Why on earth would any author as great as the one who called himself Shakespeare want to hide his true identity?
Those of us who’ve researched the issue hear this question all the time and find it hard to answer. The clues left by Ben Jonson, the Pembrokes and John Hemmings, by Oxford and his family, show that they were good at disinformation. Shakespeare’s patrons, friends and colleagues lived in a time when keeping secrets was a survival technique. By hiding the truth about him, by turning the author into a working class entrepreneur with no connection to the Court or national politics, they protected him and themselves from a world of trouble, and left us with a world of confusion. How do we explain to 21st-century readers the bind they were in? Perhaps a couple of fairly recent situations from American history can help make the point.
For those readers who are too young to know more about it than just the name, suffice it to say that Watergate was a government scandal during the Nixon administration that took the nation by storm. So important was this in our history that it’s the reason that every cover-up of government malfeasance, however minor, now gets “-gate” attached to its name. What caused this storm to break was the publication in The Washington Post of information derived from a series of clandestine conversations between two young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, with an individual known to them only as Deep Throat.
Deep Throat was a joke-name used by someone in the White House to hide his identity. Either he or someone from a level even higher than that of the American president, had decided to do what he could to topple the Nixon administration (possibly before some even more deadly secret got revealed). He did this by systematically leaking clues to Woodward and Bernstein that they then followed up on, publishing the results in their newspaper. In this way, Deep Throat’s clues eventually led to an investigation of the White House; the resignation of the president, and prison terms for several members of his staff.
If those of you who are too young to remember Watergate are wondering whether the name Deep Throat meant anything in particular, yes it did; it was the title of a well-known (if ridiculous) pornographic movie of the time. But the important point is that until recently, not a single soul, not one willing to speak anyway, knew for certain the identity of the man who informed on the White House to The Washington Post and by so doing changed the course of history. Lots of people may have thought they knew, but the fact is that nobody (who would speak) knew for sure.
Several years ago I saw a round table discussion on television with a number of the players from that era. There were a couple of Nixon’s key men, his attorney, Leonard Garment, the writer Gore Vidal, the journalist who broke the story, Bob Woodward, and some of the other journalists that made hay out of the story and wrecked, or almost wrecked, the careers of others present. All of them old men, some facing the grave, they sat in a row on stage and before cameras to discuss the events that had torn their lives apart so long ago.
The discussion remained polite until the question of the identity of Deep Throat arose, and then it blew up. Such wrath was roused by this question that the moderator could not keep order. The old men shouted at each other, gesticulating fiercely and talking over each other so that none could be heard. Suffice it to say, that so many years later, among those who were most intimately involved, there was still no agreement on the identity of Deep Throat; or, if someone did know at that time, no willingness to reveal it. (Since first writing this in 1997 his identity has finally been revealed. We now know that he was William Mark Felt, number two man at the FBI. Or at least, that’s the agreed-upon story.)
That said, let’s play around with this real scenario just a bit. What if Felt had been a closet writer of fiction, a sometime playwright, so that when the time came to blow the lid off the White House, he chose to do so, not through phone calls to The Washington Post, but by means of the very popular television program, Saturday Night Live. Knowing that practically the entire nation watched SNL every week, what if he wrote skits in which the president and his staff were satirized with names like Nixoff, Snitchell, Erlickplate, and Holdefort.
When these skits ultimately led to a government investigation of the White House, and the administration was successfully toppled, it was time for Deep Throat to let go of his false persona and return to the real world where he had an identity of importance. But the popularity of his TV skits had made it inevitable that someone would publish them in book form. By then the name Deep Throat had become so linked with the material that the publishers were forced to use it on the title page. However, they still couldn’t let anyone know who had actually written it; indeed, most of them, perhaps all of them, were themselves still in the dark about the author’s true identity. The joke name, Deep Throat, would have certainly led to questions, perhaps to a dangerous investigation, so they finally came up with the name William Diepthrote, unusual perhaps, but not impossible.
Then, when the book became so popular that talk shows wanted the author for interviews, they had to scratch around to find somebody named Deipthrote. Luckily they found a community of Pennsylvania Dutch, several of whom were named Wilhelm Depthroot. One of these proved amenable to trimming his Old Testament beard and to slightly altering the spelling and pronunciation of his name. He was also capable of smiling and nodding and telling a few anecdotes in his funny accent which allowed him to pass as the slightly eccentric author on Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett. But since William Diepthrote wasn’t nearly as entertaining in person as were his skits on SNL, soon he was no longer asked to appear on the talk shows. He returned to his farming community, where he bought the biggest house in town and invested in real estate, with a profitable sideline in no-questions-asked high interest loans.
While we’re on the subject of pseudonyms and the U.S. government, here’s another scenario. This one goes back a bit farther than Watergate.
The Hollywood Ten
During the 1950s a certain Senator Joseph McCarthy of Illinois, with the help, interestingly enough, of the central figure from the Watergate scandal, Richard Nixon, at the time just the junior senator from California, managed to get Congress worked up about the possibility that any number of American institutions were riddled with Communists and that consequently America and all it stood for was on the brink of collapse. Finally, like the hubristic ancient Greek who flew too near the sun, McCarthy fell to earth when he tackled the army, but before he self-destructed he managed to do some terrible damage to the community of screenwriters who up until then had provided Hollywood with its best screenplays. Ten of Hollywood’s top screenwriters went to prison, not because they were Communists, but because they refused to play McCarthy’s game and to tell under oath whether they were or ever had been a member of the Communist Party.
Some had been Communists for a time, but others who had never been party members also refused to answer, claiming that their rights as free Americans were violated by being forced to answer the question. “The Hollywood Ten,” as they came to be known, lost their jobs, their six-figure incomes, and their careers, as did scores of other writers, actors and producers who, when asked by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee to name names of friends and colleagues whom they knew to be members of the Communist Party, refused to answer on principle.
Although McCarthy was thoroughly discredited, these writers remained on the studio blacklist for years, some for the rest of their lives, not so much out of any patriotic fervor on the part of the studios as out of greed, for as long as the writers were on the blacklist, the studios were able to hire them at a much cheaper rate than formerly, when they were free to bask in their true identities and high reputations. In the end it backfired, for out of desperation to break free from this kind of oppression, when one group of actors and producers broke free and began hiring blacklisted artists, it spelled the beginning of the end for the studio system.
Point being: because of the blacklist, a writer who refused to give up writing, was forced either to write under a pseudonym, or to use standins; he simply had no choice. For years, standins accepted the applause, standins stood at the Academy Awards and received the Oscars that should have gone to the real writers of films like Bridge on the River Kwai, Spartacus, Exodus, and Lawrence of Arabia.
Neither of these examples are perfect fits to the problems that faced Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. Our times are very different and the forces that kept Oxford silent on his authorship are not the same. After all, getting blacklisted wasn’t as bad as what happened to Christopher Marlowe. But one thing is the same, writers have always had to use dodges to get the story out. As Alec Wilder said in American Popular Song: “. . . theater has always dared. It has troubled princes and prelates alike. . . . no other art has so consistently taken such extravagant chances in provoking authority.”
Oxford had a choice, be open about his writing and be forced to stop, or play the game as it was played then, and keep on writing. I think he made the better choice. What do you think?