It is a marvelous irony that the univerities who now claim all authority over Shakespeare spent the first three centuries assiduously ignoring him. As the respected Shakespeare scholar Frederick Boas tells us (Shakespeare and the Universities, 1923), during this time neither Oxford nor Cambridge showed the slightest interest in the man or his work. According to Boas: “for generations the predominant attitude of the University authorities towards Shakespeare and other professional actors and their plays was one of hostility or contempt.”
The old universities are deeply conservative in nature, adhering to traditions that go back to their origins in the Middle Ages. When changes do come they are often more apparent than real, resting on a hidden bedrock of long-forgotten mores and prejudices. Until the 19th century, although Latin plays by Plautus and Terence had long been performed and studied, plays in “the vernacular” (English) were looked down upon. In Shakespeare’s time, plays in the vernacular were performed in Cambridge and Oxford at halls in town, not at the universities, and when students were caught attending them, they were punished. In fact, players were routinely paid by the universities to not perform, to––as one 16th-century paybook entry put it––“depart with their plays without further troubling the university”!
When the great Shakespeare scholar Edmund Malone bequeathed his collection of works by and about Shakespeare to Oxford University in 1821, they paid no attention. No doubt we should be grateful that they didn’t sell it “for a song,” as the Bodleian sold its single copy of the First Folio as soon as it got a copy of the Third Folio (it never bothered to get a copy of the Second Folio). It was not until 1863 that scholars from one of the universities (Cambridge) began publishing the first university-sanctioned series of his works. It wasn’t until 1886 that the great Shakespearean actor Henry Irving was invited by an Oxford professor to speak to a university audience about the Bard, though neither he nor any of his fellows had yet been allowed to perform Shakespeare on campus. Why then should we be surprised that it’s taking so long for the universities to admit that they’ve been hornswoggled into giving the wrong man credit for the plays?
If we feel frustrated, think how 18th century writers like Pope and Johnson and 19th century actors like Garrick and Kean must have felt by the academic stone wall they faced on the question of Shakespeare’s value? It was popular interest in the plays, finally republished by Malone in the original unbowdlerized form in 1790, initiated by poets, performed by actors, and produced by impresarios, that finally cracked through the academic wall. Spurred by the surge of pride in English history and literature that attended the growth of the Empire, the British made an icon of the shadowy figure who, more than any other single individual in their history, created the language they spoke at home and in Parliament, read in the newspapers, heard on the stage and wove into poetry, the language that within another hundred years would spread to become the lingua franca of the entire world.
They made him an icon, but they still knew nothing about the man himself. It seems there was next to nothing written about him by his contemporaries, no literary letters to or from this most peerless and, according to Ben Jonson, prolific of writers. Nobody in his home town seemed to remember anything about him, certainly nothing that connected him with the London Stage. No anecdotes about him or his family had been passed down through the generations that connected him in any real way with a career in literature and the theater. There was no evidence that the man whose plays had entertained England’s greatest Queen had ever met her, or even that he himself had ever appeared at Court.
In fact, the few anecdotes that had surfaced about William of Stratford tended, if anything, to suggest a rather unsavory character, one with a reputation for hoarding grain in time of famine, for cheating on his taxes and dunning his neighbors for small loans. His one friend seemed to be the local loan shark. No local documentation mentioned his writing, while, apart from the dedicatory poems that prefaced his collected works in 1623, those that dealt with Shakespeare the poet never said anything about Stratford. Embarrassed, his biographers ignored the anomalies, attributing them to the normal attrition of Time, and began the tradition of inventing a biography out of anecdotes, conjectures, and a large dose of local color, a practice that continues to this day.
In fact, the universities of the 19th century were, if anything, relieved that so little was discovered. There was that awkward business of the Sonnets, 126 passionate poems addressed to a youth, possible evidence of “disorderly love.” Tch tch. The less said the better. During the most homophobic period in human history (Crompton), the English universities planted a hedge between the works and the biography of Shakespeare which they have steadfastly nurtured ever since.
But leading 19th-century poets, playwrights, theater impresarios and psychologists, men and women with real experience of writing, the entertainment industry, and the human psyche, refused to accept the Stratford biography. Many of them asked the right questions, but when some began promoting the wrong answer, the authorship question itself suffered. Francis Bacon was a great figure in English literature, and the questions his supporters have asked about his career continue to call for an answer, but Bacon’s voice is not the voice of Romeo, Hamlet or Lear. Shared tropes, shared viewpoints, suggest acquaintance, shared sources, shared educations, perhaps friendship, even partnership––not identity.
Not until 1920 was the first truly viable candidate revealed, discovered in the pages of an anthology of English poetry by an English schoolmaster with the unfortunate name of Looney. No wonder it was so hard to find Shakespeare. He had been hidden, effectively and on purpose, either by himself or by members of his community who were experts at hiding things. But why? The man who eventually published his work under the charming pun name “Will Shake-spear,” shook his spear in the most dynamic arena that was available to him at the time, the public Stage, but the question remains, for what causes did he “shake” that “spear”?
It’s hard for the modern mind to grasp the power of the Stage in 16-century England. From our point in time, it can only be seen in the negative, through the diatribes directed against it by moralists and Puritans and by the frequent efforts by the City and the Crown to control it by means of one ordinance after another. (E.K. Chambers devotes an entire section of his four-volume work on the Elizabethan Stage to these “Documents of Control.”) The stage was the TV, the movies, the internet, the CDs and video games of its day. Not until the invention of the radio three and a half centuries later would human communications take a quantum leap like that of the commercial Stage in London in the 1580s. It took a hundred years for the printing press to change the culture. It took a mere decade for the commercial stage to move from holidays-only to daily performances, from the courtyards of inns and the halls of the wealthy to half-a-dozen public theaters going all week long––with thousands seated at every performance.
We speak of “the Media” today, by which we mean a combination of newspapers, magazines, television, film, and the internet. In Shakespeare’s day the commercial stage alone was the Media, the brand new Fourth Estate that was rapidly growing to match in power the often termed three estates of government: Executive, Legislative and Judicial. [The medieval Three represent a class division: the Nobility, the Church, and the Commons.] Newspapers did not yet exist. Pamphlets, the first peeps of what would someday be magazines, were confined to the still small percentage of the population that could read. Plays, on the other hand, were for anyone who could afford the price of a penny.
It didn’t take an education to see and to understand a play. Shakespeare wasn’t writing for posterity, at least, not at the beginning. He was writing to make things happen. But what things? The purposeful disassociation between the works and their creator and our confusion over when the plays were written, rewritten, and how much and by whom they were edited, has left us with only the vaguest idea of what his contemporaries might have seen and heard as a subtext when they went to a Shakespeare play on a given occasion. Almost every writer who commented on the Stage during that era spoke of issues “fashioned forth darkly” in plays, poems and pamphlets. “Darkly” meant “covertly.”
Issues of politics, religion, social commentary and character assassination were cloaked in analogies and metaphors so that they might slip past the censor, the Court-appointed Master of the Revels. What issues were these? The answer lies in the history of the times. Isn’t it time we put two and two (the plays and the history of their time) together and came up with the truth?
Diana Price has come out with a new edition of her 2001 Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography. Having missed the first edition, here was my opportunity to get what must be one of the most important books on the Authorship Question ever published. For those who haven’t yet read it, particularly those who enjoy fencing with Stratfordians (which I don’t), I urge you to get it, read it, and keep it handy, for it is certainly the definitive text on why William of Stratford cannot possibly be the author of the Shakespeare canon.
Because she does not attempt to answer the second half of The Question––If not William then Who?––she avoids the rancour that inevitably attends any effort to promote a particular candidate. In this she joins august anti-Stratfordians like George Greenwood and Mark Twain, who made no attempt to pick a winner, perhaps also setting a pattern for important studies that have come along since, most notably Richard Roe’s book on Shakespeare’s Italy, and more recently Stritmatter and Kositsky’s on The Tempest. By refusing to allow the authorship itself to intrude, the reader’s native common sense is free to function on a particular part of the argument, thus eliminating the dismissive sound byte, as does Roe with the frequently heard dismissal that Shakespeare had his facts wrong about Italy; or Stritmatter with that other constant, that “some plays are too late for Oxford.”
By eliminating the emotionally touchy issues that surround the various candidates, Price allows nothing to take precedence over the stone cold irrefutable fact that William could not possibly have written the Shakespeare canon, or anything else. “Why not William?” must always be answered before readers will be ready to hear who actually wrote the works that bear his name. Nobody has nailed this primary issue like Price. Detailed on every point, her scholarship––cool, orderly, thorough, exhaustively supported with solid citations––sets a high mark for the rest of us. From the lack of any evidence of an education, to his disappearance from London just as the plays that bore his name were hitting their peak of popularity, to the death that went totally unremarked by what had become the vast audience for his plays, she leaves no tern unstoned.
Ah, would that were the end of it! So long as she wields this end of the stick she can’t be faulted, but unfortunately she must needs turn an utterly convincing localized effort into a self-contradictory theory of everything, ending up in the same weeds where her Stratfordian opponents continue their endless circling. It would seem that in every respect except the authorship itself, Price is no less a Stratfordian than the academics she scorns, accepting every single darn thing they’ve come up with in centuries of making bricks without straw. For Price, both Shake-scene and Poet-Ape represent William, a Frankenstein’s monster patched together from every ambiguous figure lurking within the epigrams of his own time and the conjurations dreamed up by centuries of confused theorists.
Dates don’t lie
There’s no real harm in this (to anyone but Price herself), since most of what can’t be disproven can’t be proven either. However, her notion that William was a hard-nosed financial wizard who bought his way into the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then used and abused the connection to make hay for himself by brokering old plays and costumes, is a genuine threat to the truth. This theory, to which she devotes many pages, is demonstrably without any basis whatsoever in fact. It’s true that William was as tough-minded as any other businessman when it came to his dealings in Stratford, but there’s nothing to suggest that, until he was adopted by the Company at some point in or shortly before 1595, he had so much as a shilling to invest in anything.
One of the few facts about the life of William of Stratford, repeated in every account from Nicholas Rowe on down to Sam Schoenbaum, is that Shakspere Sr., who throughout William’s early childhood shows up in the record as a successful local entrepreneur, had fallen on serious hard times by the time his son was twelve. By the 1580s, selling land and dodging creditors had become a way of life for the Shakspere family (Schoenbaum A Documentary Life, 36-40). Reasons for this loss of standing have caused considerable conjecture over the centuries, suggesting to some that they were Catholic recusants, to others radical dissidents.
Whatever the reason, there can be no doubt that the Shaksperes were in financial trouble until suddenly, at some point in or shortly after 1596, there was enough money that William was able to buy the second biggest house in town and invest in its renovation. By then he was in his thirties, so had he been the financial wizard of Price’s imagination, his name would have begun to appear in records of local business transactions well before 1596. That this upsurge in solvency is directly connected to the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in June of 1594 is proven by numerous records, both then and later. Dates don’t lie.
Price’s notion flies in the face, not only of this well-documented fact of his family’s indebtedness, but also what is known of the structure of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. As noted by everyone who has studied what evidence there is of Shakespeare’s company––most recently Andrew Gurr in The Shakespeare Company (2004)––funding came from the sharers, that is, the six to eight highly-skilled actors who played the leading roles created by Shakespeare (the playwright). This may be questionable: one of the missing elements in the story as its been told until now is the part played in the Company’s evolution by its wealthy Privy Council patrons. But this lack of patronage can hardly be resolved by casting the impoverished William as the missing patron. True, his name does appear in the record on several occasions as a member of this core group of sharers, but even if, let us say, he did supply his share (£100) to rebuild the Globe when it burned down in 1613, the other half of the equation is missing, for time has produced nothing that supports the Company’s claim that he was an actor.
While others have pointed to the fact that, unlike every other member of this core group, all of whom have proven track records as actors with other leading companies before they were recruited by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the name William Shakespeare is not to be found in any theatrical record until 1595, nor has it ever been connected with any other acting company, nor by any contemporary with any particular Shakespearean roles, as is true of most of the genuine actor-sharers. The one or two references to him as an actor at the time, made in passing, can all be seen as reflecting the role the Company chose to explain his presence, for proving that he was not an actor was just as impossible as proving that he was not a playwright.
In fact Price herself explains in detail why William could not possibly have been the actor the Company would have us believe (32-5). Noting how during periods when they would have needed all their actors in London, she shows how Schoenbaum locates him in Stratford. During the winter season of 1597-98, while the Company was performing for the Court from late December through February, records in Stratford have him stockpiling grain and purchasing stone for New Place (Schoenbaum 178). Since it was a two to three-day trip each way from Stratford to London and back, perhaps longer on icy winter roads, that he could have dashed back and forth is so unlikely as to be impossible.
Shortly after the immensely important occasion of King James’s initial procession through London in March 1604 (for which all the sharers, now the King’s Men, were provided with red and gold livery), it appears that William was in Stratford selling malt (a component of ale) to a local apothecary (34), something that required his attention through June, a period when the Company was busy reopening the Globe after the plague closure of the previous year, and during which several Shakespeare plays were performed at Court for the Company’s all-important new patron, King James. So unavailable was William for this last, as its playwright anyway, that the clerk that noted the plays that would eventually bear his name, spelled it Shaxberd.
William did not pay––he got paid.
William’s fortune did not come to him from any enterprise he’d undertaken before signing on with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. To make money it’s necessary to have money, something it’s clear that neither he nor anyone in his family had until he was taken on by the actors. Yes, he was a hard-nosed businessman, and never more so than when he was squeezing them in exchange for remaining silent about the authorship! From his first notice in the Revels warrant in 1595 until his death in 1616 (and probably until the death of his wife shortly before the First Folio was published seven years later), from first to last, all records of his investments can easily be seen as the Company’s investment in his silence. Had he been the investor she imagines, had he been the sharer he was made out to be, he would have left shares in his will, as did the real sharers, the actors.
Since no books have survived to reveal how Hemmings, the Company’s manager, handled the flow of funds from at first, just the box office, then after the creation of the Globe, the added portion taken by the house, we have no way of knowing how he managed William’s portion, but that it was not handled in the same way that the money was distributed to the real actors is clear from the absence of any shares in William’s will and no record of any sale of his shares, as there is with the others. Dealing with William, as with all supernumeraries whose work assisted the production of their plays, fell to Hemmings. The Mountjoy family, with whom William resided during a brief period in the early 17th century, lived right around the corner from Hemmings. As costumers, the Mountjoys were the sort with whom Hemmings dealt on a daily basis, along with stagehands, scriveners, carpenters, and so forth.
Having divested him of his role as playwright and actor, Price would like to be able to provide him with role with the Company that readers can trust, but because, like the Stratfordians she disdains, she doesn’t know enough about the period to perceive behind the fudging and side-stepping that characterizes all the connections between the Company and the Crown, the deeply political nature of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and their driving need to find a cover that allowed them to get their plays published. Nor, like most Oxfordians as well as Stratford defenders, does she understand the uses of a name that can be read as a serious name by the public and a pun name by the cognescenti. William was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (probably in fact by Hemmings, whose hometown was Droitwich, a few miles northwest of Stratford) for the use of his name––and for nothing more! Everything else, the suggestion that he was a sharer and an actor, was window dressing. As he provided the necessary cover for their playwright, the terms “sharer” and “actor” were covers for his real purpose.
Lost in a sea of weeds
It’s not possible to cover all the odd postitions taken by Price in her effort to provide a theory of everything, but one more will at least give a sense of where she tends to go awry. For instance she accepts Warren Austin’s assertion that Greene’s Groatsworth was written, not by Robert Greene, but by Henry Chettle. Only those who have poked around in the primordial ooze where issues pertaining to the creation of the English periodical press remain seemingly forever bedded, will grasp the strangeness of this choice.
While the three names that dominate this branch of the larger authorship question––Greene, Nashe and Harvey––display anomalies similar to those that have led to questioning William of Stratford, works published as by Robert Greene are not only coherent in subject matter and style up to and including Groatsworth, as the dominant name in English literature throughout the decade preceding the advent of Shakespeare, his name on some 36 works of combined prose and poetry (the five plays were attributed to him posthumously), why on earth pass off this final bit of his canon (meant to be seen as final anyway) as the work of someone as inconsequential as Henry Chettle?
The author of Chettle’s ODNB bio refers to his “shadowy career both as printer and as author: again and again he is associated with a work but is not credited with any part of it when it comes to print.” She lists 13 of Henslowe’s stringers that, according to Henslowe, worked with Chettle on plays, six of which were published, not one of them bearing his name. “A further thirteen plays in Henslowe’s diary are attributed to Chettle alone. Only one . . . was ever printed . . . ; again, Chettle is not identified as the play’s author.”
If we accept the DNB’s assessment of his career, since there is no proof that Chettle actually wrote anything, then Austin’s claim that his language in all his works matches that of Groatsworth and other works by Greene is hardly worth the proverbial tinker’s damn. Prices’s efforts to explain why a lowly typographer’s apprentice would leap into the pamphlet fray by pretending to be the dying Greene goes nowhere, of course, where could it go? The word studies that convinced Austin that Greene’s language in Groatsworth matches Chettle’s in Kind Heart’s Dreame, the pamphlet in which he refuted (unpublished) rumors that he wrote Groatsworth, raise questions about all the other pamphlets that sound like Greene but were signed with other names, such as B.R., R.B., Gabriel Harvey and “the renowned Cavaliero Pasquil.”
Maybe Austin was right; maybe whoever wrote Kind Heart’s Dreame also wrote Groatsworth, and almost everything else that was published in pamphlet form at that time, but in the morass of confusion that the true authors of these early pamphlets have left us, the truth about Chettle is not something that Price, or anyone who has written on the subject, has come close to resolving. Nor will they until they begin to ask the same questions about these writers that have led us to the truth about Shakespeare.
To be or not to be the author
Price takes her argument against William up to the door of the Court, which is where she leaves it. She makes a case for why the true author had to be a courtier, but will not suggest which one. Ignorant of the politics of the period, she can give no solid reason why this unnamed courtier should be so reluctant to be named as a poet or a playwright, nor why the cover-up should have continued so long past his death. Time has shown that nobody today really buys the notion that this long enduring cover-up was due solely to the “stigma of print,” nor should they. There were plenty of other reasons, personal as well as political why the true author, his family, his actors, his patrons, his in-laws, his monarchs Elizabeth and James, could not and would not ever allow his name to be connected with his works––deadly serious reasons, that no one writing about this today, ignorant of the history of that period, knows or apparently cares to pursue.
The problem for Price, as it is for all who have found it expedient to set the question of the true author aside, is that minus the genius who created the London Stage with his magical works, there is no story. Efforts to create one without him inevitably fall apart like dough made with all flour and no fat. As Yeats might have put it, “the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” Price has supplied the “rough beast, his hour come round at last,” but who needs him? Who wants him? Where is the heartbeat, the thrill, the glory of great achievement in the face of devastating opposition? Even if there were any truth to her scenario, of what use is it? Without the author, his story, his relationship to the Stage, the Court, the Inns of Court, the Crown, the commercial periodical press, you end up with a three-legged table. With the most important leg missing, the table may fit in with your decorating scheme, but if asked to support anything greater than itself, over it goes.
History requires a leading figure, a protagonist. What would the history of the American Civil War be without the personalities of Lincoln and Lee, John Brown and Stonewall Jackson––a mere string of dates and names of battle locations. We care about the Civil War because of the stories that came out of it, stories of life and death, of great courage in the face of great danger. What is the life and death issue here? Where is the hero? Where is the story? William is in the way. Price has removed him. That’s all she’s done, and it’s enough.
What did he look like? Once again, as with his education, his presence in London, and his presence at Court, nobody knows; meaning nobody in the Shakespeare Establishment, i.e. the University English Departments, writers published by university presses, speakers from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the mainstream media. None have any real answers, all are still heavily, fiercely, defensively, protective of the Stratford biography. Dozens of portraits from the period have been promoted as Shakespeare at one time or another; all have failed to convince either the reading public or the authorities. (click images to enlarge)
Most unconvincing are: the frontispiece from his 1623 collected works and the bust in the memorial niche in Stratford’s Trinity Church, neither of which looks like the other; both derided by generations of authorities and ordinary viewers alike. Nor is this a modern phenomenon, related to the authorship question, but a general reaction from the very first. In fact, the apologetic comment by the editors of the First Folio on the Droeshout, the engraving meant to identify the author: “This Figure . . . for gentle Shakespeare cut . . .” ends with “. . . Reader, look––not on his picture, but his book.”
For centuries Shakespeare enthusiasts have attempted to provide a better image than the Droeshout (named for the artist who created it), frontispiece from the 1623 First Folio. Scores of portraits of unknowns have been put forth at one time or another as the true image of the Bard, most of them just as awful in some way as the Droeshout or the Bust; most of them altered by having a Droeshoutian bald head painted over a normal hairline. Busts and statues of bronze and marble have provided handsomer alternatives, none with any real claim to authenticity, though one would hardly know it from the way they’re presented.
At a loss to explain the lack, academics simply ignore the issue. Shakespeare was famous in his own time. Poets and playwrights not nearly so famous have left believable portraits. We have trustworthy images of Ben Jonson, Sir Philip Sidney, Francis Bacon, John Donne, John Harington, and John Milton. We even have oil portraits of the actors who helped make Shakespeare famous. Why not the Bard himself?
“Searching for Shakespeare” in 2006
Much like the top six candidates for the authorship (William, Oxford, Bacon, Marlowe, Derby, Mary Sidney), six portraits that held the field at one time or another as a better image of the author than blank Droeshout or vacant Bust were the subject of a series of exhibits and articles in 2006, in which the provenance of each was compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , and compared . . . , yet to no conclusion, for––guess what? something is wrong with all six! Then why the show?
What determines an expert? The fact that they have a PhD or that they can provide us questioners with conclusions? Why is it that the Shakespeare experts, despite their impressive CVs and degrees, seem eternally committed to never coming to any sort of conclusion? They will go on for pages repeating the opinions of fellow experts, yet every article about the problems they face in determining what he wrote, when, why (though never who he was of course: the only thing they do claim to know for certain) ends in something like, “we don’t know, and we’ll probably never know.”
Why then was the Janssen (left), the favorite for years, plus four others long since dismissed as impossible, made the focal point of this exhibit? Was this yet another example of the ruse continually employed by Stratfordia, yet another disinformation campaign meant to muddy the waters by including everyone who’s ever been put forward as the true author, no matter how ridiculous, as a way of suggesting that the entire authorship question is ridiculous?
The only four that matter
For those who care about the kind of truth one sees with one’s own eyes, only four portraits (out of the gazillions proposed) have any real relevance to Shakespeare, and of these, only one was actually included among the six pseudo-contenders for the Shakespearean laurel wreath. This is the portrait known as the Chandos after the first aristocrat who ever owned it. It seems that from its first
appearance it’s been assumed by most critics and others that this was the model for Droeshout’s engraving. Why Droeshout found it necessary to modify it for the frontispiece, making the face thinner and the forehead higher, has called forth numerous explanations: Droeshout was a bad artist (not true); he was just learning his trade (not true); he was working from an earlier portrait (pure conjecture); and (total denial): neither it nor the Droeshout had anything to do with Shakespeare.
The problem with the Chandos has always been its subject’s (ahem) “foreign” look and its blank, somewhat sullen expression, not exactly what one might expect from the world’s greatest poet. Finally, after centuries of attempts to place the laurel wreath on the balding head of some wiser looking dude, the discovery that the Janssen, long the favorite, was just another unknown with an over-painted hairline has left the Chandos the only possible candidate, so for the past few years, bad as it is, it’s the one that’s now most often used on book jackets, the internet, etc..
Why not? Its provenance proves, at least as well as anything can, that it’s a genuine portrait––not of Shakespeare the poet, but of William of Stratford. Personally I have no doubt that the Chandos is a portrait of William. Most likely he himself commissioned it about the time that he got the phony coat of arms that allowed him to call himself “William Shakspere, Gent.” It’s the kind of portrait that would have been available to someone on his social level––similar to the portraits of Elizabethan actors like Edward Alleyn and John Lowin. For although the subject of the Chandos may not look like our concept of a great philosopher poet, it does fit what we know of the Stratford entrepreneur. That the Chandos is the source of the Droeshout face and hairstyle also establishes the source of the bald dome and modified page boy hair style (missing the bangs), primary characteristics of every cartoon image since.
The Welbeck and the Ashbourne
The travelling show was padded out with a number of portraits that had only a marginal reference to the six Shakespeare candidates, among them big, impressive portraits of King James, Queen Anne, their daughter, Elizabeth of Bohemia, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Southampton, the playwright John Fletcher, and––pleasant surprise for an Oxfordian––the Welbeck, the one portrait of the Earl of Oxford that we can be certain reflects his true image. This was included, not because the curators considered his portrait as a candidate for Shakespeare’s face, but (indulgent chuckle) because he’s the leading contender for William’s crown (another patronizing chuckle).
As merely a copy of an original painted in 1575 while Oxford was in France, the Welbeck is not a great painting, but it does give a fair idea of what Oxford looked like in his twenties. It shows his primary characteristics: a high well-shaped forehead, a long straight nose (A.L. Rowse called it a “big sexy nose”), and a strong chin––characteristics based on bone structure that would remain whatever else might sag or wrinkle over time. Most distinctive are the slightly flared nostrils and tight upper lip, both indicating a habit of tightening the muscles around that area.
Why the Welbeck, never a contender for Shakespeare’s face, was included in the exhibit, but the Ashbourne––which for a number of years was definitely a contender––was not, is a good question, perhaps the only real question worth asking. It was certainly as much of a contender as any of the six included in the show, that is, from 1847 when it was “discovered” by a schoolmaster in Ashbourne Darbyshire until 1940 when X-ray photography revealed that, like the Janssen and so many others, its bald dome was the result of overpainting––overpainting that, unlike their treatment of the Janssen, they have chosen, for reasons that will perhaps become clear, not to remove.
The factor never mentioned is that, unlike the sullen stupidity of the Chandos or the chilly stare of the Janssen, the face on the Ashbourne actually looks likes a humanist philosopher, someone whose intelligence and attitude shows in his expression, someone like Erasmus, Sir Thomas More, Ariosto, Francis Bacon.
Perhaps the Folger wasn’t eager to reveal to the world the damage wreaked on the Ashbourne in the 1940s and ’50s by directors determined to hide the fact that what for so long had been considered a portrait of Shakespeare was in fact a portrait of the Earl of Oxford! A record of the Folger’s unethical attempts to shift the subject’s identity from Oxford to the recondite Hugh Hammersly, sometime mayor of London, can be found in a series of articles by authorship scholar Barbara Burris published in the Shakespeare Matters newsletter in 2002 (Spring, 1,10). Burris, having been given permission by a later Folger director to examine their files, provides a damning account of efforts by two earlier directors to obliterate the evidence that the portrait was of Oxford.
In 2007, British authorship scholars Jeremy Crick and Dorna Bewley published the results of their intensive research into the Ashbourne’s provenance including the reasons why a portrait of Oxford should bear what seems to be someone else’s coat of arms. Based on the design of the cuffs, Burris had dated the portrait to the early 1580s. In 2003, authorship scholar Katherine Chiljan took exception to this date, listing reasons why it should be placed in the mid-to-late 1590s, a date with which both Crick and myself agree: Crick because the overpainted coat of arms can be connected to the family of Elizabeth Trentham, the woman Oxford married in 1592; myself because to my eye the face in the Ashbourne portrait is not that of a man in his thirties.
Identity is not a matter of clothing or even hair styles, though they can help affirm or question a conclusion, certainty of identity cannot be based on them. Identity resides in the shape of the head and the features of the face. Having seen the Ashbourne up close during a tour of the Folger in 2004, with many years of experience both in drawing and painting portraits and in examining them in museums, this was no larky thirty-something looking back at me from the wall of the Folger.
The Vertue engraving
It was at that same authorship conference in Washington DC during which some of us were entertained with a tour of the Folger that I saw the other portrait that I believe to be of Oxford. Upon entering the main display room, lined with glass cases filled with objects, largely products of the hundred-year-old Shakespeare trinket industry, as I continued to walk towards the end of the hall, an image in a glass case facing me from its far end compelled my attention. Amongst a cluster of engravings, most meant to represent Shakespeare, all different and all equally unappealing, was something to examine up close. Here, caught by the artistry of the engraver, was the intelligence, the spark of life, so missing in the others. Except for the bald head it stood out from the rest of the engravings like a living thing among the dead, the awakened among the sleeping. And there was the familiar tight upper lip, the slightly flared nostrils! Because to me it represents Shakespeare in a way that the Welbeck, even the Ashbourne, cannot, as a record of his face during the final, most brilliant, phase of his life, I chose it for the header on this blog.
Although labelled “William Shakespeare,” the engraved face was nothing like any of the other faces similarly labelled. Dated 1721, it was by someone named George Vertue, who apparently was responsible for many of the other engraved portraits in the glass case, including another one labelled Shakespeare, which, strangely, looked nothing like the one that caught my eye. It was after that that I saw the Ashbourne, hanging in another room, then back to the Vertue engraving. I was convinced! These were portraits of the same man, the Earl of Oxford at later stages of his life than portrayed in the Welbeck.
Ever suspicious of any strong “feeling” as a basis for true knowledge, I’ve given many hours since to examining what evidence there is that the artist who made the engraving and the Augustan coterie with which he was closely involved––Lord Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation), his heir Lord Edward Harley, (2nd earl, etc.), Alexander Pope, et al––were aware of the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and that they tried, without openly stating it, to express it using the kind of subtle suggestions that the subject has relied on from the start: first through the images they used to illustrate Pope’s 1725 edition of Shakespeare’s works; later through designs for the 1741 memorial in Poet’s Corner, designs that were rejected by a later consortium in favor of the present ambiguous sculpture garbed in 18th-century attire.
If , as so much evidence suggests, the Earl of Oxford (by the first creation) was in fact the true author of the Shakespeare canon, then his authorship would surely have been a family secret that endured among his descendents and their close associates for generations, with certainty perhaps gradually fading to rumor (though the remark made by Winston Churchill when asked his opinion on the authorship question is sufficiently ambiguous to wonder if the aristocracy isn’t still dedicated to keeping the secret; said Churchill: “I don’t like my myths disturbed.”
I believe that the Augustans who first planned the Shakespeare monument in Poet’s Corner, including some descended from Oxford or his relatives, also either knew or believed that he was Shakespeare, and that the statue eventually placed there in 1741 was, like the Droeshout, the result of a compromise between hidden truth and public falsehood.
The first poet (that we know of) to be buried in Poet’s Corner was Edmund Spenser in 1599; the second Francis Beaumont in 1616; both interred beneath the floor. They had been preceded in 1556 by a monument to Chaucer set against the wall, his body residing elsewhere in the Abbey. The name Poet’s Corner didn’t come into public use until after 1631 when the Countess of Dorset created a monument there for the recently deceased Michael Drayton. The Countess, formerly Lady Anne Clifford, patroness of literary men, youthful companion of Emilia Bassano Lanier, (Shakespeare’s Dark Lady), was the second wife of the 4th Earl of Pembroke, following the death of his first wife, Susan Vere, Oxford’s youngest daughter (Shakespeare’s Cordelia).
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, as Poet’s Corner began to fill up, the floor near the stained glass window, next to Poet’s Door and St. Benedict’s Chapel, got covered with memorial plaques for the persons buried beneath them. These had to be removed when the monumental Shakespeare screen was erected in 1741, effectively creating a separate space from what had until then was open through to the window. Among those lost must have been the tablets for Spenser and Beaumont. None of the plaques that now occupy what space is left just inside Poet’s Door date from earlier than the late 18th century. In 1620, a monument to Spenser was placed on the wall where it looks down at the space where he was probably buried. There is at present no plaque or monument for Beaumont.
I believe that the immense Shakespeare monument was placed where rumor had it that Oxford was “lodged,” as Jonson slyly suggested in his memorial ode in the First Folio: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie / A little further, to make thee a room . . . .” When Jonson wrote this I believe that he knew that Oxford’s bones had in fact been lodged, quietly, at night, without public fanfare, near Chaucer’s memorial, between where Spenser had been buried a decade earlier and Beaumont more recently in 1616. We don’t take such things so seriously today, but where a man was buried was of immense importance in the 17th and 18th centuries. I think it highly likely that the screen and memorial erected in 1741 stands on the spot where Oxford was buried, between the plaques commemorating Spenser and Beaumont.
Is this a slice of baloney that I see before me?
Sadly those who have provided the most significant discoveries and insights have also on occasion confused things further by propounding wrong conclusions, usually at length. In his 1940 article for Scientific American, Oxfordian Charles Wisner Barrell claimed that all three of the paintings he photographed for the Folger were portraits of Oxford, which is so obviously not the case that it would surely have endangered his conclusions about everything else had not the world gotten so worked up over what he revealed about the Ashbourne. The Janssen, its original and all its other copies have been proven to be of Sir Thomas Overbury. The Hampton Court portrait, whoever it is, was certainly not Oxford, no matter what kind of a sword he was holding.
Throughout this study I’ve seen the most outrageous claims made for portraits that contradict the evidence of my own eyes. Yes, conclusions based on personal responses to what is seen must necessarily be subjective, mine included, but if I have a claim to a better understanding of this than the next opinionizer it’s because I’ve been painting and drawing portraits of family, friends and famous people since I was a kid. (To see some of it, check here; click the art to get rid of the ad).
I’m no Rembrandt; talent alone won’t cut it; one must work at such a thing every day for a lifetime to become truly expert, which I have not done, but years of effort and a lifelong study of Art History have given me a very good understanding of the subtleties required to capture the likeness of another person, whether from life, a photograph, or another portrait, and a great appreciation for those who have a talent for it. Beyond the shape of the head, the shape, size and placement of the features, there’s the matter of expression. Everything else can be right, but without that elusive thing called expression, there’s simply no likeness.
A lack of understanding of studio procedure must be one problem, for until the advent of photography, studio portraits were produced by a sort of assembly line process whereby only the all-important face was painted by the master. Important sitters did not have the time or the patience to remain in one position for hours, so they would leave with the artist the clothing they wanted depicted, which would then be modelled by servants for him (or her; many portraits were painted by women who were not allowed to sign them then, at least not with their own names). Backgrounds, objects, even hands would be left to apprentices. No doubt in some cases the clothing, even the face, would be copied from an earlier portrait.
The evolution of Shakespeare’s image
In 1623 when the “grand possessors,” the Pembroke brothers, sons of Mary Sidney, one of them the husband of Oxford’s daughter Susan, finally reached the point where they felt they could proceed with publishing the First Folio, the problem of confirming the author’s identity had reached the point of no return. Ben Jonson, Pembroke’s “Poet Laurette,” was given the task of creating the necessary front material, his Ode, plus dedicatory poems by three others. Much sleight of hand can be performed in words, but the requisite frontispiece was another matter. Possibly a composite of the Chandos and the Janssen, the result was the peculiar image we know as the Droeshout. We’ll call this image #1.
In 1709 as Nicholas Rowe got set to publish a revised edition of the plays, he used an entirely different engraving (#2), one with an entirely different face from that of the Droeshout. In 1714, when Rowe published a second edition, the previous frontispiece was replaced by a hideous version of the Chandos (#3).
By 1725, when Alexander Pope got set to provide his version of the plays, his choice for frontispiece was an engraving by the expert artist and art historian George Vertue, an engraving based, not on the Chandos, but on a miniature owned by his patron, Robert Harley, 1st Earl of Oxford (by the second creation).
This miniature, identified on the back as “Shakespear’s face,” looks enough like the portraits of playwright John Fletcher that it’s worth mentioning that for awhile during the early 17th century, it seems that Fletcher was believed by some to be the true author of the Shakespeare canon, an opinion eradicated through the efforts of William of Stratford’s “godson,” William Davenant.
Most strangely however, as an illustration facing his reprint of Rowe’s “Life of Shakespeare,” Pope published another Vertue engraving on page 30, this one of the monument in Stratford, but with a Bust that bears an altogether different face from any other yet used by an editor of Shakespeare (#5) or any known version of the Bust. Constantly described as a copy of the Chandos, as anyone can see (below), it depicts an altogether different face, the same face that I saw on the engraving at the Folger. Thus between 1623 and 1725, each succeeding edition of Shakespeare’s plays showed different images for what the playwright looked like, with Pope’s edition providing two that were different, not only from what had gone before, but different from each other!
Wherever the trail of subsequent engraved illustrations may take future investigators, if the beginning is any indication, they are in for a complicated, if interesting, adventure.
Unable to do more here than touch on a few of the most glaring of the anomalies regarding the depiction of Shakespeare’s face, a subject that to do it justice would require years of research and a fairly hefty book, more detail on some of the more salient points is provided in the following pages: Visualizing Shakespeare provides more detail on each of these points, plus others; George Vertueprovides a closer look at the artist who created the engraving of (as I believe) Oxford as Shakespeare, plus a number of other interesting engravings.
NB: This is as good a place as any to name the faces above in the header, in case not everyone recognizes them. At the center is George Vertue’s engraving of the unknown face, usually, and ridiculously, described as a copy of the Chandos, but I believe copied by Vertue from a portrait of the 17th Earl of Oxford, painted in his early fifties, once in the posssession of Henrietta Bentinck Holles, Countess of Oxford (by the second creation). (The color has been added to the original black and white engraving to make it stand out from the rest of the images.) Behind him are a few of the multitude of great actors who have brought his stories to life on film and stage: from left to right: Derek Jacobi (an Oxfordian) as he announces Olivier’s Henry V; Marlon Brando as Mark Antony in Julius Caesar; Jude Law as Hamlet; Mark Rylance (a Baconian) as Hamlet; John Gielgud (not sure which role); John Barrymore as Hamlet; Laurence Olivier as Hamlet; and Flora Robson, in my view the best Queen Elizabeth ever filmed.
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe, the horse was lost. For want of the horse, the rider was lost. For want of the rider the battle was lost. For want of the battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
Memory is identity. Without memory, without a record of what we’ve done and thought and said, what we’ve heard and seen, a human exists only as a thing, as foreign to itself as it is to those who pass it on a busy city street. Know thyself, said Socrates. But to do that we must have memory. Our memories are the building blocks of our identities. They are what make us unique from others, they guide us as we mature. The sunny ones bring happiness and cheer on dark days, the dark ones help to keep us from suffering through repeated error.
History is our word for our collective memory as a people, a culture. To our personal memories it adds the experiences shared by our ancestors. Whether we absorb it from tales told around a winter fire, from lectures, sermons or books, it gives us context; it connects us to our fellows, expands our personal identity and that of our immediate family to embrace our neighbors, our ancestors. It gives meaning to the buildings and streets that surround us, to the art and architecture of our cities, to the songs we sing, the movies we watch, the stories we repeat. It gives us something to be a part of, something bigger than ourselves. Know thyself, said Father, quoting somebody he called Socrates, but who was that? The Greek who used to cut his hair? Without the shared memory we call history, we’d never know.
History is the story of humanity. While science, religion and philosophy all attempt to explain a great deal more than just who we are, history is focussed on us, on what we have done, with, to, and for each other. And at the center of that “we” is always some central figure, some human being whose name and life story are central to a particular area of our shared memory, a story that holds meaning for a particular community, culture, religion, philosophy, the leader, the ground-breaker, the pioneer, the genius whose name we connect, not just with the history of whatever it was they invented or discovered, but the thing itself.
All history, be it the history of France or the American car industry, revolves around the name of its creator. Without that name it’s a story without an opening chapter, an adventure without a hero. If for some reason the name of one of these pioneers gets lost, the entire history of what they found or created can get broken into pieces and dispersed, skewed, distorted, minimized, misunderstood. If somehow we had lost all evidence of the life of Alexander the Great, to what would we attribute the spread of the Greek language over the 500 years from 300 BC to the rise of Rome in 200 AD? What would the history of mathematics look like without Isaac Newton? The history of the Russian revolution without Karl Marx? The history of aviation without the Wright brothers? The Blitz without Churchill? The Cold War without Stalin?
Hard as it may be to fathom, this is exactly the problem we have with the history of today’s English language. It’s Greek without Homer, Christianity without St. Paul, Existentialism without Sartre. In fact, it’s more than these, for the loss of the story of Shakespeare not only skews and disperses the history of English literature, it’s lost to the history of England the most important of the pioneers of the sixteenth century gathered at the Court of Elizabeth. It’s skewed the history of the language itself. It’s plunged into darkness the bloody birth of the modern media (the fourth estate of government) and modern humanity’s first painful steps towards a functional democracy, of all these stories the most important today, not just to the West, but now to the entire world.
What the man known by the pun-name Shake-speare did in the sixteenth century has never been fully understood because, for reasons of political and economic expediency, his primary achievement was passed along by contemporary politicians and historians to an undeserving front man, one whose modest story has skewed this era in English history so badly, that, deeper than ever did plummet sound, it’s buried the truth about these things for over four hundred years.
And all for the want of that horseshoe nail, his name.
The name Shakespeare emerges for the first time in connection with the London Stage on the title page of the second edition of Richard III, published in 1598, shortly after the first, anonymous, edition of 1597. After several years of anonymous publication, why did the name appear at just that time and on that particular play? We’ve been examining the phenomenon of Richard III from a political viewpoint, that of the war waged by Secretary of State Robert Cecil on the London Stage. What about the play itself? What can we learn from that?
Albert Feuillerat, writing in the 1940s and into the early 1950s, made an exceedingly close study, word by word, phrase by phrase, of Richard III and several of the other earliest plays in the canon: Richard II, Romeo and Juliet, Titus Andronicus, and Henry VI parts Two and Three. The earliest to be published, they were also the first to bear the name Shakespeare. Feuillerat’s close attention to detail, to the meter and vocabulary of these plays, should command more respect than it does. That one hears his name so little is probably due to the fact that the results of his study tend to point in a direction uncomfortable for the Stratford biography, cornerstone of the academic cult.
One of the things Feuillerat brings out that should be a central point in Early Modern literary studies is the obvious fact that the repertory companies had to revise their plays every so often to keep their audiences coming back, a logical perception that should put paid to the academic nonsense about “bad quartos.” Anyone with money can build a theater. Anyone with a little chuzpah can grab a cloak and spear and do a turn on stage. But not just anyone can write a play that holds an audience’s attention, particularly one that brings them back for a second or a third time. So the plays had to be refurbished from time to time so that the producer could advertise them as “newly augmented” and thus continue to use them to bring the audiences in.
Of the six plays examined by Feuillerat, the three history plays have a further interest in that they’re closely related to a handful of anonymous plays known as the First and Second parts of The Contention between the houses of York and Lancaster, and The True Tragedies of Richard III and of Richard Duke of York. So perfectly do these fit the plots, characters, and much of the language of Shakespeare’s Richard III, Richard II, and the last two parts of Henry VI, that avoiding the inevitable conclusion that they are Shakespeare’s own early versions has required the kind of intellectual contortions that we’ve come to expect from the university English Departments.
The simplest and easiest and most likely explanation would be that Shakespeare wrote them himself; where else in literature do we find early versions of works by anyone but the individual who wrote the final version? But because the Stratford biography has Shakespeare placed too late for that, some other explanation had to be found. It was in search of this that Feuillerat spent 30 years deconstructing these plays, both the early versions and Shakespeare’s. Feuillerat’s close attention to the language, meter, tropes, archisms, etc. of these plays, reveals that they display four separate and definite styles, each, according to him, easily distinguished from the others, and all of them most relevant to our thesis.
Feuillerat calls the three styles, or hands, as he terms them, that preceded Shakespeare’s versions: authors A, B, and C; author A is the creator of the first version of the history plays while author C is the creator of the first versions (now lost, though traces remain) of Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet. Author A’s originals were revised at some point by author B, whose work he calls “Marlowesque” and whose job it was to regularize the uneven verse patterns of A into a tight iambic pentameter. This version was then updated in the early 1590s by Shakespeare, who added humanistic touches, Shakespearean imagery, further refinements to the meter––and what Feuillerat sentimentally and not very accurately calls his “sober sweetness”––to the versions published under his name in the 1590s. (Where is there any “sober sweetness” to be found in Richard III?)
Although Feuillerat makes no effort to affix dates to the originals by A and C, his descriptions suggest that those parts written by C may go as far back as the 1560s and 70s, while A fits better with the early 80s. And although he claims at the outset that he’s able to discern where author B has overwritten A, and Shakespeare all three, he confesses in several places that he’s not all that clear where Shakespeare and C are concerned, as both are fond of similar tropes. Nor does he make the slightest effort to identify any of the three, a significant ommission considering that he published several books and articles on Philip Sidney and also on John Lyly, whose dates, one would think, would make him a prime candidate for at least one of these hands.
One problem with Feuillerat’s scenario is that he’s forced to cast Shakespeare in the role of “play-patcher,” a ringer brought in in the ’90s to update old plays, who quickly works his way up to the role of Company playwright. So once again the workaround created to deal with problems caused by the Stratford biography forces Shakespeare into a role not befitting the most creative force in English letters. If Shakespeare didn’t write these plays, if he merely updated them, what about all the others? What about Henry V, which is so obviously a rewrite of The Famous Victories? Flatly dismissing the obvious connection between Thomas of Woodstock and Richard II, as “of no significance,” he never addresses any of these issues. What about all the plays that don’t have previous versions by earlier phantom writers? When did Shakespeare begin writing his own plays? Apparently such questions are also “of no significance.”
Worse than this is the problem his scenario creates of identifying authors A and C, whose plays were so dramatically sound that, despite their questionable versification and awkward archaisms, rather than let them go, the actors saw to it that they were consistently revised over time, with improvement to the language, but rarely to the structure, placing them first among the plays to be upgraded with the formation of the Lord Chamberlain’s men. It would seem that these two original authors deserve a place in English letters close to Shakespeare himself, if only we knew who they were. But of course we know who they must have been!
One of the things that struck me when I first began studying these matters was the immense disconnect between the fantasy Stage of the orthodox imagination and the limited reality of the times. The size of the community that produced these first works of genuine literature does not allow for all the ghostly figures conjured up, first by the courtiers who used one phony name after another to get published, then by later historians who, like Feuillerat, have filled the record void with any number of brilliant if nameless writers. The earliest days of the Stage, and of the popular Press that published its plays, was an outgrowth of what the Elizabethans called May Games, the mummings and disguisings of the Middle Ages that turned a few weeks in the heart of the winter into a fantasy world of feasting, masquing and role-playing. The writers were simply distilling the ancient May Games into books, entertainment via plot and character compacted into little back marks on white paper, bound into a small package that could be taken on trips and read alone at night by candlelight, that is, by people who could read.
May Games, mumming and disguising, were means by which a community trapped in its own hard reality could transport themselves into another world. Transformed by mask and costume into Faeryland, the Middle East, Africa, or, most often, Illyria, where, as Greek shepherds and nymphs they sang and played the lute surrounded by gods and goddessses. But when the party ended, and the mummers were unmasked, whom did they see but their same old neighbors? When Shakespeare’s audience demanded that the playwright be revealed, who was there to reveal? Let the names without biographeis, the authors A, B, and C, fade into the shadows whence they came. Let the masks come off.
Of course authors A and C were the same individual who, having turned 40 and, faced by the need to provide another Crown company with modish material, perfected his own earlier plays, the earliest in the style Feuillerat calls author C, the history plays by the one he calls author A. And of course the “Marlowesque” author B could have been no one but Christopher Marlowe himself, who, brought to Fisher’s Folly by Walsingham in 1584, had been given the task of regularizing the meter of the Contentions and the True Tragedies for the benefit of his new company, the Queen’s Men, “the jigging mother wits” he scorned in Tamburlaine, with unrhymed iambic pentameter (aka blank verse) which had become, in the intervening decade, the industry standard.
Thus, thanks to Albert Feuillerat, French Professor at Yale in the 1930s and 40s, we have another and extremely important piece to add to that puzzle, the Birth of the London Stage, of the Popular Press, of the Fourth Estate, of the British Media, call it what you will. Thanks to Feuillerat we have expert and thoughtful descriptions of Oxford’s voice from the early 70s, his voice from the early 80s, and Marlowe’s from the mid-80s. At some point we hope to take a closer look at his description of these voices.
Those with a taste for intelligent word studies will find Feuillerat’s book of interest: The Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1953. Some parts are available online for free, but there is a downloadable version for $10.
The standard answer to this is the late nineteenth century, when Delia Bacon’s book, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, claimed that the Shakespeare canon was not written by William of Stratford, but was the result of a collaboration of a team of courtly writers led by Francis Bacon. This, however, was only the moment when the issue was opened to the reading public at large, for the issue itself has been there ever since the first peeps of Shakespeare criticism. As Albert Feuillerat explains in his Composition of Shakespeare’s Plays (1953), the question of the authenticity of the Shakespeare canon
has been raised with more or less insistence ever since the eighteenth century. . . . Pope conjectured that in Love’s Labor’s Lost, the Winter’s Tale, The Comedy of Errors, and Titus Andronicus there was nothing authentic except a few scenes and some characters (1725). . . . Similar doubts were expressed by Theobald regarding Henry V (1734), by Hanmer regarding the Two Gentlemen of Verona (1744), by Samuel Johnson regarding Richard II (1765), and by Farmer regarding The Taming of the Shrew (1767). Ritson found some disparities so evident that in The Two Gentlemen, Love’s Labor’s Lost and Richard II he claimed he could distinguish Shakespeare’s hand as easily as one could recognize the brilliant brush strokes with which a Titian might have sought to touch up a mere daub. Malone in 1790, in his often quoted dissertation on Henry VI, did not recognize Shakespeare’s hand except in some passages of the second and third parts and thought that the first part came entirely from one of Shakespeare’s predecessors. (32)
The difference between these early questioners and Delia Bacon is that they never disputed the existence of a William Shakespeare as author, however sparing his touch. As lawyers and doctors began openly questioning the Stratford biography, Frederick Fleay and the so-called disintegrators got ever more severe in limiting the evanescent Shakespeare’s involvement in the production of the canon. Clinging like drowning survivors of shipwreck to that crumbling bit of flotsam, the name itself, academics and their groupies continue to defend what, if one takes the long view, never really existed. The first public attribution, by Francis Meres in 1598, is hardly solid since it stands alone while the book that introduces Shakespeare’s name to the reading public was his only connection with the world of poetic literature. The other attribution, that found in the First Folio of 1623, is fragile in the extreme, and nothing since has done anything to solidify it, quite the reverse. We’re left with Authority’s age-old pronunciamento: “It’s so because I say it’s so.”
That someone wrote the magic and that during the 1590s the name WilliamShakespeare got attached to it along with a good deal else that’s questionable is all we can be certain of, and all that anyone could be certain of for a very long time. Beginning with Delia, the search began to replace the name with that of a writer whose biography made more sense, keeping Shakespeare only to identify the canon, as in A.W. Pollard’s article of 1917: “Shakespeare’s fight with the Pirates,” in which by Shakespeare he meant, not the author, but the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and their precious playbook.
The questioning has taken new turns over the years. At the beginning it must have been about who was writing the plays that began to be performed in the early 1590s. This was answered in 1598 when three of the most popular plays were published as by William Shake-spear (Richard III) or Shakespeare (Richard II and Romeo and Juliet), the same time that it (the name) was introduced to the reading public via the Meres book as the author of several other plays as well, no doubt popular plays, and of certain “sugar’d sonnets.” Some readers were already familiar with the name from the title pages of two narrative poems published four and five years earlier, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Thus towards the end of the 1590s, long after the first versions of some of the plays had been seen by audiences (the Contentions and True Tragedies), they had a name for the author, but they never had the man himself. The lack of any solid history of William’s presence in London, of letters to him from other writers or from him to other writers or from anyone to anyone else about him, suggests that the questioning must have continued, which the ambiguous wording of the front material in the First Folio was intended to put to rest. That this wording continued through later editions suggests that the questioning continued until, as Feuillerat reports, the emphasis began to shift to questions about what seemed to be other hands of far less ability.
Long story short: the authorship question has been around from the beginning, it has simply shifted focus repeatedly from one aspect to another. Where it rests at the moment, on which of several candidates actually wrote the works attributed to the Stratford money-lender, is only one stage in the long ongoing question of who actually wrote the canon, and, perhaps most important, why it’s taking so long to come up with an answer.
One of the reasons why it’s been so hard to convince the world that the Stratford story is a sham is that no one’s ever come up with a single strong reason why the true author’s identity had to be hidden. Those who first drew the public’s attention to the subject in the 19th century pointed to his obvious knowledge of Court life, claiming that courtiers of stature would have hidden their involvement in the then déclassé public stage. Certainly this is true, but for most it doesn’t explain why the cover-up had to continue so long after the author’s death. Sir Philip Sidney’s work was in print, over his name, six years after his death. Oxford’s uncle, the “Poet Earl” of Surrey, was similarly published over his within ten years of his death. So why not Oxford’s?
Most of the bigger things in life occur for more than one reason. If you look at your own life, you’ll see that you went to college for more than one reason, that you picked a particular college for more than one reason, that you married a particular person for more than one reason, changed jobs, bought a house, divorced, always for more than one reason. Nations go to war for more than one reason, and resist going to war for more than one reason. Just so, the Shakespeare authorship got hidden for more than one reason.
Had this not been the case, had it not been first to one person’s advantage (his own), then his tutor’s advantage, then to his guardian’s advantage, then to an entire community’s advantage, and ultimately to the advantage of the company he started, one that initiated an industry that has come to be seen as the fourth branch of government, the voice of the people, the truth would surely have been revealed somewhere. But it wasn’t, it didn’t, and some of these reasons have not faded with time. For the fact is, that there never was, during Oxford’s lifetime, any advantage to him, to his family, to the theater companies he created and those who profitted by them on into succeeding centuries, for the truth to be revealed to the public; never any advantage to any of these, and plenty of disadvantages.
Not everyone who knew the secret knew it in its entirety, that is, some knew one thing, some another, but the likelihood is that no one knew all that he was writing, or later, all that he had written. Even to this day there is disagreement over what was his and what was by some other writer or editor. The committee that produced the First Folio could collect versions of the plays from the various friends, actors, and printers who held them, but how sure could they be of what was and wasn’t his? Nothing was signed, and because like most men of his class, he dictated to secretaries, nothing was in his own handwriting.
Certainly the Queen knew that particular plays were his, at least since 1598, when the Meres book was published, at least of those plays named by Meres and most likely a dozen more, but it is very likely that of the 38 accepted plays and the 15 to 20 suggested early plays, there were some that she knew nothing about, and those she knew may very well have differed from the versions we know, because it was not advisable that she know the versions played for the West End audience, or on the road, or for a particular private gathering.
As Secretary of State, Oxford’s guardian (then his father-in-law) William Cecil/Ld Burghley had oversight over the press, so he knew all about using both the stage and the press for propaganda; it’s a fact that he made use of both in his early years as Elizabeth’s first Secretary of State. Burghley was instrumental in bringing printers over from the Continent to publish those works he considered essential to a reformation education. Though unfortunately his biographer, Conyers Read, does not elaborate, he refers to the press as “the weapon Cecil knew best.” Since Oxford lived with Cecil during the years he first began to publish, years when Cecil was doing his own propaganda, it was from him that he learned how to publish on the sly. Knowing him as well as he did, he also learned how to work around him.
ACT I: Hidden in plain sight
When he first began to write, no one, including the boy himself, had any idea where it would take him or how important his work would turn out to be. In fact the field in which he would flourish so luxuriously, English literature, hardly existed before he began transforming it. Given the intense, bustling environment at Cecil House, surrounded by poets and translators in that important age group for a young artist, six to ten years his seniors; then in his late teens at Court, with a ready-made audience hungry for sophisticated, educated entertainment; what would end as the most important body of work since Chaucer two and a half centuries earlier began simply as a lark, a folie, a bit of “pickle herring,” something to entertain the lads at Cecil House, then the ladies at Court.
The authorship issue was never about writing anyway, it was always about publication. So long as he wrote just for the Court community via the traditonal handwritten manuscript exchange there was no problem. But creating hundreds of printed copies for sale to all comers meant making public what the Court saw as its own private pleasure, making it available, if to a far smaller public than today’s where almost everyone can read, yet it meant revealing it to the same 15 to 20 percent of the population most eager to pry into Court secrets. And it was publishing that interested Oxford.
Writing was no big deal, everyone he knew did it. It was creating books that fascinated him; books, those magical vehicles of culture, that could carry a man’s life and reputation for hundreds, thousands of years into the future so that readers would come to know someone like Alexander the Great, or even the mythical Achilles, as though they had lived with him; knowing him better in some ways than they knew their own families. Publishing was also the best means of hiding his identity as author. While handwritten manuscripts could be traced back, if not to directly to himself, then to someone who knew who wrote it, typeset print was anonymous. All that identified the author was the name on the title page, or registered with the Stationers, and that could be faked a lot more easily than handwriting.
Taking advantage of the traditions of his class as patrons of the arts, Oxford began a long career of publishing what he regarded as important works, some by his friends, some his own, some translations of famous foreign works, , some about science, or music, or psychology, or but mostly works of the imagination, stories and poems.
In this he was also following in his guardian’s footsteps, although most of what he considered worth publishing differed considerably from Burghley’s view of what was important. Reformation ideologues, William Cecil and his in-laws occupied the legal and social center of a deadly serious, extremely repressive Reformation culture that saw adherence to Protestant beliefs as paramount. They also saw sex as filthy and satire as rebellion. So Oxford’s first step in what would become the long and complex process of hiding his authorship began by persuading pals like George Gascoigne and his uncle Arthur Golding to let him use their names so he could get his plays and poems published without Burghley’s permission, possibly even without his knowledge of their source.
Though not aware of everything Oxford wrote, William Cecil must have been aware of his ward’s talent. That would have been impossible to hide, and, as a propagandist himself, he probably saw the boy’s gifts as something he might put to future use. The ward, however, was destined to take a different path in life, one he wanted his guardian, and his guardian’s wife, and her family (and perhaps even his own wife), to know as little about as possible. In his teens, his writing was just a lark, something to entertain his friends before settling down to––as he would often term it––“a graver labour.”
By his late teens, when he was more or less on his own at Court, there was no need to hide from the other members of the Court things like his madrigals and interludes written for holiday performance. On the other hand, satires or poems that touched dangerously on intimate matters, however discreetly distributed within his own circle, must inevitably have spread further, raising eyebrows along with the question of their authorship. So long as none of this escaped the confines of the Court community there was no real harm in it. But when, just before taking off for a year on the Continent, in a first of many anthologies, he published along with love poems by himself and his friends, a “tale” that dwelt too obviously on the sex lives of certain courtiers, it released a firestorm of furious retribution. This did nothing to prevent him from publishing, but it did help to make him more cautious about what and how he published.
ACT II: Birth of a professional
Then in 1572, when the Earl of Sussex came on board as Lord Chamberlain of the Royal Household, what had begun as a lark began turning serious. At that time it was still the Earl of Leicester who ran the Court Stage, but Sussex, who hated Leicester, was determined to get the oversight of Court entertainment back where it had been for centuries, in the Lord Chamberlain’s hands, that is, under his own control. And unlike Leicester, whose taste ran to more old-fashioned stuff, Sussex understood how important the Court Stage could be in winning hearts and minds, not only at Court, but with the influential West End community that lived and worked within walking distance of Whitehall. Quickly bored by the constraints of what he could and could not produce at Court, it was this audience he was most eager to reach. Thus it was that the choristers at Paul’s Cathedral, known to theater history as Paul’s Boys, began performing Oxford’s plays, first at Court, then for a week or two after, at the little theater connected to the Cathedral.
If a professional is defined as someone who works to a schedule, who provides for a public demand, who competes successfuly with others in the same line, as opposed to someone who merely hangs out a shingle, frames a certificate, and earns a living wage, then by age 25 Oxford was functioning as a professional dramatist. Not that that was his ambition; not at all. His ambition from childhood had been to follow his ancestors as his nation’s foremost military leader. Fate, however, had other plans. The times were not right for someone of his station to risk his life in dubious battle––not while the British Media was straining to be born. Paul’s Boys were only one of a number of companies that sprang into being at that time, foremost among them the men who wore Leicester’s livery, but who were free to play for anyone who could pay.
As competition for space at the theater inns became intense, trouble with the City officials increased. For them it was one thing to deal with the rowdy holiday crowds for a few weeks in December and January, a tradition too old and too ingrained to stop, even for determined Reformation puritans, which is what most London mayors were at that time––but to allow it to continue on into the spring and summer was, so far as they were concerned, simply out of the question. Their escalating demands to “pluck down” the theaters drove the Privy Council to seek solutions. Thus it may well have been Sussex who persuaded Burghley and the Queen to finally let Oxford have his much desired tour of the Continent, particularly to Italy where he could see at first hand how the Italians did it.
To Sussex and his relatives on the Council, Lord Hunsdon and Lord Charles Howard, the Stage as a factor in English society was obviously not going to be suppressed. Rather than fight it, they must join it, regulate it, and use it to promote Crown policy. That this was in any way the motivation for Oxford’s trip would have to be kept to themselves, since any sign to the City or the Clergy that the Council’s interest in the burgeoning London theater went beyond the Queen’s right to her “solace” would cause even more trouble than was already the case. For Burghley this may have seemed like a way to keep his wayward son-in-law in the fold. For enemies like Leicester and Hatton it meant getting him out of the way, at least for awhile.
Oxford had a lot of reasons for wanting to visit Italy. Not only was it the source of the Italian Renaissance, of the western world’s most dazzling art and architecture, home to painters like Titian, scholars like Jerome Cardan and poets like Tasso, it was also where the immensely popular comedia dell’arte troupes were performing on the streets and in the halls of princes, and where the great architect Andrea Palladio was constructing experimental theaters of the sort that he and Sussex and Hunsdon thought might be the answer to their greatest need. They had the actors, with Oxford they had the scripts, they certainly had the audiences, and in James Burbage they had both an actor and a builder who had already built one public theater that, unfortunately, had failed. What they needed were better locations and better theater designs. It may be that while Oxford was in Italy, they were already at work on plans for these.
That this was one of the most important reasons for Oxford’s trip seems obvious by how the first two commercially successful, yearround, purpose-built stages in England (possibly in all of Europe) began taking shape within weeks of his return. With two theaters, several adult companies and three companies of boy choristers hungry for scripts, Oxford was now a fully fledged theater professional, duty bound to keep them satisfied, and desperately in need of assistance. This came with his acquisition of the manor known as Fisher’s Folly located in the heart of the theater district. With the financial assistence of patrons like the Italian banker Benedict Spinola, the music of artists like the Italian Bassano brothers, and the transcription skills of secretaries like John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Thomas Watson, Thomas Kyd, and eventually Francis Bacon, Oxford was off and running.
It’s hard to see where he found time to write the first two novels in English history, Zelautoand Euphues, the Anatomy of Wit. With these he performed the first of his great upward leaps in style. What we call euphuism may already have been a fad at Court by the time that he both raised it to an art form and dealt it its death blow, for having taken it to its peak, there was nothing left but to turn it to satire, some of it his own. It does give us an idea of what some of his plays from this period were like. In any case, now that he had secretaries he no longer had to beg the use of their names from friends or family members. And since no one at that time saw any point in publishing playscripts, the issue of their official authorship had yet to appear.
ACT III: Banished: The second leap
Court life was never easy for Oxford. He tended to drink more than was healthy and spend more on clothes and luxuries than was wise. He got caught up in dangerous intrigues and overreacted to the rivalries that surrounded him. Young and handsome, the temptations of sex and the hungers of his heart got him involved with too many women, none of them his wife. His Catholic cousins played on his sympathies and on his bitterness towards Burghley and Leicester for their use and misuse of his estates. Believing himself to be in love with one of the Queen’s Maids of Honor, he dreamed of escaping with her to Spain where he’d been promised military action and a decent income. It all came crashing down when the dishonored Maid gave birth to his bastard in the Queen’s chamber, and he found himself in the Tower for two months, then banished from Court indefinitely.
However wounded his pride, exile gave him the space he’d been craving and rage gave him the impetus to take the second of the three great quantum leaps in self expression that would ultimately place him in the pantheon of the world’s top creators. No longer bound to produce lighthearted comedies for the Court, he turned to writing tragedies for the West End, both the classic Greek and bloody Senecan varieties. With Sussex dead and Walsingham pressing for history plays for the newly formed Queen’s Men, he took refuge in the familiar preoccupations of his childhood, studying the papers that Richard Field and others were preparing to publish in Holinshed’s name, some of which came from his old tutor Smith. Reading and translating Roman poets and Greek plays, his style deepened. Trimmed of euphuistic artificialities, the old fourteeners replaced by iambic pentameter, the most natural rhythm for English, he spoke more simply, directly, and powerfully to the audience he cared most about.
Although by June of 1583 he’d been accepted back at Court and had returned at least to the appearance of living with his wife, he was by then too deep in the production of the works that meant something to him, and to the lifestyle that allowed him to produce them, to ever go back to full attendance on the Queen. She craved a return to the early days when he was always around, dancing attendance and producing the kind of entertainment he’d taught her to prefer, but there was no privacy at Court, and he had to have privacy to write. So there developed a neverending tug of war between them, him straining for freedom, which she would continue to dangle before him but with no intention of giving him anything that might mean losing him. He was the goose that laid the golden eggs that made her Court so popular, and at so little cost to herself.
Restless, seeking new outlets, it was during this period (1582-92) that Oxford launched the English periodical press with the series of pamphlets he published as by Robert Greene. After 1589, when Bacon joined him with their joint attacks, first on Martin Mar-prelate, then on Marlowe and Alleyn, they kept the fun going with a phony pamphlet war in which Bacon’s fictional persona, Thomas Nashe, and Oxford’s fictional version of poor Gabriel Harvey (very much alive but in no position to do any kicking), taunted each other with hilarious abandon, thus establishing the first audience for what would evenually become the British tabloid press. Unfortunately for the lads, neither the Cecils nor the Bishops saw the humor in this, and with Robert Cecil approaching an age where he could enter the fray, the stage was set for the final act in the birth of the English Stage, the creation of the fictional author, William Shake-speare, poet, playwright, actor and sharer.
Coming: Act IV: Shakespeare: The third and final quantum leap
Punning is a harmless addiction, however annoying. Puns are fun if the conversation is light-hearted, but infuriating if it’s serious, where they come off as a kind of verbal sabotage. Habitual punners seem unable ever to let a serious conversation develop. The best puns elicit nothing but groans, the better the pun the louder the groan. Most of us remember the childish puns in silly book titles like “Under the Grandstand” by I.C. Butts, or the States song: “How did Wiscon sin boys, how did Wiscon sin? She stole a New brass key, boys, she stole a New brass key,” and so forth.
As I dug ever deeper into the culture that produced Shakespeare, I realized that puns and word play of all sorts lie at the heart of the English Renaissance, that the rebirth of poetry that it initiated brought this kind of wordplay with it, possibly even rode in on a wave of this kind of wordplay. Certainly Shakespeare himself was addicted to puns. As Samuel Johnson noted:
A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller! He follows it to all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way, sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible.
Like other obsessions, words were both Shakespeare’s virtue and his vice. Identifying an anonymous or questionable play as early Shakespeare (Oxford) is fairly easy if it contains one or more wit battles, a string of one liners in meter exchanged between two friends or potential lovers that form a series of rhyming couplets. When this accompanies certain other traits, you can be fairly sure it’s his. It’s also a way of distinguishing his early works from those of Francis Bacon, whose mind, however much it delighted in anagrams and codes, was simply too pragmatic (too Johnsonian) to be attracted to punning, at least to the extent that Shakespeare’s was, (though Piers Penniless was probably meant to be heard as Purse Penniless).
How interesting then to realize that none of the academics who have taken Shakespeare as their life’s work realize, or at least acknowledge, the fact that his very name is a pun; a pun of exactly the same order as Doll Tearsheet. Will Shakespear––like Smokey Stover’s dentist, Howie Hertz––describes the playwright’s purpose: Have wit, will shake spear! The word spear, or rather the image, suggests a relationship to both the Stage––where “spear-carrier” was, and still is, a slang term for a “walk-on” who simply “swells a scene or two” without having to speak lines––and the Pen, which we recall, is and was then, “mightier than the sword.” Nor could it have passed his notice that sword is a palindrome for words.
Could the pun Will Shake-spear be, perhaps, no more than a happy coincidence? Sometimes pun names arise naturally, but rarely where they have such a direct bearing on their owner’s role in life, and, we might add, probably never where the subject is, as Johnson pegged him, a writer addicted to puns. Does Robin Graves become a grave robber because his parents had a tin ear for puns? Did Armand Hammer make his living selling baking soda? Besides, there’s considerable evidence that William and his family pronounced the name very differently than did the readers of the plays that bore his name, closer to how we might pronounce the French name Jacques-Pierre, one of the many English names from the north of England where the Norman diaspora left so much anglicized French in the names of people as well as things.
When with much digging it became clear that the entire period was rife with puns, double entendres, and all the linguistic horseplay that wordsmiths like Oxford and John Donne delighted in, the possibility that the name Shakespeare was a pun meant to hide the author’s true identity, while suggesting to those attuned to such wordplay that it was merely a cover, brought me what had been merely a possibility as close to a certainty as it’s possible to get.
Again, as with issues such as Oxford’s eight years with a tutor, or his instruction from the age of four, such a pun name turns out to be nothing unusual. Martin Mar-Prelate was just such a pun name, conjured up to describe the writer’s purpose (i.e., to mar, or humiliate, the leading prelates, or bishops). The name Tom Nashe comes suspiciously close to his purpose, as he gnashes his literary teeth at the fools and devils that people his pamphlets. Robert Greene was less obvious, although to those aware that green in French is vert (pronounced vair) it sounded enough like Vere (pronounced Vayer) that Oxford’s friends could make the connection.
That Thomas Nashe and William Shakespeare were real men, and Robert Greene surely one of several from the period (though no one can be sure exactly which), creates an extra dimension to the question of whether or not these names were legitimate or intentional tricks to hide identities. While Doll Tearsheet was fictional, and Marprelate obviously a pseudonym, the reason why Oxford, Bacon, Raleigh and Mary Sidney used the names of real persons was more complex. First the published name had to hide the writer’s identity; second it had to show a community of insiders that it was a mask and, if possible, suggest the true author’s identity; and finally it had to provide a living being who would affirm, if questioned, that he was indeed the author. Without this last the cover might not last past one or two publications, but it generally required that the standin live some distance from London.
The men who read these works with the greatest attention, and who would have been the ones to question their authorship, tended to congregate in the northern and eastern edges of the Westminster community, today’s West End. This is where so many writers lived because this is where there was secretarial work for lawyers, councillors, and members of Parliament. Travelling was not something that everyone did then with the ease we have today. Roads were rough and dangerous, inns were expensive, Londoners had to rent horses––so although there was always the chance that someone might brave the elements to track down a putative writer two days ride from London, it was not so likely (at least not until 1597 when the you-know-what hit the fan with the publication of Richard III.
What is likely is that only men of some influence could get away with such a ploy. They had to be able to pay the proxy enough to keep his silence, while the proxy had to feel for them the kind of respect that would prevent him from giving up his secret even for a fairly lavish bribe. Most important, the community that was most involved with writing and publishing would have been aware that such a ploy could only be engineered by someone from the highest social levels, so it was surely the better part of valor to be discreet.
Finding a standin who met all three qualifications could not have been easy. It took Francis Bacon upwards of ten years to find a cover for his early works (Edmund Spenser), and when he did it lacked the pun factor, though it more than made up for it by being located so far from London that the danger of discovery was minimal. Having published first under what was obviously a pseudonym (Immerito), he was limited to distributing successive versions of the Faerie Queene and other works among members of his Court community via manuscript. Since none of these manuscript versions have ever surfaced, Bacon must have kept them to a minimum, perhaps calling them in when he finally published in print in 1590. With an elegant print version with which to replace the old manuscript, this could not have been too difficult, particularly if he’d kept track of how many there were and who had them. By the time he’d found a proxy for his early stuff he was probably already on the lookout for a new name, one he could use for the voice he’d adapted from Martin Mar-prelate’s rant. The one he found (Tom Nashe, sizar at Pembroke during Bacon’s early years at Cambridge) may not have lived as far from London as Ireland, but his name couldn’t have been better.
People who get addicted to puns, who listen for them or for opportunities to make them, generally get the habit during a childhood spent hearing their elders banter. Having had such a childhood myself, I was amazed to discover as an adult that a lot of people don’t hear puns, that they simply can’t understand what’s so funny about them. Oxford discovered this early on, and used it to hide his meaning from the unenlightened. That he would use the same ploy with the name he needed to get published is simply another instance of this basic approach to the two audiences he addresses, one that separates the dull-witted sheep from the clever goats.
Of course the deaf ear that fails to hear, or at least to acknowledge, the clue that for us punners lurks in the name William Shakespeare is hardly the major factor in the authorship debate, but it is significant, for it turns on something that truly defines every aspect of the controversy. Oxford and Bacon and the University Wits at Fisher’s Folly, Philip and Mary Sidney at Wilton, John Harington and John Donne in the West End, were having fun! Struggling to free themselves from the gloom and doom of the threats of Hellfire, Sin, and Damnation that dominated them as children, they sought the joy that comes with laughter, then ways to share it with a community hungry for love and light. “When I am gone,” wrote Donne, “dreame me some happiness.”
No, William Shakespeare was not the author’s real name; the necessary pun was found in another man’s name, an illiterate provincial who was generously compenstated for the use of it. But if it’s not the name he was born with, it’s the name that describes him, the spear-shaker who––despite the rage of a generation of humorless puritans and envious in-laws out to shut him up––WILL be heard.
Yes, there was a conspiracy connected with the authorship of the Shakespeare canon, but its major impetus came from a very different source than the author himself or his patrons.
As I keep repeating, one of the important factors to consider while attempting to recreate the missing portions of the history of this period is the very small size of the community we study. Accustomed as we are today to vast numbers of writers, actors, theater companies, publishers, agents, and so forth, we find it hard to see clearly the truth about a time when the commercial stage consisted of a single public theater, then two, then three; of a single indoor private theater, then two, then none, even, at the very beginning, a single playwright and a mere handful of actors anywhere close to what we mean today by “professional.”
This blindness of historians to the implications of the small size of the theater community and of the “authorities” who fought its inception and growth contributes to the way they miss what may have been the most basic reason for this long struggle for control, which was not merely the fear of sin or epidemics or riots, but the power of the stage to communicate a message to thousands at one sitting, a power the authorities did not want in the hands of unreliable poets and actors. How new was this power, how astonishing to both those who wielded it and those who feared it, can be seen from the preface to the posthumous pamphlet published under the intitials “B.R.”:
I am the spirit of Robert Greene, not unknown to thee (I am sure) by my name, when 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.
The printing press was becoming a powerful tool in the hands of those who knew how to use it. Not only did it give access to “infinite numbers of people,” but by rendering text in an anonymous type, it could obliterate the trail that led to the hand of the author, or his secretary. At the same time, from a public stage that reached thousands at a sitting, too many for anyone to locate individual listeners, a message could be broadcast with a speed and a volume never known before, and none but a handful of worried officials would have cared who wrote it.
We’ve described how the London Stage came to fill the empty place left by the Reformation’s destruction of the Church calendar, causing the holiday entertainments created for the Court to migrate to the new commercial theaters and acting companies. We’ve examined the reasons why this was seen as a threat by both the City fathers and the Church authorities, why they tried so hard to stop it from the start, and why they kept trying long after it was obvious that the theaters were there to stay. But we haven’t seen much to show why and how, in the face of so much opposition, the stage managed to survive.
There were four faces to the English establishment in London: the Crown, the City, the Church, and the People. The Crown and Privy Council held sway in the then separate community of Westminster; the City fathers ruled within the old walls that defined Central London; and the Church, that is the bishops, chief among them the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London, had a voice in both arenas. As for the people, however disorganized and without representation, they made their needs felt through the threat of riots at the ancient turning points of the year, the traditional moments forfeasts, toasts, plays, music, dancing and physical competitions, that is, for the kind of merry-making that led to satires, pranks and, in times of duress, riots. Since the Reformation had terminated this form of social release, the stage became the focal point for popular discontent. Any move to close it for anything but the plague was sure to meet with trouble.
From the first appearance of the London commercial stage in 1576, while the Church and the City fathers were against it, the balance remained (precariously) with the actors and the people. This was due to the influence of certain patrons on the Privy Council whose mandate it was to provide entertainment for the Queen, and who saw the power that the stage was gaining with their suburban constituencies. (Howard was Lord Lieutenant of Surrey, where the Bankside theaters––the Rose, the Swan, and the Globe––were located.) During the 1580s, under the patronage of Privy Councillors Secretary of State Walsingham, Lord Chamberlain Henry Hunsdon and Lord Admiral Charles Howard, the commercial press was born while the commercial stage continued to expand by leaps and bounds. Towards the end of the decade, both stage and press shot beyond what the conservatives on the Privy Council considered safe. The alarming excitement aroused first by the anti-establishment play Tamburlaine, then by the anti-clerical Mar-prelate pamphlets, threatened their heretofore close to total control of what London, and the nation, saw and read.
Once past the crisis of the confrontation with the Spanish enemy in 1588, the attention of the “authorities” turned to the enemies within, the Catholics, the Protestant dissidents, and the pesky actors and pamphleteers. With the death of Walsingham in 1590, the aquisition of his agencies by Lord Burghley and his son Robert Cecil put the Cecils in a position to to eliminate these through a series of strikes, that, due to their almost complete control over the record, they were able to portray as unconnected to themselves or to their agenda. This campaign to eliminate the connection between cause and effect has left the close relationship between the newborn media, the stage and press, and the politics and issues of the day so blurred that historians ever since have failed to see them.
Orthodox historians are fond of mocking our efforts to clear up the history of this period, deriding the questioning of the authorship of the Shakespeare canon as a “conspiracy.” Yes, there was a conspiracy, but it wasn’t the hiding of the author, it was this campaign by the Cecils, working underground and sometimes “at a distance” via agents, to destroy the genius of Oxford and his actors. That was the real conspiracy. Had they left the record intact, the native curiosity of historians would have put together the true scenario long since.
If I’ve been slow with blogging lately, it’s because I’ve been slowly slogging through the histories of the period seeking patterns in events and dates to complete the puzzle of when and why the authorship question first arose. Now that I have it, I have to find a way to present it as a narrative, which is a thing that takes time and a lot of thought. Rather than hold off any longer, I’ve decided to post as pages what I’ve come up with so far. This means I will risk contradicting or repeating myself, but if I don’t, life being what it is, I may never get around to it at all.
There’s no hard evidence for the story I’m at pains to tell, but then there wouldn’t be. First, they didn’t keep evidence of this sort of thing back then; no one who was close enough to the action to know the truth would have mentioned it openly either in a letter or a published work. Second, this was the very thing that, once he had control of the national archives, was erased from the record by the man who made the coverup necessary. Obsessed with making it go away, he made it appear that the English Literary Renaissance had never happened. If it weren’t for the hundreds of published works that were beyond recalling or burning, he would have gotten away with it. He did get away with erasing all evidence of how it came to be.
Literary historians like E.A.J. Honigman, Andrew Gurr and Scott McMillin have seen the truth. McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean, for instance, see the truth about Walsingham, unlike their mainstream colleagues who still see the great Secretary as little more than the Queen’s spymaster. But without the chief protagonists it’s all just a collection of shadows on a wall. Without the authorship question and the answers it provides about the principals, there’s no dynamic, no thrust; it’s Yalta without Churchill or Stalin.
For years I’ve felt that it was impossible that no one seriously questioned Shakespeare’s identity until the mid-19th century. If there was a problem with revealing it, and if William of Stratford was hired to stand in for the real playwright to resolve this problem, then it must be because at some point the question of who was writing the plays demanded an immediate response.
A man who created something so popular as the plays that made the Lord Chamberlain-King’s Men the most successful acting company of its day and perhaps of all time, would not have gone unnoticed, unrecorded, without commentary, in London or in his own home town as Ramon Jiménez has so clearly and succinctly shown was in fact the case. That there is so little, really next to nothing, in the record about the author as a person, not just a name, cries out for an explanation and this cry would not have waited until the late 19th century. It would have been immediate.
In fact, it was immediate, as Andrew Gurr shows in his studies of the creation of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, though he can’t get to the heart of it without knowing the principals and the stakes involved. No doubt questions were asked throughout the 1580s, but the author wasn’t quite Shakespeare yet. Not until the 1590s, with his quantum leap in style from “Robert Greene” to “Shakespeare,” would theater buffs begin asking with increasing emphasis: “Who is writing this stuff?” (Of course there were theater buffs then as there are now and always have been, particularly when the commercial Stage was so new. )
Although they didn’t use the name Shakespeare right away, the company must have purchased it from William at some point in 1594-95. The first (and only) appearance of the name William Shakespeare on a Court warrant as payee for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men is dated March 1595, so the deal must have been done by then. Why then was the name not used on any of the 15 Shakespeare plays published between 1594 and some point in 1598? It would seem that not everyone in a position to make policy was enthusiastic about using a standin, or at least, not William. Were they waiting for a better solution? And what was it that caused them to begin using it in 1598?
As we might have suspected, as in Hamlet, “the play was the thing” that caused the question of the author’s identity to rise to such a pitch that a response had to be forthcoming and as soon as possible.