The Authorship scenario: connecting the dots

How does one go about creating a fact-based scenario when we have so few dependable facts?  How do we “connect the dots” when the dots are so few and far between?

Coincidence?  Naaah!

A coincidence of dates is the clue that what may appear on the surface to be a coincidence is really evidence that the events in question are connected at other points that may be hidden from view.  Of course there are coincidences in life, but where there are so many anomalies, when matching dates suggest a connection, to assign such a connection to “coincidence” should be the solution of last resort.  To name but three out of scores of such “coincidences” that pepper the pages of the authorship coverup scenario:

  • 1576: Oxford’s return from Italy and the opening of both of London’s first successful commercial theaters: Burbage’s in time for the outdoor summer season, Blackfriars in time for the winter holidays . When we see that the opening of both of these theaters within the same time period, both starting within days or weeks of Oxford’s return, an event of immense importance to the history of both the Theater, the Media, and even Democracy, took place shortly after Oxford’s arrival home from Italy, home of Ariosto, Plautus, Terence, and the Comedia dell’Arte, we must conclude: of course Oxford was involved!  We can argue about in what way or to what extent, but that he was crucial in some way to the opening of these theaters is simply too obvious to ignore.
  • 1592-3: The death of Robert Greene, September 1592, and the advent of William Shakespeare on the dedication page of Venus and Adonis (May 1593). When we see that the name “Shakespeare” first appeared on a published work eight months after the purported demise of Robert Greene, whose later works so closely resemble early Shakespeare that, as Greene’s leading chroniclers all admit, they seem to have been written by the same hand, it suggests that, for various reasons, some of which become obvious once we fill in the historical background, the same author simply stopped using one name and began using another. 
  • 1623: The death of Anne (Hathaway) Shakespeare and the publication of the First Folio: When we see that after after waiting almost a decade following the death of William of Stratford, the collected works that it had taken so long to get published came out within weeks of her death, it suggests that for some reason the publishers did not want to publicize the connection between the works of Shakespeare and William of Stratford until both he and his wife were gone. 

The entire history of the period is chock full of such coincidences.  All it takes is looking for them.  It is within the structure of dates like these that the expanded “theory of Authorship” (i.e., that hiding one’s identity behind that of a standin was a common practice among Court writers and not limited to Oxford-Shakespeare) has been constructed.  But such a structure requires substantiation from other unconnected sources.  These are of many types, but there are a few standard places to look for them.

Unities of place: Where?

If two Elizabethans resided within a few doors of each other at the same time for a certain length of time, or if their families came from the same village, or if they went to one of the universities for two or more years during the same time, were members of the Court community during the same period, resided in a foreign city during the same time period, and so forth, we can take it for granted that they knew each other.  16th century London was not 20th century New York City or London.  It was more like 21st-century Peoria, Illinois. 

Unities of relationship: Who?

The Court community consisted of roughly 200 souls altogether.  The peerage that began with 60 at the beginning of Elizabeth’s reign was down to 25 by her death.  The universities were much smaller than they are today, somewhere around 1,000 students plus faculty, about the size of a medium-sized high school, one with about 250 students in each grade, freshman to senior.  Those who have attended such a high school know that by the third or fourth year, everyone knows just about everyone else, if not personally, at least by name and face.

However, though such connections make it more than likely that individuals knew each other,it does not guarantee that they were close.  All too often claims are made by scholars that one writer was friends with another based solely on the fact that the one spoke well of  the other in a publication.  To assume actual friendship, more is required.

Similarly, if two Elizabethans were related through family or marriage, it makes sense that they knew each other, although it doesn’t necessarily mean that they got along or that they shared the same religious beliefs or political goals. Within the various communities of Elizabethans, almost everyone was related to some degree with everyone else.  “Go far enough back and we’re all related to Adam”––but one doesn’t have to go back more than one or two generations in the English peerage and gentry of the 16th century to find a connection between just about everyone of rank.  

Dating the plays: How?

As most readers are probably aware, we have no firm dates for any of the plays.  The dates assigned by academics and routinely passed along by writers who haven’t studied the history of the period are nothing more than guesses based primarily on dates of publication, guesses for the most part made by E.K. Chambers back in the early 20th century.  Limited by the lateness of the Stratford bio and hampered by acceptance of the idea that because Shakespeare was writing for money he wrote the plays more or less as they appear in the First Folio, when compared with the evidence from other sources, it becomes obvious that these commonly accepted dates are simply far too late, at least as dates of original composition.  Lacking dates, other methods must be used.  Here are some that haven’t often been considered:

If the central plot derives from a romance tale it must have been created originally before the mid to late 1580s when such plots went out of style.

If it deals largely with philosophical or ethical questions, jurisprudence, points of legal interest, Greek or Roman history, wars, or uses a fair amount of legal metaphors, examples from Latin texts, Latin quotes, etc., it was probably written originally for the Inns of Court audience of the West End.

If it’s a comedy that turns on witty conversations, puns, references to ancient rites of holiday merry-making, Greenwood rituals, forest adventures, fairies, elves, disguising or gender confusion, if it contains obvious openings for songs, dances, and feasting, we can be certain it was originally written for the Court community for Christmas, Twelfth Night, Shrovetide, Whitsuntide, May Day, Midsummer’s Eve, or for a wedding, many of which took place during one of these holiday intervals. 

If it’s rich with classical references it was probably written either for the Court or for the Inns of Court (West End) audiences.  If it’s rather sparce with these but contains a good deal of farce material, it was probably written originally in the 1580s for the Queen’s Men.  (Probably the only totally new play after 1594 was King Lear, and even this was largely based on an earlier drama written for the Queen’s Men.)

Oxford’s life story as a dating device

One of the major reasons for the hiding of the Shakespeare authorship is how closely some of the plays reflect Oxford’s life and the lives of his associates.  Since he wasn’t writing as a professional would, for money to pay the rent, his purposes in writing a particular play at a particular time must be connected to events and issues in his own life plus events and issues in the life of his community that one or more of his three audiences––Court, West End, and public––could relate to. 

This is complicated  by his revision of many of his old plays at least once during the 1590s when he was more or less compelled to provide the Lord Chamberlain’s Men with public entertainment, and the likelihood that he revised some of them more than once.  This means that topical references from one period can be layered with references from another period, requiring an almost geological approach to the literary forensics involved in dating a particular play.

For instance, in plays other than the history or Roman plays, if there’s nothing in any plot or sub-plot that includes a situation reminiscent of Oxford’s breakup with his first wife, Anne Cecil, an original version may (or may not) be dated to before 1576, examples being A Comedy of Errors or Titus Andronicus.  Where such a reference is essential to the central plot it was probably first written after 1576, examples being Cymbeline: Proteus’s suspicion of Imogen; or Alls Well that Ends Well: Bertram’s mistreatment of Helena. (Naturally this is of no use when dating either the history plays or the wedding plays where it wouldn’t be appropriate to deal with really serious issues.)

Plays that reflect Shakespeare’s style but that academics refuse to consider as his due to their demonstrably early dates, particularly those they have labelled his “sources,” can be dated using the same rubrics plus a knowledge of the peculiarities of his early style.  Certain aspects of his style can be found in everything he wrote during his pre-Shakespeare period. If there are none of these, it’s a sure sign that the play was not one of his.

Shakespeare’s style

There is a style––perhaps better termed a “voice,” since his style kept evolving––that simply sounds like him.  It may be possible to dissect this style through stylometrics or other word studies, but I’m beginning to doubt it.  He experimented so with style, with meter, syntax, and vocabulary, coining words when he needed one that standard English didn’t provide (some he used only once), that to track him as one would an animal by the shape of his hoofprints simply doesn’t work. No animal changes the shape of its hoofprints. Even within the Shakespeare period, though his style is somewhat more jelled, there is still a wide variation, not only from early to late, but from genre to genre.

Voice is the best term, the best metaphor.  People’s faces change as they age, their bodies change shape, their hair changes color (sometimes it vanishes), but unless they get very sick or age suddenly, their voices remain the same, each as unique to them as their fingerprints.  How can we dissect a voice?  It can’t be located in vocabulary or tone, it’s something apart from these, subtler, greater, more complex, yet more direct.  I was so pleased when Amy Freed, author of the The Beard of Avon, in responding to the question, what was it about the Authorship Question that interested her, said something to the effect that it was the voice of Shakespeare that fascinated her, and that she wanted to find out all she could about where it came from.

Since voice is pretty much undefinable, we’re stuck with his style. What we call Shakespeare’s style is simply the final stage in a life-long development that began in the 1560s with the “galloping” fourteeners of Golding’s Ovid (The Metamorphoses); then moved through a decade focused chiefly on the Greek Romance or pastoral style.  In the ’70s, this morphed into a developing enthusiasm for the tropes that came to be termed euphuism, a name derived from his Euphues novels (attributed to his secretary John Lyly).  It was this style that he passed along to Marlowe in the mid-1580s. 

Tiring of euphuism, which he then took great pleasure in satirizing, he began moving towards the style we know as Shakespeare.  All throughout at times he would try different approaches, taking on a pseudo classic Roman style for Julius Caesar, taking personal biography to its limit with Hamlet, settling for something close to modern existentialism with Sonnet 130 and Measure for Measure, and finally ending with the Wagnerian impressionism of Lear.

What are the signs of Shakespeare in the early unattributed works?

  • gender reversals
  • characters who fall in love at first sight
  • buddy love
  • inordinate praise of a heroic protagonist by several other characters
  • women who can be won with little more than an invitation
  • witty servants and women
  • servants who speak in iambic pentameter
  • servants and women who decorate their speech with Latin mottos
  • disguised or switched identities causing characters not to recognize each other
  • characters who switch identities with servants or friends
  • ghosts or other supernatural occurances
  • a plot that hinges on an act of betrayal
  • witty exchanges  in the form of rhyming couplets
  • exit speeches or otherwise important speeches that end with a rhyming couplet

A play that has more than one or two of these is likely to be an early Shakespeare play.  Plays by other playwrights may have some of these, but never as many.