Folger Library Displays America’s Shakespeare . . . And Disses An American Icon

Works of Shakspere

Beginning in the late 18th century, and throughout many decades of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Bard’s name was often spelled ‘Shakspeare’ or ‘Shakspere.’ The Folger exhibit, “America’s Shakespeare,” doesn’t explain why. Shown here is a Funk & Wagnalls edition from 1927.

I can see using Shakespeare to advertise a bookstore, but really, a sewing machine company?

Well, actually, yes. The New Home Sewing Machine Co. used Shakespeare for a 1890 promotion, which is part of the fun of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s current exhibit, “America’s Shakespeare,” on display through July 24.

It’s a fine exhibit that shouldn’t be missed. However, “America’s Shakespeare” does contain one blatant error that’s like a smear on an otherwise neat, handwritten letter. I’ll come to that later.

The exhibit shows how Shakespeare has permeated American culture over the centuries. One standout item is a recommended reading list penned by Thomas Jefferson that includes Shakespeare. Zoom forward to the 20th century and you’ll see Shakespeare in the movies and on television, even to the far reaches of Gilligan’s Island.

The exhibit displays posters for Shakespeare performances that span nearly 200 years. Quite a few of these placards spell the Bard’s name as ‘Shakspeare’ rather than ‘Shakespeare.’ The exhibit doesn’t explain why.

The short explanation: Some 18th and 19th century scholars concluded that the Bard’s real name was Shakspeare. Why? Because his surviving signatures show that he signed his name Shakspeare (or Shakspere), which is how it appears on his birth, marriage, and funeral records. Eventually, the scholarly consensus went the other way and ‘Shakespeare’—how the name was spelled when his plays were first published—came into dominance.

Which raises some questions: If the author’s real name was Shakspeare, why was it ever spelled Shakespeare? If, instead, his real name was Shakespeare, why would he repeatedly misspell it when he signed his own name? I know, some of you are saying Elizabethan’s didn’t care much about spelling. Yes, that’s true, but only up to a point.

In the word Shakespeare, dropping the first ‘e’ gives a short vowel sound to the ‘a’ (like “shack”) rather than a long sound (like “shake”). I’ve yet to see multiple examples of Elizabethan text where the ‘a’ remains long when the ‘e’ that follows a consonant is dropped. Without the ‘e’ to make the long ‘a’ sound, a sentence such as “My mate will bake a cake” becomes “My mat will bak a cak.” Elizabethans may have been bad spellers, but their spelling wasn’t that bad—they didn’t write gibberish.

So why would William of Stratford not sign his name ‘Shakespeare,’ the way it’s spelled on the plays? One answer, plain and simple, is that he wasn’t Shakespeare; rather, ‘William Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym for the actual author.

The top candidate for the true Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, a nobleman in Queen Elizabeth’s court. De Vere meets all the criteria for being the real Shakespeare. His life experiences closely match the stories, settings, and characters of the plays, and he was praised as a playwright during his lifetime. In a foreword to Charlton Ogburn’s book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough states: “The strange, difficult, contradictory man who emerges as the real Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is not just plausible but fascinating and wholly believable.”

Twain

Mark Twain seriously doubted that William of Stratford was Shakespeare.

McCullough isn’t alone. Many have come to doubt that William of Stratford was Shakespeare. Mark Twain was such a doubter. In his last published book, Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909), Twain delivers, with humor, a cogent argument that the Stratfordian wasn’t the Bard.

Among other things, Twain observes that William of Stratford never signed his name ‘Shakespeare,’ so if he were the great author, he didn’t know how to spell his own name.

While the Folger exhibit is silent about why so many people, for so long, called the playwright Shakspeare, it does address Twain’s views on Shakespeare. Unfortunately, the exhibit sorely misses the mark.

Instead of addressing Twain’s argument about Shakespeare authorship on the merits, the exhibit belittles him by insinuating that he wasn’t serious in his disbelief that the Stratfordian was Shakespeare. Here’s how “America’s Shakespeare” puts it:

Mark Twain and his family read Shakespeare, and it has been said that he knew Shakespeare’s works “nearly as well as he knew the Bible.” Twain was fully aware how widely the English playwright was known in America. In Huckleberry Finn, he pokes fun at amateur productions of Shakespeare on the Mississippi River. Nevertheless, Twain came to question Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. In his essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Twain proposes that we don’t know enough about Shakespeare to state unconditionally that he wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. But is Clemens fooling with us, as he writes under his pseudonym Twain? It’s hard to know.

It’s hard to know—really? Actually, it’s not: Those familiar with Twain’s views on the subject know he was sincere in rejecting the myth that William of Stratford was Shakespeare. Anthony J. Berret, a professor at Saint Joseph’s University and author of Mark Twain and Shakespeare, explains why. According to Berret, Twain thought writers drew their ideas from life experiences as Twain himself did, and there was little known about the Stratfordian’s life that could lead to the great works of Shakespeare. Berret writes:

Is Shakespeare Dead? is essentially a creative response to George Greenwood’s The Shakespeare Problem Restated (1908). Both Twain and Greenwood declare themselves heretics against the orthodox belief that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the poems and plays attributed to him. They argue their point by removing all the myths and superstitions about [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare’s life and finding in the few known facts that remain no sign or promise of a distinguished literary career. […] In his copy of Greenwood’s book Mark Twain scored the passages which recounted these meagre details about [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare’s life, and he included their contents in chapters III and IV of his own book. [footnote omitted]. He applauded Greenwood’s careful separation of these bare facts from all the conjectures and assumptions that turned [the Stratfordian] Shakespeare into a scholar, a traveler, a soldier, a poet, a classicist, and an aristocrat.

Berret spends 20 pages discussing Twain’s interest in the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Anyone who reads them will see that, contrary to the statement in the Folger exhibit, it’s not hard to know that Mark Twain truly thought that the Stratfordian wasn’t Shakespeare.

Obviously, the Folger has the right to defend the opinion that William of Stratford and Shakespeare were the same man. But it’s wrong for the Folger to question the seriousness of a dissenter who ranks as one of America’s best 19th century authors. That Is Shakespeare Dead? was written under a pseudonym is irrelevant to whether its author seriously doubted that the Stratfordian was Shakespeare, and it certainly doesn’t show that Twain was “fooling with us.”

Rather, it’s the Folger that’s fooling with us, which is unfortunate given the otherwise engaging and not-to-be-missed “America’s Shakespeare.”

“Shakespeare Uncovered” Takes On Hamlet and The Tempest

John Barrymore as Hamlet in 1922, after Sigmund Freud analyzed the Dane as mother-fixated. Barrymore agreed and, as Hamlet, was the first to kiss Queen Gertrude in her bedroom.

PBS aired the final two episodes of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, with David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn The Tempest.

It was fun watching film clips of various actors playing the Prince of Denmark as Tennant gave a straightforward summary and analysis those new to the play should enjoy.

Viewers also got to see a rare copy of the “Bad Quarto” of Hamlet, the first printed version of the play that’s only about half the length of subsequent versions. Actually, depending on one’s perspective, the “Bad Quarto” is very bad, or not so bad after all.

One theme of the Hamlet episode was how actors bring different interpretations to the lead role. John Barrymore, for instance, was the first to play “the closet scene” between Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, in her bedroom, kissing her on the lips, thus conveying the taboo sensuality that Sigmund Freud said was at the core of their relationship. In what one might call a classic case of Freudian projection, Hamlet repeatedly accuses Gertrude of being “incestuous.”

Yet, despite being touted as “telling the stories behind the stories” of Shakespeare’s plays, this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” was oddly silent about the sources for Hamlet. Instead, it spent a few minutes attempting to link the play to its assumed author’s biography, an approach I found unhelpful not only because it skipped over the play’s sources, but because it relied on too many unproven assumptions about Will of Stratford, the man that many (including historian David McCullough and retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor) doubt was Shakespeare in the first place.

Even though one may not get the “story behind the story,” this episode of “Shakespeare Uncovered” is worth watching. But as for the last episode in the series, which looks at The Tempest, well, that’s a different story.

Trevor Nunn’s discussion of what most consider to be the Bard’s last play is chockfull of biography about the man from Stratford, laden with qualifiers such “ we can’t be sure of this, of course,” that give his analysis a makeshift quality.

Nunn cites a particular event in Stratford Will’s relationship with his daughter, Judith, as a reference for Prospero’s relationship with Miranda in The Tempest. Besides not knowing precisely when The Tempest was written (or any of the plays for that matter), what we do know is that Judith was illiterate, an oft-cited reason why Stratford Will was not the author.

It’s unfortunate, because Nunn could have conveyed his feelings and emotions about Shakespeare’s farewell play, I think, without muddling his narrative with “biography” that smacks of fiction.

The episode also gets caught up in a contradiction of sorts. It relies on the orthodox theory about William Strachy’s account of a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda as the source for the play (albeit with the qualifier “may have been”), but then spends a lot of time showing that the Mediterranean is the probable setting for “The Tempest,” staying silent about the appearance of the word “Bermoothes” in the play.

Indeed, recent scholarship about The Tempest demonstrates convincingly that it was written at least by 1603 for Shrovetide performance, and not derived not from Strachey but from Richard Eden’s 1555 Decades of the New World. It’s a shame that “Shakespeare Uncovered” doesn’t even touch upon this scholarship, suggesting a bias toward orthodoxy in a field that Shakespeare lovers ought to see as ripe for new discoveries.

All in all, I give “Shakespeare Uncovered” high marks. Here’s my ranking of the episodes (the links are to my reviews):

1. Richard II, with Derek Jacobi (Episode Three)

2. Henry IV and Henry V plays, with Jeremy Irons (Episode Four)

3. Macbeth, with Ethan Hawke (Episode One)

4. Hamlet, with David Tennant (Episode Five)

5. The Comedies, with Joely Richardson and Vanessa Redgrave (Episode Two)

6. The Tempest, with Trevor Nunn (Episode Six)

You can watch the complete episodes on the “Shakespeare Uncovered” website.

 

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.