An Oxfordian Journal: Chapter 7: A “Life” of Shakespeare: Painting the Portrait of a Ghost

One biography I read in the spring of 1987 was A Life of Shakespeare (1923), by Joseph Quincy Adams, Jr. (1880-1946), a descendant of two American presidents, John Adams and John Quincy Adams.  After writing his Life he helped with the founding of the Folger Shakespeare Library (Washington, D.C.) in 1931, becoming its first director in 1936.

Joseph Quincy Adams, Jr. (1880-1946), a distinguished scholar who, in 1936, became the first director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.

I still admire Adams and his scholarship.  Writing about Shakespeare in London, he tried mightily to paint the portrait of a ghost.  It’s so well done you have to go back to see how he did it.  For example, he cites “evidence that he [Shakespeare] read extensively in the modern writers of France and Italy” – evidence, of course, found in the plays!  “That he should acquire a reading knowledge of French and Italian, living as he did in an atmosphere surcharged with the Renaissance literature of the Continent, may be regarded as inevitable.”  [My emphasis]

Inevitable, sure!  I bought it, too!  And on the same page we find that “how much this study of native and foreign literature contributed to his rapidly developing genius cannot well be estimated, but its influence is quickly apparent, for almost at once he turned his pen to imitation, and produced works that placed his name in the front rank of contemporary artists.” [My emphasis again]  Okay, okay!  No information about his creative process here, but, hey, how would I know Adams was trying to figure out (and then describe) how the wrong guy was the right guy?  I mean, for an honest scholar to do that must have taken a lot of intelligence and determination.  Seriously.

The name of Shakespeare was hyphenated as Shake-speare by the publisher and/or printer of the Sonnets in 1609 — indicating the likelihood of a pen name

He had started his Life with the significance of Shakespeare’s name.  At the time, I did not imagine it might be a pen name!  But, in retrospect, I can appreciate the irony – a truly great scholar inadvertently pointing out that Shakespeare just happened to have the perfect pseudonym:

“’What’s in a name?’ petulantly asks Juliet.  The answer is, as every student of the subject knows: In some names, little or nothing; in others, possibly a great deal.  The latter alternative seems to be the case with the name of our most distinguished English poet.

“In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as today, the word ‘Shakespeare’ unquestionably suggested to the mind of everyone what its two syllabic elements so clearly indicate – military prowess.  But the suggestion was then far more obvious than now, for the age was nearer to chivalry, and the phrase ‘the shaking of the spear’ was almost as commonplace as expressing the doughtiness [steadfast courage] of warriors.”

Adams cites Verstegan, in Of the Surnames of our Ancient Families (1605), writing that “Breakpear, Shakspear, and the like, have been names imposed upon the first bearers of them for valour and feats of arms.”  He also cites Thomas Fuller in Worthies of Warwickshire (1662), who noted that Shakespeare was ‘Martiall in the Warlike sound of his Sur-name (whence some may conjecture him of a Military extraction), Histri-vibrans or Shake-speare.”

Within the next few years I’d look back through the Stratfordian biographies to find any trace of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford; and in the Adams book his name appeared rather late in the story, but in retrospect the information is dynamite:

Edward Somerset, 4th Earl of Worcester (1553-1628), whose acting company was joined with Oxford’s troupe in 1602, by special permission of the Queen

“For many years the Chamberlain’s and the Admiral’s companies were the only adult troupes ‘allowed’ by the Privy Council to perform regularly in London.  But in the spring of 1602 the Earl of Worcester’s Men and the Earl of Oxford’s Men, who had been ‘joined by agreement together in one company,’ thereafter called Worcester’s Men, secured through the ‘suit of the Earl of Oxford’ the permission of the Queen likewise to play in the city.

“On March 31, 1602, the Privy Council, under special orders from the Queen, wrote to notify the Lord Mayor of the ‘allowance’ of the new company.”  The orders assigned the new company to play at the Boar’s Head, an inn situated in Whitechapel, because that was “the place they have especially used, and do best like of.”

William Kempe, one of the most famous “clowns” of the Elizabethan era, performing the “Morris” dance

The new company included actors who had “seceded from the Chamberlain’s Men soon after the Globe was erected” – why so, Adams does not say – and these included the famous William Kempe, Christopher Beeston and others who were “all excellent actors, favorably known to the public.”

And here’s some information from Adams (the truth of which I’m not sure) with even more retrospective dynamite:  Just six months later, the new company of Oxford’s and Worcester’s Men “secured the use of the Rose playhouse recently abandoned by the Admiral’s Men,” and at the same time “engaged Henslowe, with all his experience, to serve as their business-manager.”  Adams adds that “within a few years” the new company “moved to a new and larger playhouse, the Red Bull, erected for them to the north of the city.”

It’s unclear whether Adams had read J. Thomas Looney’s book Shakespeare Identified, published three years earlier, in 1920, introducing Oxford.  Nonetheless Adams reported that the earl was still involved in theatrical activity at age fifty-two and that he himself had gotten special permission from Elizabeth for the new company to perform in London.

When I was reading all this, of course, none of the Oxford stuff made an impression on me.  Having begun to write my play set inside the White House, having learned nothing about how Shakespeare was able to write so believably and confidently about events inside those royal palaces, I set aside the biographies.

One thing for sure, whether I thought about it or not:  Edward de Vere was no ghost.

Published in: Uncategorized on August 15, 2012 at 9:13 pm  Leave a Comment  
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