The End of the Authorship Question – Not!

Anticipating James Shapiro’s defense of Stratfordian virtue (and anti-Stratfordian lunacy) in his book Contesting Will, due this spring, I figured it would be wise to finally read through The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question by Scott McCrea.

The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (Not!) - by Scott McCrea

The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question (Not!) - by Scott McCrea

As the title indicates, this was supposed to be a knockout punch, the final blow to those of us who are very much involved in the Question; but lo, four years after its 2005 publication, here we are!  Stubborn, ain’t we!

Well, I did read McCrea’s book very carefully and for some reason it was quite enjoyable, perhaps because of the feeling that I actually understand his point of view; or, I should say, I find it normal even though naive.  He spends time knocking down certain arguments used by some Oxfordians and other anti-Stratfordians – arguments with which I myself disagree; and also sets up fabricated or conveniently weak arguments or “straw men” to be easily slain.

For now I’ll touch on just one example: that McCrea apparently assumes that most if not all Oxfordians believe that Shakspere of Stratford acted as a “front man” during the 1590’s onward, somehow convincing everyone that he, yes, he, was the great poet-dramatist.  Well, I’ve never believed such a silly thing.  What I do believe is that “William Shakespeare” was a pen name used by Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, and that most contemporaries were unaware of this.

Will, if this is you, tell the truth: you never acted as a "front man" for the real author, did you?!

Will, if this is you, tell the truth: you never acted as a "front man" for the real author, did you?!

Even Shakspere of Stratford was unaware of it! In my view  all the contemporary tributes and references to Shakespeare the writer were by those who assumed that the name was real but knew nothing else about him, much less that he was actually the Earl of
Oxford.

This is a common experience, after all.  We read the names of authors and playwrights and screenwriters and poets every day and have no idea who they are, what they look like, where they live and so on.  Out of the last dozen movies you’ve seen, how many of the screen writers can you name?  If you heard a name and it was new to you, how curious were you to find out more about him or her?

How many folks knew - or cared to know - the identity of the man who was "Trevanian," a pen name?

How many folks knew - or cared to know - the identity of the man who was "Trevanian," a pen name?

You know of the author “Trevanian,” no doubt.  He was finally identified —  but how many readers are aware of it?  How many cared a hoot about it?  [“Trevanian” was the pen name of American author Dr. Rodney William Whitaker: June 12, 1931- Dec 14, 2005; see Wikipedia on this.  Was it a “conspiracy”?  Of course not.]

Some of you have heard about the playwright Jane Martin of Louisville, yes?  Here’s a link to a short essay entitled, A Two Decade Old Mystery: Who is Jane Martin?

The piece starts this way: “It is a mystery that has confounded the theatre community for over two decades. Who is Jane Martin? She has produced over ten full length plays, six one-acts, and numerous shorts.  She has been nominated for the Pulitzer prize, and won the American Theatre Critics Association New Play Award twice. Yet, she has not made one public appearance. There are no interviews. No pictures. No sightings. Nothing. She has been called ‘America’s best known unknown playwright…”

A play by "Jane Martin" - a pen name

A play by "Jane Martin" - a pen name

Here’s from Wikipedia’s entry:

“Jane Martin is the pen-name of a playwright speculated to be retired Actors Theatre of Louisville artistic director Jon Jory.  Jon Jory, Martin’s spokesperson, denies being Jane Martin but has directed the premieres of Martin’s shows.  Martin has traditionally been billed as a Kentucky playwright. While speculation about her identity centers around Jory, other theories have cited former Actors Theatre of Louisville Executive Director Alexander Speer, former Actors Theatre Literary Manager Michael Bigelow Dixon, and former intern Kyle John Schmidt…”

Sounds like the authorship debate!  Oxford, Marlowe, Bacon… Well, you get the picture.  EVEN NOW in the 21st century, with all our technical miracles, we have folks referring to a playwright by his or her PEN NAME without knowing, or caring, about anything else.  Any of us could write a tribute — “O Jane Martin, you are a great dramatist!” — without having a clue about Jane’s identity.  In fact, people pay tribute to Jane all the time!

Such was the case of the pen name “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare,” suggesting a warrior shaking the spear of his pen…

I should stop here for now.  But let’s put it to rest: the wiser sort among us “heretics,” as McCrea routinely calls Oxfordians and those supporting other claimants, have understood that Will of Stratford was never a “front man” or “stand-in” who was posing or acting as the man to eventually be regarded as the greatest writer the world has known. But I must admit that some of my colleagues in the “heresy” camp do, in fact, entertain that nonsensical notion.

(Of course Will was in fact a real individual, a businessman, and in a future blog I’ll describe my version of his entry into this history as well as the role he played up to, and after,his death in 1616. And I’ll take up the matter of Ben Jonson’s testimony at the same time, since, as a matter of fact, Ben and Will go together…)

Castle Hedingham in Essex, England, birthplace of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Castle Hedingham in Essex, England, birthplace of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

The fact is that Edward de Vere was a central figure behind the great growth of literature and drama in England up to the victory over the Spanish armada in 1588, after which he went “underground,” while “Shakespeare” emerged in 1593 as the printed name for an author whose contemporary sources were nearly all associated personally, on the record, with Oxford.   That’s a fact, a verifiable fact, and it’s much more interesting and meaningful than the last dozen biographies of the Stratfordian Shakespeare put together!  Beyond that, it’s the truth.

McCrea’s overall problem, which I’ll get to in one of these blogs about his book that has “ended” the authorship question (Not!), is that he’s holding onto a mythical figure with no more physical reality than Santa Claus.

He thinks we’re pulling a “con job” by separating the Stratford man’s recorded life from the documented history of the “Shakespeare” name — but McCrea himself would never have connected the two on his own, certainly not during Will’s lifetime, since the words “Sweet Swan of Avon” and “Stratford moniment” (correct spelling) in the First Folio came later in 1623. (Even then few if any readers would have connected those two phrases, which were in separate eulogies.)

Near the very end of his book McCrea states:  “We can try to make sense of the world and make decisions based on reason, or we can cling to our prejudices.  We can defend our wrong ideas to the death or be open to the possibility of changing our minds.”

Well, Scott, most Oxfordians including myself were once Statfordians; we tried to make sense of the facts we were given and to make decisions about them based on reason; we did not cling to our ‘prejudices’ or ideas that had been ingrained in us; we did not try to defend those old knee-jerk ideas to the death; instead, without being conspiracy nuts or snobs or misguided con men, we were open to the possibility of changing our minds — and when we learned about a Hamlet-like nobleman named Oxford whom no college professor had ever told us about, in fact we did begin to change our minds … and we are still on that exciting adventure, learning, discussing, debating, researching, having the time of our lives … and I suggest you come on over and try it with the possibility of changing your mind!

Cheers from Hank

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  1. Hank writes, “Of course Will was in fact a real individual, a businessman, and in a future blog I’ll describe my version of his entry into this history as well as the role he played up to, and after,his death in 1616.” I am curious: has Hank done this yet? It seems oddly coincidental that there was this real man named Will Shaksper who lived on the Avon, where Oxford also lived, and who was at least tangentially involved in the theater. Very convenient for finding someone to fill in for the pseudonym. My point is that it is also hard to believe that Shaksper came around first and the pseudonym was used to accommodate him. In other words, nothing completely fits together regarding the pseudonym, and I’m wondering what Hank thinks about all this.

    • Hi John — thanks for reminding me of this! First of all I should say that this is a subject still being debated by Oxfordians and it’s not clear that there will ever be consensus on it. I agree with your final statement; in particular I feel that Oxford deliberately chose the pen name “William Shakespeare” without Will Shakspere yet in the picture in any way. (I won’t go into the many reasons he would have chosen that name, except to mention Pallas Athena, the spear-shaking goddess with whom Elizabeth was identified, I believe.) I feel that Shaksper was never a “front man,” i.e., that he never walked the streets of London claiming to be Shakespeare the writer, that he never acted as a surrogate author who brought manuscripts to the playhouse, etc.

      What I do think is that, first, in the mid-1590’s William Cecil and especially his son Robert Cecil set out to gain control of the theaters — to reduce the authorized play companies to two, the Lord Chamberlain’s and the Admiral’s, whose patrons were both members of the Privy Council of which Robert Cecil became the head in mid-1596, as Principal Secretary. And to reduce the playhouses to two, first the Curtain and the Rose, then the Globe (1599) and the Rose. And to pass certain laws pertaining to publishing — limiting the number of presses, instituting stricter censorship, and even book burning (1599). Sort of the way those in power, and those seeking to overthrow that power, want to have control of the TV station, etc. And the Elizabethan government succeeded.

      I believe they succeeded with the help, first, of Ben Jonson. He was arrested for the “seditious” play Isle of Dogs of 1597, now lost, faced some spies in jail, and emerged with a career. Too long to go into, but from then on Ben was in the service of Robert Cecil, who needed a writer to try to out-do “Shakespeare,” i.e., Oxford, who must have had much clout via the Queen. Cecil also needed a warm body for Shakespeare, just in case, or for the future — someone with a similar name, and he found Shakspere of Warwickshire, who was given money to buy a big house in Stratford that was actually a boarding house that could be used as a listening post to gain information about Catholic activities in that area. Jonson was getting credit and publishing rights, while Shakspere was getting cash to buy up properties. I believe that the “Shakespeare” involved behind the scenes in the Chamberlain’s Men and as a shareholder of the Globe was Oxford himself.

      After the succession of James came the first efforts to turn “Shakespeare” into a theater man, i.e., an actor — and to avoid promoting him as a poet and author of the sonnets with any relationship to Southampton, who, according to the Sonnets, had the blood of the Queen and could have been her heir. Cecil retained all his power under James and neither could tolerate such a threat to the throne. Once Shakspere died in 1616, Jonson issued his own folio a few months later, listing Shakespeare as an actor but not a writer. And of course Jonson was involved in the folio project that issued the plays in 1623, promoting Shakespeare as an actor who wrote plays but no mention of poems, sonnets or Southampton.

      That’s my basic take on it. Feel free to ask any question or poke holes in what is merely a working theory. (Other aspects would include the extent to which Oxford and Robert Cecil actually worked together even though they had very different political goals. And I should mention my view that Oxford adopted the pen name precisely to support Southampton from behind the scenes.)

      Thanks again – Hank


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