Tag Archives: Early Modern

That darn name!

Who was Shakespeare?

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

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

“I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The name’s the game

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

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

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

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

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

What, can the Devil speak true?

As you no doubt are aware by now, my scenario for the authorship of the Shakespeare canon is not the standard view.  The standard view is the one most people have grown up with, the one that sees William of Stratford as the author of the works of Shakespeare, the view backed by university academics, even more so by their supporters, the ones who write most of the articles in response to our questions, and most of all by pop biographers, who, lacking anything substantive, garnish theirs with what they hope are zesty details of life in 16th-century Warwickshire and London.

Ours is so much a better story, why won’t they listen?

For the most part, academics are a very different strain from the artists that they study.  If the facts as they are presented don’t add up, they don’t see it because they don’t understand what makes their subject tick.  Focused on the trees,  they hardly know there is such a thing as the forest.  And once having arrived at the pinnacle of Shakespeare studies, the very button on the cap of the Humanities, they are not about to question what lies (pun intended) beneath that pinnacle.   One recent literary “historian” got, so we’re told, a million dollar advance on his glossy version of the Stratford myth.

There’s nothing strange about this.  In every area of human endeavor there are those who more or less blindly follow tradition and its rules without allowing themselves (or anyone else) to question them.  As for Shakespeare, most academics don’t really care who he was; it’s the text that interests them, not the author; as far as they’re concerned, the less about him the better. When, after 300 years of ignoring him, the universities finally accepted his plays as worthy of their attention, they were perfectly happy with the author as presented to posterity by Ben Jonson, the lifeless woolman stuffed into artist clothing, stuck on a pole, his propped arm pointing towards Stratford.

Academics get to the positions of authority they occupy by being well-behaved  all through school, getting good grades by giving their mentors the answers they want to hear, then getting them to sign on as advisors on their dissertation committees so they can get their PhDs and all that goes with it. Once tenured, they produce books in which they dedicate their examination of the symbolism of “eye of newt” to these same mentors.  By the time they’ve reached a point where thinking for themselves is no longer a threat, they’ve forgotten how, that is, if they ever knew.  And if the questions do begin to eat away at the edges of the Stratford myth, they’ve become too committed to Stratford through the books and articles they’ve published to allow them entry.  How ironic that Shakespeare’s “alms for oblivion” got nothing better for him than these latter day Holofernes.

They get away with it by ignoring the big arguments––like why there’s nothing in this supposed great writer’s handwriting but six clumsy legal signatures––while focusing on details. For instance they defend the Stratford story by saying, “contrary to authorship views, there’s more than enough evidence that William Shakespeare wrote the works.”  What they mean by this is that the name Shakespeare is on various title pages, while documents in Stratford testify that someone of that name lived and died there and sued his neighbors.  What they don’t tell you is that there is nothing solid to connect the title pages with the man who lived in Stratford. Or with the man who spent a few months in rented quarters in two different neighborhoods in London.  Or with Jonson’s Sogliardo.  Nothing times a thousand still equals nothing.

The ultimate irony of course is the obvious fact that we need the academics.  Or, perhaps I should say that we need authorship scholars in academia.  The excruciating amount of time, effort, and money it takes to track down documentation in the English libraries and archives requires that this be taken on by professionals, either backed by a university or by patrons who are not seeking some particular result.  How many archived references to the Earl of Oxford have academics ignored since the authorship question first raised its annoying head a century and a half ago?  How many during the century before that, since he was not the focus of their inquiry?  Until the universities open their doors to the question or enough disinterested, deep-pocketed patrons appear, we must struggle along with only our God-given common sense and what facts have slipped past, first the 16th and 17th-century censors, and now the Stratfordian defense.

We also have another sort of adversary.  Almost as much of a barrier as the academic who has no understanding of artists or interest in a realistic biography is the Oxfordian who has no understanding of history.  If we do not honor the truths of history, if we continue to be enchanted by soap opera fantasies that do violence to genuine historical and psychological truth, we will never gain the respect of the History departments, who realistically are the only ones in any position to do the necessary research, since the English departments simply don’t care.

How was it he put it?  “If circumstances lead me, I will find where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed within the center.”

Amen to that.

Why we need a scenario

Recent questions have raised the enduring issue of fact vs. fiction.  I’ve been asked to make it (more) clear where I depart from a structure of known fact to fill in missing areas with a scenario in which areas can’t be supported by the kind of cited facts that historians rely upon, or are supposed to rely upon.  I’ve been considering how to deal with this ever since reading Ogburn’s The Mysterious William.  Deluged with facts, what was missing was the story.  Obviously Oxford was the true author, but how to perceive the living being within this mountain of argument and data?

The problem lies with the difference between facts and story, or truth and fiction, as this dichotomy is so often portrayed.  It’s almost impossible to mix them and come up with something that isn’t seen as untrue on the one hand, boring on the other, or both.  One touch of supposition and those interested only in so-called hard evidence toss the whole thing in the waste basket as unsupported theorizing.  Burden it with documentation and those in search of the story lose interest because it lacks drama.  Truth, however, is more than fact.  There’s truth in story that can never get relayed from just the facts alone.  No one knew this better than the author of the Shakespeare history plays.

At a certain point in researching the period it became clear that the lack of facts––not just on Shakespeare but on all the writers and works from that period––wasn’t simply due to entropy, the dictum that “things fall apart,” or any lack of interest in him in his own time.  Facts were missing on purpose, either burned in fireplaces or never exposed to begin with.  Confusion was not always due to missing data, but was often intentional.  The sources of information relied upon by scholars tracking the stories behind the literature of the period, title pages, entries in the Stationers Register, Revels records, etc., were either purposely ambiguous or flat out false.

Asking why, I began to see a pervasively phobic attitude towards literature, i.e. fiction, i.e. storytelling, that infected the entire culture.  Asking why again, it seemed that in rejecting the supersitions and folk tales of medieval Christianity, the reformers in power were doing all they could to throw the baby out with the bath, just as they were doing with the beauties of Renaissance Italian painting out of a Reformation mistrust of Italian sensualism.  Poetry was dangerous––the better, the more beautiful the language, the more dangerous.  And then there was the age-old threat of dissident voices, so often those of the best writers.

Just the facts, M’am.

None of this is new.  All of it has been mentioned, usually in passing, by literary historians, who may question the truth of a title page or two and then go right on repeating the standard account based by earlier historians on those very same title pages!  It’s as though archaeologists who discover the bones of a prehistoric human simply leave them lying in the order in which they find them, never making any effort to arrange them so they reveal the shape of a human being.  As a result, all we have is a pile of facts, no story, no humans struggling to make their way through the difficulties of their lives, loving and hating each other, just a bunch of names without connections to each other or to the stories told by their works.

When I say “not one” has tried to tell the story behind this pile of real and phony facts, that’s not quite true.  Those who’ve tried to make sense of it in human terms (I’m thinking in particular of T.W. Baldwin and Penny McCarthy) have been thrown off by the biggest falsification of all, the substitution of the true author of the primary works of the time with someone of an altogether different, even opposite, nature.

The archeology metaphor works well here, where two bodies having been buried together ages ago, their bones becoming mixed through some earth disturbance so that a pelvis, a set of shoulder blades and bits of both spines have gotten lost.  Later, when scientists attempt to sort them out, the result is a single two-headed monster with two sets of arms and legs which they then attempt to sell to an ignorant world as the missing link.  In Shakespeare’s case, the historians either doll up the monstrous Stratford grain hoarder cum literary genius with anecdotes and conjectures, or they ignore him and describe the flowers that “probably” grew in his garden.

At a certain point intelligent readers became sick of this paper monster and began to look for something a little more real.  They could just manage to make out a shape out there, moving around in the bushes, but it was hard to define. (Francis? Is that you?)  Eventually J.T. Looney gave it a name and Charlton Ogburn a wealth of detail, but we’re still stuck, first with the desire to pin the blame on a group, now with the nonsense that almost anyone alive at the time could have tossed off these erudite masterpieces.

My kingdom for a story!

By blogging there seemed the possiblity, finally, of having it both ways.  I could tell the story I had begun to perceive some time ago, with links to articles that provide the kind of citations that give at least a minimum of support.  With readers able to ask for specifics directly without waiting for an answer to a letter sent through the publisher or finding a booksigning somewhere within driving range, I could finally (I hoped) provide the key to the insight or the missing bit of information that would suddenly (perhaps) bring the scene to life, set the story in motion, for that reader and perhaps others as well.

I’ve only been at this blogging for a few months now and so the story, while complete in my mind, is far from complete here.  I’m still working on background material for the 1580s, the most difficult decade partly because there’s so little documentation, but also because it’s then that the heart of the story, the drama, begins to take shape.  Because I have to conjecture so much for that decade, I need more supportive material than was required for the 1570s or will be for the 1590s.

If it seems that much of what I write is directed to those readers who have already read the biographies (Anderson, Ogburn, Miller, Nelson), it’s because for you I don’t have to repeat so much, simply filling in a few areas that they ignored (chiefly Oxford’s childhood and education). This way I can concentrate on those areas that provide the reasons why he and the actors and their patrons, hid his authorship, reasons of culture, tradition, politics, and religion, and beyond these, the connections to the important figures of his time that he portrayed and satirized in his plays, points that can’t be made without showing why he would do such a thing and how he managed to get away with it.

If I can reach you, then together we can find ways to communicate the Authorship Issue, not just as a series of talking points, arguments, and facts, but as a story that, motivated by the life force that is our common heritage as humans, simply tells itself.  Surrounded as I am by all the stuff I’ve accumulated, it’s hard for me to see the forest for the trees.  By telling it this way in bits and pieces, and by answering your questions, it helps put things in perspective.

So please bear with me, and do ask for clarification of those points that, to you, seem little more than wild surmise.  My idea of support may be somewhat different than those historians who, when the paper is lacking, simply skip over the anomalies, but be assured, nothing I suggest is spun purely from thin air.

Who Wrote What?

Ockham’s razor is a slang term for the simplification that takes place when the truth is finally located at the center of a mélange of clues and complicated hypotheses.  We can be fairly certain we have the truth when whole cartloads of contradictions start vanishing, leaving a simply, believable story.  But of course, first it’s necessary to stop ignoring the contradictions.

In the tiny community that was the English Literary establishment in the 1570s-90s, there were not a dozen different men (and/or women) who, over this 20 year period, wrote for a time and then ceased to write.  There were two who for reasons of social propriety and privacy, used a number of different names, most of them the names of friends, family members, or retainers.  These two, the pioneers, are Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon.  The other two giants of Early Modern English Literature, Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe, who both died young, did not take pseudonyms, though for very different reasons. Raleigh probably makes a fifth, if we only knew which of the anonymous poems in the anthologies were his. (Raleigh wrote only for the Court community, he didn’t write pamphlets or dramas; his primary art was seamanship and adventure.)  Mary Sidney is a transitional figure, carrying the torch from the first, gifted amateur generation to the following, which, if not totally professional in todays terms, was closer.  And then came those who, again for different reasons, were far more free to write under their own names, writers like John Donne and Ben Jonson.    

Why so much hiding of identities?

All that needs to be said here is that they did.  Yes, we don’t have much hiding of identities today.  Yes, it seems bizarre to us today that anyone would want to hide their identity when getting their precious work published.  The reasons why these folks hid are complicated; I’ve covered some of them in other essays.  Other scholars have also dealt with this.  All that needs to be said here is that there is no doubt whatsoever that during this period the hiding of identities by poets, playwrights, satirists, writers of romance tales, novelists, and anyone who wrote any sort of imaginative literature was rampant. We may question this, but the readers, writers, and publishers of 16th and 17th-century England certainly did not.

How can we be certain that an identification is correct?

Well, we can’t.  But we can come awfully close, much closer than any of the guesswork that’s gone into turning the handful of prosaic facts we have about William of Stratford into the lifeless biography that haunts us today. Our methods include the following:

Treating the information on title pages and front material with the same sort of rigor that we question anecdotes and rumors.

Understanding how very small were these early literary communities, and so realizing that there could only be a handful of writers involved in the beginnings of the commercial Stage and Press.

Locating repetitive styles and themes:  There are habits and quirks that writers simply can’t eliminate and themes that they return to again and again.  When both of these continue to appear together in a series of works––no matter what their title page attributions––chances are we’ve located a hidden writer.  True, this was a period of experimentation, when styles came and went and when writers delighted in imitating the styles of others, either because they admired them or because they wished to satirize or annoy them.  Nevertheless, if there’s enough congruence of style and themes, a general profile will appear that goes beyond names. 

Locating connections between the names on title pages and the Court writers who had reason to hide their identities: Such connections include Oxford’s to John Lyly (secretary 1578-90), Anthony Munday  (secretary, 1576?-1580), Thomas Watson  (retainer 1583-92), Robert Greene (possibly Essex neighbor), Emilia Bassano (probably lover), William of Stratford (through Richard Field, his neighbor at Blackfriars), and Henry Evans (assistant); Mary Sidney to John Webster (her coachmaker, weak, but plausible) and to a fellow courtier (Fletcher); and Bacon to Spenser (fellow student at Cambridge), Nashe (student at Cambridge), Harvey (fellow at Cambridge), and Whitgift (tutor at Cambridge). 

Locating the connections between the themes and subjects of the works in question with the lives of these Court writers:  Most notably almost everything ever published under the name William Shakespeare can be connected rather neatly to persons and events in the life of the Earl of Oxford. Mary Sidney can be connected to Webster by the rather obvious reflection of her sons’ situation at Court in the events and characters portrayed in The White Devil and between her personal situation in 1601-1612 and the plot and characters of The Duchess of Malfi (and earlier by her personal knowledge of the events portrayed in Lady Jane, written for Philip Henslowe in 1602).  Bacon’s authorship of Nashe by his financial straits and the theme of Pierce Penniless, his authorship of Spenser by his relationship with Gabriel Harvey from days at Cambridge University and (as Nashe) their pseudo-pamphlet duel, and so forth.

And by connecting them in time:  It’s no coincidence that Robert Greene and Thomas Watson “died” just before Shakespeare appeared.  It’s no coincidence that Webster’s plays appear only at times in Mary Sidney’s life when she isn’t busy with family stuff.  It’s no coincidence that the works attributed to Spenser begin appearing just after Bacon arrives back in England but that Spenser’s name isn’t used for that or for The Faerie Queene until after Spenser departed for the distant wilds of Ireland.  It’s no coincidence that Nashe appears for the first time during the ferocity of the Mar-Prelate dustup, or that he suffers nothing for the Isle of Dogs, while Court outsiders like Jonson, Shaa, and Spencer go to jail.   The timing of these and scores of other events, set beside each other, form the pattern of a very interesting story, if we let them.

No single one of these points can stand on its own as evidence, but when we find that every item in every one of these categories points in a particular direction, we can be pretty sure we’re on the right track.