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In the Court of Public Opinion
Nine times out of ten, in the arts as in life, there is actually no truth to be discovered; there is only error to be exposed.
—H. L. Mencken
A virtual genre of books has come into being in which the author declares that he set out to prove one thing and found the opposite to be true. This is not another. Regarding the authorship of William Shakespeare's plays, I am satisfied that a glover's son, born in a market town in the English Midlands, having had nothing more than a grammar school education, was the William Shakespeare who wrote a number of the world's greatest literary works. If I cannot offer incontrovertible proof of his authorship, the smoking pen if you will, I did not find either that the evidence which is supposed to undermine his authorship, any more than the evidence that alleges to show another to be the more likely author, stands up to investigation.
Shakespeare has maintained a unique position in the modern world, especially in a time when the great figures and momentous events quickly recede from the consciousness, soon to be forgotten. Thanks to his plays, he remains an always vital, lively part of the contemporary scene. And so it is not surprising that our age, with its appetite for every intimate detail of every shooting star that streaks across its firmament, expects nothing less of the fixed star of England. It is by no means unique.
The passion in earlier centuries for discovering Shakespeare, to the growing exclusion of all his contemporaries, evolved into the belief that he must have been an overpowering figure in English Renaissance theater, that great flowering of popular drama between 1590 and 1642. Generations of literary men, scholars and private "Bardolators" searched for every scrap of lore, every whisper of gossip, every allusion, some real, many imagined, to the man and his work that could be found. In the process, both man and work underwent a "sea-change," a transformation most literally into something "rich and strange."
This all began with the collections of his plays edited by some of the great literary figures of the eighteenth century. What emerged from their close studies by the time the nineteenth century rolled around was a widespread "perception of beauties" that had been "before descried as faults." Bit by bit, Shakespeare was found to possess every virtue of art, mind and spirit imaginable—and to a greater degree than had ever been possessed by any mortal. Inevitably, the image of the man had to be brought into line with his works.
The first manifestations of the transformation of his image were in the images of the man himself. His contemporaries left behind only two portraits: one, the frontispiece with its "horrible hydrocephalus development" in the 1623 folio edition of his plays; the other, his monument in the church where he was buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, which has been described as "suggestive of a man crunching a sour apple, or struck with amazement at some unpleasant spectacle." They are not pretty pictures. No matter. By the mid-1700s, these features were remodeled to show Shakespeare as he should have, must have been. He now took on the appearance of a man of intellect, of dignity, of, yes, a certain nobility.
However, making a life to go with these images was no mere matter of cosmetics. Embellish it though one may, the record of the man left him a stubbornly ordinary individual. Perhaps something of a rascal in his Stratford years, the mature Shakespeare remained solidly in the ranks of the Elizabethan bourgeoisie. It has been truly said of him that "In the shadowy throng of the Great he cuts an uninspiring figure." Sooner or later, someone was bound to decide that the Immortal Bard could not possibly have been so blandly mortal. So began the search for an inspiring figure worthy of being Shakespeare.
Is It Important?
It can be said, and so it has, that who wrote the plays is not really important. Even if some miraculous document turned up that put beyond any doubt that someone else wrote the plays, the plays themselves would not change. For, as the author himself said, "the play's the thing." Not so, insist the doubters. One such, Charles Vere, Earl of Burford, went so far as to say, "If you get Shakespeare wrong, you get the Elizabethan Age wrong." In other words, to get the Elizabethan Age right, you must get the right Elizabethan—the one deserving of being the author of the plays that have become the greatest glory of that age. The search has uncovered no less than 56 such Elizabethans including virtually the entire Court of Elizabeth (not excluding the queen herself); the playwright Christopher Marlowe (whose death in 1593, it is argued, was faked); the Jesuits and the Rosicrucians, and the now deposed long-time favorite, Sir Francis Bacon. The current front-runner for the True Author laurel is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who happens to have been an ancestor of the Earl of Burford.* His sweeping proposition, therefore, might be dismissed as the statement of a man who stands to "enhance the family tree if he can convince the world he is right." However, it does reflect the popular perception of Shakespeare that has grown over the past two centuries.
Shakespeare is usually the way we come upon the Elizabethan Age. For many he is all they will ever know—ever care to know—of that era. It is viewed through his eyes, heard in his voice—a voice that has risen above the din of his time. If Shakespeare came to Queen Elizabeth's court as a mere player, it can only have been a matter of time before his gems of wit were the crown jewels of the court coterie. All's well if it ends there. For the minute we dare to test these assumptions, a very different picture emerges. His contemporaries tell us very little about the man. Most of what we hear is in routine documents: church records, tax certificates, a deposition in a lawsuit, business transactions—building stone, land, tithes. His plays were not published in dainty books; instead of flowers pressed between their pages, we find traces of scissors and spectacles. And the printed texts themselves—ill-set, punctuated by errors, and perhaps not very faithful versions of the author's work to boot. The Elizabethans cannot possibly have been as careless as all that! This demands an explanation.
The most popular way of searching for this explanation nowadays is an extension of the image of the artist that has been built up over the generations. It seeks to find the man who could create these omniscient works, and a distant market town and the theaters do not seem the places to look. Rather, it is to the universities we must go; to the societies of lawyers known collectively as the Inns of Court, to the court of England itself. It is there he should be found: a person of learning, of importance, of stature; of, yes, very definite nobility.
There are, however, problems with this explanation. Why should the author have wanted anonymity and allowed his plays to be printed under a pseudonym that sounded almost the same as the name of a common player? Why did he write them? Why were they published in such careless texts, some anonymously, some surreptitiously; all without any signs that their creator authorized their publication? And what about that fellow William Shakespeare, or Shakspere, or something like that, whose name appears in the records of an acting company and even in the editions of the plays? If he was not the author, who was he?
These questions and others like them touch every facet of the player and playwright in Shakespeare's time. They involve the status of the public stage and those who made it their profession; they define the functions of governmental and regulatory powers; they encompass the most powerful figures of the age. The answers call into question the reliability of documents and the authenticity of government records. They reinterpret the society and the culture, as well as the role played by a number of important figures who were in some way connected with these plays and their author. The upshot is not only an alternative Shakespeare, but an alternative version of the age in respect to him. And there is more. The self-styled heretics call into question the "orthodox" scholarship, as well as the "objectivity" of the scholars who stubbornly refuse to see things their way; the heresy has thereby given rise to an alternative scholarship as well. Thus, there are two opposing viewpoints of the author, his age, and the interpretation of the facts regarding them. Which is the right one? The answer to this question may help us to discover the impetus to his genius, and the nature of his genius itself. The answers to the authorship questions can be important indeed.
These questions take on added importance because the authorship debate has been brought before the court of public opinion—literally—in moot court trials of the claims of Shakespeare and Oxford argued before three United States Supreme Court Justices in Washington, D.C. in September 1987, and before three Lords of Appeal in London in November 1988. What is on trial to a greater degree than which of the two was actually the author is the "evidence" that shapes the public understanding of a man and his age. After all, both Shakespeare and Oxford are past caring about the verdict—only the partisans of one side or the other care about that. But, everyone else who has heard the questions and is curious about the answers is owed the best evidence by which a verdict may be reached. In the Washington trial, the acting chief, Justice William Brennan, put the burden of proof on the Oxfordians. Shakespeareans, however, also bear a burden: the lore and legend, the speculation and conjecture accumulated over the centuries. Although modern scholars have discarded a good deal of this and modern studies seek to place Shakespeare in his contemporary world and among his contemporaries, the old tales die hard and the Oxfordians breathe new life into them as representative of the dubious Shakespearean record and the failings of orthodox scholars. But they have also raised numerous questions about both Shakespeare and the contemporary record that are good ones. What is at issue are their answers—and how they arrive at them.
Is the major difference between orthodox and heterodox scholarship (as Peter Jaszi, the attorney for the Oxfordians in the Washington trial, said) merely a matter of "scholarly method—footnote style, and so forth—which the Oxfordians do not understand as well as the professional Shakespeare scholars"? To answer this we must first define "scholarly method." In fact, it is somewhat more than a mere matter of footnote style. An excellent, concise definition was set out by Giles E. Dawson. "The scholar," he wrote, "has no axes to grind":
He is not eager to prove his own hypotheses correct, but rather to find out whether they are correct or not. He is ever ready to reevaluate and reinterpret his evidence and to discard one hypothesis in favor of a better. When he uncovers a fact that does not square with his hypothesis he neither shuts his eyes to it nor tries to explain it away nor trims it to fit the facts.
The authorship debate is evidence that "professional" scholars can fall short of the ideal. Some have been, like the Oxfordians, less than "humble in attempting to solve problems that have baffled many before," and anything but "slow to announce discoveries that will upset well established beliefs." Such studies rarely stand up to scrutiny. When we look for the reasons why they fail, we find it is most often because they set out to prove a predetermined conclusion.
It is precisely that, however, that defines much of the Oxfordian method. In this book it will be seen from time to time that the critical eye that looks so severely upon Shakespearean scholarship does not fall so critically upon opinion and conjecture that has only the virtue of supporting or agreeing with the Oxfordian point of view. In some cases, their friendly facts come from the works of "orthodox" scholars. Here the critical eye winks, untroubled by any suspicion that such kindred spirits in the Shakespearean ranks may be no more, maybe a lot less, reliable than those whose views do not conform to theirs. But it is most evident in their most perplexing task: how to get rid of that persistent fellow from Stratford. For, in the words of Charlton Ogburn, the American champion of Oxford's authorship claim, "you can't get anywhere with Oxford unless you dispose of the Stratford man." In the course of the next five chapters, the Oxfordian attempt to interpret the Shakespeare record in order to do just that will be investigated in depth. This will concentrate on materials of which there is some verifiable means of testing their facts. Very little attention will be given therefore to refuting their interpretations of contemporary allusions to Shakespeare.
Allusion and illusion
Shakespeare's contemporaries were intoxicated with language and, when off on a binge, saw no reason to use one word or one sentence when three came to mind. It was very much as the Shakespearean actor Charles Dance remarked: "if you bump your head you probably say 'damn'; an Elizabethan would curse the door, curse the wood, curse the tree the wood came from, curse the acorn." Just as this prolixity can allow an actor great latitude in interpreting a line, a speech or a character in a play, it also allows the scholar and the authorship partisan alike great freedom in reading anything into these same things, or any of the writings of the period.
Whereas Oxfordians say that concealing the author's identity was something of a state affair, by their account it does seem an awful lot of people outside of court—literary figures, printers and booksellers, even college students—were in on the secret, and dropping hints about his real identity in puns and anagrams was a pastime in literary circles. Thus, in what appear to be straightforward references to a Shakespeare who was a common actor and popular playwright, they discern clues that he was actually something, and someone, else. Unfortunately, this power of discovering that telltale word or phrase seems to come and go. Two neighboring items in Charlton Ogburn's massive opus, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, may serve to illustrate this, as well as demonstrate that literary interpretation is not quite the exact science he might have you believe.
The first example, on pages 104–5, is the epigram "To our English Terence, Mr Will: Shake-speare," which Ogburn anoints "the only truly informative reference to Shakespeare as an actor" in contemporary sources. It is the handiwork of John Davies of Hereford, a master of penmanship who took his poetical talents very seriously. The verse in question was published in the collection of his poems entitled The Scourge of Folly, and reads: Some say (good Will), which I, in sport, do sing,
Hadst thou not played some kingly parts in sport,
Thou hadst been a companion for a king,
And been a king among the meaner sort.
Some others raile; but rail as they think fit,
Thou hast no railing, but a reigning wit:
And honesty thou sow'st, which they do reap:
So, to increase their stock which they do keep.
Here the clue, according to Ogburn, is the phrase "a companion for a king." The title of count, it seems, is derived from the Latin word comes, which took on the meaning of a "companion to the Emperor," and as the English equivalent to a count is an earl, the equivalent to emperor a king, Davies struck upon an ingenious way of telling the world that the subject of his rhyme was a nobleman—a nobleman so stagestruck that he threw caution to the winds to play the king on the stage in sport, though it cost him his place as "a companion for a king" at court.
Excerpted from Shakespeare, In Fact by Irvin Leigh Matus. Copyright © 2012 Paul Matus. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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Introduction to the Dover Edition 1
Author's Preface 9
1 In the Court of Public Opinion 13
Is It Important?
Allusion and Illusion
This Book and Its Sources
2 Shakespeare of Stratford, His Record and Remains 24
Literacy and the Shakespeares
The Stratford Grammar School
Shakespeare: The Heel, and His "Achilles' Heel"
The Survival of Manuscripts
3 On the Paper Trail of the Player and the Playwright 52
The Records of the Player
The Lord Chamberlain's Man
The King's Man
Early Notices of the Playwright
The "Missing" Manuscripts
Author's Rights and "True Originall Copies"
Believe as You List
Afterwords: "Shakespeare ye Player by Garter"
"A Bend between Two Cotizes"
4 The Publication of Shakespeare's Plays 83
The Worshipful Company of Stationers
The Acting Companies and Publication
Give Them No Quarto
The Publication History of the Chamberlain's Men's Plays
From Sir George Buck to the First Folio
Pembroke and the 1619 Quartos
Heminges and Condell versus the Noble Brethren
The Publication History of the King's Men
5 Questions about the Writing of the Plays 127
Shakespeare, the Sole Begetter?
The Unkindest Cuts
"Worth the Audience of Kings"
Afterwords: "Hence Broker-Lackey"
6 The Dating of Shakespeare's Plays 145
The Problem of Cairncross
A Tale of Two-or Three-Lears
The Winter's Tale and Tales of The Tempest
Henry VIII and the Problem of John Fletcher
Questions for a Chronology
7 Shakespeare's Reputation in the Seventeenth Century 167
The Reputation of the Theater in Shakespeare's Day
The Reputation of Shakespeare in His Own Day
Shakespeare in the Restoration
In Praise of Shakespeare
8 The Bard before Bardolatry 190
The Editions of Rowe and Pope
Theobald versus Pope-and Vice Versa
Johnson, Garrick, and Stratford I: c 1745
Johnson, Garrick, and Stratford II: 1756
Johnson, Garrick, and Stratford III: c 1765
The Scholars' Shakespeare versus the Actors' Shakespeare
Afterwords: A Painting of the Shakespeare Monument before Its Restoration?
9 The Claim for the Earl of Oxford 219
Of Pen Names and the Cob of Avon
Oxford as a Patron of Players
The Lord Great Chamberlain's Men?
The Case of the Missing 9th Earl
The Other Lord Chamberlain
The Counterfeit Presentment
The Glass of Fashion
A Resident Dramatist in Queen Elizabeth's Court?
The Thousand-Pound Annuity
In Regard to the Case for Oxford
10 Closing Arguments 264
Stratford in Shakespeare's Day
Shakespeare's Rarified Knowledge
Shakespeare's Classical Knowledge
Getting the Elizabethan Age Right
The Theater and Audiences of Shakespeare's Time
Getting Shakespeare Right
That New Old-Time Orthodoxy