Oxford and the Media

It’s always enlightening to examine the conditions that made possible great and lasting enterprises like democracy, the Olympic games, or the internet.  Today the so-called Fourth Estate of government, aka the Media, a vast enterprise encompassing many areas in both print and broadcast, takes as its standard the vox populi, “the voice of the people,” and as its sacred duty informing the millions about the world they live in and what goes on in the higher echelons of power.  Without the Media there would be no democracy, for it takes an informed people to properly govern themselves.

But back when it all began, neither of these, print nor broadcast, had any such purpose in mind.  Both began as little more than spinoffs from the first burst of Renaissance enthusiasm that was taking place at the Court of Queen Elizabeth (1560s to 80s) that was manifesting as entertainment: privately as translations of classical poetry and tales from Latin, French, and Italian, along with some original works masquerading as translations, passed from hand to hand in fair-copied manuscripts, and for the entire Court community, plays for holidays and events like important weddings and visits from foreign dignitaries.

In the late 1570s, several things occured that instigated a leap from the intimacy of the Court to the greatly expanded public arena, first among them the year spent in Italy by the Renaissance-minded Earl of Oxford.  By observing the bold and exciting public theater known as comedia dell’arte and in Venice, the Aldine Press that was driving the high end of the Italian Renaissance through elegant translations of the ancient classics, Oxford learned things that he brought back with him to England.

By 1575 he may have grown bored with the limitations imposed on anyone who entertained the Court.  Having grown up within the confines of what his Reformation tutor thought appropriate, then within what a Court run by an irritable and oversentitive female thought appropriate, the rowdy no-holds-barred enthusiasm of the Italian public audience, the freedom of their exchanges with the actors, offered new vistas for his developing talents.  Besides their tools, pen and paper for writers, brushes and canvas for painters, etc., all artists need an audience to write for, or create for, and all professional artists need one that goes beyond their friends and family members.  By twenty-five, our earl had reached the limits of what he could do to entertain his Court audience.  Bored, he was ready for new fields to conquer.

Within months of his return there were two commercial theaters going in London, and within two years was published the book that would revolutionize print, the novelistic Euphues, the story of a young nobleman’s romantic adventures in Italy published as by his secretary, John Lyly, and written in what the Italians called an alto stilo, a high style.  These were not the first of their kind, but they were the first to remain commercially viable, the theaters suffering if anything from being too popular while the novel would go into 20 editions before the turn of the century. Obviously there was more to the business of creating a successful theater and publishing a successful book than just the building or the printing––methods that Oxford was privy to during his year in Italy.

As the records show, as the 80s approached the ’90s more theaters got built and more books written and published, to a level that meant that two self-sustaining industries were born, what we call the Stage and the Press, both up to then having been little more than the playthings of amateurs. For this to happen a number of other situations had to be factored in, a public hungry for entertainment, politically powerful patrons who saw the advantage of a public forum, and a crew of writers who could create the kind of entertainment that drew them in.  The first was ready and waiting for Oxford’s plan; the second miraculously appeared when needed; while the third describes the crew he assembled at Fisher’s Folly, the one historians refer to as the University Wits.

Nor was it long before this newborn Fourth Estate moved from simple entertainment to the function for which it was destined, public discourse of important issues, with the not surprising result that the authorities quickly launched what would be a never ending battle to control it.  This is a matter of history.  What has escaped history is the extent to which the plays and books that masqueraded as nothing but entertainment during the 1580s and ’90s and beyond were meant to influence public discourse.  Every play, every tale, was chosen with an eye to how it related to some current event or personality.  The writers knew that’s what the audience wanted and what they expected, so they gave it to them, partly because they wanted to, and partly because it’s what sold.

The writers, actors, patrons, and printers during these years walked a fine line between simple story-telling and too openly revealing the editorials they wished to convey to audiences eager to hear and discuss them.  (It they didn’t, if they were too obvious, they suffered the fate of Christopher Marlowe, Ld Strange, and the producers of The Isle of Dogs.)  Book censors, distracted by the Italian names, beast fables, and unknown or unimportant authors, were also distracted by title pages and front material purposely framed to keep them from looking too closely at the text itself.  Plays were easier since speeches and scenes that were inappropriate at Court or other venues could simply be changed or dropped.  When the author and actors ran into trouble in 1580 from the newly appointed censor, Edmund Tilney, with regard to The Play of Sir Thomas More, they may have lost a good play, but they learned how to avoid such trouble from then on.

This is the story that has yet to be told, how the first steps towards functional democracy were taken by one of the most brilliant artists who ever lived, how those steps led to the birth of the modern Media, and how they were then erased by his enemies, along with his reputation.  As Hamlet prophesied, the rest has been “silence.”

Shakespeare’s search for silence

Writers are solitary creatures.  However gregarious some may be by nature, if anything is to come of their effort they’ll need long spells of unbroken solitude on a regular basis.  Unlike painters or sculptors, they need very little in the way of material things like studios or materials, what they chiefly need is privacy and time.  Writers need regular chunks of unbroken time, anywhere from two to six hours at a go, day after day, week after week, to effectively ply their craft.  Writers of fiction in particular need this if plots are to form and characters to take shape.  (With writers of modern television serials, something else maybe taking the place of time, cocaine perhaps.)

This is not the kind of thinking that can be done in bits and pieces.  It takes time to get “i’ th’ vein,” as they put it then and it also requires protection against interruption in order to stay in “the vein” (or “the zone” as it’s sometimes termed today) long enough for development to take place.  For a full-length novel or a play, these spells have to occur regularly enough over several days or more likely weeks for the process to continue until the story has acquired a life of its own.  A metaphor of giving birth was often used back then––literary gestation occurring in the darkness and silence of the womb of the mind.

It’s hard enough to find this kind of seclusion today, but apparently it was next to impossible in 16th-century England.  For as Lawrence Stone pointedly notes, there simply was no concept of privacy in 16th-century England:

This was a society where neither individual autonomy nor privacy were respected as desirable ideals. . . .  Privacy like individualism, was neither possible nor desired. . . .  Privacy was a rarity which the rich lacked because of the architectural layout of their houses and the prying ubiquity of their servants, and the poor lacked because of confinement in a one or two room hovel. . . .  The closest analogy to a sixteenth-century home is a bird’s nest” (4, 6, 7 Family).

His point about architecture is clear for anyone who has ventured into Hampton Palace, Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, or one of the great houses of the 16th century that remain in their original form, for the Elizabethans lived in houses where rooms circled a central meeting area, then, as the building grew, branched off in strings of rooms that opened directly each one into the next, so that to get to the last room on the chain it was necessary to go through every room in between.  With halls came privacy, but it seems that what we call a hall today (a hall to the Elizabethans was a room large enough to hold many people) was a thing of the future.  What privacy they got was achieved through the use of screens and the great curtained beds.  Nor did wealth and rank make privacy any more attainable, since the least private dwellings were those of the aristocracy, where they were also surrounded by herds of retainers, “bed partners” and “gentlemen of the bedchamber.”  This lack of privacy is one of the factors that made secrecy so important during this period.

In addition, the Elizabethans had not yet developed the respect for writing as an art that we have today.  Writers were not expected to produce literature; writers were scriveners, clerks, men trained to put into simple language the thoughts of their illiterate or busy employers.  The small percentage of Elizabethans who were lucky enough to be taught to read and write acquired respect for the poets of ancient times along with their studies, but these were perceived as immortals––the notion that there might be equally great writers among their own friends and family members was a concept born with the Italian Renaissance, one that, when Shakespeare and his colleagues first began had not yet made its way to Britain.   As for poetry, anyone who could read and write could scribble verses for particular occasions.  Some may have been seen as better than others, but rarely so much better as to be worth saving.  So where and how Shakespeare got the respect and privacy he needed to create the literature he gave the world should be a major issue for authorship researchers.

With this as with so much else, we can but “see through a glass darkly”––still, as with all truths, once we know what to look for chances are we’ll find clues.  For instance, it wasn’t until Philip Sidney, wounded by the way he was being treated at Court, deserted his habitual entourage for refuge with his sister Mary that he had the breakthrough that put him on the literary map for all time (“Fool! Look in thy heart and write!”).  As a writer herself,  respectful of her brother’s talent and aware of the struggle he was having to express himself, Mary understood that what he needed most was privacy.  And as a Countess she was also in a position to see to it that he got it.

From early in his career Francis Bacon sought refuge from the noise and interruptions of London at his brother’s estate on the Thames that was eventually bought for him by the Earl of Essex, who certainly knew from his own life what it meant to need privacy.  By buying this writer’s refuge for Francis, Essex was compensating for failing to talk the Queen into making him Attorney General.  In actuality, the gift of Twickenham Park was the greater, at least where posterity is concerned, for it enabled the great Francis Bacon to keep on writing, something he might not have had time for had he gotten the Court job he craved.

If seen through the lens of a writer’s search for privacy, much about the Earl of Oxford’s life and nature is explained.

Early in life he would have developed the habit of solitude, living as he did with the scholar Sir Thomas Smith, who would himself have required such spells of silence and privacy for his own writing.  Without, it seems, companions of his own age and rank, what could be more natural than for the solitary boy to adopt his mentor’s habits.  It was only when “exempt from public haunt” and on his own outdoors he heard, speaking from within his own mind, tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and “good in everything.”

Having been transferred at twelve to the hotel-like turmoil of Cecil House in London, an atmosphere more like that of a foreign embassy than a private residence, this habit of solitude must have been sorely tried.  Cecil’s penchant for spying on his associates is as good as any other explanation for Oxford stabbing the undercook, something that, if we take the events in Hamlet as reflections of events in his life, may have been a hot-headed teenager’s reaction to the realization that he and his fencing partner were being watched, not by Polonius himself of course, but by one of his household spies.

The need for privacy may well be a factor in the way he behaved when, upon arriving back in England after a year abroad, he ignored the welcoming party arranged by Cecil, and hurried off with one of his pals.  If properly interpreted, his beef with Cecil seems to have been less the rumors about Anne than Cecil’s inability to keep private family matters to himself––allowing them to become, as Oxford put it, “the fable of the world.”  It’s hard to deny that his need for privacy had more to do with the five-year break with the Cecils that followed than any suspicion he may have had about his wife’s fidelity.

Ensconsed in his own household at Fisher’s Folly, surrounded by secretaries, writers and composers––who of course understood that when milord was writing he was NOT TO BE DISTURBED!––he was finally able to achieve a life for himself where he could get this kind of privacy whenever he needed it––one reason why this period shines as the most likely source of so many early versions of his greatest plays.  That this ideal environment was lost to him when he lost Fisher’s Folly in 1588 may help to explain Bacon’s title for Nashe’s introduction to Menaphon the following year: “Camilla’s alarm to slumbering Euphues in his melancholy cell at Silexedra,” and his reference the following year in Spenser’s Tears of the Muses to the fact that “Our pleasant Willy, Ah! is dead of late, with whom all joy and jolly merriment is also deaded and in dolour drent.” (Ugh! That godawful style!)

By 1594, remarried and so established once again in a household that could provide him with clean linen and regular meals, he began rewriting his old plays for a new generation of audiences, both Courtly and public, but one wonders how much privacy he was able to squeeze for himself from the constant call upon him for favors, interviews, etc., that were the daily business of a peer of the realm.

The likelihood that his young wife and the staff she provided had more interest in running a functioning estate than in making it possible for Prosper-O to conjure up the magic on a regular basis suggests his 1595 return to begging the Queen for the stewardship of the Forest of Waltham.  This in turn explains, to me at least, why the strange lack of evidence that he actually died in 1604 suggests that, with his mortality facing him, he simply took a card from his own “fantastical duke of dark corners” and “died to the world.”  Having acquired from a King who understood, as Elizabeth had not, his need for privacy, he finally achieved a setting that would allow him to leave the world the masterpieces of English literature that , in some cases, it had taken thirty years to polish to perfection.

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.

The Real Authorship Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smoking canon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

“Awfully decent of him”: Sobran reviews Shapiro

As defenses of the Stratford biography continue to arrive in bookstores in a mainstream effort to stem the tide of authorship inquiry, hyped by other academics and other left-brainers in online reviews, I can’t help but think I should join the debate.  I could get a review copy and add my two cents––so why don’t I?  For one thing, since I’m still mostly preaching to the choir here, I think it’s more useful to promote the Oxfordians who who can get their reviews published in mainstream journals.  I hardly have time to read the books stacked and waiting, books with the kind of information that’s truly useful, as more Stratfordian groupthink is not.

But basically, it’s just a matter of “been there done that.”  I’ve argued in private and in print with Ward Elliott and in public with Alan Nelson.  I went at it with the coneheads on SHAKSPER.  I watched Beauclerk debate Louis Marder and Stritmatter debate Terry Ross and have read David Kathman at length.  I finally realized that these folks aren’t being stubborn in the face of reality.  It’s not that they won’t see it, it’s that they can’t.

Most academics are herd animals, they follow the leader, usually the head of the English Department at their university.  If she tells them that William’s the man, it never occurs to them that she might be wrong (and if it does, he’s better off elsewhere, for there he’ll never prosper).  For over a century believing in William has been the English Lit ticket to preferment, to tenure, to getting published, to getting the juicy stuff, what there is of it.  It took 200 years before they would even allow the plays to be performed at Cambridge or Oxford, longer before they began teaching him.  They scoffed at the idea that there was anything of value in Shakespeare, like some scoff today at classes in film or popular music.

Academics are good with details, with focussing in on a small area and putting it in order, one reason why we have so much good material to work with.  But they’re no good at putting the bits together.  It seems never to occur to them to check how or if these chunks of scholarship fit together.  Not only can’t they see the forest for the trees, they don’t even know there’s a forest.  They’re good thinkers or they wouldn’t have gotten where they are, but they can’t think outside the box they were handed along with their diplomas.  Most of them have been inside the left-brain academic box since they were six years old and so they don’t even know there’s a great multi-dimensional world outside it.

Authorship scholars have a fully functioning right brain, which warns them when gaps appear in the record; academics don’t.  They can follow a trail of published facts, but if it takes them off into some empty wilderness it seems never to occur to them that something might be wrong.  Unable to imagine that anyone who knows the facts could be so blind, we accuse them of bad faith, but the truth is that, they simply can’t see the big picture.  Like the vain glamour girls in the days before contact lenses who refused to wear glasses, everything farther away than fifteen inches is a blur.  They refuse to talk about anything but the little facts they can see up close, not the big ones that are so obvious to anyone who bothers to dig a little deeper .

It never seems to strike them how very peculiar it is that we know so much about Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe and so little (that makes sense) about their far more important contemporary.   We can track Marlowe from a childhood at the Canterbury School to teen years at Cambridge to his twenties at the Rose Theater and Tamburlaine to his death in Deptford.  We can track Jonson from the Westminster school to the lowlands army to acting, then writing, for the London companies, then to his long association with the Lord Chamberlain’s-King’s Men and the Pembrokes.   In both of these the events of their lives, their known associations, and the plays they created all fit together like pieces of a puzzle to produce a believable scenario.  How is it that the academics  don’t see the difference between these two genuine stories and the Stratford fairy tale?

Nevertheless, although I can’t take the time myself, it’s still a delight to hear our side of the debate articulated by someone with the skills of Joe Sobran as in his recent review of Shapiro’s Contested Will.*  There’s no point in throwing facts at defenders of the Stratford faith, they bounce right off.  Why not take it easy on them, as Joe does with Shapiro.  After all, as should be clear, their time is coming to an end.  And we have much to thank them for.

*Many thanks to Sam Robrin for supplying the link to Sobran’s review.

That darn name!

Who was Shakespeare?

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

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

“I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The name’s the game

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

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

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

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

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

Shake spear and Deep throat

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

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

Watergate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hollywood Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

Once more into the breach, dear friends

Those of us who have spent enough time researching the authorship question to realize that it’s simply not possible that William of Stratford wrote the Shakespeare canon need to remember, when arguing the question with his defenders, that old saw: a good offense is the best defence.  Keep moving the argument back to the anomalies, back to the facts, back to the fact of the anomalies.

For instance, does it make sense that the most innovative writer of all time chose to rewrite the works of lesser writers rather than come up with his own unique plots?  Who else did that?  Not Milton.  Not Byron.  Not Keats, Shelley, Blake, none of them!  Not even other playwrights from Shakespeare’s own time.  Yet orthodox scholars have him copying Marlowe’s style, borrowing entire plots, characters and all, from Thomas Lodge and Robert Greene, stealing tropes from Samuel Daniel, one indigestible anomaly after another that, as per the White Queen’s advice to Alice, we’re to swallow without demur.  “Open wide!  Say ahhh!”

With Oxford, on the other hand, the only thing we have to swallow is the not nearly so absurd idea that he chose to hide his identity.  Taken with a few spoonfuls of literary history such as the exile of Ovid, the martydom of Cicero, the burning of Tyndale, the fatwa that kept Salmon Rushdie in hiding for years, one might conclude that hiding his identity during the repressive regime of the early English Reformation might have been a rather clever maneuver, one that kept him going well into his fifties while Marlowe never made it past his twenties.

Whenever they raise the issue of his dying before The Tempest was produced,  Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky now have their evidence of its early composition online, available to all to read, recommend, and pass along in emails to interested friends, including the rather amusing tale of how the Shakespeare establishment has been fighting to keep The Tempest in its little tiny teapot.  S&K have got a book on this at the publisher’s.  Hammer away at it, friends!  Don’t let it drop!

When they raise the issue of Oxford’s lack of obvious involvement in the Stage, relegating it to the brief appearances of companies like Lord Rich’s players or Lord Berkeley’s Men, point out the fact that, however minor his connections appear in the record, and however brief, they cover a longer period than any other patron or playwright except Ben Jonson.  Note how every momentous development in the history of the Stage seems to happen under the Earl of Oxford’s nose.  This, along with the published statements of his abilities in The Arte of English Poesie and Meres’s Wits Treasury, should be more than enough.  That is, it’s more than enough when taken together with the theory that he hid his identity!  Don’t let them divide and conquer by arguing the one issue without the other!  The reason why his name appears so infrequently is the same reason as his use of another man’s name!  They are part and parcel of the same argument.

Don’t let them use dating schemes like that put forth by E.K. Chambers, on which so many Stratfordian conjectures rely, all based on late dates like publication and the time constraints of the Stratford biography, or the one brought forth by Elliott and Valenza’s Claremont Clinic, in which we learn––quelle surprise!––that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare (astonishing!).  The fact is, these word studies can’t possibly work in Shakespeare’s case.  Why?  First: because he rewrote so many of the plays, some more than once, over many years, so what date should we use?  And second: because his writing style changed so radically over the years, as did styles in general.  Every time they raise the issue of dates, hammer it home why there’s simply no way to date these plays.  That is, there’s no way unless we use Oxford’s biography.  For an example of how the biography, plus the history of the Court community, can help with dating, see Hamlet and The Spanish Tragedy and Dating the Shrew.

“I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid within the centre”!

“A golden mind stoops not to shows of dross”!

“Once more into the breach . . . “!

The Authorship: the Big Picture

What are we to think about Shakespeare?  Is he who he said he was, who Ben Jonson and the academics say he was, or was he someone else?  Have we been diddled by Jonson all these centuries, and if so, why?  And does it really matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but then what does?  Does it matter who won Olympic gold this year, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court?  How many people care about these things?  What percentage of the population gives a damn about almost any question you can think of, including who killed Jack Kennedy?

It’s said that when George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there”––actually another authorship question since some think that a journalist made it up, but no matter who actually said it, it’s a good answer and it works for Shakespeare too.  For Shakespeare looms as large in the history of English letters as Everest looms on the Himalayan horizon.  Why do we want to know  the answer to the question of who actually created the language we speak?   Because it’s there.

Why “the big picture”?

If we knew who wrote the works we wouldn’t need anything but a little background along the edges, but not knowing, not knowing for sure, we must go to the background, for the truth leaves clues wherever it occurs.  As I got deeper into the story it began to expand, from the works themselves to the life of the supposed author to the lives of other English authors and their works, both those with writer’s biographies and those without, to the lives of the patrons and of the Queen they served, their politics, alliances, relationships and beliefs.

It spread to the story of the Continental poets and playwrights, to the history of the Reformation and beyond that of the European Renaissance.  From the works it spread to their sources (which, it turned out, were often in languages other than English), to the kind of education available to the writers, to the ancient and Continental works that inspired them,  and on to the realities of literature itself, how it gets created and by what kind of artist.  And finally to questions of freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise.  A big picture indeed.

Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary.  Not only will the big picture bring illumination to the history of the period, it may help to bring understanding to something that’s in danger of being lost, the important and true purposes of Art, the nature of artists––as different from other human creatures as are butterflies from bees.

To put it as simply as possible, Shakespeare’s identity got hidden because he was so closely involved with the history of his time and with its movers and shakers, those in a position to hide the things they wanted hidden, that his identity became one of those things.