Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hamlet, Elsinore and an exploded world

Yesterday, NASA posted as its Astronomy Picture of the Day an x-ray image of something called "Tycho's Supernova Remnant." (Pictured here) What the copy didn't mention is this astronomical object is also arguably known as "yond same star that's westward from the pole" in Hamlet

Yet it's predictably opaque and inexplicable why Shakespeare of Stratford (if he were the author of the play) would make such a seemingly random association between an old exploded star and a Danish fable whose inspiration supposedly derived from some kind of nominal homage to his recently deceased son Hamnet. (The boy was named after a Stratford neighbor of Shakspere's, Hamnet Sadler.) 

On the other hand, the allusion fits comfortably within a broader framework that supposes Edward de Vere behind the "Shakespeare" pen. 

Here's the story. 

It's hard to imagine today, but in 1572 when the light from this stellar explosion first became visible on Earth, it was a world-shaking event. Here was a new star -- not on any previous charts -- so brilliant that it was visible even in the full brightness of day. 

There was, simply, no cosmic or scientific explanation for such an unprecedented heavenly phenomenon.  

In England, the mathematician Thomas Digges studied the "new star" and wrote a book about it. Digges dedicated his book to Edward de Vere's new father-in-law Lord Burghley. In Denmark, the legendary astronomer Tycho Brahe made the most precise observations of the object in the world. Thus the object's modern-day name. 

This new star, in effect, upended everything. It provided damning confirmation of an emerging scientific understanding of a dynamic universe. Under the prevailing Ptolemaic system -- which posited all heavenly bodies were unchanging and firmly fixed in place -- such nearly unimaginable notions were heresy. 

Hamlet's reference to Tycho's Supernova (as it's known today) at the beginning of the Danish tragedy, in fact, constitutes a perfect setup to a cosmological debate that takes place throughout the drama

Hamlet, in fact, enacts a specific astronomical dispute that Edward de Vere arguably witnessed first-hand in 1583. (Worst case scenario: De Vere did not witness the back-and-forth at Oxford University himself but was privy to courtly gossip about it at the time and enjoyed ample insider access to every detail after the fact.) 

The debate was about old worldviews colliding with new — a familiar and comforting geocentric universe colliding with Copernicus's revolutionary heliocentric one. Hamlet, however, goes into more specific detail concerning both the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe (a geocentrist) and the obscure 1583 court appearance of a bombastic Italian scholar (a Copernican) named Giordano Bruno.

There is no explanation for how a 19-year-old Shakspere of Stratford would have witnessed, read about or even cared about this esoteric, egghead dispute, one that was certainly antithetical to crowd-pleasing entertainments at the Globe Theatre. (And that's what we're told a Stratfordian Shakespeare canon is all about.) 

After the jump, two excerpts from "Shakespeare" By Another Name that pick up the story where Tycho's Supernova Remnant leaves off. 

Yet why write a play about Denmark, of all places — in 1583, of all times?

To begin with, it was the subject of current family table talk. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford never had the chance to see Denmark with his own eyes — although de Vere's German mentor Sturmius had once confided in Burghley his hopes that de Vere and his wife might visit Elsinore.  Instead, de Vere would see the royal court of Denmark through the eyes of a trusted member of the family. The previous summer , de Vere's brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie, who in 1580 inherited the title of Lord Willoughby de Eresby, had paid an extended visit to the Danish court at Elsinore. On a mission from the queen, Bertie traversed the North Sea in June of 1582 to invest Denmark's King Frederick II as a Knight of the Garter.

Elizabeth needed the Danish king to stop harassing English ships as they passed through nearby seas. The English Muscovy Company was doing a brisk trade with Russia, and their business was greatly inconvenienced by levies exacted from them for using Danish sea lanes. So the queen sent PETRUCHIO to induct the King into the Order of the Garter and to win a more favorable shipping treaty.

Bertie proved a fine match for the blustery Danish King Frederick, and the two hit it off famously — although Bertie never did manage to change Frederick's mind on any of the seafaring matters he’d been sent to address. Between the 1582 voyage and a subsequent 1585 trip to Elsinore, Bertie spent five months in the castle that Hamlet immortalizes. Lord Willoughby’s two embassies included royal feasts, hunting expeditions, and fireworks. Bertie chronicled his trip in a handwritten memoir circulated at Elizabeth’s court. He no doubt also regaled friends and in-laws with his exploits. The Danish King, pleased to be honored with Elizabeth's knighthood, feted Bertie with multiple nights of revelry that included grand speeches about Her Majesty and the Order of the Garter. "All which [were] performed after a whole volley of all the great shot of the castle discharged," Bertie notes. Hamlet chronicles this peculiarly Danish drinking ritual: "There's no health the King shall drink today but the great cannon to the clouds shall tell," says KING CLAUDIUS.

In his capacity as ambassador, de Vere's brother-in-law met top Danish officials — including one courtier with the family name of Rosenkrantz and two surnamed Guldenstern.  Bertie also visited the legendary astronomer Tycho Brahe at his observatory. Ten years before, Brahe had observed a supernova in the constellation Cassiopea — the same bright “star that’s westward from the pole” that Hamlet’s guards on the battlements of Elsinore notice.  Brahe had also used his Danish observatory to make the most accurate observations ever of planetary conjunctions, oppositions, and retrograde motions. From this data, Brahe had concluded that the ancient geocentric theory of the universe was correct, that the Earth was indeed the celestial body around which everything else in the celestial spheres orbited. The Danish king touted his court astronomer’s achievements, a fact that escaped neither Lord Willoughby nor his brother-in-law. Hamlet's KING CLAUDIUS denies the PRINCE's request to return to school by noting that it would be "retrograde to our desire"; he says HAMLET’s excessive mourning is in "peevish opposition" to the facts of life and a "fault to heaven"; he says that his new wife GERTRUDE is "conjunctive" to his soul, and that he orbits her as a "star moves not but in his sphere."

For providing such local color, de Vere ultimately gave his brother-in-law a tip of the pen. "Enter ... English Ambassador" the stage directions read as Hamlet draws to a close. With six dour lines to recite — one of which is "ROSENKRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN are dead" — Hamlet's ENGLISH AMBASSADOR to Elsinore is hardly an ample stand-in for the colorful Lord Willoughby. Still, to those in on the joke at court, no further explanation was necessary. PETRUCHIO had made his cameo.

Also in 1583, Edward de Vere had been re-introduced to Queen Elizabeth's court after more than a year in exile -- after having caused a scandal over impregnating one of Her Majesty's ladies in waiting Ann Vavasour. 

Days after de Vere returned to court, the Earl of Leicester led a trip to Oxford University that much of Queen Elizabeth's court participated in -- a trip in which de Vere likely participated. 

De Vere's welcome back to court was bittersweet: On June 9, his mentor the Earl of Sussex finally gave up the ghost. The widowed countess of Sussex lamented in a letter circulated at court about the "sea of sorrows" that she now faced, and that "Were it not for the fear of God's revenge, I could with all heart redeem them with the sacrifice of my life."  These morbid sentiments may well have funneled into HAMLET'S musing over suicide and taking “arms against a sea of troubles.”

Sussex had for decades been the leading voice of opposition against Leicester's pernicious influence at court. At one point, in 1566, the Sussex and Leicester factions had been so well demarcated that Sussex’s supporters wore yellow ribbons and Leicester’s wore purple ribbons.  As he lay on his deathbed, Sussex issued a grave warning about Leicester, whom he derisively called "the gypsy": "I am now passing into another world and must leave you to your fortunes and to the queen's graces," Sussex said. "But beware of the gypsy, for he will be too hard for you all. You know not the beast so well as I do."  Sussex had been an outspoken isolationist, feeling that England had no business meddling in the Netherlands.  But now that he was no longer able to oppose Leicester, the scales began to tip further toward English military interventionism. The role of counterbalancing Leicester's influence now fell to Burghley — and to a lesser extent, to de Vere.

The Earl of Sussex — the loyal subject, brave warrior, cunning courtier, chivalrous nobleman and surrogate father to de Vere — presents the idealized paternal qualities that are projected onto the late KING HAMLET. "See what a grace was seated on this brow: Hyperion's curls, the front of Jove itself," the PRINCE observes.  Leicester had taken over many of de Vere’s lands upon Earl John’s death in 1562 — reminding a reader of CLAUDIUS’ usurpation of HAMLET’s inheritance upon KING HAMLET’s death. No one has ever adduced any evidence that Leicester poisoned Earl John, as CLAUDIUS did to HAMLET SENIOR.  But in 1584, Charles Arundell would publish a new set of libels (Leicester's Commonwealth), alleging that Leicester poisoned Sussex.

Scholars today treat Leicester’s Commonwealth as a problematic and often unreliable source. Arundell  claimed Leicester was a “rare artist in poison”  — as reckless hyperbole as Arundell’s more outrageous charges against de Vere. One nineteenth-century chronicler wrote, "[Leicester] was said to have poisoned Alice Drayton, Lady Lennox, Lord Sussex, Sir Nicholas Throgmorton, Lord Sheffield, whose widow he married and then poisoned, Lord Essex, whose widow he also married, and intended to poison, but who was said to have subsequently poisoned him — besides murders or schemes for murder of various other individuals, both French and English."   Yet even if one disqualifies these accusations as so much vicious hearsay, the fact remains that rumors circulated during the 1580s that the death of Sussex originated in a vial borne by the “gypsy’s” hands. Leicester, whose cruelty excited “extreme fear” amongst those at court who dared oppose him,  was certainly considered a suspect in Sussex’s demise. And for a lifelong opponent of Leicester, these suspicions may well have been good enough for the purpose of art. In making Leicester the contemptible poisoner CLAUDIUS of Hamlet,  de Vere had given himself two poignant levels of contemporary metaphor — one (with the 16th Earl of Oxford representing KING HAMLET) in which de Vere would raise the old issue of Leicester's usurpation of his inheritance, and the other (with the Earl of Sussex representing the poisoned KING HAMLET) which anticipated Leicester's power grab after Sussex's demise.

Leicester was practically unavoidable during de Vere’s first few days back in the Elizabethan court. Just one day after Sussex's passing — Monday, June 10, 1583 — Leicester led the court on a trip to Oxford University. The Polish prince and military general Albert Laski was in town and, as Chancellor of Oxford University, Leicester had arranged for four days of revels honoring the distinguished guest.

The leading courtiers, scholars and authors of the day would be feasting, debating and attending new dramas directed and produced by de Vere's fellow Blackfriars playwright George Peele. For more than two years, de Vere had been persona non grata at every royal banquet, entertainment, progress, and hunt. Plays performed before the queen had become as remote from him as they were when de Vere had lived in Venice. And yet, less than a fortnight after returning to court, fate had handed de Vere the prospect of a four-day-long party full of fine food, learned discussions, and courtly drama. No record exists of de Vere’s presence at Oxford during this celebration.  But circumstantial evidence suggests that the thirsty would turn down water and the frostbitten warmth sooner than the man who was Shake-speare would have let this opportunity pass.

The party centered around one distinctive figure. The warlike Prince Laski was a tall and loquacious man who had fought in dozens of battles throughout his military career, was fluent in numerous languages, and wore a long white beard nearly to his navel. Laski and his entourage stayed at Christ Church College and, after two nights of fireworks and other entertainments, he and the court took in a new Latin play titled Dido. As the chronicler Raphael Holinshed noted, Dido was a "very stately tragedy... with Aeneas's narration of the destruction of Troy."  The play, extant today in manuscript , was a bombastic spectacle, complete with a kennel of hounds and a simulated tempest with thunder, hail, fake snow, and rain — just the sort of theatrical hue and cry that a lifelong military man like Laski would have enjoyed. The general savored the play like it was a fine delicacy.

Watching this play by torchlight at the college hall, de Vere must have marveled to himself at the unexpected overlaps between the classical melodrama being staged before his eyes and the Danish tragedy he was then beginning to sketch out in his mind. For in Dido one also finds the hero, Aeneas, haunted by his father's ghost. "How often is the sad shade of my father borne before my eyes, when quiet relaxes my limbs and a sweet sleep has overwhelmed my tired body?" muses the play’s Aeneas. "How often does the sad shade of my father enter my bedchamber advising a hasty flight?"

Dido, an otherwise undistinguished university play that was never published or acted again, proved to be yet another creative spark. None of Dido's words are quoted in Hamlet; but the Danish tragedy suggests the author had seen this production.  For when the troupe of players arrive at Elsinore, HAMLET instructs one of his actors to perform "Aeneas's tale to Dido." (The real-life CLAUDIUS, Leicester, had originally commanded its performance at Oxford.) Before loosing the PLAYER KING on Aeneas’s speech, HAMLET explains that the Dido play he’s thinking of "was never acted, or if it was, not above once. "For the play, I remember, pleased not the million. 'Twas caviar to the general."  (This final line is a pun on the fact that general Laski did indeed enjoy the play like caviar and that the university drama was too refined for the general multitudes.)

Also on hand during this four-day festival was the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno. At the time, Bruno was staying with his mentor, patron, and host, the French ambassador Mauvissière — the diplomat with whom de Vere shared a chequered past. Bruno was a native of Nola, a township in the kingdom of Naples, and was one of the most free-thinking intellects of his generation. Bruno also enjoyed one of the largest egos of his day, no minor accomplishment considering the competition in the Elizabethan court. The Nolan, as he referred to himself in his writings, never passed up the opportunity to inform his readers just how important and magnanimous he was.

At Oxford, Bruno lectured the assembled crowds on "the immortality of the soul" and "the five-fold sphere."  According to one eye-witness, the stocky Bruno rolled up his sleeves "like some juggler" and laid out his argument in Latin infused with a thick Italian accent.  The university professor who then debated Bruno rebuked and embarrassed the guest. "Have them tell you with what uncouthness and discourtesy that pig acted, and about the extraordinary patience and humanity of the Nolan, who showed himself to be a Neapolitan indeed, born and raised under a more benign sky," Bruno wrote in a pamphlet that recounts the Oxford fiasco.

Oxford University and Giordano Bruno were celestial bodies in opposition. The University preached the ancient geocentric theories of Aristotle and Ptolemy. Every object in the heavens, it was said, orbited the earth, and the earth occupied the center of the universe.  All matter was composed of five elements: earth, water, air, fire and the heavenly fifth element “quintessence.” Each element seeks out its rightful place in a hierarchy of five concentric spheres. Oxford students were forbidden to defy these teachings under the penalty of a hefty five-shilling fine ($75 in today’s currency). The Nolan, on the other hand, would have nothing to do with the university's retrograde approach to scholarship. Instead, he touted the novel theory of Nicolas Copernicus, wherein the earth orbited the sun. Overturning the medieval order of a fixed universe with a tidy five-fold sphere, Bruno advocated three further heresies: That the stars, contrary to fixed church doctrine, are free-floating objects in a fluid celestial firmament; that the universe is infinite, leaving no room for a physical heaven or hell; and that elements in the universe, called "monads," contain a divine spark at the root of life itself.  Even the dust from which we are made contains this spark.

These notions prefigure a vast Newtonian cosmos, as well as an emerging field in present-day physics in which monads (renamed by the 20th century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead as "occasions of experience") are being reconsidered as a key concept in understanding the conscious mind.  Bruno, in other words, was the genius he considered himself. After departing England, seeking an intellectual climate hospitable to his bold ideas, Bruno settled at the University of Wittenberg, a major center for the study of Copernican theory, where he taught for two years. Wandering further across Europe, Bruno was captured by the Inquisition. He was thrown into prison for seven years and then burned at the stake for his heresies in 1600.

As Hamlet reveals, de Vere was moved by Bruno's remarkable show at Oxford : Each of Bruno's tenets finds expression in the play.  HAMLET, not coincidentally a student at Wittenberg, is Bruno's mouthpiece. To his fellow Wittenberg students ROSENKRANTZ and GUILDENSTERN, HAMLET recites the Nolan's theory of an infinite universe, although he admits he still finds the notion disturbing. ("I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams." ) In a poem he gives to OPHELIA, HAMLET wonders what the stars are made of and whether they are indeed fluid or fixed in place. ("Doubt thou the stars are fire/ Doubt that the sun doth move/ Doubt truth to be a liar/ But never doubt I love.") HAMLET waxes existential over losing a comforting and familiar framework of five elements. ("This goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why, it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors."  Emphasis added) HAMLET wonders about the essence underlying human life — the question that prompted Bruno to postulate the existence of monads — and whether this divine spark can indeed be found in inanimate matter. ("What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals; and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?" )


In so many words, with Shakspere as author, one must imagine his digging deeply into an entire world of courtly culture and academic disputes for which there is no evidence he had the slightest access to or interest in. With Edward de Vere, the philosophical disputes in Hamlet become seamlessly integrated into the biographical details of his life and organically integrated into a larger drama about similar themes: Old ways of thinking against new, ancient orders versus an encroaching modern world, the bloody consequences of a royal cosmic order that has been overturned and a time that, in the Danish prince's words, is out of joint. 


Michael Prescott said...

Outstanding post, Mark. It makes me want to reread your great book.

Ben Breen said...

I'm a Ph.D. student in early modern history with nothing at stake in the debate over Shakepeare's authorship, and I've got to say you're really reaching here. Where is the proof that that vague line in Hamlet even has any connection to Tycho Brahe? And even if it does, tracing readership is an infamously difficult task in early modern studies, and one that can never be reliably deduced with no textual evidence, as you do here.

Mark said...

Thank you, Michael. Much appreciated.

Hello, Ben. I did not post the endnotes associated with the above *Shakespeare By Another Name* excerpts -- and indeed suspected that some might come calling for sources, as you have.

The article that I reference in the endnote you're seeking (Donald W. Olson, Marilynn S. Olson, Russell L. Doescher, “The Stars of Hamlet” Sky & Telescope. (Nov. 1998)) adduces some impressive evidence from *Hamlet*. A quick summary:

Bernardo: Last night of all,
When yond same star that's westward from the pole
Had made his course to illume that part of heaven
Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,
The bell then beating one,-- [Enter ghost]

So it's 1 am, and, from the soldiers' grousing about the cold, it seems to be winter. Moreover Francisco says Christmas hasn't come yet. Elsewhere in the play we learn that Hamlet senior died in warm weather sleeping in the orchard. And Hamlet senior's demise came 2 months before the scene on the battlements.

Olson et al read "westward from the pole" -- persuasively to my mind -- as being nearly the same altitude as the pole star but in the western part of the sky.

*Hamlet*, in other words, gives us a pretty specific star map: circa November, high altitude, bright star, western azimuth. All deduced from the textual evidence you're seeking.

Olson et al discover that, bingo, there was a brilliant star in the constellation that fits this description (Cassiopeia). It was the supernova of 1572. The one discovered by the legendary Danish astronomer Tycho.

The same legendary Danish astronomer whom you can read about in a manuscript in the British Library written by Edward de Vere's brother-in-law Peregrine Bertie, Lord Willoughby. (Cotton MS Titus C VII 224-9)

Bertie had visited with Tycho during his mission to Elsinore to invest the Danish king with the Order of the Garter.

Now here's a question you didn't ask but I would hope that graduate school hasn't completely drubbed out of you yet: WHY would the author want to reference something so obscure as Tycho's Supernova?

I think the answer is that he was simply reiterating the same larger themes of the play but in the cosmological sphere: The toppling of the older medieval orders vs. the rise of the new. In astronomy it was ancient Ptolemy (Tycho) vs. the newer Copernican worldview (Bruno).

I'll leave you to fill in the blanks as to how *Hamlet* dramatizes this same idea in politics, philosophy, history, etc. Good topic for a research paper, no?

Ben Breen said...

Fair enough, that sounds like a fair reading of the star reference. Now prove why a literate, intelligent reader of English and Latin, as Shakespeare was, couldn't possibly have been exposed to Brahe and contemporary astronomical debates. Saying that he was 19 at the time is hardly convincing, considering Elizabethans frequently graduated college in their late teens. Trying to prove what a particular early modern individual did and did not read based on an absence of evidence (as opposed to direct evidence like marginalia, personal libraries, textual references etc.) is virtually impossible.

Also I don't understand the binary between graduate students/scholars and amateur researchers you're setting up. I'm in school for this stuff but I also have an amateur fascination with it and I'm completely open to people outside the ivory tower contributing research, so the snarky comments aren't warranted...

Thomism said...

lighten up breen

Mark said...

So, Ben, you're effectively saying, "Prove X... And by the way, X is impossible to prove."

I beg pardon to recuse myself from X.

You're clearly a sharp and astute reader, Ben. And I'd like to try to address what I see as the larger concern you're getting at. Namely: If we grant William of Stratford every possible benefit of the doubt -- which, for the sake of argument, why not -- then why couldn't everything I blogged about above also hold true for Stratford Will. Forget about Edward de Vere. Like a chemical catalyst, he was a byway to some possibly interesting new perspectives on the plays. But in and of himself, he's disposable.

And, following this chain of logic through, let's then presume for the entire canon an untraceable fount of often obscure continental sources and knowledge and (based on no reliable external evidence and contrary to some, such as his only handwriting samples appearing as if he had very little experience holding a pen) an incredible acuity for Stratford Will translating these arcane materials into literary output that is unparalleled in the history of English, probably the world.

Yet why did he pick these sources and stories and characters to spin the yarns he spun? Unknowable. This, to mainstream academics, is not a valid question. It's often considered just laughable.

We must instead content ourselves with the knowledge (more like belief, really) that he did. And examine the works as received documents from the closest the secular world has to a deity. More appeals to belief, in other words.

This is, I contend, a short-form version of books we're all familiar with: Will in the World, for instance. Bill Bryson's recent Bard bio.

In fact, every Stratfordian biography relies on some form of the above as a crucial modus operandi.

On the other hand, fair is fair. I don't mean to imply that the Oxfordian approach is free from sin either. Rather, a book like "Shakespeare" By Another Name -- and the blog which references it -- makes a case built upon circumstantial evidence.

Circumstantial evidence, to be clear, is that thing that proves exactly nothing when examined in isolation. But upon accumulation, circumstantial evidence can build a case. An overwhelming case, sometimes.

However, to consider a case built out of circumstantial evidence, one must be willing to consider and weigh multiple pieces of evidence at once.

Here, I think, is the fundamental disconnect with the academy. From my own experience as an undergrad and graduate student and my 12-year-long (often very rewarding) ongoing experience as a science journalist, I'm personally well aware that the modern research university is very good with microscopes. No entity in the world is better at examining individual and isolated ideas, texts, phenomena, etc. in sometimes revealing, sometimes fascinating, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes excruciating, sometimes suffocating detail.


Mark said...


Take, for instance, Tycho Brahe and the "star" referenced at the beginning of Hamlet

I say Tycho's supernova is part of a larger framework built around the life and times of Edward de Vere and motivated, in no small part, by the (conventionally forbidden) "why" question about Shakespeare.

Now an orthodox Shakespeare academic -- please know I'm not trying to put words in your mouth, Ben, but I have had some experience in my years in this debate to be able to make this more general statement -- might concede the Tycho point but hold fast to the contention that, empowered by that belief referenced above, William of Stratford had every access and every motivation to include the Tycho story into his Danish tragedy. Ignoring the "why" question certainly helps ease this unwieldy presumption into being.

I, on the other hand, do not feel comfortable with the belief. It is what initially (before I'd ever heard about Edward de Vere or any of the sometimes wild and wooly Oxfordian theories of Shakespeare authorship) turned me away from studying or enjoying Shakespeare in any depth. I'm a DVD-extras sort of person. I love knowing the story behind a great film -- or play or novel or whatever form of expression. To me, knowing a canon is knowing an author.

I never experienced anything like that connection with William of Stratford as the author. The plays and poems read to me like biblical texts -- immortal and sacred, yes. But also unapproachable and, in a sense, unsatisfyingly infallible. There is no human life behind the words that one can connect to.

To me, Edward de Vere is a sometimes revealing, sometimes fascinating, sometimes awe-inspiring, sometimes excruciating, sometimes suffocating subject of study. His was a troubled life, no doubt. At the same time, his connections to the "Shakespeare" canon are manifold. I cannot explain in a blog post how (to my mind) satisfyingly vast and intricate the web of connections are.

But I can, respectfully and in all sincerity, appeal to an intelligent and, yes, skeptical examination of de Vere's life with an eye toward opening new vistas on the "Shakespeare" canon. Those vistas are all over the place. Tycho and Giordano Bruno are only the smallest teaser of what is out there. I also don't doubt but that many more new perspectives await discovery.

I wasn't kidding about the research paper possibility, by the way. It's just one of many. The greatest irony in the whole Shakespeare authorship debate, I think, is that we're all arguing over the most studied and most scrutinized canon of literature in world history.

And yet, for the mountain of papers, monographs and theses, it's also arguably one of the most poorly studied canons in the academy. And that's not because the researchers who created this mountain are lacking in any of their own phenomenal skills and qualifications. To the contrary. It's no accident that some of the brightest and most ambitious literary scholars turn their sights toward the greatest author in the language.

But no accumulation of talent and drive, however vast, can compensate for the new perspective yielded by a simple shift of focus.

"Shakespeare" was, for starters, one of the most autobiographical authors in the Western canon. But it's only autobiographical if that "auto-" points to the right guy. Otherwise, it's a long day's journey and, to quote another great bard, we're on the road to nowhere.

Ben Breen said...

You come off as a tad obsessed about this, I've got to say...

I can say from experience that the more one studies a single life in history, the more one finds strange and previously unforeseen connections, resemblances and links. The English magus John Dee, for instance, can be connected to virtually every important event in Elizabethan history -- as Frances Yates and her followers have shown, positing him as the model for Prospero and the secret founder of the Rosicrucians, among other things. But the fact that its possible to do this doesn't mean that its true. It sounds like de Vere is your John Dee. The human mind is made to find connections. The trick is being able to critically examine your own underlying assumptions (for instance, why do you assume that an individual's biography has to map exactly onto their body of work?) to avoid seeing connections that aren't there.

To explain my own link to this - I stumbled onto this site because I was sent an unsolicited journal on the "Shakespeare authorship question" and found it an interesting document. I hope not to end this exchange on a rancorous note - like I said, as an historian I really don't have any stake in this debate. I hope you and your readers devote a little of your obvious enthusiasm for early modern literature and history to the wider scholarship on the British empire and the early modern world, and avoid pigeon-holing, Glen Beck-style, all academics as close-minded elites. There is a lot of historical scholarship out there that has nothing to do with Shakespeare or de Vere that is equally (or more) fascinating and rich.

Daniel Steven Crafts said...

Hello Ben,

I've been following your exchange with Mark with great interest. You write, "I can say from experience that the more one studies a single life in history, the more one finds strange and previously unforeseen connections, resemblances and links."
That is absolutely correct. And your John Dee example is well taken.
What I find particularly telling is that after centuries of exhaustive research on the man from Stratford, so little is found connecting him with anything. That lack of connection is to me highly suspicious precisely for the reason you cite. One would certainly expect the writer of the Shakespeare works to be connected to everything that was under the sun in the Elizabethan world.

Doc Stritmatter said...

As usual I'm arriving late at this party, but, Ben, I would have to say that it is not Mark who comes across as obsessed, but you. Perhaps this is because Mark knows full well that the argument for Sh. reference to the Brahe supernova is one tiny element in the vast cosmos of evidence supporting the view of Oxford's authorship of the Sh. canon. He can take it or leave it. You, on the other hand, place a degree of emphasis on this particular item of evidence in isolation of the whole because it would appear you have rather limited knowledge of that larger context. Of course there is no reason at all why a smart kid from Warwickshire couldn't have known about the 1572 supernova. That's not the point.

As far as your being sent and "unsolicited" journal on the authorship question (, I should have to take responsibility for that oversight. If you would like me to cross your name off of our list and make a note that you are not interested in receiving anything that that might oblige reconsideration of what you are already certain that you know, having been weaned on it from a tender age, surely this can be done.

In conclusion you recommend that Mr. Anderson avoid

pigeon-holing, Glen Beck-style, all academics as close-minded elites. There is a lot of historical scholarship out there that has nothing to do with Shakespeare or de Vere that is equally (or more) fascinating and rich.

It is of course your privilege to think so. Your position would be more credible, however, if it did not terminate a long series of statements suggesting that your knowledge of the authorship question is insufficient to support the credibility of your claim to authority on the topic. What you've said, in effect, is "I'm not interested in that topic, and you shouldn't be interested in it either." Thanks, but no thanks. As for Glen Beck, we probably agree about him.

Ben Breen said...

I don't understand the vitriol in your response. Characterizing me, and by extension other academic historians, as close-minded folks who are "not interested in receiving anything that that might oblige reconsideration of what you are already certain that you know" is just silly. The ambiguity and the shifting nature of historical 'truth' is precisely why its so appealing. To suggest that historians have some innate stake in preserving the status quo is a bit ridiculous. In fact its precisely the opposite - one makes a name in academia by proving the status quo wrong.

In short, what's the point of even trying to have a debate if you automatically dismiss any and all comers who don't happen to agree with you as hopelessly close-minded? It just comes off as defensive and doesn't achieve anything.

And I'd note again that there are many fascinating historical questions and debates that have nothing whatsoever to do with Shakespeare, or even Tudor England, that await the type of in-depth research on display here.