An Oxfordian Journal: Chapter 8: The Fragile Stratfordian Universe

One morning long ago I looked up from the newspaper and saw our cat, Ruffles, in the hall.  He was crossing past the kitchen doorway from left to right.  I turned back to the paper, but two seconds later I glanced up again and saw Ruffles make the same crossing.  What I had seen, of course, was impossible – there had not been time enough for him to race backward and walk by once more.  So I automatically started shuffling my thoughts to make sense of it.

There was extreme urgency, even panic, in this frantic shuffling of the brain deck.  In an instant I had begun to doubt my sanity.  The impossible is intolerable unless explained.  Even a miracle has to be accounted for, especially if God didn’t perform it.  I needed a reasonable explanation and needed it fast.  Was something wrong with my eyes?  Had I experienced a flash of double vision?  Had the cat leaped back, when I wasn’t looking, and then paraded by again in the same direction?

I was putting the pieces of the universe – this tiny universe bounded by the kitchen, doorway and hall – back together before it exploded.  Thankfully, however, my daughters came to the rescue by discovering I’d actually seen not one cat but two!  Ruffles had come through the front door in the hall and had walked past the kitchen doorway, only to be followed by another cat looking exactly like him!  How that had happened wasn’t important – a long lost twin, perhaps; but the crucial part was that there was, in fact, an explanation.  The universe had returned to normal.

In the years after living in Portland, Maine, trying to write a play set inside the White House and reading those biographies of the traditional Shakespeare, to see how he managed to set so many plays inside those royal palaces and courts, my thoughts would go back to that morning when my brain had scrambled to make possible what seemed to be impossible.  That’s what the biographers were doing – they had to.  That was their job, nay, their profession, and they had to make sense of things.  To do that, the contents of the plays and poems had to be “dumbed down” to fit within the tiny Stratfordian universe; and by the same token, the magical or miraculous side of the author’s invisible “genius” had to be inflated to godlike proportions.

Marchette Chute in Shakespeare of London (1949) wrote that Shakespeare’s acting company “put on about fifteen new plays a year and Shakespeare, as a regular acting member of the company, must have appeared in most of them.”  Not a single notice of any Shakespeare performance has ever been found (unless you count the legend of him playing the Ghost in Hamlet), but no matter – the point is that, if Ms. Chute is correct, and Shakespeare was memorizing and rehearsing and acting day in and day out, not to mention traveling with the troupe, how did he have any time left over to write all those plays, poems and sonnets as well?

The answer, to make the universe come back to normal, is that Shakespeare stood apart from his writing labors.  There was no need for blood, sweat and tears.  He simply let his “imagination” flow from his head and heart into his arm and finally down to the hand that held his pen, moving it across the page.  It all happened virtually without his need to be there.

He also had no need to be involved in the social or religious or political events and issues of his time. Hamlet tells Polonius that the actors are “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,” that is, they deliver reports and commentaries about persons and events of contemporary England, with members of the audience being ever alert for such allusions.  But the image of Shakespeare conjured by Marchette Chute could not bear this additional burden, lest the universe fall apart, so she tells us:

“Shakespeare was almost the only playwright of the period who saw no need to comment on contemporary London in his plays, and he did not share Hamlet’s view that a playwright should chronicle his own time.”

Marchette Chute, fourth from left, in 1954, preparing for a Book-and-Author Dinner in the garden of the Valentine Museum in Richmond, Virginia

Folks, there it is – the traditional version of Shakespeare as the man from Stratford must stand above and beyond his own environment and times.  He stands outside it all, channeling inspiration from the gods.  And he stands not only apart from contemporary London, but, also, from his own experiences and thoughts and emotions.  Ms. Chute offers this example of how he could create the agony and madness of Lear while otherwise playing solitaire and calmly tending his garden:

“It has sometimes been said that Shakespeare’s plays mirror his life; but King Lear was written at a time when the country was prosperous and at peace and Shakespeare himself seems to have had no troubles of either a business or a personal nature.”

Shakespeare was happy when he created the cries of Lear.  Why not?  Moreover, Ms. Chute adds (in the same way she might explain how the cat passed by twice), he was sad when he went for the laughs:

“It was in the difficult years of the late 1590’s, when a depression had gripped England and his only son had died, that Shakespeare wrote his radiant series of light lyric comedies.”

The Birthplace, in 1892, at the height of the Victorian enshrinement of Shakespeare’s nativity in Stratford upon Avon

[The truth of the matter (just as there was no miracle but, rather, two cats instead of one) is (1) the first “Shakespearean” version of King Lear had been created years earlier, at least by 1589, reflecting the true author’s anger and agony over having been betrayed; and (2) the first versions of those comedies had originated as satires on current events, during the latter 1570’s and early 1580’s, when they had been performed in the relative privacy of the royal court.]

Meanwhile, in the spring of 1987, having given up all hope of comprehending Shakespeare and learning anything about his method of working, I abandoned the White House as the setting for my play.  Instead I began again, this time placing the action of the play inside my version of a casting office in New York that I had known during my acting days.

The hell with it, I thought.  I’ll start over again, this time with a setting where I feel at home.

Was “Shakespeare” a Copycat? Thief? Plagiarist? THE QUEEN’S MEN: No. 12 of 100 Reasons Why Edward de Vere was “Shakespeare” – Part One

"The Queen's Men and their Plays" by McMillin and MacLean, 1998

In 1583, as Philip of Spain prepared to invade and conquer England, the British government created a new acting company as part of Secret Service activities including wartime propaganda to promote patriotic loyalty and unity.  This new troupe, Queen Elizabeth’s Men, was formed at the express command of the monarch.  Drawing the best actors from existing companies, it became the dominant theatrical group in the crucial years leading to England’s victory in 1588 over the Spanish armada.

Although printed in 1594, "The True Tragedy of Richard the Third" was performed by the Queen's Men in the 1580's. Did "Shakespeare" steal it for his play "Richard III"? Or was the real author, Edward de Vere, building upon his own previous work?

During that period the Queen’s Men performed what were, by all appearances and by all logic, early versions of royal history plays by Shakespeare.  “The plots of no fewer than six of Shakespeare’s known plays are closely related to the plots of plays performed by the Queen’s Men,” according to Scott McMillin and Sally-Beth MacLean inThe Queen’s Men and their Plays (1998).

Did "Shakespeare" use this early anonymous play for "1 Henry IV," "2 Henry IV" and "Henry V" Or was "The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth" his own youthful play?

The known plays in this category are The Troublesome Reign of King John, repeated by Shakespeare “virtually scene for scene” in King JohnThe True Tragedy of Richard III and King Leir, whose stories are fully covered by Shakespeare in his Richard III and King Lear; and The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth, which forms the entire foundation for the material that Shakespeare covers in 1 Henry IV, 2 Henry IV and Henry V.

The problem, however, is lack of any evidence that Shakspere of Stratford was a member of this prestigious acting company.  The likelihood is that he was still back home in Warwickshire when his twins were born in February of 1585, when he was twenty years old.  In other words, the existence of early Shakespeare plays performed by the Queen’s company in the 1580’s presents a major problem for the official biography.  You might say it blows it apart.

By tradition the “Lost Years” of the Stratford man begin in 1585 and continue until Robert Greene supposedly alludes to him in the fall of 1592.  By then, for the legendary story to be plausible, he has somehow firmly established himself in London as an actor who is already prominent enough as a playwright to provoke Greene’s jealousy and ire.

But this is pure fantasy.  “Documentary evidence as to Shakespeare’s whereabouts and activities from 1585 to 1592 is totally lacking,” Oscar James Campbell writes in The Reader’s Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966), adding that “nothing can be confirmed” about the Stratford man’s life in that period.

Traditional biographers have had a terrible time trying to explain how “Shakespeare” was anonymously writing early versions of his plays for Her Majesty’s company in the 1580’s.  Some have suggested he must have joined as an actor and memorized the anonymous plays; then in the 1590’s, they propose, he drew upon his memory to plunder the plots, characters, scenes and even the lines of those stage works, which would mean that the greatest writer of the English language must have also been the most successful plagiarist in history!

"The True Chronicle History of King Leir" was performed by the Queen's Men in the 1580's (but published in 1605) and transformed by "Shakespeare" into "King Lear"

As a mature dramatist in the 1590’s, McMillin and MacLean declare, Shakespeare set about “rewriting a sizeable portion” of the repertory of the Queen’s Men.   “Four of nine extant plays were turned into six Shakespeare plays, in an act of appropriation extensive enough to make us think it could have occurred from the inside.  Shakespeare knew the plays of this company better than those of any company but his own, and the long-standing speculation that he may have begun his career with the Queen’s Men seems to us the most likely possibility.”  (And this leads them to think he must have recalled these works from acting in them during the 1580’s.)

"The Case for Shakespeare's Authorship of 'The Famous Victories'" by Dr. Seymour M. Pitcher, 1961

But some few scholars have bravely stated the far more realistic conclusion that Shakespeare himself wrote those earlier versions of his own plays.   In 1961, for example, Dr. Seymour M. Pitcher at Harpur College in New York wrote an impressively argued book The Case for Shakespeare’s Authorship of “The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth”.

That early play serves as a veritable blueprint for Shakespeare’s later trilogy about Prince Hal becoming the great Henry the Fifth who leads the English to victory at Agincourt.   Every single scene in Famous Victories is repeated (and in the same order) by Shakespeare, who must have written the earlier version when he was “a spirited and genial apprentice dramatist,” Dr. Pitcher concluded, adding it “may have been his first play.”

Orthodox scholars have ignored Dr. Pitcher’s suggestion, because it requires Shakspere to join the Crown’s prestigious acting company too early to be plausible.  Fresh from his life in the market town ninety miles from London, age twenty in 1584, he turns out plays of English royal history about monarchs such as King John, Richard Third, Henry Fourth and Henry Fifth – a miraculous example of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, if there ever was one.

A study of The True Tragedy of Richard the Third “reveals the high probability that it was Shakespeare himself who wrote that anonymous play,” according to the highly respected Oxfordian scholar Ramon Jimenez, “and that his Richard III was his major revision of one of his earliest attempts at playwriting.”

The scholar Ramon Jimenez, speaking at an authorship conference on the Campus of Concordia University in Portland OR

There are also “significant links” between the anonymous play about Richard the Third and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford “that add to the evidence that he was the actual author of the Shakespeare canon.”

Furthermore, Jimenez states, “The evidence suggests that the anonymous play was performed for an aristocratic audience, possibly including Queen Elizabeth herself, in the early 1560’s, when de Vere was between thirteen and fifteen years old.”

In the second part of Reason No. 12 we’ll take a look at the Earl of Oxford’s activities in relation to the Queen’s Men in the 1580’s and the likelihood that he was contributing those anonymous, early versions of plays  which he himself would revise later, for eventual publication under the “Shakespeare” pen name.

No, Jim, You Can’t Take Away Those Pirates! – Reason No. 5 of 100 Why I Believe Oxford was “Shakespeare”

When James Shapiro came to the Epilogue of his book Contested Will, written to try to block the inevitable tide of doubt about the traditional identification of “Shakespeare,” he described his experience at a performance I gave of my one-man show Shake-speare’s Treason (based on my book The Monument) at the Globe playhouse  in London.  “It was a spellbinding performance,” he wrote, adding that he “found it all both impressive and demoralizing” — because, of course, he wants you to think that any account of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shake-speare’s Sonnets must be pure fiction.  And he went on:

“I left the Globe wondering what mainstream biographers might say in response to Oxfordians who insist that Edward de Vere had a stronger claim to have written Hamlet and King Lear, since — unlike the glover’s son from Stratford — he had been captured by pirates and had three daughters.”

Okay, wait a minute, hold on, Jim!  What exactly are you trying to say here?

A Warship of the 16th Century

A Warship of the 16th Century

No, no, you can’t take away those pirates, just as you can’t erase the fact that the earl, like King Lear, had three daughters!

Let me put it this way.  If the glover’s son from Stratford had been stopped by pirates in real life, by now we’d have whole shelves filled with books with titles such as:

Trauma on the High Seas: How The Bard’s Capture by Pirates Affected His Writing Life & His Play about Hamlet …

Shakespeare’s Fateful Encounter With the Pirates: A Profound Turning Point in His Psyche and Work …

Shakespeare’s Pirate Complex: The Cause of His Tragic Phase?

Shakespeare & The Pirates: A Love-Hate Relationship?

Edward de Vere as Lord Great Chamberlain, carrying the Sword of State before Queen Elizabeth I of England

Although this was just one event among many in Edward de Vere’s life that correspond in some way with what we find in the “Shakespeare” plays, Oxfordians have done little more than mention, in passing, its similarity to Hamlet’s experience.  It’s just one more example of something in Oxford’s life resembling what can be found in the plays.

Does Shapiro think Oxford’s capture and release by Dutch pirates in the English Channel should be a liability, in terms of evidence that he wrote Hamlet?  Does the professor want to twist it all around, turning a positive into a negative?

The episode in Hamlet comes from “Shakespeare” himself, as a writer, not from any of the play’s recognized sources, Mark Anderson reports in his terrific Oxford biography “Shakespeare” By Another Name.  The pirates intercepted and boarded Oxford’s ship in 1576, as he was returning to England from his sixteen-month tour of France, Germany and (primarily) Italy.  They stripped the ship clean.

“De Vere’s luggage was ransacked, and the pirates even took the clothes from the earl’s back,” Anderson writes.  The French ambassador reported that Oxford was “left naked, stripped to his shirt, treated miserably” and he might have lost his life “if he hadn’t been recognized by a Scotsman.”

Model of an Elizabethan Galleon

A member of Oxford’s entourage, Nathaniel Baxter, recalled the pirate episode in a poem published in 1606, writing:

Naked we landed out of Italy/ Enthralled by pirates, men of no regard/ Horror and death assailed nobility” — and Hamlet writes to King Claudius about the encounter: “High and Mighty, you shall know I am set naked on your kingdom.”  (My emphases)

I suppose that same use of naked is just “coincidental”…

There’s an interesting debate over whether Hamlet had previously arranged his own brush with the pirates, so he could escape being murdered by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as per the king’s orders.  In any case, the prince writes to Horatio:

“Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase.  Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valor, and in the grapple I boarded them.  On the instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became their prisoner.  They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy, but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them.”


The prince, like Oxford, had been bound for England; now he turns back to Denmark while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern “hold their course for England,” where, because Hamlet has craftily switched the written orders, they will be killed instead of him.

Professor Shapiro argues against any attempt to turn the Shakespeare plays into works of autobiography, but that’s a straw man he’s setting up in order to knock it down.  Of course Hamlet is not strict autobiography; no one ever claimed such a thing.  The real point, which Shapiro wants his readers to miss, is that the best novelists and dramatists tend to draw upon their personal experiences and then to transmute them, through imagination and skill, into fictional art forms.  It’s not a matter of having to choose between reality and invention; all great art is a blend of both.

Shapiro concedes that “we know almost nothing about [Shakspere’s] personal experiences” and, therefore, “those moments in his work which build upon what he may have felt remain invisible to us.”  And given this vacuum within the documented Stratfordian biography, he boldly [and recklessly] declares that all attempts to link the life of “Shakespeare” with his works should hereby cease!  He means not only such attempts by Oxfordians but also by Stratfordians — especially the latter, since these efforts have always failed and will fail even more glaringly in the future, as the authorship question is brought increasingly into the open.

Oh – I almost forgot: Oxford was targeted by pirates in the Channel not once but twice, i.e., not only in 1576 but also in 1585, when he returned from Holland and his brief command [with Colonel John Norris] of 4,000 foot soldiers and 400 horse.  But after receiving a letter from Burghley that he’d been placed in command of the Horse, he was summoned back home [to be replaced by Philip Sidney, who would die on the battlefield a year later]; and according to one report a ship carrying Oxford’s “money, apparel, wine and venison” was “captured off Dunkirk by the Spaniards.”

Among Oxford’s belongings captured by the Spaniards, according to the report, was the letter from Burghley telling him of the Horse command; and as Anderson notes, “Hamlet contains not only an encounter with pirates but also an analogous plot twist involving suborned letters at sea.”

So, professor, the pirates are here to stay.  They certainly aren’t proof that Oxford wrote the play, but I put them here as my No. 5 of 100 reasons why I believe the earl was “Shakespeare” — and as just another piece of evidence that “authorship” really does matter.

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