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.)

The URI to TrackBack this entry is:

RSS feed for comments on this post.

12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hank, I firmly believe, better to say I do see the breakthrough in the near future. If anybody, then you must know, I don’t speak just in the air.

  2. Hank, you were a role model of good behavior for me at the conference. I think we Oxfordians at the conference turned to one another, implicitly and explicitly, for guidelines about how to act.

    It was indeed an extraordinary event. It’s as though the most respected Stratfordians in the world were admitting their Emperor has no clothes– then quickly adding that it really doesn’t matter, it makes no difference, nudity is no problem, you just wave your hands around in an academically respectable way and really, it’s okay that there is absolutely no fit between the biography and the literary works.

    We were so restrained, I believe, partly out of compassion. You’re not supposed to kick a horse when it’s down. Or maybe not even when it’s up. Or is it a dead horse you’re not supposed to kick? Whatever the proverb, pointing out that they were essentially conceding defeat would have seemed cruel.

    In any event, who were we to intercede when our Stratfordian friends and colleagues were so determined to keep shooting themselves in their collective feet.

    Was it just my imagination, or did a proverbial hush come over the room when I pointed out on the final day that the original Stratford monument showed Shakspere holding a sack of grain, with no quill and with no paper?

    Throughout the conference, I was proudly wearing a red button that proclaimed that “Shakespeare is an Avon Product.” It was given to me by Markley Roberts, whose father was a good friend of Charlton Ogburn. I chatted with Julia Lupton Saturday morning. She’s Interim Chair of the English Department at the University of California at Irvine. I was tickled when she referred to the “Shakespeare Industry” in her talk that afternoon.

    The opportunity to converse with the speakers during the breaks was amazing. I thanked Stephen Greenblatt for graciously retracting one of the speculations in Will in the World during a discussion period the previous day. I then asked him how he’d feel about apologizing for comparing us with Holocaust deniers. He denied that he ever did.

    I did some research later, and learned that he did in fact bring up Holocaust deniers in connection with authorship skeptics in his brief letter to the editor of the New York Times, published on September 4, 2005:

    “The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the ‘authorship controversy’ be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that ‘intelligent design’ be taught alongside evolution.

    “In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time.

    “The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?”

    So I think Greenblatt has forgotten what he wrote. To his credit, he could not have been more cordial during our chat. And during his presentation, he seemed stung by the many criticisms his book received from reviewers, for being so outrageously speculative.

    I told Greenblatt how much I enjoyed reading his book Hamlet in Purgatory last summer. He strikes me as a brilliant scholar and as a basically decent person who just hangs out with fellow Stratfordians too much.

    • Well, Rick, thanks for the kind words. And I return them, sincerely. Every time you got to ask a question, I was reminded yet again how fortunate we Oxfordians are to have you on this side of the question. You are one highly regarded expert speaking on their academic level, respectfully, and yet forcing them to respond to challenging observations. Great that you made Greenblatt aware of his past statement about the Holocaust — whether he recalled it or not, he may think twice before using that comparison again. Anyway, you are right about that strange sudden feeling of compassion for those who have ridiculed us. They were doing a swell job of reducing the entire Stratfordian case to virtually zero — at least in terms of being able to link up the life and the works of literature and drama. They seemed to have some nostalgia for the good old days when speculation was never even questioned. Of course, Greenblatt went way over the line with it. It was a surreal argument to make when he said, for example, “We know there was a time when he (Shakspere) first made love, a time when he first saw a play,” and so on, as if this kind of thing made some concrete contribution to the man’s biography. Well, there was a time he saw a sunrise! So, yes, you could feel sorry for them, in some weird but genuine way. Of course, never once did they step outside this framework and wonder whether Shakspere’s banal life might suggest that he was not, after all, the man who may well have been the greatest the world has known. Yes, he was holding a sack of grain…
      I wonder when the next such conference will be, eh? Onward!

  3. I think Jeff had a point. If they weren’t so hysterical, each side might have things to give the other. Oxfordians start where they won’t go. Patterson and Hamilton are pushed to the nether lands of their world. Oxfordians start with Patterson.

    There is a contemporary of Shakespeare who said something very important. HIs name was George Puttenham and he was quite direct.

    “So as I know very many notable Gentlemen in the Court that have written commendably, and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a Gentleman to seem learned and to show himself amorous of any good Art.”

    ““And in her Majesty’s time that now is are sprung up another crew of Courtly makers, Noble men and Gentlemen of her Majesty’s own servants, who have written excellently well as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman Edward Earle of Oxford, …”

    But of course what did he know. He only lived then and commented upon it. Then others try to turn it it into something it is not.

    That’s how far they will go. Just like Greebnblatt repudiating his own words in the Times. He may be a nice fellow but he has behaved very badly.

    • A little OT of me, but Puttenham makes a great case for courtiers publishing anonymously and not just for that quote.

      Puttenham was Oxford’s brother-in-law’s stepfather (though after the elder Lady Windsor married him, Katherine de Vere and her husband attempted to have 13 year old de Vere legally declared a bastard and Lady Windsor divorced Puttenham in 1575).

      Puttenham spent most of his subsequent life hiding out or in prison. That he had a gang severely beat up a parson in a church, kept an unwilling young woman as a sex slave until Lady Windsor found out and freed her several years later and once nearly cut off the ear of a pursuivant who came after him are just a few of the lowlights of his life. Over his long criminal career, much of which was spent in prison or hiding out in the Whitefriars liberty he supposedly found time to write: the Partheniades which identified Elizabeth with the virgin goddess Minerva or Pallas Athena, and urged her to marry; the defense of the execution of Mary Queen of Scots that helped get Burghley out of hot water with the Queen; and the Arte of English Poesie which, incidentally, suggested that its author had seen the breasts of the Queen.

      “A Justification of Queene Elizabeth in Relacion to the Affaire of Mary Queen of Scottes” was written anonymously while Putternham was in the Wood Street Counter prison. He was believed to have been correcting Richard Field’s print runs of the anonymously authored Poesie during another bout in prison. He also was granted the reversions on two leases by the Queen’s secretary and was once granted a minor office until a church official wrote a protesting letter to Burghley which seems to prove he was a lowlife who they found useful at times.

      For much of the above see Steven May, George Puttenham’s Lewd and Illicit Career, Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 50, No. 2 (Summer 2008)

      Interestingly, he seems to have been the most prolific wordsmith in English history, rivaling if not exceeding the word coining abilities of Shakespeare (as explained by Richard Waugaman in “The Arte of English Poesie: The Case for Edward de Vere’s Authorship”, Brief Chronicles: The Interdisciplinary Journal of the Shakespeare Fellowship, 2:121-141 (2010)

      • Thanks, Mystikel!

  4. It’s a power struggle. Any hysteria is scarcely an issue, seems to me, though possibly telling. The Stratfordians certainly are hysterical, in more ways than one, sorry. By this point, the work and arguments of the Oxfordians can only serve as a huge embarrassment, at best, to the Stratfordians, objectively considered. Widening the cultural relevance of the identity question could help speed the rate of change. An accomplished, institutionally accepted novelist, say Jonathan Franzen, or plenty of others, sending up the Stratfordians throughout the course of a long serious comic novel would not only be appropriate and should be penetrating and resoundingly funny, it could be very effective for creating the long overdue fundamental shift in the field. The mawkish melodrama Anonymous helped but little, I would think, though it’s better than nothing. It had its moments, while brooding otherwise chintzy, unimaginative, trite, with little intellectual breadth. Additionally, ever expanding the identity question to larger issues of ideology, and power, and moribund professional/institutional inertia infecting the academy might also help. For example, many of the fictions perpetuated by university economics and political science departments, etc, are far more destructive than the Stratfordian fiction but of a similar kind, baseless ideology to varying extent in service to established power, position, prestige.That said, the immense corporate-state backing of the social science departments will bulwark much of their nonsense far beyond the length of time the Stratfordians will be able to hold out. Be that as it may, expanding the Shakespeare identity question into larger areas and issues of culture and intellectual pursuits is slowly overcoming the ever more isolated and indefensible position of the unclothed emperor Stratfordians. Maybe most fittingly, a contemporary Shakespeare would appear to unmask Shakespeare, but in such absence quite a number of intellectuals, bloggers and others, and the communities and intellectual effects they help foster, seem up to the task.

    • To show how insipid, fanatic, and political all this is, Shakespeare in Love was just as bad as Anonymous and won the Academy award.
      Go figure.

  5. I don’t see why Anonymous was so bad. What it showed had been mainly the truth. And the proof is round the corner.

    • Anonymous had interesting moments (a friend of mine liked it) but when you mess up Richard II with Richard III for entertainment’s sake, and put Venus and Adonis completely out of historical reality, you drive off a cliff that badly hurts your credibility. It therefore becomes irrelevant to those who know anything of history and they will ignore it.

      As I said, the fact the SIL, which took equally egregious liberties, won an academy award speaks volumes of the hypocrisy and willful blndness in the world about the subject.

  6. I saw two problems with Anonymous. Firstly, it was ahead of its time. It had statements, still nobody could PROVE. But honestly, this blog itself, Hank’s Monument, lots of books do have such statements. But breaking the ice needs this kind of art, I tend to suspect.
    Secondly, and this is rather personal: I can prove lots of things, but still not the double PT. As such, I’m afraid it is not true, thus I find this (part)theory to be actually against our case.

    But again: if the proof will be clear to the world, the question will not be what (if anything) is TRUE in Anonymous; rather what is false.

  7. Diana Price has an excellent rebuttal to Well’s book, “Shakespeare Beyond Doubt”. For “scholars”, their level of “scholarship” is abysmal.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: