The ‘Stratford man’ and the Shakespearean canon: no match at all

by Kathleen van Schaijik

I’m guessing that some readers might be off-put by the seeming pointlessness of our carrying on the Shakespearean authorship debate in the Concourse. They suspect that nothing can come of it, and who cares anyway? If they can bear with me a while, though, I hope I can persuade them to think differently. The discussion is anything but fruitless and pointless.

There is too much to be said in one article, so for now I will confine myself to addressing the three main arguments expressed by Mr. Englert and Joanna Bratten against a real hearing of the case against “the Stratford man” and for Oxford. (Note that we have not yet come to the point of examining the evidence. We are dealing now only on the level of whether there is sufficient cause for looking into it at all.) In the next issue, I’d like to do a follow-up piece making a few observations about the fascinating psychology of this debate, and then turning to the points raised by Ms. Bratten regarding the distasteful but important question of the author’s supposed “sexual orientation” and its bearing on this question.

Some Distinguished Disbelievers in the Establishment View:

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote: “[Shakspere] was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse.”

Henry James, who said he was “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced upon a patient world.”

Mark Twain, who published a tract debunking the Shakspere theory.

Charles Dickens, who called the life of Shakespeare: “a fine mystery” and wrote, “I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”

Sigmund Freud, who, after reading a book by the first serious Oxford theorist, J. Thomas Looney, wrote: “I no longer believe that…the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him…I am almost convinced that the assumed name conceals the personality of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford…The Stratford man seems to have nothing at all to justify his claims, whereas Oxford has almost everything.”

Walt Whitman, who declared himself “firm against Shakspere. I mean the Avon man, the actor.” He suspected instead that “one of the wolfish earls so plenteous in the plays themselves” was “the true author of those amazing works.”

Orson Welles, who once said: “I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don’t agree, there are some awfully funny coincidences to explain away…”

John Gielgud, actor and current President of the World Shakespeare Congress, who says he is “extremely sympathetic to the Oxfordian cause,” and who has signed a petition asking to have the claims of Oxford be taken seriously by the establishment.

Other skeptics include current professors at Dartmouth, Chicago University, Harvard, University of Glasgow, Temple University, as well as numerous distinguished literary critics.

Also on the Oxford Society’s “Honor Roll of Skeptics” are: Benjamin Disraeli, Charles de Gaulle, Daphne DuMaurier, Helen Keller, John Galsworthy, James Joyce and Kenneth Branagh among others.

[For a more complete list, see the honor roll of skeptics at the Oxford Society Home Page.]

The first argument my critics raise against taking the Oxford theory seriously is essentially an ad hominem one—viz. that its proponents are poor scholars with bad attitudes. Mr. Englert instances in particular Joseph Sobran’s apparent arrogance in defying the broad consensus of scholarly opinion, and claiming to have discovered key evidence overlooked by the experts.

I agree completely with Mr. Englert that humility is an essential characteristic of genuine scholarship; without it we are doomed to make gross mistakes. But, I’m sure he will likewise agree with me that humility before the evidence is more essential than humility before the establishment. And unfortunately the two are not always in agreement. Does it not rather often happen in the academic world that a particular view becomes so entrenched (with careers and professional egos invested in it) that mere hypotheses are taken for certainties and even stunning evidence against the prevailing view is dismissed out of hand? (Evolution springs to mind.) Further, those who bring the evidence forward and dissent from the establishment are derided as quacks for just that reason. In such a case, is it not the mainstream scholars rather than the mavericks who ought to be taken to task for a want of humility?

Mr. Englert chides the Oxford theorists for being “somewhat paranoid” in claiming that they have been denied a hearing. But then he quotes at length an article by Shakespeare scholar Thomas Pendleton, which essentially grants that they have been. Pendleton writes: “Almost all Shakespeareans, I expect, are aware that the claims for any rival author are based on assertions and inferences…that they are untenable and have been shown to be untenable.” (This “awareness,” evidently is taken as a substitute for a personal appraisal of the evidence by most scholars.) Without citing any specifics—and in a rather bored and condescending tone—Pendleton (as quoted by Mr. Englert) goes on to assure his readers that Oxfordians traffic in “categorical pronouncements,” “gratuitous assertions,” “logical fault[s],” “preposterous claims,” and so on—all of which are annoying, tedious, time-consuming and generally beneath the notice of the great mass of Shakespeareans, who are busy with more important things.

Mr. Englert sympathizes with Pendleton’s assessment: “To any reader sympathetic to the usually constrained resources available to scholars, these reasons should excuse the failure of most scholars from entering the fray.” They themselves do not doubt; and though they hear that others do, they also hear that they’ve been duly answered by experts; they see no need to look into the question themselves.

This logic would be compelling—after all, life is short and people are busy—if two things: 1) the case for the Stratford man were convincing in itself, and 2) the alternative case were shown to be the exclusive province of crackpots and conspiracy theorists.

In reality, the evidence in favor of the Stratford man is extremely scant and problematic, which is why the “heresies” have been able to thrive. Most students of Shakespeare have been fooled into thinking it is more substantial than it is by the confident tone of the scholarship. (Keep the evolution analogy in mind.) I won’t go into all of it, because Sobran lays it out much more completely and persuasively than I could ever hope to, and I hope you’ll read his book, but here are at least a few interesting facts to whet the appetite:

1) There is no evidence that William Shakspere (as the “heretics” spell the Stratford man’s name) had anything beyond a grammar school education. Even the idea that he had that much is nothing more than an assumption, since there is no record of it. He got married at 18, and apparently left his wife and children sometime thereafter to pursue an acting career in London. Where did he learn to speak Latin, French and Italian as Shakespeare apparently does? How is it that Ovid, for one, comes pouring out of his pen (in various versions, but especially in the translation by Oxford’s uncle, creator of the Shakespearean sonnet form)? Where did he get his intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan court, of heraldry, of law, of music, of foreign cultures—especially Italian culture? (Sobran cites a book by an Italian historian who has demonstrated convincingly that no one could have had such detailed knowledge of 16th century Italy as Shakespeare displays without having spent a good deal of time there, in aristocratic circles. We know Oxford took a long, lavish sojourn in Italy, but there is no evidence whatsoever that Shakspere ever left England. In fact, if we hypothesize that he may have, we run into time-line and other problems.)

2) Apart from the 1623 Folio declaring him to be the author of the plays, there is virtually nothing in the record to connect Mr. Shakspere with Shakespeare’s works. There isn’t even any evidence that he could write. Combing Stratford and London, scholars have managed to unearth six semi-legible signatures, which they are not sure are all by his hand. The one literary artifact from his years in Stratford is his will, which is penned by someone else, signed by him, and which betrays not a hint of an interest in literature. (Even Oxford’s letters and legal notes ooze metaphor and classical allusion; Oxford was a generous patron of the arts with an enormous library.)

3) Mr. Shakspere died in 1616. Dating the plays and poems to make them fit into his life, scholars presume that most of his greatest works must have been written between 1604 and 1612. But not a single item has been proved to have been written later than 1604 (the year Oxford died.) Some things seem to have been written so early as to make the authorship of Shakspere highly implausible. The Sonnets, in which the author refers to himself as “old” and “lame” were apparently written when Shakspere was around 30 (Oxford was then around 50.) A 1589 reference to the tragedy of Hamlet is so disruptive to the conventional time-line that scholars have posited the existence of an “Ur-Hamlet” by an unknown playwright on which they say the author must have based his play, since he would have been too young to have written it by 1589. (Oxford would then have been in his prime.)

These are just a few of the difficulties and lacunae in the establishment theory. As Sobran sums it up:

“[T]here is no match between the known facts about the man and the works assigned to his authorship. Shakespeare’s life and personality have no discernible relation to the plays and poems bearing his name…Again and again we find a lack of congruence between the apparently humdrum Mr. Shakspere and the exuberantly cultivated author he is supposed to be. We know enough about him to expect that some link would appear between the records of his life and those of the author, if they are the same man; but none ever does.” (pp.10 & 71)

Sobran is not the only one amazed by the disjuncture. It has caused many students of Shakespeare to doubt or discount the establishment theory. (For examples, go to the end of this article.) And meanwhile, the impressive evidence in favor of Oxford is mounting. But despite all this, mainstream scholars continue to scoff at the suggestion that their theory is anything but watertight, and dismiss all “heretics” as snobs, cranks or nut cases. Sobran writes:

The most dispiriting trait of the professional scholars is not their consensus about Shakespeare’s identity, but their refusal to admit that there can be any room for doubt. Realizing very well how little is known about Mr. Shakspere of Stratford, they should at least allow for an agnostic middle ground. It is one thing to say that the testimony in favor of Mr. Shakspere’s authorship remains, on balance, more satisfying than all the arguments made against it. It’s quite another matter to concede nothing to dissent, or even uncertainty. In the writings of orthodox scholars on the anti-Stratfordian heresies, it is rare to find a concessive note. Animadversions, often vituperative, are the rule. It is almost never admitted that any of the heretics has ever raised a point worth taking into account. The impulse to scold the dissenter; the inability to acknowledge even the possibility of reasonable doubt; suspicion even of the noncommittal; the denial of ambiguities in our imperfect records of the past; intense frustration with anything less than unanimity; the conviction that dissent reveals a moral or psychological defect—these are the marks of the brittle belief systems we call cults or ideologies, as opposed to the balanced judgment that tries to come to terms with all the available evidence. (p.14, emphasis his)

You see, the arrogance charge cuts both ways.

The second argument, raised by Joanna Bratten, is that the identity of the author doesn’t matter; what matters are the works themselves. But is that really true? Doesn’t literary biography normally throw tremendous light on literary works of art? To give just one example, think of how much what we know of the story of Elizabeth Barret Browning’s melancholy life adds to our understanding of her Sonnets and our appreciation of their beauty and poignancy.

Suppose we were able to establish (what the Oxfordians claim) that Shakespeare’s Sonnets were actually very personal poems from one powerful earl to another younger earl who was his close friend and companion at court? Wouldn’t it affect our understanding of them as poems? Wouldn’t our appreciation of Hamlet and its characters be enriched if we were suddenly to learn that it is intimately autobiographical? Further, wouldn’t our entire perspective on Elizabethan history and culture (including such things as the religious struggles of the day) be dramatically altered if it turns out that the Oxfordians are right, and therefore Shakespeare was not a regular middle-class guy, but an intimate of the Queen who, e.g., once privately converted to Catholicism and conspired with, then betrayed, three other courtiers who favored the Catholic cause—an event which precipitated Elizabeth’s crackdown against Catholics? Wouldn’t we be moved to think that the portrait of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s Othello was actually based on the author’s own wife? (Oxford’s wife, Anne, was known for her exceptional sweetness and virtue, and Oxford once falsely accused her of unfaithfulness.)

Sobran points out that the currently fashionable notion among critics that an author’s life is irrelevant to his work practically grew out of the conspicuous disconnect between what we know of Shakspere and what we read in Shakespeare. The embarrassment of the scholars leads them to deny that the author’s biography has any significance for the works themselves. Since the content of the Sonnets, for instance, cannot be meaningfully related to Shakspere’s life, scholars retreat into vague accolades about the “universality” of their themes. Taken on their own terms, though, they seem very personal and concrete. Read in the light of Oxford’s bio-graphy, they positively come alive.

The final point against the examining the authorship question, also raised by Joanna Bratten, is that the whole discussion is pretty much moot, since we will never know the truth of the matter. This argument carries a heavy weight of plausibility. Nothing sounds more reasonable than to assume that any opinion at this point must be based on speculation, and people will believe what people will believe—therefore we may as well drop the whole thing. But I think this view, too, is not borne out by the facts of the case. As I said in my original note on this topic, Alias Shakespeare left me with the impression that the few slender pieces of evidence in favor of Shakspere had been acting like a beaverdam—keeping back an overwhelming flood of probabilities in favor of Oxford.

It does seem that we have little hope of any significant breakthroughs in the documentary evidence of Mr. Shakspere’s life. Stratford and London have apparently been turned upside down by scholars in a fruitless search for anything that would decisively link him to Shakespeare’s works. But, since until fairly recently scholars have disregarded the Oxford theory, there is every reason to hope that if it were taken seriously, much more could be unearthed about the life of Edward de Vere, XIIth Earl of Oxford—by Shakespeare scholars as well as historians and others—all of which would likely revolutionize our understanding of the Shakespearean canon. If Oxfordians are right, it will mean, among other things, that that canon will be greatly enlarged, since, besides Oxford’s known poems and letters, anonymous and pseudonymous works previously over-looked (because they did not fit the time-line of the orthodox theory) will be recognized as Shakespeare’s.

It has happened more than once in the history of human knowledge that theories thought unassailable for centuries have been thoroughly discredited by new evidence. And though we may not look for empirical proofs in this case, we may nevertheless find, as time goes by, that the probabilities are so numerous, so lucid, so revealing, so converging, and so convincing as to do away completely with all reasonable doubt.

Next issue, as I said earlier, I’d like to discuss a little the psychology of the debate—such as the surprisingly strong emotional reaction so many people have to the idea that Shakspere may not have been Shakespeare. And Joanna Bratten’s criticisms of my remarks about the author’s sexual identity have yet to be answered. I’m glad she’s provided an opportunity for me to address the subject again, because I’ve regretted some of the things I said—and the way I said them—ever since. I’m grateful to Mr. Englert, too, for his kindly acceding to my request that he enter this debate which so fascinates me and, I hope, some other Concourse readers.

Kathleen (Healy, ‘88) van Schaijik is Editor in Chief of the Concourse.

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