Ockham’s razor is a slang term for the simplification that takes place when the truth is finally located at the center of a mélange of clues and complicated hypotheses. We can be fairly certain we have the truth when whole cartloads of contradictions start vanishing, leaving a simply, believable story. But of course, first it’s necessary to stop ignoring the contradictions.
In the tiny community that was the English Literary establishment in the 1570s-90s, there were not a dozen different men (and/or women) who, over this 20 year period, wrote for a time and then ceased to write. There were two who for reasons of social propriety and privacy, used a number of different names, most of them the names of friends, family members, or retainers. These two, the pioneers, are Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon. The other two giants of Early Modern English Literature, Philip Sidney and Christopher Marlowe, who both died young, did not take pseudonyms, though for very different reasons. Raleigh probably makes a fifth, if we only knew which of the anonymous poems in the anthologies were his. (Raleigh wrote only for the Court community, he didn’t write pamphlets or dramas; his primary art was seamanship and adventure.) Mary Sidney is a transitional figure, carrying the torch from the first, gifted amateur generation to the following, which, if not totally professional in todays terms, was closer. And then came those who, again for different reasons, were far more free to write under their own names, writers like John Donne and Ben Jonson.
Why so much hiding of identities?
All that needs to be said here is that they did. Yes, we don’t have much hiding of identities today. Yes, it seems bizarre to us today that anyone would want to hide their identity when getting their precious work published. The reasons why these folks hid are complicated; I’ve covered some of them in other essays. Other scholars have also dealt with this. All that needs to be said here is that there is no doubt whatsoever that during this period the hiding of identities by poets, playwrights, satirists, writers of romance tales, novelists, and anyone who wrote any sort of imaginative literature was rampant. We may question this, but the readers, writers, and publishers of 16th and 17th-century England certainly did not.
How can we be certain that an identification is correct?
Well, we can’t. But we can come awfully close, much closer than any of the guesswork that’s gone into turning the handful of prosaic facts we have about William of Stratford into the lifeless biography that haunts us today. Our methods include the following:
Treating the information on title pages and front material with the same sort of rigor that we question anecdotes and rumors.
Understanding how very small were these early literary communities, and so realizing that there could only be a handful of writers involved in the beginnings of the commercial Stage and Press.
Locating repetitive styles and themes: There are habits and quirks that writers simply can’t eliminate and themes that they return to again and again. When both of these continue to appear together in a series of works––no matter what their title page attributions––chances are we’ve located a hidden writer. True, this was a period of experimentation, when styles came and went and when writers delighted in imitating the styles of others, either because they admired them or because they wished to satirize or annoy them. Nevertheless, if there’s enough congruence of style and themes, a general profile will appear that goes beyond names.
Locating connections between the names on title pages and the Court writers who had reason to hide their identities: Such connections include Oxford’s to John Lyly (secretary 1578-90), Anthony Munday (secretary, 1576?-1580), Thomas Watson (retainer 1583-92), Robert Greene (possibly Essex neighbor), Emilia Bassano (probably lover), William of Stratford (through Richard Field, his neighbor at Blackfriars), and Henry Evans (assistant); Mary Sidney to John Webster (her coachmaker, weak, but plausible) and to a fellow courtier (Fletcher); and Bacon to Spenser (fellow student at Cambridge), Nashe (student at Cambridge), Harvey (fellow at Cambridge), and Whitgift (tutor at Cambridge).
Locating the connections between the themes and subjects of the works in question with the lives of these Court writers: Most notably almost everything ever published under the name William Shakespeare can be connected rather neatly to persons and events in the life of the Earl of Oxford. Mary Sidney can be connected to Webster by the rather obvious reflection of her sons’ situation at Court in the events and characters portrayed in The White Devil and between her personal situation in 1601-1612 and the plot and characters of The Duchess of Malfi (and earlier by her personal knowledge of the events portrayed in Lady Jane, written for Philip Henslowe in 1602). Bacon’s authorship of Nashe by his financial straits and the theme of Pierce Penniless, his authorship of Spenser by his relationship with Gabriel Harvey from days at Cambridge University and (as Nashe) their pseudo-pamphlet duel, and so forth.
And by connecting them in time: It’s no coincidence that Robert Greene and Thomas Watson “died” just before Shakespeare appeared. It’s no coincidence that Webster’s plays appear only at times in Mary Sidney’s life when she isn’t busy with family stuff. It’s no coincidence that the works attributed to Spenser begin appearing just after Bacon arrives back in England but that Spenser’s name isn’t used for that or for The Faerie Queene until after Spenser departed for the distant wilds of Ireland. It’s no coincidence that Nashe appears for the first time during the ferocity of the Mar-Prelate dustup, or that he suffers nothing for the Isle of Dogs, while Court outsiders like Jonson, Shaa, and Spencer go to jail. The timing of these and scores of other events, set beside each other, form the pattern of a very interesting story, if we let them.
No single one of these points can stand on its own as evidence, but when we find that every item in every one of these categories points in a particular direction, we can be pretty sure we’re on the right track.