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.

Shakespeare and “don’t ask don’t tell”

An important article, “The Bisexuality of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and Implications for de Vere’s Authorship” by Richard M. Waugaman, MD, is to be published in the upcoming October issue of Psychoanalytic Review, 97 (5).  Dr. Waugaman is Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine, and Training & Supervising Analyst Emeritus at the Washington Psychoanalytic Institute.  His 98 scholarly publications began with an article stemming from his senior thesis on Nietzsche and Freud.  He and his wife, Elisabeth Pearson, scholar of Medieval French Lit and an award-winning children’s book author, live in Maryland, near Washington DC.

Dr. Waugaman’s path to Oxford runs from Freud (doctoral dissertation) to William Niederkorn (NYTimes article, Feb. 2002), to Roger Stritmatter (Oxford’s Geneva Bible) to a readership at the Folger.  Now this prestigious academic journal has agreed to publish simultaneously not one, but two of his articles on authorship issues, one on Samuel Clemens’s use of the pseudonym Mark Twain, the other on the psychology of Shake-speare’s Sonnets and their connection to Oxford’s biography, the accusations of pederasty made against him made by his enemies, plus the fact that his daughter was being promoted as a wife to the Earl of Southampton, the Fair Youth of the Sonnets.

News of the publication of Dr. Waugaman’s articles in an academic journal is a sign that the wall surrounding Fortress Academia may be weakening. “Things seem to be changing among my analytic colleagues,” says Waugaman. “I now find them far more receptive.  They react as though there is at least “reasonable doubt’’about the authorship, which is a fine place to begin.  And I’m optimistic about the historians as well.”  That Waugaman speaks from and to the psychology community is a double plus, since that’s one of the two arenas that we can conceivably hope will help us salvage the truth about the authorship, the other being the historians.   Once post docs in the less fiction-based Humanities departments begin delving in the English archives we’ll have to rely less on conjecture.

It’s with gratitude that I read Dr. Waugaman’s essay since, as he emphasizes, the nature of the Bard’s sexuality has been so denied, distorted, ignored, or misinterpreted by so-called Shakespeare experts (including some Oxfordians) over the centuries that a straightforward approach to the obvious by someone of authority is clearly in order.  Waugaman asks why Shakespeare commentators have consistently avoided the obvious, that since the Sonnets reflect that the Poet was having (or at least desiring) concurrent sexual relations with a man and a woman––ipso facto, Shakespeare was a bisexual, or at least was behaving like one.  As he states: “One solution to this cognitive dissonance for the past four centuries has been denial or avoidance of Shakespeare’s bisexuality, and of his actual identity.”  By connecting this massive “blind spot,” as he calls it, to the Academy’s refusal to dig any deeper than the unlikely Stratford biography, Waugaman makes an important connection.  We’ve been subjected to James Shapiro’s efforts to psychoanalyze the authorship community, now lets see what a psychoanalyst has to say about Shapiro and his colleagues.  For any who wish to read his argument in full, Dr. Waugaman will email you a pdf; contact him at rwmd at comcast dot net.

Don’t ask don’t tell

When we add to the evidence in the Sonnets all the gender-bending in the plays, the passionate “male bonding” in Coriolanus, and the obvious homosexual love of the Antonios in Twelfth Night and Merchant of Venice, it would seem that at the very least, homosexual desire was something the author understood.  This may have been shocking to the Reformation clergy who acted as censors for what got published in the early 17th century, to the Victorian literary critics, and apparently also to persons who grew up in the 1950s in America, but that some readers today are still grasping for some other interpretation, desperate to avoid the fact that––Gasp! Choke!––Shakespeare had a sex life!––well, what can I say?  If it wasn’t so deplorable it would be funny.

As a professional in the field of human psychology, Waugaman himself is not afraid to think rationally about same-sex attraction, understanding through his years of training and professional experience that male-male love and sex is, and has always been, a factor in human nature.  So he does not attempt, as some Oxfordians have, to equate the hiding of Oxford’s name with shame over his sexuality.  Certainly the Poet is ashamed of himself for any number of unspecified misdeeds, but had he been so ashamed of his sexuality as to hide his identity solely for that reason, he would never have displayed it with such abandon in both the Sonnets and the plays, nor would he have defended it as he does in Sonnet 121:“Tis better to be vile than vile esteem’d . . . .”

No, it isn’t Shakespeare who’s ashamed, nor whoever it was who first dared to publish his poems, male pronouns and all, in 1609.  It’s been the censors, scholars, critics and publishers of his works ever since who, writhing in shame, refuse to face the vital truth about the creation of the language we speak, hiding like a herd of nerdy nincompoops behind the Stratford fable.  The question is not––should not be––was Shakespeare gay, straight or bi?  Though interesting in the same way it’s interesting where he lived or what he liked for dinner, it’s hardly important enough in the grand scheme of things to bury his identity for three centuries.  The real question is, or should be, why are we as a society so frightened by something that a small community of men do in private, something that hurts no one and that obviously gives them pleasure?

Blame it on the Reformation

From the dawn of time until the Reformation the English were just as sexy and life-loving as any other European culture, celebrating the turn of the seasons with carnival-like holidays that lasted for several days on end, much as they had done, as all of Europe had done, in rituals that went back to the Stone Age.  Despite the very real benefits to the community from these moments of psychological release, those reform ministers of Church and State who took power under Elizabeth were bound and determined to rid the nation of this “merry-making” and everything else that brought the people pleasure.   As I’ve detailed elsewhere, it was the loss of these communal celebrations that contributed most to the success of the London Stage and Shakespeare’s early plays, and it was the constant pressure of the animosity of this newly established Protestant Church and State fraternity that throughout Elizabeth’s reign was the greatest threat to both Shakespeare and his Stage.

But this was only one manifestation of a puritanical attitude towards pleasure that gripped the nation, and in fact all of Europe, beginning in the late 15th century.  In England it caused the reformers under Elizabeth’s forerunner Edward VI to shift from the more life-affirmative Lutheran theology to the grim tenets of Calvinism with its focus on sin and damnation.  Nor was it a product of the Protestant Reformation alone, for the European countries that remained Catholic went through much the same revolution, beginning with Savanarola in Florence at the turn of the 16th century, and continuing in bursts with the Inquisition in Spain and Rome and the witch burnings in Scandinavia and France, all part of a reaction against the life-loving humanism, art, and intellectual excitement of the Renaissance.  And at the heart of this reaction was a harsh new attitude towards sex, particularly homosexual sex.

The early pagans, far from seeing sex as dangerous or disgusting, worshipped it––male-female sex, that is––as the source of life, a view that lasted throughout the medieval period in works like the Roman de la Rose, the Courtly love tradition passed on in the Arthur and Orlando tales, and the worship of Mary and other female saints.  So far as we know, no past or present culture has ever openly condoned homosexual behavior.  As Philip Slater shows in his brilliant The Glory of Hera, even the ancient Greeks, who made it the cornerstone of their culture for several centuries weren’t all that comfortable with it.   But whatever shame was attached to it then was mainly directed towards the humiliating position of the men who played the “feminine” or passive role, the “ingles” and “ganymedes,” with little or no shame attaching to the dominant partner.  It must also be noted that, whatever the official attitude, male-male sex has been the primary means for societies throughout the ages to maintain population control.  Nevertheless, simply frowning on something is not the same as fearing and hating it or reviling to the extreme that drove the 19th-century Victorians to hang  accused homosexuals or tie them to posts where crowds of hundreds of screaming fanatics were encouraged to stone them to death (Crompton 21-2).

What caused the English to turn from sin-forgiving Catholicism to to the fiery furnace of Calvinism, which held such dark views of God and life that because human beings are brought into being through sexual intercourse they’re damned from birth, that is, unless they withhold themselves from any kind of sensory pleasure, including, of course, sex for pleasure.  What on earth could have driven the merry English, and other nations as well,  to fall prey to such a wretched belief system, one that, despite the incursions of secular science and modern existentialism, continues to drive many of our communal societal fears and prejudices to this very day?

Syphilis

I believe this fear and hatred of sex had its origins in the spread of a deadly new strain of syphilis that was first documented in Naples in 1494, and that spread rapidly through the ports of Europe in the 16th century as sailors and travellers transported the deadly microbe from the whorehouses and bathhouses of one seaport to another.

The people of ages past were not ignorant fools.  They did not need to study medicine to understand from direct experience that this was a venereal disease unlike any they’d ever known.  It would have taken several generations, say three, taking us into the mid-1500s, for people to realize just how terrible was this “great pox” (as opposed to the “small pox,” that only killed or disfigured) ; how it not only destroyed the person who had it, but how it could be passed through intercourse to that person’s mate, rendering her sterile, or if she managed to have children, made them susceptible to any number of dangerous illnesses, the girls sterile, or if they gave birth, possibly to diseased or stillborn babies.  The most terrible disease until that time, the black plague, either killed within days of contracting it or allowed recovery, while syphilis acted slowly over months and years, rotting the body, and the mind, from within.  Many cures were tried, but nothing seemed to work but mercury salts, which had such terrible side effects that it was arguable which was worse, the disease or its cure.  In fact, no sure cure would be found until the 20th century.

What were the 16th-century Europeans to think?  Believing as so many did that God was still taking a close personal interest in their behavior, what other reason could they come up with than that He was punishing them, and of course, because it it was through sex that the disease was spread, with its first appearance occuring on the genitals, that they were being punished for their sexuality.  Fear spread like wildfire through Europe, focusing on the most vulnerable, prostitutes and homosexuals.

Probably because the issue was sex and the disease could be hidden as other diseases could not, there are not the contemporary references to syphilis that there are to the plague, malaria, etc., and because we’re so used to the pervasive anti-sex attitude bequeathed us by the Reformation, and in America by the emigrating Puritans, we tend not to notice it in the texts from the period.  It wasn’t until I began reading the works of Protestant reformers and pedagogues that I realized that their use of the word “filthy” invariably referred to sexual behavior of every sort (Calvin did except the need for married couples to produce children, but God forbid they should have any pleasure in the process).  What’s inherently filthy about sex?  Waugamon quotes David Bevington on the horror Elizabethan England displayed towards sodomy, how they described it with words like “leprous,” “cancerous,” a “plague spot,” the same words used to describe the symptoms of syphilis.

Déjà vu all over again

In a sense this issue is where I came in.  My first literary love was Lord Byron (yes, it’s possible to fall in love with a long dead writer).  Byron in his letters and journals gave himself to the world of letters in a way that few have ever done.  For three or four years in the late 70s and early 80s I read everything I could find by him and about him.  I own most of the volumes of his letters and journals as edited by Leslie Marchand and am the proud possessor of a personal letter from Marchand, typed by his own hand.  Finally discovering in 1985 that Byron’s self-exile was the only way (other than suicide) that he could escape the terrible fate of men accused of sodomy; that his memoirs were burned by his friends out of anxiety over what he’s revealed about their sexuality; and most of all, that the truth about him was buried by his biographers until it was revealed by Louis Crompton (in 1985) in Byron and Greek Love, makes this issue over the Sonnets and their author’s identity seem like the conclusion to a story that, for me, began with Byron, but for English Literature, began with Shakespeare.

It’s sad that I feel it necessary to add that I myself was married to a (male) jazz musician and composer for 20 years by whom I had four daughters, that I’ve had two long-term sexually fulfilling relationships, both with men, one my husband, which is not to say that I never had to withstand the kind of passing attraction to a “lovely” guy or two that the Poet documents in the Sonnets.

The hellish focus on sin and damnation that that accompanied the Reformation and that threatened to destroy all merry-making (and surely would have if not for the courage of Shake-spear and his patrons), deserves a more thorough examination than is possible here, but I think it should at least be mentioned, for what else could have caused the frenzy of fear and hatred that has fueled English (and American) homophobia ever since.  Surely this and only this is the ultimate reason for the denial of Shakespeare’s nature by the Academy, and by extention, as Dr. Waugaman has realized, coming from his own perspective, their continued refusal to examine the truth about his identity.

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.