Where’s Shakespeare?

Rape Of Lucrece, by J. Ber (1724). The watercolor is so delicate, the exhibit displays a reproduction.  Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Painting Shakespeare,” the current exhibit at the  Folger Shakespeare Library,  includes some amazing paintings of scenes from Shakespeare.  My favorite: Rape of Lucrece by the 18th century French artist, J. Ber. The smallest painting in this not-to-be-missed exhibit, J. Ber’s wonderful composition of color shines like a stained glass window.

“Painting Shakespeare” runs until February 11, 2018.

The exhibit also displays several paintings of Shakespeare himself. But there’s one problem: none of them are thought definitively to be him. According to one of the exhibit’s information plaques:

The Zuccaro Shakespeare. Source: Folger Shakespeare Library.

“Only two portraits of Shakespeare are widely accepted as genuine likenesses: the engraving on the title page of the First Folio . . . and the sculpture on his memorial in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford-upon-Avon. Both are undeniably dull, making contenders such as [the Zuccaro Shakespeare, shown here at the left] an attractive alternative . . . [W]e now know the artist was not Frederico Zuccaro (1540/41-1609), and the sitter was not Shakespeare. Someone in the 18th century painted a heavy moustache, pointy beard, and small earring, and the inscription ‘William Shakespeare’ to disguise a now-unknown man. Conservation treatment in 1988 restored the painting to its original look.”

So, no painting of Shakespeare we’re sure is him? Now, that’s curious.

We have genuine paintings of a whole slew of 16th and 17th century English poets and playwrights—such as Ben Johnson, John Fletcher, Michael Drayton, Philip Sidney, John Donne, and Christopher Marlowe—but none of the greatest of them all. Zounds! Why not? Where’s Shakespeare?

It’s a question “Painting Shakespeare” doesn’t answer. But wait! Maybe the Folger does have a true portrait of Shakespeare after all. It’s called The Ashbourne Portrait and it hangs in the Founders’ Room at the library. I once saw it on a tour.

The Ashbourne Portrait. Is it Shakespeare? It might be.

The three-quarter length portrait of an Elizabethan man in high ruff, his fingers gently clasping a book, his wrist supported by a skull, was discovered in 1847 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire and identified as Shakespeare. The Folger acquired the painting in 1931 and displayed it as a portrait of the Bard, despite analysis showing that the picture had been overpainted to look like the Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare that appears in the First Folio.

Left: Ashbourne Portrait. Right: Droeshout engraving.

Most notably, the hairline had been raised to make the Ashbourne sitter look significantly more bald. One can still see the shadow of his overpainted hair.

You decide: does the face in the Ashbourne Portrait (center) more resemble Edward de Vere (on left) or Hugh Hamersley (on right)?

In 1940, an infra-red photographic analysis of the Ashbourne Portrait confirmed that the portrait had been altered in several ways and supported a conclusion that the sitter was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. For the Folger, this wasn’t good news: Edward de Vere is the top alternative candidate for the man who wrote Shakespeare.

Over the next thirty-nine years a series of controversial events (including a lawsuit) led to the Folger’s announcement, in 1979, that the Ashbourne Portrait was neither Shakespeare nor Edward de Vere . . . but Sir Hugh Hamersley, who was the Mayor of London in 1627!

The Ashbourne Portrait has a fascinating story behind it (and, apparently, on top of it, thanks to to the overpainting) so it’s a shame it’s not part of the current exhibit. But the Folger’s decision to keep it out of sight is understandable. The Shakespeare Authorship Question can spark contentious debate—take a look at the one Alexander Waugh and Sir Jonathan Bate just had—and I imagine the Folger, realizing this, deemed it too controversial (even risky) to place the portrait in public view.

Moreover, the Shakespeare Authorship Question is not what “Painting Shakespeare” is about. Indeed, as far as I know, the Folger has never presented a program or exhibit about the authorship issue. Perhaps it should.

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 and the Battle of Memes (Part II)

The signature of "William Shakspere" from his will. None of the Stratfordian's surviving signatures are spelled "William Shakespeare."

The signature of “William Shakspere” from his will. None of the Stratfordian’s surviving signatures are spelled “William Shakespeare.”

Memes are units of culture — languages, religions, books, plays, and songs, to name just a few. These are ideas that “catch on” or “go viral” and get passed from one person to another.

That’s why Shakespeare is a meme. Having been replicated for more than four centuries, it’s still going strong.

A memeplex is a group of memes that help each other replicate. The Shakespeare memeplex thus includes the author’s name, the texts of his plays, particular characters such as Hamlet and Falstaff, particular lines such as “to be or not to be,” and everything else in the Shakespeare universe that people keep replicating.

Like genes, memes are not per se right or wrong, good or bad. Rather, in the memotic perspective, a meme is either successful, meaning it keeps getting replicated and passed onto others, or it’s unsuccessful, meaning it’s forgotten.

The Shakespeare memeplex is a particularly interesting because it has two main varieties. By far the most successful one is the Stratfordian memeplex, which assumes that William Shakspere of Stratford was William Shakespeare. The second most successful is the Oxfordian memeplex, which assumes that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote under the pseudonym William Shakespeare.

My previous post gave two very different explanations for why Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. One explanation comes from the Stratfordian memeplex, the other from the Oxfordian memeplex. This post will use the same approach to explain why William of Stratford – who is William Shakespeare in the Stratfordian memeplex – signed his name “Shakspere” rather than “Shakespeare.”

If he were Shakespeare, why would William of Stratford sign his name differently?

We know with absolute certainty that Francois-Marie Arouet was Voltaire, Samuel Clemens was Mark Twain, and Eric Blair was George Orwell. But we may never know beyond any reasonable doubt who was William Shakespeare. When it comes to proving the poet-playwright’s identity, the evidence is circumstantial, beginning with his name.

The idea that William Shakspere was William Shakespeare rests fundamentally on the circumstance that the two names are similar. As to why William of Stratford signed his name ‘Shakspere’ rather than ‘Shakespeare,’ the Stratfordian memeplex gives this explanation: Elizabethans didn’t care all that much about spelling. Let’s accept that as true. Other explanations, however, easily lead to the same result.

Imagine William of Stratford in 1593 gazing up after reading the dedication to Venus and Adonis, and telling the printer, “God’s blood, you spelt my name wrong! It’s Shakspere, not Shakespeare.”

“I thought it sounded better.”

“Wait, you are right. Do not alter it. Indeed, henceforth always print my name as Shakespeare.”

Or try this explanation: from the beginning of William’s meteoric rise to success, he first chose to go by Shakespeare, the Elizabethan equivalent of Joseph Conrad, whose real name was Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski. ‘Shakespeare’ has a better ring to it than ‘Shakspere.’

Or maybe William wanted the plausible deniability that came with signing his name Shakspere while his plays bore the name Shakespeare. One can see Lord Burghley, the Secretary to Queen Elizabeth and the most powerful man in England at the time, confronting William:

“As people do, they are talking about your play, Hamlet, and not just talking about it, but gossiping about it, which is worse than just talking about it, and they are not just gossiping about anything, but gossiping about me, as they see similarities between Polonious, one of the main characters in your play, and me, gossiping how both Polonious and I are windbags that never stop talking. How dare you mock me so in your play, Hamlet, and not just me as Polonious, but also Queen Elizabeth as Queen Gertrude, and you not only mock us, as I have said, but you kill us both to boot. Just who do you think you are?”

“You have the wrong man, Lord Burghley. I am not William Shakespeare the poet, I am William Shakspere the grain merchant. See for yourself – here’s the church record of my birth.”

In this scenario, William of Stratford is using “William Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, to protect himself as the writer of Hamlet, a play some scholars believe mocks both Lord Burghley and Queen Elizabeth. This, too, explains why Shakspere did not sign his name Shakespeare.

The point here is that the Stratfordian explanation for why William of Stratford signed his name as Shakspere — no one really cared about spelling — is easy to vary. That makes it a bad explanation according to a test created by British physicist David Deutsch, which I described in my previous post. According to Deutsch, good explanations, unlike bad ones, are difficult to vary.

Step inside the Oxfordian memeplex and you’ll find a much simpler explanation as to why William of Stratford signed his name “Shakspere,” an explanation that’s difficult to vary which, applying Deutsch’s test, makes it a good explanation.

Here’s the Oxfordian explanation: William of Stratford signed his name as William Shakspere, and not as William Shakespeare, because he was William Shakspere, not William Shakespeare. As do his surviving signatures, his name appears as Shakspere in birth, marriage, and funeral records.

Forgery laws existed in Elizabethan times. I would bet that the penalty for signing a name that was not yours, especially on a legal document, would cost you a finger or two, maybe your hand.

If, as in this case, the Oxfordian memeplex has a good explanation for something while the Stratfordian memeplex has a bad one, does that necessarily help Oxfordians in the battle of the Shakespeare memes? No. The ultimate winner is the memeplex that keeps getting replicated while the other fades away.

For any meme to survive, people must find it useful to replicate that meme. Though it provides a bad explanation for why gifts appear under Christmas trees, the myth of Santa Claus survives because people find it useful.

The battle of the Shakespeare memes, I believe, will come down to which Shakespeare memeplex people find most useful – Stratfordianism or Oxfordianism. And it may take a very long time for time to tell.

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.

On “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Derek Jacobi Uncovers Shakespeare as (Surprise!) Edward de Vere

Derek Jacobi has been fearless in espousing a controversial view about Shakespeare’s true identity.

Derek Jacobi is a brave man. The acclaimed Shakespearean actor, apparently unafraid of peers castigating him as a heretic, boldly argues on PBS’s “Shakespeare Uncovered” that the Bard was not the son of a glove maker from Stratford, but the nobleman Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

Little more than half way through an episode of the program about the play Richard II, Jacobi explains that Oxford wrote the Shakespeare plays anonymously and allowed William of Stratford to take the credit.

Among other facts, Jacobi cites that the Stratford man’s children were illiterate, and that his will makes no mention of books, manuscripts of plays, or the theatre, strong evidence that the Stratfordian was not the playwright.

Jacobi acknowledges that the Shakespeare authorship question is “hugely controversial.”

The PBS show includes a rebuttal by Oxford University professor Jonathan Bate. Bate asserts that the “middle class grammar school boy” from Stratford who became an actor could understand “courts and kings and politics” because he performed at court, and “courts and kings and politics are things you can read books about.”

I imagine Bate’s remark elicited chuckles from “Oxfordians,” those who believe Edward de Vere was Shakespeare.

I find it surprising that Jacobi was allowed to express his opinion about Shakespeare’s authorship on “Shakespeare Uncovered,” given that its producer, Richard Denton, considers it “nonsense.”

It’s also interesting to me how some folks belittle the view that Shakespeare was de Vere’s pseudonym, given that many serious people – such as the esteemed historian David McCullough – have concluded there’s convincing evidence to support that view.

I found Jacobi’s discussion of Richard II, which included clips from a 1978 production featuring him in the lead role, fascinating, making me want to see again the only play Shakespeare wrote completely in verse.

In the subsequent installment of “Shakespeare Uncovered,” Jeremy Irons provides an analysis of the Henry IV and Henry V plays that’s well-worth watching. Irons is an Oxfordian, too. However, unlike Jacobi, he steers clear of the authorship question.

PBS will broadcast the last two installments of “Shakespeare Uncovered” on Friday, February 8. They will feature David Tennant discussing Hamlet, and Trevor Nunn discussing The Tempest.

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.”

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.