In the Shakespeare Authorship Debate, Stratfordians Should Drop the “Conspiracy” Charge

250px-Edward-de-Vere-1575

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Is he the subject of some “conspiracy theory”? The answer is no.

Those who defend the grain dealer from Stratford as the man who wrote Shakespeare – the so-called “Stratfordians” – have several labels for opposing schools of thought. One of them is “conspiracy theory.”

They should drop that label.

The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, a strong proponent of the Stratfordian point of view, states on its website:

“The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has fired up a campaign to tackle head-on the conspiracy theories that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the true author of the plays which bear his name.” […] The authorship conspiracy is much ado about nothing.”

In protest to the 2011 film Anonymous, which depicts Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, as the true William Shakespeare, the Trust orchestrated a “cover-up” campaign to shroud signs bearing the Bard’s name. The Trust explained:

“The cover-up is part of a campaign by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust to tackle the film’s conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a barely literate front man for the Earl of Oxford.”

However, in the context of the Shakespeare authorship debate, the “conspiracy theory” label is misplaced, except perhaps in a colloquial sense.

Black’s Law Dictionary defines “conspiracy” as follows:

“A combination or confederacy between two or more persons formed for the purpose of committing, by their joint efforts, some unlawful or criminal act, or some act which is lawful in itself, but becomes unlawful when done by the concerted act of the conspirators, or for the purpose of using some criminal or unlawful means to the commission of an act not in itself unlawful.”

As far as I know, it’s not a crime for an author to write under a pseudonym. During Elizabethan times, a nobleman writing plays for the public stage under his real name would have been frowned upon by his family and peers. Even now, just think how Prince Harry’s royal grandmother would react after reading a saucy “The Lass of Las Vegas” that he’d written under his real name. The prince might find himself a step closer to the throne.

Moreover, if “Oxfordians” have it right, the powers-that-be during Elizabethan times would have required Oxford to use a nom de plume, given some of the political messages conveyed by the plays.

Scholars, for instance, believe that Shakespeare based the character Polonious, the meddling, long-winded royal advisor in Hamlet, on Queen Elizabeth’s close confidant, Lord Burghley, and in the same play modeled the incestuous Queen Gertrude, who’s complicit in robbing Hamlet of the throne, after Elizabeth herself. The evil protagonist in Richard III is seen as mirroring Burghley’s son, Robert Cecil, who succeeded him as the Queen’s Secretary.

Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law, Cecil his brother-in-law.

Charles Beauclerk’s “Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom” cites more examples of how Shakespeare’s plays can be seen as political dramas reflecting contemporary events in Queen Elizabeth’s court.

Oxford’s family, not to mention the Queen, thus would have good reason to want Oxford to use a pseudonym (“William Shakespeare”) and for everyone to stay silent about it. Given England’s accepted form of totalitarian rule at the time, few, if any of the cognazanti – probably not even Oxford/Shakespeare himself – would view the imposition of such silence as something unlawful, let alone as a “crime.” Ditto for the grain dealer acting as Oxford’s front man.

No crime, no unlawful means or purpose, no conspiracy, no “conspiracy theory.”

What Stratfordians really mean to say is that Oxfordians propose that there was a cover-up to hide Shakespeare’s true identity, which – forgive me for wanting to attach correct meanings to words – is different from a “conspiracy.” Only the act of concealing or hiding something in needed for a cover-up. Unlike conspiracy, no criminality or unlawful purpose is necessary. A pseudonym, by definition, is a type of cover-up.

Cover-up, yes. Conspiracy, no. Stratfordians should drop the “conspiracy” charge against their opponents.

Ethan Hawke is Engaging in “Shakespeare Uncovered”

Hawke

In the first part of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” the new PBS series which tells “the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays,” Ethan Hawke delivers an engaging narrative about his desire to understand Macbeth and play its lead character.

Hawke’s study of Macbeth is worth watching. He focuses on how the character’s mental state evolves throughout the play, and even consults with a forensic psychoanalyst to better comprehend the criminal mind. His discussion is light on topical references to Macbeth, with only a passing mention of King James I and his interest in witches.

Nor does Hawke look to Shakespeare’s biography for help in interpreting the play. Instead, we watch him struggling to connect with Macbeth on a personal level, as an actor. In the end, he seems ready to take on the part and one hopes he does.

The second part of “Shakespeare Uncovered” features Joely Richardson discussing Shakespeare’s comedies, with an emphasis on “As You Like It” and “Twelfth Night.” For me, Richardson delivers a surprise.

First, a bit of background. Richardson played the young Queen Elizabeth I in Roland Emmerich’s 2011 film, “Anonymous,” which depicts Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the playwright using the pseudonym William Shakespeare. Richardson’s mother, Vanessa Redgrave, played the older Queen. The controversial film shows the Queen and de Vere (alias Shakespeare) as lovers who have a child together.

In a 2011 interview, Richardson stated that it’s “highly improbable” that William of Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakespeare, and that the Earl of Oxford “easily” could have been Shakespeare. With some justification one could have called Richardson an “Oxfordian.” But now, listening to her on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” it sounds like she has shifted her position 180 degrees.

Her analysis of Shakespeare’s comedies is full of allusions to William of Stratford’s putative biography. For example, we hear that the loss of his son, Hamnet, influenced his writing of “Twelfth Night,” in which Viola thinks her brother Sebastian has drowned at sea.

Redgrave also appears in “Shakespeare Uncovered,” conversing with daughter Joely about the Bard’s comic heroines. Interestingly, however, Redgrave says nothing to support her daughter’s apparent new thinking that Stratford Will was Shakespeare. I, for one, was surprised to hear Richardson espouse that view, although I guess it’s possible she hasn’t changed her position but is merely reading the script written for her for “Shakespeare Uncovered.”

The next two installments of the series air on Friday, February 1. In the first hour, Sir Derek Jacobi will discuss Richard II. According to one advance review, Jacobi will observe that the Earl of Oxford was Shakespeare.

Jeremy Irons will host the second hour, which covers the Henry IV and Henry V history plays. Irons, too, is known as an Oxfordian. Will he surprise us?

 

PBS Shakespeare Series Has “Oxfordians” Onstage

Vanessa Redgrave

Sir Derek Jacobi

Jeremy Irons

Joely Richardson

 

 

 

 

 

 

For three consecutive Fridays beginning January 25, PBS is treating Shakespeare lovers to “Shakespeare Uncovered,” a new series that “tell the story behind the stories of Shakespeare’s greatest plays.” Each night will include two 1-hour episodes with different hosts (check local stations for airtimes). Here’s the line-up:

  • January 25:  Macbeth with Ethan Hawke (1st hour); As You Like It and Twelfth Night with Joely Richardson and her mother, Vanessa Redgrave (2nd hour)
  • February 1: Richard II with Sir Derek Jacobi (1st hour); Henry IV and Henry V with Jeremy Irons (2nd hour)
  • February 8: Hamlet with David Tennant (1st hour); The Tempest with Trevor Nunn (2nd hour)

It’s interesting to me how PBS enlisted “Oxfordians” – those who think “William Shakespeare” was the pseudonym used by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford – to narrate several episodes.

Richardson, Redgrave, and Jacobi all appeared in Anonymous, Roland Emmerich’s controversial 2011 film that presented Oxford (played by Rhys Ifans) as Shakespeare. Irons, too, is an Oxfordian.

Indeed, if one counts the number of narrators and plays they discuss, Oxfordians have a slight edge: 5 plays and 4 hosts, versus 3 plays and 3 hosts for non-Oxfordians — those who maintain William of Stratford-upon-Avon was the Bard, or who remain neutral on the question of authorship.

PBS has not been lily-livered when it comes to the controversy over whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym. “The Shakespeare Mystery,” a PBS program broadcast in 1989, is described on PBS’s website as making “a strong case that the most celebrated writer in the English language was not the man from Stratford. Rather, ‘Shakespeare’ was a clever nom de plume used by Edward de Vere, a learned Elizabethan court insider, to publish his incomparable, but often politically scandalous, writings.”

Given that probably over ninety percent of the theatrical world still believes that William of Stratford was Shakespeare, I’m sure PBS could have found plenty of “Stratfordians” to host all the episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered.” It striketh me that somebody made the conscious decision to include hosts holding the minority opinion about Shakespeare’s true identity. Or it could be just a coincidence.

In any event, how much difference can an Oxfordian perspective make when telling “the story behind” a Shakespeare play?

Without previewing the first “Shakespeare Uncovered” episode, one can only guess what Ethan Hawkes, who I assume is in the non-Oxfordian camp, will say about Macbeth.

Hawke invites viewers to join him “in his quest to play Shakespeare’s murderous Thane of Cawdor by uncovering the true story that served as inspiration, immersing himself in some of the most memorable and innovative productions and discovering Shakespeare’s extraordinary insights into the criminal mind.”

The orthodox (Stratfordian) view generally holds that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth around 1607, several years after Oxford’s death when Will of Stratford-upon-Avon was still in his forties. According to this view, the play was intended to flatter James I, who had reached the top of the career ladder by going from King of Scotland to King of England. James narrowly escaped death in the infamous Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic radicals tried to blow up Parliament. Stratfordians see in Macbeth topical references to the Gunpowder Plot. In his book, “Will of the World,” Stephen Greenblatt writes that, “Some playwright affiliated with the King’s Men [the acting company] — perhaps Shakespeare himself — grasped that this story would make an exciting play.”

Oxfordians hold a very different view about Macbeth. Besides believing Shakespeare wrote the play much earlier than 1607, they think a grim drama involving witches and multiple murders would hardly be one to flatter James who, if he saw the play (there’s no documentary evidence he did) might have felt that it cast doubt on his own succession. You can read more about the Oxfordian view of Macbeth here: http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/?p=533.

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” I expect Ethan Hawke will stick to the Stratfordian view and likely mention connections to King James and the Gunpowder Plot, in addition to delving into the Bard’s sources for the play and history about Scottish royal succession.

With Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave discussing As You Like It and Twelfth Night, one shouldn’t expect any references linking those plays to Stratford Will, such as those Greenblatt describes. Greenblatt emphasizes Stratford Will’s “folk” environment, connecting his father’s vocation as a wool dealer and glove-maker to lines in As You Like It such as, “we are still handling our ewes; and their fells, you know, are greasy.” Greenblatt’s take on Twelfth Night includes linking Count Orsino’s advice that “the woman take an elder than herself” to Stratford Will’s marital unhappiness after being dragged to the altar by an older woman.

As Oxfordians, Richardson and Redgrave, in my opinion, will dispense with such linkage. Instead, they’ll likely focus on the personalities of Rosalind in As You Like It, a character Harold Bloom calls “first in poise of all Shakespearean characters,” and on Viola, the female heroine in Twelfth Night, arguably the best of Shakespeare’s comedies.

In sum, one can expect the Oxfordians featured on “Shakespeare Uncovered” to leave out any discussion of topical references and links between the author’s life and his work, and instead take the approach that “the play’s the thing.”

Review of Movie “Anonymous”

Bottom from Midsummer Night's Dream

Last night I saw Anonymous, the new movie about Shakespeare. It’s good. I give it a 3-star rating.

Set in 16th century London, Anonymous is visually stunning, and worth seeing for that reason alone.

I’m an “Oxfordian,” one who believes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote under the penname William Shakespeare. A growing number of scholars (including two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough) share that belief. In contrast, “Stratfordians” think the fellow from Stratford-upon-Avon (whose actual name was Will Shakspere, not Shakespeare) was the Bard.

The plot of Anonymous seizes upon the authorship question: who was William Shakespeare, the earl of Oxford using a pseudonym, or Will of Stratford-upon-Avon?

The film’s director, Roland Emmerich, and its screenwriter, John Orloff, are passionate Oxfordians. Anonymous thus takes one side in the debate, presenting the case for Oxford through a work of historical fiction.

I’ve written a 400-page historical novel called The Immortalizer, which is about Shakespeare.  I can therefore appreciate the challenges the makers of Anonymous faced in telling Oxford’s story.

Anonymous revolves around historical events taking place at the end of Elizabeth I’s reign, incorporating a Shakespeare (Oxford) storyline. Such an approach is an enormous challenge due to the sheer volume of plot elements the story requires.

For starters, you’re dealing with at least three major spheres of action, each with its own set of characters: the Queen’s court and noblemen, the Globe theater and writers and players, and the residence of the main character, Oxford, who lives in seclusion. And what is Oxford doing? He’s writing and revising all those famous plays, long poems and Sonnets which reflect his life experiences. Lots of flashbacks are needed. Add in historical events, including the war England was waging in Ireland at the time, the failed rebellion that some of Elizabeth’s courtiers mounted, and the involvement of the Globe’s players in that rebellion, and you have more than just a lot going on. On top of all that, what should be the main event – showing what kind of person Oxford was (which, in short, was incredibly complex) – further complicates the task, making it the equivalent of climbing the Himalayas.

Anonymous has roughly two hours to pull it off. It succeeds.

At times, however, I felt like someone chugging a can of condensed milk. In particular, it troubled me how so many of the facts about Oxford’s life were distorted in the interest of compressing its richness to a length suitable for mass consumption.

For example, at the time depicted in the movie, Oxford wasn’t living with his first wife, Anne Cecil. She was dead. Several of Shakespeare’s plays deal with a man that falsely accuses a spouse, lover or fiancée of infidelity, only to find out he’s wrong after learning she’s dead. Oxford had a similar experience with Anne Cecil. Oxfordians believe that The Winter’s Tale, for instance, is one way Oxford apologized to her. But you won’t see such remorse in Anonymous. Instead, you’ll see Anne portrayed as Oxford’s harping wife who hates him for writing plays. By all accounts Anne Cecil had just the opposite character.

Other examples: Oxford was not stabbed in the leg by a fencing instructor hired to kill him, and Oxford did not kill someone standing behind a curtain reading his poems. At a much earlier time than shown in Anonymous, the uncle of a woman whom Oxford got pregnant fought Oxford in a duel, severely wounding him in the leg. Oxfordians believe Romeo and Juliet reflects this family feud. The person Oxford killed was not someone surreptitiously reading his poems, but a drunk cook. Personally, I see no direct connection between that experience and the scene of Polonius’ murder in Hamlet, though Anonymous tries to make one.

The Sonnets – the only time we hear Shakespeare talk about himself at length in the first person – in my view are given too little attention in the movie as a source to show Oxford’s thoughts and feelings. Moreover, there are so many major characters and so much going on (at moments I found it confusing), Oxford’s presence takes up perhaps only a quarter of the film’s length, when he should be the main event. One gets the sense the movie is more about Queen Elizabeth than about Oxford-Shakespeare.

Minor details? Perhaps. But there are so many liberties Anonymous takes with historical facts (those about the rebellion, for instance, are quite distorted) in order to squeeze everything into two hours, some might argue that the entire movie is bunk. In the end, however, it’s a matter of personal taste – certain people prefer more accuracy in historical fiction than others, and many likely have no problem with an artist that observes wide boundaries in the exercise of his artistic license.

One more thing. The name of Will from Stratford-upon-Avon was Shakspere, not Shakespeare. As I’ve said here before (Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare), many Oxfordians dismiss this point as if it were some minor detail. It’s not, in my opinion. Given the good historical evidence showing why Oxford chose the pseudonym Shakespeare (or Shake-speare), it’s unfortunate that Anonymous just assumes that Will of Stratford’s name was “Shakespeare.” Conceding that point to Stratfordians is like handing one of your chess pieces to your opponent before the match even begins.

Anonymous is a good movie and worth seeing. Hopefully, it will encourage individuals to think for themselves in deciding the true identity of William Shakespeare.

Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare

The idea that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare never caught on.

In our zeal in making an argument, sometimes we’ll say something that doesn’t make the best sense. In my opinion, this has happened in the Shakespeare authorship debate. Allow me to explain.

First, some background. The debate – which is more like a cultural war – is over who wrote the poems and plays attributed to William Shakespeare. One main candidate is William of Stratford-upon-Avon (1616-1624), the man that most people assume was William Shakespeare. The second is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). In 1920, a Scotsman named Thomas Looney (pronounced “lo-knee”) published a book that showed de Vere, a playwright whom a contemporary called “the best for comedy,” wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare. “Stratfordians” have battled “Oxfordians” ever since.

“We all know William Shakespeare, the most famous author of all time,” begins Sir Derek Jacobi in Anonymous, a new movie from director Roland Emmerich that depicts de Vere as Shakespeare. “But what if I told you,” Sir Derek says a moment later, “Shakespeare never wrote a single word?”

And thus begins a new battle in the Great Shakespeare War.

The war has raged on for 80 years. Based on the historical evidence, Looney put forth a strong case that de Vere was Shakespeare. He showed, for instance, that the connections between de Vere’s life and the plays are so numerous, the plays read like his autobiography. For the most part, Stratfordians have tried to dismiss Oxfordians as crackpots.

Full disclosure: I think that Looney was right, de Vere was Shakespeare. Many others share that opinion, including two-time Pulitzer Prize winning historian David McCullough, and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

Over the years, the case for de Vere has grown stronger. For example, Professor Roger Strittmater has studied annotations in a Bible owned by de Vere. The marginalia in the de Vere Bible correspond so closely to biblical references found in Shakespeare as to be far beyond mere coincidence.

So what about William of Stratford? Well, for starters, his name was William Shakspere, not William Shakespeare.

Which brings us back to the great Sir Derek Jacobi. Whichever side one takes in the authorship debate, one should admire how he’s taken such a pro-de Vere stance at a time when Stratfordians still dominate the theater world. Nonetheless, I think de Vere’s soldiers shoot themselves in the foot with rhetoric such as, “Shakespeare never wrote a single word.” Even if you agree (as I do) that de Vere was Shakespeare, it’s easy to prove such a statement is false.

Think about it. If Edward de Vere was William Shakespeare who wrote the plays, then William Shakespeare was Edward de Vere. This is the associative rule of logic: if A=B, then B=A. William Shakespeare therefore wrote the plays of William Shakespeare, even if the name was de Vere’s pseudonym.

What de Vere supporters really want to say is, “Shakspere never wrote a single word.” But instead they end up saying “Shakespeare never wrote a single word,” which is like saying, “Voltaire never wrote a single word,” or “Mark Twain never wrote a single word,” or “George Orwell never wrote a single word.” It sounds silly.

The latter three names are pseudonyms, but biographies of those authors contain statements such as, “it is unknown exactly when Voltaire wrote Candide,” and “Twain began his career writing light, humorous verse.” In short, Voltaire wrote Voltaire and Mark Twain wrote Mark Twain – and Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Most Oxfordians underplay the importance of Stratford Will’s name, as if it were some minor detail. Instead, they rush to the mountain of other evidence that proves de Vere was Shakespeare. By doing so, Oxfordians get off on the wrong foot, in my opinion, and fall into the deep pit of confusion Stratfordians have been digging for decades.

So here are a few facts worth emphasizing. Will of Stratford was christened “Gulielmus Shakspere.” There are six surviving signatures of this man. All of them spell his last name without the ‘e’ that would make the ‘a’ sound long, as in “shake.” Furthermore, the second syllable of the name is always spelled so it is spoken with the “er” sound as in “her,” or the “air” sound as in “pair,” not the “ear” sound as in “spear.” Stratford Will never signed his name “Shakespeare.” Why? The simplest explanation is that his last name was Shakspere, as in “shack-spare.”

Those that argue that Stratford Will was Shakespeare but spelled his name Shakspere, will point to Christopher Marlowe, who once signed his name “Christofer Marley,” and other contemporary references that spelled “Marlowe” as “Marly” or “Marlin.” Or they cite the example of Shackerley Marmion, an early 17th century dramatist whose name sometimes appears as “Shakerly.” They also look to the anonymous 1592 play, Arden of Feversham, in which one of the villains is called “Shakbag,” sometimes spelled “Shakebag.” None of which supports that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare.

Unlike the difference between “Shakspere” and “Shakespeare,” the spelling and pronunciation of the first syllable of “Marlowe” doesn’t change in the variations. Moreover, we have just one surviving signature of Marlowe’s, but six for Shakspere. One can pronounce both “Shackerley” and “Shakerly” with the short ‘a’ since the second syllable is “er.” In any case, that name is not an example of a long ‘a’ sound remaining after the ‘e’ is dropped. “Shakbag” is an old word of mid-Yorkshire dialect meaning “a lazy roving person; a vagrant.” That’s the correct spelling and that’s how it appears the vast majority of times in Arden of Feversham. Adding the ‘e’ creates a misspelling. Those who argue “Shakbag” as proof that Shakspere wrote Shakespeare therefore must also argue that “Shakespeare” is a misspelling of “Shakspere,” which is absurd.

In fact, we have contemporary evidence that attributing the plays to William “Shakspere” or “Shakspeare” was a mistake. A 1608 quarto of King Lear names the author as “William Shak-speare.” Subsequent quartos correct the name to “William Shake-speare.” As Mark Anderson shows in Shakespeare by Another Name, in Elizabethan times a hyphen often signaled that a name was a pseudonym.

Hundreds if not thousands of editions of Shakespeare exist, but only a tiny fraction of them name the author as “Shakspere.” In 1868, Charles Knight edited “The Works of William Shakspere.” In the early 1900’s, Funk & Wagnalls published “The Complete Works of William Shakspere.” Clearly, the idea that “Shakspere” was the Bard’s correct name never caught on, simply because it wasn’t the correct name. The errant “Shakspere” editions serve as further proof that Shakspere wasn’t the Bard.

Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, and he wrote many words at that. Oxfordians would help their cause by clearly stating that fact.