Why I don’t argue with Stratfordians

ORGON: I know the facts, and I shall not be shaken.
ELMIRE: I marvel at your power to be mistaken.
…………….Le Petit Tartuffe by Moliere (trans. Richard Wilbur) 4.2

I certainly have argued with Stratfordians in the past, quite often in fact, and at length: in debates at conferences, online on HLAS (before the mud-slinging made any effort at communication impossible) and Hardy Cook’s SHAKSPER (before he banished the subject, and even, valiantly, for a year or so afterwards), and in print.  I’ve gone rounds in person with Ward Elliott and Alan Nelson, and online with Mike Jensen, Gabriel Egan and Tom Veal, sometimes just to see how long they would keep it going (in Jenson’s case, forever, it would seem, for he never tires of repeating himself).

For a long time I argued to hear what they had to say, like the optimist in the old joke, thinking there must be a pony in it somewhere.  Nope, no pony (only pony poop).  Then I got curious about the mind set that prevented otherwise intelligent beings from seeing the problem with their scenario.  Rather than argue to arrive at some sort of understanding, which was obviously not working, I kept it going to see where it came to a halt, whether with a burst of ill humor, a (virtual) slammed door, or a silence, usually followed by a retreat to a familiar position of safety.  Over time I came to see that the problem was blind spots, some of an amazing size.  Things that seemed obvious to me were simply invisible to them.  At some point I realized it was due to their almost total reliance on left-brain thinking.

I have observed the right brain-left brain syndrome at work in American society since early childhood, only recently getting a handle on it by learning more about the differences between these two sections of the brain, separate but entwined, ying and yang.  This learning began a few years ago when my mother had a left-brain stroke and with what I saw that that meant in terms of what she could still do and what she could no longer do.

I see that American society, at least at the levels of control, derives largely from the same rather rigid formula that gave us the Protestant Reformation,  Education in America, and Britain, inherited from a formula developed by Erasmus in the early 16th century, whatever it may have been originally, has become dominated by left-brain thinking.  This may be somewhat more appropriate in areas like math and science (though without right-brain oversight, they too can wind up on some awfully unproductive tangents), but it’s seriously misplaced in history, literature, and the arts, where it turns them into piles of dry facts, draining them of their fire and life, their human interest, their stories.   I am reminded of an old Southwest American Indian saying passed around during the 1960s regarding their use of peyote, “White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus; Indian goes into his teepee and talks to Jesus.”  With Shakespeare, English audiences didn’t just talk about Henry V and Richard III, they watched them and heard them speak.  And on a number of occasions, no doubt, shouted out arguments and warnings.

As I began to see how dominated was the Shakespeare establishment by left-brain thinking, I saw the other side of what happened to my mother.  Sure, these people have functioning right brains, otherwise they couldn’t make it to work in the morning, but they don’t use them once they get there.  They were discouraged from using them as children in grade school, and by the time they reach PhD level, the ability to communicate, even to think, with anything but the left brain is gone.  It wasn’t through a single stroke, but a series of small ones, dealt every day, by teachers who fed them the answers they wanted to hear on tests, never asking them what they themselves thought or felt.  After awhile the ability to think for oneself simply dries up, and so anyone who incorporates right-brain cognition into his or her worldview is considered a radical, a heretic, a lunatic, or, less pejoratively though still dismissively, someone who “thinks outside the box.”

Following the stroke that damaged her left brain, my mother, an actress and a great talker by nature, could no longer express her thoughts in words, but she could understand everything that was said to her, and her laugh was still spontaneous and appropriate.  These left-brainers can talk a blue streak, but they don’t get half of what we’re saying, certainly the most important half, and in an arena where comedy is king, they don’t get the jokes!  Tell them that William Shakespeare of Stratford was chosen to stand in for the real author because his name held a pun (“will shake spear”) and they stare in disbelief as though you had just said something so embarrassingly off the wall that they’re at a loss for a response.  I recall the response of one Stratfordian prof years ago during one of Charles Beauclerk’s television debates; all he could do was splutter, over and over, “Preposterous!  Preposterous!”

Tell them that these writers delighted in puns, that puns were not only vehicles for humor, for laughs, for ludi (Latin for fun), they stare, thinking “so what?”  Tell them that puns were also shorthand for subliminal messages, as with Doll Tear-sheet, whose name signals the audience what manner of creature she is, there being no room for a rumpled bed on the Shakespearean stage, and they stare.  Tell them the name Will Shake-spear signals the pun-loving and still totally right-brained 16-century English audience that he’s a writer who will shake a spear, a being no more substantial than Doll herself––a boy in tart’s clothing––and they stare.  Like those who don’t understand puns, and who simply smile and wait for the pointless laughter to die down, they don’t get it.

Most Oxfordians get it.  Shakespeare’s audience got it.  But the descendants of Holofernes who’ve inherited the keys to Shakespeare’s kingdom don’t get it, even when it’s spelled out for them, left-brain style, one word at a time.  The sad truth is, most of them simply can’t get it, which is why I don’t bother to argue with them anymore.

Should auld acquaintance be forgot . . . ?

And so we come to the end of the second full year of this blog.  Many thanks to those of you who’ve continued to pursue it thus far.  For the past six months you’ve actually been more attentive than I have, having been preoccupied with moving and other personal situations.  I’m gratified to see how, even without much input from me, many continue to read the blogs and pages that have accumulated over the past two years.  Much remains to be investigated, and much that’s been investigated remains to be told, so we’re far from done.

Actually my silence over the past two months has had more to do with time taken to research areas that I’ve spent less time on in the past, primarily the 1590s, which is, after all, when the name Shakespeare actually began to appear in print.  They aren’t nearly as much fun to put together as the 1580s, when our heroes––Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon and Mary Sidney––bursting with youthful zest, launched the London Stage and commercial press.  Nevertheless, the ’90s are the crux, the very heart, of the Gordian knot that is the story of the English Literary Renaissance.

Many sorrowful strands make up this knot, each twisted into and overlapping the others: Oxford in his forties, down on his luck, looking to the young Earl of Southampton to put him back in business; Mary Pembroke defining and publishing her dead brother’s work; Marlowe’s assassination and Lord Strange’s murder; Bacon gnashing his teeth at the Establishment that kept refusing to hire him; the great Queen aging and lonely, while above, tracing its astonishing trajectory and casting its shadow on everything else, the amazing story of the young Earl of Essex continues to unfold as his supporters and enemies alike hold their breath, waiting to see how it will end.  It’s taking time to work through this material, and will take even more to condense it into a few sufficiently cogent blogs and pages.

Meanwhile I’ve managed to get a few pages up on other topics.  There’s now some background on the impact of the Protestant Reformation on the English Renaissance.  In anticipation of more detail on Fisher’s Folly, there’s a paragraph on each of the names that make up most lists of the University Wits and also a brief summary of the major events and personalities of the 1580s.  Added to the list of lectures and articles from former years I’ve added Southampton’s Hair.  Written originally to deal with the idea put forth by some Oxfordians that the Earl of Southampton was heralded with unusual vigor at Court, something that now seems less certain (most of it based on Peele’s “Honour of the Garter,” which when examined seems not all that exceptional).  In any case, it touches on an area of some interest to those readers focussed on Southampton.

And for those who might wish to make it easier to continue my research I’ve come up with a way that you can help.  Should you wish to do so, I do thank you with all my heart.

Finally, for our memories of those “precious friends hid in death’s dateless night,”  we paid a heavy price this year.  Remembering Robert Brazil, Richard Roe, Verily Anderson and Elliott Stone, let’s hope that wherever they are, they’re learning things still hidden from the rest of us, and that in that grand and glorious library in the hereafter, young and healthy once again, that they run into each other from time to time and remind each other of the good old days here below.

And for those of us yet remaining, a most happy and healthful 2011.


Response to a Baconian

Recently Graeme Romans commented on my August blog, The Real Authorship Question, in which I explain why the AQ should be questioning, not just Shakespeare, but all the Elizabethan writers of imaginative literature.  As those readers are aware who’ve heard my lectures and read my articles on this blog and elsewhere, I see a handful of writers, six to be exact, providing most, perhaps all, of the important imaginative literature of this period.  The rest are mostly the names of proxies used by three or four of these writers to get their works into print.

I’ve gone into depth here a number of times on the reasons why they had to use this ruse, but the basic reason is simply the same one that writers have had to deal with, probably since writing first began, oppression by authority.  Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, was little more than a gleam in the eye of 16th-century writers like Christopher Marlowe, and we know where that got him.

Why is this not evident in the history of the period?  Because the oppressors repressed not only the literature and those who created it, they also repressed the history of the period itself!  Having control of what paper survived to later generations of readers and historians, they determined what would remain to act as the framework for history and what would be “lost.”  This repression dealt largely with political matters, but in those days the world of entertainment WAS political, which is what Alec Wilder meant when he said, “Theater has always dared.  It has troubled princes and prelates alike.”  What Shakespeare dared was to satirize well known figures of the Court and government, something that could be hidden if his identity remained unknown.  What Marlowe dared was to confront the government, daring his fellow plebes to take matters into their own hands, something that could not be tolerated.

The collected works of Shakespeare, only the second collection of English plays ever published, was a carefully calculated move by a handful of literary patrons to overcome, or rather, sidestep, this repression, at least as regards the Shakespeare canon.  For that to occur, the suppression of the truth of its authorship had to continue.  We got the literature, some of the best of it anyway, but at the cost of its history.

As for the literary history of the period, there are efforts now among certain academics to look more deeply into the repression of the Catholic writers, one that promises to return writers like Robert Southwell to the mainstream where they belong.  This is a good thing that, we hope, will take hold and become part of the accepted history of the period.  But it will take a real revolutionary somewhere in the Academy to spread this kind of second sight to see though the repression of all the poets.  To crack the façade that protects what has become over time, the English Department’s holy of holies, that lifeless thing, the Stratford bio, will probably take some reckless young History post doc who sees value in placing Shakespeare where he belongs, at Elizabeth’s Court.

The super six

Among these six revolutionaries, the leading figure is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  He was the oldest, he was the great Renaissance genius of the imagination, it was he who took the first steps towards getting the English to write out of personal experience and feeling (not some Petrarchan formula) and who was also the major force in getting them to publish in print.  He was a moving force in creating the first fulltime commercial theaters in England; and he was also the major force in the creation of the commercial periodical press.  As the author of not only the Shakespeare canon, but the Robert Greene canon, the John Lyly novels, plus works attributed to George Gascoigne, George Pettie, and Barnabe Riche (among others), he also had the longest career.

The second most important figure in this group is Oxford’s cousin by marriage, Francis Bacon, his junior by eleven years, whose contribution to the literature of this first breakout of the ELR (the English Literary Renaissance) was through the voices we know as Edmund Spenser and Thomas Nashe (and the John Lyly of the plays).  Bacon admired Oxford; he shared with him the dream of creating a great English language and literary tradition modelled on the French Pleiade; he worked for him and with him through the seminal years of the 1580s, writing plays for the children’s companies and pamphlets for the periodical press.  And although he assiduously created styles of his own as different from Oxford’s as possible, understandably he was unable to avoid adopting some of his mentor’s phrasing.  That the two writers went their separate ways in the ’90s is the age-old story of the gifted apprentice stepping out on his own.  So while Oxford continued into the late ’90s and early 17th century writing imaginative literature (i.e., plays), Bacon returned to his original dream, revolutionizing the English judicial system by becoming part of that system, and adopting its language in order to change it.

Taking Baconian Graeme Romans’s comment one sentence at a time:

Romans: These paragraphs [from my blogs on Bacon] suggest a respect for Bacon’s abilities that make it difficult to understand why you choose de Vere over Bacon in the Shakespeare stakes.

Me: I didn’t “choose” one or the other.  Oxford chose me; Bacon didn’t.  I have a great respect for Ernest Hemmingway, but that doesn’t lead me to suppose that, because they were working at the same time, he wrote the works of F. Scott Fitzgerald (or vice versa).  Like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Oxford and Bacon have very different voices.  Oxford’s was less a conscious effort than something that evolved over time as the language around him changed, while Bacon, from the first, delighted in creating styles as different as possible from his natural voice, as seen in the pseudo Chaucerian style of The Faerie Queene, then in the pseudo Mar-prelate style of Nashe.  Since this was a period when writers, Bacon among them, strove to create distinct voices (something playwrights do as a matter of course), we have to go beyond the styles to the basic beliefs and methods of particular authors, and here too, they differ in ways that style alone can’t determine.

Romans: Having acknowledged Bacon’s closeness to de Vere you acknowledge that much of your circumstantial evidence could be transposed into the case for Bacon.

Me: If what I said can be interpreted that way, I’m happy to be more plain.  What I meant was: first: that Baconians were the first to realize that the author of the Robert Greene canon was also the author of the Shakespeare canon; and second: that the author of the Spenser canon was Francis Bacon.  These are two separate insights.  Both are true (in my view), but not as evidence that Bacon was the author of the Shakespeare and Greene canons.

Romans: Yet Bacon is the more high-minded and the more likely to have sought to give the English a history of Kings, not to mention a common tongue enriched a thousand fold.

Me: Read what I’ve posted about Oxford’s education with Sir Thomas Smith, the number of history books in Smith’s library and the fact that so many of them are the accepted sources for Shakespeare’s history plays.  This is not to say that Bacon didn’t have access to these same books, he probably did, although we don’t have a record of it as we do with de Vere.  Bacon and Oxford’s educations were much alike since their tutors were members of the same Cambridge-based group whose own educations were based on the work of Erasmus, Luther and Calvin, a group that remained very much a lifelong community.

Apart from very differing personalities, another cause of their differing styles was the particular approach that their tutors would have taken.  Bacon’s mother (who had tutored King Edward VI ) would have started her son with Latin, the language in which most of the Reformation literature was written, with Greek coming later.  (Although the early Church fathers were often in Greek, to pious reformers like Anne Bacon, Greek was a dangerous language that could lead to knowledge of lascivious pagans like Ovid and Catullus.)  Smith, who was far more of a Renaissance humanist than a Reformation ideologue (and so could simply ignore what he didn’t like) was devoted to the Greek classics, and so probably followed Sir Thomas Elyot in starting little de Vere with Greek via Aesop and Apulius, then, as soon as possible, Homer.

Though Greek and Latin are closely related in many ways, there’s a considerable difference in what you might call the soul of the language.  I believe this difference is reflected in the nature of the voices that came from Oxford and from the work that Bacon finally began publishing in his thirties, beginning in 1596 with the Montaigne-like Essays.

As for “high-minded,” no one was more high-minded than Sir Thomas Smith, renowned for his erudition and his honesty.  Considering how long they were together, eight years, from de Vere’s age four to age twelve, Smith’s influence on Oxford would have been profound.  If the reason for your comment derives from the common notion that great writers are all noble humanitarians, I suggest you read the biographies of Rousseau, Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, to name just four.  And however high-minded, Bacon, like most humans, had some very ignoble traits, something his promoters prefer to ignore.

Romans: I suspect you were an Oxfordian first and find it difficult to let go.

Me: No way.  My awareness of Bacon and my respect for him came long before I knew anything about Oxford or was convinced of his true career by the evidence offered by Looney, Ward, Ogburn, Miller, Clark, and Bowen.  Once I began to dig more deeply into the history of the period and saw how close they must have been––Oxford’s guardian William Cecil, his colleague Nicholas Bacon, Francis’s father, and his mother, Bacon’s wife and Cecil’s wife’s sister, having all been located within walking distance of each other on the Strand during the years Oxford lived with the Cecils––I realized there had to be some kind of relationship between these two budding young writers, the best in their time.  Birds of a feather, don’t you know.

That Bacon returned from France at age 18 just months before the Shepheard’s Calender was published with its erudite gloss by E.K., who could only have been Oxford, the basis for their relationship came clear: a passion for creating an English literature on the level of the French Pléiade and the ancients of Rome and Greece.  That Oxford was teasing Bacon as Francis the Drawer in Henry IV Part One fits so perfectly with Bacon’s situation as one who, due to his poverty, had to “draw” for clients and so was at their mercy, well, what else was there to think?

That Bacon was the author of  Nashe’s Jack Wilton, The Unfortunate Traveller, so obviously based on Oxford’s adventures in Italy under the name of his famous/infamous uncle, the Earl of Surrey; and that also as Nashe he was the author of the play performed for John Whitgift, his old Cambridge Master.  This, Summer’s Last Will and Testament, shows Bacon’s view of Oxford’s role in the life of the Court community: Ver, the Adonis-like lord of Nature, who dies (loses favor) only to be reborn (when the Queen needs good theater again).   (Read Summer’s Last Will; you’ll see he speaks of his “cousin Ned” in the first paragraph.  The whole first section about Ver (Spring) is about Oxford.)  Oxford’s view of Bacon comes through in his portraits of Puck and Ariel: the devoted page, assistant to the great magician in fairyland and the magical isle, both metaphors for the Stage.

To those who adhere to the single genius theory, that only one individual wrote all the important works of the period––whether Oxford or Bacon or Marlowe––I can only point out, once again, that no revolution was ever accomplished by the efforts of one person alone.  Like the Jacobins who revolutionized the government of France in the 18th century, or the Impressionists who revolutionized painting in the 19th, or the American jazz musicians who did the same for popular music in the 20th, it takes a whole village of revolutionaries to raise a culture’s consciousness.  In the small tight-knit community of 16th-century London readers and writers, it took six: Oxford, Bacon, the Sidneys, Raleigh, and Marlowe.  And, not least, their patrons, printers, actors, and stagehands.

Romans: I would like to hear what you would write about Bacon’s scrivenery and its likely output.

Me: I’m not sure what you mean by “scrivenry,” but I do have a great deal more to post about Bacon, and will at some point.  Meanwhile, I suggest that you read Spenser’s Mother Hubberd and Nashe’s Jack Wilton or Piers Penniless.  Of course I assume that you’ve already read a good deal of Bacon’s writing under his own name.  His Essays are a good place to begin.  They at least reveal a little hint of the humor that’s so completely suppressed in the works he published later under his own name, and that’s so wildly and delightfully rampant in “Nashe,” written in his wild youth when he was one of the lads at Fisher’s Folly.

The Real Authorship Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

The nature of the Reformation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The smoking canon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Really now, how much more smoke do we need?

“Awfully decent of him”: Sobran reviews Shapiro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shake spear and Deep throat

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hollywood Ten

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare for snobs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you think?

The Authorship: the Big Picture

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

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

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

Why “the big picture”?

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

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

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

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

Shakespeare’s patrons-who were they?

Born as the crest of two waves, the German Reformation and the Italian Renaissance, crashed into each other, the great poet and playwright blended these two often incompatible energies into the culture that has been England’s ever since.  Under the constraints of the Reformation, the passions that went into painting, sculpture, and architecture in the Southern European Renaissance, in England went into language: a bare stage, good costumes, superb actors, and the great human stories we know as Shakespeare, stories whose sources are to be found in the libraries where the Earl of Oxford spent his childhood.

Oxford’s development and survival as an artist was largely due to his patrons, surely among the best a writer ever had.  He sank low at times, but not so low that he ever had to quit writing, at least, not for long.  One of the most important research projects remaining to be done is on these patrons.  Burghley, Sussex, Walsingham, Hunsdon, Charles Howard, Southampton, the Pembroke brothers, are the leading figures, but there were others as well who contributed to his survival in various ways.  Even when they were disgusted with him, as Hunsdon must have been when the bum took up with his mistress, they kept him afloat because they knew his value.  For the great ministers of that time who had the dreams and aspirations of both Italian and Reformation humanism alive within, he was the great instrument of their policy, though this would be fully realized only when he was gone, as so well expressed by Ben Jonson in his dedicatory Ode in the First Folio.

Historically Oxford’s role in Early Modern theater is as a patron, a role that tends to get lost in the argument over his role as a writer, but his involvement as patron of the arts and sciences went a good deal deeper than what shows on the historical surface.  He patronized musicians and composers as well as other writers, and was praised by them as one of themselves.  When looking for a model for Oxford within our own times, the composer and pianist Leonard Bernstein comes to mind, an entertainment genius of the same all-encompassing nature, only, shall we say, considerably less fearful of recognition.

One question that hasn’t been dealt with yet, so far as I know, has to do with the company maintained by Oxford’s father.  Were they, perchance, the one we know as Leicester’s Men in the 1560s?  When Earl John died in 1562, Elizabeth gave Leicester control of the Oxford estates.   Though there’s no sign of it (so far) in the record, that could mean that he inherited what had been the sixteenth Earl’s acting company?  Unlike our world today, the arts community was very small.  Leicester’s Men were a handful of Court actors, some the same men who later became the core of the company that called themselves Hunsdon’s Men and operated out of Burbage’s Theater, just up the street from Fisher’s Folly.  Were some of these the same men who, decades earlier, had performed John Bale’s King Johan in Ipswich in 1561, just prior to the Queen’s entertainment at Hedingham Castle?  It’s worth considering.