Shakespeare and the “Black Hole” of Stratfordian Biography … A Paradigm in Crisis

Along with the several other Oxfordian colleagues at the Folger Library’s recent conference on the “problem” of Shakespearean biography, I kept saying I was “bemused” – that is, in the sense of being lost in thought, preoccupied, on the edge of confusion and bewilderment. The latter feeling came from the continually reverberating thought: “Can they be serious? Don’t they realize the ‘problem’ is simply that they have the wrong author? How can they go on like this?

And then, of course, came the continual realization that they can go on like this precisely because they are insulated from reality and constantly reinforcing that insulation among each other. Behind it all is money, prestige, reputation, career, camaraderie, being accepted, even being famous – and behind that is the terrible unspoken fear of looking out the window and catching a glimpse of the teeming life of Elizabethan politics and power as well as pervasive state control … that is, the kind of world in England that Prince Hamlet inhabited in Denmark.

Oxfordians at the Folger: Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter & Hank Whittemore

Oxfordians at the Folger: Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter & Hank Whittemore – Photo by Bill Boyle

A common theme among the Oxfordians was, “We are in the Twilight Zone,” but I became fond of murmuring that we were unlikely visitors to the constructed stage set of The Truman Show, in which all the players (in the Jim Carey movie) are totally unaware of living within an ongoing fictional universe. They are dealing with the “problem” of relating the banal biography of William Shaksper of Stratford to the glorious Works of Shakespeare, recognizing, publicly and collectively, for the first time, that they have a dreadful “black hole” on their hands.

If I were one of them giving an extemporaneous comment I might stand up and say something along the following lines:

“Fellow Stratfordians!

“We are gathered here at the Folger Shakespeare Library on this historic occasion to finally admit that all we really know for certain about William Shaksper in relation to the plays is … nothing. Yes, we link him to the Shakespeare name on the poems and plays, but beyond that we have no information except for anecdotal material, which, we now understand, is without any documentary foundation. All we have is inference and indirection!

“So, therefore, do we look outside the walls of this Truman Show to see whether we might be living in a fictional world? Do we dare look out the window at, say, the Earl of Oxford using “Shakespeare” as a pen name in 1593, at the age of forty-three? Do we want to recognize Prince Hamlet as the author’s closest self-portrait? Do we want to realize that Hamlet represents Edward de Vere?

“No, we do not! We are going to stay right inside this bubble, symbolized by this theater inside the Folger, and discuss how to keep on spinning straw into gold. We can make him a Catholic, to one degree or another. We can give him plenty of collaborators, one by one, thereby expanding his ‘biography’ by ever-increasing additional lives. We can posit that others read Italian and Greek sources for him; we might even have him use special reporters traveling to Italy and returning with information for him. We can give him an incredibly rich life with Anne Hathaway, who might have been … Portia in The Merchant of Venice??? And of course we have the whole new field of ‘historical fiction’ that Professor Stephen Greenblatt has virtually opened for us with Will in the World.

“The emptier the life of our man, the greater our freedom to manufacture one for him. His life is, in fact, a BLACK HOLE. It has always been a reconstruction after the fact – we have reinvented him over and over. The very lack of his identity is the perfect container for what we put into it!”

Whoa, wait a minute now, it seems that I have begun to actually quote the speakers at this conference. The common theme is that Shaksper’s life has been perceived as not sufficient to explain the glorious writings: “What we know is banal – we have historical records of the greatest banality — and it amounts to too much minutia. We have a haunting sense of ABSENCE in that life. If he wasn’t Shakespeare, we wouldn’t care to talk about him.”

I wanted to raise my hand, of course, and yell out, “That’s because he WASN’T Shakespeare!”

“We have information of the wrong kind,” it was said. “We can start with him being born with the Folio, in 1623, seven years after his death, and so begins an AFTER-LIFE.” And what a great after-life that is, I thought, as I lapsed into further bemusement.
“We have a genuine need to understand the relationship of his life and work, but we need to speculate. We can knit together scraps of information … We used to believe the text was sufficient unto itself ….”

Okay, I can’t go on much longer right now. They are trying to stay within the traditional paradigm, thrashing about to make it work, but the very fact of having a conference on the Problem of Biography is direct evidence that the paradigm is in trouble. It’s trembling, as if an earthquake is coming. There was recognition that the howling of Lear was outside the walls of this Truman Show … that there is some great storm of an emotional life beneath the works, which this current paradigm cannot explain.

“There is a large universe that is unknown to us,” said Joseph Roach of Yale, who may have been the best speaker of all, since he seemed to refuse to join the game of trying to make sense of the very small universe of the current paradigm. He added, “Shakespeare’s life is in his plays.”


(Meanwhile I’ll try to write again when more of the bemusement wears off.)

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