An Oxfordian Journal: Chapter 9: “What If You Found Out That Shakespeare Was Somebody Else?”

Up in that office in the Congress Building in Portland, Maine, in the spring of 1987, the Shakespeare biographies were set aside and I continued to work on my one-act play.  If you just keep on writing, putting one word after the other, eventually the words will take on a separate life and go their own way.  One morning I found myself writing the imaginary dialogue of an elderly man I had known in New York City, a guy who had been a casting agent and a small-time producer.  He was saying things that sounded just like that old man I’d known in my acting days.

That agent-producer was a weaver of illusions.  When the actors came into his office, young and old, he would tell them he was working on a new movie – which, in fact, never existed.  He had a partner, Monroe, with an office in Hollywood, and they were making a new movie to be shot in Brooklyn and Manhattan.  He was expecting a call from Monroe very soon, after which Monroe would fly east for a personal visit — a visit right here, in this very office, where they would hold auditions; so leave your photos and resumes and we’ll make sure to call you.  And so on – until, as I kept pace with the old guy’s dialogue that seemed to keep flowing on its own, my play left the White House entirely and began to gain life in that casting office with its walls covered with old photos of Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis and Judy Garland.

Two other characters emerged – David, based on myself, and Eileen, based on a few women who had been in my life.  I felt comfortable with them and the environment.  And as I kept on inventing dialogue and action, aspects of their characters automatically changed and grew until I began to believe in them as real-life individuals on the page.  I kept writing and re-writing, trying to find the most “dynamic” structure, as I called it, and soon, to get help, I enrolled in a workshop called Playwrights Platform with actors and writers meeting in Boston every Sunday evening.

In the workshop I met up with Charles Boyle, a fellow actor and writer who would play the role of David during a Boston theater festival that summer.  At one point he turned to me said, “What have you been reading, up there in Maine?”

“Well, actually I’ve read some biographies of Shakespeare.”

“What for?”

“I wanted to learn about his creative process.  How did he have such confidence in himself?  How did he put himself into all those incredible characters in the royal courts and palaces – Prince Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Henry the Fifth?  He must have been a complete genius, but, still, he had to have some way of working…”

“So what did you learn?”

“Well, nothing … absolutely nothing.”

Charles was smiling.  “Nothing?”

“The biographers all say we know so much about Shakespeare, but they must mean his life in Stratford.  In London, when he was acting and writing, we have his name on poems and plays, and we have other people referring to his name, but behind the name there’s no life, no living person.”

“What if you found out he was someone else?”

“Who?  Shakespeare?”

“Yeah.”

I stared at him.  “What do you mean?”

“What if the real writer had to be hidden?  What if he was in the government, high up in rank, writing behind a pen name?  What if he was a man who wrote for the Queen and her Court, like Hamlet does?  And what if he wrote for the Crown during wartime?   What if he was secretly helping England in the war with Spain?”

One of the Elizabethan age’s University Wits who received financial aid, guidance and inspiration from the Earl of Oxford

I could follow what Charles was saying, but it made little sense.  I found myself squirming and wanting to cut off the conversation.  When he uttered the word “propaganda” I interrupted to say no, no, please, Shakespeare did not write propaganda – he was a dramatist, a creative artist.  Charles agreed, but he pointed out that the U.S. government during World War II had its own propaganda department, turning out patriotic newspapers and magazines, not to mention inspirational newsreels.  He reminded me that many folks who worked in that wartime public relations office went on, in peacetime, to become great writers and directors.

Well, yeah, but it didn’t sit right with me.

Soon Charles sent me copies of four or five pages from The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, Jr., published just three years earlier, in 1984.  The material had to do with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who had gathered around him a large circle of writers (known in history as the “university wits”) during wartime…

Published in: Uncategorized on August 22, 2012 at 11:15 pm  Comments (2)  
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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.

An Oxfordian Journal: Chapter 6: Shakespeare’s “Dramatic Remoteness From His Own Personality”

While reading biographies of Shakespeare to learn something about his creative process, I never figured the whole story might be wrong.

“A Life of William Shakespeare” by Joseph Quincy Adams (1923) is filled with solid information, and for that reason I recommend it, even though he creates a fictional biography of an imaginary poet-dramatist.

The books included  A Life of Shakespeare (1898) by Sir Sidney Lee … Shakespeare of London (1949) by Marchette Chute …  A Life of William Shakespeare (1923) by Joseph Quincy Adams [the best, I’d say] … and Shakespeare, A Biography (1963) by A. L. Rowse.

I read how we know more about Shakespeare than about any other writer of his time, but later I’d learn that this claim is untrue.  [Yes, we know about his non-writing activities in Stratford, but as a writer in London he’s no more than a printed name and we know nothing.  The trouble is that the biographers kept trying to stitch together the dreary stuff from Stratford with the chronology of the name — or pen name, I should say.]

The biographers claimed they restricted themselves to contemporary records, but later I’d learn that this, too, is not the case.  [The padding consisted of historical details about places and things, but these topics were entirely unrelated to the author as a person.  And so he “must have” or “might have” or “probably” or “undoubtedly” became involved with those impersonal details.]

Yet I never doubted that Will of Stratford was the true Shakespeare.   It never occurred to me to question the accepted story.  I never bothered to care about it, either.  I just kept reading biographies and experiencing a strange  emptiness.

“Shakespeare: His Mind and Art” (1875) by Edward Dowden

Then in another store I found a copy of Shakspere: His Mind and Art * (1875) by Edward Dowden, and boy did that title get me excited!  I’ve finally hit pay dirt, I thought.  I’m about to discover how Shakespeare’s mind worked and how he created his works of art!  

* Because of the Stratford spelling, it was always “Shakspere” and not “Shakespeare,” but, amid growing doubts about the authorship, such honesty was eventually abandoned.

What I found, however, was confusing and disconcerting.  The idea was that while Shakespeare may have had all kinds of turbulent thoughts and emotions inside him, he nonetheless never let himself get carried away by them.  So he stood apart from his great tragic characters in Othello and King Lear and Macbeth and Hamlet, even while channeling his turbulence into them.  Then he left London and returned to Stratford and put all his affairs in order.  I pictured him on his porch, in a rocker, calm and serene and satisfied in his peaceful retirement.

(I’d learn later that the truth was quite the opposite!)

This image of the retired poet-dramatist reminded me of my own beloved grandfather, a mild-mannered accountant, who always had his affairs in order.  And I think what bothered me was that Dowden’s portrait was not, in my experience, that of an artist.  It was not my idea of what the creator of Prince Hamlet must have been like as a person.

Edward Dowden (1843-1913)

Most of the great writers I admired had experienced the turbulence — Eugene O’Neil or Scott Fitzgerald or Edward Albee and so on.  Only Shakespeare, the greatest, could completely separate his life and work.

“The man actually discoverable behind the plays was a man tempted to passionate extremes, but of strenuous will,” Dowden wrote, “and whose highest self pronounced in favor of sanity.  Therefore he resolved that he would set to rights his material life, and he did so.  And again he resolved that he would bring into harmony with the highest facts and laws of the world his spiritual being.”

And when he retired to Stratford he attained “self-mastery” that was “large, luminous, and calm.”

Dowden believed Shakespeare wrote Timon of Athens as one of his last works.  When the play opens Timon is a wealthy young nobleman who has proved to be a generous friend, a considerate master, a lavish patron of the arts and an extravagant entertainer – a portrait, I’d eventually learn, that exactly fits the young nobleman Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  When Timon’s creditors come after him (as Oxford’s creditors came after him) and his friends refuse to help him, he becomes enraged and embittered (as Oxford became).

Dowden made a mighty effort to explain why Shakespeare would write such a play in the first place — and, too, why he would do so near the very end of his labors:

“In the character of Timon, Shakspere gained dramatic remoteness from his own personality.”  [My emphasis]

Can you imagine what I felt when reading that statement?

By writing that play, Dowden declared, Shakespeare “attained self-possession, and could transfer himself with real disinterestedness into the person of the young Athenian favorite of fortune.” [My italics]

This was fascinating to me.  I may not have understood it, but I believed it!  And now the pay dirt:

“This, in more than one instance, was Shakespeare’s method – having discovered some single central point of sympathy between his chief character and his past or present self, to secure freedom from all mere lyrical intensity by studying that one common element under conditions remote from those which had ever been proper or peculiar to himself.”  [My emphasis]

To illustrate his theme, Dowden offered the following information:  “In 1604, when he was a wealthy man, William Shakespeare brought an action against Philip Rogers, in the Court of Stratford, for 1 pound, 15 shillings and 10d, being the price of malt sold and delivered to him at different times.”

This legal action to collect little more than a pound demonstrates that he was “practical, positive, and alive to material interests.”  [That’s one way to put it.]  Moreover, Dowden continued, “About the same time that he brought his action against Philip Rogers for the price of malt, the poet was engaged upon his Othello and his Lear.”

Really?  I tried to imagine it.  Well … such was Edward Dowden’s attempt in 1875 to bridge the vast gap between the un-Lear-like existence of the Stratford man with the cries of pain and suffering expressed so powerfully and realistically by “William Shakespeare.”

I’ll tell a little more about what I read in those biographies back in 1987, before moving on.

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