John Irving: The Shakespeare Authorship Question Enters His New Novel “Avenue of Mysteries”

“Elements of Irving’s own life – including his wrestling career, absentee father and own sexual fantasies as a young man – have inspired much of his writing, though the author says that he prefers to rely on an open imagination as the springboard for ideas rather than strict autobiography.” –

John-Irving Krimidoedel-Wikimedia-Commons

John-Irving Krimidoedel-Wikimedia-Commons

It was my brother Jim who tipped me off that in his new novel Avenue of Mysteries the great writer John Irving introduces the subject of the Shakespeare authorship question.

One of Irving’s characters, Clark French, tells his former writing teacher that in an upcoming public interview he wants to “put the issue of personal experience as the only basis for fiction writing behind us.”  Speaking of “the types who believe Shakespeare was someone else,” he declares that they “underestimate the imagination” or that they “over-esteem personal experience – their rationale for autobiographical fiction, don’t you think?”

The former writing teacher, Juan Diego, is a famous novelist who thinks to himself, “Poor Clark – still theoretical, forever juvenile, always picking fights.”

It turns out that both men have recently read James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Both had admired the book and had been “persuaded by Mr. Shapiro’s arguments – they believed that Shakespeare of Stratford was the one and only Shakespeare; they agreed that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were not written collaboratively, or by someone else.”

irving-avenue-mysteries-30-45Juan Diego wonders why Clark French fails to begin the interview by quoting Mr. Shapiro’s “most compelling” statement:  “What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experience to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.”  Instead, Mr. French opens by attacking Mark Twain, one the early doubters of the Stratfordian authorship, for lacking imagination; and in the process Juan Diego becomes embarrassed and wishes he could disappear.

I have no intention of trying to fathom Mr. Irving’s personal opinion on the matter, but, if given the chance, I would explain to him that doubters of the Stratfordian biography – and particularly those of us who believe that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the true author – do not argue that the poems and plays are strictly autobiographical.  What we do perceive, in the case of Oxford, is that the Earl wrote as “Shakespeare” from his own vantage point as a nobleman and often drew upon his own life experiences, using autobiographical elements within his fictional creations.

In other words, our view of Oxford is that – like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, O’Neill, Williams and Irving himself – he often wrote about what he knew, building upon it with his imagination, to create works of fiction.  When Shapiro accuses us of saying that the poems and plays of Shakespeare are “autobiographical,” and then disagrees with us, he is creating a straw man and knocking it down.

shakeBut, then, I am sure that John Irving – one of the best writers ever — knows this quite well and has no need for my explaining.  And I have a hunch that, if Irving found out the true author of Hamlet had yet to be acknowledged after more than four centuries, he would know there was need for some serious correcting.

oxford11“A straw man is a common form of argument and is an informal fallacy based on giving the impression of refuting an opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument which was not advanced by that opponent. The so-called typical ‘attacking a straw man’ argument creates the illusion of having completely refuted or defeated an opponent’s proposition by covertly replacing it with a different proposition and then proceeding to refute or defeat that false argument instead of the original proposition.” –

POSTSCRIPT:  Chuck Semple sends the following report:  “I saw Irving interviewed about his new novel at Louisville’s Center for the Arts. My ears pricked up when he veered close to the authorship question by referring to Shakespeare as “whoever that writer was.” I suspect he’s open to the question.”

Yes, I agree!  And thank you, Chuck!

Oxford to Queen Elizabeth as Dark Lady: “Commanded by the Motion of Thine Eyes”

This is the second chapter of a series about how the Sonnets identify Elizabeth I of England as the so-called Dark Lady, who is “dark” or “black” only because of her negative imperial attitude and actions:  “In nothing art thou black save in thy deeds,” he tells her in Sonnet 131.

Elizabeth Tudor

Elizabeth Tudor

For those of us who conclude that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare, one particular phrase in the so-called Dark Lady sequence confirms that the powerful, deceitful woman in question is none other than the Queen.  That phrase is comprised by line 12 of Sonnet 149:

“Commanded by the motion of thine eyes.”

Here is Gloucester in 1 Henry VI (1, 1):

“England ne’er had a king until his time.

Virtue he had, deserving to command.”

G. Wilson Knight declares in The Mutual Flame (1955) that the Sonnets “regularly express love through metaphors from royalty and its derivatives, using such phrases as ‘my sovereign … thy glory … lord of my love … embassy of love … commanded by the motion of thine eyes.’”

If William of Stratford is the author, he cannot be addressing the Queen in these private, personal sonnets — to understate it.  His use of royal language would necessarily be metaphorical.

Oxford, however, is a high-ranking nobleman at the royal court, accustomed to speaking directly with her Majesty, and therefore he cannot be using such language when addressing any female but the Queen.

For this proud Earl, so keenly attuned to the meaning and power of words, to suggest that any woman other than her Majesty might “command” him would be unthinkable.

Elizabeth is the absolute monarch whom he has pledged to serve; now, toward the end of her life and reign, she has crushed all his hopes for a Tudor succession.  Having pledged his undying loyalty, however, he is compelled to continue in her service even though he has come to despise it:

“What merit do I in my self respect

That is so proud thy service to despise,

When all my best doth worship thy defect,

Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?”

(Emphases added)

“Thy service” echoes Oxford’s own postscript to William Cecil Lord Burghley on 30 October 1584: “I serve her Majesty, and I am that I am,” while also echoing his words to the Queen herself, in a letter of June 1599, while trying to help her avoid losing income on a tin-mining venture: “I beseech Your Majesty, in whose service I have faithfully employed myself … to give commandment that the order of your preemption be not altered…”

[Oxford often did write to Burghley, the Lord High Treasurer of England and chief minister to the Queen, the most powerful man in the realm, signing off as “Your Lordship’s to command,” but otherwise any such address by him was to Elizabeth.  Characters in the plays of various types and in various contexts might be “commanded” metaphorically, but the Sonnets are personal and direct statements in real life, from a specific writer to a specific person; and the authorship question poses a choice between two entirely different contexts, Stratfordian or Oxfordian.  The latter perspective, with de Vere as author of the Sonnets, compels the same words on the page to be viewed within a very different framework.]

Meanwhile the slightest “motion” of the monarch’s eye, indicating disapproval, is all it takes to send any subject (regardless of rank) to the scaffold.  The Sonnets are filled with such powerful eyes – ninety of them, in various forms – and Shakespeare knows their authority, as the Bastard advises his sovereign in King John (5.1):

“Be great in act, as you have been in thought;

Let not the world see and fear mistrust

Govern the motion of a kingly eye!

The bottom line is that if Oxford is Shakespeare the Dark Lady can only be Elizabeth Tudor, his sovereign mistress.

Recapping to this point:

  1. “Ever the same” in Sonnet 76 is how Queen Elizabeth translated her motto.
  2. “Marigold” in Sonnet 25 is her Majesty’s flower.
  3. “Commanded by the motion of thine eyes” in Sonnet 149, if from Oxford’s pen, must be to the Queen.

Sonnet 149

Canst thou O cruel, say I love thee not,

When I against my self with thee partake?

Do I not think on thee when I forgot

Am of my self all tyrant for thy sake?

Who hateth thee that I do call my friend?

On whom frown’st* thou that I do fawn upon?

Nay, if thou lour’st on me, do I not spend

Revenge upon my self with present moan?

What merit do I in my self respect

That is so proud thy service to despise,

When all my best doth worship thy defect,

Commanded by the motion of thine eyes?

But, love, hate on, for now I know thy mind,

Those that can see thou lov’st, and I am blind.

  • Frown’st recalls how, in Sonnet 25, even those “favorites” of “Great Princes” can be plunged into disgrace and ruin by the sudden loss of their favor, “For at a frown they in their glory die” — another reason why Sonnet 149 can be addressed by Oxford only to the Queen.  In these lines he is saying his “love” or loyalty to her is so great that he supports her even when it means to “partake” with her “against my self.”  Such is the bitter end of the entire Dark Lady series, in the final line of Sonnet 152, when he accuses her of forcing him to “swear against the truth so foul a lie” — the truth being his own motto and identity, which he has betrayed because of her.  He has become “all tyrant” for her sake, a traitor to himself, by joining her in failing to tell the truth about Southampton, their unacknowledged royal son, who remains in prison so long as she lives and will not succeed her on the throne.
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