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Monday, May 10, 2010

The Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare crowd

Posted by Adam Roberts on 05/10/10 at 07:51 AM

I put up a brief post on this topic in another place, making one rather simple point: that however much fun there is to be had at the expense of daft theories that Bacon, Oxford, Dr Who or Queen Elizabeth herself wrote Shakespeare (and there is lots) it’s worth at least considering the extent to which the sorts of cryptographical games Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespearites engage in are actually versions of what respectible literary critics do all the time: deriving large, internally-coherent theories from textual detail.  Rich Puchalsky, of this parish, disagreed:

But cryptography is not really part of the same thing as close reading, or reading through psychological theory, or any of the other standards. It’s not something that can really be said to potentially exist somewhere in the mind of the ordinary reader. Also, the main reason for laughing at that crowd—well, one of the main reasons—is the political disreputability of their interpretation. They can’t believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because clearly only a noble could have done it? That’s an argument that they always refer to. That’s deeply conservative, and not in a Burkean way—in a typical enforcing-social-hierarchy way.

The second point here seems to me incontestable, and the first persuasive.

But the real reason I’m posting this is to air a brief exchange I had with an actual large-as-life Oxfordian who stopped by the blog. Below the fold, his and my exchange.

Howard Schumann: No one is interested in who could have written the plays and poems. I am only interested in who did write them and here the overwhelming evidence points to a court insider.

Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc.

The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare’s vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one. When he does show sympathy for the commoners as in Henry V speech to the troops, however, Henry is also shown to be a moralist and a hypocrite. He pretends to be a commoner and mingles with the troops in a disguise and claims that those commoners who fought with the nobility would be treated as brothers.

But we know there was no chance of that ever happening in feudal England. What can scarcely be overlooked is a compassionate understanding of the burdens of kingship combined with envy of the carefree lot of the peasant, who free of the “peril” of the “envious court”, “sweetly…enjoys his thin cold drink” and his “sleep under a fresh tree’s shade” with “no enemy but winter and rough weather”. This would come naturally to a privileged nobleman.

Me: Howard: thank you for your comment. For the evidence you present to be other than circumstantial, though, wouldn’t you need to demonstrate that only a court insider can write about court-life? Which is to say, at first blush the many counter-examples would seem to falsify your thesis: I’m talking about examples of fictional accounts of court life written by commoners, from Fairy Tales to Modern Fantasy fiction, from Victorian Silver Fork novels to—and this is surely the clincher—pretty much all the drama of the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries.

Howard Schumann: That would be true if the essence of the narrative in the plays were totally fictional. However, in the case of Shakespeare, the plays are highly political, often satirical accounts of real individuals such as Burghley, Hatton, Queen Elizabeth, Essex and others.

If you read the plays aware of the political and social status of Oxford, his exile from the court, his stormy relationship to the queen and his struggle to retain his identity, only then do the plays make any sense.

As Beauclerk has said, “A satirical writer as trenchant as Shakespeare would not have kept his head for long without the monarch’s indulgence”.

Me: “If you read the plays aware of the political and social status of Oxford, his exile from the court, his stormy relationship to the queen and his struggle to retain his identity, only then do the plays make any sense.”

The ‘only’ here is surely, empirically, untrue. There have been myriad readings of the plays of Shakespeare that find all manner of sense in them without any recourse at all to the life of Oxford. The most one can say is that ‘it is possible to read these plays as informed by an understanding of the life of Oxford’. And of course it is possible; although it seems to me a reading neither exclusive of, or preferable to, all the others.

Howard Schumann:  You can have all manner of interpretations as indeed academics have for decades. However, the bottom line is that the plays and sonnets are either entertaining abstractions without any connection to the life of the author or they reveal the life experience and emotional truth of the author.

It is understandable why orthodox interpreters would not want to view these as reflecting life experiences since there is nothing in the plays or poems that as far as we know connects to the biography of William of Stratford.

What is true for me is that these plays have maintained a high degree of popularity with audiences for centuries because the audience can connect with the emotional pain of the characters. They convey an emotional authenticity born of deep feeling.

There is a naked truth in King Lear, Hamlet, and Macbeth that reveals the emotional state of the author. The consistent themes of the plays have to do with bastardy and succession, and reflect circumstances in the personal life of Edward de Vere which are too numerous to discuss here. His words perfectly express our feelings as viewers when we realize that the stories being told by Shakespeare not only are entertaining and full of passion but also have the ring of truth.

Me:  “It is understandable why orthodox interpreters would not want to view these as reflecting life experiences since there is nothing in the plays or poems that as far as we know connects to the biography of William of Stratford.”

There is there is nothing in the plays or poems that as far as we know connects to the biography of anybody at all. I do not see this as a problem, or as disqualifying the plays from reflecting life experience. After all, there is there is nothing in the Oresteia that connects to the biography of Aeschylus; nothing in the Famous Five books that connects to the biography of Enid Blyton. You seem to have, if I might suggest it, confused ‘literary criticism’ with ‘biography’.

There’s nothing wrong with biography, mind. Biography can be very interesting and worthwhile. But in the first instance, it is not the same thing as literary criticism. And in the second, more particular instance, there are lots and lots of biographical data that connects Shakespeare with Shakespeare’s plays, from Groatsworth of Wit through to the dedicatory poems of the First Folio.

What is true for me is that these plays have maintained a high degree of popularity with audiences for centuries because the audience can connect with the emotional pain of the characters.”

This rather seems to contradict what you say earlier, about the plays’ uniquely aristocratic tenor, necessarily (you argue) born of an aristocratic life experience. These centuries of audiences have not, after all, been aristocrats.

They convey an emotional authenticity born of deep feeling.”

Why should Oxford have a monopoly on ‘deep feeling’? Mightn’t William Shakespeare have had access to that, also?

There the matter rests, for now.


There was also an E.T. in that thread, reacting to Howard’s first comment with one that deserves to be repeated here: “That was possibly one of the grossest cases of oversimplification of Shakespeare’s texts I’ve heard, ever.”

But back to the cryptography vs. interpretation bit, which interests me more. I don’t remember you finding it as persuasive in your original reaction.  I’ll leave aside technical bits like the possibility of coming up with a sufficiently complex scheme to “decrypt” any text into any other text, and the mathematical/statistical ignorance of the vast majority of the people who would try it ... but perhaps the most basic difference is that literary texts are intended, in some sense (not a straightforward one) to communicate, while the purpose of an encrypted text is to deny communication.

I don’t mean that literary texts are the same as recipes or instruction manuals.  But they are generally written with some sort of idea of a reader in mind.  People who read medieval or theological texts may have to “decode” them through reference to an elaborate structure of formal symbolism.  But this symbolism was presumably supposed to be more or less familiar to a reader of these texts when they were written.

It gets back to the question of whether a Freudian interpretation—to choose a fairly simple example of a method of interpretation that may try to find hidden meanings in texts—is still reasonable even now that most people don’t believe that Freud was really right.  Let’s further suppose that the interpretation isn’t justified by saying that the author’s biography indicated that believed that Freud was right, or that the history of the time indicated that readers may often have thought that Freud was right.  The strength of Freudian interpretations seems to me to be mostly in folk Freudianism.

Folk Freudianism is clearly most compelling within groups of readers in societies that have had Freud as a strong influence—but, in general, there’s a lot of Freudianism that tries to explain ordinary observed psychological behavior.  Even if Freud didn’t get it exactly right by modern standards, there still exist the phenomena that Freud tried to explain, in those cases where he didn’t just mostly make them up.  Hamlet presumably acts in a way that people can imagine someone like him acting, even if they don’t put it in a Freudian context.  That’s why a Freudian interpretation doesn’t seem to be to be exactly wrong even if you say that Freud is, scientifically: the interpretation is bringing out parts of the text that the reader is concerned with in some way.

On the other hand, since decryption goes through a procedure—building a 12 x 12 square, or whatever—that can’t really be said to have any cognate in the non-decrypting (or different method of decrypting) reader’s head, it doesn’t seem to me to be valid as a method of literary interpretation.

There are edge cases.  What if the author liked to hide puzzles in his or her texts and attracted readers who liked to solve them?  Well, then yes.  But these are generally a lot more clear, and not very common.

By on 05/10/10 at 10:04 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I had a similar discussion with this same guy on my blog a few months ago.  The thing about arguing with any conspiracy theorists is that any evidence refuting the conspiracy is merely adapted for evidence of the conspiracy.  Rhetorically, it’s kind of interesting.  As a logical, rational argument, it’s infuriating.

However, the bottom line is that the plays and sonnets are either entertaining abstractions without any connection to the life of the author or they reveal the life experience and emotional truth of the author.

It’s this dichotomy which is at the heart of all anti-Stratfordian theories, and which reveals a really narrow view of how to read literature.  It also betrays a startling lack of imagination regarding peoples’ inner emotional lives.  Does Howard Schumann think most people, not being of the world-traveling, adventuring, aristocratic class, are incapable of imagining anything other than their own existence?  I haven’t had any particularly exciting adventures in my own life.  It’s been pretty safe, boring, and middle-class the whole way.  But I still have an inner emotional life which responds to Shakespeare and other great writers, and I don’t think my lack of experiences as exciting or dramatic as Edward de Vere’s has anything to do with it.

By Tom Elrod on 05/10/10 at 10:56 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It’s interesting that nobody in Shakespeare’s lifetime came up with those kind of arguments. 

16-17th Centuries:  Shakespeare was considered author of his own works unproblematically. 

18th Century:  Shakespeare considered author, seen as a rather rough, indecorous writer.

Early 19th Century:  Shakespeare considered author, seen as spontaneous, uneducated genius. 

Late 19 Century:  Hey, if Shakespeare is such a genius, how can he be such an uneducated person? 

For Shakespeare not be to considered author of his own works, we have to pass through neo-classicism and romanticism and come out the other side. An uneducated biographical Shakespeare fit neoclassical notions of Shakespeare perfectly, for example.

By Jonathan Mayhew on 05/10/10 at 11:36 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe Schumann’s assertions would make more sense to ya’all if you knew that the scripts for _The West Wing_ were actually written by Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger (who else could have done it?).

By on 05/10/10 at 12:10 PM | Permanent link to this comment

If you Stratfordians are so certain of your theory, please answer the following questions and please don’t tell me it is all a “literary exercise”. That is simply not believable.:

1. The Sonnets were published in 1609 bearing the most personal and intimate details of a man’s life. At a time when the author was still alive, he took no part in its publication nor did he attempt to stop publication. Why?

2. The dedication to the Sonnets is written to our “ever-living author”, a tribute almost always reserved for someone who is no longer alive. Why?

3. In Sonnet #125, the author claims to have “borne the canopy”. This refers to carrying the canopy over royalty during a procession. Oxford was known to have done this on several occasions. A commoner such as Shaksper would not have been allowed within 1000 feet of the monarchs. Please explain.

4. The first 100 or so verses of the sonnets entreats a fair young man to marry. Scholars agree that the fair young man refers to Henry Wriotheseley, the 3rd Earl of Southhampton. No commoner such as Shaksper of Stratford would be allowed to address royalty in such a manner. Please explain.

5. Shakespeare without question was one of the greatest if not the greatest writer in the English language, yet his daughters were illiterate. Why?

6. None of Shaksper’s relatives from Stratford ever claimed that their relative was the famous author.

7. Dr. Hall was the husband of Susan Shaksper, daughter of William. In his journals he refers to famous men he knew and treated, yet never once mentions his wife’s illustrious father. Please explain.

8. The sonnets are widely accepted to have been written in the early 1590s at a time when the man from Stratford would have been in his late twenties, yet his sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” “With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn”, in the “twilight of life”. He is lamenting “all those friends” who have died, “my lovers gone”. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold.” Please explain.

9. The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford’s life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare’s biographers have nothing to go on. The sonnets talk about a man who was in disgrace from fortune and men’s eyes. What biographical connection is there to the life of the man from Stratford that would have disgraced him?

10. Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey were literary pamphleteers who wrote about the most prominent literary figures of the day and have many references to the Earl of Oxford, yet are strangely silent on any writer named Shakespeare. Why?

11. After two successful poems were published under the name of Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece), all the plays were published anonymously for five years until 1598 when William Cecil died. Why?

12. At the height of his popularity, Shaksper retired to Stratford and bought property. It is widely agreed that many of his latter works were collaborations. Why would the greatest author in the language suddenly turn away from his profession, become a wealthy landowner and entrust the completion of his work to lesser writers?

13. Many of the known sources for the plays were books in Italian, French, and Spanish which were untranslated at the time. There is no evidence that Shakspere could read any language other than English and there is even some question whether or not he was literate since nothing of his writing remains. There is no literary paper trail of any sort. While Oxford was fluent in those languages, what is there in the known background of the man from Stratford that could explain this knowledge?

By on 05/10/10 at 12:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Given that the period had at least one world class gossip, Ben Jonson, in it who didn’t hesitate to pass on what he’d heard a French surgeon said about the state of Queen Elizabeth’s vagina, I kinda think Jonson would have said something after Oxford’s death.  B. Oxford’s own poems just aren’t that special.

The English theatrical world then was tiny and in each other’s pockets and quite contentious with each other at times.  Most of the conspiracy theorist tend not actually to know much about Elizabethan and Jacobean literature other than Shakespeare.

A grammar school education in the day would have involved learning at least rudimentary Latin (if I understand correctly, Greek was for university).  Even as late as the early 20th Century, a colonial policeman (see Orwell’s experience), had to pass a Latin exam.  Ben Jonson also didn’t have a university degree but knew his Latin and Greek quite well.  So, not so uneducated.

People can create credible environments from not all that much raw data.

By on 05/10/10 at 02:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I generally find the question of who wrote the plays uninteresting (I might be more interested in the claim that the plays were not more or less the work of a single author), but the passage from Mr. Schumann in the post above re: the emotional content is ... baffling to me.

Unless you’ve got a highly developed theory of how people experience emotion in response to fictional stimuli, and distinguishes the related input of real emotion into fictional product by the author, the above commentary turns itself around rather awkwardly.  Why must the author have authentic emotional investment in his work, stemming from biographically specific correlation to the material, but the audience can be, well, anybody, because anybody can relate to that emotional pain, but only authentic emotional pain of a kind the audience itself, by definition, probably can’t share in?

Even presuming that an author must have personal experience of the emotion he desires to convey, emotion isn’t tied to specific circumstance.  Compelling and successful actors make a living by responding in a “convincing” (by our theatrical and cinematic conventions) manner to things they’ll never experience.  And many authors seem invested in repeatedly exploring thematic territory with no apparent connection to their lives.

By on 05/10/10 at 08:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Maybe Schumann’s assertions would make more sense to ya’all if you knew that the scripts for _The West Wing_ were actually written by Bill Clinton and Henry Kissinger (who else could have done it?).

Also, The Lord of the Rings was written by hobbits.  And Isaac Asimov was actually from the future.

By Tom Elrod on 05/11/10 at 07:37 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Dear Howard (if I may),

Thank you, again, for your comment.  You have posed a lot of questions here, and it’ll take me some time, and probably several separate comment-posts, to answer them all. I will try and take them seriously, although I’ll be honest at the start and say that a few of them strike me as not very well formed.  But it would be good to know that you are asking them in good faith.  I’m sure you understand that many people are wary of engaging with conspiracy theorists, assuming that such people have closed minds, that nothing anybody else can say will shift their point of view.  If it is your contention not only that Oxford wrote Shakespeare but that nothing I could say would persuade you otherwise, then it would be fairer to tell me so upfront, and save me the labour of working all the way through your baker’s dozen.

To make a start, though.  [1] The Sonnets were published in 1609 bearing the most personal and intimate details of a man’s life. At a time when the author was still alive, he took no part in its publication nor did he attempt to stop publication. Why?

I really don’t mean to sound evasive, but the question isn’t very well phrased.  As it stands, your ‘why?’ is asking me to explain the state of mind of somebody long dead.  Nobody can do this.  I also contest your statement that the sonnets ‘bear the most personal and intimate details of a man’s life’.  It’s true there are critics (and there certainly are biographers) who read these poems in a biographical way (and they’re certainly very emotionally engaging and beautiful poems); but the detail and imagery of every single sonnet is non-specific, and most of it is generic.  No names are mentioned, no placenames, nothing like that.  As of course you know, a very great many sonnets were published during this period; lots of them more clearly coded to biographical circumstance, and none of these authors prevented publication.  Put it this way; why would Shakespeare take the trouble to suppress an anonymous volume of his early poetry that contained no specific details (dates, names, places) of his life?

[2] “The dedication to the Sonnets is written to our “ever-living author”, a tribute almost always reserved for someone who is no longer alive. Why?

This is another question that isn’t very well framed, I’m afraid.  Once again you’re asking me telepathically to enter the mind of a long dead individual, in this case the publisher Thomas Thorpe.  Since the question cannot be answered any way other than hypothetically, then that’s what I’ll have to try and do.  But just as a hypothetical answer lacks the force of proof for Shakespearean authorship, so it lacks the force of proof for anything else, including Oxford.

But there are lots of possibilities, and two main ones.  One has to do with the way Thorpe has laid out the dedication: to resemble a Latin inscription, something done perhaps to lend gravitas to the volume, and imply their lasting potential.  As such the idiom is likely to reflect, or pastiche, such inscriptions.  ‘Ever-living’ picks up, and echoes, the ‘eternity’ in line 4, and as such is more likely to refer to the immportality of the poems themselves.  More to the point I don’t agree with you that the phrase ‘ever-living author’ is ‘almost always reserved for someone who is no longer alive’. The usage in such cases is almost always ‘deceased, but ever-living’ (as in Richard Brome’s dedicatory verses to the posthumous edition of Beaumont and Fletcher’s works, 1647).  Can you provide an example of a dedication in which a dead poet is called ‘ever-living’?

Two: the phrase is much more usually attributed to the author of the Bible, God; so a second (again hypothetical) answer to your question would be: ‘ever living author’ means God, who promises ‘eternity’ to the onlie begetter, ‘Mr. W. [S]H.’ This, I know, is Stephen Greenblatt’s reading of the dedication; and my only niggle with it is that it depends upon the idea that ‘Mr W.H’ is a misprint for ‘Mr W.SH.’—which is as may be, but there’s no proof one way or another.  Although the ‘misprint’ theory survives occam’s razor better, and makes much more sense of the dedication than, the theory that Oxford wrote these poems, I think.

[3] “In Sonnet #125, the author claims to have “borne the canopy”. This refers to carrying the canopy over royalty during a procession. Oxford was known to have done this on several occasions. A commoner such as Shaksper would not have been allowed within 1000 feet of the monarchs. Please explain.

I’m afraid you have misread this sonnet.  The narrator does not claim that he has borne the canopy; he asks, in effect, ‘why would it matter to me if I were high-placed enough to bear a canopy...?’ Implicit in the lines is ‘it wouldn’t matter’; the force of the sonnet is that it is not such exterior show, not ‘form and favour’, that matters.  Indeed, since the sonnet implies the narrator has not borne the canopy, this rather rules out Oxford as author for the reasons you mention; although it fits perfectly well with Shakespeare.

[4] “4. The first 100 or so verses of the sonnets entreats a fair young man to marry. Scholars agree that the fair young man refers to Henry Wriotheseley, the 3rd Earl of Southhampton. No commoner such as Shaksper of Stratford would be allowed to address royalty in such a manner. Please explain.

Well, since you ask me to I shall.  Your statement here is in error in several regards. Firstly Wriotheseley was not ‘royalty’.  He was Earl of Southampton, not a member of the royal family.  Secondly, it is not true that ‘no commoner ... would be allowed to address [him] in such a manner.’ Several did: Thomas Nashe dedicated Jack Willon to him, and Jervis Markham dedicated The most Honorable Tragedy of Sir Richard Grinvile to him.  Wriotheseley was a patron of poets; and there is evidence that he gave Shakespeare £1000; S. of course dedicated Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to him.  There’s nothing remarkable or unusual in the fact that Shakespeare addressed him.

[5] “Shakespeare without question was one of the greatest if not the greatest writer in the English language, yet his daughters were illiterate. Why?

I don’t see the connection between the first part and the second part of your first sentence here.  The rate of illiteracy of women in the period was very high, pretty much irrespective of parentage.  Permit me to quote from Kate Aughterson’s Renaissance Woman: A Sourcebook: Constructions of Femininity in England (Routledge 1995), 167.  ‘Literacy levels remained much lower for women than men ... female illiteracy has been estimated at 90% in the 1640s ... although the measures used have been much debated; women who could not sign their name, for example, may well have been able to read, or to understand accounts.’

[6] “None of Shaksper’s relatives from Stratford ever claimed that their relative was the famous author.

This is a non-question, I’m afraid. There is very little documentation of any kind from any of Shakeapeare’s relatives, and almost no personal documentation at all.  I might reply: ‘... they didn’t claim he wasn’t a famous author’, as they might very well have done, and indeed would be more likely to have done, since even Oxfordians agree that Shakespeare’s name was being used on the title pages of books, quartos, the first folio and so on.  Or I might reply: none of Oxford‘s relatives ever claimed that their relative was the famous author.  If that latter point doesn’t convince you that Oxford was not the author, then why should your version of the question convince me about Shakespeare?

I’m going to have to stop for now, because it’s very late.  I’d be happy to answer your remaining questions, but, as I say above, I remain uncertain as to whether your mind remains open to the possibility of Shakespeare’s authorship, or not.  If the latter, I daresay you’ll agree with me there would be little point in my perservering.

By Adam Roberts on 05/11/10 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

7. Dr. Hall was the husband of Susan Shaksper, daughter of William. In his journals he refers to famous men he knew and treated, yet never once mentions his wife’s illustrious father. Please explain.

Hall wrote two volumes of journals. The first volume was translated into English and published by Cooke (or Cook) as “Select observations on English bodies of eminent persons in desperate diseases” in 1679. The second volume was lost and never published. Either a) Shakespeare was mentioned in the second volume, or b) Hall never treated Shakespeare.

12. At the height of his popularity, Shaksper retired to Stratford and bought property. It is widely agreed that many of his latter works were collaborations. Why would the greatest author in the language suddenly turn away from his profession, become a wealthy landowner and entrust the completion of his work to lesser writers?

You describe this as though it was a sudden break: one moment he’s living in London, writing plays, the next he’s stopped writing and has moved back to Stratford. Not so.
He bought New Place in Stratford as a family home in 1597, in the middle of his busiest period of writing, and continued to live and work in London for more than a decade. He bought a house in Blackfriars in London as late as 1613. Best guess is that he always spent some time in Stratford and some in London.
As for why he should write less and start working with collaborators - maybe he was just getting old! Maybe he didn’t have the energy as a forty year old that he had had in his twenties. Men aged fast in those days.

By on 05/12/10 at 10:30 AM | Permanent link to this comment


You can respond or not respond as you choose. Yes, I am convinced that Oxford wrote the plays and sonnets. Having recently seen all 37 plays and reread the sonnets, there is too much in them that reflects the circumstances of Oxford’s life to come to any other conclusion, especially given the paucity of information that connects William of Stratford to being a famous author.

I also resent being called a “conspiracy theorist”. There’s just too much self-righteous name-calling being thrown around by many people who are simply unfamiliar with all of the arguments. In general, you have made a valiant attempt to come up with “answers” but they are pretty lame and offend the basics of simple common sense.

1 – The issue here is not whether the Sonnets are “generic” or “specific” or were “coded to biographical circumstances”. Shake-speare’s Sonnets deal with allusions to royalty and court insiders. Although not specifically mentioned, those in the court would know unmistakably who he was referring to. These are not simply chit chat about politics, but suggestions of sexual intimacy and homosexuality that could have had a bloke beheaded in those days. No, it simply makes no sense that if the author was alive, he would not have done everything he could to try and suppress them, especially if the author was a commoner.

2 – Your answer is simply tortured. It is quite a stretch to think that the publisher was dedicating the poems to God. The most logical answer is that the the author was deceased. The title page does not say the Sonnets by William Shakespeare. No, they are Shake-speare’s Sonnets dedicated to “our ever-living author”, implying that the hyphenated Shake-speare was a pseudonym.

3 – The most logical reading here is that the sentence is asking “Was it any consequence to me that I bore the canopy contrasting the participation in ceremonies with the depth of his love? He does not say if I could have borne the canopy or that I might in the future bear the canopy. It states specifically that “I bore” the canopy. If he was referring to a hypothetical event, he would have said “a” canopy, but the use of the word “the” seems to refer to a specific ceremonial event, perhaps the coronation of James I. Being selected as one of the canopy bearers was a great honor for an aristocrat.

4 – Your answer here is particularly lame. First of all, no connection has ever been found even after thorough investigation of any connection between Henry Wriothesley and William of Stratford. In any event, there is quite a difference between dedication of a poem to an aristocrat and being involved in their personal life to the extent that 17 sonnets are taken up with urging him to marry, written at a time when HW was being urged by Burghley to marry Oxford’s daughter. No commoner would be allowed to become that intimate with an Earl (yes he was royalty).

5- The rate of illiteracy here is totally irrelevant. The truth is it defies logic and common sense that the greatest writer in the English language would allow his daughters to grow up illiterate. Doesn’t compute.

6 – The fact is that not only did William of Stratford never claim to be an author or that none of his relatives identified him as the author. None of his contemporaries ever claimed to have met the man. He left no letters, no correspondence, no books, nothing in his will that would have identified him as an author. When he died in 1616, no one took any notice. So it is a pattern that I’m pointing out. Nothing else. Obviously, Oxford was not identified as Shakespeare because he (or the authorities) meant to keep silence on the matter for whatever reason, most likely political involving succession to the throne.

By on 05/12/10 at 12:33 PM | Permanent link to this comment

7 – Agreed, standing alone this doesn’t say that much but coupled with everything else I have mentioned, it just becomes curiouser and curiouser. The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Huckleberry Finn was published under the name of Mark Twain but there is nothing to identify him as Samuel Clemens. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.

12 -Yes, maybe this and maybe that. Maybe the moon is made of green cheese. If William of Stratford was the true author, in that period he would have been at the height of his powers with no sign of getting old or tired. The retirement is just a convenient way to explain why no new plays were produced after 1604, the year Oxford died.

The truth is that William of Stratford came into sudden wealth in 1597 which allowed him to purchase New Place. This wealth could not have come from selling of plays since most contemporary authors did not earn one tenth of the amount he received. The most logical explanation is that he was paid to maintain the fiction that he was the author of the plays of Edward de Vere whose political satires of court insider could have been very threatening to the authorities since it came at the same time Jonson was jailed for writing “Isle of Dogs”.

By on 05/12/10 at 02:14 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Howard, frankly, your objections have been answered by people who know more about the period than you do. 

Second, one of the things people forget is that in Shakespeare’s day being a playwright wasn’t a gentleman’s or even an ambitious poet’s profession.  In the Dyer’s Hand sonnet, Shakespeare is bitching about having to write for the public theatre instead of having a patron who’ll let him write more prestigious work.  A playwright in Elizabethan culture was somewhat like a movie script writer in ours—how many of them are considered the most prestigious contributors to our culture?  His prominence came post Restoration.

Some English noble or gentleman collected all published Elizabethan plays and willed them to either Oxford or Cambridge on his death.  The University turned them down saying that while some of the plays might be of serious interest, the bulk of them wouldn’t be.

Playwrights in Elizabethan England were not considered great men in the way writers were considered great men in Victorian England.  The closest we have now to what they were in their culture of the day is rap musicians. 

Shakespeare and his father were convinced that they were aristocrats and Shakespeare actually got the coat of arms approved, possibly by paying the College of Arms to look harder.

Writing was what Shakespeare did to make a living.  He was extraordinarily good at it, but he didn’t have the romantic idea of the Poet God that we’ve had from the Romantic era on.  His actors were the ones who put together the First Folio.

People who had lands and houses had better things to do than write their contemporary equivalent of rap music, with hope of getting rich or die trying.  Greene, Marlowe, and a couple of other lesser lights did die quite young.  Playwrights were people who fought duels with each other, killed each other (Jonson had Tyburn’s brand on his thumb for murder—got that because he was literate and so one of the minor clergy), and wrote to top each other and to get audiences.  They had to find patrons to be legal, so they had some connections with their patrons.

Shakespeare’s daughters didn’t need to be literate to be successful women of their times.  None of the normal women’s work required literacy.  It did require an enormous investment in time (my grandmother’s grandmother gave the children the loom to burn when the family could afford store-bought cloth). 

We can afford to make most of our populations literate because literacy is useful in most contemporary work and because the jobs that used to take vast amounts of illiterate human time are now done by machines that require literate operatives.

Milton’s daughters learned to sound out languages they didn’t understand.  If he hadn’t been blind, they probably would have not even been taught that.  What literacy they had was useful for him.  And Milton actually wrote that he thought men and women should have equal educations, but didn’t put it to practice.  Shakespeare has smart women in his work, but I don’t remember reading being part of their roles.  The men are the ones reading the books (I haven’t read every play so someone who has can correct me if I’m wrong).

My impression is that you’re judging the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatrical world by 19th and 20th Century Romantic ideas about the Artist.  Shakespeare was a movie producer/director who wrote his own scripts, not a minor god in his day.  He appeared to be a better man than Jonson, and Jonson dined at some stately homes.

My suspicions are that someone who was a court insider would have found it less romantic than someone who got to visit once in a while or who heard the gossip about it.  Chaucer and his wife were verifiably court insiders and his most vivid writing isn’t the Knights Tale.

London in 1590 was a small gossipy city.  People’s ranks were independent of who they knew or what their tastes were (Raleigh did apparently know Marlowe).

What Shakespeare did in Stratford was more important for his family (buying a good house, getting the coat of arms) than how he made his money. Not everyone would want to remember how Daddy got his money, especially if some of them or their neighbors were Puritans for whom the theatre was dreadfully sinful.

By on 05/12/10 at 03:05 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Howard. I wonder if I could ask you to do two things?  Firstly to remain courteous, an ideal before which (I must say) repeatedly calling me ‘lame’ falls short.  And secondly: to support anything you say with evidence?  I undertake to do the same for you.  Appeals to ‘common sense’ are not a substitute for evidence; this thread shows that your sense and mine as to the authorship of these plays is not something we have in common.

Calling you a ‘Conspiracy theorist’ was not intended to be a cheap shot, but was rather an attempt at neutral description.  The theory that Oxford wrote Shakespeare entails the belief not only that (as you say) ‘Oxford was not identified as Shakespeare because he or the authorities meant to keep silence on the matter for whatever reason, most likely political’, but also that Shakespeare was put forward as the putative author by persons unknown; for his name appears linked to these poems and plays in a great many places up to and including the first folio (I list the most prominent of these at the bottom of this comment).  That is to say, the theory that Oxford wrote this stuff depends upon a belief that there was a conspiracy to suppress his name and put Shakespeare’s forward. You’re quite right that for many people ‘conspiracy theorist’ carries negative associations. That may be because many conspiracy theories are crackpot.  What separates a crackpot theory from a reasonable one is evidence.

Accordingly I ask for the evidence behind your assertions. For example, when you assert of the Earl of Southampton ‘yes he was royalty’, I don’t know whether you say so because you have some evidence of Wriotheseley’s royal connection, or whether you simply don’t understand the difference, in the English system, between a peer of the realm and a member of the royal family.

As it stands, you make a number of assertions that seem to me simply untrue. For instance, you repeat several times that Shakespeare was ‘a famous author’, and ‘the greatest author in the English language’ (‘it defies logic and common sense that the greatest writer in the English language would allow his daughters to grow up illiterate’).  Rebecca’s comment, above, is spot-on here: Shakespeare wasn’t particularly famous in his own day, and certainly wasn’t regarded as ‘the greatest author in the English language’.  All that reputation stuff comes much later on, most of it from centuries later.  That’s the standard view; if you claim otherwise then you need to provide evidence.

I’ll give you an example of the sort of thing I’m talking about.  I say that there’s plenty of contemporary documentary evidence linking Shakespeare to the poems and plays.  You insist the opposite of this is the case, that nothing links Shakespeare to the plays, that there’s no contemporary evidence he was a writer or even literate (‘there is no evidence that Shakspere … was literate’).  You say ‘there is no literary paper trail of any sort’ and ‘none of his contemporaries ever claimed to have met the man...’ The following material falsifies those statements, and so contradicts your theory.  (It’s all from the back of the Norton edition of Shakespeare’s Works, incidentally; I haven’t done any original research to dig it out.  There’s plenty more evidence of this sort available in biographies and specialist works. I limit myself to documentary evidence from Shakespeare’s life—so not the First Folio prelude matter):

Robert Greene, 1592: ‘”...for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotus, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey”.’ (Henry Chettle, the publisher of Greene’s Groatsworth later apologised for these harsh words in his own Kind-Harts Dreame, saying ‘I wish I had moderated the heate’ of Greene’s contumely, since ‘divers of worship’ [many men of rank] had themselves testified to Shakespeare’s ‘uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious grace in writing, that aprooves his Art’, adding ‘my selfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civill than he exelent in the quality’.  This doesn’t seem to square with your assertion ‘none of his contemporaries ever claimed to have met the man’.)

Francis Mere Palladis Tamia (1598) lists Shakespeare alongside Sidney, Spencer, Daniel Drayton, Warner, Marlow and Chapman, praising in particular ‘his sugred Sonnets’, and comparing him with Plautus and Seneca ‘for Comedy and tragedy … in both kinds for the stage.’

The three plays <a href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Pilgrimage_to_Parnassus#The_plays“>The Pilgrimage to Parnassus, The Return from Parnassus Part 1 and The Return from Parnassus Part 2</a> (1598-1601) contain more than a dozen specific references to ‘Mr Shakespeare’ and ‘Sweete Mr Shakespeare’, praising him specifically as a writer (for instance) “I’ll worship sweet Mr Shakespeare and to honour him will lay his Venus and Adonis under my pillow, as we read of one - I do not well remember his name, but I’m sure he was a king - slept with Homer under his bed’s head” and quoting liberally from his plays.

Here’s John Weever’s sonnet ‘Ad Guilelmum Shakespeare’, from Epigrammes in the oldest Cut and newest Fashion (1599):

Honie-tongued Shakespeare when I saw this issue
I swore Apollo got them and none other,
Their rose-tainted features cloth’d in tissue,
Some heaven born goddesse said to be their mother:
Rose-checkt Adonis with his amber tresses,
Faire fire-hot Venus charming him to love her,
Chaste Lucretia virgine-like her dresses,
Prowd lust-stung Tarquine seeking still to prove her:
Romea Richard; more whose names I know not,
Their sugred tongues, and power attractive beuty
Say they are Saints althogh that Sts they shew not
For thousand vowes to them subiective dutie:
They burn in love thy childish Shakespear het them,
Go, wo thy Muse more Nymphish brood beget them.

Thomas Platter, writing in the margin of his copy of Speight’s edition of Chaucer in 1598 or soon after, notes that “The younger sort take much delight in Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis; but his Lucrece, and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke, have it in them to please the wiser sort.”

John Manningham, who died in 1622, kept a diary of his time as a law student in Middle Temple in the early 1600s, when he frequented the theatre. Here’s his entry for March 1601: ‘when Burbidge played Rich[ard] 3. There was a Citizen grewe soe farr in liking with him that before shee went fro the play shee appointed him to come that night unto hir by the name of Ri[chard] the 3. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was intertained, and at his game ere Burbidge came. Then message being brought that Richard the 3d was at the fore, Shakespeare caused returne to be made that William the Conqueror was before Rich the 3. Shakespeare’s name William.’

Here’s part of an undated Francis Beaumont poem; it must be from before 1616, because that’s when Beaumont himself died:

here would I let slip
(if I had any in mee) schollershippe,
And from all Learninge keepe these lines as cleere
as Shakespeares best are, which our heires shall heare.

And here, Howard, with you especially in mind (which is to say; your assertion that a commoner like Shakespeare would never be permitted within 1000 yards of the King) is the Master of the Wardrobe’s account from March 1604, listing the cloth given to the King’s Men for them to wear whilst accompanying King James in procession through London:

Red Clothe bought of sondrie persons and given by his Majestie to diverse persons against [ie. ‘for’] his Majesties sayd royall proceeding through the Citie of London, viz –
Fawkeners &c. &c.  Red cloth
William Shakespeare iiii yards di.
Augustine Phillipps “
Lawrence Fletcher “
John Hemminges “
Richard Burbidge “

This is all well known stuff, of course. It supports my contention that Shakespeare was known in his own day as a player and as the author of the works attributed to him.  For your theory to stand, you’ll need, firstly, to show that all of this evidence is faked, or false; and secondly you’ll need to bring forth your own evidence for Oxford’s authorship.  As far as this last point is concerned, the only stipulation I would make is that the evidence not be circumstantial or co-incidental—none of the material I’ve just quoted is.

By Adam Roberts on 05/12/10 at 05:02 PM | Permanent link to this comment

From William Shakespeare:

Sonnet 110

Alas ’tis true, I have gone here and there,
And made myself a motley to the view,
Gored mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear,
Made old offenses of affections new.
Most true it is that I have looked on truth
Askance and strangely; but by all above,
These blenches gave my heart another youth,
And worse essays proved thee my best of love.
Now all is done, save what shall have no end;
Mine appetite I never more will grind
On newer proof, to try an older friend,
A god in love, to whom I am confined.
  Then give me welcome, next my heav’n the best,
  Ev’n to thy pure and most most loving breast.

Sonnet 111

O for my sake do you with Fortune chide,
The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds,
That did not better for my life provide
Than public means which public manners breeds.
Thence comes it that my name receives a brand,
And almost thence my nature is subdued
To what it works in, like the dyer’s hand:
Pity me then, and wish I were renewed,
Whilst like a willing patient I will drink
Potions of eisel ‘gainst my strong infection;
No bitterness that I will bitter think,
Nor double penance, to correct correction.
  Pity me then, dear friend, and I assure ye,
  Ev’n that your pity is enough to cure me.

Howard, I think you missed those.

By on 05/12/10 at 06:30 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I will not continue this charade ad infinitim since it is obvious that I am dealing with closed minds. I just want to say that Henry Wriothesley was as much royalty as Oxford. He was brought up by Burghley as a ward of the court in the same way Oxford was and there is some evidence that they were both changeling children. In any event, he was a court insider and no commoner would have gotten away with suggesting who he should marry.

As far as all your “evidence” of contemporary references to Shakespeare. These are all referring to a name on a title page without any specific identification of Shakespeare as the man from Statford. As far as Greene’s Groatsworth is concerned, there is considerable opinion that the man he is referring to is Edward Alleyn, a somewhat egotistical actor.

For a full discussion of this and other subjects I raised, I suggest you read the following (if you have not done so already):

“Shakespeare’s Unauthorized Biography” by Diana Price

“Shakespeare by Another Name” by Mark Anderson

“Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom” by Charles Beauclerk

This is all I have to say on this subject.

By on 05/12/10 at 07:08 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The google yields a posting elsewhere by Mr. Schumann to the effect that “The world is moving rapidly toward a spiritual awakening in which many long accepted untruths will be exposed and the truth made known. Foremost among these is the identity of the man we know as Shakespeare.”

These people seem to think they have found a key to the universe.  Are there any other literary controversies that attracted this kind of cult?

By on 05/12/10 at 08:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Faith is always one good way to avoid thinking about real evidence.

By on 05/12/10 at 10:29 PM | Permanent link to this comment

The works of “William Shakespeare” were really written by a handicapped lesbian Moor.  How else could Shakespeare possibly have known so much about handicapped lesbian Moors?

By on 05/13/10 at 01:22 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Henry Chettle saying ‘my selfe have seene his demeanor no lesse civill than he exelent in the quality’ is not ‘referring to a name on a title page’, but to a person.  The King’s Master of the Wardrobe did not buy four yards of red cloth for a name on a title page, but for a person called Shakespeare to wear in procession with the monarch.  This is not ‘evidence’.  It is evidence.

Howard, you haven’t provided any evidence for your claims.

By Adam Roberts on 05/13/10 at 04:09 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Rebecca: I’m enormously struck when you say: ‘my grandmother’s grandmother gave the children the loom to burn when the family could afford store-bought cloth.’ That’s such a powerful encapsulation of a mode of life, now passed away but once the whole horizon of a good chunk of half the world’s population!

By Adam Roberts on 05/13/10 at 04:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Are there any other literary controversies that attracted this kind of cult?

A most interesting question, Colin. Off hand I can’t think of any. That you ask the question suggests that we need some kind of explanation for the existence of this particular controversy. Given the vast quantity of ignorance that exists about the past, there is a correspondingly vast range of possible controversy. The most obvious simplifying assumption starts with the fact that this particular controversy is centered on a writer widely considered to be the best and the brightest that ever there was, not some second or third-rate routiner. Given that simplifying assumption, then, a failure of historical imagination would seem to be one driver behind this controversy. The comments by Jonathan Mayhew and Rebecca Ore are germane here.

And, come to think of it, there’s been a bit of a controversy over Homer, though nothing like this Shakespeare business. In Homer’s case we don’t even have one identified person on which to hang the texts, much less a room’s worth of candidates. This controversy has been about the nature of the texts as bespeaking a prior history of oral composition and transmission and, hence, that the true “Homer” may not be a specific individual, but a fraternity of bards—though I believe Robert Graves has argued that Odyssey speaks in a female voice, so “fraternity” may not be the right word.

By Bill Benzon on 05/13/10 at 05:35 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I highly recommend Women’s Work: the first 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber, if you haven’t read it already.  One of the things that drives me nuts about most contemporary historical fantasies is the cloth apparently appears by magic, too.

I just pulled Will in the World out of my bookshelf to check for Puritan kin.  I’ve got a slight brain tickle that there might have been some.

By on 05/13/10 at 05:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

You put your finger on it, Bill.  The ‘female authorship of the Odyssey‘ is Samuel Butler’s theory, not Robert Graves (not that he was any stranger to crazy theories, of course) ... but the Homer comparison is instructive.

The parallel would be the Ossian kerfuffle, from the later 18th-century: the invention of a Celtic bard to rival Homer.  There the underlying salient was, in a nutshell, ‘race’; resentment, or anxiety, that ‘the world’s greatest poet’ was from the Med, more-or-less Oriental, an affront to developing notions of the racial distinctiveness and superiority of ‘northern European’ peoples.  The answer (to invent a better Homer and locate him in the Celtic finges) is almost too ideologically transparent.

Race isn’t what’s going on in the Shakespeare-didn’t-write-Shakespeare nonsense, of course.  Rich is right, I think, at the top of this thread when he says the salient here is class.  In what I’d like to think, but can’t be sure, is a rearguard action, there’s a resurgence in emotional commitment to ‘aristocracy’, and a visceral disgust at the idea that a commoner could be credited with works of such genius.

By Adam Roberts on 05/13/10 at 05:43 AM | Permanent link to this comment

People are forgetting that Shakespeare pere and son both believed they were due a coat of arms and were unrecognized gentry.  Shakespeare identified with the gentility because he believed that was who he was.  The father failed to get the coat of arms; the son succeeded.

Also, none of us know what court was really like in Elizabeth’s day.  What we can say of Shakespeare is that he creates vivid credible depictions for people who haven’t been there.  Dryden thought Shakespeare’s depictions of court were naive.  Dryden’s wife was the sister of a politically active Howard of the day, not quite as connected as the Chaucers, but probably closer on a day to day basis with politics than Shakepeare was.  Dryden was also witnessing a more sophisticated and more complex court.

The comments about homosexuality—several prominent Elizabethans (Francis Bacon in particular) were fairly openly gay and King James had his favorites.  It might have been a big deal for Henry the Eighth, but there were few prosecutions until the late 17th Century and early 18th Century.  Aubrey on Bacon in Brief Lives is knowing yet not condemning. 

Aubrey also has a entry on Shakespeare.  The people who remembered Shakespeare were old when Aubrey talked to them, but there were some personal memories even after the restoration.

I’ve met people who denied that Shakespeare was a popular writer of his day and the evidence for him being precisely that is quite overwhelming.  I’m not quite sure the salient is completely class as some combination of class and education, plus a denial of the power of some people to take tiny clues and weave a world out of them, a kind of over dedication to a copyist sort of realism, uber mimesis.  If it’s believeable, it must be based directly on real life. Shakespeare didn’t miss much and he didn’t waste anything.  We want to find the sources because the worlds he created seem so vivid.  Their life as theatre is no guarantee that he knew the court on a daily basis.

The uber fantasy of the Oxfordians is that Queen Elizabeth I was the mother of all of Elizabethan literature in a literal way).  Dunno, but that was a gossipy age and there were people eager to catch her out.  I believe she was inspected for signs of virginity in her late teens and passed.  Have to check on the biography to be certain.  Her elder sister would have been quite happy to have had an excuse to get rid of her.  Later as Queen, shrug, but at 13 or 14, um, I don’t think so.  She was no fool even as a child.

DNA tests could solve this one in a jiffy.

By on 05/13/10 at 06:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’m a little late to the discussion, which I’ve been following with interest, but here goes…

It seems to me that what’s really at stake in the discussion of authorship is less the “true identity” of the author than the relationship between author, text, and meaning.  Regardless of the name and background of the man who wrote the texts, the texts remain… words, words, words.  Hamlet still says what he says regardless of the name on the title page.  To the authorship question, I say, “who cares?” Let me read William Shakespeare/Shakesper/Oxford/anonymous Elizabethan playwright no. 9, or whatever else you want to call him.  The meanings of the texts remain rich, varied, vital, and essentially, I would argue, unchanged, from a literary standpoint. 

Take the Homer authorship question as another example.  Here’s a man about whom we know even less.  Homer is more legend than history.  Was he poet extraordinairre?  Famous singer?  Scribe?  Fictitious figurehead for a generations-old oral tradition?  Interesting questions, historically, and interesting if we’re considering the nature of oral poetry, but ultimately beside the point when we read the poems for the poems’ sake.

To go one further.  What if Beowulf was not in fact written by the Beowulf poet at all? Absurd?  Exactly.

Details of an author’s life are interesting, illuminating, and important when we know them: the biographies of authors like Joyce, Eliot, even Tolkien are quite illuminating of those writers’ literary works. But for texts that have been read for centuries in relative ignorance of their authors’ identities and lives, what’s really at stake? 

(I ask with an open mind and hopeful of others’ thoughts, but aware that this thread may already have run its course.)

By on 05/13/10 at 10:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I think the big disconnect with Shakespeare is that plays were seen in his day much as movies are seen in ours—without the personal attention to the author.  If people are keen movie goers, scholars of cinema, or want to become script writers themselves, they follow scriptwriters, but I don’t think the general public personalizes scriptwriters as we still do some poets (what would Ginsberg be without his biography).

We don’t have an Elizabethan Lives of the Poets anymore than we have a Lives of the Screenwriters today, for much the same reasons.  The interest in literary biography often is in the extraordinariness of the lives, not the work, and so we’ve had faked autobiographies where sufficient excess to be interesting was simply invented. 

The Oxfordian Shakespeare feels somewhat like this, even the current reconstructions of Shakespeare, also feel like this.  Marlowe fits our paradigm of the romantic genius better.  Chaucer fits it less, so biographies of Chaucer stay inside scholarly circles far more than biographies of Keats. 

Chaucer comes from a complete alien paradigm of what the author is, what art is in the life of the author.  We have the details because he was connected to court, but a poet like Chaucer is almost unthinkable today in Anglo culture (I get the impression some South American countries come closer, but I haven’t been to Nicaragua yet).

Despite all the letters and documentation, Dickinson really didn’t do anything except write.  Our sense of who she is, and she’s only one century away from most of us, has mutated over the years.  Cultural roles for women changed rather much from the day when Thomas Wentworth Higginson called her half mad.  Despite knowing a rather large number of facts about her, who she was outside the poems hasn’t really been fixed in the way that interpretations of Ginsberg have been fixed (and even Ginsberg has been reinterpreted recently).  One cultural milieu saw her as a naive untutored maiden/old maid writing rustic poetry; a really different milieu sees her as the complete artist too impatient to explain herself to people who couldn’t keep up with her, a person we haven’t quite caught up with yet. 

And that’s with fairly complete documentation, Higginson’s letters, Dickiinson’s correspondence with people like Helen Hunt Jackson, and a handful of poems published while she was alive.

Our Emily Dickinsons range all over the place from Higginson’s virginal half-mad poetess to Camille Paglia’s.  They might as well be different people.  Paglia’s Dickinson would horrify Higginson’s, if both were real.

We also have a cultural fetish about being dedicated to art through genius or talent, the “if you can quit, you should” meme.  (The only University Wit who didn’t die in his thirties gave up writing and turned to medicine).  It’s a sign of our cultural times that we can’t imagine a man whose verse was that powerful writing The Tempest, apparently having some regrets but not enough to keep him in the game, and walking away.  Rimbaud tends to irritate us because he lived for his post-poetry life as a colonial exploiter and petty trader.  Verlaine stuck to the script, but we have more pop cultural references and more biographies outside scholarship of Rimbaud.

I read the Oxfordians as people who are not really aware of the peculiarities of their own temporal culture and assume that all earlier cultures would have been like ours.  Shakespeare’s day would have assumed basic competence with verse for all grammar school educated people, and one only went beyond that for commercial reasons.  Great Lords with money were lavishly flattered (i.e., we can’t trust Puttenham). 

The theatre was the thing—some of the individual actors got public attention, but only people inside theatre would have cared about the playwrights and they had their own oral traditions.  Shakespeare didn’t get busted for dueling, didn’t mismanage his money, didn’t die of conspicuous excesses, left no court records, no accounts of his miserable death by gloating enemies.  The Shakespeare poet had better things to do than live an exciting biography, same as the Dickinson poet.

The other thing people forget is that the English Civil War destroyed lots of records.  Dickinson’s own poems were supposedly almost burned after her death (if she didn’t live an exciting life with hair-breath escapes, maybe her manuscripts did).

By on 05/13/10 at 01:20 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been listening to Chess: the Musical.  1984, that was: music by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson.  In the 1970s, those two have a good claim, through Abba, to being the greatest popsong composers in the world: geniuses working, like Shakespeare, in a more-or-less despised, popular idiom.  The thing is: they made their money, and then, like Shakespeare, they stopped.  What have they done, after all, since Chess?

By Adam Roberts on 05/14/10 at 06:54 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve been thinking about Samuel R. Delany, the college dropout son of a Harlem undertaker.  He sold very well in science fiction for a while, then he saw his sales declining and got a university position through critical works that he’d been writing just for fun. 

Delany came into science fiction when he could do wild and unusual things for a larger audience than he might have had earlier and didn’t have later.  Delany hasn’t stopped writing fiction, but he did stop writing SF.

By on 05/14/10 at 11:06 AM | Permanent link to this comment

My *god* this person is irritating. As if citing *one* poorly written, poorly documented “article” from the nytimes would demonstrate the stability of his position.

This looks to be a much more reliable website, though I think Adam has already demonstrated the idiocy of the Oxfordians quite well:


By on 05/14/10 at 10:22 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Ultimately, any evidence of authorship is circumstantial.  Even if we had video of a writer writing a particular piece, there’s no way of knowing whether or not the subject had been told what to write beforehand. 

So the question becomes one of Occam’s Razor, first, and one of explanatory power, second.  There are plenty of records of William Shakespeare of Stratford as part of the theatre companies that produced the works published under the name William Shakespeare.  This means that we have a very public figure, as Rebecca has made clear, one involved in every aspect of theater performance, from direction to acting to management and venue ownership, and thus one known to lord knows how many folks in London.  And we have no contemporary questioning the equation of author-Shakespeare with public-figure-Shakespeare. 

So the invention of a separate author figure seems a needless explanation of a non-problem.

In terms of explanatory power, I’ve yet to see what we gain by saying that “Shakespeare” is really someone else besides a bunch of coded pseudo-messages about Elizabethan politics, none of which tell us anything that couldn’t be interpreted simply in terms of Foucauldian discourses.  (The Sonnets are the exception, it seems, but even still, connecting De Vere’s life to the poetry’s use of poetic commonplaces involves all the usual dubious interpretive ballet as all other biographical readings.  Which is to say, even *if* De Vere wrote them, we’re no closer to knowing what they are “really” about, so we might as well stick to the poetry and stop turning them into E True Hollywood stories about Elizabethan current events.)

I’ve never understood the complaint that a commoner like Shakespeare could never have known as much about the court as he does.  What plays or poems suggest anything like a realistic portrayal of court behavior?  Even the history plays read like Homer’s ideas of megaron politics in *The Odyssey*: a bunch of Big Men speaking and deciding, with none of the day to day bureaucratic labors we know actually keep courts running.  And to my knowledge, all of the history in the history plays comes from common historical sources an English reader could have read.  Shakespeare’s courts look like Seneca’s. 

Now, I’m no Shakespeare scholar.  I’m a school teacher who has read a bit of Shakespeare.  What I see in the plays and poems is a master stylist.  He’s not so great with plot, and, contrary to Harold Bloom’s assertions, I think he can be sloppy with character.  But the rhetorical power he controls runs throughout the work.  I couldn’t tell you the Shakespearean view of love or war or politics or royalty or humanism or God, like I could tell you the views of Marlowe or Jonson.  Shakespeare did with theme what he did with character and plot: subordinated them all to what he wanted to do with words and spectacle and gesture.  Which is to say, he was a master thespian.  He has none of Bacon’s studied elegance and philosophical depth, and he shows none of the biases of the educated or courtier. 

I think of Homer, Austen, the Brontes, Dickinson, Whitman, Melville: master craftsmen and verbal technicians.

By on 05/14/10 at 10:39 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Court life, by someone who really witnessed it, different country, different court.  Elizabeth I did appear to have better than average abilities.  Shakespeare, being not that close to power, may have mocked the Cecils, but Elizabeth I made them lords, and she dealt with them day in and day out. 


The other thing about conspiracy theories is that they try to see the world as much more contrived than it tends to be, and so try to tie too much together.

Spelling wasn’t regularized until after the Tudor/Stuart era.  Marlowe was also spelled Marley.

By on 05/15/10 at 01:40 AM | Permanent link to this comment

There’s much fascinating stuff findable via the website linked above.  E.g. at


I find that according to a couple of linguists (Brame and Popova, _Shakespeare’s Fingerprints_) deV didn’t just write Shakespeare.  Nope, he wrote everything else of literary merit in English in the 2nd half of the 16th century, under 40 pseudonyms. 

What stops these authors realizing they’ve reduced Oxfordianism to total absurdity is that they have a robust conspiracy theory: *literary English itself* is the result of a cunningly-concealed Elizabethan plot.  This explains the _daVinci Code_ vibe you pick up from these people.

The Shakespeare authorship site resembles websites patiently answering creationist claims, and this helped me put my finger on a couple more things about the conversation above.  (1) anti-Shakespearians believe they’re engaged in a debate about origins that has huge present-day implications.  Hence, perhaps, their odd presentism, and certainly their vehemence.  (2) While they imitate the appearances of scholarship, they’re playing a different game: there’s some other epistemology operating, something else that makes them sure they’ve unearthed the secret, so that their overt evidence and logic are pure polemic.  (Climate denialism is like this too – a blizzard of tiny assertions, and by the time you’ve gone and checked one out and set it right, they’ve moved on to something else.)

This fits a broader tension over what English lit scholarship is about, no?  Scholars like problems and problematizing and mucking around, but there’s a pop perception that English is about origins and protecting a pure cultural tradition.

By on 05/15/10 at 03:33 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I like the origins connection, Colin.

By Bill Benzon on 05/15/10 at 05:41 AM | Permanent link to this comment

A sense of superiority to the uninitiated is mind binding.  If you’re wrong, you’re not superior after all.  See any number of cults or fringe science cranks for other examples.

The numbers of people who would have had to have been in on the plot is amazing.  Neither modern police states nor the KKK can’t get that many people to be that consistent over time.

By on 05/15/10 at 12:46 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Editing glitch “can’t get” should be “can get”.  Sorry.

By on 05/15/10 at 12:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Colin asked, Are there any other literary controversies that attracted this kind of cult?

I think its authorship controversy is now pretty much extinct, but the novel known as The Dream of Red Chambers (or The Story of the Stone) in English has certainly generated a furious and voluminous body of polemical scholarship over the decades.

Unfortunately, they’re all in on the conspiracy, and the entire field of 紅學 is united to defend the BLATANT FALSEHOOD that the Earl of Oxford isn’t the true author of the 紅樓夢, too. Their despicable web of lies truly encircle the globe.

By on 05/21/10 at 06:32 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Been there, done them.

By nnyhav on 05/22/10 at 01:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

And to follow up on Colin’s post, been here, done that. If we had fewer historical documents to interfere, “Shakespeare” might have become an impersonal brand like “Confucius” or (pseudo-)"Aristotle" or “the Earl of Rochester.”

Most anti-Stratfordians do seem a bit snobbish to me, but their number includes Mark Twain—albeit as a Baconian rather than an Oxfordian. Maybe it was an early attempt to bridge the Two Cultures?

By Ray Davis on 05/23/10 at 06:35 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Hoping not to bring the cranks out of the woodwork again, but I didn’t see a mention above of Contested Will by James Shapiro, a recent book about the Shakespeare authorship question--it’s explicitly not a defense of the so-called Stratfordian claims (although it is in passing), but a history of the “controversy” and a discussion of its roots.  Well worth a read by anyone who asked about why these conspiracy theories keep cropping up.

By on 05/31/10 at 04:19 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Henry Wriothesley was as much royalty as Oxford
We have a point of agreement.  They were both earls, i.e. of the third rank of the peerage.  Neither was royalty.

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

By on 04/26/11 at 11:45 AM | Permanent link to this comment

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