Shakespeare and the Universities

It is ironic that Shakespeare’s identity has become the intellectual property of the universities since it took them close to three centuries to pay either him or his works the slightest attention.  As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us, during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge University showed a glimmer of interest in either the man or his work.  Says Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt” (3).

The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages.  When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices.  Until the middle of the 19th century, while Plautus and Terence (in Latin) and the Big Three in classical Greek had long been taught and performed at the universities, plays in “the vernacular,” i.e., English, were still frowned upon as vulgar outgrowths of May Games, those Saturnalian reversals of the orderly workaday world so loved by medieval undergraduates, and equally loathed by the dons.

Boas takes a complete chapter to explain in detail how, in Shakespeare’s time, contemporary plays in English were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, but never in the universities.  Claims made in the first quarto of Hamlet (1603) that “. . . it had been diverse times acted by his Highness’ servants in the City of London as also in the two Universities of Cambridge and Oxford . . .” does not mean––as so often claimed by academics––that  it was performed on campusAu contraire, for as Boas reports, “the perfomance must have taken place . . . in defiance of the authorities” (15). (If evidence has been published since 1923 to mitigate Boas’s findings I’d be pleased to hear of it.)

When students were caught sneaking off campus to attend one of these forbidden shows, they were severely punished.  Players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, and as one 16th-century paybook entry put it: “depart with their plays without further troubling the university” (3, 18). When finally in 1886 the great Henry Irving was asked to give a lecture on Shakespeare at Oxford, he spoke approvingly of the fact that the 300-year-old feud between the commercial stage and the universities was finally coming to an end.

Back in 1821, when the great (independent) Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University, they had paid no attention.  No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third (it hadn’t bothered to get a copy of the Second).  It was not until 1863 that scholars from Cambridge began preparing the first university-sanctioned series of his works.  It wasn’t until 1883 that Oxford allowed a Shakespeare play to be performed.  It seems that even so late as 1923, when Boas was writing his book, “the art of the Theatre, in its technical as well as its literary aspect” had not yet gotten “academic recognition” (3).

So what else is new?

Then why should we be surprised that it’s taking the universities so long to show any real interest in the author himself?  If we feel frustrated, think how writers like Pope and Johnson or actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced when confronting the schools with––not merely the author’s identity––but his value!

It was popular interest in Shakespeare, initiated by late 18th- and 19th-century writers, actors, composers, and impresarios that finally cracked the academic stone wall.  Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, it was the British public and their journalists who made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, wove into poetry, wept over in Dickens and  laughed at on the stage, the language that within another hundred years would be the lingua franca of the world.

They made him an icon, but they still didn’t know much about the man himself.  There was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers.  Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him; no anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations, none that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater, with plays that, during his lifetime, entertained the Court of England’s greatest Queen.

The few anecdotes that surfaced tended, if anything, to suggest an illiterate skinflint, if not an out and out rascal, a hoarder of grain in time of famine (Schoenbaum 178) and, that most hated of all 16th-century malefactors, an encloser of common land (see Shakespeare, Scrooge of Stratford.)  Nothing concerning William of Stratford made any mention of his writing anything, much less the most popular plays on the boards in London; even his monument in the local church alludes to it in passing as though it might have been his hobby, while (until 1623) those that wrote of Shakespeare the playwright and poet never mentioned Stratford.

Embarrassed, biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a life for England’s great literary artist out of unrelated threads and patches, a practice that continues to this day.

In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered.  There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate love poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch.  With their own history of sexual malfeasance (having bequeathed to a grateful world the term faggot) perhaps the less said the better. During what may have been the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.

But leading turn of the century writers (Mark Twain), jurists (Lord Penzance), theater impresarios (Charlie Chaplin) and psychologists (Sigmund Freud), individuals with real experience of writing, the stage, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered.  Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear.  Shared tropes suggest acquaintance, shared sources, perhaps friendship––not necessarily identity.

Have Spear, Will Shake!

Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. (Pronounced Lone-y, damnit!)  No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare.  He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his acting Company who were experts at avoiding trouble.  But why?  The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun “Will shake spear,” shook his spear/pen in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he shake that spear?

It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power wielded by the Stage in 16th-century England.  It can only be seen from our point in time in the negative, by the  diatribes directed against it by Reformation moralists and puritans and by the frequent, if only moderately effective, constraints laid upon it by the City and the Crown in ordinance after ordinance.  (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire 168 page section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to the “Documents of Control” with which the Church and the reformers battled the theaters.  If he’s come up with so much, imagine the speeches, lectures, pamphlets, and sermons that didn’t survive!)

The Stage was the radio, television, internet, ipods, CDs and video games of its day.  Not until the invention of the radio three-and-a-half centuries later would human communications take the kind of quantum leap that created the commercial stage in London in the 1580s.  It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture.  It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.

We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, the internet, and still, to some extent, the Stage.  In Shake-speare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to add to the balance of power among the three modern estates of government: executive, legislative, and judicial.

While few could read, plays were for anyone with ears to hear.  Radio and television of course did not exist, nor were even dreamed of.  Even newspapers did not exist––or, if you will, only as “ballads,” broadsheets with topical lyrics to be sung to familiar tunes.  Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to a reading public still in the vast minority.  It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play.  Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning.  He was writing to communicate, to make things happen.  But what things?  And to what audience?

The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over dates when the plays were written, when possibly rewritten, and how much and by whom they may have been edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion.  Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned darkly forth” in plays, poems and pamphlets,  “darkly” meaning “covertly.”  Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the many censors, for performance, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels, for publication, the bishops.

To add to the problem difficulties, it seems certain that Shakespeare, as he has come down to us in the First Folio (and earlier less authoritative editions) has been edited, how heavily remains a question.  A recent book by the respected Brian Vickers, Shakespeare’s Co-authors, gives an orthodox view of these shifts of Shakespearean voice and vocabulary.  Logically, the socio-political reasons for keeping his identity a secret would also have been the most likely reasons for whatever editing was done by those whose task it was to make his texts acceptable to the “grand possessors” and other interested parties during the decades following his death.

For 300 years the universities ignored Shakespeare and his works.  Now they ignore any evidence that he had something more cogent to say to his commumity  than “have fun, folks, and come back soon.”  Given their record with regard, not only to Shakespeare, but to the English Stage overall, why on earth would anyone choose to believe them?

The resolution of this issue is actually more important to history than to literature.  It’s history that cares about how things happen and when.  Literature is about stories, philosophy, ideas, and beautiful language.  History is about reality, what did actually happen and when. Although History rarely pays much attention to Literature, occasionally it must, as with the novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the causes leading to the American Civil War.

Literature can live with a semi-fictional author.  History can’t.  If it were just about literature, perhaps it wouldn’t matter (“Who cares who Shakespeare was so long as we have the plays”).  But it isn’t just about who wrote 38 old plays! It’s about who we are, we who speak the English language, the language that he––more than any other single human––created.   We are what we think and more people are thinking in English at this moment than are thinking in any other language (except perhaps Chinese).  Socrates put it succinctly: “know thyself.”

There’s a lot more history than just literary history gone haywire because it’s been distorted by the Stratford biography.  Getting Shakespeare right would resolve a great deal that falls outside the limits of literature as entertainment.  The truth about the author is central to the history of his time.  What Shakespeare did with his words is just as important as what Queen Elizabeth did with her flirtations, or what Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Drake did with their ships and men.  His plays had effects on politics, law, and manners, effects that haven’t been examined.  The effort to make literature irrelevant that began during the English Reformation continues to this day.  It’s time to put it back where it belongs.

An earlier version of the text was first published as an editorial in The Oxfordian vol 5 2002 pages 1-2.

6 thoughts on “Shakespeare and the Universities

  1. This article caused me to think of the authorship debate:

    One of the factors about the authorship debate I find most fascinating is the remarkable undefendability….in the face of the overwhelming circumstancial evidence for Oxford….of the Stratford position. How can these people…mostly academics, I guess….continue to think the way they do? (The idea that the Stratford guy wrote Hamlet is proven because Stratford had a son Hamnet invites an image of brains leaping out the window.) Group-think, I mostly think. Anyway, the article nicely delves into such phenomenon.

  2. Good article, Fred, though I continue to believe that the Big Bang is only half the story, but that’s still better than the Stratford story, which isn’t even half. The “dirty secret of science” is the dirty secret of all human certainty. Confronted with such a failure, Heisenberg was smart enough to make it into a principle, ensuring that his name be remembered for something. As Berowne put it in LLL, “Too much to know is to know is to know naught but fame.”

  3. Interesting article, but I would quibble with some of the points you have made- the Parnassus plays were performed AT Cambridge and mention WIlliam Shakespeare. Gabriel Harvey and Edmund Spenser saw Ricardus Tertius performed there in 1579 and Nashe describes the sight of the refectory hall bedecked with candles for performances of plays.

    1. William, The Parnassus plays mentioned Shakespeare, they were not written by him, that being the point of the article. Richardus Tertius was in Latin; plays in Latin had been performed for centuries at the universities and in the grammar schools, again, not the point here. It’s plays in English that the universities ignored.

    1. Sorry if you were confused. I think most will understand that the plays were not performed where students had access to them. Boston University has no campus as such, but no one is confused if an event is announced as taking place “on campus” as opposed to somewhere else in Boston.

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