Shakespeare and the “Black Hole” of Stratfordian Biography … A Paradigm in Crisis

Along with the several other Oxfordian colleagues at the Folger Library’s recent conference on the “problem” of Shakespearean biography, I kept saying I was “bemused” – that is, in the sense of being lost in thought, preoccupied, on the edge of confusion and bewilderment. The latter feeling came from the continually reverberating thought: “Can they be serious? Don’t they realize the ‘problem’ is simply that they have the wrong author? How can they go on like this?

And then, of course, came the continual realization that they can go on like this precisely because they are insulated from reality and constantly reinforcing that insulation among each other. Behind it all is money, prestige, reputation, career, camaraderie, being accepted, even being famous – and behind that is the terrible unspoken fear of looking out the window and catching a glimpse of the teeming life of Elizabethan politics and power as well as pervasive state control … that is, the kind of world in England that Prince Hamlet inhabited in Denmark.

Oxfordians at the Folger: Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter & Hank Whittemore

Oxfordians at the Folger: Shelly Maycock, Roger Stritmatter & Hank Whittemore – Photo by Bill Boyle

A common theme among the Oxfordians was, “We are in the Twilight Zone,” but I became fond of murmuring that we were unlikely visitors to the constructed stage set of The Truman Show, in which all the players (in the Jim Carey movie) are totally unaware of living within an ongoing fictional universe. They are dealing with the “problem” of relating the banal biography of William Shaksper of Stratford to the glorious Works of Shakespeare, recognizing, publicly and collectively, for the first time, that they have a dreadful “black hole” on their hands.

If I were one of them giving an extemporaneous comment I might stand up and say something along the following lines:

“Fellow Stratfordians!

“We are gathered here at the Folger Shakespeare Library on this historic occasion to finally admit that all we really know for certain about William Shaksper in relation to the plays is … nothing. Yes, we link him to the Shakespeare name on the poems and plays, but beyond that we have no information except for anecdotal material, which, we now understand, is without any documentary foundation. All we have is inference and indirection!

“So, therefore, do we look outside the walls of this Truman Show to see whether we might be living in a fictional world? Do we dare look out the window at, say, the Earl of Oxford using “Shakespeare” as a pen name in 1593, at the age of forty-three? Do we want to recognize Prince Hamlet as the author’s closest self-portrait? Do we want to realize that Hamlet represents Edward de Vere?

“No, we do not! We are going to stay right inside this bubble, symbolized by this theater inside the Folger, and discuss how to keep on spinning straw into gold. We can make him a Catholic, to one degree or another. We can give him plenty of collaborators, one by one, thereby expanding his ‘biography’ by ever-increasing additional lives. We can posit that others read Italian and Greek sources for him; we might even have him use special reporters traveling to Italy and returning with information for him. We can give him an incredibly rich life with Anne Hathaway, who might have been … Portia in The Merchant of Venice??? And of course we have the whole new field of ‘historical fiction’ that Professor Stephen Greenblatt has virtually opened for us with Will in the World.

“The emptier the life of our man, the greater our freedom to manufacture one for him. His life is, in fact, a BLACK HOLE. It has always been a reconstruction after the fact – we have reinvented him over and over. The very lack of his identity is the perfect container for what we put into it!”

Whoa, wait a minute now, it seems that I have begun to actually quote the speakers at this conference. The common theme is that Shaksper’s life has been perceived as not sufficient to explain the glorious writings: “What we know is banal – we have historical records of the greatest banality — and it amounts to too much minutia. We have a haunting sense of ABSENCE in that life. If he wasn’t Shakespeare, we wouldn’t care to talk about him.”

I wanted to raise my hand, of course, and yell out, “That’s because he WASN’T Shakespeare!”

“We have information of the wrong kind,” it was said. “We can start with him being born with the Folio, in 1623, seven years after his death, and so begins an AFTER-LIFE.” And what a great after-life that is, I thought, as I lapsed into further bemusement.
“We have a genuine need to understand the relationship of his life and work, but we need to speculate. We can knit together scraps of information … We used to believe the text was sufficient unto itself ….”

Okay, I can’t go on much longer right now. They are trying to stay within the traditional paradigm, thrashing about to make it work, but the very fact of having a conference on the Problem of Biography is direct evidence that the paradigm is in trouble. It’s trembling, as if an earthquake is coming. There was recognition that the howling of Lear was outside the walls of this Truman Show … that there is some great storm of an emotional life beneath the works, which this current paradigm cannot explain.

“There is a large universe that is unknown to us,” said Joseph Roach of Yale, who may have been the best speaker of all, since he seemed to refuse to join the game of trying to make sense of the very small universe of the current paradigm. He added, “Shakespeare’s life is in his plays.”

Amen!

(Meanwhile I’ll try to write again when more of the bemusement wears off.)

“Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography” – Historic Conference at the Folger Library – Does it Signal that the Current Paradigm is in Trouble?

Dozens of Shakespeare scholars and students will be in Washington, D.C., at the Folger Shakespeare Library this week for a two-day series of lectures that may come to be seen as truly historic. The topic of the conference, after all, is Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography

Did we know that the orthodox community has acknowledged a “problem” in the first place? The Folger’s online blurb calls the conference a “rigorous investigation of the multiple – and conflicted – roles biography plays in the reception of Shakespeare today.”

The Folger Shakespeare Library - Washington, D.C.

The Folger Shakespeare Library – Washington, D.C.

Some one hundred and forty persons have reserved seats to attend the lectures, to be held inside the Folger’s Tudor-style theater; and at this point enrollments are closed. The collaborative research conference, funded by the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH), will begin Thursday evening with Brian Cummings, Anniversary Professor of English at the University of York, delivering Shakespeare’s Birthday Lecture 2014, entitled Shakespeare, Biography and Anti-Biography.

According to the overview of his talk, “The biography of Shakespeare is a paradox. Is he our greatest author precisely because we know so little about him, and his life remains a mystery? Shakespeare is at once a figure of cultural saturation and an indefinable enigma,” the overview continues. “We see him everywhere, yet we keep on looking for more … Do we feel our lack of knowledge so painfully because it relates to a figure we care so much about?”

Folger Theatre

Folger Theatre

Professor Cummings will discuss “the problem of writing the life of Shakespeare in terms of documentary history and its haunting sense of missing links,” suggesting that perhaps “the reading of a writer creates a life of its own, somewhere between writer and reader, in the mystery that constitutes the act of literature.”

This may be an unspoken acknowledgment that life inside the paradigm of tradition is becoming increasingly uncomfortable. My only comment right now is that, in my view, escaping this purgatory will require its inhabitants to step outside the current paradigm. Only then will it be possible to look around to see what’s in the new landscape.

A conference schedule posted in December (but which I can no longer find at the Folger website) states that the goal is to pursue “a fresh critical evaluation of the aims and methods of literary biography.” An acknowledged problem is that “textual analysis” within the academic establishment “often denies biography and explanatory force, while popular conceptions of Shakespeare look to biography precisely for insight into the works. In the standoff, the genre of literary biography is lost as a subject of serious inquiry.”

Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford

Edward de Vere
17th Earl of Oxford

Here we might discern some pressure from those of us who view Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author – pressure to find new ways of using the Stratford paradigm to gain explanations and insights. We can predict some interesting attempts in the coming years to achieve such results – for example, attempts to bring in more writers with whom Shakespeare allegedly “collaborated” on his plays. When the real-life stories of these writers are added to the wholly inadequate life of William Shaksper, think of the possibilities for more and different “traditional” biography!

“A cadre of influential scholars, many of whom have written biographies of Shakespeare, will focus discussion” on topics such as:

• The distinctions between authorship and agency
• The interpretations of documentary evidence
• The impact of methods of dating texts on an understanding of Shakespeare’s life
• The broadened context for that life of a more robust understanding of theatrical activity
• The possibility that biography is itself a form of historical fiction

All this is certainly interesting for anyone involved in the authorship question, and we owe thanks to the NEH and the Folger Shakespeare Library for holding the conference. In my view, however, these lectures signal that the current biographical paradigm is beginning to fall apart – whether or not the participants realize or acknowledge it.

Within the current paradigm there are too many anomalies – things that don’t make sense — too many holes. I believe that, without anyone saying it aloud, we are moving away from the orthodox view and into a turbulent but healthy (and long overdue) middle period of chaos, argument, confusion and shifting views — to continue for probably a long time until a new paradigm is finally adopted.

On Friday there will be talks on:

The Genre of Literary Biography
(Lawrence Goldman, Professor of History at the University of Oxford; and Ian Donaldson, Emeritus Professor of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne)
The History of Biographies of Shakespeare
(Jack Lynch, Acting Senior Associate Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Rutgers University; and Joseph Roach, Sterling Professor of Theatre and English at Yale University)

Graham Holderness

Graham Holderness

Rethinking the Documentary Evidence
(Graham Holderness, Professor of English at the University of Hertfordshire, speaking on “Everyone and No-one: Fact, Tradition, and Invention in Shakespeare Biography”; and Lena Crown Orlin, Professor of English at Georgetown University)

Stephen Greenblatt

Stephen Greenblatt

On Saturday there will be talks on:

Biography, Theater, History
(Lois Potter, Emerita Ned B. Allen Professor of English at the University of Delaware; and Margeta de Grazia, Emerita Sheli Z. and Burton X. Rosenberg Professor of the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania)
Who Are We Looking For? (Portraiture)
(Tarnya Cooper, Curator of Sixteenth Century Collections, National Portrait Gallery; and Julia Reinhard Lupton, Professor of English and Interim Chair at the University of California, Irvine)
What Do We Expect of the Author?
(John Drakakis, Professor of Literature and Language at the University of Stirling; and William H. Sherman, Professor of English at the University of York)

Katherine Duncan-Jones

Katherine Duncan-Jones

Where Are We Now?
(Katherine Duncan-Jones, Professor of English at the University of Oxford, with a talk entitled “Full Circle: Biography and Literature”; and Stephen Greenblatt, John Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University, and author of Will in the World (2004), whose topic is “Stories about the Dead”)

I’ll report back any answers to “Where are we now?”

But just to have the question put forth in this setting is, as mentioned, truly historic.

Reason No. 6 why Oxford was “Shakespeare”: John Lyly

Let us begin with a brief episode in the imagination of Stephen Greenblatt in Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare:
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“At some moment in the late 1580’s, Shakespeare walked into a room — most likely, an inn in Shoreditch, Southwark, or the Bankside — and quite possibly found many of the leading writers drinking and eating together: Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Watson, Thomas Lodge, George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Robert Greene.  Other playwrights might have been there as well — Thomas Kyd, for example, or John Lyly…”
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Shakespeare & His Writing Pals at the Mermaid Tavern (and if you believe that one...)

That is the entire presence in Will in the World of John Lyly, the principal Court dramatist in the 1580’s and a pivotal figure of the English renaissance.  Professor Greenblatt makes no  mention of Lyly’s twelve-year literary apprenticeship under the guidance of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, paving the way for the Court comedies of “Shakespeare” in the 1590’s.  Not a word more about this individual who is crucial to the story of “how Shakespeare became Shakespeare.”
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John Lyly is offered here as reason no. 6 — another link in the chain of evidence — that Edward de Vere (1550-1604) was the greatest writer of the English language.
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The Anatomy of Wit, 1579, at the dawn of the English novel. Lyly may have held the pen, but Oxford was standing right over him...

Lyly’s extravagant novels and courtly comedies of the 1580’s are viewed as a major influence on Shakespeare’s early plays. He was employed as Oxford’s private secretary and theatrical manager until 1590, when the earl withdrew from public life, and then in 1593 the name “Shakespeare” appeared in print [on the dedication of Venus and Adonis to the Earl of Southampton].
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Lyly is credited with writing the first English novels, Euphues: The Anatomy of Wit in 1579 and Euphues & His England in 1580, both featuring an Italianized Englishman.  He had been recruited in 1577 by William Cecil Lord Burghley, who introduced him to his Italianized son-in-law, Edward de Vere, to whom Lyly dedicated Euphues & His England with strong hints that Oxford had taken an active part in its writing.
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Oxford was leader of England’s new literary movement and the young writers under his wing, later dubbed the University Wits, all dedicated their “euphuistic” works to him.
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The writers included Anthony Munday, who wrote to the earl about “the day when as conquerors we may peacefully resume our delightful literary discussions.” They included Robert Greene, who wrote to Oxford:  “And your Honor, being a worthy favorer and fosterer of learning, hath forced many through your excellent virtue to offer the first-fruits of their study at the shrine of your Lordship’s courtesy.” Among them was also Thomas Watson, who thanked Oxford for having “willingly vouchsafed the acceptance” of his work “and at convenient leisures favorably perused it, being as yet but in written hand.”
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Edward de Vere was deeply involved with these writers and their works, which contained a wealth of metaphor and creative jugglings of words and sentences — all handled with flawless ease by “Shakespeare” in Love’s Labour’s Lost and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the 1590’s for aristocratic audiences and Elizabeth at Court.
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Traditional biography requires that young Will of Stratford had to somehow absorb, master and even surpass the “euphuistic” outpourings of the University Wits within just a few years.  The glover’s son, newly arrived in London, had to quickly become the foremost dramatist of courtly love and genteel romance, a peerless practitioner of elaborate puns, repetitions, alliterations, high-flown rhetorical digressions and fanciful references to classical mythology and natural history.
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Love’s Labour’s Lost is said by orthodox scholars to have been written circa 1592; it  was  first published in 1598.  For that ultra-sophisticated court comedy “Shakespeare” had to know about a visit in 1578 by Catherine de Medici and her daughter Marquerite de Valois, wife of King Henry of Navarre, to Nerac; he needed intimate knowledge of the philosophical debating societies or academes establishd in France and Italy; and he had to know the characters and plots of commedia dell’arte, the comedy form that had become popular in Italy.
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Love's Labour's Lost was first printed in 1598, but the title page indicates that an earlier version has been revised

When Oxford was in his mid-twenties in 1575 he spent several weeks in Paris, where he was entertained at the French court by Henry III, Catherine de Medici and Marguerite de Valois.  He then spent a year traveling in Italy, where he attended performances of commedia dell ‘arte, and in fact an eyewitness account reported that he joined a hilarious skit that involved jousting with a woman and falling from his horse and rolling on the ground.
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Shakespeare’s other comedies of the 1590’s, all viewed as indebted to writings attributed to Lyly, included The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Taming of the Shrew, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It and Twelfth Night.
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In his three-volume Complete Works of John Lyly in 1902, R. W. Bond wrote that Lyly was “the first regular English dramatist, the true inventor and introducer of dramatic style, conduct and dialogue. There is no play before Lyly. He wrote eight; and immediately thereafter England produced some hundreds — produced that marvel and pride of the greatest literature in the world, the Elizabethan Drama.”
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Bond wrote of “the immense superiority” of Lyly’s work “to anything that preceded it” and cited “his prime importance as Shakespeare’s chief master and exemplar. In comedy Lyly is Shakespeare’s only model.  The evidence of Shakespeare’s study and imitation of him is abundant, and Lyly’s influence is of a far more permanent nature than any exercised on the great poet by other writers.”
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The Life and Complete Works of Lyly by Bond - 1902

Bond speculated that Lyly “first received the dramatic impulse” from his master Lord Oxford; but the extent of Oxford’s role was virtually unknown until 1912, when a professor at the University of Nebraska published a remarkable discovery.  Charles William Wallace, PhD reported in The Evolution of the English Drama up to Shakespeare that he had found records showing that Edward de Vere had contributed far more to that “evolution” than scholars had realized.
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Wallace focused on the private Blackfriars theatre, where plays were rehearsed in front of aristocrats before being brought to the royal court.  Blackfriars Playhouse faced deep legal and financial troubles in 1583, but then a nobleman intervened behind the scenes:
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“The Earl of Oxford, himself celebrated in his day as a dramatist, came to the rescue.  Noted alike as swaggerer, roisterer,brawler, coxcomb, musician, poet, Maecenas, the earl was also the devoted patron of John Lyly, whose ‘Euphues’ had made a stir in all England during the past three years.  He believed in Lyly’s literary ability.  so he bought the Blackfriars lease [and] made a present of it to Lyly … Thereafter we hear of John Lyly as presenting two plays at Court in the winter of 1583-84 with the Earl of Oxford’s servants, and also [a year later] … the same Earl of Oxford’s Boys at Court.”
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During the Christmas season of 1584, Wallace noted, Oxford’s boy actors performed the anonymous Agamemnon and Ulysees before Elizabeth at Greenwich Palace; and he speculated that Oxford himself could have written the play.  Meanwhile Endymion, The Man in the Moon, another play attributed [much later] to Lyly and performed for her Majesty, was unmistakably about Oxford-in relation to the Queen, frequently called the Goddess of the Moon.
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A Play for the Queen with Oxford portrayed as Endymion, the Lead Charater

When J. Thomas Looney published his identification of Oxford as “Shakespeare” in 1920, he noted Bond’s statements about Lyly having probably “first received the dramatic impulse” from the earl, along with the passage in The Arte of English Poesie of 1589 wherein Oxford was cited as “deserving the highest praise for comedy and interlude” [although, mysteriously, none of his comedies were known to have survived]; and he concluded:
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“The work of Oxford in drama is therefore recognized as having furnished the generative impulse which produced Lyly’s work in this particular domain.  Therefore we feel quite entitled to say that it was the plays of Edward de Vere that furnished Lyly’s dramatic education, while contact with his master is a recognized force in his personal education.  The dramas of Edward de Vere form the source from which sprang Lyly’s dramatic conceptions and enterprises, and Lyly’s dramas appear as the chief model, in comedy the ‘only’ model, upon which ‘Shakespeare’ worked. We are therefore entitled to claim that the highest orthodox authorities, in the particular department of literature with which we are dealing, support the view that the dramatic activities of Edward de Vere stand in almost immediate productive or causal relationship of a most distinctive character with the dramatic work of ‘Shakespeare.'”
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Lyly was identified in 1632 as the author of those Court Comedies of the 1580's, but all his writing was produced when working with Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Oxford had been the sun from which  Lyly had drawn his light.
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The only work for which Lyly is credited was produced during the years he worked for Oxford.
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After Oxford withdrew from public life in 1590, no more writing attributed to Lyly came forth.
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Isn’t it far more logical that “Shakespeare” never had draw his light from Lyly, but, rather, that Edward de Vere continued as the same great source of light in 1n the 1590’s, as he develped even more dramatic power under the “Shakespeare” pen name?
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Campaspe, 1584 (One of my favorite plays - HW)

An honest account of what led to “Shakespeare” would find Edward de Vere standing in the wings.
It would not require an imagined scene in a tavern with all of Oxford’s proteges talking and drinking around a table … all part of orthodoxy’s necessary trivialization of the knowledge, experience and artistic growth of the true Shakespeare.

A Sharply Critical Review of Stephen Greenblatt’s New Book by William Niederkorn

I’d like to recommend a review by William S. Niederkorn, formerly of the New York Times, in the current Brooklyn Rail – Critical Perspectives on Arts, Politics, and Culture.

William Niederkorn

He reviews Shakespeare’s Freedom (a series of lectures) the latest book from Harvard professor Stephen Greenblatt, whom he calls “The Bard’s Evangelist.”

Greenblatt’s biographical fantasy Will in the World (2004) was a bestseller despite the fact that it demonstrated (yet again) the lack of evidence that William of Stratford could even write, much less create plays such as Hamlet, Julius Caesar, King Lear, Richard III, Richard II, The Merchant of Venice, etc., etc.

My only question is whether, deep down, Professor Greenblatt actually believes the things he conjectures about the man who was Shakespeare.

"Shakespeare's Freedom" by Stephen Greenblatt

For example, in the “biography” mentioned above he turns to the question of how in blazes the newly arrived actor from Warwickshire came to write seventeen private sonnets urging the seventeen-year-old Earl of Southampton to hurry up and marry and have a child to continue his bloodline … not to mention how the actor-poet could have had the courage (and sheer madness) to lecture and even scold the earl for refusing to obey — “Murderous shame! … Profitless usurer!” — and finally to beg him to beget a child in the most personal way:  “Make thee another self for love of me.”

The circumstance in the early 1590’s was that Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister William Cecil Lord Burghley was pressuring Southampton, a royal ward in his custody, to marry his own granddaughter, the fifteen-year-old Lady Elizabeth Vere, daughter [of record] of Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford … who, according to the ever-growing evidence, was the true “Shakespeare.”

Stephen Greenblatt

It is possible,” Greenblatt wrote, in effect warning us he was about to take a wild and totally unsupported guess, “that some one, either in the circle of Burghley or in the circle of Southampton’s mother, had taken note of the fact that the young earl was excited by the talents or by the person of an actor who was also a promising poet.”

How could the professor write such stuff?

“Whoever noticed this excitement – and a wealthy nobleman’s slightest inclinations would have been carefully watched – might well have had the clever idea of commissioning the poet to try his hand at persuading the narcissistic, effeminate young earl to marry.  Such a commission would help to account for the first seventeen of the extraordinary sequence of 154 sonnets…”

Sir George Greenwood

Let’s call upon Sir George Greenwood, whose 1908 book The Shakespeare Problem Restated still stands as a classic in the anti-Stratfordian world.  Oh, how I’d love to see a debate between Greenblatt and Greenwood on the authorship question; I have no doubt that the latter would win hands down.

“The idea that Will Shakspere, the young provincial actor,” Sir George wrote,  “was writing a succession of impassioned odes to the young Earl of Southampton, urging him to marry at once and become a father ‘for love of me’ appears to me, in the absence of anything like cogent evidence to that effect, simply preposterous.”

He was right.  And if he’d heard Greenblatt’s suggestion that Shakspere of Stratford might have been “commissioned” to write the sonnets urging Southampton to marry and procreate, he would have thought it even more preposterous!

“In Shakespeare’s Freedom,” Niederkorn writes, “Greenblatt is careful to avoid authorship issues and the sticky problems that he and a considerable majority of Shakespeare professors refuse to face as they ridicule the subject and preclude it from academic study.”

Among those problems, he notes, is the “vexing question” of how Shakespeare escaped punishment for his play Richard II, which the Queen herself knew had been used as propaganda for the Essex Rebellion of February 8, 1601, whose leaders (Essex and Southampton) were accused and found guilty of high treason.

Niederkorn’s final lines in the review amount to a direct hit against the “scholarship” of Professor Greenblatt, who, he reminds us, has equated doubts about the authorship to “claims that the Holocaust did not occur.”

I won’t steal Niederkorn’s thunder by repeating his final lines, but I will take this opportunity to commend him for having the courage to raise his voice amid the crowd and to speak the truth that’s finally coming to light — the truth that “Shakespeare” was not, after all, the man named William Shakspere of Stratford.

Contesting “Contested Will” – Part One

James Shapiro reaches the climax of his new book Contested Will in the epilogue, where – lo! – he recounts attending my performance of Shake-speare’s Treason (based on The Monument) in November of 2008 at the Globe playhouse in London.

His point, by page 267, is that it’s simply wrong to try to learn anything of substance about the man who was William Shakespeare, either from the documents about his life in Stratford and London or from his poems, plays and sonnets.  All is speculation, virtually all of it off the mark.

The first and foremost culprits are not those who dare to doubt that Will of Stratford was “Shakespeare,” but, rather, traditional Stratfordians, who have attempted to fashion flesh-and-blood portraits of the Bard by linking aspects of his recorded life to elements of his work and vice versa.

This practice has resulted in puffed-up fictions posing as biographies; these scholars should stop doing it, not only because they keep serving up baloney but also because they encourage anti-Stratfordians to keep doing the same thing for their own candidates, such as Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

And since the Oxfordians have so much more biographical evidence from which to pick and choose, they will keep on winning.  Even now, with the coming of Roland Emmerich’s feature film Anonymous about Oxford as Shakespeare (with Vanessa Redgrave as Queen Elizabeth), due out in 2011, the tide of public acceptance may even turn in their favor!

Queen Elizabeth I and Vanessa Redgrave

Shapiro’s solution is extraordinary and courageous and perhaps, in the long run, even foolish:  Let us have no more biographies of Shakespeare!  No more attempts to look in the plays and poems and sonnets to find any reflections of his real life!   Let us stop thinking entirely of Shakespeare the man, before it’s too late!

Such is the problem when you start with the wrong man in the first place!

He criticizes Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard for giving his “seal of approval” for the autobiographical approach with his bestselling Will in the World. Others have erred this way as well, he goes on, admitting that even “I flinch when I think of my own trespasses in classrooms and in print, despite my best efforts to steer clear of biographical speculation.”

Shapiro writes:

“The more that Shakespeare scholars encourage autobiographical readings of the plays and poems, the more they legitimate assumptions that underlie the claims of all those who dismiss the idea that Shakespeare wrote the plays.  And every step scholars have taken toward embracing such readings has encouraged their adversaries to make even more speculative claims.  The recent publication of Hank Whittemore’s Oxfordian reading of the Sonnets, The Monument, offers a glimpse of where things may be heading…

“In November 2008, I joined ninety or so people gathered at London’s Globe Theatre to hear Whittemore share his work.  It turned out to be an elegant revival of the Prince Tudor theory….”

Here he offers a concise (and accurate) summary of the story of the Sonnets as set forth in The Monument and dramatized in Shake-speare’s Treason, which I performed at the Globe at the invitation of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust led by the brilliant actor Mark Rylance, who had been the Globe’s artistic director for a decade.

“It was a spellbinding performance,” Shapiro writes, “as perfect a marriage of conspiratorial history and autobiographical analysis as one could imagine.”

Conspiratorial?  You mean the way President Kennedy privately hosted Marilyn Monroe in the swimming pool of the White House and no agent, no aide, no one at all, ever told about it?  Hmmm, just think of all the people who had to be “in on it” and who had to “agree to be silent.”  Hmmm.

In both the book and the show (co-written with director Ted Story), I simply put together the heretofore separate tracks of the literature and the history.  I show how the central 100-verse sequence of the Sonnets fits within the context of the Essex Rebellion of 1601 and its aftermath, that is, with the ordeal of the Earl of Southampton in the Tower until the death of Queen Elizabeth and the accession of James.  There’s no need to alter either the sonnets or the recorded events of contemporary history; instead, they are brought together in this framework for the first time, where they fit without any trouble, yielding a third dimension – the true story of why Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford agreed to the obliteration of his identity as Shakespeare even after his death, as he states:

My name be buried where my body is – Sonnet 72

I, once gone, to all the world must die – Sonnet 81

What bothers Shapiro most may be that Oxfordians – in this case, specifically The Monument & Shake-speare’s Treason – unfold a better story than even the most fantasy-driven biographies of the Stratfordians:

“If the enthusiastic response of the audience that evening was any indication, Oxfordian concerns about the riskiness of Whittemore’s approach were misplaced.  I looked around the room and saw the same kind of people – middle-aged, sensibly dressed, middle-class – who regularly attend lectures about Shakespeare, nodding their heads in agreement and laughing aloud at the funny parts.  I found it all both impressive and demoralizing…”

Does he sound a tad defeated here?  Well, not yet.  At this stopping point, I’ll let him have the last word:

“I found it all both impressive and demoralizing, a vision of a world in which a collective comfort with conspiracy theory, spurious history, and construing fiction as autobiographical fact had passed a new threshold.”

Well, that’s one way to put it!

In Part Two we dig a little deeper…

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