All posts by Richard Agemo

Writer living in Washington, DC

In the History of Pseudonyms, “Shakespeare” Fits Right In

Romaine Gary aka Emile Ajar

Imagine – a talented but aging author decides one day to publish under a pseudonym. Only his wife and a few associates know his secret. His pseudonymous works enjoy such great success, he realizes he needs a front man to be his public face. So he recruits a younger man to embody his alter-ego, coaching him carefully, even scripting lines about the author’s “real life.” Everyone’s fooled.

If you think this scenario sounds like one addressed by the Shakespeare authorship question – which can be best succinctly stated as, “Did Edward de Vere write under the pseudonym William Shakespeare using William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon as his front man?” – you’re right, it does. It also happens to be the true story of French novelist Romaine Gary, the only person to win the prestigious Goncourt Prize twice, first as Romaine Gary and then as Emile Ajar. Gary enlisted his cousin, Paul Pavlowitch, to play Ajar, preparing him for meetings with his publisher, who was completely convinced by Pavlowitch’s performance. The ruse eventually unraveled when Gary revealed the affair in a novel in which he made Pavlowitch the narrator, a madman in a psychiatric ward who confesses to being Ajar. At that point, the real-life Pavlowitch decided his cooperation with Gary was over.

Carmela Ciuraru recounts Gary’s curious tale in her recent book, Nom de Plume, A (Secret) History of Pseudonyms. She gives case studies of eighteen writers that used pseudonyms or heteronyms, including (I’m using their pseudonyms) George Sand, Lewis Carroll, Mark Twain, Isak Dinesen, and Christian Brulls.

Reading Ciuraru’s book, I identified four categories of reasons why authors use pseudonyms. The most prevalent, shared by at least seven of the eighteen authors she describes (which includes Gary/Ajar and the five named above), is that the pseudonym activates an alter ego, allowing the author to become a different “self” unshackled by the baggage attached to the real name. The other three reasons, distributed roughly among the additional eleven authors profiled by Ciuraru are: a way to avoid publishers’ discrimination against female authors (e.g. the Bronte sisters, and Marian Evans who wrote as George Eliot); a way to deny being the writer of controversial content (e.g., Dominique Aury, who wrote “The Story of O” as Pauline Reage); and a way to hide perceived shameful behavior or avoid displeasure of parents or peers (e.g., Henry York writing as Henry Green, and Eric Blair writing as George Orwell).

Ciuraru shows that a writer can have more than one reason to write pseudonymously. It struck me that Edward de Vere, if he did write as William Shakespeare, fits this profile with three of the four types of reasons.

First, as a poet acknowledged in his time as the best writer of comedy and known to have written plays, de Vere was a nobleman, whose peers frowned upon those who were associated with the theater and its low-life riff-raff. Reading Ciuraru’s book, it surprised me how, during Green’s and Orwell’s day, aristocratic disapproval of writing as a vocation strongly persisted.

Second, as shown in biographies about de Vere, much of the content of Shakespeare’s plays would have been controversial at the time, since many characters appear to mirror people in Queen Elizabeth I’s court, including Elizabeth herself. For example, the character Polonius, who’s slaughtered in Hamlet, is now widely viewed as an unflattering caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the Queen’s secretary and the most powerful man in England at the time. Burghley was de Vere’s father-in-law, and they detested each other. Many think Queen Gertrude in Hamlet represents Queen Elizabeth, with whom de Vere had a rumored affair.

Finally, if Charles Beauclerk got things right in Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, William Shakespeare expressed de Vere’s other self – a bohemian artist who loved the creative writing process which allowed him to vent feelings he otherwise would have kept locked up. Beauclerk also presents a compelling argument why Shakespeare’s plays should be seen as “politically inflammatory works” written by a court insider.

What Ciuraru adds – even without addressing whether Shakespeare was a pseudonym – is the plausibility of an author attaching his pen name to another person, who then takes on the role of playing the author. To anyone who reads Nom de Plume, the idea of William Shakspere of Stratford playing “William Shakespeare” as a stand-in for de Vere shouldn’t sound crazy.

There’s strong evidence that “William Shakespeare” was somebody’s pseudonym. As Mark Anderson explains in Shakespeare by Another Name, many of the plays were published under the name “Shake-speare.” In Elizabethan times, use of a hyphen signaled a pseudonym. The one time a play (King Lear) showed the author’s name as “Shak-speare,” the next edition changed it back to “Shake-speare.”

The enigmatic Sonnets also were published under the name “Shake-speare.”

William of Stratford never signed his name as “Shakespeare,” but rather as “Shakspere.” His birth, family and burial records show the name as “Shakspere” or some variation of the short ‘a’ spelling (e.g., Shagspere). His will makes no mention of “Shakespeare” or the plays, or books, or anything else to suggest a writing life.

In contrast, the connections between de Vere’s life and the Shakespeare plays are so numerous, they read like his autobiography. Written in the first person, the Sonnets, too, paint an accurate portrait of de Vere, not Shakspere.

De Vere had the motive, opportunity and ability to use a pseudonym and employ Shakspere as his front man. And as Ciuraru shows, it is not unheard of for an author to use the name of a real person, or a derivative thereof, as a pseudonym. “George Sand” in part came from the last name of her close friend and collaborator, Jules Sandeau. “Shakespeare,” a close variation of Shakspere, would make Stratford Will even more believable as de Vere’s front man, and a good choice for a nobleman who was three-time champion of the tilt.

In the history of pseudonyms, such a hoax is not only curious, but also very plausible.

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.