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!

What’s in a Name? Authorship Quote of the Day from the New York Times


From the New York Times of today, February 23, 2012:

"Kate Alcott" is a pen name used by novelist Patricia O'Brien

The author Patricia O’Brien could not get publishers to accept her new novel The Dressmaker because her previous book had not sold well.  So she and her agent Esther Newberg “cannily circumvented what many authors see as a modern publishing scourge” – the ability to track book sales – “with a centuries-old trick, the nom de plume.  It has been employed by writers from Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) to Mary Ann Evans (George Eliot) to Stephen King (Richard Bachman).”

A Note to the Times: You forgot one – the author of “Hamlet”!

P.S. – Ms. O’Brien, under the pen name Kate Alcott, sold her novel to Doubleday in three days.

Some Answers to a Reader’s Response: When did the author Write those plays?

A reader (named Jim, I believe) commented on my replies to Professor James Shapiro, regarding his criticism of the movie Anonymous.  It seems worthwhile to continue the discussion here, on the main page.  Jim brought up four separate topics, and I’ll try to take up one or two at a time.

"The Famous Victories of Henry the Fifth" was played by the Queen's Men in 1583 and serves as the foundation for "Henry IV, Parts 1 & 2" and "Henry V" by "Shakespeare"

“I don’t mean to be rude,” he begins, “but I hold with those who believe that Shakespeare is Shakespeare and I would like to reply to a few of your points.”

You’re not being rude; and thanks for the chance to respond.

First I should mention the Oxfordian view that saying “Shakespeare is Shakespeare” would be akin to saying “Mark Twain is Mark Twain.”  True enough, but we know that “Mark Twain” is a pen name used by Samuel Clemens.  So when we say “Shakespeare” we mean the printed name, referring to an otherwise unidentified poet-playwright; and we believe it’s a pen name, or pseudonym, as opposed to the name “William Shakspere” referring to the real individual who lived in Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire.

[Of course, orthodox scholars and general commentators regularly start from the assumption that Shakespeare and Shakspere are one and the same, thereby from the outset blocking any further discussion.]

Orson Welles as Macbeth - 1948

“Most datings of the plays put them much later than you do,” Jim writes.  “For a variety of reasons, including pieces of text that seem to refer to current events (cf. ‘Macbeth’ and the Gunpowder Plot) many of them have been specifically placed after the death of Edward de Vere. I understand that the standard Oxfordian riposte to this is that de Vere actually wrote all the plays, and some were released after his death, edited to appear current. I don’t find that persuasive because I can think of no motive for it.

“Whatever the case, citing unorthodox information on the dates of the plays from a specifically pro-Oxford text is surely not fair play.”

The generally accepted dating for each play is based primarily on the biography of an author (Shakspere) who came to London in the late 1580’s or early 1590’s.  He would have begun writing the thirty-seven or more plays assigned to Shakespeare soon after; if he wrote two per year, it would take him eighteen-plus years up to 1610 or so.  So the assumption of Shakspere’s authorship is the reason why the writing of the plays is traditionally dated within that spectrum; the single premise of him as the great dramatist makes it “impossible” for the writing to happen during an earlier period.

When Oxford’s life is used as a guide, however, we can start way back when he was a teenager in the 1560’s; we can view him writing all during the 1560’s, 1570’s and 1580’s – three decades – prior to the 1590’s and the first appearance of “Shakespeare” the poet and/or playwright.

Moreover Oxford played a part in establishing the Queen’s Men  (Queen Elizabeth’s Men) in 1583; in that decade this major company performed no less than six plays of royal history that “Shakespeare” is said to have “rewritten” later to create his own plays – The Troublesome Reign of King John, The True Tragedy of Richard III, King Leir, The Famous Victories of Henry V and so on – with many of the same scenes that “Shakespeare” uses.

"The True Tragedy of Richard the Third" - By Anonymous - Played by the Queen's Men in the 1580's - Was it Early Shakespeare?

Oxford was cited in 1589 (The Arte of English Poesie) as first among courtier poets “who have written excellently well, as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made public.”  Richard Whalen, who edited a new Oxfordian printing of Macbeth, suggests Edward de Vere may have written the first version back in 1567, at seventeen!  (An anonymous play about the assassination of Lord Darnley, the King of the Scots, was performed in 1568 at the Court of Elizabeth.)

There’s no evidence that Macbeth was performed during the reign of King James [1603-1625].  The account allegedly written by Simon Forman, describing a performance he supposedly witnessed in 1611, was discovered by the notorious nineteenth-century forger John Payne Collier – so we can’t count on that!  Otherwise the play was never printed, nor does any record mention it, before the First Folio of Shakespeare plays in 1623.

The dating of play composition is tricky and requires much research.  I again recommend Dating Shakespeare’s Plays: A Critical Review of the Evidence, edited by Kevin Gilvary.

A fascinating Oxfordian study was made in the 1930’s by Eva Turner Clark in her book Hidden Allusions in Shakespeare’s Plays.  Clark cites evidence that Oxford had written all the plays, at least their original versions, by 1590.  He could have made many revisions up to his death in 1604; other writers, so-called collaborators, could have made revisions and additions over the next nineteen years until the Folio; and that might account for some of the apparently post-1604 references.  On the other hand, Oxfordian researchers such as Kositsky and Stritmatter are producing new evidence to show that ALL such references could have come from earlier events and sources.

We’ll continue soon with the other issues …

(Meanwhile, I might observe that reviewers of Anonymous who cannot view the Shakespeare Authorship Question with an open mind are relying on traditional assumptions, which, if presented right now for the very first time, would cause the same reviewers to laugh with scorn.  Why?  Because those traditional assumptions have absolutely no biographical or historical foundations.  Without the flimsy “evidence” to be found in the First Folio and the church in Stratford, along with mention in the 1640 Poems by Will Shakespeare, Gent.  of the Stratford man’s death in April 1616, there would be no trail leading to Warwickshire — none.  Even with those allusions, there’s no biographical or historical trail.]

“Shake-Speare’s Treason” at Shakespeare Authorship Conference in Houston

We look forward to presenting the one-man show SHAKE-SPEARE’S TREASON during the Joint Conference of the Shakespeare Fellowship and the Shakespeare Oxford Society to be held November 5-8 in Houston, Texas. The 90-minute solo show is performed by Hank Whittemore, co-writer with Ted Story, who directed it.

Picture 17.jpg - Cover from Lori

“Riveting, inspiring, entertaining … amazing and thought-provoking … The words of the Sonnets finally make sense and the story is more personal and exciting than I ever imagined!”

– Students of Flathead Valley Community College, Montana, in a letter following Hank’s performance in March 2008.  (We look forward to returning for two more performances in March 2010!)

“A ripping tale of murder, treason, hangings, bastardy, love, betrayal and danger … and one of those Big Thoughts that, if you embrace it, seems to clear up a lot of mystery.”

– Bill Varble, Medford Mail Tribune, Oregon

We also look forward to experiencing two different solo performances by Keir Cutler of MontrealTeaching Shakespeare and Is Shakespeare Dead?

keir cutler

"Shakespeare" and Keir Cutler

Teaching Shakespeare is a parody of a college Shakespeare class, and a portrait of a frustrated actor turned frustrated professor struggling to keep his teaching position, despite terrible student evaluations.

twain3Is Shakespeare Dead? is a monologue adaptation of Mark Twain’s hilarious 1909 debunking of the myth that William Shakespeare wrote the works of Shakespeare. Listing the handful of established facts of Shakespeare’s life, Twain ridicules the fantasy that an uneducated youth could have wandered into London and, with virtually none of the necessary skills, became the greatest author in English literature.

Current details of the conference are posted at the Shakespeare Oxford Society blog hosted by Linda Theil.

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