“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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9 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Most interesting. Hank, thank you! That number if 150 maybe has something to do with the approximate number of the sonnets? By 1603 Oxford knew the exact number.
    But I have a question. About two ‘reasons’ ago ( 🙂 ) there was a dispute if Shakespeare was a real figure or just Oxford invented him. Favoring the latter version, if I’m correct. In this reasoning however William does appear a real person with exact age which corresponds with the age of the real Shakespeare. Am I wrong?

    • Yes, by then he would have known the number. Thanks for pointing that out. I guess he couldn’t have had Touchstone say “a hundred and fifty four” 🙂

      The second question is very perceptive and I appreciate it! Well, he certainly existed, although I very much doubt he had been an actor. He existed, yet in my view he was never a “front man” in any active way, during his own lifetime, which, as you know, ended in 1616. But — and it’s why I think the scene was added in 1603 — I believe some new phase was begun immediately following the succession of James, when Robert Cecil had enormous power, even more than before; and the deal for Oxford’s obliteration had been made. Now we see the transformation of the three acting companies into royal patronage, starting with the Chamberlain’s Men as now the King’s Men. (The other two went under patronage of Queen Anne and Prince Henry.) And we see “Shakespeare” listed at the top of the list of fellows of the King’s Men and then as one of the King’s Men acting as a Groom of the Chamber. Again, this may be metaphorical, not involving the real Shakspere, and I believe that’s the case. (Any active front man would have been far too messy, and uncontrollable, etc.) So there was some small preparation going on, and the Stratford man was undoubtedly chosen as the future Shakespeare. Oxford would have known these details, but not others — so the William scene in As You Like It had a “real” guy on stage — which is needed anyway, given the nature of the stage, requiring actors — but he was also figurative, since the court audience would not have known much if anything about Shakspere himself. The allegorical level applied to the name, or pen name. “Is thy name William?” “William, sir.” “A fair [Vere] name…”

      But it must be somewhat more interesting and complicated, given Jonson’s creation of Sogliardo in “Every Man Out of His Humour” in 1599. (I think the “Every” refers to Oxford and that Oxford had a lot to do with the writing of it.) That was a spoof on Shakspere getting his phony coat of arms at the Herald’s office in fall 1596, just months after Robert Cecil had become principal secretary and began his determination to gain control of the theatre (the media) — play companies, playhouses, even the plays through censorship etc., with near total success except when it came to “Shakespeare” plays — and I believe at the time Cecil recruited both Jonson and Shakspere. He enlisted Will to be an informant in the Catholic countryside in and around Warwickshire, and to that end enabled him to buy New Place in 1597 — a boarding house and tavern that was a kind of listening post — and also tried to insert him (possibly) on the business side of the Chamberlain’s Men. (An earlier reference to Shakespeare as picking up money – in 1595 – with Burbage and Kempe had referred only to Oxford, I believe.] But in no way was Shakspere a front man pretending to be the author. That would have been foolish and never could have happened.

      So it’s complex, I guess, but that’s a brief answer. Thanks again.

      • Great answer, thank you!
        Just one possibility: the missing four are there: thereFORE tremble…

  2. “To have is to have” could be translated into the Italian “avere e avere,” punning on both the de Vere family name and it’s motto “the truth is the truth”

    • Wonderful! I’ll bet Edward de Vere had a good laugh for himself as he wrote that — or at least I hope he did. Thanks.

  3. I think you are mistaken if you believe William of Stratford was either made up, not an actor or had no prominent place in the company.

    1) The hand written annotation on the Camden Annuls says Shakespeare was “our Rocius”. Rocius was a famous ancient actor. This is one of the few genuine, contemporary references to the man and the theater. Therefore it indicates there was some knowledge in Strafortd of Shaksper’s activities in London. He obviously was not a well known or highly crafted actor, but I think he was an actor.

    2) In a brilliant essay in the Tennessee Law Review on authorship, Diana Price demonstrates quite convincingly that the presence of theater people in lists like the one you mention have nothing to do with artistic contribution (mainstream critics and biographers mistakenly attribute Shakespeare’s placement due to his importance as company writer) but to the order of importance financially in relationship to the company. Thus CEO’s, CFO’s, and important financial managers had top billing. Shakespeare’s inclusion was due to his financial importance and acumen. That he is listed to me indicates he was real and had important functions within the group. We know he made a lot of money and retired wealthy. I have submitted before there is more contemporary evidence the man was a money lender than a writer.

    3) The only other potentially plausible explanation for the scene was forwarded by Duncan Jones in her book ‘Ungentle Will”. She posits that the mature writer is sarcastically lambasting his prior rural self when he first came to London. Her explanation to me is unsatisfying but at least its an attempt where most critics avoid the scene.

    I agree the scene is one of the most stark representations of the conflict that might have arisen between the two men. I also think Price, in her examination of the entirety of Groatsworth, makes a strong case for William beginning to amass money and power as a front and an appropriator of the works of others. This is most evident in the character if “Roberto”.

    Your theories about Cecil may be correct, but I’m not so sure Will was just a compliant rube in all of this. A small conspiracy does not require vast numbers of people. Johnson’s jab at “Sogliardo” don’t seem to indicate respect for his “beloved friend”, and the reference to having “never blotted out a line” for which the company was astonished indicates to me that they received finished scripts and were not aware of the author’s writing process.

    I’m glad you spent time on this scene for it is important. I spent a night with Alex before an Oxfordian dinner early in my involvement and we went over his paper in detail.

    One other feature of the play that is puzzling is the problems at the end for Touchstone and Audrey to consummate their marriage legally and the plethora of legal terms bandied about excessively. Alex postulates there was a potential deal to give proper credit to Oxford underway and it fell through.

    • Thanks, Ken. I don’t claim expertise on this aspect of the authorship issue, but instinct — and Occam’s Razor — tells me that the answer must be pretty simple. Are you saying you think Shakspere was both a money-lender or money-maker and an actor as well? (Many Stratfordians have had him retiring from the stage in 1604.) I feel it gets messy and too dangerous once you have him a real presence in the play company. Yes, Sogliardo, fine. Three or four Roscius comments would be better:-) But I’ll read up again. I have Diana’s article and will start there. Much appreciated.

      • I don’t think its a stretch that he became a player in the company’s finances. All the records we have for the man were financial, including the Globe and Blackfriars. I agree with Detobel that the signatures indicate reading literacy (there was a letter sent to him) but perhaps not proficient writing literacy. A shrewd company manager might be the perfect front. Who really knew of the *man* besides the inner circle? The famous actors were known, the playwright’s name was not known until around 1597. Why the delay between V&A and name on plays? If he was the solitary type indicated (“not a company keeper), who would be the wiser? After all there are almost no contemporary personal literary references for the man. As a writer he seemed to interact or establish friendships with no one. He passes though London as a cipher.

        But as a low level actor and financial partner, he would be well positioned INSIDE the company to help manage things. Who outside the organization would know anything? To me Jonson’s comment about blotting lines, if true, indicates even most actors weren’t aware.

        There’s this big deal among Strats that parts were written for and adapted for certain actors. Therefore the author had to be on set for all of this. Really? The company put on scads of plays by many many authors. Were they all physically present? Most likely not. What evidence do we have, for example, that Jonson or Heywood directly interacted in putting plays together?

        A theater director easily could communicate ongoing issues with any authors if adaptations needed to be made.

  4. One other point. I don’t think the scene would have been written if William was as unobtrusive as you suggest. I understand your reasoning, but again I don’t think the public, even other writer were aware of the inner financial workings of the company. Jonson may have known. The scene is very explicit and biting and the author knew very well details of Willam’s age and background when he emerged into London. To me the scene reveals conflict, especially with a real person.


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