No. 65 of 100 Reasons Why the Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare”: the Plays Were Revised to Become Masterworks of Dramatic Literature

He who casts to write a living line must sweat (Such as thine are) and strike the second heat
Upon the Muse’s anvil: turn the same
(And himself with it) that he thinks to frame;
Or for the laurel he may gain a scorn,
For a good Poet’s made as well as born,
And such wert thou.

Ben Jonson’s eulogy to Shakespeare — The First Folio, 1623

This reason why Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was “Shakespeare” flows from the previous one, centering on his death in 1604.  It is one of the most important reasons, yet also among the least noticed – the fact that most of the plays are also masterworks of dramatic literature – works that the author has written and rewritten, over long stretches of time, for carefully attentive readers.  Most of the plays can be fully appreciated only when, in addition to being attended in the playhouse, they are read and re-read.  By the same token, to comprehend how they were produced in final form requires a viewpoint wholly opposite from that of Stratfordian tradition.

The still-current image is that of a man busily engaged in his acting career, with its nonstop pressures of memorizing, rehearsing and performing, while also lending money, buying property, dealing in grain and litigating over petty debts.  Simultaneously he is writing to produce, one after the other, popular plays earning profits at the box office.  He keeps on meeting new commercial demands, leaving each work to be printed as it had been delivered or performed.

[Love's labour's lost]  A pleasant conceited comedie called, LouThis traditional conception continues to be promoted by the established authorities, even in the face of growing challenges based on huge anomalies.  For example, Love’s Labour’s Lost was first printed in 1598, amid the great issuance of Shakespeare plays, as “Newly corrected and augmented” – indicating an author who, in fact, did have the necessary time to make such revisions.  And in 1604 the second quarto of Hamlet was “Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy” – resulting in a playing time of five hours, as opposed to the two-hour limit of the Elizabethan playhouse (because of the need for daylight).

Such anomalies should make it obvious that the author was deliberately expanding his stage-plays into more detailed and deeper works of literature, for current and future readers.  Within the Stratfordian view of the author’s motivations and activities, however, such careful and loving attention to the printed versions of his plays simply doesn’t fit.

Only a difficult “mental revolution” will overturn the Stratfordian view, as J.T. Looney wrote in Shakespeare Identified nearly a century ago in 1920 – referring to what Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) would famously call a “paradigm shift,” whereby the same facts are able to be viewed within a new framework, revealing an entirely different picture.  The fact that most Shakespearean plays are towering works of literature (pounded upon the “anvil” that Ben Jonson mentions above) is one more example of the proverbial elephant in the living room.

Hamlet 2ndQuartoCover2It appears that Looney, while examining Edward de Vere’s life, experienced his own “mental revolution” that changed the way he viewed the writing of the plays.  Below are sections of his pages that are often overlooked but, I believe, deserve to be highlighted – a view of the final dozen years of Oxford’s life until his recorded death in 1604:

“In 1592 he is placed in comfortable circumstances. He is just forty-two years of age and therefore entering upon the period of the true maturity of his powers.  He has behind him a poetic and a dramatic record of a most exceptional character. His poems are by far the most Shakespearean in quality and form of any of that time.  His dramatic record places him in the forefront of play writers.  

Then a silence of twelve years … of comfort and seclusion [which] exactly corresponds to the period of the amazing outpouring of the great Shakespearean dramas. Unless, therefore, we are to imagine the complete stultification of every taste and interest he had hitherto shown, he must have been, on any theory of Shakespearean authorship, one of the most interested spectators of this culmination of Elizabethan literature, and he himself the natural connecting link between it and the past.  Yet never for one moment does he appear in it all … So far as these momentous happenings in his own peculiar domain are concerned, he might have been supposed to have been already dead.”

Continuing on this path, Looney starts to change the picture:

“One of the greatest obstacles to the acceptance of our theory of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays will be a certain established conception of the mode in which they were produced and issued; a conception which arose of necessity out of the old theory … [and] demands a difficult revolution in mental attitude.” 

[We need to] “look at the facts that have been established respecting the issuing of the plays in the light of the quality and content of the work” [and] “determine whether the work is suggestive of a hasty enforced production amid a multiplicity of other activities, or of painstaking concentration of mind on the part of a writer relieved from material and other anxieties.” 

The choice is whether the author was one who was “living as it were ‘from hand to mouth’ in the production of his dramas” or “one who began the issue [printing of quartos] with large reserves [of manuscript texts] already in hand.”

No less than twelve plays were printed for the first time between 1597 and 1604, when Oxford died, Looney noted, adding: “If he had done nothing more than write the twelve new plays, even supposing they had been mere ephemeral things intended only for the stage, the achievement would have been extraordinary. When, however, we turn from quantity to the consideration of literary quality, it is difficult to understand how such an accomplishment could ever have been credited….

“It is much more reasonable, then, to suppose that what was actually happening … was the speeding up of the finishing-off process, as though the writer were either acting under a premonition that his end was approaching, or the time had now arrived for giving to the world a literature at which he had been working during the whole of his previous life. Everything suggests the rushing out of supplies from a large accumulated stock…

“Certainly the last seven or eight years of De Vere’s life are, according to the orthodox dating, marked by an extraordinary output of Shakespeare’s plays, whilst his death marks an equally striking arrest in the issuing, printing and reprinting of these dramas.

“The above considerations ought to prepare us for a complete break-up of the seriatim conception of the creation of the “Shakespeare” dramas [that is, the idea they were written one upon the other in a row]. We have labored the point because of the difficulty of the mental revolution involved.

“If we assume an author who for ten or twelve years [1576-1588] had been actively occupied with theatre work; whose great wealth had been spent ungrudgingly upon it, engaging talented and educated men to assist him and to relieve him of much of the drudgery of theatre management; thus leaving him free to concentrate his distinctive powers upon the literary part of the work; then, with the literary capital he had thus amassed, beginning another period of fourteen to sixteen years of comparative quiet and seclusion, in which to give a higher finish to plays already written, as well, possibly, as to produce new works, the whole aspect of the issue of this literature becomes changed…

“Edward de Vere was by this time able to bring to the task, on the one hand these stores of dramas which are supposed to have perished [or been “lost”], and on the other hand the maturity of his own mental powers, as well as poetic gifts of a high order that had been amply exercised. Contrasted with the Stratfordian view or any other theory of authorship yet propounded, the supposition that Edward de Vere is ‘Shakespeare’ places the appearance of this literature for the first time within the category of natural and human achievements.

“Everything points to “Shakespeare” being given to storing, elaborating, and steadily perfecting his productions before issuing them, when his mind was bent on producing something worthy of his powers.  Love’s Labour’s Lost, which is placed somewhere between 1590 and 1592, was not issued in its final form until 1598, and every line of it bears marks of most careful and exacting revision. Hamlet, too, there is evidence, underwent similar treatment.

How it could ever have been believed that the finished lines of Shakespeare were the rapid and enforced production of a man immersed in many affairs will probably be one of the wonders of the future. Everything bespeaks the loving and leisurely revision of a writer free from all external pressure; and this, combined with the amazing rapidity of issue, confirms the impression of ‘a long foreground somewhere’ [early versions written before “Shakespeare” appeared in the 1590’s]

“The fact is that his matchless lines, crowded with matter and intellectual refinements, demand not only maturity of mind in the auditor, but a willingness to turn again and again to the same passages, the significance of which expands with every enlargement of life’s experiences. This is one reason why, in order to enjoy fully the best contents of a play of Shakespeare’s on the stage, it is necessary first to have read it; and the more familiar one is with it beforehand the greater becomes the intellectual enjoyment, if the play is at all capably handled…

“Though the writer’s first aim may have been to produce a perfect drama for stage purposes, in the course of his labors, by dint of infinite pains and the nature of his own genius, he produced a literature which has overshadowed the stage-play…

We feel justified in claiming then that the best of the dramas passed through two distinct phases, being originally stage-plays — doubtless of a high literary quality — which were subsequently transformed into the supreme literature of the nation. We further claim that the man who had the capacity to do this had the intelligence to know exactly what he was doing; and having created this literature he was not likely to have become so indifferent to its fate as he is represented by the Stratfordian tradition.”

I have reprinted much more from a single source than usual, yet after much cutting I hope I haven’t weakened Looney’s argument.  In any case, it is offered here as Reason No. 65.

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6 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Extraordinarily important thoughts and concepts to ponder Hank. Goes to the heart of the matter.

  2. I read the other day that, notwithstanding the poet, we know for sure that a poem is made, not born. Great entry this one, sir!

  3. Can I make a little question, Whittemore?

    I have been reading of Labeo. This roman poet was vexed in his days for his bad poetic style. His name was made a synonym during Elizabethean England to bad versed poets.

    How is Joseph Hall’s and John Martson’s “Labeo”. Two things are certtain: both poets said Labeo was a bad pornographic poet and he had a “mediocra firma”. This latin words are Francis Bacon’s and Anthony Bacon’s motto. If this Labeo was Shakespeare, then why would Shakespeare had Bacon’s motto?

    Is there another opinion from you about this, Whittemore?

    • Francisco, I have heard of this but need to search around in my notes. I’ll let you know what I come up with.

      • Thanks, Whittemore 🙂

  4. Thanks for sharing Looney’s words. Our movement really had all star chiefs in the early days – Looney and Eva Turner Clark both had remarkable insights and made profoundly important discoveries.

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