Category Archives: University Wits

Greenblatt’s “Will in the World”: not

Beleaguered perhaps by the rising enthusiasm for Oxford as Shakespeare, as our world of Shakespeare enthusiasts entered the 21st century, two academics have once more taken it upon themselves to provide us with William of Stratford scenarios, not so new as slightly refurbished. Curious to see how they deal with the thousand and one still unresolved anomalies that attend “the Shakespeare Problem,” (E.K. Chambers’s term for “problems of chronology”: when were the plays written?, and “problems of authenticity: who wrote them?) I began with the one from 2004, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.

After introducing us to Shakespeare’s accomplishments, how he

turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and of beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history. . . .

Greenblatt asks, “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” Alas, this is not a question he is capable of answering, for all that he has to offer is the same old dodge, tarted up with descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London, laced with facts and events that have no relevance, or very little, to how the plays got written, and so heavy with the kind of conjecture that must fill in where facts are scarce, it’s hard not to separate the wheat from the chaff, there being so very little wheat.

Those of us who read biographies to find out more about the famous persons who interest us should see immediately that, once again, this is far from what anyone would normally consider the biography of a real human being. Nor can we explain its failure to communicate Shakespeare’s life story as a natural loss of information from a long distant time, for why should we know more about Alexander the Great, who lived 2400 years ago, than we do Shakespeare, a mere 400, and at at time when letter writing was at a peak and the Stage a subject of intense public excitement and fascination?  Why should we know so much more about Ben Jonson, a playwright from Shakespeare’s own time, than his far greater contemporary?  And why isn’t the first question to be dealt with, now, after 400 years of silence, the reason for this strange and unexplained lack of information?

There’s no biography here, no story, no drama, no pathos, no real narrative, only a few anecdotes, many of them concocted by the Academy or its precursors to explain why a particular play was written, or what connection, if any, might be drawn to the life of someone about whom so very little was ever recorded, none of which shows any resemblance to the life of any real theatrical genius (Oscar Wilde? Leonard Bernstein? George Balanchine? George Gershwin?), that is, the only connection being the name that was purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men because they had to have something to put on the title pages of the plays when they finally began publishing them. As for the fact that the first two times it was used on a published play (after four years of anonymous publishing) it was hyphenated, well, “nothing here folks,” just another example of how nobody involved in creating the London Stage knew what the heck they were doing.

Professor of Humanities at Harvard and editor of the Norton Shakespeare, Greenblatt is considered a founder of the “new Historicism,” one of those bloody neologisms that have wreaked so much damage on the teaching, and study, and love and understanding, of English literature, ever since the universities in their wisdom began replacing reading and discussing the great works with language science (philolology, semiotics).

Whatever “the New Historicism” is supposed to convey it certainly doesn’t include much history. The realities of the period during which the plays were written, far from the ground out of which they grew, provide little more than a shifting and sketchy backdrop to the same old fairy tales: pleasant descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London; pastel acquatints; bathroom wallpaper.  We might be watching one of those old travelogues from the 1930s and’40s with which Turner Classic Movies fills out their programming, “and now we say goodbye to old sixteenth-century London . . . .”

Since history provides no support at all for the Stratford biography, what Greenblatt relies on instead are centuries of academic conjecture: “All biographical studies of Shakespeare necessarily build on the assiduous, sometimes obsessive, archival research and speculation of many generations of scholars and writers.”  After 400 years of consistent failure, wouldn’t you think the greatest need might be to go back to the beginning and start over?  Not so. It seems “Historicism” means little more than recycling every cockamamie workaround that 400 years of dealing with the Great Anomaly (the lack of any real evidence, not only for Shakespeare, but for the broader phenomenon, the London Stage) has managed to produce, for Greenblatt has organized his attempt at a biography, not so that we can come to know the man who gave us the great plays––clearly that’s impossible, at least for someone associated with a university––but so, as he puts it, that readers can “find their way through the immense forest of critical resources”!  Well who but a postdoc gives a hoot about “critical resources”?  This is supposed to be a biography!

Says Greenblatt, “the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin.” (12). By abundant he means that thanks to centuries of archival digging by scholars like Malone, Halliwell-Philips, Schoenbaum and dozens of others, we know far more than we need to know or care to know about William’s exceedingly humdrum life in Stratford, while by thin he means anything that connects him to London or the Stage.  Scholars have filled volumes with the Stratford records; the records that connect him to the Theater can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Says Greenblatt

After . . . sifting through most of the available traces, readers rarely feel closer to understanding how the playwright’s achievements came about. If anything, Shakespeare often seems a drabber, duller person, and the inward springs of his art seem more obscure than ever. Those springs would be difficult enough to glimpse if biographers could draw upon letters and diaries, contemporary memoires and interviews, books with revealing marginalia, notes and first drafts. Nothing of the kind survives. (13)

Survives?  What evidence is there that originally there was something worth surviving? What this otherwise unexplainable absence suggests is that in fact there were never any letters, diaries, memoires, etc., that mention William as an actor or a playwright, for had there been, there would simply be NO GOOD REASON why the evidence failed to survive when so much else has survived.

Why on earth would no one have ever paid any attention to William of Stratford had he in fact been the author of these popular plays?  Why so much attention to Jonson and nothing to Shakespeare?  When does common sense kick in?  Is it going to take another 200 years before this anomalous lack of evidence brings those who have the means to publish around to pondering for reasons why Jonson and not Shakespeare?

Greenblatt asks, “Where are [William’s] personal letters?  Why have scholars ferreting for centuries failed to find the books he must have owned––or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in these books, as Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did?”  How about because William couldn’t write, as evidenced by the six shaky signatures?  How about because he couldn’t read?  How about because he wasn’t Shakespeare?

The education problem

Says Greenblatt, “The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.” Modest education?  What education?  The only evidence that William could write so much as his own name (and even that not well or completely) are the six wobbly signatures on legal documents that are all that 200 years of digging has managed to unearth from the voluminous records that have been the focus of scholarly attention for the past 200 years. The only letter we know of that was ever written to William was never answered (or perhaps, never sent?).

The only possible support for the idea that he had any education at all is because, well, there was a grammar school in Stratford, and of course the great Shakespeare had to be educated, evidence or no evidence.  Yes, the author had to be educated, but is the man who could not even spell his own name that author?  Nor does “modest” accurately describe the kind of education revealed by everything attributed to Shakespeare, the depth of his knowledge of the Law, medicine, horticulture, astronomy, astrology, the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, of contemporary France and Italy, much of it foreign even to the most highly-educated of his contemporaries.

We are told what books Shakespeare “must have read.” Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that William had read anything.  There are no books listed in his will.  This and similar other difficult facts are “explained” by the academics as normal for the period. Many owners of books neglected to list them in their wills. Perhaps. But points like this simply add to an increasingly large set of facts that suggest, if they do not out and out prove, that William was illiterate, such as the fact that his entire family signed legal papers with an x, or that no member of his family had anything to say with regard to his fame as a playwright.

About his career as the author of the most popular plays in London, it seems his family and their neighbors knew nothing, for had they known there would certainly have been a record of it. The notion that his son-in-law Dr. Hall, who remarked in his diary on having treated their neighbor, the playwright Michael Drayton, might have mentioned his playwright father-in-law in notebooks that got burnt with the trash, is typical of how academics deal with the fact that Hall, who did mention his father-in-law elsewhere, never mentions his fantastic career.  The three passing references to William’s presence in London that are all the record provides as evidence of a London career (nonpayment of taxes in 1595 and ’96, and a sojourn of indeterminate length in 1604 with a family of haberdashers) that these are sufficient to support his theatrical fame would, for anyone but an Oxbridge historicist, be far from sufficient.  Nor is there any mention of valuable theater shares in his will.

Greenblatt’s version: nothing new

For those who haven’t read one of the orthodox Shakespeare biographies, Greenblatt faithfully follows his predecessors.  Bored with family life in provincial Stratford (parents, siblings, wife and three children), Will takes off for London.  Maybe hooking up with one of the London touring companies that pass through from time to time, the professional actors it seems do not hesitate to share with him the secrets of their trade, teaching him to sing, dance, fence, play an instrument, speak with a London accent, and memorize their repertory.

Or, another theory, maybe it wasn’t only boredom but trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy, that sends the youthful genius off to London, probably not for poaching rabbits as an earlier invention had it, maybe something having to do with religion, which, as Greenblatt mentions in passing, was something of a problem back then. This version has William, if not holding horses, then beginning by revising plays by an assortment of earlier (nameless) writers.

The University Wits

When it comes to the University Wits, Greenblatt willingly repeats a number of ancient falsehoods, among them that George Peele was a “reveler” who “died of the Pox,” something Peele’s biographer has proven to be a bad rap foisted on the early playwright after his death.  Playing fast and loose with a subject that nobody really knows anything about, Greenblatt claims the Wits were “snobbish” towards the self-educated William, who prudently held himself aloof when he “saw that they drank for days and nights at a time and then, still half drunk, threw something together for the printer or the players.”  He misses the joke in “Harvey’s” Second Letter, swallowing whole the tongue-in-cheek claim that their leading playwright, Robert Greene, died of an overdose of “pickled herring.” Is he unaware, or is he simply not interested in the fact that Pickle Herring was the name of a famous clown character, something like the Comedia’s Scaramouche?  Was Greene’s death a joke?  And who was Robert Greene anyway?  Questions like these are to be avoided.  Radioactive, they threaten the holy of holies, the Stratford biography.

Yet Greenblatt does see, as so many of his colleagues do not, how all (but one) of the Wits “quickly followed [Greene] to the grave”––even as he fails to acknowledge any connection between their disappearance in the early 1590s and the concurrent series of brutal attacks on Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, by the Privy Council under the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil.  Whenever any real drama threatens the peaceful tenor of his narrative, he quickly cools it with placid adjectives.  According to Greenblatt, for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, threatened by the loss of their means of livelihood in 1596, body blows like the loss of their theaters and the deaths of their patron and manager were nothing more than “disconcerting.”

William’s life in Shakespeare’s plays

Greenblatt’s attempts to locate events in William’s life in the plots of the plays are noteworthy for their utter irrelevance.  His notion that William’s shotgun wedding was the source for Romeo and Juliet’s romance is little short of pathetic.  His claim that the unhappy marriages in Shakespeare derive from William’s own marriage because they have “an odd, insistent ring of truth,” could be said of almost anyone.   He sees Prospero’s concern for Miranda’s virtue an extension of William’s concern for his own daughters, though it’s questionable how well he could possibly have known them, having, according to Greenblatt, spent their growing and marrying years in far off London.  As for William’s anger towards his son-in-law because his will shows a series of interlineations that cut him off, that hardly comports with Prospero’s intention to see Miranda happily married to the noble Ferdinand.  Nor, for obvious reasons, does he extend this imagined connection with his daughters to the venomous daughters of King Lear.

Other views are equally conflicted. Marlowe was a brilliant dramatist, the inventor of blank verse and a threat to the Crown at the same time that he was a spy for the Crown, a counterfeiter, and a violent brawler. Similarly Shakespeare, Jonson’s “soul of the age, the delight, the wonder of our Stage,” was a play-patcher who cribbed his ideas from lesser writers and worked in partnership with sundry co-authors while showing “little or no interest” in the fate of his published works.

There are a fair number of out and out untruths. It seems that Stratford’s Forest of Arden, backdrop for so many scenes in Shakespeare, was in fact little more than a few patches of woods; having long since been encroached upon by the growth of small farms, so that all that remained of it by William’s time was the name.  Nor was tanning John Shakspere’s trade, as Greenblatt states, because while tanning hides was tangential to wool dealing, it was a totally separate industry.

However limited by his precursors, Greenblatt is not entirely without logic when it comes to the plays themselves.  He sees that Shakespeare had no reverence for the Church as an institution and that his “powerful prelates” are uniformly “disagreeable.” Suggesting that Shakespeare could not allow Falstaff to have a scene or two in Henry V because that play had to remain true to its purpose to rouse patriotic sentiment, is probably at least partly why the popular character was killed off in the­ second act. (Another might be because Will Kemp, doubtless the comedian who made Falstaff a household word, had left the Company by the time Henry V took its final form, and no one up to the part had yet been found to take his place.)  He also grasps the purpose of the first seventeen sonnets and is aware that sonneteering was a “game of courtiers,” though he doesn’t try to explain how the humble Will managed to play the sophisticated game with such subtlety and skill.

How long, O Lord, how long?

When will someone of Greenblatt’s experience, intelligence and academic standing have the courage to admit the impossibility of proving that William of Stratford could possibly have written the Shakespeare canon?  When will the Academy turn its attention to what should have been the central question from the start: What happened to the records that could tell us who did write it?  There’s the story, folks.  There’s the missing narrative, the drama, the history, the pathos.  There’s where the truth lies, and where we’ll find it, and so much else, when we begin to look for it in the right places.

 

Reviewed: Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography

Diana Price has come out with a new edition of her 2001 Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography.  Having missed the first edition, here was my opportunity to get what must be one of the most important books on the Authorship Question ever published.  For those who haven’t yet read it, particularly those who enjoy fencing with Stratfordians (which I don’t), I urge you to get it, read it, and keep it handy, for it is certainly the definitive text on why William of Stratford cannot possibly be the author of the Shakespeare canon.

Because she does not attempt to answer the second half of The Question––If not William then Who?––she avoids the rancour that inevitably attends any effort to promote a particular candidate.  In this she joins august anti-Stratfordians like George Greenwood and Mark Twain, who made no attempt to pick a winner, perhaps also setting a pattern for important studies that have come along since, most notably Richard Roe’s book on Shakespeare’s Italy, and more recently Stritmatter and Kositsky’s on The Tempest.  By refusing to allow the authorship itself to intrude, the reader’s native common sense is free to function on a particular part of the argument, thus eliminating the dismissive sound byte, as does Roe with the frequently heard dismissal that Shakespeare had his facts wrong about Italy; or Stritmatter with that other constant, that “some plays are too late for Oxford.”

By eliminating the emotionally touchy issues that surround the various candidates, Price allows nothing to take precedence over the stone cold irrefutable fact that William could not possibly have written the Shakespeare canon, or anything else. “Why not William?” must always be answered before readers will be ready to hear who actually wrote the works that bear his name.  Nobody has nailed this primary issue like Price.  Detailed on every point, her scholarship––cool, orderly, thorough, exhaustively supported with solid citations––sets a high mark for the rest of us.  From the lack of any evidence of an education, to his disappearance from London just as the plays that bore his name were hitting their peak of popularity, to the death that went totally unremarked by what had become the vast audience for his plays, she leaves no tern unstoned.

Ah, would that were the end of it!  So long as she wields this end of the stick she can’t be faulted, but unfortunately she must needs turn an utterly convincing localized effort into a self-contradictory theory of everything, ending up in the same weeds where her Stratfordian opponents continue their endless circling.  It would seem that in every respect except the authorship itself, Price is no less a Stratfordian than the academics she scorns, accepting every single darn thing they’ve come up with in centuries of making bricks without straw.  For Price, both Shake-scene and Poet-Ape represent William, a Frankenstein’s monster patched together from every ambiguous figure lurking within the epigrams of his own time and the conjurations dreamed up by centuries of confused theorists.

Dates don’t lie

There’s no real harm in this (to anyone but Price herself), since most of what can’t be disproven can’t be proven either.  However, her notion that William was a hard-nosed financial wizard who bought his way into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then used and abused the connection to make hay for himself by brokering old plays and costumes, is a genuine threat to the truth.  This theory, to which she devotes many pages, is demonstrably without any basis whatsoever in fact.  It’s true that William was as tough-minded as any other businessman when it came to his dealings in Stratford, but there’s nothing to suggest that, until he was adopted by the Company at some point in or shortly before 1595, he had so much as a shilling to invest in anything.

One of the few facts about the life of William of Stratford, repeated in every account from Nicholas Rowe on down to Sam Schoenbaum, is that Shakspere Sr., who throughout William’s early childhood shows up in the record as a successful local entrepreneur, had fallen on serious hard times by the time his son was twelve.  By the 1580s, selling land and dodging creditors had become a way of life for the Shakspere family (Schoenbaum A Documentary Life, 36-40).  Reasons for this loss of standing have caused considerable conjecture over the centuries, suggesting to some that they were Catholic recusants, to others radical dissidents.

Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the Shaksperes were in financial trouble until suddenly, at some point in or shortly after 1596, there was enough money that William was able to buy the second biggest house in town and invest in its renovation.  By then he was in his thirties, so had he been the financial wizard of Price’s imagination, his name would have begun to appear in records of local business transactions well before 1596. That this upsurge in solvency is directly connected to the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in June of 1594 is proven by numerous records, both then and later.  Dates don’t lie.

Price’s notion flies in the face, not only of this well-documented fact of his family’s indebtedness, but also what is known of the structure of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  As noted by everyone who has studied what evidence there is of Shakespeare’s company––most recently Andrew Gurr in The Shakespeare Company (2004)––funding came from the sharers, that is, the six to eight highly-skilled actors who played the leading roles created by Shakespeare (the playwright).  This may be questionable: one of the missing elements in the story as its been told until now is the part played in the Company’s evolution by its wealthy Privy Council patrons.  But this lack of patronage can hardly be resolved by casting the impoverished William as the missing patron.  True, his name does appear in the record on several occasions as a member of this core group of sharers, but even if, let us say, he did supply his share (£100) to rebuild the Globe when it burned down in 1613, the other half of the equation is missing, for time has produced nothing that supports the Company’s claim that he was an actor.

While others have pointed to the fact that, unlike every other member of this core group, all of whom have proven track records as actors with other leading companies before they were recruited by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the name William Shakespeare is not to be found in any theatrical record until 1595, nor has it ever been connected with any other acting company, nor by any contemporary with any particular Shakespearean roles, as is true of most of the genuine actor-sharers.  The one or two references to him as an actor at the time, made in passing, can all be seen as reflecting the role the Company chose to explain his presence, for proving that he was not an actor was just as impossible as proving that he was not a playwright.

In fact Price herself explains in detail why William could not possibly have been the actor the Company would have us believe (32-5).  Noting how during periods when they would have needed all their actors in London, she shows how Schoenbaum locates him in Stratford.  During the winter season of 1597-98, while the Company was performing for the Court from late December through February, records in Stratford have him stockpiling grain and purchasing stone for New Place (Schoenbaum 178).  Since it was a two to three-day trip each way from Stratford to London and back, perhaps longer on icy winter roads, that he could have dashed back and forth is so unlikely as to be impossible.

Shortly after the immensely important occasion of King James’s initial procession through London in March 1604 (for which all the sharers, now the King’s Men, were provided with red and gold livery), it appears that William was in Stratford selling malt (a component of ale) to a local apothecary (34), something that required his attention through June, a period when the Company was busy reopening the Globe after the plague closure of the previous year, and during which several Shakespeare plays were performed at Court for the Company’s all-important new patron, King James.  So unavailable was William for this last, as its playwright anyway, that the clerk that noted the plays that would eventually bear his name, spelled it Shaxberd.

William did not pay––he got paid.

William’s fortune did not come to him from any enterprise he’d undertaken before signing on with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.  To make money it’s necessary to have money, something it’s clear that neither he nor anyone in his family had until he was taken on by the actors.  Yes, he was a hard-nosed businessman, and never more so than when he was squeezing them in exchange for remaining silent about the authorship!  From his first notice in the Revels warrant in 1595 until his death in 1616 (and probably until the death of his wife shortly before the First Folio was published seven years later), from first to last, all records of his investments can easily be seen as the Company’s investment in his silence.  Had he been the investor she imagines, had he been the sharer he was made out to be, he would have left shares in his will, as did the real sharers, the actors.

Since no books have survived to reveal how Hemmings, the Company’s manager, handled the flow of funds from at first, just the box office, then after the creation of the Globe, the added portion taken by the house, we have no way of knowing how he managed William’s portion, but that it was not handled in the same way that the money was distributed to the real actors is clear from the absence of any shares in William’s will and no record of any sale of his shares, as there is with the others.  Dealing with William, as with all supernumeraries whose work assisted the production of their plays, fell to Hemmings.  The Mountjoy family, with whom William resided during a brief period in the early 17th century, lived right around the corner from Hemmings. As costumers, the Mountjoys were the sort with whom Hemmings dealt on a daily basis, along with stagehands, scriveners, carpenters, and so forth.

Having divested him of his role as playwright and actor, Price would like to be able to provide him with role with the Company that readers can trust, but because, like the Stratfordians she disdains, she doesn’t know enough about the period to perceive behind the fudging and side-stepping that characterizes all the connections between the Company and the Crown, the deeply political nature of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and their driving need to find a cover that allowed them to get their plays published.  Nor, like most Oxfordians as well as Stratford defenders, does she understand the uses of a name that can be read as a serious name by the public and a pun name by the cognescenti.  William was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (probably in fact by Hemmings, whose hometown was Droitwich, a few miles northwest of Stratford) for the use of his name––and for nothing more!  Everything else, the suggestion that he was a sharer and an actor, was window dressing.  As he provided the necessary cover for their playwright, the terms “sharer” and “actor” were covers for his real purpose.

Lost in a sea of weeds

It’s not possible to cover all the odd postitions taken by Price in her effort to provide a theory of everything, but one more will at least give a sense of where she tends to go awry.  For instance she accepts Warren Austin’s assertion that Greene’s Groatsworth was written, not by Robert Greene, but by Henry Chettle.  Only those who have poked around in the primordial ooze where issues pertaining to the creation of the English periodical press remain seemingly forever bedded, will grasp the strangeness of this choice.

While the three names that dominate this branch of the larger authorship question––Greene, Nashe and Harvey––display anomalies similar to those that have led to questioning William of Stratford, works published as by Robert Greene are not only coherent in subject matter and style up to and including Groatsworth, as the dominant name in English literature throughout the decade preceding the advent of Shakespeare, his name on some 36 works of combined prose and poetry (the five plays were attributed to him posthumously), why on earth pass off this final bit of his canon (meant to be seen as final anyway) as the work of someone as inconsequential as Henry Chettle?

The author of Chettle’s ODNB bio refers to his “shadowy career both as printer and as author: again and again he is associated with a work but is not credited with any part of it when it comes to print.”  She lists 13 of Henslowe’s stringers that, according to Henslowe, worked with Chettle on plays, six of which were published, not one of them bearing his name.  “A further thirteen plays in Henslowe’s diary are attributed to Chettle alone.  Only one . . . was ever printed . . . ; again, Chettle is not identified as the play’s author.”

If we accept the DNB’s assessment of his career, since there is no proof that Chettle actually wrote anything, then Austin’s claim that his language in all his works matches that of Groatsworth and other works by Greene is hardly worth the proverbial tinker’s damn.  Prices’s efforts to explain why a lowly typographer’s apprentice would leap into the pamphlet fray by pretending to be the dying Greene goes nowhere, of course, where could it go?  The word studies that convinced Austin that Greene’s language in Groatsworth matches Chettle’s in Kind Heart’s Dreame, the pamphlet in which he refuted (unpublished) rumors that he wrote Groatsworth, raise questions about all the other pamphlets that sound like Greene but were signed with other names, such as B.R., R.B., Gabriel Harvey and “the renowned Cavaliero Pasquil.”

Maybe Austin was right; maybe whoever wrote Kind Heart’s Dreame also wrote Groatsworth, and almost everything else that was published in pamphlet form at that time, but in the morass of confusion that the true authors of these early pamphlets have left us, the truth about Chettle is not something that Price, or anyone who has written on the subject, has come close to resolving.  Nor will they until they begin to ask the same questions about these writers that have led us to the truth about Shakespeare.

To be or not to be the author

Price takes her argument against William up to the door of the Court, which is where she leaves it.  She makes a case for why the true author had to be a courtier, but will not suggest which one.  Ignorant of the politics of the period, she can give no solid reason why this unnamed courtier should be so reluctant to be named as a poet or a playwright, nor why the cover-up should have continued so long past his death.  Time has shown that nobody today really buys the notion that this long enduring cover-up was due solely to the “stigma of print,” nor should they.  There were plenty of other reasons, personal as well as political why the true author, his family, his actors, his patrons, his in-laws, his monarchs Elizabeth and James, could not and would not ever allow his name to be connected with his works––deadly serious reasons, that no one writing about this today, ignorant of the history of that period, knows or apparently cares to pursue.

The problem for Price, as it is for all who have found it expedient to set the question of the true author aside, is that minus the genius who created the London Stage with his magical works, there is no story.  Efforts to create one without him inevitably fall apart like dough made with all flour and no fat.  As Yeats might have put it, “the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Price has supplied the “rough beast, his hour come round at last,” but who needs him?  Who wants him?  Where is the heartbeat, the thrill, the glory of great achievement in the face of devastating opposition?  Even if there were any truth to her scenario, of what use is it?  Without the author, his story, his relationship to the Stage, the Court, the Inns of Court, the Crown, the commercial periodical press, you end up with a three-legged table.  With the most important leg missing, the table may fit in with your decorating scheme, but if asked to support anything greater than itself, over it goes.

History requires a leading figure, a protagonist.  What would the history of the American Civil War be without the personalities of Lincoln and Lee, John Brown and Stonewall Jackson––a mere string of dates and names of battle locations.  We care about the Civil War because of the stories that came out of it, stories of life and death, of great courage in the face of great danger. What is the life and death issue here?  Where is the hero?  Where is the story?  William is in the way. Price has removed him.  That’s all she’s done, and it’s enough.

Update: THE BOOK ROOM, etcetera

Those who have purchased, or who plan to purchase, Richard Beacham’s The Roman Theatre and its Audience so we can read it together, please begin reading if you haven’t already, and taking notes, if you wish.  I’ve been remiss in keeping up with this and everything else in my life, due to a stream of events that has kept me on my feet for days, but I have been reading the book, and will be happy to respond to comments on the BOOK ROOM page.  I hope this works out.  If not we’ll try something else.

Having accepted the fact that Oxford had access to a number of the Latin works discussed by Beacham, we may find solid reasons for believing that these played a part in forming the London Stage in the mid to  late 1570s.  Could Oxford have been thinking about how to create such a theater as early as his childhood?  What do you think?  What other questions does the book raise for us?

Francis Bacon and the University Wits

It’s clear from the stats I get from WordPress that the pages here on  the Wits have the most interest for readers.  Years ago, when Ogburn’s Mysterious William first got me interested in the authorship question, I came away with two unanswered questions:  first: what was Oxford’s education and does it fit the extraordinary knowledge revealed by Shakespeare in his works?  Second: who were the other writers publishing when he began, and do any of them show the same anomalies in their biographies that we see in Shakespeare?  Having done my best with the question about his education and childhood, I hope to do the same with regard to the other writers, who for the most part can be grouped under the scholar’s rubric of “University Wits.”

Dry runs for this will no doubt appear here as the work takes shape, but there is little room in a blog for outlining a particular chain of evidence, particularly one that has been so damaged by both time and the purposeful elimination of anything that might connect the Cecil family to the works of Shakespeare or the birth of the London Stage.  Nevertheless, as (ironically) Polonius puts it, the truth is the truth “though it were hid indeed at the centre.”  A perpetrator may wear gloves, but his fingerprints will always be found somewhere, that is, if one is looking for the right things and in the right places.

The major factor in our effort to revise history according to basic common sense is getting the authorities to accept the fact that during the period that Shakespeare and other writers were creating the English Literary Renaissance, they found it necessary to hide their identities.  Because they will not accept this, we are stuck at the very gate, for every phase of this argument is determined by this fact, which is fairly easy to prove, and certainly far from unusual in human history, that is, of course, if attention is paid to enough historical facts, which sadly in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question has not been the case.

D Day 1588

The revisiting seen on television over the past few days of the invasion of Hitler’s Europe by the British and American forces in 1944, the true beginning of the end of the Second World War, brings to mind the situation England found itself in the mid-to-late 1580s as it faced the certainty of an invasion by Spain’s great Armada in its crusade to keep all of Europe contained by the Roman Catholic power structure .  When we hear academics scoff at the idea that writers were able to keep their identities a secret, what about the fact that D Day, the greatest naval invasion in the history of the world, was kept a secret, not only from the enemy, but also from everyone else, including the international media.

In times of war and revolution, keeping certain matters a secret becomes a deadly serious necessity.  By disdaining to reference history, the academics have ignored the fact that when the writers who later took names like Shakespeare, Spenser, Greene and Nashe first began writing, they were locked in deadly combat with the Calvinist Reformation, that held that such works were the tools of the Devil.  It has also escaped them that Shakespeare was dealing, sometimes with passion, with the realpolitik of his time.  This misapprehension, largely due to the misplacement in time forced on the academics by the Stratford biography,  is the heart of our problem, and until we get it unravelled, and get the word out by publishing, online if not in print, we will continue to “perne in a gyre”  for another 100 years of getting nowhere with the authorship question.

Tolkien and Beowulf

The article by Joan Acocella in a recent New Yorker on Tolkien and his immersion in Old English, written to acknowledge the publication, finally, of his translation of Beowulf (Houghton Mifflin), is one of the reasons why I continue to subscribe to this one magazine (the other major reason for an artist and page designer is the stylish and generally reader-friendly layout and their continued dedication to publishing the work of wonderful artists).

Thoughtfully Acocella recounts briefly the plots through which Beowulf defeats three monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the Dragon.  Like the Reformation ideologues of Oxford’s time, Grendel, monster #1, hates the music with which the ancient Geats would make merry into the night, though his technique for stopping them––tearing them into pieces which he then eats––is rather more ghoulish.  Certain artists during Shakespeare’s time did have their heads removed by rope or axe, but nobody ate them.

By defining the prosody of the poem, what makes it distinctive as a style, for us this article raises the question of what Oxford may have taken from the opportunity he was given to study the Old English manuscript of Beowulf that Alexander Nowell had in his keeping during the period he was tutoring Oxford at Cecil House.  There’s no indication that Nowell himself translated Beowulf into either Latin or English, but how likely is it that Oxford and his translator friends at Cecil House would have passed up the opportunity to do exactly this, or at least some sections of the manuscript?

I have pondered at some length the comment by Roger Ascham (pron. Ask’em) in his Scholemaster that he preferred the Greeks to the Gothians, wondering just what he meant by the latter:

But now, when men know the difference, and have the examples, both of the best, and of the worst, surely, to follow rather the Goths in Rhyming, than the Greeks in true versifying, were even to eat acorns with swine, when we may freely eat wheat bread among men.  Indeed, Chaucer, Th. Norton, my L. of Surrey, M. Wyatt, Th. Phaer, and other gentlemen, in translating Ovid, Palingenius, and Seneca, have gone as far, to their great praise, as the copy they followed could carry them, but, if such good wits and forward diligence had been directed to follow the best examples, and not have been carried by time and custom to content themselves with that barbarous and rude rhyming, among their other worthy praises, which they have justly deserved, this had not been the least, to be counted among men of learning and skill, more like unto the Grecians than vnto the Gothians, in handling of their verse.

If by this, written in 1563, he was describing a current fascination with the forms discovered in Beowulf and other texts by Nowell, first modern scholar to recover the sounds and meanings of Old English, a fascination  that has escaped the world of letters, this might resolve what it was that Ascham was condemning at the time that Nowell and his students were delving into the mysteries of Old English prosody.  One would think the appropriate term would be alliteration, since these Anglo-Saxon poems did not depend upon rhyme, at least as we use the word, but on a particular kind of alliteration, as described by Acocella.

Hope to hear from some of you shortly in THE  BOOK ROOM.

 

Bacon and the Wits

I’ve been asked to elaborate on my belief that Bacon was Spenser and Nashe and how that fits with the University Wits.  Since I don’t have any more “hard data” than anyone else, the best I can do is what I’ve been doing from the beginning, seeking the scenario, the narrative, the motivation, that makes sense of what we’ve got.  Making sense of it means reading all these texts, which has been the project of many years, and since so very few readers will have had the time or the inclination to do this reading for themselves, all I can do is present my conclusions and hope that they make human sense.

Although it must have been clear for some time, probably centuries, to the intellectual community that William of Stratford could not possibly have been the author of the Shakespeare canon, Delia Bacon is credited with having opened the authorship question to the public at large in the middle of the 19th century.  Although her 1587 book is next to impossible to read today, it raised a hailstorm of excitement at the time, out of which came the first name to replace the illiterate William, the highly educated and brilliant Francis Bacon.

The Group Theory

But Bacon was not Delia’s choice.  She believed that the works were written by a group that was led, not by Bacon, but by Sir Walter Raleigh.  Bacon was involved, as were the earls of Oxford and Derby and others.  It’s interesting that through the fog of time, Delia perceived, if dimly, almost exactly the same group that makes up the leading candidates today.  How they were supposed to have worked together isn’t clear to me without reading her book.  (I’ve groped my way through many a tiresome text in pursuit of this story, but this book is too much even for me.)  The Group Theory is generally disregarded now, but Delia was right in that the English Literary Renaissance was the result of the work of a group, just not in the way she proposed.

A revolution in style is often made by a group of artists who come along at about the same time.  We see this with the Impressionists in France,  six originally, with others joining later, or at a distance, who all, though they shared the characteristics of plein air and warm colors, had very different styles.  It was true of the artists in 13th and 14th century Florence, of the Kit Kat Club of Swift and Pope, of the Austin High School Gang of jazz players in the 1930s, the Bebop generation of the 1950s,  and the “British Invasion” of the 1960s.  There are six names who have been considered candidates for Shakespeare’s laurel crown for some time, and from what I can see, though only one is Shakespeare, all of them are part of his story, in one way or another.

Members of such groups may work together for a time, but their main role is to act as competitors, critics, and most important, an audience for each other.  It is very difficult to write for an unknown audience.  A genius needs an audience that is close enough to his level to make it worth his while to keep reaching.  Oxford came to such a community when he was twelve, the young translators at Cecil House.  Francis Bacon came to such a community in 1578 when, as an 18-year-old, he returned from France and found himself at the center of Oxford’s coterie.

This is how I see it

Just as one of Shakespeare’s protagonists might switch clothes with his or her servant to avoid trouble, Oxford began borrowing the names of friends and servants to get his work published.  Print publishing was in its infancy, and the teenaged Oxford, full of youthful energy, jumped on it as a means of reaching a wider audience than the handful of poets and translators at Cecil House and Elizabeth’s Court much as young artists today are using the internet to find their audiences in ways that were unavailable to their predecessors.

Getting works of the imagination published at that time in English history meant confronting, not just one, but two powerful forces that were set against it.  The age-old tradition of keeping what was written by the Court and for the Court within the Court was reinforced by the Protestant Reformation, which saw anything pleasing or sexy as the work of the Devil.  Where the young translators at Cecil House had neither the funds to publish (very expensive then), nor the reckless courage to defy convention, Oxford had both.  Peers had unlimited credit, even underage peers.  He also outranked everyone else at Cecil House, even Cecil himself, and rank was important then to a degree we can only imagine from our experience with film stars, which can’t come close to the power of an ancient name.  For these reasons, even as Oxford assumed leadership in the movement towards Renaissance freedom, he did so through intermediaries.

As he finished his studies and moved to take his place at Court, he continued to publish his own and other men’s work.  Determined to get for himself and his friends an English literary establishment like the Court-based Pleiade in Paris , we see in the dedicatory letter to Bedingfield’s translation of Cardanus Comforte his effort to enroll writers and translators of works of the imagination––poetry, stories and plays––to publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Publish!  Thus begins the frequently repeated pretence, that a friend had the work published while the innocent author was out of the country.

Particularly annoying was the silence of the gifted Sir Philip Sidney, who wouldn’t publish.  As the Queen’s official favorite, his uncle the Earl of Leicester did not like the Earl of Oxford.  A man with old-fashioned tastes and ideas, Leicester would have been seriously displeased had his heir violated Court protocol by publishing his own poetry, even under another name.  While Oxford had the courage of his rank and his peer’s credit, the Sidneys were relatively poor, their father was only a knight, their mother was Leicester’s sister, and the family was steeped in the religion of sin and damnation.  It took a mighty shock to unchain Philip Sidney’s muse.

Enter Francis

Then in 1578, 18-year-old Francis Bacon returned from two years at the French Court.  Bacon’s genius was just what Oxford had been looking for.  Although he had no more money or rank than Sidney, and had been raised in a similarly puritanical household, eleven years his junior, separated for the first time in his life from his beloved older brother, Francis became (I believe) utterly devoted to Oxford.  Having been inspired by the French, he was equally dedicated to seeing England reach the same literary levels achieved in Renaissance France and Italy. This was the bond that kept the two working together as long as they lived.

Within weeks Bacon had prepared his own contribution to Oxford’s publishing effort, signing it Immerito––“without merit,” a reference to the fact that he had not been given a post at Court worthy of a man of his natural gifts, the son of the Queen’s recently deceased Lord Keeper.  Recalling the simple shepherds of Greek romance, The Shepheard’s Calender is in many ways a call to Court poets like Sidney, Dyer, Buckhurst, and Raleigh to set aside their political differences and see each other as fellow poets.  Calling himself E.K., Oxford filled out what would otherwise have been a very small book with an extended gloss, a useful insight into his prose style of the late 1570s.

Denied the serious job he craved, Bacon joined Oxford in entertaining the Court.  But where Oxford and Sidney drew inspiration chiefly from the Greeks, Romans, French and Italians, Bacon, seeking a style that was his own and had no hint of imitation, turned to the early English writers, Chaucer and Skelton.  He probably began writing the first installments of The Faerie Queene shortly after publishing Shepherd’s Calender. He continued to write new installments of FQ for a decade, finally publishing the earlier ones in 1590 as by Edmund Spenser.  The stylistic quirks that show how FQ matches with Bacon’s style are fairly clear once one looks for them.

There can be no possibility that Spenser himself was the author of FQ, or of anything published under his name.  Although making connections at this point seems impossible, it’s clear that FQ is filled with allusions to Court figures and gossip.  Located in the wilds of southern Ireland as a functionary of its English occupier, Lord Grey, Spenser could not possibly have had the kind of personal connection to the English Court he would have needed to write FQ.  And even if he had he would not have dared to play fast and loose with the personal idiosyncrasies of courtiers of rank and power, a role for which Francis Bacon was uniquely suited, having grown up at Court.  What seems to be the case is that Raleigh, who owned land in southern Ireland and so maintained an ongoing physical presence there, set up the Spenser cover for Bacon, paying Spenser for its use and using it himself to get some of his own poetry published.

The 1570s saw the rise of a style that’s come to be known as Euphuism, after the protagonist in the novel published by Oxford in late 1578 that he attributed to his secretary, John Lyly.  An embellished account of his own adventures during his year in Italy, the novel was also a polemic delivered in response to the puritanical dicta on style and learning pronounced by Roger Ascham in his book The Scholemaster.  Published a decade earlier, dedicated to Cecil just as he was embarking on the final years of Oxford’s education, it was vicious in its denunciation of Italy as the sink of all sin.  Oxford’s point in Euphues, admittedly not all that serious, was that men learn how to live correctly, not from reading behavior guides but by experiencing life for themselves.

The 1580s were all about keeping the nation Protestant within, and defending it without against the might of the Catholic Church as wielded by Philip II of Spain.  In 1572, Cecil, by then Lord Burghley, had passed his office of Secretary of State on to Oxford’s old tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, while he took over the office of the recently deceased Lord Treasurer.  A year later Burghley got Sir Francis Walsingham appointed as Elizabeth’s Second Secretary.  When Smith died in 1577, Walsingham took his place, gradually increasing the power of the office as the need to prepare for war with Spain increased.  Although Walsingham had begun as Burghley’s protégé, as he increased in power, Burghley became uneasy.  Having had little experience of life outside England, Burghley continued to hope, and to encourage the Queen to hope, that peace could be maintained by shifts and promises, while Walsingham, having lived and studied overseas, saw that the crisis was building and knew that it was sure to come and that the nation had to be prepared.

Despite the weak reputation bequeathed him by the Cecils through their control of history, Walsingham was in fact a man of superb intellect, broad education, and refined tastes.  Where Burghley had always handled his own propaganda efforts in secrecy, Walsingham, burdened by the thousand things required of a Secretary of State, particularly one faced with a violent confrontation with the Spanish Empire, created an office of Public Relations to deal with everything that required expert writing and translation, an office he kept secret because so much of what it did had to be done in secret.  With Raleigh’s help, he got the banished Earl of Oxford reinstated at Court, created the first official Crown acting company, the Queen’s Men, and gave Oxford the mandate to write plays they could perform in and near the port towns where the Armada was most likely to strike.  Oxford’s response included The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, Edmond Ironside, and The Troublesome Raigne of King John, all of which portray England as a proud nation with a long history of defeating Continental invaders.

Fisher’s Folly

Having been banished from Court in 1581 for impregnating the Queen’s maid of honor, Oxford quit writing the comedies for the boy companies that the Queen had come to depend on for her holiday “solace.”  Upon his return to Court in 1583, either he refused to pick up where he left off in ’81, or Walsingham needed him to focus on providing material for the Queen’s Men.  Based largely on the similarity of the style of the Lyly plays to the style of The Faerie Queene, I believe Walsingham enrolled Francis to work with Lyly to keep the Queen entertained.  Those who find the Lyly plays interesting might try comparing them to the style and content of FQ.  This was period when pastoralism was a favored theme for masques, when Sidney was writing his Arcadia, Bacon was writing Faerie Queene, and Oxford was publishing pastoral tales under a variety of noms de plume.

The University Wits

Meanwhile Walsingham helped Oxford fund a staff at Fisher’s Folly that could assist with keeping these projects in motion.  There’s plenty of evidence that John Lyly and Anthony Munday were already part of Oxford’s team.  And there’s a fair amount of proxy data that suggests that George Peele, Thomas Lodge, and Thomas Watson were members of this playwriting team to which Stephen Gosson belonged at one time, and which he later vilified as “the sink of all sin.”  Although whatever evidence that these last were connected with Oxford has been scrubbed from the books, it’s a matter of record that these were all members of what the academics have nicknamed the University Wits.

I suggest that among those hired at this time was the young Christopher Marlowe.  A prodigy who had already proven himself at Cambridge, it was to learn how to write for the Queen’s Men that Marlowe missed his studies during the theater seasons of 1584 through 1586.  Having graduated in 1587, Marlowe and his NBF (New Best Friend) Edward Alleyn, decamped for the new Rose Theater on Bankside where manager Henslowe was more than willing to produce Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, a rabble-rouser that it’s most unlikely that the Oxford-Burbage-Walsingham team would have allowed to be staged as it was written.  That it was a super-hit gave solid promise that the London Stage had a viable future as a way for writers and actors to make a living.  It was also a step towards disaster, for the newborn London Stage as well as Marlowe himself.

While still banished in 1581, ’82 and early ’83, Oxford, freed from having to entertain the Court, had turned to entertaining, informing and proselitizing the “gentlemen of the Inns of Court,” the legal community of the West End, with plays probably performed by Burbage’s adult team, most likely at the little stage at the chorister’s school he had helped to create upon his return from Italy.  Angry at the Queen and the Court, this is when The Spanish Tragedy and early versions of Timon, Hamlet, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Coriolanus and Romeo and Juliet first reached a (limited) London audience.  If these were ever performed at Court, it could only have been in versions revised to suit the Queen.

Astrophil and Stella

During Oxford’s banishment, Philip Sidney was suffering an exile of his own.  Due to Leicester’s affair with Lettice Knowles, Countess of Essex, and their subsequent marriage and her pregnancy, Sidney found himself, not only out of favor with the Queen for his attitude towards her possible marriage to the Duc d’Alençon, but snubbed by those whose interest in him had been based solely on his relationship to Leicester while Leicester seemed likely to marry the Queen.  Unused to such treatment, Philip fled both the Court and his herd of supporters to hide away with his sister Mary at Wilton.  During an idyllic summer with her and her new baby, little William, something happened to Philip that gave rise to over 100 love sonnets about his relationship with a mysterious Stella that not only raised his standing at Court as a poet, but helped to diminish his reputation as sexually cold.  Eventually he married Walsingham’s daughter, and having followed Leicester to the lowlands war, was mortally wounded in 1586 at the Battle of Zutphen.

Enter Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe

At some point in the early ’80s, Oxford began publishing tales in the Greek romance style that he had written earlier to entertain the Queen and her ladies.  Some of these he published as by George Pettie, a fellow student at Oxford, some as by Thomas Lodge, one of the crew hired by Walsingham to assist him at Fisher’s Folly, some as by Barnabe Riche, another friend, but most were attributed to the ephemeral “Robert Greene.”  All but Greene are known to history, two of them writers in their own right, but Greene has never been located––although there was a man by that name who held a copyhold agreement to work a piece of Oxford’s land in Essex whose name suggests that he was a member of a local family that was once very close to Oxford’s father.

The Robert Greene of the title pages was the first and most prolific of the handful of pamphleteers who launched the first successful English commercial periodical press.  For a full decade, every year or two Oxford would publish a tale with a plot aimed at a female readership, laced with excellent poems.  Some bore the name of one of his associates, most bore the name Robert Greene.  In this way he became the originator of what one day would be the extremely influential and lucrative (though not for him) British periodical press.

Late in 1588, a new voice entered the pamphlet arena.  Using the pseudonym Martin Mar-prelate, the satirist used the new medium to harrass the bishops who were in the process of turning the Protestant Reformation into the present-day Church of England.  After a few pathetic attempts by the bishops to respond to the devastating Martin, Archbishop Whitgift, Bacon’s former master at Trinity College Cambridge, turned to Walsingham’s team for help.  Oxford’s response was a little on the tepid side, but Bacon, dazzled by Mar-prelate’s bold effrontery, found the voice he’d been seeking.  Using the name of a Cambridge sizar that provided a rather good pun for this new self, he gnashed his literary teeth, first at Mar-prelate, then, in pamphlet after pamphlet, at anyone and everything that gave him cause.

Railing was an art form then, something along the lines of today’s standup comedy; a wit who was good at it could count on being invited as a guest to expensive dinners.  Bacon, as Nashe, was good at it, at least in print; no one has ever been better.  If the world could realize who actually wrote Piers Penniless or Jack Wilton, these would soon become required reading for students of English literature.

Furious with Marlowe and Alleyn for deserting the Folly coterie, Oxford and Bacon did what they could by blasting them in Greene’s Perimedes and Menaphon, but Marlowe, lashed to Phaeton’s cart, was not to be deterred.  His Latin motto, found on his portrait in 1955, translates as “that which nourishes me destroys me.” Following Walsingham’s death in 1590, with Cecil at his heels, he ignored the warning in Robert Greene’s farewell pamphlet, that unless he gave up his “atheism,” “little knowest thou how in the end thou shalt be visited.” Having eluded the Crown during an attempted sting in Flushing in 1591, Marlowe was finally nailed in May of 1593 during a deadly “visit” from three of Walsingham’s former operatives.

Meanwhile Mary Sidney, having mourned her brother for two years, arrived in London in the autumn of 1588, shortly after Leicester’s death, eager to do what she could for her family now that both Philip and their uncle were gone.  Mary has never been properly recognized for her immense ability as a poet.  Her translations of the Psalms are among the best poetry from this period.  They are also a clue to the dark nature of the puritanical protestantism in which she and her brothers were raised, and from which both of them, each in his and her own way, used their writing to fight free.

I also believe that it was Mary who, as Countess of Pembroke, was responsible for organizing the acting company known as Pembroke’s Men that stepped into the breach briefly during the theatrical disasters of the early ’90s.  I am also totally certain that everything written as by John Webster was Mary’s work, written and published throughout the latter half of the 1590s and through the first two decades of the 17th century.  While Webster the coachmaker’s son has next to nothing to offer in the way of a biography, the plays that bear his name reflect Mary’s own story in ways that once revealed, cannot be denied.  The White Devil and The Duchess of Malfi are the great masterpieces of Jacobean literature.  I only hope that someday they will be properly attributed to the genius who wrote them.

Mary is also the individual most responsible for making the first move to remove the barrier to publishing the poetry and tales written by courtiers.   By publishing her brother’s sonnets in 1591, she opened the door, first to Sir John Harington, who published his translation of Orlando Furioso that same year, to Bacon who followed suit in 1596 by putting his own name on the first edition of his famous Essays.  Some continued to hide behind pseudonyms and initials for another century or so, but the fortress of tradition was cracked.  Only time, and the crumbling of aristocratic isolation, would bring it down for good.

With the 1591 publication of Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, Oxford, in dire straits, having lost his ability to raise the funds needed to keep his theater enterprise going, now found himself in danger of losing what may have been even more precious to him, his place in the sun as England’s top courtier poet, for Sidney, whose stock was already sky high due to his heroic death in battle, was being touted as the new Chaucer.  His sonnets were selling like hotcakes.  Determined to protect his status, Oxford worked with Richard Field, who ran the print shop next door to the little Blackfriars Theater, to publish Venus and Adonis in a beautifully-designed edition.  Forced to seek a new cover name, having put paid to Robert Greene some months earlier, he used the name of a friend of his printer.  Unable to pay for it himself, we hear his gratitude to a new patron, the young Earl of Southampton, in the dedicatory note signed William Shakespeare.  This was located on the reverse side of the title page, an indication to those aware of such traditions, that since it wasn’t on the title page, it did not represent the author.

Bacon shifts gears

In the early 90s, after Oxford got rid of Greene, he and Bacon went a few rounds in a phony paper duel in which Bacon railed as Nashe and Oxford pretended to be Gabriel Harvey.  When Oxford found it necessary to rid the world of the fictional Robert Greene, he realized that Greene’s absurd deathbed mea culpa, Greene’s Groatsworth, was not going to be sufficiently convincing, so he faked a third party commentary on Greene which he attributed to Gabriel Harvey.  The infamous Second Letter, in which Harvey supposedly reveals the disgusting facts about Greene’s terrible lifestyle and pathetic death is sheer foolery, as we’re informed by the statement that Greene died of “a surfeit of pickled herring,” a clue that the whole thing was a joke.  Bacon, looking for an excuse to continue to rail in print, pretends to defend Greene by attacking the Harveys.  When scholars, seeking the horrendous insult in works by Greene, finally discovered it, there was nothing about it that could possibly cause such a reaction.

Harvey had been friendly with both Bacon and Oxford when the Shepheard’s Calender was published back in 1578.  Referred to as Colin Clout’s “especial good friend Hobbinol”; he was also the addressee of E. K.’s dedicatory letter, which urged him to promote the new poet’s work “with your mighty Rhetoric and other your rare gifts of learning.” But something happened between then and a year later when Bacon published some of Harvey’s personal letters to him in Three Witty and Familiar Letters, which caused Harvey a great deal of trouble.  His effort to respond in a light vein to this damning maneuver is particularly touching.  In my view, it was the last thing published under his name that he actually wrote himself.

I do not believe that a single pamphlet from the Nashe-Harvey pamphlet duel was actually written by Gabriel Harvey; they were all by Oxford, who, bereft of his credit, was dying of boredom.  For one thing, in the early 1590s Gabriel Harvey was in no position to take on these two powerful Court figures.  He had lost his position at the university, and his stipend, and so was in dire financial straits, with the added burden of having to fight with the widow of his recently deceased brother John for control of his brother’s estate.  It’s possible Harvey got some work in London, but at some point he retired to his home town where he continued to correspond with serious scholars, never commenting, in writing at least, on the rude way his name had been bandied about.

Bacon goes legit

In 1596, the Queen finally gave Bacon a job as her personal counsel. 1596 was a terrible year for Elizabeth, during which she lost the last remaining member of her family, Lord Hunsdon, and was more or less forced to yield to the Cecils’ demands to make them the supreme power on the Privy Council.  Perhaps in seeking a balance to the weight of the Cecils, Essex turning out to be unreliable, she had no one left to turn to but Bacon.  There was no salary, but for Francis, who it appears genuinely adored the Queen, it may be that finally having her ear was all he needed.

The effect this had on him was amazing.  Finally given the position he craved for so long, with Walsingham and Hunsdon gone and Oxford and his projects in trouble, it seems he was ready to quit his role as Court entertainer and satirist and to devote his talents to supporting the Queen and the Earl of Essex.  According to his biographer, his handwriting totally changed at this time.  Within a few months he published everything he’d ever written as Spenser, and after one final blast as Nashe in 1599 (probably for the sake of his printer, since it was the printer who made money, not the author), he seems never to have written another word as either Spenser or Nashe.

If, as history has it, Spenser actually arrived in person in London in December of 1598, fleeing the rage of the Irish, it must have caused something of an embarrassing situation.  If, as history has it, he then died a few weeks later, it was probably lucky for all concerned.  Following an elaborate funeral provided by Essex, he (or something like him) was buried in Poet’s Corner, and that was that.  By then Bacon was up to his ears in Court politics, where he continued to assist Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men whenever and wherever he could.  The surfacing of the Northumberland Manuscript in 1867 strongly suggests that he was heavily involved in getting Richard II and Richard III published during Oxford’s showdown with Cecil in 1597.

The Earl of Derby

One of the candidates whose name has been linked to Shakespeare since early on is William Stanley, sixth Earl of Derby.  His older brother, Ferdinando Stanley, had been deeply involved in the London Stage as patron of various companies––most recently of the Lord Strange’s Men, the crew that produced Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in 1587––until his murder in 1594 passed the earldom to his brother William.  William’s marriage to Oxford’s oldest daughter, Elizabeth Vere, in January 1595, was (in my view) the occasion for a version of The Tempest in which Prospero bequeaths the magical isle to his daughter Miranda and the shipwrecked Ferdinand, just as it appears Oxford, weary of his role as Court jester, was attempting (or pretending) to bequeath the Court Stage to his daughter and her husband, so he could retire to the Forest of Waltham.

Efforts to cast William Stanley as Shakespeare appear to grow from records that show his involvement in the Court Stage in the late 1590s, in particular his patronage of the new Children’s Company that, through his efforts, got the use of the Burbage’s Blackfriars Theater in 1600.

That William Stanley did nothing to prevent rumors that he was the real Shakespeare, seems likely from the otherwise meaningless scene in As You Like It where Touchstone, in the repartee over his marriage to Audrey, the personification of the public audience that Oxford was now forced to entertain, having greeted William, Audrey’s other suitor (and only one of two in the entire named William) with “Cover thy head, cover thy head; nay, prithee, be covered,” after some even more obscure wordplay, continues: “You do love this maid [the public audience]?”

WIL:   I do, sir.
TOU:  . . .  Art thou learned?
WIL:   No, sir.
TOU:  Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that  drink, being poured out of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.
WIL:   Which he, sir?
TOU:  He, sir, that must marry this woman [entertain the public].  Therefore, you     clown, abandon––which is in the vulgar leave––the society––which in the   boorish is company––of this female––which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female [the London Stage], or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit I  kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado, or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction; I will o’errun thee with policy; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart!

The audience for which this was written was the same audience for which Oxford had prepared the 1595 version of The Tempest, one aware of all the family connections and political issues addressed, so they would have had no problem understanding the meaning of this exchange, nor would William Stanley himself, who doubtless was present when As You Like It was performed for the Court while King James dallied at Wilton in August of 1603.  What then was the general opinion of the Court with regard to Stanley?  George Carey, who in 1603 was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, called him a “niddicock” [a nincompoop] in a letter written to his wife following Ferdinando’s murder.

A recent addition to the list of candidates is Emilia Bassano Lanier (or Lanyer), the first woman to publish a book of her original poetry under her own name. (Mary Sidney’s translations of the psalms remained unpublished in print in her lifetime.)  Although she was certainly not the author of the Shakespeare canon, Emilia played a most important role in the Shakespeare story as the most likely candidate for the Dark Lady of his Sonnets, and the figure of Cleopatra in his last great romantic tragedy.

The final figure in this coterie of writers who has been bruited as Shakespeare is Sir Walter Raleigh.  Raleigh’s excellent style as seen in his Ocean to Cynthia poems, his letters and his History of the World, plus the fact that, despite his need, and the Queen’s genuine fondness for him, like all the other Court poets, he was never given a truly important Court position, would be sufficient to accept him as a member of this group, but too little has been done to identify enough of his poetry to go any further.  It seems likely that the Amoretti sonnets and the Epithamalion attributed to Spenser in 1596 were Raleigh’s, written during his wooing of Bess Throckmorten in the early 1590s.  They certainly sound nothing like the other works attributed to Spenser.

These then are the members of the group who gave the world the English Literary Renaissance:  Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, the Sidneys, and probably Sir Walter Raleigh.  Born with Oxford, it matured and developed with help from the others, and died with the deaths of Mary Sidney in 1621 and Bacon in 1626.  Both Mary and Francis (born within months of each other), in my opinion, spent their final years assisting her sons, the Earls of Pembroke, and their good friend Ben Jonson  in his task of preparing Oxford’s collected works for print in 1623.

Of this group, only Philip Sidney never used a pseudonym.  (Marlowe’s name was put on several works after his death that do not sound like his plays.)  All the others published their works under a variety of names, Oxford using a good dozen at least before settling on Shakespeare; Bacon using at least three, Mary using at least one, and Raleigh, who can tell?  Of this group of current candidates, only Derby had nothing to do with creating a canon, though he did have something to do with the Court and London Stage.

Although I can’t put all the evidence for each of the standins used by Oxford and Bacon in a blog, I will do my best to do this at some point in the future.   This kind of proof is text-heavy and painstaking, and it is not always something that is going to capture everyone’s interest.  Right now it seems more important to present a scenario that makes sense.  Without the cream and yeast of a believable narrative, facts are like a bowl of flour as compared to a digestible loaf of bread.

A personal note

Many thanks to those who made a Christmas donation when I passed the hat a few weeks ago.  With the help of Rick, Francis, Kelly, Heike, Lynn and Kathleen, I now have $360 to help get the books and other materials I need through Amazon.com. Many thanks, dear readers. It’s your interest that keeps me going, but a little coin of the realm never hurts.

To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare: What the portraits tell us

What did he look like?  Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media.  None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography.  Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)

Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike.  Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first.  In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio       R - The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

L- The Droeshout, frontispiece to the First Folio
R – The Bust in Trinity Church memorial

For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout  (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio.  Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline.  Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re  presented.

At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue.  Shakespeare was famous in his own time.  Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits.  We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton.  We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous.  Why not the Bard himself?

“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006

Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that  held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six!  Then why the show?

What determines an expert?  The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions?  Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion?  They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”

JanssenWhy then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit?  Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?

The only four that matterChandos-2

For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath.   This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it.   It seems that from its first

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

Droeshout comparied to Chandos, with Chandos face fitted into space alloted Droeshout image.

appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving.  Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations:  Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.

The problem with the Chandos has always beenChandos CU its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..

Why not?  Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford.  Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William.  Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin.  For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur.  That the Chandos is the source of the DroeshoutMacbeth cartoon face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.

The Welbeck and the Ashbourne

The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image.  This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).

NPG L111; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford after Unknown artistAs merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties.  It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time.  Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.

Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking.  It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the
Ashbourne-Portraitshow, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that,  unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.

The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist  philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.four wise men

Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford!  A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10).  Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.

In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms.  Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s.  In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself  because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.

Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them.  Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face.  Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.

The Vertue engraving

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

Engraving from 1719, source: unknown portrait

It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford.  Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention.  Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close.  Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others.  Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping.  And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils!  Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.

Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled.  Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one  labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye.  It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving.  I was convinced!  These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.

Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.),  Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.

Poet’s Corner

If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”

I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.Poet's Corner

The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor.  They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey.  The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton.  The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them.  These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window.  Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont.  None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century.  In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried.  There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.

poets corner-2

I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .”  When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616.  We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries.  I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.

Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?

Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at  length.  In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne.  The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury.  The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.

Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes.  Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid.  (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).

I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it.  Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression.  Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply  no likeness.

A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master.  Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed  to sign them then, at least not with their own names).  Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices.  No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.

The evolution of Shakespeare’s image

In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return.  Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others.  Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter.  Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout.  We’ll call this image #1.

Frontispiece for Rowe's 1709 Shakespeare

Frontispiece for Rowe’s 1709 Shakespeare

In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout.  In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).

Pope frontispiece

By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).

L - Fletcher; M - Pope frontispiece; R - Harley miniature

L – Fletcher; M – Pope frontispiece; R – Harley miniature

This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.

Vertue monument-2Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust.  Constantly described  as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger.  Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!

L - Vertue's Shakespeare; M - Vertue's Bust; R - the Chandos

L – Vertue’s Shakespeare;  M – Vertue’s Bust;  R – the Chandos

Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.

Unable to do more here than touch on  a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages:  Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertue provides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.

NB:  This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them.  At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a  portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation).  (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.)  Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.

London riots: 1592 to 2011

If we’re horrified by the violence that broke out this past week in London, we can take whatever comfort history offers in realizing that London riots are nothing new.  In fact, just such a riot took place in South London, not far from the scene of the present violence in Croydon, that kicked off the trouble that led to the deaths of Christopher Marlowe and his patron, Lord Strange, the dispersal of the group of writers known (today) as the University Wits, the formation of the second royal acting company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and the (necessary) coverup of their playwright under the (revised) name of one Willm Shagspyeer (one spelling) from a far off market town in Warwickshire.  Right from the first it was the fear of such riots that caused the City fathers to launch their long ongoing battle to keep the public theaters out of London.

In 1592 the City was facing many of the same problems that it’s facing today.  Today the rioters are immigrant youths who, having fled oppression at home in Africa and the Middle East, have found shelter in England––shelter, but no work and no understanding of English life.  In 1592 the problem was caused by gangs of poor English soldiers and sailors, many of them in the same age group as today’s rioters, who had been hired or impressed for duty against the Spanish and then, following the defeat of the Armada, ended up in the London stews with nothing to do but hang about and cause trouble.  We don’t know exactly what particular thing set off the riots in Southwark in June of ’92, but from the fact that the Privy Council reacted by shutting down the theaters it seems likely that it had something to do with what was playing nearby at Henslowe’s Rose.

On February 19, 1592, the Lord Strange’s Men, the company that in 1587 had made Marlowe’s Tamburlaine a hit, opened at the Rose with a string of plays, among them Marlowe’s Jew of Malta.  Though not recorded, also performed must surely have been Tamburlaine.  The passage of time has weakened our perception of what it was about this play that might have caused a riot.  However, that it was considered dangerous is clear from the way the fake verse libel that initiated the sting that brought Marlowe to his fate a year later, referred to the play, used iambic pentameter, the meter that made him famous, and was signed “Tamburlaine.”

Except for a few preformances when allowance was made by special petition to the Privy Council to perform at Newington Butts, the theaters remained closed until August.  Something happened during this period to cause Oxford to quit publishing his Robert Greene and Tom Watson pamphlets––The “Second Letter” was published in August, Groatsworth was published in September, and Greene and Watson were listed as dead by the end of the month.  Having reopened in August, an outbreak of the plague in September closed the theaters again until late December.

The theaters reopened for the 1592-93 holidays when Marlowe’s last play, The Massacre at Paris, was performed.   With the revival of the plague in February, they closed again, not to reopen until the following December.  With the streets empty and the Court away at Greenwich, agents who worked for Walsingham when he was alive who were now in Robert Cecil’s employ launched the sting that finally silenced the troublesome playwright by June.  Was the Massacre at Paris the straw that broke the camel’s back?  The play as we have it doesn’t give any clues to what that could have been, but it’s only half as long as most 16th-century plays, with a fragmented and incoherent plot.  With the stews being decimated by the plague, it’s unlikely that anyone left in town was in any mood to riot, but of course the disease would die away, as it always had, and there would be other hot, restless Junes.  The following June saw the elimination of Marlowe’s patron, Lord Strange, newly become one of England’s most powerful earls, and, sadly for himself, dangerously in line for the throne, dead from what Ian Wilson reports as a single massive dose of arsenic (172).

The story of the London Stage in the 1590s has always been about the arrival of Shakespeare and the dawn of perhaps the most dazzling era in English literature, certainly the most formative.  Unfortunately the history of that arrival has remained little more than a handful of unconnected incidents, held together only by their dates (where we have them) and lacking anything like a coherent plot.  I’m happy to say it’s finally beginning to come together.  We have the central characters, their motivations, the major events and turning points, and even the reason why so little remains to tell us what these were.

The fact is that the London Stage and its creators and patrons are central to understanding the politics of Elizabeth’s final decade, so it’s not only the identity of its greatest writer and publisher that got buried, but almost everything else about it as well.  Once these are brought to light, the role played by the painful birth of the modern media will bring a new understanding, not just to the history of the modern media, but to the history of the entire period, that is, for that handful who still care about history.  Stay tuned.

Today the British Establishment is battered by the same forces that led to Marlowe’s death and the permanent burial of Shakespeare’s identity, on the one hand the restless, harried downtrodden, on the other, the electronic media as today’s version of the London Stage and pamphlet press.  In recent months the  Establishment has reacted exactly as it did then, by imprisoning and attempting to destroy the modern Marlowes like hacker Julian Assange, and beating and imprisoning the rioters.

The press is too entrenched, too powerful today for the facts to get buried as they did in the 1590s, but the question remains, where is the right, where the wrong of this tension?  Surely the government is mandated to use its powers to enforce social calm, just as whistleblowers like Marlowe and Assange are doing theirs by publicizing government  repression and corruption.  What’s wrong, what’s right depends on where you stand.  If you stood with the barmy-coated groundlings at the Rose in 1592, you saw it one way; if you sat at the table with your fellow privy councillors you saw it another.

Maybe what today’s English authorities could do with their unhappy immigrants is take a leaf from Oxford and Walsingham’s book, and create a free theater (theirs was so cheap it was almost free) that teaches them English history, one that feeds them, if not with social relevance and paying work, at least with stories of heroism and, what’s actually more potent when it comes to creating solidarity, stories of proud defeat; one that brings them together in a room with a stage, where there’s the kind of human interaction that’s lacking in front of a telly screen, no matter how big it is.  Who knows, that crowd of window breakers and thieves may contain born performers who, like Marlowe, given the proper tools, will find a way to tell the English, and their fellows, their own stories.  For Man liveth not by bread alone, but by oft-told tales of human suffering and heroism.