“You are not ‘Ipse,’ for I am he!”: Re-posting no. 58 of 100 Reasons Shake-speare was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

One scene in the Shakespeare plays, viewed through the lens of de Vere as the dramatist, is so starkly illuminating that it quickly shatters the myth that the author could have been William Shakspere. The scene opens Act Five of the comedy As You Like It. Set in the Forest of Arden, it has no function in the plot and appears to be one of several late additions to the play.  In this short scene the courtier-clown Touchstone confronts William, the country fellow (who appears nowhere else in the entire play) and orders him to stop claiming possession of Audrey, the country wench who is betrothed to Touchstone. 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 comedy. They often come up with interesting explanations, except for the most obvious one, that it represents the author speaking directly about authorship 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 praised as “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-upon-Avon in the Warwickshire countryside.

In this short allegorical scene, Oxford accuses 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; now, you are not ipse, for I am he” (5.1). 

[“All the writers who worked under my patronage know that I am the man himself, the master writer. Now you, William, are not he himself, because I am!”]

Touchstone is one of Oxford’s clearest self-portraits. Just as in the 1570s and 1580s he 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 is 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 the surface appearances.

We are prepared in Act Three to recognize Touchstone as the dramatist. In the forest with Audrey (who represents the plays), he tells her: I am here with thee and thy goats, as the most capricious poet, honest Ovid, was among the Goths” (3.3). 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. Touchstone then 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 Five, 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.

[Note: William of Stratford was twenty-five in 1589. By then Oxford would have completed the original versions of all the plays; but he would have written this scene no earlier than 1599, when the “Shakespeare” name had just begun to be printed on the plays, and possibly as late as 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.

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.

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. [William wants to marry the plays, i.e., claim them for himself.]

TOUCHSTONE – Give me your hand. Art thou learned?

WILLIAM – No, sir. [William is uneducated; 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] 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. [Oxford is the one 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)

Oxford may have written and inserted this gratuitous scene in 1603, after he had agreed to the complete obliteration of his identity as the author of the “Shakespeare” works. Perhaps he inserted it for a private performance at Wilton in December 1603, some nine months after the succession of King James. For those at Court and possibly others who knew the truth about Oxford’s authorship, it must have been wildly funny and yet profoundly sad.

[This post is now no. 88 in 100 Reasons Shake-speare was the Earl of Oxford (2016), published by Forever Press.]

[Thanks to editor Alex McNeil for his help, as usual; and see his article “Is Touchstone vs. William in As You Like It the first authorship story?” in Shakespeare Matters 2.3 (Spring 2003); 14-22.]

[Also my thanks again to Brian Bechtold for his editorial help.]

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