Monday, June 13, 2011

Shakespeare's England

June 13, 2011

The Thomas Jefferson Hour
Attn:  Mr. Clay Jenkinson
P.O. Box 7132
Bismarck, ND 58507

            Subject:  Shakespeare’s England

Dear Clay:

            Thank you for all you are doing to bring intelligent discussion of the humanities to a broad listening public.  Our national discourse would be greatly elevated if there were more shows like yours (and fewer hours of talk radio).

            As I write this letter, I believe you have just returned from your cultural tour of “Shakespeare’s England.”  I assume you are aware that a growing number of historians, scholars, Supreme Court justices, journalists, and Shakespearean actors & directors have joined the ranks of giant intellects like Mark Twain in rejecting as preposterous the notion that the man baptized in Stratford-upon-Avon as “Guilianmus filius Johannes Shakspere” wrote the plays and poems of “William Shakespeare.”  Yet, I gather from your inclusion of Stratford in your cultural tour that you do not share Twain’s skepticism.

            In my more than ten years of reading almost everything ever published on this question, I find that the defenders of the traditional attribution really hate this topic.  And if there is one thing that seems to exasperate them more than the topic itself, it is being pestered about it by people like me.  (This, in itself, I find revealing.)  However, given your demonstrated tolerance for good faith disagreement and spirited debate, I trust you will indulge me in a few pages of comment on this subject – and why it is so incredibly important to us – all with the purpose of suggesting that your return from Shakespeare’s England would be an excellent opportunity to take up this topic on one of your shows.  (I have in mind something similar to the “debate” you had with William Hyland on the Sally Hemings affair.  There must be some way to put a “Jeffersonian” spin on this.  Enlightenment reason versus faith, perhaps?)

            So much has been written on this subject that it is difficult to summarize it in a few pages.  I will do my best.

            The case against Will Shaxper[1] – a man who is well-documented as having been a litigious grain merchant and probable shareholder in the Globe Theater – can be summarized as follows:  the author of the canon, whoever he was, must have been highly educated in numerous fields of study including the classics and the law (to name only two).  On the testimony of his writings, he must have been well-traveled, knowledgeable of Elizabethan court life and court politics, and familiar with aristocratic manners and pastimes.  After centuries of searching, not one shred of evidence has turned up to indicate that Will Shaxper ever (i) wrote anything in his own hand except six illegible signatures (with different spellings), (ii) owned a single book, (iii) attended any school of any kind, (iv) read or wrote in any foreign language, (v) had any knowledge or training in the law, (vi) interacted with any courtier of Elizabeth’s court, or (vii) traveled anywhere except on the road between London and Stratford.  His parents and his children signed documents with an “X” indicating they were illiterate.  And yet, we are expected to believe that in between these two generations of illiterates there blossomed the creator of modern English!  The orthodox explanation for all of this is just one word: “genius.”  But “genius” does not give a person the obscure knowledge that a dish of baked doves was a time-honored northern Italian gift (Merchant of Venice) as Mark Anderson puts it.  Knowledge like that comes only from life experience.

            A truly overwhelming amount of circumstantial evidence has been amassed to suggest – I will not say “prove” – that “William Shakespeare” was the brilliantly-chosen nom de plume for the eccentric Elizabethan courtier Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford.  (The brilliance of the pen-name is itself a fascinating point that I must pass over here.  Suffice it to say: the pen or “spear”, wielded or “shaken,” is mightier than the sword.)

Only a few highlights of the Oxfordian position are possible in this short space:

            De Vere’s maternal uncle and tutor, Arthur Golding, translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses into English.  Golding’s translation is alluded to so often in the canon that it has been called by many "Shakespeare’s favorite book."  Another of de Vere’s relatives, Henry Howard, invented the sonnet style we now refer to as “Shakespearean” (14 lines of iambic pentameter).  De Vere was highly educated and fluent in several languages – as we would expect the author of the canon to be.  He had access to all of the sources of Shakespeare’s plays (many of them not translated into English in his time).  He was trained in the law – an area of learning that provides such ready and fertile ground for metaphor in the plays.  He was one of the highest-ranking noblemen in the realm, occupying an earldom that dated to William the Conqueror in 1066.  He had intimate knowledge of the workings of Elizabeth’s court – satired with such ferocity in the plays.  He traveled extensively throughout Italy to the very cities featured in the plays.  (He was so enamored of Italy – where so many of the plays are set – that he was lampooned by his contemporaries as the “Italianate Englishman.”)  He was a documented lover and patron of literature and the theatre.  Some of his teenage poems survive.  They sound just like what you would expect the teenage “Shakespeare” to sound like.  Contemporary records indicate he was “among the best” writers of comedies, yet strangely, none of those comedies have survived under his own name.  The famous Ashbourne portrait of “Shakespeare” is very likely a portrait of Edward de Vere passed down to his descendants:

From the cover of "Shakespeare" By Another Name, by Mark Anderson.
             The above image contains two portraits known to be from Shakespeare's time.  On the left, is the so-called Ashbourne portrait of "Shakespeare."  On the right is a known portrait of Edward de Vere, painted circa 1575 when he was in his mid 20s.  The sitter of the Ashbourne portrait looks a few years older.  But are they not the same person?
            Perhaps most persuasively, events from de Vere’s well-documented life are retold so frequently in the plays that one could be forgiven for describing the Shakespearean canon as de Vere’s autobiography.  The authorship literature is chock full of examples, large and small.  Every newly discovered fact about de Vere’s life seems to show up somewhere in the plays or poems.  Simply put, there are many, many, many correspondences between his life and the canon and they cannot all be chalked up to “coincidence.”  Either Edward de Vere wrote these plays or someone with intimate knowledge of his life – the Warwickshire grain merchant Will Shaxper? – decided for some strange reason to make this eccentric courtier’s life the template for the greatest works in the English language.

            To the defenders of tradition, all of this is so much lunacy.  When they do stoop to address the matter at all, they often leave the impression that no Oxfordian scholar has ever made a single good point in defense of Oxford’s candidacy (or against Shaxper’s).  Check out any of the brief “biographies” of Shaxper that one finds in the most widely-used editions of the plays (e.g., Signet, Pelican, Folger, etc.).  The authorship question is briefly raised and quickly dismissed with accusations of “snobbery” (i.e., only a snob could think that only a nobleman could be a genius).  (The Oxfordian argument goes more like this: this particular genius sounds an awful lot like a certain nobleman.)

            The traditional attribution strikes me as having many of the hallmarks of a religious dogma.  It has its high priests (nowadays, more or less limited to the ivory tower and the Stratford souvenir peddlers), its holy shrine (Stratford) and its resistance to open inquiry (a tiny minority of English departments tolerate “authorship studies” – akin to teaching Darwinian evolution at Oral Roberts University).  What I would give to get someone like Harold Bloom in a room, tie him to a chair, and inject him with truth serum!  I find it impossible to believe that he would not at least admit that one or two Oxfordians have made one or two good points over the years.  And yet, in public, Professor Bloom condescendingly dismisses the whole topic as the “Oxfordian lunacy.”  Who is the snob?

            More and more, the argument one hears from the Stratfordians is that “it doesn’t matter” who wrote these plays.  It absolutely matters, Clay!  First, there is the simple notion of historical truth and justice.  Why would anyone want to be ignorant about the true identity of the greatest author in our language?  It matters.  And why would anyone want to deny the true author the immortality he deserves?  It matters.  We have good reason to believe that de Vere chaffed under the anonymity forced upon him by circumstances.[2]  If the penny-pinching Stratford burgher is not the true author, could there be a greater literary injustice than that he has worn the laurels earned by de Vere?  It matters, Clay.  It really matters.

            Also, if you don’t know the first thing about “William Shakespeare” – namely, who he was – how can you even begin to understand his works?  On a recent show you described Much Ado About Nothing as a “problem play.”  It is only a “problem” if you have the wrong author.  Read in light of de Vere’s known and documented life experiences, the play is easily understood as one of his many attempts to come to terms with his difficult marriage to Anne Cecil.  (Anne Cecil, by the way, was the daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  She was the model for Ophelia in Hamlet.  Lord Burghley, de Vere’s father-in-law, was the universally-acknowledged model for Polonius.  Is it a “coincidence” that Anne and Burghley were part of de Vere’s inner circle?  Does Shaxper have any known or documented connection to these people?)

            I cannot articulate the importance of getting Shakespeare right more succinctly than Mark Anderson did in the final paragraph of his book “Shakespeare” By Another Name:

In the final analysis, repatriating Edward de Vere’s life to the Shakespeare canon provides motivation behind the characters and plots, charts an artistic path intrinsic to the flawed but fascinating life of the artist, uncovers new levels of autobiographical meaning in the greatest works of English literature, and replaces the incomprehensible mystery of a deified genius with a comprehensible – if still incomparable – man who, for all his failures, became the very breath and soul of the English-speaking world.

            I am aware of the fallacy of using “arguments from authority” as logical proofs.  So I offer the following “Honor Roll of Skeptics” only to disprove the common slander that authorship skeptics are a bunch of lunatics and cranks:  John Adams, Washington Irving, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir John Gielgud, Kenneth Branaugh, Justice John Paul Stevens, Justice William Brennan, and Justice Harry Blackmun – to name a few.  There are many, many more.

Hollywood has finally gotten around to telling this story with a blockbuster movie called “Anonymous” (due in theatres on September 30, 2011).  Roland Emmerich of “Independence Day” fame is the film’s director.  From the official trailer (available on YouTube), the movie looks typically overdone with distracting special effects and the like.  (Is CGI really needed to depict Elizabethan England?).  Worse, it appears the script will butcher the case for Oxford with speculative side-claims (e.g., Elizabeth I and de Vere were lovers).  Hollywood!  Despite it apparent flaws, I am very hopeful that this major motion picture will bring some much needed attention to this most important of historical “mysteries.”  I live with the hope that in my lifetime Edward de Vere will be universally recognized as the real-life man behind the pen-name “William Shakespeare.”
            Henry James once wrote:  “I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”  If Thomas Jefferson can doubt the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, surely we can join Henry James in doubting the divinity of William of Stratford.

                                                                                    Kindest regards,

P.S. We met very briefly in Salida, Colorado in September of 2010.  You were there performing Theodore Roosevelt.  Excellent!  I asked you about possibly coming to speak to Care & Share Food Bank about sustainable agriculture.  We may still reach out to you about this through your booking agent.  In any event, I hope to see you again sometime soon in Salida.

[1] It is interesting that the Stratford documents almost always spell the last name in a manner suggesting a “short a” pronunciation (e.g., Shaxper, Shagsper, Shackspere, Shakspere, etc.).
[2] Hamlet (dying):  O God Horatio, what a wounded name, things standing thus unknown, shall I leave behind me! If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart, absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world, draw thy breath in pain to tell my story.  Hamlet, Act V. Scene II (emphasis mine).