Tag Archives: William Shakespeare

Deconstructing Jonson’s Ode

It’s clear that Jonson admired Shakespeare immensely. Despite the traces of envy in things he said about him to Drummond or wrote in his notebooks, Jonson was a man of taste and intelligence, who, as an excellent writer himself, could not help but be awed by Shakespeare’s talent. Although clever and highly educated, Jonson did not often display genuine eloquence, yet here, inspired perhaps by a deepening awareness of his great rival’s accomplishment, when he speaks about him he comes close to the language of the Bard himself.

In a dedicatory ode intended to introduce to an eager and adoring public Shakespeare’s works in print, the strangely negative tone of the opening lines is usually ignored, probably because there’s no explanation for it. Why should anyone think that Jonson would or could “draw envy” to Shakespeare by mentioning his work and his reputation in print? What dark element is there that Jonson must address before he can begin to sing his hero’s praises? If he felt so strongly about Shakespeare and, despite the dangers he outlines at the start, is willing to express it in print, we can be certain that he is also expressing feelings he shared with the men and women who sponsored the true author, who protected his identity during his life, and promoted the publication of his works after his death.

That it took so long to produce the First Folio is testimony to the difficulties that this group faced. Anyone who has ever been involved with getting the rights to a body of work of an important writer so that a complete works can be published (or has followed such a situation, or read about it) will understand what difficulties must have been involved in organizing the publication of the First Folio, particularly if, as we believe, the Authorship Question was causing problems for both Oxford’s friends and his enemies, as it had been in varying degrees since the 1580s.

What are the difficulties that Jonson treats of at the beginning? He’s not exactly being transparent here, which suggests that this part was written for those who knew what he was talking about. That he begins with it suggests that he thought it was important. Or could the tone be due to his public role as chief cynic, so that he felt it necessary to stick to his trademark attitude, at least as an opener?

“To draw no envy on thy name”

What does Jonson mean when he states that he wishes to “draw no envy” on Shakespeare’s name? Envy was a word used a lot in the 16th century. Apparently a great many people were afraid of the trouble that could be caused by the malice of persons who envy others, who want what they have, something primitive societies envision as “the evil eye.” Since Jonson’s literary community was well past the primitive stage, why envy should seem so dangerous is hard to understand, unless, of course, because it was much easier to get away with dirty tricks, even murder, then than it is now. Since Shakespeare had long been dead, or at least quiet, by 1623, one would think he was beyond the reach of envy.

In any case, once past these initial snarls, Jonson finally gets down to the business of lauding the man whose book he is introducing, who in another context has claimed he loved “next idolatry” (Drummond/Dutton).

Much of what Jonson says in praise of Shakespeare is transparent and needs no interpreting. There are however two lies, untruths, false clues, “glancings,” that he felt it necessary (or was required) to weave into the fabric of his poem in order to shift attention from the true author to William of Stratford.

“Thou art a monument without a tomb”

However ambiguous elsewhere, Jonson was clear enough when he wrote: “I will not lodge thee by Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie a little further, to make thee a room; Thou art a monument without a tomb.” Jonson’s message throughout this verse and the next is that the book he’s introducing, the First Folio, is all the monument that Shakespeare needs. It seems the author is to have no monument, which is of course untrue of William, who seven years earlier had been buried under the floor of Trinity Church in Stratford under a slab of stone noteworthy for the unfortunate bit of doggeral verse carved into it.

The tradition of burying writers in the floor of the South Transept of Westminster Abbey began in 1599 with the burial of Edmund Spenser on a site probably chosen because Chaucer’s monument, the greatest poet of earlier times, was located nearby. Seven years later the tradition was amplified when a third writer was buried nearby, playwright Francis Beaumont. Still, it seems a bit raw to use his Ode to openly deny the Star of Poets his spot in Poet’s Corner. Why make a point of it?

Two thoughts seem appropriate here. First, following Beaumont’s funeral there may have been a movement to have Shakespeare buried in Poet’s Corner. Why not bury the great one in London’s most prestigious cemetary, where those who admired him could come to honor him without having to take the long trip to Stratford? Surely Shakespeare deserved no less.

Here’s another clue that William wasn’t the author, for had he been, there would have been no reason whatsoever to deny him a place in Poet’s Corner. Jonson’s explanation, that Shakespeare was so great that he needs no such recognition, is about as weak as it gets. It’s also worth noting that Jonson claims he has no tomb and no monument (other than the First Folio). William died in 1616. Seven years later, was the stone with its doggerel platitude not yet laid in the floor of the Trinity Church? Was the Stratford monument not yet in place? If not, then what did he mean by “thy Stratford moniment”? If they were, was he unaware of it? Or was he covering up the truth?

Jonson may simply be using a very old trick in the art of disinformation, namely conveying important information by stating it as a denial. Jonson’s biographer, Richard Dutton, in his chapter on Jonson’s “glancings,” notes that this was one of his favorite tricks. The fact that the authorities repeatedly accused Jonson of doing what he denies is not proof, but it must evoke suspicion. The fact that Jonson so consistently denies it proves nothing either; obviously he was not going to admit it. It is, however possible to construe the denials in the end as protesting too much: in effect, . . drawing attention to something in the writing by publicly insisting that it is not there.” (141).

Jonson may be telling those concerned with Shakespeare’s final resting place that if they want to honor him, they can do so by standing on a spot in the Abbey midway between the tombs of Chaucer, Spenser, and Beaumont. Those who cared about the true author and his legacy were people with great influence who could easily have arranged for a funeral ceremony in the Abbey at night, when it was closed to the public. Whether or not Beaumont’s coffin had to be moved matters little; Jonson’s purpose was to point to the spot where Shakespeare lay, beneath the paving stones of the Chapel floor.

Chaucer’s monument was then, as it is today, an upright structure standing on the floor against the wall, but the tombs of Spenser and Beaumont were simply plaques with their names set into the floor, as are so many tombs in the Abbey and in Poet’s Corner. Unfortunately, there’s no telling today exactly where they were then, since plaques from many eras now lie edge to edge beside each other covering the entire area.

What is most probable is that he lies beneath the statue that was placed in the Abbey by the patron who acquired his name in the mid-18th century, the First Earl of Oxford by the Second Creation, whose manor of Welbeck had become the repository of books, paintings, and probably much else as the peers of that period sold or lost their valuables through gambling and as collateral for unpaid loans. The Statue and its meaning to an ever shrinking community of insiders, was created by members of the Grand Lodge of Masons to answer to a higher deity than the gaping and ignorant public.

“But though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek”

As we have seen, this line of Jonson’s is what set orthodox Shakespeare studies on the wild goose chase from which they have never returned. Why did Jonson lie about Shakespeare’s erudition and how did he manage to get away with it? How did the obvious knowledge of Plautus, Terence, Euripides, Ariosto, etc., (often in the original language) that Shakespeare reveals in his many neologisms escape Jonson’s readers (those at least who expressed opinions in print) and all orthodox scholars since?

Shakespeare was circumspect about his learning. Unlike Jonson, who liked to parade his education, Shakespeare’s characters tend to reveal the erudition of their creator obliquely, sometimes by satirizing it as the confused versions that live in the minds of lesser intellects who had learning beaten into them by their grammar school teachers. Like himself, his more advanced characters often reveal their learning through metaphors and descriptive phrases that will be only partly understood without an educated awareness of their roots in Greek, Latin, French, or Italian.

Why so modest? Was he ashamed of his erudition? Not ashamed, but cautious, as behooved one whose learning so far surpassed even most of his closest associates. And why bother to use references that no one is going to understand? This was true to some extent when he was writing for the Court, but even more so for the public. And since he obviously wished to remain anonymous, he would have done his best to avoid in his published plays and poems the kinds of classical references that would have made it impossible for those who knew him personally to remain ignorant of his authorship.

Nevertheless, the very plots and characters of his plays plus a thousand tropes that made up the substance of his work revealed much too clearly, particularly to a literary milieu educated in the classics to a degree probably never seen since, the kind of education that could not possibly be ascribed to William of Stratford; not, that is, without some serious tampering with the record. So Jonson had no choice but to lie as forcefully and plainly as possible. Contemporaries may have questioned it privately, but scholarship has declined since then, and scholars of subsequent ages have taken at face value this out and out prevarication. Not that they care about the author anyway since their chief interest in Shakespeare is, and always has been, the text.

Jonson then makes up for his monstrus fib by ascribing to Shakespeare a genius that surpasses the “antiquated” Greeks, attributing to him a mystical perfection that transcends Time. He also attempts to salve the fact that he is attributing (however obliquely) the greatest works ever written up until then to an illiterate nonentity by claiming that, as their “father,” Shakespeare’s god-given “mind and manners” shine through his characters and their stories.

 “Sweet swan of Avon”

These are the only words in the entire First Folio that point, however obliquely, to William Shakspere of Stratford-upon Avon. Although not true, they are not quite a lie. No doubt it was incumbent on Jonson, as Court poet and advocate for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, to put something in the Ode that connected Shakespeare the poet with William of Stratford, their chosen proxy. If so, this was possibly the least obvious clue he could have dreamed up. Either that or it could be something most easily translated by those who knew the truth, to a reference to the “grand possessors,” the Pembrokes.

As Jonson’s patron, Pembroke and his Court circle could, if they chose, read “Sweet Swan of Avon” as a reference to Shakespeare entertaining the Court community at Pembroke’s home, Wilton, which stands on the bank of the Avon River in Wiltshire. (There are at least nine rivers named Avon in Britain; avon means river in Welsh.) There is a strong possibility that the true author was present for at least one such production in 1603, when the young Earl and his mother, Mary Sidney, Dowager Countess of Pembroke and former mistress of Wilton, were entertaining King James and his retinue before they made their royal way to London. The swan was thought to sing only at its death. Since Oxford would die (or rather pretend to die) within a few months of that event, the phrase was appropriate in more ways than one.

Jonson makes up to some extent for these necessary prevarications by giving us some important clues about the true author and how he worked. He compares him (and all true poets) to the hardest working of all artisans, the blacksmith, who sweats as he hammers, beating his work into shape. The term “second heat” refers to the phase in metal-working known as termpering when, having beaten the metal into its initial form, the smith allows it to cool, then reheats it for another round of beating. Jonson seems to be comparising these rounds of heating and cooling, a process that strengthens the metal, to the rounds of revision required by good writing, revisions being the “Art” that “makes” a writer, even the most innately gifted. Revisions over a period of years is a better explanation for the anomalous topical references and alterations in language in some of Shakespeare’s plays than the theory that these necessarily reveal the work of a co-author or later reviser, as those who see him as a commercial hack would have it.

“Shine forth, thou Star of Poets”

But the most important clues of all offered by Jonson as to who Shakespeare was and what he actually did, may be contained in his final lines: “Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage.” What does he mean by pairing rage and influence, chiding and cheering? Aren’t these pairs duplications? Don’t they mean the same thing? That Shakespeare’s works, returned in their true form in the First Folio, will both condemn what’s wrong with the present and encourage a return to something better? Is he speaking only with regard to the Stage, or perhaps in broader terms, to what the Stage represents, the power to change humanity, to change the way it thinks and acts. Isn’t “rage” too strong a word for just the pretense of emotion generated by an actor and his part? If we knew that Shakespeare meant, not just to entertain, but to move his audiences to action, what sorts of action would he be advocating? What influence? At what did his pun name manifest: I “will shake [a] spear!” Surely this is what Jonson––who himself got into trouble more than once for his satires––meant by influence, rage, and chide.

Finally, regarding the use of the word “envy,” we might note that the initials for Ned (Edward) Vere are NV. Can Jonson’s opening line be read: “To draw no NV on your name”? Is this another instance of stating a fact as a denial? Could he have meant instead to be speaking to those who knew the truth: “To draw on NV as your name . . .”?

Are we reading a too much into Jonson’s Ode, one of the most significant poems he would ever write in a long career of writing just such models of doublethink? For as the academics know quite well and have stated as an interesting feature of the time, that is, when there is no chance of its casting suspicion on the Stratford myth, that this kind of seeking for a satirical subtext was the very passion of the period, wouldn’t the true author’s followers be studying Jonson’s dedication for just such sleights of hand? Wouldn’t Jonson know that they would be expecting to see their hero acknowledged in the subtle ways he demonstrated so often in his many odes and epigrams, doing a little “sweating” himself to produce something worthy of the greatest wordsmith of them all, putting his true feelings for the man that by the time he wrote it, had been dead for almost twenty years?

Hide Fox and all after

In the second scene of Act 4, we find Hamlet alone in a room in the castle, where he’s discovered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They’ve been sent to bring him to the King, who’s just been informed of the death of Polonius. After taunting them with their servility, Hamlet agrees to go with them and, as they exit, he mutters “Hide Fox and all after.” Notes tell us what we could have guessed, that this is the name of a children’s game, the one we know today as Hide and Go Seek.  Why does Hamlet say this?   What does he mean? He isn’t saying it to his former schoolmates, nor to the audience. They won’t know what he means any more than we do. From this point on Hamlet talks in riddles a great deal of the time.

In Hide and Go Seek, the child who is “it” plays the role of a hunted animal, a fox if you will, who is sought by the dogs, the rest of the children. To evade the dogs, the fox must be silent and crafty. When one of the hunters tracks him down, the hunter becomes the hunted, becomes the fox, becomes “it.”  Since no harm comes to the fox in the children’s game, this role is more glamorous than that of a hunter, so there is competition to be “it.” To be the best dog, the one who finds the fox the quickest, then to be the best fox, the one who can outfox the dogs for the longest time––this is the motive force that drives the game.  Hamlet is a prince, born to rule. Refusing to see himself as a victim, he finds a way to cast himself as a winner––in his own mind at least––one who can outfox the dogs.

Hamlet is no longer a child, but until now he has lived a pampered existence.  Blissfully unaware of the murderous animal energies that drive the politics of Court society, he has, like Prospero, spent his life immersed in books and things of the mind.  It has taken his father’s murder to awaken him to the realities of power politics.  Unwilling to believe the ghost without some evidence of his uncle’s guilt, he sets a trap, a play, to determine the truth.  This works, yet it also puts him in serious jeopardy.

Now that Claudius knows that he knows who murdered the Old King, Hamlet, formerly just an irritation, has become a deadly threat.  Further, by killing Polonius, he has given his uncle a legitimate reason to get rid of him. Suddenly, for the first time in his life, Hamlet needs to get the hell out of his intellectual ivory tower and engage on the level of animal energies with all his wits about him.  Knowing how fear can paralyze action, to encourage himself he summons up a game from his childhood, so that he can act freely, with the élan of a child at play.  Thus it is to himself that he speaks when he mutters “Hide fox, and all after.”

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is full of clues about the author, but these have led nowhere since there’s nothing to be found in Stratford.  There was no prince in Stratford, living in an Ivory Tower.  This author felt safe in childhood, and what does he do as an adult?  How does he deal with the cruel realities of life?  He plays.  He plays the lute, and he writes plays, in which, as in children’s games, the victims rise when the curtain falls and the show is over to play again the following day in a world of make believe.  This author was someone who felt powerless in the real world of power politics, who found his strength and power in the world of the theater, the world of play.

The fox is safe as long so he remains hidden.  There is nowhere Hamlet can hide his physical self from the King and his henchmen.  But what he can hide are his intentions.  From now on, Hamlet, who is of an open disposition by nature and inclined to reveal his feelings, hides them behind a mask of foolery.  Like Hamlet, his author too hides himself behind a mask––the one we call “Shakespeare.”

Why Shakespeare hid

Whoever he was, Shakespeare was a genius.  We may not agree on who he was at this point, but surely we all agree that he was a genius.  There’s something else we know about him now, something we didn’t realize until recently: he was not only a genius at writing plays and poetry, he was also a genius at hiding.  We’ve been playing Hide Fox and All After with Shakespeare for roughly two hundred years, and still he remains elusive, dim, half––if no longer completely––hidden.  But why?

Hamlet hid his intentions because he was in mortal danger.  Is this a clue to Shakespeare’s hiding?  Was he in mortal danger?

Authors frequently hide behind pseudonyms when they publish works that might get them into trouble with the authorities.  (The list of famous writers who have done this is too long to include here.)  Is this why Shakespeare hid his identity?  Would he have been in trouble with the authorities had they known who he was?

Writers often use pseudonyms when they branch out and try something different, so that they won’t turn away faithful readers used to a different style or genre.  (Again, the list of famous writers who have done this, and are doing it today, is too long to list here.)  Could this be part of the reason Shakespeare hid his identity, so he’d be free to change style and genre whenever he felt like it?

Many writers in the past have hidden their identities because they wished to protect their class status or some professional identity.  Was this the reason, or part of it?

Writers hide from family, friends and fans behind unmarked doors and unlisted phone numbers because they need extended periods of unbroken time to get into the creative zone and stay there long enough to make something happen.  Was this why he hid?   To insure his privacy?

As so many great writers have agreed, great writers create out of their own experience, some of it potentially scandalous and embarrassing to their families, friends and lovers. Did Shakespeare hide to protect his family and friends from a posterity that might connect their private secrets with the plots of his plays?  With his villains and fools?  With the passion of his sonnets?

The early modern period was a time when poets were ashamed to put their names to the poetry they published.  In Shakespeare’s day, poetry, particularly love poetry, was regarded as a “toy,” a foolish pastime that healthy-minded adults gave up with maturity.  Is this why he hid?  Because, once past his twenties, he was ashamed to be known as a poet?

This was a time of fierce criticism of all innovations in word usage, spelling, syntax. The messy experiments of a language getting born led to ferocious condemnations of all attempts to do something new. Is this why he hid? Because he didn’t care to hear himself condemned by ignorant fools?

Another reason has been suggested in an article by the Czech novelist Milan Kundera, published some time ago in The New Yorker, titled: “What is a Novelist?” In an effort to explain what motivates a serious novelist, Kundera makes the very interesting point that great writers are haunted by a demon unique to their craft, the awareness that their audience may well be posterity, that their name, unlike that of mere generals and tyrants, may last forever, and in fact, that the fame of generals and tyrants depends on writers, for no one will remember the greatest hero unless some writer preserves his deeds in words. Shakespeare was certainly aware of this when he promised the Fair Youth that so “great was his pen,” that the Youth would be remembered “when tyrant’s crests and tombs of brass are spent.” By separating himself from his name, did he wish to keep his inspiration free from the psychological burden of future fame?

Are any of these the reason? Are none of them the reason? Are all of them the reason? Why do we do anything important in life, marry, divorce, start a family, move to a different town or country, change career paths, go back to school? Isn’t it always for more than one reason?

Problems of understanding the period

To find the fox it is necessary to understand him, how he thinks, what motivates him. Those of us who reject the Stratford biography are forced to deal with several problems that complicate our search for Shakespeare, problems that we must address before we can understand him, before we can feel certain that we’ve found the man himself and not just another one of his colleagues, rivals, patrons or proxies. Most of these problems relate to the immense differences that separate our time from his.

Humans share a great deal across the boundaries of time period, nationality, class, language, skin color, etcetera. We share the need to eat, sleep, be protected from cold and heat, communicate, find work, love, companionship, and so forth, but there are also a great many differences between our time and earlier times, differences between classes and the ways in which we regard class differences, between word usages, between expectations with regard to security, privacy, opportunity, responsibility to family and community, differences between our belief systems today, our views on sexuality today, and those of Shakespeare’s time. Some of these differences bear close examination.

For instance, there were far fewer people then. There was only one real city in England, with a population of less than 200,000, while the larger towns were more like what we consider villages today, and the villages hamlets. Although a wave of restlessness and movement, fueled by economic troubles, was rising, most people still tended to stay in one place and keep to one occupation for their entire lives, resulting in much smaller communities with fewer opportunities for change or advancement. Few people outside the Court community were literate.

The high death rate meant that changes such as transfers of offices and property were brought about more by deaths than anything else, usually causing those who lived longer to have as many as three or more marriage partners. The extremely high death rate among infants caused a set of very different attitudes towards children than what we know today, which in turrn must have affected their attitudes as adults. It also caused women to have as many children as they could so that at least some would live to maturity, which had a great effect on the lives, the health, and the attitudes of women.

The high death rate also made religious tolerance next to impossible. With death an ever present factor it was simply too important to feel secure about what happens afterwards to allow any room for differences of opinion. Today most of us are existentialists who accept uncertainty as the price of living in peace with neighbors of differing beliefs, but that was not yet the case in Shakespeare’s time. Where so much was uncertain, certainty of belief was a necessity.

Apart from religion there were other things we routinely question today that were not yet matters for discussion––at least, not open discussion, including the need for strongly-defined social classes, that prestigious bloodlines should be the determining factor in choosing a leader, and that the political system should reflect a particular religion. Differences like these must be seen as absolutely necessary to our effort to understand both the fox we call Shakespeare and the background wherein we seek him.

There are plateaus in history, long periods where change occurs very slowly. Sooner or later these come to an end, giving way to periods of extremely rapid change, often triggered by a discovery of some sort, or a series of discoveries. This was one such period. For several hundred years following the fall of Rome, change had occurred at a relatively slow and even rate, but with the discoveries and inventions of the Renaissance, change began to pick up speed.

As is the case in our own time when immense leaps in technology have shrunk, and continue to shrink, our planet while expanding our concept of the universe, the Elizabethan era saw similar leaps in technology bringing about an equally rapid, changing and expanding world view. Considering how long their world view had remained at the level it held throughout the middle ages, there is no doubt that this process was hugely disturbing to most. Awareness of these changes was spread by another factor, the expansion of literacy.

As a response to the Reformation, beginning in the 1550s and reaching a peak of expansion in the 1580s, an upsurge in the creation of grammar schools and colleges at the universities, an expansion of their teaching programs and rapid increase in their student populations, plus the addition of Renaissance humanist subjects to their curricula, created a supernova of learning. People of all ranks and both sexes were learning to read and write in far greater numbers than ever before while at the same time, the language itself was experiencing rapid change and expansion, a phenomenon that was occurring in every European nation.

That this supernova of learning was as intense as it was, and that it lasted at that level of intensity for only a short period of time, roughly fifteen years, can be seen by corelating the pertinent records with the relevant dates. Change and growth continued after this, of course, but at a far slower rate. Since Shakespeare is one of the two great creators of our modern English language that lived at this time, this supernova of language and learning must be taken into account as we seek his identity. Where does he fall on this steep bell curve of development? Reason should tell us that it must be neither too early nor too late.  Finally, because this authorship question involves the writing of poetry and poetic prose, we need to consider the place that poetry occupied in European minds at that time.

Poetry, so important to antiquity, has lost its significance today because it’s no longer needed as it was then. In Shakespeare’s day, although the need was already gone, centuries of habit continued to regard it with respect as a legacy of the aeons that we dismissively term the “oral tradition.” Before people could read and write, poetry and song were the means with which they preserved their cultures in memory, the vehicles whereby an immensely rich culture was passed from each generation to the next.

Poetry is language woven together through the use of mnemonics, tricks of sound that make things easier to remember because they stick in the mind. There are three major mnemonics: rhythm (or meter), rhyme, and alliteration. These, with the addition of song, are the means with which all peoples who do not write keep their cultures alive.  With the development of writing, people no longer had to keep everything, their history, their traditions, their stories, their wisdom, in their memories, they could simply write them down and refer to them when necessary. Nevertheless, although mnemonics, and eventually poetry itself, were no longer necessary, for the centuries preceding printing, tradition kept poetics alive, so that most ancient works of philosophy, religion, history, science, and medicine continued to be written in some form of poetry. Today we think of poetry as a vehicle for personal and emotional themes, but in ancient times, everything was written in poetry if it was to be kept in memory.

Although it wouldn’t be until our own time that schoolchildren––in America at least––would no longer be required to memorize a handful of poems, Shakespeare’s period, due to the Reformation attitudes towards art and the rapid increases in printing and education, saw the importance of poetry being seriously questioned for the first time.

Renaissance vs. Reformation

The great cultural revolution known as the European Renaissance, imported from Southern Europe, came late to England, and when it arrived it was almost immediately modified by another great cultural revolution, the Protestant Reformation, imported from Northern Europe. They reinforced each other in some respects, particularly in encouraging education, but in others they clashed, creating a tension that continues to exist in the English-speaking culture today. This tension was at high voltage during Shakespeare’s time. While the Renaissance craved art, music and poetry, the Reformation tended to frown on the arts as, at best, a waste of the Lord’s precious time, at worst, tools of the Devil.

Following the period of the most intense growth of education came a second period of rapid change, one that also lasted a fairly short period of time, roughly the two decades that spanned the 1580s and 1590s. During this period language and style developed at a breathless pace.

It began at a pathetically low level. Try reading a few pages of Sir Thomas Hoby’s 1561 translation of Baldassare Cortegiano’s The Courtier. Hoby’s attempt to translate this Italian masterpiece into English is so turgid, so stilted, so convoluted, that over and over, the editor finds it necessary to translate so the reader can understand what the Italian original had intended. Or try some of the jog-trot poetry of Thomas Churchyard or George Whetstone. C.S. Lewis called this the “drab era.” Although education was increasing during this period by leaps and bounds, most teaching was still done in Latin, while English remained as stark and awkward as ever.

But by 1600, two short decades later, the standard had climbed to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached either before or since, that set the bars for every writer of English to come later. This was a bell curve of change so steep it’s almost vertical. While the previous generation saw a supernova of education, the era of Marlowe, Sidney, Bacon and Shakespeare created a supernova of culture.

What caused this abrupt and rapid change? Certainly the preceding upsurge in printing and education had a great deal to do with it. But was there more to it than that?

Birth of the commercial media

This cultural supernova was fueled by an extremely important event in English history, one that, so far as I can see, has not been given its due. This momentous event was the birth of the commercial stage and the commercial press in the mid-1580s. Historians haven’t rated this in proportion to its importance in the history of the English-speaking peoples, not just their literary history, but a far more important development in the grand scheme of things, namely the history of Democracy. As the people of London began to make their will known by the plays they supported and the pamphlets they read, a new branch of government was born: the Fourth Estate, the voice of the people, the vox populi, what today we call the Media, a phenomenon that simply did not exist before the mid-1580s.

Before that, plays and books were dependent on wealthy patrons to get produced.   Following the Edwardian Reformation, when printing took off, roughly 90 percent of everything published were sermons or translations of religious tracts, with five percent how-to books or other works of self-improvement. But with the popularity of plays like The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine, and of pamphlets like Robert Greene’s romances, a wealthy patron was no longer necessary––for these paid for themselves. Now theater owners and publishers could produce works based purely on their appeal to the public. From this point on, writers began to write what they believed readers and audiences would want to read, rather than what someone thought they ought to read.

This was the beginning of democracy in action, a bloodless revolution––well, relatively bloodless––and, perhaps because it was relatively bloodless, it hasn’t been seen in its true light.  So why did it occur at this particular moment in time?

Hunger for entertainment

For centuries the Church had filled all the entertainment needs of the public at large. Almost every week some Saint’s Day provided an excuse for a feast, while at least once per season there would be a full blown festival lasting for several days, offering an excuse to dress up, dance, feast, drink, play games and make elaborate processions to the local parish church. These gave the people something to look forward to throughout the days and weeks of the year. With the Protestant Reformation, most of this came to an end. Such carryings-on were seen by the early reformers as papistical pandering to pagan disorder. Yule logs were banned––may poles torn down.

For centuries certain inns in London and the larger towns had doubled as theatres when acting troupes came to town. With the loss of the Church calendar, people began to spend more time and more money in the theater inns, to the point where business entrepreneurs like James Burbage and his brother-in-law thought a building dedicated solely to plays might be able to support itself.   This they just barely managed to do until the mid-80s when The Spanish Tragedy and Tamburlaine showed that with the right play and the right performers, significant profits could be made from the enthusiasm of an audience willing to pay its penny, not once, not twice, but whenever the play was performed.

As for the commercial press, the same scenario held, though on a considerably smaller scale, since pamphlet sales were limited to the reading public, which at that time was probably roughly five to ten percent of the population. And while a pamphlet might eventually reach 500 readers, a play could reach thousands. According to Thomas Nashe, by 1592, 10,000 people had seen Henry the Sixth.

Later historians may have missed the significance of this revolution, but the Crown, the City and the Church certainly did not. Throughout this period they made continuous and frantic efforts to stop or at least control their growth, and even to banish them altogether. But as a poet once put it: “stop running water and it will rage”––once a revolution has been launched in full force, there’s no stopping it.

By the end of the ’90s, the booming commercial theater and press began to produce a small corps of professional writers. By professional we mean that they could live, or at least hope to live, on the proceeds of their writing­­––something that is difficult at any time, but was, until then, so impossible that no one bothered to try. Point being, there simply were no commercial writers at the beginning of this revolution. There were scriveners who made their living acting as secretaries to the illiterate public at large, who, for a small fee would read to them the letters they received and write letters for them, but this trade was not an art.

In the end it was a small community of university-trained secretaries and tutors to the well-to-do that would provide the budding media with professional writers, but that did not happen until the very end of the century.

As for the actors, until the 1580s most performers had a trade that kept them going between holidays. Once the stage went commercial, and there was work year-round, talented actors simply gave up their “day gigs.”  But the situation was different for the writers who would provide the material that actors and theater owners relied upon. Until the professional writers began to appear in the early 17th century––Jonson, Chapman, Daniel, Drayton, Dekker, Beaumont and Fletcher––who was doing the writing on which the actors and theater owners––and audiences––relied for their entertainment? The answer is, we really don’t know.

This is a mystery of much greater proportions that just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Who wrote these early pamphlets and plays? Who kick-started this literary revolution? If we go solely by the records, Shakespeare played no part in the production of these first commercial plays from the 1580s. There must have been several hundred plays written by the beginning of the nineties for the various boy companies, the Queen’s Men and the Lord Strange’s Men. Apart from the occasional one-timer like Udall or Wilson, for all of these we have authors for no more than 17 plays and for these, only four authors: 4 plays from Christopher Marlowe, 9 from John Lyly, 1 from Thomas Kyd, and 3 from Robert Greene [Orlando, James IV, Friar Bacon, ]––and two of the four authors, Kyd and Greene, are no more than conjectures. Since pamphlets required names on the title page, we have a few of these, but for genuinely literary pamphlets, only two names stick out, Robert Greene and Thomas Nashe.

Groups or coteries

First: no lasting revolution was ever engineered by a single individual. Revolutions are always created by groups. They may center around a single inspiring leader, but it requires a group to accomplish any set of common goals or to create an accepted standard. By the same token, great artists, who are almost always revolutionaries of a sort, do not create out of a vacuum. Invariably they have colleagues and rivals, if not equal in genius, then close enough to stimulate them to reach for greater heights.

Second: nothing is so powerful in stimulating human action as competition, whether for food, power, or recognition, even if the recognition is only from a handful of others of like mind.

Third: writers and performers need audiences. And no artist finds a better, more stimulating, audience than that provided by his or her peers. That we see no evidence of any connection between the artists who stand out from this period: Shakespeare, Philip and Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, not to mention Jonson, Marlowe, Peele, Kyd, etc., does not mean, as the academics seem so strangely willing to accept, that they had no connection with each other. Of course they did. Birds of a feather flock together. Just because we don’t see any evidence doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What does a bear do in the woods? Do we need an affadavit?

So here’s another dog that didn’t bark in the night, another anomaly in the orbit of the visible planets.

And the fact that there is no evidence of what common sense demands––should tell us something else––namely that such a connection was hidden––that concern with each other or time spent together was not something to spread about or refer to in print. What behaviors are acceptable in public and what are acceptable only within the privacy of the family or private coterie is something that every child learns very early, if not at his mother’s and father’s knee, then at the knee of his tutor or her governess.

This can hardly be considered a “conspiracy,” as least not as the Stratfordians derisively term it. Is it a conspiracy when a man and a woman who are married to other partners have lunch together in some out of the way bistro, and then simply don’t tell anyone about it?   Or when politicians from opposing parties get together in private to discuss a sensitive issue and neglect to inform the newspapers?

Very little of what was done and said in those days wound up in the records if the letters that survived with the legend “burn this” inscribed at the bottom are any indication. There’s no reason why writers who were members of different and sometimes opposing coteries would leave any record of their connections with each other, or why those who worked for them would reveal relationships that their employers preferred to remain hidden. There were no paparazzi in those days. Not only was there no yellow journalism in those days, there was no journalism period.

There was not just one fox in this game of hide and go seek, but several. Why? Because this was a revolution and the stakes couldn’t have been higher. Were they aware that they were creating a revolution? Maybe, maybe not. But what they were surely aware of was that as soon as the fox was caught the game would be over. This was not a conspiracy, it was a game! At least, that’s what it was at first.

Merry-making

To banish his fears of the horrors of an adult reality, Hamlet strives to return in his mind to a childhood world of play. In the effort to understand Hamlet’s creator, one of the prime factors that has been missed by the so-called experts is this quality of playfulness, or, to use an old English term, “merry-making.” In English we call dramas “plays.” Sixteenth-century audiences called actors “players,” reflecting the source of modern theater in the games and rituals of “merry-making,” the English term for the age-old response of the human animal to the changes in the seasons.

At particular moments during the year, the English of all classes and callings donned costumes and masks and stepped out of their humdrum workaday world into a holiday world of fantasy ritual. These moments occurred most significantly on May Day, on Midsummer Night’s Eve, and on several occasions during the winter holidays from November 30th, All Hallow’s Eve, to January 6th, Twelfth Night, then to Shrovetide in early February, also known as Fat Tuesday or, on the Continent, Carneval, the last big blowout before the beginning of Lent. This was part and parcel of the Church calendar as it had been pursued around the year from time immemorial.

But, though they were loosely connected to Christian holidays, these festivals were not Christian in origin. They had grown over the centuries out of pagan festivals, which themselves had grown during even earlier ages out of grim Stone Age rituals––rituals whose significance had been forgotten long before the Elizabethan era. Shakespeare’s early plays reflect their origins in these rituals. Authorship scholars are proving that the sexual greenwood adventures of May Day, as reflected in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or the traditional wedding chivaree, as in Taming of the Shrew, were, in fact, written for two such occasions. The teasing and tormenting of authorities or obnoxious neighbors through satires, burning of effigies, breaking of windows, chanting of naughty jingles, which, combined with a hearty consumption of ale, could lead to real trouble, were sublimated and refined by Shakespeare into the vicarious tormenting of stage characters like Malvolio and Falstaff.  Thus were the crude animal energies that were so feared by the reformers sublimated into a the genteel theater event of the present.

In other words, for the first decade of this revolution, the 1580s, this uprush of expression through plays and pamphlets was done, most of it, in the age-old holiday spirit of merrymaking. Quashed by the evangelical reformers, now it was spilling over the ancient time boundaries that until then had kept it contained within the traditional holiday periods, much to the horror of the Church that had created the problem in the first place.

In any case, these folks whose identities we are tracking did what they did in a spirit of good clean fun, or fun at least. Brilliant minds met to create moments of exhilarating hilarity, the tensions and fears of the regime blown away in gusts of laughter, first among themselves at Court gatherings, then spreading to the public theaters and bookstalls. That we can still hear that laughter echoing in the scenes with Falstaff, Nym and Pistol, with Hal and Poins teasing Francis the drawer, is due to Shakespeare’s comic genius. And when Sir Toby confronts Malvolio, saying “dost think because thou art virtuous there will be no more cakes and ale?” we are hearing Shakespeare confront a rising tide of humorless Calvinists that half a century later would shut down his brilliant, funny, witty theater, leaving it cold and shuttered for two long decades. He must have seen what was coming, having given the last word of the play to the puritanical Malvolio: “I’ll be revenged on the whole pack of you!”

These young Court writers were not out to change the world, not at first. Like kids in school, they were just out to have a good time and were not about to let anyone stop them. There’s your conspiracy––a gang of gifted mischief-makers out to torment the self-righteous, a conspiracy among the real Marias, Sir Tobys, Fabians and Festes, between the real Oberon and Puck, between the real Prospero and Ariel, the real Mistresses Page and Ford, the real Hal and Poins.

So who were they?

None of them are unknown to us. All are known to us today, at least for their reputations if not for their actual works. Most of them were courtiers. Courtiers were the only people in Elizabethan society with the leisure to play such games, games that, like cards, dice, dancing and singing madrigals, could only be played by a group. They were also the only ones with an awareness of what was being done by their counterparts at the Italian courts, by Ariosto, Machiavelli, and Tasso.

How did they do it? By using proxies on their title pages.

How are we to tell who was a proxy and who was a real writer?

Because the real writers have genuine writer’s biographies, their works match their life experiences, and we know them today, not just for their works but also by their proven presence in society where they were acknowledged for their writing.  The proxies show only that they lived and died; they show no evidence of a writer’s life; and their purported works do not match their life experience as projected by their biographies. This is not the case only with Shakespeare, but with all but two of the major writers during this two.decade period.

To understand how the creation of the Fourth Estate in Elizabethan times by the emergence of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press attracted the energies of six or seven tremendously gifted individuals who created lift-off for an industry that by the 17th century saw professional writers emerging from the population at large, it’s important to make the point that this was done at the beginning in the spirit of a game, of play, of a new kind of “mumming and disguising,” of new and more respectable forms of “merry-making” to take the place of the old May games that, along with the Church calendar, were being driven into disrepute by the Reformation.

In my view, which is of course, subject to change with the arrival of new facts and insights, there were six major figures in this revolution that came from the Court community: these being Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, his cousin german, Francis Bacon (we don’t call him Sir because he wasn’t a knight yet, during this early revolutionary period), Philip Sidney (for most of this period, Philip was not a knight yet either), his sister Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (she was a countess during this revolutionary period), and Sir Walter Raleigh. In addition to the Court writers, there was a commoner who belongs in this top category, Christopher Marlowe, the shoemaker’s son from Canterbury.

Just as the history of the Trojan War requires the story of the combatants, their personalities, their goals and ambitions, and their relationships with each other, to understand this revolution of language, we must know the stories of the revolutionaries and of their relationships. Just listing them won’t be enough. The proof is in the story. But we can’t examine their stories, we can’t put them together in a single story, or in a single blog. What we can do in this time, is identify them, affirm that obviously they knew each other’s work, affirm that they must have known each other personally, and that by their works they drove each other to reach for the heights. It was simply too small a community for any other scenario to be possible.

Who were the proxies then, the so-called writers who lent or sold the use of their names so the Court writers could publish anonymously? Whose biographies lack the necessary factors that we must see in a writer’s biography to give it credence?  The men who, I believe, rented their names to the Court writers purely for cash or other forms of remuneration were: Edmund Spenser, John Lyly, Robert Greene, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Watson, William Shakespeare, and John Webster.

Other men for reasons of friendship lent their names for one or two publications: among these were: George Gascoigne, George Pettie, Barnabe Riche, and Thomas Lodge. There may be others, but of these we can be fairly certain, for all of them show similar problems with their biographies and with the fact that the nature of the works that they are supposed to have written does not match the nature of their lives as revealed in their biographies.

Scholars tend to be a serious lot. For centuries they’ve managed to ignore the obvious clues that the death of Robert Greene was a joke. Of these clues, the most glaring is that he was said to have died of a “surfeit,” or overdose, of “pickle-herring.” “Pickle-herring” at that time was a traditional name for a clown or comedian, similar to Harlequin or Punch. So the reader is being told, of course, that Greene’s supposed death was due to an overdose of foolery. You’d think that this would have alerted scholars to the game-playing nature of his work, but so far as I know, for over 400 years it has failed to alert a single one.

Much is yet to be puzzled out, much reading of early works is left to do, many word studies created that may now give us some real results since we have better questions to propose, much time spent in thought, yet I believe that it’s fair to state that the most important of these writers was responsible for, in chronological order: the Gascoigne plays, the Pettie canon, the Lyly novels, the Robert Greene canon, and the Shakespeare canon. The second most important was responsible for most of the Spenser canon, the Lyly plays, and the Nashe canon. And a third is responsible for the John Webster canon and perhaps a handful of plays attributed to other, later writers. That they are grouped this way can be shown, I believe, first, by noting similarities of approach, basic habits of expression, and unchanging personal concerns that transcend all changes in style and genre. And second, through their dates. For instance, it is of utmost significance that the appearance of Shakespeare follows so closely on the demise of Robert Greene and, for another, that Nashe follows almost immediately on the final works of Edmund Spenser.

Finally, the point must be made, that while three of these writers published under other names than their own, the works of the other two were published under their own names. Philip Sidney himself wrote everything, with a few very minor exceptions, that was published under his name, while Marlowe’s plays are all his own. It should also be noted that both of these writers died young, before they were published, while those who published under proxies all lived fairly long lives and all published long before they died. Where Raleigh fits into this picture is hard to tell at this point. Perhaps the few poems that we believe to be his, his marvelous reports and tracts on naval matters, and the history of the world that he wrote towards the end of his life are, in fact, all he ever wrote. Hopefully what poetry was his will become more clear as we investigate his cronies. These are the main players, the authors of most of the important works of the imagination during this earliest period. Others there were without doubt, with possibly equal talent, who chose, for personal reasons, not to develop it in later life. But these six had a passion for writing that could not be silenced, even if for their own good.

What then can I state without equivocation?

First, that the English Literary Renaissance was launched by, not one, not two, but at least six individuals, five courtiers and one commoner, five men and one woman; that they knew each other and inspired each other; and that a number of important and not so important works attributed to other writers are, in fact, the works of three or four members of this group. Second, that their impulse to write and publish grew, at least at the beginning, out of the game-playing spirit of holiday merry-making, and that the hiding of their identities grew out of the same tradition, that of holiday mumming and disguising and that the game turned deadly roughly halfway through this period when “Maxwell’s silver hammer” fell down on Marlowe’s head. From then on the mumming became serious and the disguising a necessity.

Finally, we will not know the full truth about Shakespeare until we’ve unraveled the truth about all the writers of this period, both those who did the writing, and those who took, or have been given, the credit for it. This is the story of, not just one individual, however great, but a group. And it’s a darned good story, and well worth the telling.

[The above is a slightly modified version of a lecture given at the Globe Theater in 2006 for the first of what has become the annual Shakespeare Authorship Trust lecture series.]

“The time is out of joint”

As Hamlet put it, “The time is out of joint, O cursed spite! That ever I was born to set it right.”  When it comes to the truth about Hamlet and his creator, it’s been out of joint for a very long time indeed.

To tell the true story of Shakespeare a number of things are required that have been overlooked by the academics, whether accidentally or on purpose. The Academy and its precursors have always assumed and continue to assume that the public was Shakespeare’s only audience, the Court seeing what had been written primarily for the public for purely commercial purposes. This has skewed our understanding of Shakespeare’s purpose to the extent that he cannot be properly understood.

The second greatest misunderstanding is the lack of awareness of the importance of the patrons, and their true role in the creation of the London Stage. The third has been the lack of awareness of the political nature of the Stage, as it was then and as it had always been throughout the ages. The fourth, and in many ways the most destructive to the truth, has been the utter blindness to the dimensions and nature of the evidence that should be in the record, but isn’t. Finally, the prosaic nature of the academic mind has missed, and continues to miss, the importance of humor, the sheer joy in the power to create laughter, from the courtier’s slashing wit to the slapstick antics of its clowns, is something that can be traced from the puns that so distressed Samuel Johnson .

The audiences

Right from the start Shakespeare wrote with three audiences in mind: the Court, the Inns of Court, and the public. For the most part, the comedies and wedding plays were written originally for the Court. These escaped to the public due to the hunger for entertainment in a London bereft of its Church Calendar by the Reformation. The deeply philosophical plays, those that deal with issues of social justice and the Law were written primarily for the gentlemen of the Inns of Court, often with Parliament in mind. These are the plays with the more obvious political content, and the ones that the actors had the most trouble getting published. But the public may have actually have been his first audience, if, as we believe, he began by writing for Paul’s Boys almost as soon as he arrived in London.

The patrons

The Academy tends to treat the Privy Council patrons of the major acting companies as mere figureheads, whose only purpose was to provide a legal cover for the actors, with an occasional letter to some official who was giving them grief. The truth is otherwise. Without their powerful patrons on the Privy Council there would never have been a London Stage. It’s clear that some, like the Earl of Leicester, maintained actors as a measure of their social and financial power, but there is little evidence that they influenced their companies’ productions. Others, like the Earl of Sussex, and later Lord Chamberlains like his vice Chamberlains Lord Hunsdon and the Lord Admiral Charles Howard, saw the companies they patronized as a means with which to steer public opinion in a desired direction. For them their actors were means to a political end, largely through Parliament. Such a patron was the Earl of Oxford, and while his role as playwright were hidden from the start, there is no argument that he began as a major patron of the Stage.

The politics

One of the constant themes throughout the long history of interpreting Shakespeare is the mantra intoned whenever there’s any suggestion that his works were at all political. While some of these misapprehensions are merely stupid and others are genuinely wicked, this one is both. The only possible excuse they have is that they either never studied the history of the period, or that they forgot it after taking the tests. As historian A.F. Pollard,[1] writing in 1919, put it:

No period of English literature has less to do with politics than that during which English letters reached their zenith; and no English writer’s attitude towards the questions with which . . . political history is concerned is more obscure or less important than Shakespeare’s. . . . Shakespeare himself . . . shuns the problems of contemporary politics. The literature of his age was not political . . . and its political writings . . . were not literature. (History of England: 1547-1603)

The truth, of course, is that throughout its entire history, the Stage has always been political. The Dionysia that was the forum for playwrights like Euripides and Sophocles was used to present political as well as philosophical arguments to the public. If we don’t see the connection, due to our lack of awareness of the politics during that period in Greek history, that doesn’t mean there were none. Seneca was a politician, up to his ears in the politics at Nero’s court. Machiavelli was a politician under the Florentine Medici. And how about Mikhail Bulgakov, Bertolt Brecht, Garcia Lorca, how about Arthur Miller and Vaclav Havel? Playwrights have endured blacklists, exile, the torturer, the hangman and the stake. As Alec Wilder put it in his Introduction to American Popular Song, “theater has always dared. It has troubled princes and prelates alike. . . . Possibly no other art has so consistently taken such extravagant chances in provoking authority.”

That the Academy has ignored the evidence that the first and second Blackfriars playhouses were created on purpose to give access to the MPs who gathered in Westminster every three or four years for one of Elizabeth’s infrequent parliaments does not mean that this was not its primary purpose. It does, however, point to the Academy’s gargantuan ignorance, whether incidental or purposeful, of the history of the period.

But the main problem with our history of the Stage is that most of it is missing.

The missing evidence

This lack of evidence is of two kinds, anything that can tie William of Stratford to the world of the London Stage, and anything that can tie the Earl of Oxford to the works of Shakespeare. These have different causes. Evidence for William is missing for the simple fact that William had no such connections. After four centuries of research, we know as much now as we’re ever likely to know about the illiterate William. The voluminous records collected by Halliwell-Phillipps, Chambers, Schoenbaum and others reach as deep into his family history as it’s possible to go, but in all they’ve produced there is no solid unequivocal third-party evidence that establishes him as a writer, an actor, or anything other than a small town entrepreneur, a buyer of land in Stratford, briefly, an evader of taxes in London, and the source of the name that enabled the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to publish the plays with a name in the author’s slot on the title page. All evidence that appears to confirm his status as an actor or a sharer can be seen as red herrings dragged through the record by the Company’s manager, John Hemmings, whose purpose was to sidetrack inquiry.

As for the missing evidence of Oxford’s involvement in the birth of the London Stage and the British Free Press, E.K. Chambers has provided the evidence for what would nornally be easily located in the minutes of the Privy Council during those periods when the council must have been involved in events that turned on the building of the public stages and the civic upheavals they created. In the first paragraph of Appendix D, titled “Documents of Control” (The Elizabethan Stage, vol IV, page 259), E.K. Chambers comments that “It must be borne in mind that orders relating to plays are probably missing (from the Privy Council register) owing to lacunae”; Latin, not for some paper eating caterpillar, but for “missing portions of a book or manuscript.” The lacunae in question are eight instances, listed by their dates and without further comment, in which whole sections of the minutes kept by the clerks of the Privy Council are missing. That these are periods when the Stage was causing public commentary is easy enough to show.

It’s been stated often enough how difficult it is to prove a negative, but here the evidence of tampering is simply too great to ignore. In an early chapter of Charlton Ogburn’s 1984 biography of Oxford he quotes Charlotte Stopes: “The volumes of the Lord Chamberlain’s Warrants, which “supply much information concerning plays and players, [are] unfortunately missing for the most important years of Shakespeare history.” He then quotes Charles Barrell that the official books of Edmund Tilney and George Buc, “Masters of the Revels under Elizabeth and James respectively, together with all office records of the Lord Chamberlain who supervised the Masters of the Revels . . . have hopelessly vanished” (121-22)

C.W. Wallace, complaining in 1912 about the lack of information in the Audit Office relating to payments made for plays, notes, “Perhaps if we had the Books of Queen’s Payments we should find the records as in previous reigns. But no such account books of Elizabeth prior to 1581 seem to be extant” (107-8). 1581 was the year Oxford was banished from Court and his work with the boys companies was taken over by Lyly and Evans. And, as noted by Scott McMillin, the records for the City of Southampton that would normally show payments for touring companies are missing between 1594 and 1603, the period when the young Earl of Southampton, by then Master of Tichfield Manor, would normally have been involved in arranging for plays to be produced at nearby Southampton.

Doubtless a more thorough search than mine would turn up a great many more of these lacunae, all of them easily assigned to Robert Cecil, Viscount Cranborne, Earl of Salisbury, whose control over the record during his years as King James’s Secretary of State was unmatched by any other, then or later, and whose motives, as Oxford’s brother-in-law, were equally unmatched.

The missing joie de vivre

It may be that in one way the academics don’t take Shakespeare seriously enough, while in another way they take him much too seriously. They don’t take him seriously enough to see the immense effect he had on history, that he created modern English, that he was the first to put to their greatest use the first theaters ever built in England, or the sheer impossibility that a genius of his stature could ever have worked as a play-patcher or learned from writers like Daniel or Chapman. On the other hand, when it comes to examining his process, they take him much too seriously.

One of the most obvious qualities that strikes those of us who read him for pleasure rather than grade averages or professional standing, is the humor with which every phase of a play is charged. Johnson castigated him for his predilection for puns, not realizing that such shenanigans were half his motivation in writing. In fact it can be said that there was a fourth audience for whom he wrote, one as important to him as any of the other three, namely the small circle of fellow writers, patrons, and gifted actors, the “generals” for whom he produced his “caviar.”

These were an hilarious folk, addicted to laughter, but of a sort way above the public that the academics in their ignorance propound were his primary audience; men and women delighted by wit derived from Renaissance educations of the highest sort and perhaps a good deal else that we can have no notion of today. That he gave the great comedians of his time, men like Richard Tarleton (of the Queen’s Men), Will Kemp (of the Admiral’s Men and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men), and John Lowin (of the King’s Men, later their manager after the death of Hemmings) a stage, an audience, and plots to extemporize upon means nothing to these serious fellows, intent upon squeezing every last drop of significance from how often feminine endings may or may not appear, utterly deaf to the beauty that is the ultimate reason we still read his plays and return again and again to see them brought to life.

Greenblatt’s “Will in the World”: not

Beleaguered perhaps by the rising enthusiasm for Oxford as Shakespeare, as our world of Shakespeare enthusiasts entered the 21st century, two academics have once more taken it upon themselves to provide us with William of Stratford scenarios, not so new as slightly refurbished. Curious to see how they deal with the thousand and one still unresolved anomalies that attend “the Shakespeare Problem,” (E.K. Chambers’s term for “problems of chronology”: when were the plays written?, and “problems of authenticity: who wrote them?) I began with the one from 2004, Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World.

After introducing us to Shakespeare’s accomplishments, how he

turns politics into poetry; he recklessly mingles vulgar clowning and philosophical subtlety. He grasps with equal penetration the intimate lives of kings and of beggars; he seems at one moment to have studied law, at another theology, at another ancient history. . . .

Greenblatt asks, “How did Shakespeare become Shakespeare?” Alas, this is not a question he is capable of answering, for all that he has to offer is the same old dodge, tarted up with descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London, laced with facts and events that have no relevance, or very little, to how the plays got written, and so heavy with the kind of conjecture that must fill in where facts are scarce, it’s hard not to separate the wheat from the chaff, there being so very little wheat.

Those of us who read biographies to find out more about the famous persons who interest us should see immediately that, once again, this is far from what anyone would normally consider the biography of a real human being. Nor can we explain its failure to communicate Shakespeare’s life story as a natural loss of information from a long distant time, for why should we know more about Alexander the Great, who lived 2400 years ago, than we do Shakespeare, a mere 400, and at at time when letter writing was at a peak and the Stage a subject of intense public excitement and fascination?  Why should we know so much more about Ben Jonson, a playwright from Shakespeare’s own time, than his far greater contemporary?  And why isn’t the first question to be dealt with, now, after 400 years of silence, the reason for this strange and unexplained lack of information?

There’s no biography here, no story, no drama, no pathos, no real narrative, only a few anecdotes, many of them concocted by the Academy or its precursors to explain why a particular play was written, or what connection, if any, might be drawn to the life of someone about whom so very little was ever recorded, none of which shows any resemblance to the life of any real theatrical genius (Oscar Wilde? Leonard Bernstein? George Balanchine? George Gershwin?), that is, the only connection being the name that was purchased by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men because they had to have something to put on the title pages of the plays when they finally began publishing them. As for the fact that the first two times it was used on a published play (after four years of anonymous publishing) it was hyphenated, well, “nothing here folks,” just another example of how nobody involved in creating the London Stage knew what the heck they were doing.

Professor of Humanities at Harvard and editor of the Norton Shakespeare, Greenblatt is considered a founder of the “new Historicism,” one of those bloody neologisms that have wreaked so much damage on the teaching, and study, and love and understanding, of English literature, ever since the universities in their wisdom began replacing reading and discussing the great works with language science (philolology, semiotics).

Whatever “the New Historicism” is supposed to convey it certainly doesn’t include much history. The realities of the period during which the plays were written, far from the ground out of which they grew, provide little more than a shifting and sketchy backdrop to the same old fairy tales: pleasant descriptions of 16th-century Stratford and London; pastel acquatints; bathroom wallpaper.  We might be watching one of those old travelogues from the 1930s and’40s with which Turner Classic Movies fills out their programming, “and now we say goodbye to old sixteenth-century London . . . .”

Since history provides no support at all for the Stratford biography, what Greenblatt relies on instead are centuries of academic conjecture: “All biographical studies of Shakespeare necessarily build on the assiduous, sometimes obsessive, archival research and speculation of many generations of scholars and writers.”  After 400 years of consistent failure, wouldn’t you think the greatest need might be to go back to the beginning and start over?  Not so. It seems “Historicism” means little more than recycling every cockamamie workaround that 400 years of dealing with the Great Anomaly (the lack of any real evidence, not only for Shakespeare, but for the broader phenomenon, the London Stage) has managed to produce, for Greenblatt has organized his attempt at a biography, not so that we can come to know the man who gave us the great plays––clearly that’s impossible, at least for someone associated with a university––but so, as he puts it, that readers can “find their way through the immense forest of critical resources”!  Well who but a postdoc gives a hoot about “critical resources”?  This is supposed to be a biography!

Says Greenblatt, “the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin.” (12). By abundant he means that thanks to centuries of archival digging by scholars like Malone, Halliwell-Philips, Schoenbaum and dozens of others, we know far more than we need to know or care to know about William’s exceedingly humdrum life in Stratford, while by thin he means anything that connects him to London or the Stage.  Scholars have filled volumes with the Stratford records; the records that connect him to the Theater can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  Says Greenblatt

After . . . sifting through most of the available traces, readers rarely feel closer to understanding how the playwright’s achievements came about. If anything, Shakespeare often seems a drabber, duller person, and the inward springs of his art seem more obscure than ever. Those springs would be difficult enough to glimpse if biographers could draw upon letters and diaries, contemporary memoires and interviews, books with revealing marginalia, notes and first drafts. Nothing of the kind survives. (13)

Survives?  What evidence is there that originally there was something worth surviving? What this otherwise unexplainable absence suggests is that in fact there were never any letters, diaries, memoires, etc., that mention William as an actor or a playwright, for had there been, there would simply be NO GOOD REASON why the evidence failed to survive when so much else has survived.

Why on earth would no one have ever paid any attention to William of Stratford had he in fact been the author of these popular plays?  Why so much attention to Jonson and nothing to Shakespeare?  When does common sense kick in?  Is it going to take another 200 years before this anomalous lack of evidence brings those who have the means to publish around to pondering for reasons why Jonson and not Shakespeare?

Greenblatt asks, “Where are [William’s] personal letters?  Why have scholars ferreting for centuries failed to find the books he must have owned––or rather, why did he choose not to write his name in these books, as Jonson or Donne or many of his contemporaries did?”  How about because William couldn’t write, as evidenced by the six shaky signatures?  How about because he couldn’t read?  How about because he wasn’t Shakespeare?

The education problem

Says Greenblatt, “The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.” Modest education?  What education?  The only evidence that William could write so much as his own name (and even that not well or completely) are the six wobbly signatures on legal documents that are all that 200 years of digging has managed to unearth from the voluminous records that have been the focus of scholarly attention for the past 200 years. The only letter we know of that was ever written to William was never answered (or perhaps, never sent?).

The only possible support for the idea that he had any education at all is because, well, there was a grammar school in Stratford, and of course the great Shakespeare had to be educated, evidence or no evidence.  Yes, the author had to be educated, but is the man who could not even spell his own name that author?  Nor does “modest” accurately describe the kind of education revealed by everything attributed to Shakespeare, the depth of his knowledge of the Law, medicine, horticulture, astronomy, astrology, the literatures of ancient Greece and Rome, of contemporary France and Italy, much of it foreign even to the most highly-educated of his contemporaries.

We are told what books Shakespeare “must have read.” Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that William had read anything.  There are no books listed in his will.  This and similar other difficult facts are “explained” by the academics as normal for the period. Many owners of books neglected to list them in their wills. Perhaps. But points like this simply add to an increasingly large set of facts that suggest, if they do not out and out prove, that William was illiterate, such as the fact that his entire family signed legal papers with an x, or that no member of his family had anything to say with regard to his fame as a playwright.

About his career as the author of the most popular plays in London, it seems his family and their neighbors knew nothing, for had they known there would certainly have been a record of it. The notion that his son-in-law Dr. Hall, who remarked in his diary on having treated their neighbor, the playwright Michael Drayton, might have mentioned his playwright father-in-law in notebooks that got burnt with the trash, is typical of how academics deal with the fact that Hall, who did mention his father-in-law elsewhere, never mentions his fantastic career.  The three passing references to William’s presence in London that are all the record provides as evidence of a London career (nonpayment of taxes in 1595 and ’96, and a sojourn of indeterminate length in 1604 with a family of haberdashers) that these are sufficient to support his theatrical fame would, for anyone but an Oxbridge historicist, be far from sufficient.  Nor is there any mention of valuable theater shares in his will.

Greenblatt’s version: nothing new

For those who haven’t read one of the orthodox Shakespeare biographies, Greenblatt faithfully follows his predecessors.  Bored with family life in provincial Stratford (parents, siblings, wife and three children), Will takes off for London.  Maybe hooking up with one of the London touring companies that pass through from time to time, the professional actors it seems do not hesitate to share with him the secrets of their trade, teaching him to sing, dance, fence, play an instrument, speak with a London accent, and memorize their repertory.

Or, another theory, maybe it wasn’t only boredom but trouble with a local magnate, Sir Thomas Lucy, that sends the youthful genius off to London, probably not for poaching rabbits as an earlier invention had it, maybe something having to do with religion, which, as Greenblatt mentions in passing, was something of a problem back then. This version has William, if not holding horses, then beginning by revising plays by an assortment of earlier (nameless) writers.

The University Wits

When it comes to the University Wits, Greenblatt willingly repeats a number of ancient falsehoods, among them that George Peele was a “reveler” who “died of the Pox,” something Peele’s biographer has proven to be a bad rap foisted on the early playwright after his death.  Playing fast and loose with a subject that nobody really knows anything about, Greenblatt claims the Wits were “snobbish” towards the self-educated William, who prudently held himself aloof when he “saw that they drank for days and nights at a time and then, still half drunk, threw something together for the printer or the players.”  He misses the joke in “Harvey’s” Second Letter, swallowing whole the tongue-in-cheek claim that their leading playwright, Robert Greene, died of an overdose of “pickled herring.” Is he unaware, or is he simply not interested in the fact that Pickle Herring was the name of a famous clown character, something like the Comedia’s Scaramouche?  Was Greene’s death a joke?  And who was Robert Greene anyway?  Questions like these are to be avoided.  Radioactive, they threaten the holy of holies, the Stratford biography.

Yet Greenblatt does see, as so many of his colleagues do not, how all (but one) of the Wits “quickly followed [Greene] to the grave”––even as he fails to acknowledge any connection between their disappearance in the early 1590s and the concurrent series of brutal attacks on Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, by the Privy Council under the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil.  Whenever any real drama threatens the peaceful tenor of his narrative, he quickly cools it with placid adjectives.  According to Greenblatt, for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, threatened by the loss of their means of livelihood in 1596, body blows like the loss of their theaters and the deaths of their patron and manager were nothing more than “disconcerting.”

William’s life in Shakespeare’s plays

Greenblatt’s attempts to locate events in William’s life in the plots of the plays are noteworthy for their utter irrelevance.  His notion that William’s shotgun wedding was the source for Romeo and Juliet’s romance is little short of pathetic.  His claim that the unhappy marriages in Shakespeare derive from William’s own marriage because they have “an odd, insistent ring of truth,” could be said of almost anyone.   He sees Prospero’s concern for Miranda’s virtue an extension of William’s concern for his own daughters, though it’s questionable how well he could possibly have known them, having, according to Greenblatt, spent their growing and marrying years in far off London.  As for William’s anger towards his son-in-law because his will shows a series of interlineations that cut him off, that hardly comports with Prospero’s intention to see Miranda happily married to the noble Ferdinand.  Nor, for obvious reasons, does he extend this imagined connection with his daughters to the venomous daughters of King Lear.

Other views are equally conflicted. Marlowe was a brilliant dramatist, the inventor of blank verse and a threat to the Crown at the same time that he was a spy for the Crown, a counterfeiter, and a violent brawler. Similarly Shakespeare, Jonson’s “soul of the age, the delight, the wonder of our Stage,” was a play-patcher who cribbed his ideas from lesser writers and worked in partnership with sundry co-authors while showing “little or no interest” in the fate of his published works.

There are a fair number of out and out untruths. It seems that Stratford’s Forest of Arden, backdrop for so many scenes in Shakespeare, was in fact little more than a few patches of woods; having long since been encroached upon by the growth of small farms, so that all that remained of it by William’s time was the name.  Nor was tanning John Shakspere’s trade, as Greenblatt states, because while tanning hides was tangential to wool dealing, it was a totally separate industry.

However limited by his precursors, Greenblatt is not entirely without logic when it comes to the plays themselves.  He sees that Shakespeare had no reverence for the Church as an institution and that his “powerful prelates” are uniformly “disagreeable.” Suggesting that Shakespeare could not allow Falstaff to have a scene or two in Henry V because that play had to remain true to its purpose to rouse patriotic sentiment, is probably at least partly why the popular character was killed off in the­ second act. (Another might be because Will Kemp, doubtless the comedian who made Falstaff a household word, had left the Company by the time Henry V took its final form, and no one up to the part had yet been found to take his place.)  He also grasps the purpose of the first seventeen sonnets and is aware that sonneteering was a “game of courtiers,” though he doesn’t try to explain how the humble Will managed to play the sophisticated game with such subtlety and skill.

How long, O Lord, how long?

When will someone of Greenblatt’s experience, intelligence and academic standing have the courage to admit the impossibility of proving that William of Stratford could possibly have written the Shakespeare canon?  When will the Academy turn its attention to what should have been the central question from the start: What happened to the records that could tell us who did write it?  There’s the story, folks.  There’s the missing narrative, the drama, the history, the pathos.  There’s where the truth lies, and where we’ll find it, and so much else, when we begin to look for it in the right places.

 

We need a new paradigm

There are several factors that continue to block our access to the truth about the Shakespeare authorship, and until these have been overcome, or better, simply bypassed, we will continue to be without the kind of access to archives and established publishers that we deserve. What are these factors? First there’s the age of the mystery: 400-plus years is a long time, and, however absurd it may seem to us, the Stratford paradigm is so deeply rooted in the English-speaking mindset that attempts to chop it down leave little more than scratches.

Second: there’s the missing evidence. As all come to realize who research the infancy of the Stage and Press, whenever a particular paper trail reaches the point where it should have something to tell us, it tends to disappear––sometimes permanently, sometimes to reappear once the crucial moment has past. The conclusion is inevitable: someone got to the records before us, someone who didn’t want anything to remain that could connect the rise of the London Stage and the periodical press with the patronage and activities of government officials.

Third: there’s the religious nature of the argument: Shakespeare has become an icon (as Shakespearean Harold Bloom puts it, “the secular Christ”). Icons are sacred and cannot be questioned, no matter how absurdly irrelevant to human nature and common sense. Winston Churchill spoke for many with his response to those who wanted to know his take on the problem of Shakespeare’s identity. Said he, “I don’t like to have my myths tampered with.” And there’s Charles Dickens, who wrote: “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery. . . . I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”

Finally: there’s the attitude of the universities, who­––however grudgingly––acquired their present authority over all things Shakespeare when the first English Lit departments arose from within their departments of Philology at the turn of the 20th century. Having opted to treat him as they would an ancient artefact where its author was impossible to identify, these have continued ever since to refuse to consider any discussion of Shakespeare’s. While not stating openly that authors don’t matter (a stand promoted by Laputians Barthes, Derrida, Foucault, Paul de Man and their students, and their students’ students, and their students’ students’ students) the universities and their co-conspirator, the Birthplace Trust, continue to (silently) adhere to the commonplace: “We have the plays; who cares who wrote them.”

We can, of course, continue to confront these and similar hoggish attitudes with reasonable arguments, but since none but a small percentage of born contrarians are likely to pay any more attention to us now than they have already, it might profit us to take a look at how we’ve been approaching the issue.

Rival candidates or Shakespeare’s coterie?

First, not unlike the academics, we tend to see only what we want to see, ignoring everything else. We read a book that awakens us to the Authorship Question by promoting one or another of the Shakespeare candidates––Bacon, Derby, Oxford, Marlowe, Raleigh, Philip Sidney––and from then on our interest settles only on facts that support him (or her: Mary Sidney and the Queen have also been nominated). Here we tend remain, gathering in conferences and online groups, writing articles for newsletters, journals and blogs dedicated to examining our particular candidate while studiously ignoring the others. This is easy due to the fact that along with no evidence for the creation of the London Stage, there is almost no evidence that these candidates had any contact with each other.

Take Oxford, for instance. The only evidence connecting him with another candidate is his spat with Philip Sidney on the royal tennis court, which was followed by some masculine huffing and puffing over a duel that both knew the Queen would never allow. His handful of appearances in the record point only to his activities as a patron of the Stage with only a poem here and there in the early anthologies to indicate his status as a poet. Were it not for the Meres comment in Wit’s Treasury (1598) that he, along with Richard Edwards, was once “best for comedy,” we would have no evidence at all that he had ever been a playwright.

As for the second greatest literary genius of the age, Francis Bacon, not until 1596 when, at age thirty-five, he published the first edition of his Essays, is there anything to show that he was in any way involved with the literary community surrounding him at Gray’s Inn. The only evidence of any connection with Oxford is found in a letter from Oxford to Robert Cecil (Oct 7 1601) in which he refers to his “cousin Bacon,” not as a writer, but as his lawyer. (Meanwhile, Bacon’s undeniable involvement in the Shakespeare phenomenon is evident from the survival of the file known as the Northumberland Manuscript.)

The Earl of Derby’s connection to the theater community is based on his patronage of the second company of boys at the Second Blackfriars Theater, 1599-1601, and that apparently he continued to patronize his brother’s traveling company well into the 17th century. The isolated comment that he was “penning plays” found in a letter from one nonentity to another in 1599 [Chambers 2.127) is hardly sufficient to take him seriously as a Shakespeare candidate, even though he was certainly closely connected to Oxford from 1595 on by virtue of his marriage that year to Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth.

Gabriel Harvey, never a candidate himself, but a writer whose name can be found here and there throughout the period in question, is hard to connect in any real way with any of the candidates that he mentions in the marginalia with which he garnished his books. He does at least have a potential connection to Oxford in that both were tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, a neighbor of the Harvey family in Saffron Walden, where, after Oxford was off to London, Smith took young Gabriel on as his protégé, helping to get him a fellowship at Cambridge. Oxford and Harvey were definitely in each others company on the occasion of Harvey’s grand faux pas, the interminable speeches he wrote to introduce himself to Court society at Audley End in 1578.

As for the University Wits, the ghostly writers whose pamphlets circa late 1580s through early ’90s deserve recognition as harbingers of what was becoming the London periodical press, recognition of them as a group did not come until centuries later with the scholars who studied their works.   The only personal connections from their own time are the complimentary mentions of each other in their pamphlets. Later evidence of their activities and whereabouts rarely show them involved in each other’s lives to any notable extent.

Last but hardly least, while Christopher Marlowe is occasionally associated with the Wits, his rise to fame occurred without hints of a personal relationship with any writer other than the scrivener Thomas Kyd, whose own claim to authorship rests on the shaky provenance of a single early play. By the mid-to-late ’90s, a second generation of poets, playwrights, and pamphleteers––Jonson, Marston, Hall, Harrington, Barnes, etc.––would reveal their mutual awareness through the epigrams with which they taunted each other, but since they used phony names it’s impossible to establish their identities with any certainty.

The result of this lack of certainty is that academics, trained to go only where the recorded facts lead, have provided us with a worldview wherein none of these writers have any connection with each other. Whatever form their lives may have taken, as portrayed by their biographies in the DNB or on Wikipedia, it would seem that, apart from suggestions that they were copying each other’s style, they were almost totally unknown to each other in any more intimate way than through their writing.

Well of course they knew each other!  Writers write as much for their fellow writers as they do for their community of readers. Hints are rife that particular works were written with friends “figured darkly forth” so that only the author’s coterie will understand who is being praised or ridiculed. Why then are attempts to see “through the glass darkly” to the truth about the authors and their relationships with each other dismissed by the Academy as useless, without value, a waste of time? Is it because that truth might turn out to be something that the Stratford defenders, fearful of the consequences to their own reputations, not only don’t want to know, they don’t want anyone else to know?

Surely, if we are ever to locate the truth about the period in question, so much is missing from the record that it can only be by creating a convincing scenario, one based on human nature and on the nature of other writers, actors, audiences and publishers as demonstrated throughout time. Though Shakespeare himself was hidden, not all of his associates are so impossible to unveil. Sooner or later it will be by discovering and community that will define, by outlines suggested by those who were most involved in creating the London Stage and periodical press, where the Master ends and the others begin.

We can bypass the problems listed above by creating several levels of study. First, a description of the political history of the Elizabethan era and those that preceded and followed accompanied by a timeline of important events. Second, the literary history of the period, with a timeline of important works, plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare, Lyly, Greene, Spenser, Sidney, anonymous and others. Finally, biographical sketches of the candidates, their rivals, patrons, and enemies with descriptions and dates for the major events of their lives. When these layers are aligned with each other in time and place, a believable narrative will simply emerge like an image in the photographer’s developing bath.

The necessary narrative

Until now we’ve focused almost entirely on arguing with the Academy, on pointing out the absurdities in their scenario. Forgetting that the best defense is a good offense, we’ve allowed them to define the grounds for argument. This of course has not sufficed. Because there’s no brilliant rabbit poacher escaped from the clutches of a local knight; no horse-holder cum play-patcher shooting overnight to theatrical stardom at age twenty-nine, inevitably we find ourselves tilting with windmills, and imaginary windmills at that. This exercise in futility has us going in circles, repeating the same arguments over and over. We need to move to an arena of our own choosing, one where logic, not hindsight, prevails.

The greatest weakness of the Stratford paradigm is not its absurdities, but its utter and total lack of a believable narrative. Provide a compelling narrative, one that accounts for the creation of the Stratford fable, one that is close enough to the truth to lead researchers into areas where there might be meaningful evidence, and we will win the day, if not with everyone, then with enough intelligent readers that Authorship Studies will continue as a viable, honorable, and necessary branch of English Literature, one that mends the rift between literature and history, and that eventually will lead to a much needed rebirth of humanism at the university level.

As far back in history as the Greeks and Romans, the Stage has always been a political forum, both for those working for the government, and those seeking to improve it, or to replace it. The Stratford paradigm ignores the political realities of the Elizabethan and Stuart period for the very good reason that it was created to mask what otherwise would have been far too obvious to Shakespeare’s public audience. That public is gone. It’s time to do as I believe the true author did, to reach beyond the defenders of the Stratford biography just as he reached beyond the Court audience that his evasions were intended to protect to the public audience that, ignorant of the political issues that so concerned his enemies, were free to respond to his deeper messages , the humanism that is what has created the great and lasting audience of which we are members.

Yes, it’s true that we have the plays, thanks to the true author’s willingness to sacrifice his identity to the political necessity of separating himself from them. And yes, it’s obviously true that to the academics for whom the Stratford biography has become a religion, it does not matter who actually wrote them. But for those of us today afraid that humanism may be dying, largely due to the refusal by the Academy to allow the human element, the story of how they came to be, it does matter who wrote them. It matters a very great deal. And we should work together to find a way to tell the story as it happened historically, and forget about trying to convince those who, in an earlier time, would have had us burnt at the stake for refusing to believe that it’s the earth that circles the sun, not the other way round.

Did Shakspere write Shakespeare?

One of the ongoing word battles between authorship scholars and academics turns on the spelling of the name Shakespeare. It’s a rather odd name, actually, when compared with most English names from that period. Attempts to link it to medieval nicknames like Breakspear or Longspear have mostly failed to catch on with either side (perhaps merely shaking a spear just doesn’t seem sufficiently impressive to rate a cognomen). Then why when the Lord Chamberlain’s Men decided, finally, to put the Stratford playwright’s name on the plays, was it not spelled like it was in his “hometown” of Stratford?

It may be that no one pays much attention to the spelling issue since English spelling in William’s time was all over the place, particularly when it came to proper names. So the fact that it’s been spelled in as many as 83 different ways in Warwickshire, according to E.K. Chambers (Facts and Problems: 2.371-4), hasn’t raised many eyebrows. Still, even in Renaissance England 83 different spellings might suggest a particular uniqueness about this name and its origin. And since Warwickshire is centrally located within the geographic area known as “the Norman diaspora,” it’s more likely than not that the name originated in northern France, from whence it came over with the Norman Conquest along with William’s ancestor, a laborer named Jacques-Pierre (a frequent given name for French Catholics since both James and Peter invoke the apostolic founder of the Roman Church). This would explain why, in Warwickshire, before the 1590s, the name was invariably spelled so that it would be pronounced with a short a, Shaks-peer or Shax-pyeer, or Shagspyeer.

In a recent article in the online authorship journal Brief Chronicles, journalist and independent scholar Richard Whalen, editor of a series of Shakespeare plays richly annotated with Oxfordian data, examines the question of why generations of Stratford scribes spelled William’s surname Shakspere when it was spelled Shakespeare on the title pages of the plays, an issue that academics generally deal with, as they do with so much else, by simply ignoring it. Those who have dealt with it assume that the two spellings are variations of the same name, meaning that both represent the same individual and therefore the illiterate William of Stratford and the genius who wrote Hamlet must, ipso facto, be one and the same.

One Stratfordian who has given the spelling issue his attention is David Kathman, a securities analyst cum Shakespeare scholar, who explains how he arrived at this conclusion on his website: The Shakespeare Authorship Question (which he “dedicates” to the delicate sarcasm that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare”). Whalen finds, not surprisingly, that Kathman’s methodology is skewed. While sounding impressive, it seems that it’s yet another case of we used to call GIGO, Garbage In­­––Garbage Out. Data itself is neutral; if a question is asked in the right way, it provides an appropriate answer, solid, reliable; like the house of the third little pig, it’s made of bricks. Like that of the first little pig, Kathman’s house is made of straw, and Whalen goes far to blow it away. Readers interested in following Whalen’s arguments (and Kathman’s) in full can read them online where they present them better than I can here.

Why Shakespeare, not Shakspere?

For purposes of comparison, Kathman chooses to separate the various spellings of the name into two groups defined by whether or not the letter k is followed by an e. This is an obvious division since the spelling used by the London printers on the plays of Shakespeare, always includes an e after the k, while in all the earlier Stratford spellings there is no e in the first syllable. While Kathman terms those with the e “literary” and those without the e, “non-literary,” a more precise designation would be those derived from London (with e) and those from Stratford (without e); this because the London spelling has been exactly the same ever 1598 when it first appeared on the title pages of the second editions of Richard III and Richard II, while every version found in the Stratford archives up to that point, however extravagant the spelling, shows the s (or x or g) followed immediately by the k.  These variations, suggest that the Warwickshire scribes may have been attempting to reflect how the name was spoken. Here we have another aspect of the spelling issue, one not discussed by either Kathman or Whalen.

The cloud of misunderstanding that surrounds the crazy spelling of that early period does offer today’s scholars a bit of silver lining: it can help to ascertain how words were pronounced. Spelling tends to follow pronunciation––where it doesn’t, which is often the case with English, it’s usually because some bit of an earlier pronunciation has remained stuck in it, like flies in amber. For instance, we can be certain that the Earl of Oxford and his friends did not pronounce his name Veer, as it’s pronounced today, but Vayer, as it was spelled in 1590 by Sir Thomas Stanhope in a letter to Lord Burghley (Akrigg Southampton 32). As a homonym of Vair, the way the French pronounced the name, and as they also pronounce vert, meaning green, (the French don’t pronounce a final consonant unless it’s followed by a word that begins with a vowel), it’s a name that would carry meaning to all speakers of French and also Latin, for the Latin root word ver, meaning truth, virtue, and the springtime of the year, is also pronounced vair.

Why did the London printers add the e?

Like all vowels, e has a great deal to do with how a word is pronounced, and since the process known as “the great vowel shift,” was almost finished by the time in question, it seems that our present rule was already observed, that is, that an e at the end of a syllable means that the preceding vowel is pronounced long rather than short; thus establishing whether a writer means to say mat or mate (met or mete, mit or mite, mut or mute). Attempts to ascertain the meaning of a word can be confusing where a 16th-century writer has forgotten (or scribbled) the e, leaving the pronunciation to context. But scribes would certainly have known how the terminal e on a syllable affected an earlier vowel, as would the compositors who set the type for the Shakespeare plays, and as, without the slightest doubt, would the actors and patrons of the Company whose decision was, finally, after four years of publishing the plays anonymously, to add William Shakespeare to the title pages of Richard III in a form that required that it be pronounced with a long a, not the short a of Shakspere. In fact, perhaps to make it as clear as possible that this was the desired pronunciation, someone decided that the first time it appeared in print, the e would be separated from the s with a hyphen!

Why then did it matter to the actors, their patrons, and the playwright himself, that as it was published in 1598 on the plays––and in the Meres Palladis Tamia that was published at about the same time––the name be pronounced with a long a?  Why must it be pronounced Shake instead of Shak?  The only possible reason for the change in spelling, and for the otherwise inexplicable hyphen, is that it turns the otherwise sober name of a real individual into a pun: “William Shake-spear,” like “Doll Tear-sheet.” What then could be the reason why the actors who owned the play, and who we must suppose first saw it into print in October 1597, turned William of Stratford’s name into a pun that so perfectly describes the true author as one who shakes a spear (his pen) at fools and villains, and who fills the stage with the great warriors of the English past.

A more obvious pun name in a Shakespeare play generally denotes a clown or a fool.  Of the two servants in Two Gents, Launce is given to pointless responses while Speed is slow; in Henry IV, while Mistress Quickly describes how, as proprietress of the Inn, she is required to address the needs of Falstaff and his pals, the name of her associate, Doll Tear-sheet, suggests how differently she addresses their needs.  Malvolio can be read as “ill will to E.O.” with Benvolio suggesting the opposite.  Even Fall-staff, derived from the medieval general Sir John Fastolfe, can be read as a pun rich with implications for the middle-aged Oxford and his Lord Great Chamberlain’s staff of office.

By tweaking William’s surname so that from the anglicized Jacques-Pierre of his hometown it can be read as a pun on Spear-shaker, they are replacing what would otherwise have been taken for granted as the real name of a real person––which it was, of course, but one that also suggests that the author is nothing but a provincial clown, a mere “spear-carrier,” the timeless theatrical term for one who has no lines and who appears onstage only to give the appearance of a crowd, as William of Stratford is listed with the Court payments office as an actor with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later a share-holder, when in fact his true role was only to provide the Company with a name for the published plays.  With the kind of equivocation that was so richly distributed throughout the works of both Shakespeare and his editor, Ben Jonson––who termed this sort of meaningful wordplay in his own plays “glancings”––the Company was able to launch the authorial name that within a few months would be the key to their astonishing financial success under James I.

Punishing Shakespeare

“So it’s a pun, so what?”  So everything!  That the name that the Lord Chamberlain’s Men chose to put on these plays is a pun should be a factor of major importance to those interested in advancing the truth about the authorship!

Unfortunately, that Shakespeare is a pun is something that, for Oxfordians as well as academics, tends to be ignored as a rather silly distraction, a foolish fetish of the otherwise pure-souled and high-minded Grand Master of English Literature. Shakespeare’s penchant for puns and other wordplay is ignored, or treated as a side issue, not only by the buttoned-up bean-counters, but also by the authorship advocates, partly because they continue to be so locked in combat with the academics that they can’t see beyond the walls of their bunkers, but also perhaps because puns have been objects of scorn for so long that to attribute importance to any pun, even to this one, crucial though it may be, is to invite yet more disdain than the poor questioner is willing to bear.

This might be more easily understood were English literary history to be considered. Following the grim and humorless decades of Puritan dominance of the English culture during the middle decades of the 17th century, as Shakespeare’s beloved theaters were shuttered and torn down and a scorched earth policy directed towards every threatened outbreak of old-fashioned “merry-making,” the English seem to have lost any desire for Shakespeare’s (and Chaucer’s and Skelton’s) enthusiastic wordplay.  As the 18th-century “Augustans” sneered at Shakespeare for his bawdry, most famously, in the Introduction to his edition of the plays, the venerable Samuel Johnson took aim at Shakespeare’s addiction to what he called quibbles:

A quibble is to Shakespeare what luminous vapours are to the traveller, he follows it at all adventures; it is sure to lead him out of his way and sure to engulf him in the mire. It has some malignant power over his mind, and its fascinations are irresistible. Whatever be the dignity or profundity of his disquisition, whether he be enlarging knowledge or exalting affection, whether he be amusing attention with incidents, or enchaining it in suspense, let but a quibble spring up before him, and he leaves his work unfinished. A quibble is the golden apple for which he will always turn aside from his career, or stoop from his elevation. A quibble, poor and barren as it is, gave him such delight that he was content to purchase it, by the sacrifice of reason, propriety and truth. A quibble was to him the fatal Cleopatra for which he lost the world, and was content to lose it.

Society has never returned to the level of appreciation that Shakespeare and his fellows had for puns, relegated today to tabloid headlines (and Cole Porter lyrics), but then society may never again have had so many pressing reasons for resorting to the frisky thrusts of Shakespearean wordplay.  Since Oxford was largely acceptable to both the Court and the public in his role as theater patron, a traditional role for men of his class, he and his actors and patrons managed to keep hidden the fact that much of what they performed was not the work of his secretaries––Thomas Kyd, John Lyly, Anthony Munday––whose names ended up on the published versions, but their Master’s creations.

The worm turns

His enemies, of course, were not fooled by this, so when, as time went by, and their efforts to rid themselves (and the world) of his precious London Stage came dangerously close to success in the mid-’90s, Oxford turned, like a cornered animal––a wild boar?––lashing out with the venomous play that succeeded in winning them their right to perform, but that also forced the Company to put a name on the plays.

With the production of Richard III during the Queen’s ninth Parliament in 1597-’98, Oxford and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men tarred and feathered in effigy their bitterest and most dangerous enemy, the newly-appointed Secretary of State, Robert Cecil, Oxford’s brother-in-law.  As portrayed by the 30-year-old Richard Burbage, dressed in the garb and affecting Cecil’s manner of speech and body language, the news that the Crown’s own company had dared to portray the most powerful official in England as history’s most wicked king silently swept the nation as the MPs returned to their constituencies with the play in their pockets and their fingers on their lips.  Apparently young Burbage had given a stellar performance; for the rest of his life it would be known as his most famous role.

Following their attack on Robert Cecil, there must have arisen a great popular demand, lost to history but certainly not lost to common sense, that the name of the play’s author be revealed. Forced to respond, doubtless out of fear that the truth would escape before they had time to counter it, the Company yielded to necessity. Using the name that their manager had had ready and waiting for a good two years, the Company quickly brought out a second edition with the name William Shake-speare on the title page. Those blind to the pun continued to regard the author as someone unknown previously but obviously worthy of respect, while those who did see the pun understood that the name of the true author was not something that was going to be revealed anytime soon.

Thus, what may have been rushed into print as a quick fix to the furore aroused by Richard III, the author’s pen name was cast in stone, never to be altered for the duration of either Oxford’s or William’s life, or the life of the Company that continued to flourish for decades after their deaths, or in fact, for the following four centuries until the early 20th century when the Academy took up its defense out of some sort of misplaced knee-jerk professionalism, which today they mostly leave to outsiders, to the hirelings of the Birthplace Trust, and the trolls who beset cyberspace.

The Company’s production of Richard III was something from which Cecil, whose reputation, never very rosy with those who knew him at firsthand, never recovered. The Queen, who undoubtedly had been imperfectly acquainted (by Cecil) with the situation before it erupted during Parliament, was the only one at that time who could have put a stop to this contest between her playwright and her Secretary of State.  She was not about to see her Secretary of State further demeaned, but neither was she about to give up her holiday “solace.”

Exactly how she did this may not be possible to cite, but it’s not impossible to guess, for Cecil, who once in total power under James became so adept at destroying those who caused him grief seems to have left Oxford, and his company, alone from that point on. And while it’s unlikely that they continued to perform Richard III until after Cecil’s death in 1612, the published play would continue to appear in one edition after another every few years, whenever Master Secretary got another title or high office.

By the time of his death, Cecil held all the major offices of State, more than ever had been held or ever would be held at one time by any other official in English history.  And, as Secretary of State with total control over the State records, he had plenty of time and opportunity to eliminate all references to Oxford as the author of the Shakespeare canon, as creator of the London Stage and English periodical press, and in fact as anything but the ungrateful son-in-law of the great Lord Burghley.

Oxford, Vitruvius, and Burbage’s “round” Theatre

So far as I know, Shakespeare scholar Frances Yates (1899-1981) was the first to attempt an explanation for how a working class bloke like James Burbage came to know the classical Latin of the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius, since to her it seemed questionable that in constructing his big public theater in 1576, Burbage, all on his own, could have come up with something that matched so closely with ancient Roman theater designs from the first century BC.

Noting the similarities between Burbage’s round theaters (the Theatre in Norton Folgate and the Globe on Bankside), as depicted in 16th century illustrations, to the round designs

elizabethan-theatre

Burbage’s Theatre in Shoreditch

globe-contemporary-2

The Globe on Bankside

of ancient Greek and Roman theaters, Yates attempted to connect the apparent shape and scale of these buildings, so utterly unique for the time, with the precise measurements and designs prescribed by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius in his work in classical Latin, de Architectura. This is not an easy task, since Vitruvius, so far as we know, was not translated into English, or at least published in print in English, until the late 18th century.

Roman theater

Round Roman theater illustrated in Vitruvius.

In 1969, Yates stated a thesis in opposition to the common opinion, which was that the designs of the theaters built by Burbage developed out of earlier English forms, either the temporary seasonal structures of the Middle Ages or the theater inns of Burbage’s youth. She points out that the round shape of Burbage’s theaters were nothing like either of these, but that, however anomalously, they do conform closely to principles of theater construction as outlined by the great Roman engineer and architect Marcus Vitruvius Pollio back in the first century B.C.

The shape of these theaters, six- or eight-sided on the outside and circular on the inside, suggest Burbage’s and his builder’s attempt to create the

Interior of an Elizabethan theater

Imagined interior of the Theatre

acoustical ideal described by Vitruvius, so that, due to their size and round shape, they would allow words spoken from the stage to reach every seat in the auditorium. Since Burbage’s round theaters were made of wood, which, as he notes, vibrates and resonates much like a lute or a violin, rising and expanding sound waves produced by the voices of actors and singers would have been heard clearly in all sections of the auditorium.

We can be as certain of this round shape as we can be of anything about the theater from that period due to a comment made by Samuel Johnson’s friend, Mrs. Thrale, whose husband purchased the land on which the Globe once stood, and, in which, she noted, “the curious remains of the the old Globe Playhouse, which though hexagonal in form without was round within” (qtr by Chambers TES 2.428).

Yates notes that these outdoor Elizabethan theaters, unlike the indoor procenium stages designed later by Inigo Jones, placed the accent on the actors and their playwrights, since there was next to no scenery with only the barest minimum of furniture or props.  This suggests that, apart from the costumes and body language, Shakespeare’s public audience necessarily relied more on what they heard than on what they could see.  Because there was nothing but language to conjure up a scene, Shakespeare had to do it with language: “But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad, walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill . . .”  So it was extremely important to the actors, and their playwright, that the words be heard as clearly as possible by everyone in the audience.

Having studied in depth the great English Renaissance scholar and magus, John Dee, Yates was aware that versions of Vitruvius in both Latin and French were among the thousands of titles listed in a 1583 inventory of his library. That Dee was familiar with Vitruvius is clear from comments he made in his Preface to Henry Billingsly’s translation of Euclid’s Elements published in 1570, six years before Burbage built his Theatre.  Yates, bucking the establishment, felt pressed to connect Burbage and Dee:

This theatre initiated the theater-building movement of the English Renaissance and was the direct ancestor of Shakespeare’s theater, the immortal Globe. I believe that out of Dee’s popular Vitruvianism there was evolved a popular adaptation of the ancient theater, as described by Vitruvius, Alberti, and Barbaro, resulting in a new type of building of immense signifcance for it was to house the Shakespearean drama.” (Theatre of the World, 41).

It’s unlikely that knowledge of the mechanics of sound waves and how to magnify and contain them was common knowledge among 16th century carpenters like Burbage and his builder, Peter Street.  Yet to Yates, and to us, the apparent design of Burbage’s stage conforms so closely to the plans of the ancient sound engineer, that they must have been privy to his book, despite the fact that it would not be fully available in English until the 18th century. Most signficantly, she suggests in an aside, that it’s possible that these round theaters may have been the first of their kind in all of Europe (41); possibly also the last.

Since it’s unlikely that Burbage could read Latin, and since there would be no complete English translation, none published anyway, until the late 18th century, for Burbage to have benefited by Dee’s knowledge of Vitruvius he would have to have known him personally. To connect them, Yates must needs attribute to Burbage (and his fellow artisans) character traits that don’t match with what else we know about the rugged actor/entrepreneur, traits that seem less like those of a student of ancient architecture and more like those of gangster Bugsy Siegal when he set out to build the first gambling casino in the deserts of Las Vegas.

Enter the Earl of Oxford

Yates was forced to turn to Dee because she knew nothing of Oxford’s involvement in the creation of the London Stage, his connection to Smith’s library, or his interest in music and musical instruments. She didn’t know (or didn’t care to know; Looney’s book was published 50 years before hers) that Burbage’s innovative new Theatre was begun within weeks of Oxford’s return from a year in Italy, that it was built on land recently controlled by his boyhood companion, the Earl of Rutland, that Oxford would soon be living in Shoreditch himself during which time he (briefly) held the lease to the other new commercial stage built that same year, the little rehearsal stage at Blackfriars.

Yates was also seemingly unaware that Oxford had been raised by the great Latin scholar, Sir Thomas Smith, who, fascinated by Italian architecture, built himself a house in 1558 based on Vitruvian concepts.  Four years after Oxford’s departure from his household, Smith’s library was listed as containing four versions of de Architectura, one in Latin, one in French, one in Italian, and one in

globe-interior-sketch

Imagined interior of the Globe.

Spanish, in at least two of which were complicated drawings showing the exact proportions of a stage built to create maximum sound amplification.

While it’s evident that John Dee regarded Oxford as a patron (Ward 50), and that Smith must also have known Dee very well––both at Cambridge at the same time; both astrologer/astronomer/mathematicians; both living near each other on the shores of the Thames in the 1550s––there’s no need to involve Dee or his library in the planning of Burbage’s theaters. The simplest and most direct line for the development of the Elizabethan commercial stage begins with Oxford’s time in Italy, where he could easily have observed the temporary stages built by the great Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio in his home base of Vicenza, a stone’s throw from his birthplace, Padua, both within the Veneto (the neighborhood surrounding Venice) where Oxford was based throughout 1575, and where most of his Italian plays take place.

These temporary outdoor stages were forunners of the permanent indoor stage Palladio would design, the Teatro Olimpico, built five years later (1580-85) on a design based on one by Vitruvius. Known as the first permanent indoor stage in Europe, it is still the main tourist attraction in Vicenza.

The Theater after Oxford

Developments followed fast and furious during the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean periods. From 1576, when the first outdoor public commercial theater was built by Burbage in a northern suburb of London, by the late ’80s there were at least eight, also located in various London suburbs.  Of these, only those built by Peter Street were based on the Vitruvian model. With the Jacobean era, influenced by England’s first professional architect Inigo Jones, indoor theaters developed into the theaters we know today, with the action taking place in elaborate sets that were separated from the audience by a proscenium arch.

As Yates comments: “No one has quite explained where the proscenium arch came from, but it is certainly not in Vitruvius. . .” (124). Inigo Jones, England’s first genuine architect and promoter of the designs of the Italian Renaissance architect, Palladio, may have adapted the procenium arch from the famed “Palladian window,” with its straight sides, often decorated by a bas relief column, topped with an arched lintel.  Of Jones’s theater design, Yate’s concludes: “It ended by suffocating and destroying the wonderful actor’s theater described by Vitruvius” (124). This was, after all, the Little Ice Age, and for most of the year, playgoing would have been a lot more comfortable indoors.

She notes that Elizabethan England was a ‘backwater” so far as the new, i.e. Renaissance, architecture, based on Palladio’s translation of Vitruvio was concerned. She notes that the English literary Renaissance was not matched by an architectural Renaissance (nor one of painting or sculpture as in Italy).  She did not know about Hill Hall, where Smith’s knowledge of Vitruvius is evident in its design and in his library inventory, but surely it was known to Oxford, whose arrival back from Italy in 1576 doubtless set the in motion the creation of Burbage’s Theatre, built, so Yates affirms, on Vitruvian principles.

Yates argues that Dee’s work influenced not the nobility or wealthy merchants, but the “middle-to-artisan class, the new race of eager mathematicians and technologiest whom he did so much to encourage by his work and example.” Not to quibble, these men were worthy in many ways, but again, like Charles Nicholl with his bluster about poets being ripe for spy work, she’s making hay where there is no grass. This “middle-to-artisan” class was backed in almost every instance by the money and, yes, the education and creativity, of patrons of the very class that she, like so many historians of the Stage, attempts to negate.  Why can’t she see this?  Because, as we keep pointing out, the patrons did not want to be seen. Why not?  For the very reasons that Dee had his laboratory smashed.  Prejudice and fear, fostered by the Swiss (Calvinist) Reformation, which held that both Science and Art were tools of the Devil.

According to Yates, though Dee writes in English, not the Latin of Continental scholars, on purpose that he can explain Vitruvius to the handicraftsmen she would promote to brilliance, Yates herself, so well read in the documents of the period, is forced to admit:

Yet there is an aristocratic side; there are mysterious noblemen behind him. There is a secret or courtly sphere for his activities as well as the popular side. He is both extremely exoteric and practical, and at the same time esoteric among some vaguely defined inner circle.

So well read in the documents of the period, realizing that there are elements to her story that lie beyond her immediate understanding, she adds:

It is this type of situation which makes the Elizabethan Renaissance so peculiar, as compared with Renaissances in other countries, where there is neither this new social situation with rising new classes who participate in the Renaissance, nor this mystery about patrons and inner groups of cognoscenti.  I do not think that it is sufficiently realized how very peculiar the Elizabethan Renaissance was, both socially and intellectually” (18-19).

More on this:

The Two Shakespeares

The shortest answer to the Shakespeare Authorship Question is that the name represents more than one entity.  There were, in the 1590s in England, two men who shared the name Shakespeare, the one who was born with it, or something close to it, and the one who used it to get his writing published.  This was not what some have called an “open secret,”––it was certainly kept as secret as possible, but so few knew for a certainty who was doing the writing, that it was easy enough, with a few well-placed prevarications, to keep the truth at the level of rumor.  The reason why this was felt to be necessary by those involved lies buried in the nature of the times.  And as one otherwise unknown English writer once remarked, “the past is a foreign country,” one so different from today’s present that understanding it takes years of study.

Most English-speaking people heard the name Shakespeare early enough to know that it represents a writer from a long time ago who those who follow him say was a genius.  Many Americans were forced to read one or two or of his plays in high school, giving them a permanent sense of dread whenever his name comes up.  Luckier students learn about him by reading a play aloud in class, passing the roles around, so that everyone gets to read a particular character’s part for an entire scene (which keeps attention focussed on the action, and, with help from the teacher as to rhythm and intonation, to get the music of the language, as just reading to oneself, or hearing it read by someone else, does not).  Best of all, for those who have been involved in giving a live performance, particularly one of the comedies, how the story comes to life is something they will probably never forget.

Most of us have a very vague idea of who this playwright actually was.  We were taught in school that he came from a particular town where his father was a wool dealer, and where he went to grammar school, and where, while still in his teens, he got a well-to-do neighbor’s daughter pregnant, married her, and, when he got into hot water with local landowners for poaching deer (or rabbits) ran off to London where, though only in his mid-twenties, he immediately became an actor with the leading theater company while demonstrating a dazzling ability to write witty and learned dialogue for characters at his imagined Court.

Except for the part about becoming an actor and a playwright, the story is probably true enough, that is, it’s true about the younger half of the Shakespeare entity.  This was William, the oldest living son of Catholic leatherworker and wool dealer John Shakspere.  We pronounce his name Shake-spear today, because that’s the way it was pronounced in London, but that it had been pronounced rather differently in Stratford before it began appearing in print is suggested by some of the Stratford spellings, such as Shaxpere, Shagspere, Shackespyeer, and so forth.

In London the pronunciation came, not directly through hearing it spoken, but from reading on the title pages of published plays and in a book known as Wit’s Treasury, where it was spelled so that it would be pronounced with a long a, Shake-spear, which turns it into a pun, particularly with William’s nickname in front: Will Shake-spear, a name that sounds too much like that of a fictional character like Doll Tear-sheet to be an accident.

The other half of the Shakespeare entity was the great artist who had the problematic fate to be born into the aristocracy, which, though it gave him the education he would use to entertain his fellow courtiers, and the credit and leisure to develop his interests, also prevented him from letting the world beyond the tapestried walls of the Court connect him with what he created.  This was no problem at first since––for cultural reasons that lie so far beyond our present day understanding that it’s almost pointless to name them––he really didn’t want to be seen as a poet by anyone but members of his own circle.   Later, when his work began to create a public audience and publication became an issue, he would need a name for the title page.  Over the first two decades of his career he used the names of secretaries, schoolmates, and needy courtiers.  For the last 15, he used the name of the wool dealer’s son from Stratford.

Had it not been for the magical name that was common to a sizable population (of descendants of Norman French peasants) in Warwickshire and a pun on the nature and purposes of the playwright who used it––I will shake a spear!––it’s possible that we would not have the works today.  It’s also possible, even likely, that William never knew exactly who it was that was using his name.  It’s also very unlikely that these two who so depended on each other––William for the stipend from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that kept his family afloat during hard times and the Earl of Oxford for the name that meant he could continue to publish his works––ever met.

Once Oxford is seen as the writing half of the Shakespeare entity, apart from the 38 works with which it was credited (however obliquely) by Ben Jonson, plus most of the plays now known as the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and immense as is his stature as the individual most responsible for the language we speak today, Shakespeare will be credited with even more immensely important innovations.  That the first two full-time yearround successful commercial theaters in London were built within weeks of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and that the great public theater built by James Burbage that year was built to specifications that Oxford was privy to from his years of study with Sir Thomas Smith, suggests that the round theaters that were the first of their kind in England, perhaps in all of northern Europe, were also primarily his creation.

Thus it will be seen that, not only did “Shakespeare” write and probably direct these innovative plays, he was largely responsible for creating the stages on which they would be performed.  One thinks of Newton who, when struggling to explain the laws of motion, created the mathematical technique known as calculus; or of Alexander the Great who, when confronted with strategic problems on his military conquest of Asia, solved them by creating new weapons; or of Brunelleschi who, when confronted with the need to finish the dome on the great cathedral of Florence, invented the reversible gear by which sandstone beams weighing two tons each could be raised hundreds of feet in the air by an ox walking in a continuous circle.

Oxford not only created the Shakespeare plays, he created the language that they spoke and the venue where they could be heard, the one founding one of the world’s great literary traditions, the other the industry known as the London Stage.

What a guy!