Saturday, February 05, 2005

Uncovering Shakespeare: Why it Matters

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Six years ago I absently grabbed a magazine prior to boarding a plane for a cross-country flight.

That magazine was the Atlantic Monthly, the set of articles titled The Ghost of Shakespeare.” When I landed six hours later, I was stunned with what I had read. And my ability to appreciate the greatest writer of the English language would be radically changed for the better.

Sure, I’d heard about the authorship question. I’d chalked it up to another meaningless pursuit of cranks and conspiracy theorists. But this article was a sincere effort to present scholars from both sides of the issue, and to let them each make their respective cases. But it could never be a fair fight when all of the facts are laid on the table.

I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, Da Vinci codes, or Area 51. I think Oliver Stone and Art Bell are certifiable nut cases. But this isn’t about conspiracies or contrarian thinking, it’s about history, biography, politics, literature, and the Elizabethan milieu. And it has monumental importance to appreciating the most brilliant written works that the world has yet seen.

I, along with Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Charlie Chaplin, Sigmund Freud, John Gielgud, Justices Harry Blackmun and John Paul Stevens, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Orson Welles, James Joyce, Benjamin Disraeli, Joseph Sobran, Malcolm X, among a legion of others, believe that the plays weren’t written by Stratford Will, but one of the “wolfish Earls,” - Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford - the "best at historie and comedie,” nephew of the originator of the Sonnet form, literary prodigy, tutored by the translator of the Ovid (key source of many of the Works), patron of the Chamberlain’s men acting company, and Court insider, yet who stopped writing under his own name as a young man.

And this matters not only to set the historical record straight, but because it can, like it did with me, make the context of the plays and sonnets come alive, finally giving voice to the real man behind the pen. Art comes from the inner Self, you need to know who that Self is. By knowing the man, you will better understand and appreciate his work.

And I’m convinced that one of the reasons that Shakespeare is not more accessible to high school kids and grownups alike is due to the insistence on promoting the empty and contradictory biography of the grain merchant from Stratford, and the inability to draw a relevant connection between the cardboard cutout caricature of Stratford Will (Shakspere) and the majestic themes of the plays. If you believe that a writer’s work is a mirror into the soul of the artist and reflects his life narrative, then Oxford, as Lord Chamberlain to the Queen, scandal-plagued, erratic, yet brilliant, was ground zero of Court intrigue, drama, disappointment, politics, envy, and ambition within the Elizabethan court. And the plays directly reflect his life, loves, scandals, tragedies, and direct observations of the ongoing Carnival that surrounded Elizabeth and royal life as a whole.

I’m no Elizabethan or Shakespeare scholar, just the average middle-age guy trying to expand his literary vocabulary and sort through my interpretation of the facts. And this issue has been boiling for centuries. But the scholarship has heated up over the last few decades, and the evidence for Oxford is becoming stronger and stronger. Perhaps the tipping point has been reached with the recent discovery of Oxford’s bible (tellingly found within the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington), meticulously footnoted and underlined with phrases, verses, and margin notes that correlate closely to references within the Works. But let’s look more closely at the evidence leading up to this latest find.

There are few things as patently fraudulent as the 5-inch thick “biographies” of Stratford Will when all that is known of this man is three signatures indicating marginal literacy, some grain merchant transactions, illiterate daughters, petty business dealings and bit parts in London, and a will that is absent any suggestion that he had ever written a letter, let alone the English Canon.

What we do know about Will simply cannot be reconciled with the Works – being born into a countryside home devoid of books, leaving school at 13, getting married at 18, having three children, working at the butcher’s shop and stables, and then miraculously in his mid-twenties, writing poems and plays from source documents in French (eg Hamlet), Latin, Italian (eg Othello), and Greek, referencing geographies, countries, and cities that he had never traveled to, and courtiers to whom he had never met, including documenting obscure court battles on the Continent (Love’s Labour’s Lost, dated by many to the late 1580s – Will would be mid-twenties - was a play written for private performance in court circles, and includes allusions to an obscure visit of Catherine de Medici to the Court of Henry of Navarre at Nerac in France, and parodies of several other courtiers). Upon his “retirement” to Stratford in his late forties (what writers do you know stop writing and retire in their forties?), Charlton Ogburn notes:

“(Stratford Will’s) last years were spent in affluent leisure in a fine house he had owned for two decades, and this house remained in the possession of his daughter and granddaughter while three collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays were published in which their author was hailed as his nation’s triumph. Are we really to imagine that nothing in the form of a letter, a note, a bit of manuscript, would have remained of Shakspere’s (Stratford Will's) had he been the greatest of writers?”

Most Elizabethan poets wrote eulogies of Queen Elizabeth upon her death in 1603, but not “Shake-speare.” Nor did King James summon, as he did other poets, Will to participate in the translation of the Bible. Indeed upon Stratford Will’s death in 1616, nary a peep or mention from anyone throughout England. His Sonnets, published when Stratford Will was forty-five, but after De Vere had died, are prefaced with these words: “From our ever-living poet” (not a phrase for a living person) and reference the author’s high birth” (does that sound like Will?) and his bearing of the Queen’s funeral canopy - which Oxford had done.

Stratford Will may not have left anything literary for his wife, but he did ensure she got his second-best bed.

And there are few things as compelling as mapping Oxford’s life to the plays and Sonnets. Many have tried to impute Will’s biography into Hamlet because of its psychological force and intimacy, of course to no avail. In fact, Hamlet reads like Oxford’s autobiography:

Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth’s head minister, has long been recognized by scholars as the model for the character Polonius in Hamlet. In the play Polonius counsels Laertes, his son, “to thine own self be true,” “be thou familiar but by no means vulgar,” in a series of lines similar to Burghley’s famous published precepts. Except Burghley published them in 1618. Hamlet first appeared in Quarto in 1603. How Stratford Will could have had intimate knowledge of the Queen’s minister’s sayings and write a caricature of the man is brushed over by Stratfordians. But for Oxford it would have been easy – he grew up in Burghley’s household as his royal ward and married his daughter.

And Oxford, like Hamlet, was captured by pirates in the English Channel, and both were scholars, athletes, poets, and patrons of acting companies. Hamlet’s famous soliloquy was derived from a book to which Oxford wrote a preface, and Ophelia and Laertes directly overlay the lives of Oxford’s wife and brother-in-law, including his rocky marriage. Oxford’s mother, like Gertrude in the play, quickly remarries after his father mysteriously dies.

This post couldn’t possibly summarize all of the scholarship that has gone into this question, but Tom Bethell’s Atlantic article is a good place to start. From the Sonnets, which are dedicated to a suitor to Oxford’s daughter, through to the plays which draw upon all of the experiences (tours of Italy and France) and knowledge to which Oxford was trained (law, history, language, as well as royal skills such as falconry), you can feel the man’s life crying out from the pages.

And Oxford had lots to cry about. The theater, and even public writing in general, was discouraged amongst Noblemen and Gentlemen within Her Majesty’s service – the Globe Theater was viewed as slumming. Pseudonyms were common, and references to brilliant men suppressing or hiding their works to avoid retribution are common amongst observers of the time. With Oxford, I believe it was well known within the inner circle of the court who and what he was; but for the public at large his authorship required a mask.

Yes, there remain questions. Oxford died in 1604, and some of the plays have historically been dated after this year. But on deeper review it is clearly shown that conventional dating of the later works was based more upon performances rather than original references or manuscripts, and Stratfordians for years have been trying to explain clear, early references to key works which don’t fit into Will’s biography. Oxford’s early sonnets, written as a teenager, bear remarkable resemblance to Shakespeare’s great works, and suggest an early version of great things to come. Yet Stratfordians prefer to discount this poetry as inferior. Take up the issue and make up your own mind.

Oxford was praised in a written speech during one court appearance with the interesting metaphor thy countenance shakes spears. . . " and his crest features a roaring lion brandishing a spear. In Sonnet 76, the author notes “That every word doth almost tell my name, Showing their birth, and where they did proceed.” I think it’s time that the words are married to the man.

All of this does matter if, to you, the Works have seemed difficult, remote and from a different world. Pick up this storyline, as I did, and see for yourself if it doesn’t make a difference.

References: "The Case for Oxford" - Tom Bethell, October 1991
"The Man Who Was Shakespeare" - Charlton Ogburn 1995
Links: Harper's, Oxford Society, Oxford Authorship, Alias Shakespeare