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  • Sweet Will of Stratford April 4, 2011

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    One of the great joys of writing posts for this blog in the last ten months has been the experience of coming across new mysteries. And of the many that Beachcombing has tripped over in his sorry excuse for research none has bemused him more than the mystery of Will of Stratford, otherwise known as the ‘who-really-wrote-Shakespeare’s-plays’ problem.

    Now the answer should be, of course, Shakespeare. But there are hundreds if not thousands of intelligent and well-balanced people around the globe who are convinced that this is not the case. They believe, indeed, that Shakespeare was a ‘mask’ borrowed by another author, who hid like a Sith Lord in the shadows.

    To Beachcombing this is bewildering: a bit like searching for a serial killer when no bodies have turned up. Certainly, we lack a straightforward contemporary claim that Shakespeare did not write his own works and the first mutterings against Shakespeare as author appear in the mid nineteenth century, almost two hundred and fifty years after his decease.

    From Beachcombing’s admittedly modest reading in this field he suspects that there is more pleasure in actually finding the ‘true’ Shakespeare, than in demonstrating that Will of Stratford could not have written the plays and poems normally ascribed to him. But Beachcombing will concentrate here on the less fun part of the problem: what is the case to be made against the Stratford one?

    Beachcombing thought that he would listen to the vox populi, aka Wikipedia – is it Beachcombing’s imagination or has Wikipedia improved markedly since his last visit a couple of years ago? – and the entry on the Shakespeare authorship question. Here the case against WS is broken down into three substantial categories: (i) Shakespeare’s Background and Education, (ii) Shakespeare’s Name and (iii) the Lack of Documentary Evidence.

    (i) Shakespeare’s Background and Education

    The whole question of Shakespeare’s Background and Education runs around and around the contention that a provincial English town and its grammar school ‘could not’ have nurtured a man of Shakespeare’s genius.

    Beachcombing can’t help disagreeing. Here it is enough to read Vasari on the Lives of the Artists to see how Renaissance creators of the first rank regularly came from the most unprepossessing backgrounds before making it big in the city, often in their late teens or early twenties.

    Then with Shakespeare there are two other facts.

    First, we do not know where Shakespeare was between 1585 and 1592, say 21 to 28: these are extraordinarily important years and if, say, Shakespeare had done a Milton and spent his time travelling in Italy – thinking of his apparent knowledge of that country in the plays – he could have more than made up for a deficiency of experiences and learning in his teens, particularly if he had the greedy reading of an autodidact.

    Second – Beachcombing fears that he is going to tread on the toes of various English lit professors here… – isn’t there something rather facile and shallow about Shakespeare’s learning? By this Beachcombing doesn’t just mean the factual mistakes, e.g. Bohemia on the coast, but also the very rhythms of the man’s thoughts. Shakespeare is a wit who understood human nature, who had an ear for the music of poetry and who was able to reduce language to its elemental parts before remaking that language in dramatical and poetical terms – Wittgenstein had a long German word for this that Beachcombing has happily forgotten.  But there are no signs that his mind was  particularly well trained or good at deep thinking: indeed, there is the suspicion that too much training might have killed his extraordinary talent.

    (ii) Shakespeare’s Name

    Beachcombing finds this whole question rather tedious so he’s going to hand over to an excellent external site: the spelling and pronunciation of Shakespeare’s Name. Certainly, there is nothing here to suggest that the different forms of Shakespeare’s name show any particularly level of confusion, let alone the use of a pseudonym.

    (iii) The Lack of Documentary Evidence

    The fact that there is little documentary evidence for Shakespeare is hardly surprising given that this was an age from which relatively little information survives. The lowly status of many authors and the fact that Shakespeare did not have a quasi-divine reputation among dramatists in his own lifetime should explain this. It is certainly poor history to moan that there is not, say, a single record that Shakespeare owned a book or, even worse, that there is not a single record that Shakespeare’s family owned a copy of the First Folio because, of course, it would be suprising if such pieces of evidence survived!

    It is an even greater affront to history – jumping up and down on Calliope’s corns with heavy clogs – to talk of the dissonance between the life of Shakespeare and his imaginative life as handed down to us in his plays. For example, there is the much mooted idea that Shakespeare’s works become darker after 1601 and yet there is no tragedy recorded in Shakespeare’s own life. This may be, of course, because the tragedy was not recorded – an affair gone wrong, a religious crisis… Or it may simply be that Shakespeare was not one of those tedious authors – Dickens, Roth, Martin Amis… – who have the need to play out their own psychodramas in their works. There is something, in fact, almost hagiological – Beachcombing the medievalist speaks – in the way that Shakespeare seems to have stepped out of the constricting details of his past: yet before we drum up a conspiracy this is a common feature of the best authors pace Dickens, Roth and Martin Amis.

    Now these are the important three points for those who believe that Shakespeare did not write the works normally ascribed to him. Other objections barely deserve that name, though they would be fun to collect for the sheer hell of celebrating their poor logic: e.g. ‘the Shakespeare of the sonnets has homo-erotic tendencies and yet Will of Stratford got married and had children!’ Game, set, match…

    And here Beachcombing arrives at his own favourite part of the Shakespeare mystery. Once you’ve decided to your own satisfaction that Shakespeare is not really the author you get to spend twenty years in the archives – or ten minutes in the Encyclopedia of National Biography – choosing someone else. Beachcombing is reminded of his own celebration of the way modern Atlanteans put the continent of Atlantis in every conceivable corner of the world or the way ripperologists have accused most of the upper ranks of Victorian society of the Whitechapel murders. Certainly, of the – literally – tens of candidates offered up there are some real gems: John Donne; Miguel de Cervantes; and best of all – only a genius could have hit on this – Anne Hathaway! Virginia Woolf eat your heart out…

    Beachcombing hopes to read around this subject a little more this summer, but in the meantime a question: why, if Beachcombing and the English lit establishment is right and this is an invented problem, is finding alternative Shakespeares such a popular hobby? What need does it fulfil? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


    4 April 2011: Howard Schumann wrote in with this interesting attack on Shakespeare as author. Beachcombing is particularly grateful as he is looking for some good reading material for this summer. ‘I believe that the evidence points to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets and I think if you read ‘Shakespeare By Another Name’ by Mark Anderson, ‘The Mysterious William Shakespeare’ by Charlton Ogburn. or even ‘Shakespeare’s Unauthorized Biography’ by Diana Price (though she is not pro-Oxford) you might come to the same conclusion. The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Nobody claims to having ever met the man. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else. The Sonnets are written by a man who is clearly much older. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties ( Oxford was 14 years older). Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was ‘Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity’, ‘With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn’, in the ‘twilight of life’. He is lamenting ‘all those friends’ who have died, ‘my lovers gone’. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold’. The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford’s life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare’s biographers have nothing to go on. There are many arguments against the Stratfordian attribution and there is not enough space provided to discuss ¼ of them. Here are a few: Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. For example: Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques, Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone, Epitia and Hecatommithi, Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian), Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish). Shakespeare’s reliance on books in foreign languages puzzles the experts, so we can suppose all sorts of things rather than conclude the obvious. If the man who was Shakespeare regularly relied on books not yet translated from Italian, French, and Spanish, then he must have been able to read in Italian, French, and Spanish. We know specifically that Oxford was fluent in four foreign languages, Latin, Greek, Italian, and French. The assumption behind the support for William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to be that he was no ordinary mortal because otherwise there is no accounting for the detailed knowledge of the law, foreign languages, Italy, the court and aristocratic society, and sports such as falconry, tennis, jousting, fencing, and coursing that appears in the plays.  I do not have any doubt that genius can spring from the most unlikely of circumstances. The only problem here is that there is in this case no evidence to support it. Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate? Edward De Vere, on the other hand, was a recognized poet and playwright of great talent, and although no play under Oxford ‘s name has come down to us, his acknowledged early verse and his surviving letters contain forms, words, and phrases resembling those of Shakespeare. The Shakespeare plays and poems show that the author had specific knowledge of certain works of literature, certain prominent persons in Elizabeth ‘s court, and events connected with them. In the sonnets and the plays there are frequent references to events that are paralleled in Oxford ‘s life. This just scratches the surface.’ This is a very dense and worthwhile email and Beachcombing does concede that in his reading so far it is the Sonnets that are most surprising source for Shakespeare’s life: could we even go so far as to say that without the Sonnets the Authorship question would not exist? As to whether the author of the plays would have allowed his daughters to go illiterate – if  illiteracy is taken as a given – Beachcombing would not be surprised in the least… Massive thanks to Howard for taking the time to tap all this out!

    5 April 2011: KMH makes a comment that, though not directly connected with the authorship debate, Beachcombing found interesting: ‘One thing about creative geniuses is that they tend to leave unfinished works behind after death. There may also be works done in adolescence but never published. As I understand it, these two categories are completely missing with Shakespeare.  However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.’ It certainly is difficult to believe that Shakespeare – Beachcombing speaks from his unreformed Stratford perspective –  just ceased writing after the Tempest, though of course there was probably a collaboration with Fletcher on Henry VIII. Just for the sheer hell of it Beachcombing includes one of his favourite speeches from the whole canon with Wolsey waving goodbye: ‘So farewell– to the little good you bear me./ Farewell? a long farewell to all my greatness!/ This is the state of man: to-day he puts forth/ The tender leaves of hopes, to-morrow blossoms,/ And bears his blushing honors thick upon him;/ The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,/ And when he thinks, good easy man, full surely/ His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,/ And then he falls as I do. I have ventur’d,/ Like little wanton boys that swim on bladders,/ This many summers in a sea of glory,/ But far beyond my depth. My high-blown pride/ At length broke under me, and now has left me,/ Weary and old with service, to the mercy/ Of a rude stream that must for ever hide me./ Vain pomp and glory of this world, I hate ye!/ I feel my heart new open’d. O how wretched/ Is that poor man that hangs on princes’ favors!/ There is, betwixt that smile we would aspire to,/ That sweet aspect of princes, and their ruin,/ More pangs and fears than wars or women have;/ And when he falls, he falls like Lucifer,/ Never to hope again.’

    7 April 2011: Beachcombing got a fascinating email from Matthew C. Matthew writes that ‘I certainly encourage you to do some more reading on the subject.  You seem to only scratch the surface and you leap to conclusions based on limited information.  So keep at it. My line about this issue:  Traditional scholars including the academic establishment have been Barding Up The Wrong Tree for a few centuries.’ Matthew then takes Beachcombing’s argument apart bit by bit starting with some well made points about Beachcombing’s misuse of the word ‘fact’. Then, Matthew deals with Beachcombing’s allegation that Shakespeare could have travelled in the missing years. ‘You’re engaging in rank speculation… There’s not an actual fact lurking anywhere in what you say.  You speculate that he might have gone to Italy.  Yes, he might have.  He might have gone to Russia or China for that matter.  You assume that he wasn’t in Stratford with his family.  Yes age 21-28 are crucial years for an aspiring author.  Can you provide any evidence at all that he wasn’t simply living in Stratford?  He was, after all, married.  He had a wife and three children who lived in Stratford all these years.  Why do you claim ‘we don’t know where Shakespeare was between 1585 and 1592?’  What you’re really saying is there’s no evidence he was in London … or anywhere else on the planet.  So why couldn’t he have simply been living in Stratford?  Without any evidence to the contrary – and given the presence of his young family in Stratford – wouldn’t the fair assumption be that he was living there as well?  Your assumption that William of Stratford was off traveling to Italy and soaking in knowledge and experience is based on … well … nothing … except for the need to cram some worldly experience and knowledge into him.  If you’re going to posit some other theory, you really need to come up with some evidence to support it.’ Then Beachcombing gets in trouble over his comments that Shakespeare’s learning was shallow: ‘Here you’re engaging in a strange effort of ‘dumbing down’ Shakespeare so his learning comes closer to what might be feasible or believable for what we know about the actual life of William of Stratford.  Nice try out of desperation but really unfortunate.  And repeating the old canard about the Bohemian coast is simply sad.  A little bit of research on your part would reveal adequate evidence that Bohemia did in fact include a seacoast at different points in history.  It’s too bad you feel the need to denigrate Shakespeare’s knowledge in an effort to prop up the Stratfordian theory.  We need not idolize Shakespeare but let’s not resort to taking him down a few notches simply to force the square Stratfordian peg into a round hole.’ Matthew then adds. ‘There’s one topic you address briefly that deserves a great deal more attention – the Sonnets.  Both the content of those poems and the publication in 1609 strongly suggest, to my mind at least, that this was a posthumous publication.  Traditional scholars have not been able to explain the poet’s complete absence from the publication process, the absence of a dedication from the poet, and his complete silence about the publication (one way or another) after 1609.  The reference to ‘our ever-living poet’ in the dedication provides powerful prima facie evidence that the poet was, in fact, dead at the time of publication.  William of Stratford, of course, was very much alive until 1616 … and yet he remained completely silent about the Sonnets … and no scholar has yet provided any credible explanation as to how Thomas Thorpe could have acquired and published these very personal poems against the will of the poet himself.  There are more or less convoluted theories but posthumous publication offers a reasonable, Occam’s Razor explanation for the publication itself, the dedication, and the poet’s strange absence during and silence after publication.’ Then finally Matthew moves on to the question of Shakespeare’s daughters. ‘Finally, one quick point about raising illiterate (or perhaps semi-literate) daughters.  Your rather dismissive comment that this does not surprise you is, again, an attempt to dumb down the Bard.  Just think for a moment about all of the witty, highly educated heroines in Shakespeare’s works.  It’s hard to imagine that the poet would not want his own daughters to be able to appreciate not only his works but the wonderful world of literature that education opened up for him.  It’s remarkable to me that you would discount this “fact” so glibly.  There’s no indication that any members of the “Shakespeare” family who resided in Stratford for many years after 1616 took any interest in or asserted any connection with the life and works of William Shakespeare.  I would also ask why it is that we have no evidence that the rather well-to-do William of Stratford donated any money to the King Edward VI grammar school that supposedly gave him his start?  Nothing in the man’s will hints at anything remotely literary (as I’m sure you know).  But I’ve always been baffled by the absence of a bequest to the school in Stratford that supposedly provided his educational foundation.  One would expect him to have been eternally grateful to his school – if indeed he attended the school and learned so much from the year or two most scholars assume he spent there.’ Leaving aside, for a moment, the whole question of whether or not Shakespeare of Stratford was Shakespeare the author the one thing that strikes Beachcombing from the several emails he’s received is the passion with which both sides address this argument. It is enough to make a sleepy bizarrist retreat into his rabbit hole: back to zombies, unicorns and werewolves. Seriously, thanks to Matthew for this long contribution!

    31 May 2011: The Shakespeare wars continue. Steve S writes in with the following comments that should be read next to the comments of other anti-Stratfordians above. The best Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare website can be found at shakespeareauthorship.   ‘If I may, there a quite a few factual problems with your essay. You say there are ‘other facts’ and go on to say, ‘we don’t know where Shakespeare was between 1585 and 1592.’  This implies that we know where he was from 1565 to 1585 and that we know where he was after 1592.  Factually speaking, except for the record of his marriage, and the baptismal records of his three children, there are no factual biographical dates from his birth to the year 1595.  The 1592 date (presumably Greene’s reference to ‘Shake-scene’) is a matter of interpretation, not a ‘fact’.  In your second ‘fact’ (that his whereabouts were unknown), you draw us into an ostensibly logical deduction that he was in Italy.    You say, ‘he could have more than made up for a deficiency of experiences and learning in his teens, particularly if he had the greedy reading of an autodidact’.  Perhaps he could have.  However, he seems to have owned no books.  There was no library in Stratford.  Books in the grammar schools were not placed in the actual hands of students.  So where did he get the books?  But more importantly, why would he have been a literary enthusiast?  What would have motivated him?  The profession of playwright didn’t yet exist.  Indeed, writing in general was neither a “profession” nor profitable.  So, why would he have been an ‘autodidact’?  Because literature, inexplicably, turned him on?  You pass off the problems of Shakespeare growing up in an intellectual vacuum and refer us to Vasari’s biographies of the various Italian renaissance artists (painters and sculptors) who came from humble beginnings.  However humble their beginnings were, most or all seem to have benefited from excellent teachers.  Moreover, these ‘Arts’ (where right brain-left brain interactions and special abilities of memory combine to produce intuitive Art) are not comparable to the Art of Shakespeare; art that required broad and deep knowledge, and experience, over numerous domains of knowledge. When you say that Shakespeare’s learning was ‘facile and shallow’ you seem to be echoing a particular popular Stratfordian perspective that many respected Stratfordians would, I think, take great exception to. I think you are profoundly wrong on that point.   By the way, there was a time when Bohemia did extend to the sea and had a ‘sea  coast’.  This obscure fact Shakespeare obviously knew.  And then you speak of the ‘rhythms of the man’s thoughts’, and you believe the man was a ‘wit’ by nature.  No doubt this is true of the man from Stratford.  You say there are ‘no signs that his mind was particularly well trained or good at deep thinking’.  Excuse me, but, you know this how?  You say he had an ‘ear’ for ‘music’.  Shakespeare the author obviously did.  Where did the guy from Stratford get that ‘ear’.  Did he get it in his illiterate musicless home, or the musicless grammar school?  You say, ‘Certainly, there is nothing here to suggest that the different forms of Shakespeare’s name show any particularly level of confusion, let alone the use of a pseudonym.’  Can you name any other author of that era that used a hyphen in his/her name? I know of none. You say, ‘The fact that there is little documentary evidence for Shakespeare is hardly surprising . . .[etc.]’  The problem for Shaksper is not the lack of biographical information, it’s that the available information points to an illiterate money-lender, grain dealer, theater investor, who raised two illiterate daughters.  You say, ‘there is not a single record that Shakespeare’s family owned a copy of the First Folio because, of course, it would be surprising if such pieces of evidence survived!’  Few writers of that era were better situated at their death, or into the generations that followed, to preserve their intellectual property.  It is, indeed, ‘surprising’ that not one stitch of his intellectual property survived (no books, no marginalia, no letters, no manuscripts, no unfinished drafts, not so much as word written in his own hand, no desk, no bookcase, no musical instruments, no artwork.  We will stop here, though there is much more in you essay to disagree with.  Your prose is admirable.  I hope you will study the matter further.’ Obviously disagreement could go on and on here. Beachcombing will lift his shield for just one of these charges. Beach believes that ‘deep thinking’ is for the most part illusory and most philosophy a waste of time, trees and space. By saying that Shakespeare was not a deep thinker then, no insult was intended. Of course, whether this reflects what Shakespeare’s mind was really like is another matter altogether. Thanks to Steve for taking time out to write this!