“All your writers do consent that ‘ipse’ is he: now, you are not ‘ipse’,’ for I am he” — No. 58 of 100 Reasons Why Edward, 17th Earl of Oxford = “Ipse” = “Shakespeare”

One scene in the Shakespeare plays, viewed through the lens of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford as the dramatist, is so starkly illuminating that it quickly shatters the myth that the author could have been William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon: Act 5, Scene 1 of As You Like It (reprinted below).

“As You Like It” appeared in print for the first time here, in the First Folio of Shakespeare plays, in 1623

Set in the Forest of Arden, it has no function in the plot and appears to be one of several late additions inserted into the play.  In this short scene the courtier-clown Touchstone confronts William, the country fellow (who appears in no other scene of the play) and orders him to stop claiming possession of Audrey, the country wench.

Orthodox scholars and teachers are constrained to treat the scene seriously, trying to make sense of it in the context of the rest of the play, and they often come up with interesting explanations – except for the most obvious one, that the scene represents the author speaking directly to his audience and trying to tell us the truth by means of allegorical fiction.

Touchstone the courtier-clown stands for the playwright, Oxford, the courtier who was called “best for comedy” at Queen Elizabeth’s royal court; Audrey the country wench stands for the body of Oxford’s plays, regarded by the Puritans as immoral; and William the country fellow is William of Stratford, who came to London  from the Warwickshire countryside.

In this short allegorical scene, Oxford accuses William Shakspere of trying to claim credit for the Shakespeare plays (or to gain profit by selling them), and tells him to abandon all pretensions as author:

“All your writers do consent that ipse is he (All the writers who have worked under my patronage and guidance know that he himself is the master writer); now, you are not ipse, for I am he (now, you, William, are not he himself, the great author, because I am)!”

Touchstone is one of Oxford’s clear self-portraits.  Just as Edward de Vere in the 1570’s and 1580’s had enjoyed the Queen’s license to write and produce plays satirizing members of her court, Touchstone is an “allowed fool” (as Olivia calls Feste in Twelfth Night) who can say what he wants and get away with it.  He’s brilliant, insightful, witty and argumentative.  He can laugh at the madness of the world and at himself.  Above all, he is a “touchstone” or identifier of truth and true value (or the lack of it) beneath appearances on the surface.

We are prepared in Act 3 Scene 3 to recognize Touchstone as the dramatist.  In the forest with Audrey (the plays), he tells her:

“I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths.” 

Ovid, the ancient Roman poet and Shakespeare’s favorite source, was banished to the land of the Goths, just as Oxford was prevented from taking credit as author.

Then Touchstone sets up the truth as told best by “feigning” or being deceptive:

Touchstone – When a man’s verses cannot be understood, nor a man’s good wit seconded with [acknowledged by] the forward child, understanding, it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.  Truly, I would the gods had made thee poetical.”

Audrey – I do not know what poetical is.  Is it honest in deed and word?  Is it a true thing?”

Touchstone – No, truly; for the truest poetry is the most feigning …”

The best (or only) way for Oxford to tell the truth is by means of symbolism and allegory in his dramatic works, which are otherwise fictional…

But, he warns, if you fail to understand my “hidden” meanings you will be denying my existence; you might as well kill me in the little room of a torture chamber.   

William, Touchstone and Audrey

Here is Act 5, Scene 1 with some of my comments inserted:

The Forest of Arden [which, in real life, lay between Stratford upon Avon and Oxford’s estate on the Avon known as Bilton.]

TOUCHSTONE [Oxford] and AUDREY [the plays] are onstage … Enter WILLIAM [of Stratford]

WILLIAM – Good even, Audrey.

AUDREY – God ye good even, William.

WILLIAM – And good even to you, sir.

TOUCHSTONE – Good even, gentle friend. Cover thy head, cover thy head; nay, prithee, be covered. How old are you, friend?

WILLIAM – Five and twenty, sir.

[William Shakspere of Stratford was 25 in 1589, by which time Oxford would have completed the original versions of all the plays; but he would have written and inserted this scene no earlier than 1599, when the “Shakespeare” name had just begun to be printed on the plays, and possibly not until 1603.]

TOUCHSTONE – A ripe age. Is thy name William?

WILLIAM – William, sir. [If the playwright’s name was William, would he decide to give that name to this country bumpkin?]

TOUCHSTONE – A fair name. Wast born i’ the forest here?

WILLIAM – Ay, sir, I thank God.

TOUCHSTONE – ‘Thank God;’ a good answer.  Art rich?

WILLIAM – Faith, sir, so-so. [William Shakspere appears to have been a pretty good money-maker.]

TOUCHSTONE – ‘So-so’ is good, very good, very excellent good; and yet it is not; it is but so-so.  Art thou wise?

WILLIAM – Ay, sir, I have a pretty wit. [Maybe Will of Stratford was naturally witty.]

Touchstone in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of 1996-97

TOUCHSTONE – Why, thou sayest well. I do now remember a saying, ‘The fool doth think he is wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool.’ The heathen philosopher, when he had a desire to eat a grape, would open his lips when he put it into his mouth; meaning thereby that grapes were made to eat and lips to open. You do love this maid?

WILLIAM – I do, sir. [He wants to marry the plays, i.e., claim them for himself.]

TOUCHSTONE – Give me your hand. Art thou learned?

WILLIAM – No, sir. [Not educated ; perhaps illiterate.]

TOUCHSTONE – Then learn this of me: to have, is to have; for it is a figure in rhetoric that drink, being poured out  of a cup into a glass, by filling the one doth empty the other; [By filling Shakspere with credit for the plays, Oxford is being emptied of credit — Alex McNeil article, linked below] for all your writers do consent that ipse is he: now, you are not ipse, for I am he.

WILLIAM – Which he, sir?

TOUCHSTONE – He, sir, that must marry this woman. [He who deserves to be associated with the plays.] Therefore, you clown, abandon,–which is in the vulgar leave,–the society,–which in the boorish is company,–of this female,–which in the common is woman; which together is, abandon the society of this female, or, clown, thou perishest; or, to thy better understanding, diest; or, to wit I kill thee, make thee away, translate thy life into death, thy liberty into bondage: I will deal in poison with thee, or in bastinado [beating with sticks], or in steel; I will bandy with thee in faction [engage in controversy with you]; I will o’errun thee with policy [conquer you with cunning strategy]; I will kill thee a hundred and fifty ways: therefore tremble and depart!

AUDREY – Do, good William.

WILLIAM – God rest you merry, sir. (Exit)

My own guess (which comes from William Boyle, former editor of Shakespeare Matters) is that Oxford wrote this scene in 1603, after he had agreed to the complete obliteration of his identity as author of the “Shakespeare” works.  He may have inserted it into the play for a private performance at Wilton in December 1603 — and for those who knew the truth, it must have been wildly funny and yet profoundly sad.

So this is No. 58 of 100 reasons why Oxford must have been “Shakespeare.”

[I recommend a superb article by Alex McNeil – As You Like It: Is Touchstone vs. William the First Authorship Story?” – which appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of Shakespeare Matters, the newsletter of the Shakespeare Fellowship, and reprinted online.]

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