Tag Archives: History of English

Anonymity through the ages

This “elaborate charade”

It looks like certain elements of the academy may be beginning to pay attention to the authorship question.  John Mullan’s Anonymity: A Secret History of Literature is one hopeful sign (Faber and Faber, 2007).  If he doesn’t exactly open the door to The Question, he does leave the keys on the table by the door.

An English professor at University College London, Mullan is as easy to read as he is informative (not always the case with academics).  Calling anonymity “a phenomenon that has never been plotted or explained,” he goes into anecdotal detail on the vast reality of anonymous or pseudonymous publishing that, however ignored, permeates the entire history of the English book and magazine trade from its very start.

To make his point, he describes Halkett and Laing’s Dictionary of the Anonymous and Pseudononymous Literature of Great Britain in which can be found almost every well-known English author from the 16th through the 20th centuries (before that, just about everything of importance is unattributed).  Begun in the 1850s, the first four volumes finally began getting published over 30 years later.  Today it fills “nine massive volumes” with “originally authorless works that have, since publication, been ‘reliably’ pinned on some particular writer or writers.  Permanently authorless works are not there. . . .”  The operative phrase here is “pinned on,” for like the works we study, many acquired their attributions later––from scholars, not principals.

As Mullan tells us:

Over the centuries the first readers of many famous literary works have been invited to unravel their secret histories.  A good proportion of what is now English Literature consists of works first published, like “The Rape of the Lock,” without their author’s names.  These works are now collected in bookshops or libraries under the names of those who wrote them, but the processes by which they were attributed to their authors are largely forgotten.  It is strange to think of “Joseph Andrews” or “Pride and Prejudice” or “Frankenstein” being read without knowing the identities of their creators, but so they once were. (4)

The first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy were published anonymously.  So was William Blake’s Marriage of Heaven and Hell.  All of Thackeray’s early work was anonymous, followed by a whole battery of pseudonyms.  Samuel Butler’s early books were published as anonymous or under a pseudonym.  Some of Henry Fielding’s works were anonymous or published under a pseudonym.  Byron published his first book anonymously, and considered anonymity for his last.  Sir Walter Scott spent 13 years denying his authorship of the Waverly novels.  Thomas Gray refused to claim his immensely popular “Reflections in a Country Churchyard.”  And so forth and so on.

That so many authors through the centuries had reasons for remaining anonymous should require that such reasons be considered whenever there are questions over authorship.   The phenomenon of anonymity begins with the Elizabethans and the birth of the commercial press (according to the OED, the first use in print of the word anonymous was 1601, when it probably had been in use for some time).  Except for a brief look later in the book at Spenser’s use of the pseudonym Immerito, Mullan starts with the next big burst of literary splendor, the Augustans––the poets, playwrights and novelists of the late 17th to mid-18th centuries, the so-called Age of Reason.  In our efforts to decode the authorship mysteries of the Elizabethans, we can learn a great deal from what he tells us of this later group.

According to Mullan, all of Jonathan Swift’s works first appeared anonymously or under a pseudonym.  He details the elaborate measures that Swift and his friends took to keep secret his authorship of Gullivers’s Travels, which included getting John Gay to write the letter offering the manuscript to the printer so that Swift couldn’t be identified by his handwriting.  Later both Swift and Alexander Pope, together with the perplexed printer, shook their heads over the authorship of the mysterious manuscript, even going so far with the gag as to pretend to be perplexed in letters to each other.  (Can we see them as they share them with other members of their coterie around a table in a coffeehouse, convulsed with amusement over each succeeding paragraph?)  Mullan’s depiction of the community gathered around Swift, Pope, John Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry Fielding and others, all members of the famous (infamous at the time) Scriblerus Club, not only knew each other, but formed a close-knit community of colleagues whose major interest was entertaining each other, one that saw publishing anonymously, or under a phony name, as a game.

Times change but people don’t.  Surely the “lewd friends” and secretaries that gathered around Oxford at Fisher’s Folly during the 1580s were the very University Wits of literary history.  The element of fun in the Nashe-Greene-Harvey pamphlet duel is the major reason why academics have missed the point, and keep missing it.  Until the death of Marlowe, most of the use of pseudonyms was simply Oxford, Bacon, Mary Sidney and doubtless others still unknown to us (Thomas Sackville?) having fun with each other and sticking it to their enemies––and each other)––a la the wits of the Scriblerus Club a century later.

Handwriting and dictation

About Swift, Mullan adds: “He was in the habit of dictating controversial works to a “prentice who can write in a feigned hand,” sending the finished work to the printer “by a black-guard boy” [a poor boy who ran errands for cash].  Such maneuvers could not have been unknown to the crew at Fisher’s Folly.  Fran Gidley, who in 1999 unlocked the secrets of The Play of Sir Thomas More, shows how Oxford’s method was to dictate to secretaries like Anthony Munday, though with Oxford it was probably less a ruse to escape detection than simply the standard method then for anyone who could afford a secretary­­––or, as we see in the manuscript of Sir Thomas More, four secretaries.

Mullan points out that “in ages before the typewriter,” it was handwriting “that was most likely to betray an incognito” (39).

When Swift wished to make corrections to “Gulliver’s Travels” for its second edition he had them copied and submitted by his friend Charles Ford . . . .  When Charles Dodgson answered letters addressed to him, via his publisher, by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, he would have either a friend or the publisher copy out his response so that the admirer would not receive a specimen of his actual handwriting  (39-40).

Which is, of course, why it’s so unlikely that we’ll ever find that much desired “smoking gun”: a letter or manuscript in either Oxford or Bacon’s handwriting that proves to the satisfaction of any and all left-brainers, not only were they involved in such larks, as far as history is concerned (or should be) they invented some of them.

By the time Alexander Pope came along, anonymously published satires, though officially illegal, were all the thing.   By publishing his Essay on Man anonymously he tricked his detractors into praising him.  One of them compared what he called Pope’s “vile” and “most immoral ribaldry” to the work of this new unknown author, who was, he trilled, “above all commendation” (19), surely a source of side-splitting hilarity amongst Pope’s circle as they read the review aloud, sitting around a table at Buttons or one of the other taverns or coffeehouses where the group was wont to meet.  Pope’s most famous work from late in life, the Dunciad, was written to unmask and denounce the various satirists who had attacked him and his friends anonymously in print, a clear case of the biter bit since he was one of the more vicious anonymous satirists himself.  But he was also the best, which is, of course, all that counts.

Oxford’s group of wits would have met at a tavern next door to Fisher’s Folly, where scenes reminiscent of the tavern scenes in Henry IV Part One could well have taken place.  This tavern, The Pye was owned and run by the parents of Edward Alleyn, the great actor, then still in his teens.

Sir Walter Scott was one who thoroughly enjoyed the game.  In Scott’s early days Poetry was still King and novels were seen as something that writers who couldn’t write poetry might turn to.  Having adopted anonymity out of concern that his Waverly novels would damage his reputation as a poet, Scott soon revelled in their popularity, but while happy to be guessed as the author, when questioned directly would always deny it.   He might have continued this way till death had not he been forced to admit the truth when, finding himself in debt, he had to publish an edition of his collected works, for which he would have to use his famous name.  As Mullan tells us: “Scott’s resolute anonymity has many features that we will find again in the stories of anonymity in this book: the elaborate concealment of the author’s handwriting; the initial deception even of publishers and family members; the willingness of the author to lie cordially when identified” (29).

But not all anonymous writers are alike in their reasons.  Swift and Pope were playing games with their readers and critics, games aimed at the the final act when all would be revealed and the book well on its way to popular, and fiscal, security.  But that was not the case with their counterparts of the 1590s, who did not want their authorships made public, not during their lifetimes certainly, and who could hope to escape detection because they were safe in ways that Swift and Pope were not, or at least, they hoped they were.

Like the members of the Scriblerus Club, Oxford and the Wits at Fisher’s Folly must have enjoyed watching outsiders speculate over the authorship of their pseudonymous publications, but any urge to reveal too much probably evaporated with the assassination of Marlowe in ’93.   That Greene “died” when he did in 1592 may have had something to do with his identity being in jeopardy.  It should be noted that, in Greene’s farewell pamphlet Groatsworth, in between death pangs he berates Marlowe for his atheism, warning him: “little dost thou know how in the end thou wilt be visited.”  What fools they are who miss the significance of this, for how on earth would the Robert Greene of literary history, the dissolute and impoverished pal of murderous thugs, come by such deadly inside information?

While masquerading in print as Greene and Nashe, Oxford and Bacon were what we today would consider amateur journalists, the first of their kind in English history.  First to use methods that would soon become a profession, their pamphlets were aimed at a small but growing reading audience, one that knew Greene by his writing, but not by his face––for, as Greene put it “my writings lately privileged on every post hath given notice of my name unto infinite numbers of people that never knew me by the view of my person.”  In other words, the commercial press, still in its infancy, had opened up for the Wits and more dangerous satirists like Martin Marprelate, the possibility of what Burghley was known to refer to as “acting at a distance.”

What energy resonates in that word infinite.  Therein lies the published writer’s eternal temptation, to acquire an audience, not necessarily one that is actually infinite, but, as the word suggests, has the potential for infinite growth and extention.   You can almost hear the surprise in that word––infinite!

The idea of an infinite audience, reinforced by the knowledge of how many readers over the centuries had been reached by the works of Homer and the Greek dramatists, led him eventually, with the help of his friends and patrons, to reach beyond his immediate and often distressingly stupid audience to the infinite audience known as posterity.  (Consider Touchstone’s complaints about the public audience, that unpoetic slut Audrey (audire) whom he must marry, and the mournful comment, When a man’s verses cannot be understood . . . it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.”)

Thus his realization that the audience, once acquired, would return over and over again to buy anything that had Greene’s name on it, was also a revelation of a lesser sort, one that inspired him to keep writing for it throughout the 1580s, with Bacon jumping on board in 1589 with a style borrowed from Martin Mar-Prelate.  The rest is history––or it should be.

Enter the tabloids

Oxford and Bacon were able to escape identification because both their persons and their handwriting were hidden behind the veil of print, but by the time Swift and Pope were writing a century later, a strong publishing establishment had developed, one that included review journals and newspapers.  This meant that in the still quite small publishing circles of their time, anything published anonymously would be immediate questioned in print.  The volume and intensity of the questioning of the authorship of books and articles that had developed by the turn of the 18th century should suggest that such questioning was hardly something new.  It was only the transfer to print of what had been dominating after dinner conversations ever since the birth of the commercial Stage and Press.

Not only were Nashe and Greene the first English journalists, they, or Nashe at least, can be seen as having created the first review journal, for a large part of his reason for publishing was so that in between comedic rants he could promote the writers that he thought worthy of notice––including of course, himself.

Letters to the Reader

One of the primary features of the Elizabethan novel or narrative poem is the “Letter to the Reader” in the front of the book with its convoluted tale of how the printer or publisher managed to acquire the manuscript without the writer being in any way involved.  As Mullan tells us: “In the 17th and 18th centuries, a satirical writer in particular might like to leave the impression that the very act of publication was inadvertent, and the publisher more like the author’s antagonist than his or her collaborator.” ( They were naughty, yes, but naughty in private.  Who isn’t?)  But it wasn’t just the naughty stuff that was considered  infra dig for gentlemen and ladies, it was everything.  The ancient tradition of manuscript publishing, which for centuries had kept such communications safely private within a select coterie, saw commercial or print publishing as revealing things to the commonalty that they had no right to know.

So long as the proletariat remained illiterate and the press remained the fiefdom of nobles and government officials, manuscript publishing was private and secure.  But with the spread of education beyond the confines of the nobility and upper gentry, press piracy from below combined with the excitement from above felt by some members of the Court community about connecting with an “infinite” audience, so that by the late 1570s the dam of separation, though far from burst, was beginning to develop some serious leaks.

Pope, Swift, John Arbuthnot, Jonn Gay, and other members of the Scriblerus Club, would work together to create collective satirical writings which took the form of mock books, attributed to the fictional scholar, Martin Scriblerus, which contained, as Mullan puts it, “peculiar explanations of how their manuscripts found their way into print.”

The social and literary convention of unwillingness to publish was surprisingly resilient.  It was clearly still alive for Sheridan in the late 18th century, when he nicely catches the troublemaking it permits in an exchange in his School for Scandal:

Lady Sneerwell:  I wonder, Sir Benjamin, you never publish anything.

Sir Benjamin Backbite:  To say truth, ma’am, ‘tis very vulgar to print; and as my little productions are mostly satires and lampoons upon particular people, I find they circulate more by giving copies in confidence to the friends of the parties.  (18)

This kind of folie was a bow to the convention that it was déclassé to write for publication.  But of course these men weren’t writing just to earn a living, but to wield power in their communities, the power of the word, the power that came with the ability to ridicule and humiliate whoever caused them aggravation.

Treason doth never prosper . . .

Anonymity was not solely due to the fact that publishing was seen as déclassé, for often it was a response to more serious dangers than a temporary dip in a man’s reputation.  The history of publishing is one long record of men and women being jailed, executed, and assassinated by governments and enemies for what they produced in print or on the stage.  Surely Christopher Marlowe’s assassination by government agents had more to do with the popularity of Tamburlaine than a dispute over a tavern bill.

As Mullan relates, the political philosopher John Locke, author of the influential Two Treatises of Government, was strangely paranoid about allowing his name to be connected with this famous work.   According to Mullan, the seemingly excessive caution that lasted his entire life derived from the dangerous uncertainty of the early days leading up to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688, of which Two Treatises, published in 1689, appeared to be a retrospective, but which, in fact, had been written many years earlier in anticipation of it.

In other words, until King James II was ousted, the manuscript was pure and simple sedition.  Had it been discovered then, it would have meant a fate for Locke similar to that of friends like the Earl of Essex (2nd creation), imprisoned in the Tower where he committed suicide, or Algernon Sidney (Philip and Mary’s nephew), whom Judge Jeffreys (known as the “hanging judge”) condemned to death by using Sidney’s own treatise as the required second witness, saying “Scribere est agere,” “to write is to act.”   It seems Locke never felt safe, for how could he be sure that the political pendulum would not swing the other way, as it so often did.

That throughout the years when life was most dangerous Locke hid the deadly manuscript “in plain sight” by titling it “de Morbo Gallico.”  By disguising it as a medical treatise on syphilis, he made it safe from prying eyes (162).   This ruse is not so different from those practised continually in the16th century by publishers of bawdy poems or tales by giving them sober or meaningless titles and filling the front pages with moralistic-sounding nonsense in the form of Letters to the Reader.

Other tricks and dodges

Some authors are simply so private by nature that they see notoriety as a thing to be avoided at all costs.  According to Mullan, it was largely for this reason that Charles Dodgson went to neurotic extremes to prevent the truth about his identity as Lewis Carroll, author of the immensely popular Alice in Wonderland, from being spread any further than his family and close friends, despite the obvious fact that everyone already knew (41-2).  Perhaps he was afraid that if readers knew that the author was an Oxford professor, they would quickly discover the originals of Tweedledum and Tweedledee.

Daniel Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe, is among the earliest of the Augustans.  One of the first writers who can be described as a realist, Mullan calls him “that addict” of anonymity, who “played dizzying games of self-answering” by which he means responding in a different persona to others that he himself had created––“possible only because of anonymity, and often hardly grasped by biographers and scholars.”

Greene and Nashe did exactly the same thing, both pretending to be Gabriel Harvey at one time or another, recommending their own books, and, in Oxford’s case, dedicating them to himself.  All of which has certainly been “hardly grasped” by their still befuddled biographers and scholars.   As Mullan says of Defoe, that “his very hyperbole” in defying those who wished to attribute to him every satire in print “indicated a kind of pride” which can certainly be said as well of Francis Bacon, who, masquerading as Tom Nashe, delighted in complimenting or sometimes castigating his Spenser persona.  Alexander Pope made the same defense of publishing his famous Rape of the Lock as did Francis Bacon in 1596 when he published his Essays, namely that he was forced to publish them himself to forstall piratical printers from putting out a bad copy.

Mullan points out how hidden authors depended on friends or servants to maintain their distance from their work.  The publisher of Fanny Burney’s Evelina was forced to negotiate by letter with a Mr. King through a local coffeehouse, while receiving the final manuscript from her “heavily disguised” brother.  Sir Walter Scott conducted his negotiations with publishers through his friend and business partner.  Mullan details how George Elliott was finally revealed to her publisher, who then shared “the profound secret.” John Locke’s friend, the philosopher’s chosen emissary or dealing with printers and publishers, was ordered never to mention his name (160).

A special voltage?

Mullan introduces his book by asking: “If we reopen once celebrated cases of anonymity, can we see how, for their first readers, an uncertainty about their authorship could give new and original works of literature a special voltage?” Even more voltage was added where the poem or play revolved around characters that audiences believed were based on authorities or other leading figures.  Such satires have been facets of English merry-making since feudal times, as, via rubber masks of the royals and popular entertainers, they are still to this day.

Just as George Etheridge’s character Dorimant in The Man of Mode was taken to represent the Earl of Rochester (225), so of course Shakespeare’s audience would dissect the leading characters in his plays to discover which living personalities were implied, finding the Queen perhaps in Richard II and Robert Cecil in Richard III.  And just as audiences were eager to decipher who was being satirized by characters like Armado or Aguecheek, so were authors to remain unknown and so protected from the wrath of those they satirized.

With the inauguration of review magazines in the late 17th century, such a mystery would build around a new book until it became the talk of the pubs and coffeehouses, thus ensuring its survival.  If, as with Shakespeare, the mystery remained officially unsolved throughout the author’s lifetime, another phenomenon takes place, that of the select group of insiders who maintain their status with each other by maintaining the secret:

To know what you were reading, especially if it were audacious or abusive, was to belong to a select group.  Inside knowledge, especially of the Court, allowed special kind of deviltry in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.  A distinct genre of mocking and revealing works called “secret histories” flourished.  They relied a great deal on the mystery, or pseudo-mystery of their authorship.  Such accounts were “secret” because they came from an insider, revealing what was supposed to be concealed.  Naturally, such an author had to stay hidden, though the sense of risk was largely manufactured.  The flourishing of secret histories marks a transition between a truly courtly culture of priviliged readers, and a public of readers relishing the gossip and scandals of a world to which they did not actually belong. (231-2)

Here then is the Authorship Question resolved, for Shakespeare (the poet) was doing the same thing, only his “secret histories” were plays in which the characters were taken from history or folk tales, but their personalities were those of his friends and of certain authority figures that were getting in his way.  Think what an interest this raised among an earlier version of the group Mullan describes.  How can we think that the rise of Shakespeare did not also signal the rise of the Authorship Question?  Of course it did.

In the same breath, Mullan suggests a solution to one of the more pressing side issues of the Authorship Question, how the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their associates managed to keep their playwright’s authorship a secret for so long.  However particular readers managed to discover the truth, those who did found themselves members of a select group, something they would hardly wish to jeopardize by speaking out of turn.  For those who slipped, or sought revenge for perceived slights, perhaps stronger measures were employed.  We know from many stories of violence and even manslaughter that the actors of that time could be real bully boys if circumstance required.

Anonymity and the Authorship Question

In my view, the Shakespeare Authorship Question arose, not halfway through the 19th century, but immediately––as soon as the plays as we know them today began appearing on the London Stage.  As soon as Oxford began rewriting for the newly formed Lord Chamberlain’s Men the plays he’d written originally for the Court and Inns of Court communities, his audience, or rather that part of the audience that cared about authorship, began questioning their source.  The sublime quality of these plays plus their obvious popularity plus the behavior of later audiences as depicted in Mullan’s book should be all that’s necessary to arrive at this obvious conclusion.

For those who knew the Court, and knew Oxford, answers to the Question weren’t slow in coming, so whenever they appeared to be reaching a level where his identity was threatened, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, or most specifically their manager, John Hemmings, and their patrons on the Privy Council, moved to distract the questioners through further use of the cover name acquired in 1593 for the publication of Venus and Adonis.  While this kept the question at bay throughout the years that Shakespeare was alive and writing, it left the Company and its patrons in a quandary following his death, for the plays, of course, continued to live and keep the question alive.  Finally with the publication of the First Folio with its engraved portrait of the fictional author and hints pointing to the uneducated William of Stratford, there was a (more or less) definite solution to the problem.

Yet for those closest to the author, or the Stage, this was hardly the end of it.  With the publication of his collected works, dozens of friends and family members were still alive who knew the truth and who doubtless passed it on, always as a secret.  This raises the question of how long it was known as a secret, because it seems clear that by the 19th century, if it remained at all it was only as a rumor among those members of the nobility most closely descended from the principals.

To me it seems very possible that the individuals who created the statue in Poet’s Corner in the mid-18th century knew the truth.  There are many things connecting Oxford and his descendants with the men and women involved in this effort that make it seem likely.  But that’s a subject for another time.

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.

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.

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.

The Fight for the Court Stage

The Court Stage fell under the jurisdiction of the Lord Chamberlain of the Household.  A sort of super-butler in charge of everything “above stairs,” he was important enough to be guaranteed a seat on the Privy Council.  Elizabeth’s  first Lord Chamberlain, Lord Admiral William Howard of Effingham, an inheritance from her sister’s reign, was not only kept on but was given several lucrative posts by the grateful Queen: a close relative, he had been her staunchest protector on Mary’s Privy Council.  Later, his oldest son, Charles Howard, would play an even more significant role at Elizabeth’s Court as Lord Admiral, Privy Councillor, and patron of the company that made Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn superstars.

It was the Lord Chamberlain’s job to decide what kind of entertainment to provide for each event, great and small, daily or for grand occasions, and to make sure that they went off smoothly.  If properly used it could be a powerful political tool since it was the nearest equivalent to a Royal Public Relations office.  Such may not have been to Howard’s taste, however, for from her coronation, Elizabeth had allowed her favorite, Lord John Dudley, to have charge of it.

How much Dudley was actually involved with the entertainers, most of whom were also inherited from previous reigns, remains to be seen.  He was probably much more involved with the military aspects of his duties as Master of the Horse.  We can guage what kind of entertainments he favored while he was in charge by the bash he threw at Kennilworth in 1575 (the summer that Oxford was away in Italy)––lots of old-fashioned masking with skits where actors pretending to be spirits came out of the woods to sing or recite long dull poems to the Queen filled with lavish comparisons to goddesses along with the not so subtle suggestion that she ought to marry Leicester.

Oxford’s earliest contributions to Court entertainment most likely consisted of musical numbers and interludes, brief comic turns that led one song or dance to the next for the various children’s companies to perform on holidays.  These, the Children of the Windsor Chapel, the Children of the Queen’s Chapel, and Paul’s Boys, were the Queen’s favorite performers.  Each little troop consisted of eight to twelve boys whose chief job during Catholic times had been to sing the Royal Mass, but who were also taught by their masters to dance and enact “dumb shows” (pantomimes) and comic “interludes” for special occasions.  Both the London prep schools performed plays as well, sometimes for the Court.

Enter the Earl of Sussex

But Leicester’s (Dudley’s) control of the Court Stage was threatened when the Earl of Sussex took over as Lord Chamberlain.  History ignores this, as it ignores most of Stage history, but we can be certain that Sussex was determined to return jurisdiction over the Court Stage to his office, that of Lord Chamberlain, where it belonged by long tradition.  Leicester and Sussex had hated each other for years, and neither was going to let the other have any more power than he could help.  As noted by McMillin and Maclean: “What happened to Leicester’s Men after 1574, when they would seem to have had the future in their hands, is one of the mysteries of theater history.  Leicester’s Men lost their dominance at Court during the middle 1570s. . . .” (15).  I hope to take a close look at some point at the probable scenario behind this mystery.

In any case, to facilitate his effort to resume the office that was his by tradition, I believe that Sussex invited Oxford, well known to him from the 1569 war with the border earls, to expand his contributions to Court entertainment to include full scale plays and probably also concerts, dances, and poetry readings.  As a result, 1573-79 was certainly Oxford’s heyday at Court.  By 1579 he would have been writing for both the boys and for the adult actors who in five years would be heading the Queen’s Men.  They were termed Leicester’s Men in the record books, but in reality at this early time they were simply the actors who provided most of the adult entertainment at Court.

Literary historians have been limited by their adherence to the names of acting companies, derived from their patrons.  To see the reality it’s necessary, whenever possible, to look past the names to the individual actors, particularly the lead actors, their patrons, and the always changing circumstances.  The continual focus on the company names by historians has caused no end of confusion.  History is made by individuals, not names.

Enter Walsingham

In 1581, shortly after the winter holiday season, the Queen banished Oxford from her “Presence” for getting her Maid of Honor pregnant and (not least) attempting to escape to Spain.  This left no one to write the witty holiday plays that she had come to expect.  The various children’s companies, some from local schools, filled in that December with old plays and material by their masters––Gurr calls it “the quiet season of 1581-82” (Companies 175)––but everyone involved in Court entertainment knew something had to be done to improve the situation before the next holiday season rolled around.  Since that was about the time that Sussex began to fail, Walsingham, the Queen’s Principal Secretary, may have already have begun to consider a solution.

Walsingham was living at that time at The Papey, a manor just inside the Bishopsgate Wall and just around the corner from Fisher’s Folly on the other side of the City Wall.  Plans to create a Crown company, the Queen’s Men, came to light early in 1583, but, like most things, they would have originated earlier, possibly from conversations between  Oxford and Walsingham at The Papey, at Fisher’s Folly, or even at The Pye, the inn that lay between the two houses.

This was the period when Walsingham was beginning to get special funding for the anti-papist campaign he and Burghley were urging on the Queen and Parliament.  New funds would have enabled him to privide Oxford with money to hire secretaries and apprentices.  This would explain why these writers, later known to literary history as “the University Wits,” dedicated their works to Francis Walsingham, calling him their Maecenas, a traditional term for a patron.  From the Wits at the Folly Walsingham hoped would come plays both for the children’s companies to entertain the Queen, and for the Queen’s Men to take on the road as a public relations maneuver, winning hearts and minds in advance of the attack from Catholic Spain that he knew was coming (McMillin).

With fears of the newborn commercial theaters rising among Church and City officials, with the excitement surging through the acting community from the power this was giving them, Walsingham may have feared that he was about to ride the whirlwind.  A nervous man, in constant pain from an ulcer or other painful condition, his need to keep everything as hidden as possible has also hidden the courage with which, much like Churchill three centuries later, he faced one of England’s most crucial showdowns with Continental power.

Why was it so hard to protect the newborn commercial stage?  Why such need for secrecy?  Read on.

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.

What Shakespeare did

What did Shakespeare do to become so famous? 

 Everyone knows that he wrote Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet and (at least) 35 other plays.  For many, his 400-year-old language is hard to read.  Some even find it difficult to understand him in the theater.  Yet every year scores of books roll off the presses about him or his works, year after year, decade after decade, century after century.  What has made him so famous for so long?  What besides write a few old plays? Continue reading

In search of Shakespeare

Why should it matter who wrote Shakespeare’s works? The important thing is that we have them.

This is like saying, “What does it matter what makes the sky blue, plants grow, rain fall, humans live a certain length of time and then pass on?  All we need to know is that it happens; we don’t need to know why.”

If this is a satisfactory response to you, Reader, pass on to the next ad or weblog. If your deepest and most immediate response isn’t, “Of course it matters!” I have nothing to say to you. This post is for those who care about the whys and wherefores of human life. Religion, Science, History, Politics, even the study of language itself, are all the result of a common desire to know why things are the way they are, and how things happen. The time we spend collectively on these issues probably explains the difference in size of the human brain compared with that of our nearest amphibian neighbors. There are many who shrink from using this much of their brain unless forced to use it, but they would probably not (still) be reading this.

Everything we learn in school is an approximation of the truth. It is possible to teach the truth, but only through inspiration. By the time the truth reaches the ordinary text book and the ordinary teacher, it has pretty much been drained of its color. Unfortunately, color is an important part of truth. Sometimes it’s the most important part, as it is for most artists.

Certainly it is in the case of the most sublime artist who ever spoke/sang the English language, the one we know only by the joke name, or rather joke phrase: Will shake spear! With his very name he vowed to shake a spear, which he did, and continues to do, that is, if the pen can be seen as a spear––or as the weapon brandished by Henry V at Agincourt. Think of the words of Winston Churchill, words that brought the English people, or more precisely, the English-speaking people, through a long and devastating war. When called “the Lion of Britain,” Churchill affected modesty, claiming only to have been “the roar”; but let us ask ourselves, who provided him with the language that gave that roar its meaning?  It was Jesus who said, “Remember thy first things.”

Many individuals of many cultures have contributed to make the English language what it is, but if one individual is to be chosen to stand above the rest, it is this man, known to us as William Shakespeare, and not just by the millions of books published or the Phd’s awarded in his name. We can argue about by how much more, but I can’t imagine, even after twenty years of Lit Crit Deconstruction, that there would be any argument as to what single individual stands first in having the most influence on the English language.

If it doesn’t matter to us who created the language we all speak (if not as our native tongue, then the first we acquire as our second), that we use to communicate with each other, that we use to express our love, to argue issues, to learn about the world, to tell our jokes and stories, to describe a sunset, then what does matter?

If it doesn’t matter to us who wrote the works of William Shakespeare, then it seems fair to say that it doesn’t matter to us who we are.