There are several factors that continue to block our access to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and until these have been overcome, or better, simply bypassed, we will continue to be without the kind of access to archives and established publishers that we deserve. What are these factors? First there’s the age of the mystery: 400-plus years is a long time, and, however absurd it may seem to us, the Stratford paradigm is so deeply rooted in the English-speaking mindset that attempts to chop it down leave little more than scratches.
Second: there’s the missing evidence. As all come to realize who research the infancy of the Stage and Press, whenever a particular paper trail reaches the point where it should have something to tell us, it tends to disappear––sometimes permanently, sometimes to reappear once the crucial moment has past. The conclusion is inevitable: someone got to the records before us, someone who didn’t want anything to remain that could connect the rise of the London Stage and the periodical press with the patronage and activities of government officials.
Third: there’s the religious nature of the argument: Shakespeare has become an icon (as Shakespearean Harold Bloom puts it, “the secular Christ”). Icons are sacred and cannot be questioned, no matter how absurdly irrelevant to human nature and common sense. Winston Churchill spoke for many with his response to those who wanted to know his take on the problem of Shakespeare’s identity. Said he, “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with.” And there’s Charles Dickens, who wrote: “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery. . . . I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”
Finally: there’s the attitude of the universities, who––however grudgingly––acquired their present authority over all things Shakespeare when the first English Lit departments arose from within their departments of Philology at the turn of the 20th century. Having opted to treat him as they would an ancient artefact where its author was impossible to identify, these have continued ever since to refuse to consider any discussion of Shakespeare’s. While not stating openly that authors don’t matter (a stand promoted by Laputians Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Paul de Man and their students, and their students’ students, and their students’ students’ students) the universities and their co-conspirator, the Birthplace Trust, continue to (silently) adhere to the commonplace: “We have the plays; who cares who wrote them.”
We can, of course, continue to confront these and similar hoggish attitudes with reasonable arguments, but since none but a small percentage of born contrarians are likely to pay any more attention to us now than they have already, it might profit us to take a look at how we’ve been approaching the issue.
Rival candidates or Shakespeare’s coterie?
First, not unlike the academics, we tend to see only what we want to see, ignoring everything else. We read a book that awakens us to the Authorship Question by promoting one or another of the Shakespeare candidates––Bacon, Derby, Oxford, Marlowe, Raleigh, Philip Sidney––and from then on our interest settles only on facts that support him (or her: Mary Sidney and the Queen have also been nominated). Here we tend remain, gathering in conferences and online groups, writing articles for newsletters, journals and blogs dedicated to examining our particular candidate while studiously ignoring the others. This is easy due to the fact that along with no evidence for the creation of the London Stage, there is almost no evidence that these candidates had any contact with each other.
Take Oxford, for instance. The only evidence connecting him with another candidate is his spat with Philip Sidney on the royal tennis court, which was followed by some masculine huffing and puffing over a duel that both knew the Queen would never allow. His handful of appearances in the record point only to his activities as a patron of the Stage with only a poem here and there in the early anthologies to indicate his status as a poet. Were it not for the Meres comment in Wit’s Treasury (1598) that he, along with Richard Edwards, was once “best for comedy,” we would have no evidence at all that he had ever been a playwright.
As for the second greatest literary genius of the age, Francis Bacon, not until 1596 when, at age thirty-five, he published the first edition of his Essays, is there anything to show that he was in any way involved with the literary community surrounding him at Gray’s Inn. The only evidence of any connection with Oxford is found in a letter from Oxford to Robert Cecil (Oct 7 1601) in which he refers to his “cousin Bacon,” not as a writer, but as his lawyer. (Meanwhile, Bacon’s undeniable involvement in the Shakespeare phenomenon is evident from the survival of the file known as the Northumberland Manuscript.)
The Earl of Derby’s connection to the theater community is based on his patronage of the second company of boys at the Second Blackfriars Theater, 1599-1601, and that apparently he continued to patronize his brother’s traveling company well into the 17th century. The isolated comment that he was “penning plays” found in a letter from one nonentity to another in 1599 [Chambers 2.127) is hardly sufficient to take him seriously as a Shakespeare candidate, even though he was certainly closely connected to Oxford from 1595 on by virtue of his marriage that year to Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth.
Gabriel Harvey, never a candidate himself, but a writer whose name can be found here and there throughout the period in question, is hard to connect in any real way with any of the candidates that he mentions in the marginalia with which he garnished his books. He does at least have a potential connection to Oxford in that both were tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, a neighbor of the Harvey family in Saffron Walden, where, after Oxford was off to London, Smith took young Gabriel on as his protégé, helping to get him a fellowship at Cambridge. Oxford and Harvey were definitely in each others company on the occasion of Harvey’s grand faux pas, the interminable speeches he wrote to introduce himself to Court society at Audley End in 1578.
As for the University Wits, the ghostly writers whose pamphlets circa late 1580s through early ’90s deserve recognition as harbingers of what was becoming the London periodical press, recognition of them as a group did not come until centuries later with the scholars who studied their works. The only personal connections from their own time are the complimentary mentions of each other in their pamphlets. Later evidence of their activities and whereabouts rarely show them involved in each other’s lives to any notable extent.
Last but hardly least, while Christopher Marlowe is occasionally associated with the Wits, his rise to fame occurred without hints of a personal relationship with any writer other than the scrivener Thomas Kyd, whose own claim to authorship rests on the shaky provenance of a single early play. By the mid-to-late ’90s, a second generation of poets, playwrights, and pamphleteers––Jonson, Marston, Hall, Harrington, Barnes, etc.––would reveal their mutual awareness through the epigrams with which they taunted each other, but since they used phony names it’s impossible to establish their identities with any certainty.
The result of this lack of certainty is that academics, trained to go only where the recorded facts lead, have provided us with a worldview wherein none of these writers have any connection with each other. Whatever form their lives may have taken, as portrayed by their biographies in the DNB or on Wikipedia, it would seem that, apart from suggestions that they were copying each other’s style, they were almost totally unknown to each other in any more intimate way than through their writing.
Well of course they knew each other! Writers write as much for their fellow writers as they do for their community of readers. Hints are rife that particular works were written with friends “figured darkly forth” so that only the author’s coterie will understand who is being praised or ridiculed. Why then are attempts to see “through the glass darkly” to the truth about the authors and their relationships with each other dismissed by the Academy as useless, without value, a waste of time? Is it because that truth might turn out to be something that the Stratford defenders, fearful of the consequences to their own reputations, not only don’t want to know, they don’t want anyone else to know?
Surely, if we are ever to locate the truth about the period in question, so much is missing from the record that it can only be by creating a convincing scenario, one based on human nature and on the nature of other writers, actors, audiences and publishers as demonstrated throughout time. Though Shakespeare himself was hidden, not all of his associates are so impossible to unveil. Sooner or later it will be by discovering and community that will define, by outlines suggested by those who were most involved in creating the London Stage and periodical press, where the Master ends and the others begin.
We can bypass the problems listed above by creating several levels of study. First, a description of the political history of the Elizabethan era and those that preceded and followed accompanied by a timeline of important events. Second, the literary history of the period, with a timeline of important works, plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, Lyly, Greene, Spenser, Sidney, anonymous and others. Finally, biographical sketches of the candidates, their rivals, patrons, and enemies with descriptions and dates for the major events of their lives. When these layers are aligned with each other in time and place, a believable narrative will simply emerge like an image in the photographer’s developing bath.
The necessary narrative
Until now we’ve focused almost entirely on arguing with the Academy, on pointing out the absurdities in their scenario. Forgetting that the best defense is a good offense, we’ve allowed them to define the grounds for argument. This of course has not sufficed. Because there’s no brilliant rabbit poacher escaped from the clutches of a local knight; no horse-holder cum play-patcher shooting overnight to theatrical stardom at age twenty-nine, inevitably we find ourselves tilting with windmills, and imaginary windmills at that. This exercise in futility has us going in circles, repeating the same arguments over and over. We need to move to an arena of our own choosing, one where logic, not hindsight, prevails.
The greatest weakness of the Stratford paradigm is not its absurdities, but its utter and total lack of a believable narrative. Provide a compelling narrative, one that accounts for the creation of the Stratford fable, one that is close enough to the truth to lead researchers into areas where there might be meaningful evidence, and we will win the day, if not with everyone, then with enough intelligent readers that Authorship Studies will continue as a viable, honorable, and necessary branch of English Literature, one that mends the rift between literature and history, and that eventually will lead to a much needed rebirth of humanism at the university level.
As far back in history as the Greeks and Romans, the Stage has always been a political forum, both for those working for the government, and those seeking to improve it, or to replace it. The Stratford paradigm ignores the political realities of the Elizabethan and Stuart period for the very good reason that it was created to mask what otherwise would have been far too obvious to Shakespeare’s public audience. That public is gone. It’s time to do as I believe the true author did, to reach beyond the defenders of the Stratford biography just as he reached beyond the Court audience that his evasions were intended to protect to the public audience that, ignorant of the political issues that so concerned his enemies, were free to respond to his deeper messages , the humanism that is what has created the great and lasting audience of which we are members.
Yes, it’s true that we have the plays, thanks to the true author’s willingness to sacrifice his identity to the political necessity of separating himself from them. And yes, it’s obviously true that to the academics for whom the Stratford biography has become a religion, it does not matter who actually wrote them. But for those of us today afraid that humanism may be dying, largely due to the refusal by the Academy to allow the human element, the story of how they came to be, it does matter who wrote them. It matters a very great deal. And we should work together to find a way to tell the story as it happened historically, and forget about trying to convince those who, in an earlier time, would have had us burnt at the stake for refusing to believe that it’s the earth that circles the sun, not the other way round.