Authorship scholars have been shamefully mistreated for centuries.  If someone of Wells’s stature could tilt the scales a little our way, giving us a chance to speak at conferences and in mainstream journals about what we’ve discovered, Shakespeare Studies would take on a terrific new attraction for students, genuine research would begin, and whatever the truth may be would eventually come to light.

We may not have it ourselves, not the whole truth and nothing but the truth, but what we do have are solid answers to most if not all of the questions that academics have been asking ever since English Departments first came into existence at the universities, which in some cases was not until the second decade of the twentieth century.

A right jolly old elf, Wells has the power and possibly the wisdom, to see the potential to Shakespeare Studies of the truth about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon.  Who knows, people might actually begin to read again the classic sources that inspired Shakespeare and so many other great writers.  Who knows, those of us who still see ourselves as humanists might live to see another literary Renaissance, something our culture is so badly in need of.

Here’s Wells’s lecture at the World Shakespeare in Prague, July 2011.
(Many thanks to Earl and Marty for passing on the information.)

Beautified is a vile phrase

With all the argument about his identity, the one thing that no one denies is that Shakespeare was an artist, one of the greatest that ever lived.  Yet what does that mean to most people?  Far too often in discussions of what he must have read, what he believed, why he wrote, even who he was, the one thing that we do know about him, that we can be certain of––that he was an artist––somehow gets lost.  When it comes to discussing his motivations, there seems to be very little real understanding of what makes an artist tick, particularly one of the greats.

To a genuine artist Art trumps all.  Nothing, not religion, not politics, not professorships or money or property or status, not heritage or titles, not even love, that powerful motivator for so many great works of art, come before Art itself.  When Keats said that “Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth, that is all ye know and all ye need to know,” he wasn’t speaking to lawyers, clergymen, doctors, patrons, English professors, etc., he was speaking to artists like himself.  Byron understood.  Shelley understood.  Mary Shelley understood.  Bobby Burns would have understood.  But how many of their readers or publishers or critics or professors have ever understood?

Those who cheerfully accept the notion that the great theater artist we call Shakespeare quit the Stage in mid-career to spend his final decade buying and selling land and hoarding grain in a small market town, two days ride from any theater, certainly don’t understand.  Sure, the author, the true author, cared about important issues, his plays show that.  Sure, he loved his children, his friends, the women (and perhaps the men) he slept with.  Doubtless he wanted to see better governors in power.  But these were not what drove him.  Politics, events, the people he knew, the stories he grew up with, even his own sorrows and disasters, were ultimately but grist for the mill,  fuel for the fire of his uncontrollable creativity.  

It got him into trouble, he cut too close to the bone, he told too much, but all that did was to stimulate his ability to dodge, to equivocate, to hide.  He asked King James to invest him in motley––that is, allow him to continue to write for the Stage––but long before James he’d already invested himself.  It was his path and, will he nill he, he was bound to it.  That he had the will to shake his spear in the face of the most daunting odds and get away with it is one of the great stories of all time.  We should acknowledge him for that, as well as for all he accomplished.

He took his motto from the ancients and from his name, which in Latin means truth (and in French, green), a challenging motto in a time of great and dangerous secrets.  Even his spear-shaking was less to, as he said, “cleanse the foul body of the infected world” than to feel the sense that he was rising to the level of the greats of classical literature.  He learned from experience that the more powerful the circumstances and pressures that besieged him, the better the play, which is why Hamlet, when confronted by his father’s ghost with the horror of his murder, rather than seeking immediate revenge, calls for, and revises, a play!  We can imagine how more than one of his victims, finding themselves skewered, like Claudius, felt like crying “Away!” as they hurried from the room.

Also recorded for posterity is the grief he felt when he first realized how alone he was in his passion.  Raised by a man who, something of an artist himself, admired the artistry of the stylists of antiquity, it must have been a shock to the young teenager to find so many in London, even in his own household, even his own guardian, who not only didn’t respond to Art, but actually disliked it.

How do we know that Burghley disliked Art?  His biographer agrees that despite his immense output of letters and papers, he himself  was a tedious, uninspired writer.  We know that most regard Polonius as a portrait of Burghley.  We also know that two of the books that provided Shakespeare with so many of his stories were published shortly after Oxford arrived at Cecil House––Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses in 1565, and the following year, Painter’s Palace of Pleasure, on which title page the word “Beautified” is emphasized in extremely large type. We can also see that Painter’s Palace was dedicated, not to Cecil, but to the Earl of Leicester.  

In Hamlet: Act II Scene 2, while explaining to Gertrude and Claudius why Hamlet is mad, Polonius reads them the poem that Hamlet gave Ophelia: “To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia,” then, pausing for an aside, adds his opinion: “that’s an ill phrase, a vile phrase; beautified is a vile phrase . . . .”  I think we can take Shakespeare’s word for it, that Polonius’s opinion of Hamlet’s poetry was Burghley’s opinion of Oxford’s poetry.

Following where their daimon takes them, to the next painting, or sculpture, or dance, or song, ignoring all obstacles and, if necessary, all obligations to family, friends, patrons and creditors, all health and money issues, critics, rivals, their own best interests, on they go until brought down by death, whether the death of the body or, sometimes, even more sadly, the death of their passion.  Why?  Because, while in pursuit of perfection, while “in the zone” as a modern rubric has it, they stand in the light of a spiritual reality that is closest to that of great scientists like Archimedes, Newton, Tesla, Philip Farnsworth, architects like Philippo Brunelleschi, Andrea Palladio, saints like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Edmund Campion, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, athletes like Babe Ruth or Mohammed Ali,  dancers like Nuryev or Michael Jackson.

If the needs of family or community concern them at all they will, if necessary, shove them aside; aimed at eternity, they see that in the long run, once they’re gone, these things won’t matter, all that matters is that from their activity a tangible work is born, one that combines both beauty and truth to the highest possible level, something that, unlike their lowly sinful selves, has the potential to survive death.  Disappointment or inspiration only drives them to try again.  And again.  And again.

This is not to say that all who are born to this path find success––far from it.  The restaurant kitchens and taxicabs of the great art centers, New York, Paris, Rome, LA, are manned by struggling artists who haven’t yet and probably will never leave behind works that posterity thinks worth keeping.  They care of course.  They would like to be successful, but only to buy more paint, rent a real studio, get new head shots or a better camera, get the piano tuned.  What matters most is the calling itself, is being able to stand in the light of truth and beauty as often and as long as possible.  For a genuine artist, that is all they know and all they need to know.

For this reason we must keep in mind that from whatever works formed the foundation of his education in childhood, the boy who became Shakespeare would take different things from what other bright boys, what boys who became lawyers, clergymen, scientists, adventurers, or statesmen, would take.  Where future Latin or Greek scholars would want never forget the correct form of a verb, Shakespeare was content with what sounded best.  Where future grammarians were concerned with syntax, again, Shakespeare was concerned with sound.  Where future historians were concerned with the accurate timing of past events, Shakespeare was concerned with their meaning.

Life, he could see, was filled with drama.  How to take the facts of history, to distill away the dross, bringing to life the essentials.  That’s what concerned him.  Where most students then would experience little beyond the drudgery of translating, the boy Shakespeare would feel that frisson described by one poet, that repeating a great line will make the hairs of his chin stand up while shaving, every single time!  Long before he shaved, he knew what poetry could do.  In the imaginary gardens described by Marianne Moore, he would have seen real toads.  

There’s a good reason why Sir Thomas Elyot and other Reformation pedagogues like him warned tutors like Sir Thomas Smith against allowing noble children to become too attached to an art.  Once Art (or Science, or God) claims your soul, it may drive you to self-destruct, to poverty or madness, but it rarely lets you return to your hometown to invest in land and grain and engage in trivial lawsuits with your neighbors.

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)

Etcetera

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).

Personally

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.

Shakespeare for snobs?

I pay attention to the blogs that mention the authorship question.  Those that rail against or make fun of it have two points they make consistently (and only two, repeating, like parrots, what they’ve heard from others), that Oxford died before “some of Shakespeare’s plays were written,” and that we’re snobs to think that only a nobleman could have the education.  Well, the first isn’t true, if they’d bother to do some easy research (like read this blog), and the second is true, as they would know if any of them knew anything at all about 16th-century England or the facts, the genuine facts, about William of Stratford.

Shakespeare is so much a part of our lives, only those who spend a lot of time reading or hearing his words realize how often the words and phrases in newspaper headlines, television interviews, and ordinary conversation are his. Reach for a phrase to express the highest thought, and it will usually be his.   He was the great flower of the English Renaissance, and our language and thinking is still permeated with the perfume of his poetic thought. Steeped in the aphorisms of the Greeks and Romans, he turned them into English, beautiful English, the kind only a poet can craft, and made them accessible to those who speak English for as long as English is spoken.

This kind of immersion in the literature of ancient wisdom and the beauties of poetry and rhetoric can’t be picked up in books along the way, even today.   It arises out of high level dinner table conversation with adults steeped in the subject, out of continual application to books that are ready to hand, by stimulating conversation with others who know and love poetry, by hearing beautiful prose and poetry read aloud, and it has to begin early.   In Shakespeare’s case it began with the removal of little Edward de Vere to the home of the great Greek scholar and statesman, Sir Thomas Smith, in 1554, with whom he would study Greek and Latin literature and history and English history for 8 years.

Smith didn’t care for music, so it wasn’t until de Vere came to live with William Cecil in London and was involved in Court activities that he heard live music by professional musicians on a regular basis and acquired training in and keyboard and stringed instruments himself.   Since later he was acclaimed as having enough musical skill to be considered a professional, it may be that Shakepeare’s poetry was the product of one who was at heart a musician, who, as a child was not yet able to make music with instruments, so made it instead replacing the sounds of music with the sound of words, through rhymes, alliteration, and meter.

In his dedication to Shakespeare’s Collected Works, Ben Jonson compared Shakespeare to a smith who must sweat to work the metal at white heat, hammering it into shape.   Those who take the craft of writing seriously know that it takes hours of thought to create prose that’s pleasing to both mind and ear, and although great poetry is sometimes born all of a piece (as was Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening or Coleridge’s Kubla Khan), it can only come from a mind continually steeped in poetic thought.

If there’s one thing that unites the Stratfordians who call us snobs (besides their ignorance), it’s their prejudice against aristocrats.   If it turned out that Shakespeare was a black African, would they call us anti-white?   Do they have some image of Bertie Wooster in mind, helpless without Jeeves?   What about the great aristocrats?  Henry V?  Or Oxford’s own ancestor, the 13th Earl, patron of the arts, the indefatigable warrior who survived an ignominious defeat, the execution of his heir, and imprisonment for ten years to defeat Richard III in battle, handing over the English throne to the Tudors?   What about Lord Byron, the immensely popular poet who sacrificed his life for the cause of Greek freedom?   What about Alexander the Great, son of King Philip of Macedon, who brought Greek civilization to half the world?  What about the painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?  What about Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha?

Oxford was only half aristocrat, anyway.  Although it’s true that his father was the direct descendant of a Norman aristocrat dubbed Earl by William the Conqueror, his mother was simple entry, while Smith, his surrogate father, was the son of a local farmer.   As an artist, Oxford was, in many ways, an outcast from his own tribe who preferred the company of other artists to members of his own class.   There are more reasons than one why his identity as Shakespeare was hidden, but surely the major reason was the way he portayed his aristocratic friends and relatives as characters in his plays, some with cruel satire.  He could satirize them because he knew them! And because they knew it, they would not, could not, allow his identity to be revealed.  Did this “torture” him, as some Oxfordians have held?  It may have caused him moments of frustration, but given the choice between continuing to write, or not, he chose to continue writing.

There was another potentially great poet, one from Oxford’s own class (though on a lower level) who, seeing what it meant to get a reputation as a poet, did choose to stop writing, or at least, to stop using his own name: Thomas Sackville, Ld Buckhurst.  His was the first voice that had anything like the sound that would later transform the language.  He wrote several of the scenes in the first modern play, Gorboduc, produced at Court in 1561, a year before de Vere came to London.  Had Sackville continued, it might have been he who won the glories reserved for Shakespeare (the Poet), but Sackville retired from the poetry arena early, explaining in a poem, Sackville’s Old Age, that such toys were not for him.  Did this have anything to do with Elizabeth’s willingness to promote him, lavishing him with promotions and perquisites that ended by raising him, as the Earl of Dorset, to Oxford’s level, allowing (some might say forcing) Oxford to slide into bankruptcy, giving him almost nothing he ever asked for?

Did the Lord Chamberlain’s Men choose to hide their playwright’s identity behind someone else’s name have anything to do with the fact that only months earlier the only other playwright close to his level, Christopher Marlowe, had been assassinated by government agents?

What do you think?

Evidence for Oxford’s childhood with Smith

Sometimes a single fact can become the key to an entire period in history.  Oxford’s childhood with Sir Thomas Smith is that sort of key, not just to complete our picture of Oxford’s life, but to complete the picture of Oxford as Shakespeare, and beyond that, of Shakespeare as central to the history of England during what may well have been the most crucial period in her history and absolutely the most crucial period in her literary history and the history of the London Stage.

By establishing Smith as Oxford’s surrogate father, the Aristotle to his Alexander, the Plato to his Aristotle, the Leopold Mozart to his Amadeus, we have the riches of Smith’s library where dozens of titles provide the sources for some of Shakespeare’s most valued works.  We have, through Smith, the source of Shakespeare’s legal and distilling metaphors, his ascetic attitude towards food, his lack of religious bias, his Platonic philosophy.  Through his years at Ankerwycke we have the source of his river, gardening, and hawking metaphors (as noted by Caroline Spurgeon), his sympathy for animals, the forest’s deer, the meadow’s rabbits and birds, the garden’s caterpillars and snails.  In Smith, we have four of Shakespeare’s most vital characters, Holofernes from Love’s Labour’s Lost, Thomas of Woodstock from Richard II Part One, Gonzalo from The Tempest, and, greatest of all, Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet.

We also have a number of smaller though tighter connections, such as the metaphor of a haggard hawk for a wayward woman, something Smith touches on twice in the few quotes provided by his biographers, or, in the advice Polonius gives Laertes, the advice to noblemen written by Smith during the period that Edward was living with him (Strype 53-5).  With all of this securely in place, ipso facto: Oxford was Shakespeare––evidence that comes later is simply icing on the cake.  And with Oxford confirmed as Shakespeare we can also complete our puzzle of the entire period, of all of the missing literary history, and even much of the mainstream history, for Shakespeare and his works are as central to the history of the Elizabethan era as is Elizabeth herself, or Burghley, Bacon, Raleigh, or Drake.  Thus while Smith is the biggest missing piece of the Shakespeare puzzle, Oxford is the biggest missing piece of the Elizabethan Court puzzle.

This is what makes it crucial that we ground our view of Oxford’s childhood with Smith in provable facts.  It was largely my purpose when, driven by an offhand remark by Mary Dewar in her biography of Smith, I spent six weeks in England in 2004 (funded by a fellowship raised by Dr. Daniel Wright of Concordia University) to see three of Smith’s notebooks for myself.  These, two in the library at Queens’ College Cambridge and one in the archives at the Essex Record Office in Chelmsford, seemed at first to offer nothing.  I didn’t realize until later that one did in fact hold one of the clues that I was seeking.  Not all clues are of equal weight, but as it happens, this one’s a pip.

In each of the two notebooks at Queens’ College are inventories, the same except in minor wording, one written in 1561, one in 1569, in which he notes the 20 rooms at Ankerwycke, listing the contents of each.  In the first, #49, a room on the upper floor between his father’s room and the maid’s chamber is labeled “In my L. Chambre.”  In the 1569 inventory in notebook #83, page 123, a similar list is headed with the words: “In my Lorde’s Chambre.”

1561 inventory of Ankerwycke rooms, “In my L’s Chambre”

By “My Lorde” Smith must have meant de Vere, who, born “Viscount Bulbeck,” was considered a “lord” from birth.  Smith was punctilious about terminology, particularly where social distinctions were concerned, so he would never have made a mistake by called somebody a lord who was not, in fact, a lord.  Strype “supposes” that by “my Lorde” Smith meant the Duke of Somerset (170), but that’s impossible since Ankerwycke wasn’t finished until 1553, by which time Somerset was dead, nor would someone as self-righteous as Smith have wished to memorialize a master with whom he had had such profound differences.  It could not be Cecil, since from 1550 until Elizabeth’s accession Cecil kept his own household at The Parsonage at Wimbledon not far from Ankerwycke, nor did Cecil become a lord until 1571, long after Smith had drawn up these inventories.  Other than these, there is simply no lord other than de Vere who could possibly have had his own room in Smith’s home.

When we add this evidence to the phrase “brought up in my house” from the 1576 letter to Cecil, we should have enough to place Oxford with Smith for the better part of eight years, and in so doing, add to his story the riches of experience he gained as a child in a traditional country manor with all that that implies, as I’ve detailed in a number of blogs, pages, lectures, and articles.  Among many other puzzle fits, this scenario provides a reason for de Vere’s placement at Queens’ College for five months in his ninth year, Queens’ being Smith’s alma mater, and Smith needing that time to assist Cecil with preparations for Elizabeth’s accession, a hard fact for which we have more than enough evidence.

De Vere was still with Smith when the first list was written.  As for the 1569 inventory, although Oxford was no longer a member of Smith’s household, that Smith would continue to use his name for the room is seen by how he continued to call the room next to de Vere’s “my father’s chambre,” although Smith’s father died the summer of 1557.

By examining an actual document, its visual appearance can add to what its text and authorship have to tell us.  For instance, in the letter in which Smith finally turns to the issue of Oxford’s treatment of Burghley upon his return from Italy, that Smith was more emotional at the end than he was anywhere else in the letter is obvious from the condition of the paper at this point.  The pen was pressed so hard on the paper that the ink is darker here and the stroke thicker than anywhere else in the letter, so hard that the acid in the ink had eaten away the paper at that spot to a degree that it threatened to render a few of the words unintelligible.  I showed it to the librarian in the Manuscript Room at the British Library, suggesting they do something to preserve it before it crumbles completely.

More nine-inch nails in the Stratford coffin

Much of the overwhelming evidence for Oxford as Shakespeare can be found in the eight years he spent with his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, from age 4 to 12.  Not only did Smith own most of the important works that scholars tell us were Shakespeare’s sources, but his personal interests, the passions that drove him, appear in Shakespeare in depth, astonishing knowledge for a poet and playwright, whatever his class, knowledge he throws about with abandon in allusions, similes and metaphors.  This is an approach to a subject that can only be taken by one who’s been steeped in a subject from earliest days so that it permeates all his thinking.

Smith’s interests form the major part of Shakespeare’s arsenal of metaphors, but there are five areas in particular that are worth noting, because they’ve often been singled out for comment by scholars.

Entire books have been written in efforts to prove that in two of these subjects: the Law and Medicine, Shakespeare was so deeply versed that he must have been a professional!  The same thing would be true of astrology cum astronomy (the two were the same back then), it being as much of a profession then as the first two, for he reveals his knowledge of this arcane science through metaphors and the use of esoteric terminology just as he does with law and medicine.  Smith had been named by Henry VIII the first Regius Professor of Civil Law at Cambridge when he was still in his twenties, and was a dedicated practitioner of Paracelsian medicine his entire life.  He was sufficiently schooled in astrology to draw up horoscopes, something that required a fair amount of mathematics then, plus all the necessary ephemerides, which he also had.

As for gardening and horticulture, these Oxford would certainly have learned from eight years of living with Smith, whose enthusiasm for gardening is revealed in his letters and also in the fact that wherever he lived (at Ankerwycke and Hill Hall), or taught (at Eton and Queens’ College), he planted gardens.  As Caroline Spurgeon shows in her book Shakespeare’s Imagery, the author had the kind of knowledge of gardening that could only have been acquired through living with it for years.  (I’ll make a page on the gardening connections soon.)  And the same is true of hawking, in fact, in one of his treatises Smith himself uses Shakespeare’s favorite hawking metaphor, comparing a haggard, or badly trained hawk, to a wayward woman.

If still thirsty for more information on the Smith-Oxford-Shakespeare connection, check out the page on how Shakespeare immortalized Smith in his plays.

And so we hammer on.  How many nails is it going to take?