The Long Foreground…of “Shakespeare”

It’s now some twenty years ago since I first read J. Thomas Looney’s SHAKESPEARE IDENTIFIED (1920), setting forth his theory that the world’s greatest poet-dramatist had been the Hamlet-like nobleman Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604); and I can still recall the moment when I came to the following paragraph, paused, looked up, did some thinking, looked back down and read it over again:

When in 1855 Walt Whitman gave to the world his Leaves of Grass, Emerson greeted the work and its writer in these words: “I find it the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom that America has yet contributed . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career, which yet must have had a long foreground somewhere.” This concluding surmise was merely common sense, and, as the world now knows, perfectly true. What is wanted is to apply the same principle and the same common sense to work of a higher order, and to recognize that if by the year 1592, by which time we are assured that the stream of Shakespearean drama was in full flood, Shakespeare was manifesting an exceptional facility in the production of works that were at once great literature and great stage plays, there had been “a long foreground somewhere.”

Yes, of course!  But in fact the traditional story had been unable to supply any such foreground in terms of the poet’s formative years.  There had never been any evidence of youthful apprenticeship or literary growth leading up to the sudden appearance in 1593 of the printed name “William Shakespeare” on the dedication of Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southampton.  Here was a highly cultured and sophisticated narrative poem, produced by an accomplished artist of tremendous talent and skill, striding onto the printed page as if dropped from the sky.

Where was any paper trail of early work?  Of  trial-and-error?  Where was the long foreground of learning, of life experience, of interaction with other writers?  Otherwise, regardless of whether or not this writer was a genius, we have been force-fed into accepting a miracle.

Well, as the evidence for Oxford’s authorship of all the “Shakespeare” works has steadily grown, showing that he had written all the plays in their earliest versions before 1590, orthodox scholars have been trying to push the writing career of Stratford Will back and back and further back in time.  They have rather desperately needed to create such a foreground for him to compete with Oxford’s documented involvement in literature and the stage up to age forty-three in 1593, by which time he had become a reclusive figure who, Looney argued, must have been “storing, elaborating, and steadily perfecting his productions before issuing them anonymously and under the “Shakespeare” pen name in that decade.

To cite just one example, it should be clear to anyone using common sense that the mature dramatist who wrote 1and 2 Henry IV and Henry V for the public playhouse in the 1590’s was the very same man who, back in his earlier days of apprenticeship, had written The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth — a youthful, high-spirited play that serves as a veritable template for the masterful later works.  In fact the orthodox scholar Seymour M. Pitcher risked his own reputation by issuing a book in 1961 entitled The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of The Famous Victories.  As far as I know, members of the Stratfordian club seldom mention Pitcher’s highly persuasive argument, although I’ll bet many of them privately consult it.

The trouble is that it’s quite unlikely Stratford Will created any such youthful template for the mature Henry plays to come later.  So how does James Shapiro deal with this dilemma in 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (2005)?  Well, see, Will of Stratford had previously acted in the early youthful work and he had memorized it and then, folks, he plundered it for scene after scene to use in Henry IV and Henry V!

“Shakespeare knew it intimately,” Shapiro writes, referring to Famous Victories, and he “went back to it repeatedly, ransacking it for episodes” to use in the Henry plays.  He ransacked it, searching for lines and scenes to filch, the way an enemy is said to “ransack the town.”  The fact that Famous Victories was not published until 1598 gives Shapiro a bit of a hurdle to overcome, leading him to his postulation that the Bard carried out his wholesale literary theft (i.e., plagiarism) from memory.  The great dramatist displays his “easy familiarity” with the earlier-written play because he had “regularly acted in it” back in the 1580s.

Those are the previously “lost” years of Shakespearean biography, but they are being “found” by scholars increasingly hungry for substance.  So now we have Will of Stratford acting in Famous Victories for the Queen’s Men by 1586, when he was all of twenty-two (a statement for which there is no foundation, that is, a pure fiction); and rather than laboring to find his own voice, Young Will was memorizing scenes for  ransacking as a future dramatist! Yes, Shapiro writes, in the 1590’s this same young playwright set about “lifting everything from the highway robbery scene that opens The First Part of Henry the Fourth to the wooing of Kate that ends Henry the Fifth.”

Are readers taking this stuff seriously?

In The Queen’s Men and their Plays (1998), authors Scott McMillin and Sally MacLean conclude that four of the nine extant plays of the Queen’s Men during the 1580’s were later turned into six plays of Shakespeare.  To cope with this even larger problem, they decide that the great dramatist actually rewrote the earlier plays.  And Eric Sams has coped with it by suggesting that Shakespeare himself wrote not only Famous Victories, but, also, early plays such as The Troublesome Reign of King John, The True Tragedy of Richard III and the True Chronicle History of King Leir along with many other old anonymous plays including a “lost” Hamlet – all of which he shaped into his later plays with similar titles.

Far more logical and plausible is the view that Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford had written Famous Victories by age twenty-four in 1574 and had it performed that December at the Court of Elizabeth; and that he revised and expanded and re-worked his own youthful play over the ensuing years – the years of his own long foreground – to finally bring forth the enduring dramatic literature known as1 and 2 Henry IV and Henry V as by Shakespeare.

But, of course, the Oxfordian view cannot overcome the Stratfordian argument with sheer logic or common sense.  This is a struggle against a kind of religion – a set of traditional beliefs so deeply held that it may well have developed its own DNA.  The Stratford gene!

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