Battling over the Bard

For some reason, probably class-based, British performers, such as John Gielgud and Charlie Chaplin, have traditionally signed on to the "Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays, he wasn't aristocratic enough" cult-conspiracy notion. And now nearly 300 folk have signed an online "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" about the Bard's authorship. The declaration can be found here. As one might expect, most of the signatories are true-blue Oxfordians (supporters of the Earl of Oxford) with the occasional Baconian thrown in (supporters of Sir Francis Bacon), but they make sure to highlight the only names most people would have heard of, the only ones that might have some influence: Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, London.

Otherwise -- this is news? You could find 300 people online willing to swear they believe in the physical reality of Azeroth because, lo, they have traveled there themselves and seen it. book/daddy is not going to turn over all his time and online space to re-fight this argument, an idea that didn't arise at any time during Shakespeare's life (despite the attempts by Oxfordians to read hints and doubts into any contemporary Elizabethan's testimony) and never saw print until more than a century after Shakespeare's death. But if you'd like to read my review of three recent books on the topic, and why the anti-Strat case is hypocritical and tone-deaf to literary style, take the jump.

Bard bickering
New volumes join the debate about the identity of Shakespeare

by Jerome Weeks
Book review
January 30, 2006

Last month, my daughter, a high school sophomore, was studying for her semester finals, so I helped by quizzing her on world history. On the list of prepared topics, I was surprised to see the only question about the Elizabethan era concerned Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

The man who wasn't William Shakespeare.

Of all the useless bits of information to be tested on -- even if some people insist he secretly was the playwright. The difficulty in proving Oxford wasn't the man from Stratford is akin to convincing the true believers their favorite conspiracy theory is bogus. One must prove a negative -- that Lee Harvey Oswald really didn't have federal funding or that de Vere or Christopher Marlowe or Regis Philbin did not hide behind the name of a Stratford rube to write the plays. As long as that gap between wish-fulfillment and the historical record holds, we will have books bridging it.

Three, in fact, just in the past few months. Tackling all their arguments will be impossible, but to characterize the books:

Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare was written by Bertram Fields, an entertainment lawyer, and it reads like it. Mr. Fields may not have much feel for Shakespeare's verse, but his book is admirably logical and succinct, weighing evidence pro and con for the different men.

In comparison, History Play: The Lives and Afterlife of Christopher Marlowe has some of the most vivid writing of these volumes. Which one might expect given author Robert Bolt's background as a theater writer. But his scenario is the most implausible.

And lastly, Mark Anderson is the heroic new hope for the Oxfordians. In nearly 600 dense pages, "Shakespeare" by Another Name relates the earl's life and times, mining every detail that might be mirrored in the plays, tracking every remote connection the earl had with the stage.

Most people, I believe, instinctively reject the anti-Stratford case out of common sense or Occam's Razor: The simplest explanation is most likely to be true. Even Mr. Anderson admits that the anti-Strats' argument is circumstantial, a maze of hints.

In particular, the anti-Strats must explain away the direct testimony of the First Folio, the 1623 publication of Shakespeare's plays in which his friends and co-workers hail him as the artist and man he was. Added to this against the anti-Strats is the snobbery of their case, its self-contradictions and its deafness to a writer's style.

Much of the generating emotion behind the anti-Strats' stance is an understandable resentment directed at the academic industry, of being dismissed as amateurs or obsessive cranks by scholars who, the anti-Strats allege, pretend to have an exclusionary hold on the Bard.

In truth, any decent Elizabethan scholar would sell out his comrades for documentation of a major facet of Shakespeare's private life -- be it pro-Strat, anti-Strat or extraterrestrial. One is actually more likely to catch grief arguing against the Oxfordians. Anyone who does (i.e., me) can expect to be deluged by e-mails. Understandably, most serious Shakespeareans just skip the whole headache.

The Oxfordians' contention against Shakespeare, which is anti-establishment at heart, is deeply ironic because the first thing they do is dismiss the man from Stratford as an untutored hick, an amateur. They feel treated like nobodies or amateurs by academia, and treat Shakespeare precisely the same way. No glovemaker's son could know all the classical allusions in the plays, all those details of the law and the royal court. The real author must have gone to college, at least.

OK. But playwright Ben Jonson was self-taught, too. He had no formal education beyond grammar school. Yet his fellow writers proclaimed him the most learned among them, a fact he was proud of. It was Jonson who famously belittled Shakespeare for knowing "little Latin and less Greek" -- a line the anti-Strats pounce on, though it reveals Jonson's touchy vanity more than any supposed ignorance by the Bard.

Typically, Mr. Anderson declares that Shakespeare's "unerring legal allusions and metaphors betrayed an expertise that can only have come from years of study." Really? Essayist (and medical doctor) Theodore Dalrymple has noted that the Bard had a sharp, diagnostic eye, better than the era's medical experts. Yet no one has ever said that proves he had to be a surgeon.

More directly: Before Shakespeare's company was housed in a proper theater, it ofen performed at the Inns of Court. These were four London law schools. We know, in fact, that Twelfth Night and The Comedy of Errors were staged there; one scene in Henry VI is even set there.

It seems, then, that for years, Shakespeare wrote and produced entertainments for a bunch of drunken, young lawers. A smart writer could pick up useful tips that way.

As a commoner, Shakespeare would not normally have had access to the protocols and language of the nobility. But as an in-demand theater producer, he would. We know for a fact that Queen Elizabeth took a personal interest in his company; the records show them performing for her at court several times a year, year after year. We know that the Earl of Essex hired them to perform Richard II. And we know there was a close friendship with the Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare's second dedication to Southampton is unlike any other Elizabethan dedication by a poet to a nobleman -- warm and personal.

From all this hobnobbing and networking with the elite, something might have rubbed off on a keen young author.

As for Marlowe, Mr. Bolt contends that Shakespeare's rival had to disguise himself as "Shakespeare" to escape the dirty deeds Marlowe did while he was a spy. OK, but this requires Marlowe to fake the First Folio and then his own murder as well. Then Marlowe, a city boy, has to fake all the country details about Warwickshire, Shakespeare's home county, that crop up in the plays.

Setting aside the contrivances all of this would entail, the disguise itself would be a stretch. Marlowe was a sardonic atheist, an educated brawler, most likely a homosexual and spy. For such a man to convincingly "play" Shakespeare for years -- a married father, businessman, cautious monarchist -- all this tests credibility.

It's not impossible, though -- he may have been a spy, after all. But for such a writer to overhaul his artistic genius in the bargain mocks credibility entirely. The center of Shakespeare's talent -- beyond his brillance with words and dramatic improvisation -- is his omni-empathy, his ability to inhabit several characters and viewpoints at once, what John Keats termed his "negative capability."

Marlowe, in contrast, is the Caravaggio of the stage, dark and violent. He creates the same hero, the same defiant titan over and over: Tamburlaine, Dr. Faustus, the Jew of Malta. Marlowe's poetry and bloodshed are stunning, but his secondary roles barely exist. He never created a single great comic figure like Bottom or Falstaff, not even close.

For his part, the Earl of Oxford is a fair poet. "Were I a King" is a decent lyric. But his writing is heavy on courtly conventions (true knights and fair maids), heavy on obvious poeticisms (trotting rhythms, thudding alliteration) and light on fresh yet homespun images. Nowhere is a lover compared simply to "a summer's day" (sonnet 18). Neither is there the "careful housewife" whose love for her baby Shakespeare envies (sonnet 143).

Maybe that's because Oxford was indeed an earl. And as an earl, he didn't have a credible reason for playing at being a bloke like Shakespeare. At least Marlowe had cause for fabricating a new identity. People did seem to want him dead. Oxford, as a powerful man, might need to disguise himself for political reasons. And he might want to express himself as a playwright/actor. But why would he try to hide out as a very well-known producer, a theater company founding member, a man with deadlines to meet, actors to pay, a theater to run?

History is rife with aristocrats playing with pen names. But I can't find one who disguised himself so he could sell tickets.

Mr. Fields, at least, comes up with a clever solution to this problem of the earl-as-unlikely-working-stiff: Shakespeare was just the front man. Oxford wrote the plays; Shakespeare staged them.

It's a collaboration that an entertainment lawyer would devise, isn't it? Shakespeare as both Kaufman and Hart, Abbott and Costello. Inevitably, this solution is actually far more complicated than the idea that a smart writer could pick up a lot of influences from reading, from meeting the right people. Curiously, it's also akin to the premise of Amy Freed's 2001 stage comedy, The Beard of Avon. At least she has fun with the improbablities.

Neurologists tell us that our brains are hard-wired to find patterns and causation -- even when they're not there. At different levels of scholarship and skill, these books cleverly, even feverishly reshape new research and old chestnuts to draw their patterns.

But they show us nothing definitive. There is no smoking quill.

Meaning there's still little reason my daughter needs to know much about Edward de Vere, the man who wasn't Shakespeare.

copyright 2006, The Dallas Morning News

September 9, 2007 7:47 PM | | Comments (4)



If I may add a bit more to my previous comment. "The Courtier" (Il Cortegiano), a handbook of manners, idealizes High Renaissance life. 'A significant translation occurred in 1561 when Sir Thomas Hoby turned "The Courtier" into a compelling English-language work that every educated Elizabethan read. Particularly influenced by it was Shakespeare..'*
'At the center of "The Courtier" was the humanist philosophy, a broad-based collection of high-minded values embodying entire fields of knowledge from poetry and geography to natural science. Castiglione drew on all this for his courtier's pursuit of eloquence, his shying away from specialization, his gentle aloofness and nonchalance. Sprezzatura is the Italian word for this special attitude, this careless elegance, though it is all of the parts that make up the Renaissance gentleman. In modeling a perfect courtier, Castiglione imagines a courtly world tilted toward perfection. This was a powerful current in 16th-century Italy -- an upper class urge to create alternative worlds, imaginary and better than the world around them,' a world that Shakespeare created for us in romance in A Midsummer Nights Dream. 'Shakespeare' may owe more to the High Renaissance of Italy and Castiglione than to the Earl of Oxford.

*W. Amelia, Wall Street Journal, July 14, 2007

You know you are making this look easy, which has to be one characteristic of a book reviewer. Courtly manners were probably for most people a kind of identity theft; but, as your example, below, in the trial of Pepy's shows, something someone with chutzpah might not find too hard to get into. For the reader, there was "The Courtier" by Baldissare Castiglione.

Ah! Thanks much for the tip. I've read quite a bit of Wodehouse, but I've never chanced up on that particular morsel. Will do.

I believe that P.G. Wodehouse had the last word on this matter in "The Reverent Wooing of Archibald."

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