A Sharply Critical Review of Stephen Greenblatt’s New Book by William Niederkorn

I’d like to recommend a review by William S. Niederkorn, formerly of the New York Times, in the current Brooklyn Rail – Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture.

William Niederkorn

He reviews Shakespeare’s Freedom (a series of lectures) the latest book from Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, whom he calls “The Bard’s Evangelist.”

Greenblatt’s biographical fantasy Will in the World (2004) was a bestseller despite the fact that it demonstrated (yet again) the lack of evidence that William of Stratford could even write, much less create plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Richard III, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, etc., etc.

My only question is whether, deep down, Professor Greenblatt actually believes the things he conjectures about the man who was Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare's Freedom" by Stephen Greenblatt

For example, in the “biography” mentioned above he turns to the question of how in blazes the newly arrived actor from Warwickshire came to write seventeen private sonnets urging the seventeen-year-old Earl of Southampton to hurry up and marry and have a child to continue his bloodline … not to mention how the actor-poet could have had the courage (and sheer madness) to lecture and even scold the earl for refusing to obey — “Murderous shame! … Profitless usurer!” — and finally to beg him to beget a child in the most personal way:  “Make thee another self for love of me.”

The circumstance in the early 1590’s was that Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister William Cecil Lord Burghley was pressuring Southampton, a royal ward in his custody, to marry his own granddaughter, the fifteen-year-old Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter [of record] of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford … who, according to the ever-growing evidence, was the true “Shakespeare.”

Stephen Greenblatt

It is possible,” Greenblatt wrote, in effect warning us he was about to take a wild and totally unsupported guess, “that some one, either in the circle of Burghley or in the circle of Southampton’s mother, had taken note of the fact that the young earl was excited by the talents or by the person of an actor who was also a promising poet.”

How could the professor write such stuff?

“Whoever noticed this excitement – and a wealthy nobleman’s slightest inclinations would have been carefully watched – might well have had the clever idea of commissioning the poet to try his hand at persuading the narcissistic, effeminate young earl to marry.  Such a commission would help to account for the first seventeen of the extraordinary sequence of 154 sonnets…”

Sir George Greenwood

Let’s call upon Sir George Greenwood, whose 1908 book The Shakespeare Problem Restated still stands as a classic in the anti-Stratfordian world.  Oh, how I’d love to see a debate between Greenblatt and Greenwood on the authorship question; I have no doubt that the latter would win hands down.

“The idea that Will Shakspere, the young provincial actor,” Sir George wrote,  “was writing a succession of impassioned odes to the young Earl of Southampton, urging him to marry at once and become a father ‘for love of me’ appears to me, in the absence of anything like cogent evidence to that effect, simply preposterous.”

He was right.  And if he’d heard Greenblatt’s suggestion that Shakspere of Stratford might have been “commissioned” to write the sonnets urging Southampton to marry and procreate, he would have thought it even more preposterous!

“In Shakespeare’s Freedom,” Niederkorn writes, “Greenblatt is careful to avoid authorship issues and the sticky problems that he and a considerable majority of Shakespeare professors refuse to face as they ridicule the subject and preclude it from academic study.”

Among those problems, he notes, is the “vexing question” of how Shakespeare escaped punishment for his play Richard II, which the Queen herself knew had been used as propaganda for the Essex Rebellion of February 8, 1601, whose leaders (Essex and Southampton) were accused and found guilty of high treason.

Niederkorn’s final lines in the review amount to a direct hit against the “scholarship” of Professor Greenblatt, who, he reminds us, has equated doubts about the authorship to “claims that the Holocaust did not occur.”

I won’t steal Niederkorn’s thunder by repeating his final lines, but I will take this opportunity to commend him for having the courage to raise his voice amid the crowd and to speak the truth that’s finally coming to light — the truth that “Shakespeare” was not, after all, the man named William Shakspere of Stratford.

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  1. I found this in “The Shepherd’s Calendar: October. Aegloga Decima,” by Edmund [i.e. the bastard] Spencer.

    The dapper [i.e. pretty] ditties that I wont devise
    To feed youth’s fancy and the flocking fry
    Delighten much; what I the bet forthy?
    They have the pleasure I a slender price:
    I beat the bush the birds to them do fly:
    What good thereof to Cuddie can arise?

    This is De Vere’s complaint in “Cardanus’s Comfort” six years before (1573):

    “For he that beat the bush, the bird not gets,
    But who sits still–and holdeth fast the nets.”

    If one notices that “The Shepherd’s…” was published anonymously and with the poesie “Inmerito”, as well the italian expressions contained in this work, something is smelling like Oxford’s hands.

    • Nice find, Ricardo.

      For a detailed examination of Cuddy as Oxford, please see my recent Cahiers Elisabethain article:

      Click to access cuddie.oxford.pdf

      • I agree, Ricardo, and really appreciate this great work. Thanks, Roger, for the link to what appears to be a major piece of work you’ve accomplished. I’ve printed it out and look forward to reading it. (A little note of trivia is that I was on the Notre Dame campus at the same time as Paul McLane but never met him.)

      • Your work will give me what I am looking for.

        Thank you.

        It seems like a lenghty and detailed work.

        Let’s go for it at once.

  2. “Colin Clout come home again” (1590) seems not to be from a true poet, for it doesn’t sound tragic nor passionate, and it has not any of those obsessive cries of De Vere. But it has these verses:

    To her my life I wholly sacrifice: (v. 475)
    My thought, my heart, my love, my life is shee,
    And I hers ever onely, ever one:
    One ever I all vowed hers to bee,
    One ever I, and others never none.

  3. “The Ruins of Time” has more passion. Look at this:

    Thy lord shall never die the while this verse
    Shall live and surely it shall live for ever
    For ever it shall live and shall rehearse
    His worthy praise and virtues dying never
    Though death his soul do from his body sever
    And thou thyself herein shalt also live
    Such grace the heav’ns do to my verses give.

    This is the language of the Shake-speares Sonnets. The wordplay on “ever” and “never” is prominent.

  4. Alas, Alas, that your ear is tin and cannot hear the thumping din of the poetaster Edward de Vere. In the first three lines of the ruins of time, the poet repeats himself thrice, without development of the theme or elaboration of the image: “shall never die…shall live and surely it shall live for ever / For ever it shall live…” All right, already, Ed. Cf: “For in eternal lines to time thou grow’st / so long as men can breathe, or eyes can see, / so longs lives this, and this gives life to thee.” If you can’t hear the difference as decisive as to whether the same man wrote both, I cannot help you, but you might consider that there isn’t a single image in “Ruins of Time” that is not a cliche while there is hardly a sonnet in Shakespeare’s sequence not crammed with freshly minted ones. The conspiracy that de Vere was Shakespeare makes for a good story–even one more sensible in some ways than the story of the actor from Stratford–but I could only begin to consider it if it were in fact proven that the supposed buffoon actor, William Shakespeare, actually wrote the pedestrian verse attributed to de Vere, so that the old aristocrat could kick clean from the strongest evidence against the mountain of conjecture in support of him: his own metrically predictable, cliche-ridden, amateur verse.

    • You are speaking of “The Ruins of Time” as not by Spenser but by Oxford?

      In any case it’s up to Oxfordians, of whom I am one, to answer you satisfactorily. If we have not done so, well, then we must.

      One answer, so to speak, is that most of Oxford’s “juvenilia” (of which “Shakespeare” appears to have none) consists not of poetry in the strict sense, but, rather, of song lyrics — accounting both for their youthfulness and for their repetitive aspects. Many if not all of these were collected by Richard Edwards, who had died in 1566, when Oxford was sixteen.

      Do you know the poem Oxford printed at the front of the 1573 translation of Cardanus’ Comforte by Bedingfield? “The laboring man that tills the fertile soil” etc., has a progression.

      Then we have Oxford’s letters in which there are so many Shakespearean phrases and sentences and themes…

      How come we have no youth apprenticeship work attributed to Shakespeare? We Oxfordians believe we know where it is.

      Thanks for the comment.

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