Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

I've received an e-mail from one of those lovers of intellectual games and bad mystery novels who are familiar with the Shakespeare authorship question. Their story is that the man from Stratford was too lowly and venal to have written the plays. The hoax enthusiasts opt instead for the aristocrat Edward deVere, Earl of Oxford.

They should be writing imaginative historical fiction on the order of The Scarlet Pimpernel, ascribing wonderfully heroic qualities to nobles who in fact were in-bred mediocrities. Yes, in the imagination there was a quick-thinking "Scarlet Pimpernel" outwitting the slow and simple-minded lower class rebels during the French Revolution. The reality is more prosaic-- that the king was less than a mediocrity; the nobility not much brighter, and easily steam-rolled by Madame LaFarge types once the king abdicated. Sharpest of all was a venal, upwardly mobile character of disreputable origin who we know as Napoleon. In fiction, the brave Pimpernel saves the day! In truth we have instances like the king's brother, Napoleon's temporary replacement, fleeing cowardly at the mere news the ex-gunnery officer had left his first island of exile. For some, though, fantastical fiction about brave nobility is more satisfying.

It's up to the deVere advocates to make their case. They do so with coincidence piled upon coincidence. Throughout, like obstinate five year-olds, they jam square pegs into round holes. (DeVere died in 1604. New Shakespeare plays appeared for another decade.) Through everything inconveniently stands the man from Stratford, "William Shakspere." Why was this person who supposedly couldn't have written the plays, in London? To be there or not to be there is the question. Documents tie him to the Burbage family and the acting company which produced the plays later collected, without dissent, under Shakespeare's name. The Stratford man was one of the leading figures in the acting company, and made good money from it.

Earl of Oxford people stand on their heads to account for this, concocting hypotheses based on speculation and surmise. The Earl just happened to pick as pseudonym a name almost exactly the same as that of a man connected with the acting company. Pure coincidence! Blot the Stratford man out of the picture. (Also remove the fact that dilettante deVere's own poetry and plays are mediocre, not at all like Shakespeare's.)

The response to this is to claim Shakespeare was a front man for the real author of the plays. No evidence for this necessary. (Or available.) The top deVere advocate, Charlton Ogburn, is the most wacked-out. He sees a complicated and silly plot, like out of a mystery by Ellery Queen, in which the Shakespeare manuscripts, revealing all, are buried not with deVere, but the man from Stratford: Shakespeare-- with clues to the mystery inscribed on the Stratford monument at the burial site. Neither Shakespeare nor deVere would have regarded their plays of lasting significance. Yet, regardless, for some reason one of them left clues for future Shakespeare scholars (a concept beyond their understanding) from another age. That is to say, they left them for Charlton Ogburn! It's completely unbelievable.

The controversy boils down to one word: snobbery. Snobbery, snobbery, snobbery. That the academic establishment sticks with the obvious assumption that Shakespeare was Shakespeare proves nothing. They also don't believe that Elvis is still alive. But 400 years from now there may be a group of inquisitive scholars sifting through enough mysterious clues to insist that Elvis was really Leonard Bernstein, who utilized the country bumpkin as front man. It will also not be believed that the Beatles could've come from Liverpool. They actually attended Oxford, where they took classes in musical theory.


King said...

Sorry to be scornful of the anti-Shakespeare crowd, but when one looks into their arguments one finds them ridiculous. The problem is that they want to view Shakespeare and his times through the standards of now.

For instance, the matter of authorship. We view this question in an entirely different manner. (Or, most people do. Zeensters are more of the "anti-copyright" crowd.) Shakespeare wasn't concerned about authorship of the plays, because he didn't own them! They were the property of his acting company. They plays were run and owned by the company of actors. (I don't believe there was a producer. It was a cooperative endeavor. Very ULA-like, actually.)

Shakespeare did acknowledge authorship of his sonnets (much more prestigious) which were printed, in zeen fashion, in limited number. His name is right on them. And thereby the "Oxfordian" argument is blown right out of the water. If the Earl of Oxford had to hide his authorship of the plays, because playwriting was considered disreputable (and it was)-- then why also hide authorship of the sonnets? (Oxford wouldn't have had to use a device of a front man for the plays-- because authorship of them wasn't a big deal. Such questions are more important in today's lit world.)

Why wasn't Oxford acknowledged as author after his death??

Re: Shakspere or Shakespeare. When one reads copies of the documents that do exist from that time, one sees that spelling was very creative! No dictionaries, apparently. Shakespeare was like many zeensters, in that his spelling was all over the place. (It's likely that he preferred the Shaespeare" spelling. It looked more distinguished.This isn't unusual even in our time-- the spelling of my father's name was different from mine.)

What does one do with Ben Jonson's dedication?

The crux of the Oxfordians argument is the weakest-- their surmise, without any evidence, that the Stratford man was illiterate. Yet his father had been High Bailiff (like a mayor) for the area. It's extremely likely that he sent his son to the (excellent) school in Stratford.

Finally, about today's English establishment: It's hard to castigate them for not recognizing DeVere, Earl of Oxford, as author of the plays, these many years-- when one realizes that Oxford's authorship was only proposed for the first time in 1920!

Yes, a flimsy case, all the way around. But I'm willing to hear arguments for it.

Anonymous said...

"The 19th and 20th Centuries have been rife with doubters [about identifying the London businessman Shakspere as Shakespeare], among them Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. After John Looney's *Shakespeare Identified* was published in 1920, prominent figures like Sigmund Freud, Sir John Gielgud, Orson Welles, Leslie Howard and Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun have counted themselves among the ranks of the Oxfordians [those who think Edward de Vere wrote the works that go under the name Shakespeare]."

Obviously far more than people who are "like obstinate five year-olds" have had serious questions and have come to independent conclusions about the identity of Shakespeare. One of the best resources for the argument that Edward de Vere is Shakespeare is the Shakespeare Oxford Society Homepage: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/. The evidence--laid out there (quite succinctly in the FAQs for starters) and argued widely elsewhere--seems to me to be overwhelming that Edward de Vere is Shakespeare.

For myself, I can't say conclusively that Edward de Vere is Shakespeare, since I've never made a systematic research project out of it. But having looked into it a good bit, my view is that the evidence seems hands-down to be overwhelmingly in the favor of de Vere.

Lots of great writers have come up from very "modest" backgrounds, Jack London, and many African-American and other "minority" writers among them.... Edward de Vere/Shakespeare apparently does not happen to be one of those writers. Personally, I value London's revolutionary "socialist" epic The Iron Heel quite a bit more than anything Shakespeare wrote, though I value very much some of Shakespeare's work.

-Tony Christini

Anonymous said...

Been wanting and have in part done a commentary on your intial Shakespeare foray, King, and it will be forthcoming with it's references to Chas. Olson's essays linking Shapeshifter with that great Am. poetic movement, Projectivism, using the Bard's verse (especially after 1603) to define alot of the radical points about form and content "and composition by field", among other reflected things. And especially energized by Potter's beautious paen to Shakehisbeard's (per James Joyce)sonnets that he memorized in the deer- blind. Planning to send him a batch o' my own to see what he thinks and more importantly to provide perhaps succor in his bear hunting excursions in the frozen North if it should come down to that.
But as the ENEMY of the people, the expensively and time honoredly indulged quacks of the establishment upper-CRASS have deemed fit (given the current malaise) to rear their arears in the pages of your BLOG spewing their class war agenda (that has been going on for a few hundred years), I feel I must reply now despite my boredom with "buggers" (long running-- I can tell you stories from over the decades, man!) such as these. The system had paid a lot of money and a lot of effort to defend their politically charged bigotry against Shakespeare being Shakespeare in deferece to the aritosnots. Suffice to say that I know because I knew the man personally albeit not intimately the way old money, reactionary religions of "JUSTIFICATION", blue bloods and other capitalist undead concerns have known and still evidetly know each other despite trying to keep IT amongst themselves. And despite the tired ness and despondency I now at this hour must rest myself into brought on by trying to eke out a few devalueless dollars to pay the sharks and robots I am in hock to for mere survival, I just need to mention the treatment of Keats, Blake, Rimbaud, by these pricks and of untold others especially I'd venture to say, even in our own last of days, those who we may never hear of, if not for good conspiracies like the ULA stirring up the fetid and lukewarm waters of contemporary literary KULCHUR. More on the way, thank you. But in passing something called to mind if ye doan mind:


Some came late and tried to
lead, while others are awake
but couldn’t care less for
Spring is not in the air, nor
in their step as of today;
the expensive toys have been
repossessed. Looking at you

look at me as we pass in the hall
at all hours but mostly much too
early to talk about I think if you
weren’t so old you wouldn’t flirt
with somebody so ugly, otherwise
what kind of car do you drive and
your husband how much money?

High View, WV 10.27.04


FW (aka, The Masked Perfesser)

Anonymous said...

Hey Frank-- I just put a post up that references you-- didn't know you were reading this blog or I might have left you out! What I'm trying to do though for these folks is to convey to them that Shakespeare was a REAL PERSON, not an icon or a monument.

To others: I'm a big fan of Jack London's, always have been.

Re the authorship question. I wonder what the aristocrat's advocates do with the fact that Ben Jonson didn't go to college either, and knew some Greek and Latin. Or that Keats was raised above a stable. Or that George Bernard Shaw never even attended high school. Or that Abe Lincoln, a great writer, was in school for a total of a few months, and otherwise educated himself. Maybe some nobleman was writing for them also.

Sorry, Tony, but the case for deVere is based on surmise and speculation only, as I said. It's no stronger than the one made for Bacon for many years. The inconvenient fact is that there is much documentary evidence linking the Stratford man to the plays (and to the poems). Once one reads the language of Elizabethan England, the spelling particularly, and knows that Marlowe's name was spelled a half-dozen different ways, at least (from Marlo to Merlot), then whatever case had existed for deVere vanishes, if one is thinking logically.

Everything else is sophistry.

But what do others think?

Anonymous said...

Sorry, King, but regarding the identity of Shakespeare, you're a great storyteller, and that's about it. I've scarcely read Shakespeare (which may be my loss, I don't know). I read two plays once that were assigned. I know two of his sonnets fairly well and I really admire them and that's about it. So, I'm hard pressed to think how I have anything personal at stake in this. And you seem to think Shakspere doubters have a personal stake in this. Wild assumptions "prove nothing." Not only is the evidence strong on de Vere's behalf. It is essentially non-existent on Shakspere's behalf. It's out there for everyone to look at and come to their own conclusions.

I was simply curious about both sides of the identity argument and have looked into that more than I've read Shakespeare. Maybe we'll have a chance to take it up over beers sometime. I like Guinness. I hope that doesn't mean I'm a snob!

I guess it's Frank (The Masked Perfesser) in High Point West Virginia? I live in West Virginia too, across the state from you. And I have a friend, a cousin actually, who is essentially your neighbor. So, howdy to you. We have met the Enemy, and he is us!

Tony Christini

King said...

You're flat-out wrong, Tony. There's a lot of documented evidence linking Shakespeare to the plays and poems, which you seem to want to ignore. There are all the attestations on the First Folio, including Jonson's paean to Shakespeare, "the Sweet Swan of Avon." There are legal documents linking Shakespeare to the theater company and to the Globe. There's the list of plays performed for King James one winter, which lists "Shaxberd" as the author of many of them. There are Francis Mere's comments on the best writers in England, where he praises Shakespeare. There is Shakespeare's name on "Venus and Adonis" and his other poems. If I'm not mistaken, Shakespeare's name was also on several of the published Quartos (like "Love's Labour Lost"). The assumption has to be-- and WAS, until 200 years passed, that Shakespeare the actor wrote the plays.

When one starts reading the wacked-out writings of the anti-Shakespeareans, one realizes that, yes, many of them took the matter very personally. There's a lot of pathos involved in reading them. The one by the Bacon advocate which starts out well then devolves into all kinds of crazy ciphering supposed to show that Bacon predicted the secret would come out in-- 1910! Or Delia Bacon or whatever her name was who Nathaniel Hawthorne indulged. She ended in an insane asylum. Or Charlton Ogburn himself, who weaves all kinds of fanciful stories about deVere without a shred of real, documented evidence. (I think he's the one who said deVere fathered a child by Queen Elizabeth. The only thing missing is the Holy Grail! Then again, I didn't read Ogburn's book in its entirety.)

Again, the actual surviving documents all point to Shakespeare.

Anonymous said...

You ignore all the evidence and explanation--easily accessible--that refutes, hands-down, what you bring up. So...there we are. There are more important matters to be spending our time on, as I see it. But for those who are interested, there's no lack of resources for pursuing the matter.


Noah Cicero said...

The point of King's blogs about Shakespeare was that the backward, uneducated, no good masses of England fouund him entertaining. All art normal people enjoy from Romance novels to Waiting for Godot has something in it that the people need. It is not easy to define because it psychological and not just a literary device of any sort but it is always there. And shakespeare had something in his work that the backward masses enjoyed.
What I think is important concerning Shakespeare is if he will survive the information age. I don't think he will, I'm 24 and I don't know any young people that have read a lick of Shakespeare except for when it was assigned in some class. The farthest anyone goes back is Dickens and Dostoevsky when it comes to novels. I think because those two had everything Shakespeare had and more. It is just like that in philosophy, the youth only goes back to Wittgenstein, Sartre, and Camus because they synthesized all the old ideas with new empirical information and made new better philosophies. Concerning poetry, the youth goes as far back as Bukowski, I've noticed though that Langston Hughes gets smiles and sadness inspired from the youth when read to them but that's about all. The move into the information age, America's obsolete institutions, economic collaspe, the lying media, Bush and his wars have created a nihilism among the youth and the general population. To think about it like this, before the industrial age of capitalism and wage labor there were barely any novels, what will the works of literature look like in thirty years.
My prediction is that they will look like zines. Be about 150 pages long and written in some form of hyperfiction