Why I didn’t review Shapiro

I didn’t review Shapiro because I didn’t read his book.

I used to pay attention to Stratfordians.  I’d argue with them, pointing out the holes in their logic, pointing to the facts, the “smoking guns,” that require a courtier, a more sensible dating scheme, an explanation for the gaping anomalies in the Stratford biography.  When they ridiculed the Shakespeare authorship question I got serious.  When they purposely misinterpreted facts I got angry.  When they refused to listen I got sad.

Round and round I went on SHAKSPER with the postdocs and pseudo-scholars as they tirelessly repeated the mantras instilled in them by their professors.  When finally they began beating the drum for the notion that great fiction doesn’t have to arise from personal experience, I should have realized that it was an exercise in futility, but I soldiered on, thinking that there might be lurkers whose minds were less closed to reality.  If so I never saw any hint of it.

Then of course there was HLAS, created in part by Oxfordians Bill Boyle and Marty Hyatt as a forum for an open online discussion, which soon turned into a verbal Fight Club, with the Shakespeare authorship question nothing more than a focal point for the verbal art of ad hominem vilification.  If HLAS (humanities.lit.authors.shakespeare) is still in operation I’d be very much surprised to hear that it’s changed.  Fighting is always so much more exciting than reasoning.

When they said Oxford’s poetry was terrible I demonstrated how different it was even then from the morose tone of the poetry being written at the time and known to literary historians as “the drab era.”  If any of them had ever bothered to read this stuff, to actually compare Oxford’s poetry with Turberville or Churchyard, they never uttered a peep.

When they brushed off Oxford as dying before The Tempest was written I pointed to the obvious factors that link that play to the 1595 marriage of his daughter to the Earl of Derby (since then Stritmatter and Kositsky have shown even earlier origins); to the fact that back in the 1570s it was his tutor, Sir Thomas Smith, whose plan for colonizing Ireland is considered by historians today to be the starting point for all subsequent plans to colonize America (Quinn 103, Armitage xx), including Jamestown, where the ship was headed that was wrecked in Bermuda, the supposed source of the 1611 Strachey letter; to the fact that Smith’s family were close friends with the Stracheys in their hometown of Saffron Walden, Essex (it was their grandson who wrote the famous letter); and so on.  It hasn’t changed a thing.  We continue to hear, ad infinitum, how The Tempest and any number of other plays (never enumerated) were written too late to be by Oxford.

When they claim that knowing nothing about Shakespeare is perfectly understandable––since so little is known about writers like Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, or John Webster, why should we know any more about Shakespeare than we do about them?––I never dared to explain how Greene was early Shakespeare,  Nashe was early Francis Bacon, and Webster Mary Sidney.  I may be willing to stick my chin out now and then, but I’m not insane.

How they love to ridicule the fact that there are so many candidates.  Francis Bacon?  No way.  Christopher Marlowe?  Un-uh.  Mary Sidney?  C’est ridicule!  Yet the historic picture based on the fact that there is no evidence that these writers even knew each other never raises a single eyebrow.  Do they actually know any great writers personally?  Have they ever researched the lives of other great writers in the kind of depth that would cause them to wonder why this group was so different?  No, because to a left-brainer, the only reality is the one written down on paper.  To admit that there might be something else is to open a can of really evil, dangerous right-brain worms.  Run away!  Run away!

Their favorite tactic of course is to call us “snobs” for thinking that only an earl could have had the kind of education revealed by Shakespeare’s works.  There’s really no rejoinder to the stupidity of this, except to point out that if in fact William of Stratford had had such an education, we’d surely know about it, just as we know about the educations of Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, neither one of them earls or even close.

The major problem, as I have come to realize, is that students of literature never attempt to relate what they know of the history of the period (not so much nowadays it would appear) to its literature, its writers,  their publishers and printers, nor do they think to relate the mysteries of an earlier period with similar situations closer to us in time.  This disconnect begins in school where, in history class, sound-bytes on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic counter-reformation, the Inquisition, the burning of witches (i.e. women) in France and heretics (i.e. scientists) in Italy and Spain, are forgotten the day after the quiz, while in English class they learn that Shakespeare was “above” writing about current events or using his life as a background to his works.  Two little boxes, side by side on a mental shelf, one labelled History, one Literature––never the twain to meet.

I used to think this was more or less purposeful, that “none are so blind as those who will not see,” but now I think it’s not so much that they won’t see than that they simply can’t.  Raised from childhood on multiple choice questions and term papers that rarely require anything more than regurgitating a teacher’s favorite ideas, most academics become so immersed in a left brain approach to everything they deal with that by the time they write their dissertations and their introductions to new editions of Shakespeare, their right brains have pretty much dried up and blown away.  This is bad news for the culture at large, as nature clearly intended the left brain to function as the servant to the right brain.  It’s a killer for those questions that require cross-disciplinary thinking.  It’s interesting that current studies suggest that animals use their left brains mostly for locating food, their right brains for warning of the approach of predators.  Substitute tenured professorships for food and the Beatles’s apple bonkers for predators, and you have a nice little metaphor for our present predicament.

Luckily, now that we have google and the internet, we can simply ignore them.  Already Shapiro’s book is fading from view.  Google alerts hasn’t turned up a new review in a couple of weeks.  No biggie, for the left-brainers will have a new one out in no time, written by and for the academics and their admirers, as they continue to reassure themselves that the Shakespeare authorship question is only for the lunatic fringe.

I respect the efforts of the Oxfordians who continue to take them on.  More power to them, though I doubt that it will make a dent in their thinking or in the thinking of those who lay out good money for their books.  The French Impressionists did not take the art world by storm by meeting the Royal academicians on their own turf.  No revolution, whether bloody or merely intellectual, ever began by playing footsie with the establishment, and the revolution we call the English Literary Renaissance was both intellectual and bloody.  And a hell of a lot more interesting than either the Stratford story or the hyperbole of its proponents.

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.

Why Oxford hid his identity

Perhaps the hardest question that Oxfordians have to answer is why the author hid his identity.  No answer will satisfy a modern reader, who understands, quite rightly, that for today’s author, getting one’s name known is essential to success.  Was his anonymity forced on him by his rank?  By his family?  By the need to escape his enemies?  By the Lord Chamberlain Men as a business decision?  I believe all of these are true, but beyond all of these I also believe that right from the start, de Vere was an extremely private person.  Had he not had a reclusive streak from the start, he would not have been so easily erased from history.

This doesn’t mean that he was a recluse!  He had both a public face and a gregarious nature that enjoyed time with friends and admirers, but there was a shadow side to his nature, a hidden side, and he worked all his life to keep this side free from interference of any kind, as a child from Smith, as a teenager from Cecil, as a youth from the Queen, as a husband from his wives, as a man from various enemies and lovers, as a writer from tiresome grammarians, and as a genius, from everyone but persons with whom he was (briefly) in love or who provoked his interest in some way.

Raised in solitude, he was used to the kind of privacy that few Elizabethans enjoyed, so that when he entered the mainstream of public life at age twelve, and lost it, he became desperate to get it back.  To go from the solitude of Hill Hall to the hullaballoo at Cecil House, where he was viewed by all as the Lord Great Chamberlain of England and where his every move was monitored by Cecil’s household spies, must have been a profound shock, particularly to a budding writer whose greatest need was time alone.  Why was Cecil so quick to cover up the stabbing of the undercook in 1567?  Could it be because Oxford had freaked out at being spied upon, and like a lot of teenage boys, unused to the dangers of a deadly weapon,  he lashed out at one of these household spies in sudden fury?

Throughout his life we can see that he did everything he could to keep and protect his privacy.  Like the deer, the hare, and the snail, for whom Shakespeare had unusual sympathy, hiding was his most basic, gut-level response to life.  We see it reflected in many of his protagonists, who either hide, like Romeo, Timon, Duke Vincenzio, old Belarius, Orlando and the others who hide in the forest in As You Like It, or who, like Prospero, have been hidden through exile.  It may be that our lack of documentation of Oxford’s childhood is due to his having been virtually hidden by the Protestant community when placed with Smith during the period when Queen Mary’s ministers were about to begin their reign of terror.  Surely, like little Arthur in King John, he would have been aware fairly early that there was some kind of threat hanging over him.

What is the secret of successful hiding?  Never let anyone know where you are or what you’re doing.  In Oxford’s case, since he already had a persona handed to him at birth, it meant never letting the public know that he was responsible for what they were watching or reading.  It also meant never letting the Court community know exactly what he was up to.  Many knew something about him and what he did, but few had his entire confidence, perhaps only one.  That would have been Edward Manners, Earl of Rutland: Damon to his Pythias, Arcite to his Palamon, Valentine to his Proteus, Horatio to his Hamlet.  Among the few who knew him best would have been his “cousin Bacon”: Francis the Drawer to his Hal, Puck to his Oberon, Ariel to his Prospero.  Bitterest of his enemies would have been the friend who proved false, his cousin Henry Howard, Iago to his Othello, Iachimo to his Proteus, Edricus to his Ironside, Ateukin to his James IV.

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.