Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Brief Chronicles' not-so-brief editorial team

If you haven't yet taken a look at the new Shakespeare authorship studies journal, Brief Chronicles it's well worth the time. (Its peer-reviewed contents are also free and open to anyone on the web, with monetary donations encouraged but not required.)

As the authorship heresy continues to wind its way into academia, it gains new (credentialed) experts who can bring their own brand of multi-disciplinary studies into the investigation.

Today, for instance, the journal's editorial board welcomed six new members, among them published experts in textual dating and the history of anonymous publication as well as a legal consultant in forensic linguistics -- who has helped to established authorship of disputed documents in courtrooms in the United States, Canada and the Hague.

Looking good, folks. It's great to see the standard -- and standards -- being raised.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Stratfordian quote, offered without comment

"If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes -- if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it -- it wouldn’t be Rowe’s [1709 biography of Will Shakspere], it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s."

--Graham Holderness, University of Hertfordshire, editor Critical Survey

(Holderness reportedly made this statement at the Nov. 28 symposium "Shakespeare: From Rowe to Shapiro" at Shakespeare's Globe in London. Originally reported here and here.)

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Contested Will's first review

Columbia University English professor and best-selling author James Shapiro (1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare) will be drawing much attention to the Shakespeare authorship controversy in the coming months -- with the publication of his new book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? in January in the UK and in April in North America.

Reviewer Linda Theil of the Shakespeare Oxford Society has gotten her hands on an advance copy of Contested Will and today published her review of the book on the Society's blog.

Much to this Oxfordian's surprise, she says that it's an enjoyable (if at times frustrating) book and an entertaining read that could make a "stride toward armistice in the 'trench warfare' of authorship inquiry."

According to Theil, Shapiro makes two basic arguments:

First, Shapiro claims, it would have been impossible in the Elizabethan age for anyone to conceal any hidden identity of a prominent author such as Shakespeare.

And second, Shapiro claims, it's an anachronism to suppose there are any autobiographical qualities to the Shakespeare canon at all.

Much can be said about both points, of course. But before I do, I'd like to read Shapiro's words first. Give the man a chance to say his piece.

In the meantime, as Theil says in her review,

I fail to see how a lack of interest in a personal story translates to not having one. Call it what you will, an English writer will not produce Sufi poetry unless he has been taught Arabic, trained in the methods of Sufi literature and imbued with the life and understanding of a Muslim. An artist can only express what his life has given him, and as Shapiro admits throughout this book, the work of Shakespeare was not the life expression of the Stratfordian.

That's plenty for now.

Monday, November 30, 2009

BBC: Stratford partisans "arguing by adjective"

Over the past (U.S.) holiday weekend, the BBC ran a superb long-form article on their website about Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare."

It gave Oxfordians (such as your correspondent) ample opportunity to make our case and allowed orthodox scholars such as de Vere biographer Alan Nelson (Monstrous Adversary) and Oxford University English professor Emma Smith ample opportunity to say we're completely nuts.

This is, unfortunately, a microcosm of the state of the authorship debate today. We want to talk evidence, and they want to fling mud. And with the April publication of best-selling author James Shapiro's hatchet-job book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, it's probably only going to get worse.

Thankfully, the BBC correspondent also allowed the heretics ample opportunity to point this very fact out.

Michael Egan, editor of the journal The Oxfordian told the BBC's Dave Gilyeat "One of the most disturbing aspects of the whole debate is the way the anti-Stratfordians are silenced. There isn't any real attempt to confront the arguments. There's just a general mocking and ridiculing strategy -- what I call arguing by adjective... "ridiculous, absurd" and so on."

Smith made one of the most curious anti-Oxfordian arguments in the article, stating, "There seems to be absolutely no evidence that the Earl of Oxford was a literary genius and had the ability to write and that seems a much more important criterion for writing Shakespeare's works."

Wow, the hurdles have changed! Time used to be we were just kooks and booby-heads. Now we must adduce evidence that Edward de Vere was a literary genius.

No matter.

John Shahan, head of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition responded to Smith with an email which Shahan has kindly given permission to excerpt here.

[Begin Shahan letter]

Four of [de Vere's] contemporaries -- Gabriel Harvey, William Webbe, the anonymous author of The Art of English Poesie (George Puttenham?) and Francis Meres -- all had high praise for Oxford's writing. Long after he died, in The Complete Gentleman (1622), Henry Peacham included Oxford on a list of six poets who had made Elizabeth's reign a "golden age" for poetry, while omitting "Shakespeare" from the list. You may dispute the evidence, but the evidence certainly exists.

Furthermore, modern behavioral science research on the nature of creativity and genius reveals that it is Oxford who has the characteristics typical of a great literary genius, not Stratford's Mr. Shakspere.

I [recently] wrote [a book review] (Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, Fall 2001) of
Origins of Genius: Darwinian Perspectives on Creativity by Dean Keith Simonton (Oxford University Press, 1999). The review outlines the developmental and character traits that Simonton and others found to be associated with genius, including literary genius. The Earl of Oxford matches the expected profile of a literary genius perfectly, while the Stratford man fits hardly at all. Mr. Shakspere's father did experience some "family reversal of fortune;" but nothing like what Oxford experienced, including being orphaned, which Shakspere was not. It is remarkable how clearly the research on genius points to Oxford, and away from Shakspere. Again, you may dispute the evidence, but the evidence certainly exists.

Simonton is one of the world's leading experts on creativity and genius, and a signer of the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare (www.doubtaboutwill.org/declaration). Perhaps you could tell me, him, and the others above, why you say there is "absolutely no evidence" Oxford was a literary genius.

[End letter]

Last I heard, Smith hasn't replied.

UPDATE (Dec. 1): Dr. Smith did reply to her correspondent with a two sentence email. "Thanks for this. I think we will have to agree to disagree."

Monday, November 16, 2009

A brief tale's best for (almost) winter

It's been a busy couple weeks in the Shakespeare heresy world. I'm still playing catch up after the birth (Oct. 30) of a wonderful little boy in our household. So, free time being at a premium, best to just cut to the chase:

* German media has been awash with coverage of Kurt Kreiler's new book about Edward de Vere as the man behind the "Shakespeare" mask. Both national German radio and print media (Der Spiegel) have weighed in and presented Kreiler's Oxfordian arguments seriously and authoritatively. Keep up the pressure!

* The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition announced earlier today that U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and Sandra Day O'Connor (ret.) have signed the "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare." Keep up the pressure!

* A new Internet-based Shakespeare authorship studies scholarly journal has also just launched: Brief Chronicles. I haven't yet had a chance to go through the debut issue in detail, but the list of authors, topics and editors is impressive. Check it out -- and if you like, please leave a tip in their tip jar. (Scroll down)

Saturday, October 10, 2009

News from Germany (Zwei) -- by way of Hollywood

The other cup of news today comes via the pop culture website Collider.com, which features an interview with (German native, now Hollywood based) director Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Patriot, 2012).

There have been murmurs in Oxfordian circles for years about Emmerich's desire to make a biopic of Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare." Now, according to this new interview, principal photography on Emmerich's de Vere pic Anonymous begins, Emmerich says, March 22. Interview excerpt after the jump

Quoth Mr. Emmerich:
It’s been eight years I’ve been trying to do this project. It was always supposed to be my next movie but this time I’m really doing it because I’m already set to shoot on March 22nd and I’m the casting process right now which for me is the most kind of nerve-racking because you have to make decisions. And I start shooting in four or five days the first plates in England...

It’s about how it came to be that William Shakespeare was not the author of his plays. It’s not [Christopher] Marlowe, it’s [Edward] de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. It’s kind of like a political thriller. It’s about who will succeed Elizabeth and the cause of that thriller, the Essex Rebellion, we take on, and we learn how the plays were written by somebody else. ...

Well it’s very well researched. The writer is John Orloff (”A Mighty Heart”) and he’s been working on the script for two years before I got involved and he did a really, really good job and I just discussed it with several actors who are very knowledgeable about that time and I’m really pleased how accurate it is. Naturally, for dramatic reasons you sometimes alter facts but it’s pretty well-researched.

[End interview excerpt]

I unfortunately don't have anything more to report other than the above. Full disclosure: I am unaffiliated with Anonymous -- and indeed will be posting something on this site soon about another project which does use "Shakespeare" By Another Name as its foundation.

Meantime... onward and upward to Mr. Emmerich as well.

News from Germany (Eins)

Two posts today about news from Germany (or Germans working in the U.S.) -- First, German author Kurt Kreiler has just published a new Oxfordian book (Der Mann, der Shakespeare erfand: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford).

According to German correspondent Robert Detobel, writing for the Shakespeare-Oxford blog, Kreiler's tome has met with at least one favorable review, a translated excerpt (by Detobel) after the jump

This from the Rhineland Mercury:

In 1920 Looney found the needle in the haystack . . .

In Germany it was possible to be informed on de Vere’s war adventures, his politic quarrels, his engagement in the theatre … since 1995 when Walter Klier for the first time summarized Looney’s findings. Ten years later the US author Mark Anderson presented old and new “evidence“ and came to the conclusion that Shakespeare was “one of the most autobiographical authors that ever were“.

Now a new, comprehensive book has appeared from the pen of the long-standing German Shakespeare researcher Kurt Kreiler, a historical-biographical-stylistical analysis provided with new findings and concentrating on de Vere’s cultural tradition, his individuality and his poetic art. A homage, also suitable as initial reading, to the “master of poetical self-reflection“, the artist of love rhetorics, a soul-knowing tragedian and an illusionsless illusionist. Reasonable doubts that de Vere is Shakespeare are no longer possible. But no really good myth will ever proceed from thence: the man is too complicated, his life already too well investigated, not appropriate as projection surface. Good myths ought to be simple, incredible and homely.

[End of review]

To be clear, I haven't yet seen the book, nor would I be able to do much with it if I did. (My French is rusty, my German non-existent.) But with great notices like this, in such prominent German media, I'd certainly be curious to know what any German-speaking readers of this blog think about the book.

Onward and upward, Herr Kreiler!

UPDATE (Oct. 23): We now hear word of a second strong review in favor of Kreiler's book in the Swiss magazine Die Weltwoche. "A fascinating novel (?) of circumstantial evidence" is what the reviewer is calling this tome. ("mitreißender Indizienroman") The headline of the article, most of which unfortunately is behind a subscription wall, reads "Cover Name Shakespeare." ("Deckname Shakespeare")
[hat-tip to German correspondent H.W.]

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Mystery Writer Ponders: Whodunnit?

Mystery novelist Ellis Goodman wrote a brief blog posting yesterday that summarizes his reasons for suspecting that Edward de Vere was the Bard.

Goodman homes in on Will Shakspere's last will and testament as reason aplenty to suspect something is very wrong with our traditional picture of "Shakespeare":

In addition, it is recognized his Will was poorly drawn, badly written and ungrammatical. Could this really be William Shakespeare? I decided there was a much better case to prove that De Vere was the true author of much of Shakespeare’s work; but, because of the fact that he was an aristocrat at the Court of Queen Elizabeth and a homosexual, he used Shakespeare as his “front man” at a time when anything to do with the theatre was considered low-class, rough, and tough. The theatre was banned from operating within the city limits, and no person of “class” would be seen at these entertainments.

So my conclusion is that William Shakespeare probably did not write these plays. What do you think?

I, for one, think the Stratford will tells a lot more than even many Oxfordians recognize. Bonner Miller Cutting, host of this year's North American Oxfordian conference in Houston (Nov. 5-8), has done some of the best work on this subject that I've seen -- revealing, for one, that Will Shakspere used a Protestant boilerplate template. (So much for the "secret Catholic" theory.) So much more, I suspect, remains to be uncovered as skeptical eyes re-examine that legal document that for centuries has been thought to be the Bard's.

[Creative Commons image by rpongsaj]

Friday, September 18, 2009

Nothing Truer Than A Good Cause

Today's Shakespeare Oxford Society blog features a post by Boston filmmaker Cheryl Eagan-Donovan on her feature-length documentary film project Nothing Truer Than Truth.

Eagan-Donovan, who has optioned the documentary rights to "Shakespeare" By Another Name for her film, writes:

An A-list party boy on the continental circuit, a true alpha male, Edward de Vere was a man quite unlike any other. My documentary film project, Nothing is Truer than Truth, looks at the process of writing, where life experience, imitation of the masters, and relentless revision come together to create genius, as the key to discovering Edward de Vere as the true author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. The film will reveal de Vere’s epic life story and introduce a brilliant, troubled, charming man.


"With over 60 hours of footage, I have produced two fundraising trailers, and have had the great privilege of meeting some truly extraordinary and exceedingly generous people. On screen, Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance regale us with their unique portraits of the earl, and British historian Charles Bird takes the viewer on a walking tour of Castle Hedingham, home of the De Vere family since the days of William the Conqueror." ...

As a writer, I am determined to tell this story. With your support, Nothing is Truer than Truth will prove that the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s work is due to the fact that the true author was a perfectionist, a world traveler, a temperamental, tempestuous trouble-maker, and most of all, a writer.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

The Annals of Stratfordian Snark

For those who enjoy ringside view on a good row from time to time, yesterday Oliver Kamm, a financial columnist for the London Times, got into a rather snarky flame-war with some Oxfordians on his blog.

Starting off simply enough with the assertion that the Shakespeare authorship issue is "benign, if batty," Kamm gets drawn into the maelstrom and really, in so many words, loses his shit.

Oxfordian commenters call Kamm out on his factually dubious claims, and he just keeps coming back.

He writes:

"I do 'assume that Oxfordians are unscholarly cranks'. That's part of their job description. Their ... arguments bear as much relation to literary scholarship as do creationism to science and Holocaust denial to history. It's a sociological and pathological phenomenon rather than a literary one."

Credit to the Oxfordians who posted on his blog, who generally maintained a respectful and civil tone.

And credit to the unintentionally comical Mr. Kamm, who after posting nine increasingly shrill comments to his own original post, clearly enjoys having plenty more to say when he has nothing more to say.

Here's hoping we might see the defender of the Stratford faith make it toward 15 or 20 attempts at the last word. Here hear, Mr. Kamm. We suspect there's yet more nasty ad hominems and prickly appeals to authority to come.

Just, please, commenters all: Keep it polite. Let the good man dig his own hole.

POSTSCRIPT: All the fooferaw has now occasioned a bona fide Oxfordian-themed post from the Times's conspiracy lover.

POST-POSTSCRIPT (and comment bump): Author Michael Prescott ponders the larger meaning of Mr. Kamm's vituperations. Tally-ho!

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Overbury Overdrive Part 749: Shakespeare in Canard-land

Today's Washington Post Sunday Magazine features a head-scratcher of a cover story (not unlike the cover fodder in the color supplement pictured here) that serves up, in this case, a fine selection of canards about Shakespeare and the "new Shakespeare portrait."

The author of the piece, sports columnist Sally Jenkins, has clearly done her research. Or at least research of the un-fact-checked, single-sourced, if-you-believe-that-I've-got-a-bridge-to-sell-you-too variety that big media outlets such as hers perfected in the run up to the Iraq invasion.

She writes:

Both [the First Folio Shakespeare engraving and Stratford funerary monument] are so unintelligent-looking that scholars blame them for instigating the Author Controversy, which is not really a controversy so much as a campaign by conspiracy-minded amateurs to prove that someone more visually appealing wrote the plays. The thinking goes that the "peculiar dough-faced man" in the Droeshout, as Stephen Greenblatt of Harvard University calls him, is too stolid to have written such soaring words. Someone else must have, preferably someone good-looking. As scholar Marjorie Garber writes, "We'd rather he not look like an egghead."

The Author Controversy persists despite considerable documentary evidence. We have the man from Stratford's pay stubs for performing at court, his certificate of occupancy for the Globe Theatre, and his will, in which he left memorial rings to some London actors. Funny he would do that if he was just a country burgher who didn't write the plays.

Oh, dear.

Proponents of "the Author Controversy," as Jenkins terms it, are often accused of a number of sins. (Are we not snobs anymore? Where are the familiar red herrings we ordered??) But disowning the Stratford myth simply because Stratford Will is not pretty enough is a new one to me.

And the fact that the basic anti-Stratfordian argument (cf. here, here or here) presumes William of Stratford to have been an actor but not an author has evidently escaped Jenkins' notice. (The documents she cites, indeed the whole of Stratford Will's documentary record, are consistent with him working in the theater, probably as an actor -- something that few Shakespeare heretics dispute.)

From there, the howlers just keep coming:

* "One thing scholars agree on is that Shakespeare probably sat for a portrait in his early to mid-40s" - I think I recognize this old deadline-plagued journalist's trick: Find something in a book (in this case, pure supposition); claim that all authorities agree with it; then hedge your bets with that handy weasel word "probably." Nice.

* "he was exposed to great theater as a boy" & "Shakespeare avoided duels, so he must have been sweet-tempered" - these as examples of things that don't represent ways that scholars "fill in the gaps with overeager supposition."

* "He arrived in London in 1586 or 1587" ... or 1588 or 1589 or 1590 or 1591 or 1592.

* "The first time the Earl of Southampton laid eyes on Shakespeare he was probably stalking around a stage, wearing sham jewels and a robe hung with tiny mirrors to make it glitter, shouting hoarse rhymes in the air..." No room for doubt there. Jenkins is clearly catching on to the just-make-stuff-up school of Stratfordian biography.

And with such solid credentials built up in telling Stratford Will's life, Jenkins goes on recite the case that the sitter in the new Cobbe portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury is indeed Will Shakspere of Stratford. Namely, the c. 1610 painting came from a family descended from the Earl of Southampton ("Shakespeare's patron") and it resembles another painting once thought to be of Shakespeare.

To her credit, Jenkins also quotes authorities that, in the grand tradition of strange bedfellows, I'd just like to end this post with. Because they're right. (And in Jonathan Bate's case, he's more right than he probably knows.)

The [Folger Shakespeare] library is in a funny position: For years, it viewed the Janssen portrait as discredited and displayed it in a far corner of the ornate, gothic reading room in a row with other impostors and curios, under a small brass plaque that read "Sir Thomas Overbury?" In 1964, an art historian had tentatively identified the portrait as Overbury, a minor poet poisoned in the Tower of London under James I.

While Folger curator Erin Blake has met with Cobbe and directed him to useful historical sources, she stands by the provisional Overbury identification until she sees more evidence.


"To me, a lot of the interesting discoveries about Shakespeare are discoveries of his absence," [Shakespeare scholar Jonathan] Bate says. "It comes back to this sense that what he was good at was withholding himself and leaving things open to the audience. ... It's that kind of disappearing act that he was so good at, that's what keeps him alive."

[POSTSCRIPT: Although I'll be in deadline-land tomorrow, please note that as the Post article points out, Sally Jenkins will be taking questions about this story Monday at 12 noon ET.]

Saturday, August 29, 2009

William Golding's biographer on the unfortunate nature of many eminent creators

This past week on the BBC Radio 4 arts and entertainment program(me) "Front Row," host Mark Lawson interviewed biographer John Carey who has just completed the first ever biography of Nobel Prize winning novelist William Golding, using hundreds of pages of personal journals, letters and unpublished works -- that haven't before seen the light of day.

Lawson's interview is a fascinating listen for anyone who enjoys literary biography. But it's also relevant to the Shakespeare issue because Carey is a critic who has reviewed many literary biographies himself. As Lawson points out, Carey once famously observed that Anton Chekhov seems to be "perhaps the only great writer who had also been a wholly commendable human being."

Carey's portrait of Golding reveals an author who -- if Stratfordian standards of moralistic judgment about Edward de Vere's character applied here -- should clearly be deemed unfit to have written great literature.

Carey's biography of Golding reveals the Nobel laureate to have been, in his own words, a "monster" who admitted in his own journals that "I understand the Nazis because that's basically what I am." In those same journals, Golding owns up, for instance, to an attempted sexual assault on an underaged girl.

Golding's journals, Carey says, contain a kind of self-loathing and deep-seated shame -- the full origins of which are not entirely clear. Carey qualifies Golding's sensational "Nazi" remark to note that, unlike the poet Ezra Pound, Golding was never a supporter of the Third Reich. Rather, Golding's strange confession might seem to stem from a more generalized understanding he felt, in some primal way, for organized acts of depravity or inhumanity.

These horrific qualities of one of the great British novelists of the 20th century of course provide only one small insight into a man who also gave the world one of the most stunning and poignant portraits of the savagery inherent in all human societies.

But it would also appear that, in this case at least, Golding knew all too well the monstrous extremes to which human behavior can sometimes descend. Clearly a redeeming grace was his extraordinary talent for rendering it into words.

My general response to those who try to pull the moral argument against Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" is to ask if they've ever actually read, say, Titus Andronicus. Or Pericles. Or how about Macbeth?

To that list I might now add Lord of the Flies -- and then point them toward Carey's new bio.

[Creative Commons image by Sun_Dazed]

Friday, August 07, 2009

Order in the Courthouse: The Wrath of Kahn

The legal newswire syndicate Courthouse News Service today ran a column taking on the Oxfordians and "Shakespeare" By Another Name in particular. And while I try to resist the temptation of answering critics at every turn, this particular columnist -- Robert Kahn -- cranked out some factually dubious and just-plain-untrue statements that deserved some kind of recognition.

Kahn leads off his opening argument with the remark that "[Oxfordian] U.S. Supreme Court Justice... John Paul Stevens doesn't know Shakespeare from a goose."

Attempting to correct the record, Kahn goes on to goose up some of his own Shakespearean claims. "We know that Shakespeare acted in Macbeth before King James II [sic]," Kahn says. (There actually are no records of any performance of Macbeth for the first King James. A restoration version of the Scots play may have been performed for James II, but unless Kahn's Bard was also a vampire, it's unlikely that the 123-year-old Stratford actor would have been doing much when the restoration Macbeth treaded the boards c. 1687.)

We also know, Kahn says, "that someone knocked out 'the Scottish play' in a few weeks especially for the new king, who liked ghost stories."

Um... nice try. James I may have liked ghost stories, but the other bit about the Scots play isn't true either.

A few potshots ensue about SBAN and the "dreck" of de Vere's early song lyrics. (I'd be curious to know if the columnist has read any great authors' juvenilia, such as the Bronte sisters' none-too-soaring early works.)

But then come Kahn's two real howlers. First that Mark Twain only believed that "someone else wrote Shakespeare -- who also happened to be named William Shakespeare." (Yours truly, Kahn says, "cheats" by supposedly falsely stating that Twain was an anti-Stratfordian.)

Again: Wow. Kahn is just plain wrong. He seems to be a witty guy who might enjoy a good read. Mark Twain's 1909 anti-Stratfordian opus Is Shakespeare Dead? comes highly recommended.

Last but not least, Kahn states that SBAN is itself fundamentally flawed, because, "The notion that the man who may have been the greatest creative genius the world has ever known would spend his old age rewriting his old plays over and over, after they already had been acted, is psychologically ridiculous."

"A creative genius," he says, "does not spend his old age polishing up stuff he wrote as a pup."

By way of counter-example, one might point the wayward jurist in the direction of a man who in fact did just that. Many consider the man to be a "creative genius." Some, in fact, consider the man to be the closest America has ever come to our own Shakespeare.

Whatever the case, this "creative genius" did spend his latter years, into old age, revising and re-revising his own masterwork.

His name was Walt Whitman.

And bonus round, Mr. Kahn: Whitman was an anti-Stratfordian too.

[Creative Commons image by Thomas Roche]

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Getting Skeptical

The August issue of Scientific American contains an article providing "A Skeptic's Take on the Life and Argued Works of Shakespeare."

The piece represents the latest column from Michael Shermer, founding publisher of Skeptic magazine and a man whose work I certainly respect -- and typically agree with.

But like anything else, "skepticism" sometimes needs a healthy dose of skepticism.

Shermer devotes his column to refuting the arguments from the April 18 Wall Street Journal article on U.S. Supreme Court justices who have concluded that Edward de Vere wrote the "Shakespeare" canon. (The WSJ piece was previously blogged about here.)

After calling Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens a snob, in so many words, Shermer points out that "it's not enough merely to plant doubts about Will."

"We should grant that Shakespeare wrote the plays unless and until the anti-Stratfordians can make their case for a challenger who fits more of the literary and historical data," he writes.

Fair enough.

The case he's looking for is in a book called "Shakespeare" Identified in Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, published in 1920. It's a classic that should be on the bookshelf of anyone who professes any interest in the Bard and his life.

Of course, it's only fair that if I get to cite a book, so does he: Shermer ultimately rests his skepticism about de Vere on a 2005 book called The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question by Purchase College theater professor Scott McCrea. McCrea, he says, "demonstrates beyond a reasonable doubt" that Will Shakspere of Stratford was the author.

I don't want to get into a full-on book review here, but suffice it to say that McCrea's tome is the latest in the lot of "anti-Oxfordian" books. (Not for long, though. Next year, bestselling author James Shapiro -- author of 1599: A Year in the Life of Shakespeare -- will reportedly be taking on the Oxfordians himself in his next book, Contested Will.)

McCrea's book scores a few points that demonstrate why the Shakespeare authorship question remains a contested topic on both sides of the orthodox-heretic divide. For instance, McCrea rightly points out that Oxfordians have over-stretched their arguments that the Shakespeare canon's references to hunting and hawking necessarily point to an aristocratic author. (This would be because lower classes were prohibited by law from enjoying these sports.) In fact, these sports appear to have been more widely practiced than most Oxfordians have claimed. Point taken.

But McCrea also goes for the jugular on a number of arguments that are either poorly researched or poorly plotted out. Or both. Case in point: He occupies eight pages making some ill-informed claims that the Shakespeare canon contains numerous "errors" in its references to Italy and France. As pointed out at length in both "Shakespeare" By Another Name (chapters 4 and 5) and the book's Audio Series, Episodes 3 and 4, the Bard's references to Italy are so specific and accurate that they instead suggest that the author had some kind first-hand knowledge of Italy himself. Some Italian allusions in the Shakespeare canon, moreover, date specifically to the mid-1570s, when Edward de Vere was traveling there. (Listen to Episode 3 for a sampling of this latter variety.)

Finally, McCrea's polemics could certainly use to be less hysterical in places. Comparing Oxfordians to Holocaust deniers (“though obviously it lacks the same moral dimension,” he notes) is the kind of tawdry ploy that serves only to cheapen his rhetoric and anger anyone seeking a rational exploration of the Shakespeare mystery.

These are times when well-researched and sharply-written skeptical critiques of truly nutty ideas -- Obama "birthers" come to mind -- are clearly needed.

But Michael Shermer's impulse simply to defer to academic authority has done him no favors this time around. The kind of "skeptical" reasoning Shermer practices in his latest column should make any careful reader skeptical about his brand of "skeptical."

[Creative commons images by wburris and Senor Codo]

Monday, June 22, 2009

Phaedra: Get Thee to a Cinema

This is slightly off-topic, but an interesting experiment in world-wide theater is coming up this week that is worthy of note in this space: Helen Mirren's acclaimed star turn in the British National Theatre's production of Racine's tragedy Phèdre(aka Phaedra) will be simulcast live to 80 different cinemas around the world on Thursday (June 25).

The modern-dress production uses an adaptation -- by one-time English Poet Laureate Ted Hughes -- of the (French) text and has been the talk of the London theatre world. No less significant, for younger fans, is the fact that Dominic Cooper (Mamma Mia!) shares the bill with the acclaimed elder stateswoman of the British stage. Links after the jump.

National Theatre's Phèdre page
June 25 international simulcast: UK, US, elsewhere
Conversation with Helen Mirren on BBC Radio 4's arts & culture program "Start The Week"
Glowing review of Phèdre on "Theatre Talk" from KCRW (Santa Monica, Calif.)

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Mark Twain: The other Shakespeare centenary

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of Shake-speare's Sonnets -- one of two important Bard-related centennials to come up in 2009.

The other is the 100-year anniversary of the publication of Mark Twain's signature anti-Stratfordian book, Is Shakespeare Dead?, an authorship-related tome that still hasn't been matched in its wit and breezy readability.

Today's New York Times' Times Traveler archive blog reprints a mini-tempest that was stirred up when Twain printed his witty diatribe against "Stratfordolators," as he called the orthodox Shakespeareans. Clips after the jump.

The controversy arose over Twain's excerpting of 22 pages-worth of the classic anti-Stratfordian book The Shakespeare Problem Restated by George G. Greenwood.

Ironically, Twain reprinted a chapter from Greenwood's landmark book and stated as much -- but, crucially, he also neglected to cite Greenwood by name as the excerpt's author.

Below are excerpts from the June 9, 1909 NYT article "Can Mark Twain Be A Literary Pirate?"

[Twain's publisher Harper & Bros. stated,] "The manuscript, exactly as he gave it to us, with the title, 'Is Shakespeare Dead?' was put into book form as quickly as we could do it.

"No one thought of looking particularly to see if Mr. Twain had given credit to Mr. Greenwood. It was noticed that the book itself was credited, and that seemed sufficient. Later on, when the John Lane Company [Greenwood's publisher] called our attention to it, we learned that Mark Twain had failed to speak of Mr. Greenwood. We felt very sorry about it then, but it was too late to recall the edition. We don't put the blame on Mark Twain exactly. Of course if we had noticed the omission we would have called his attention to it. Quite likely it escaped his notice, as it did ours. He didn't mean to be unethical."


'"Is Shakespeare Dead?" is being sold here [in the U.S.] unrestricted, but in England the John Lane Company, protected by copyight laws which do not extend to their books in this country, are watching to prevent a copy of Mark Twain's volume from being marketed.

"We don't like to be discourteous about this," said Mr. [Rutger Bleecker] Jewett [manager of John Lane Co.], "but we feel we must protect the authors who put their confidence in us. Mark Twain should have been more careful."


An effort was made yesterday to see Mark Twain, but he was not at his home in Redding, Conn., and could not be reached."

[h/t to G.Q. and W.N.; Creative Commons image from Okinawa Soba]

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Titanic: The Prequel

Historian, author and blogger Robert Sean Brazil notes today that exactly four centuries ago, on June 2, 1609, English adventurers set sail for the New World on a mission that would end in a famous shipwreck.

Orthodox Shakespeare scholars argue that accounts of the July 1609 shipwreck are a crucial source for The Tempest. As has been discussed in this space before, those claims have since been refuted.

All the same, the story of the 1609 shipwreck is still an amazing nautical tale, and Brazil delivers the storytelling goods.

Excerpts from Brazil's account of the 1609 wreck after the jump

He writes:

The Sea Venture is said to have been England’s first built-to-order emigration vessel…a tradition that climaxed in the industrial age when thousands of Scots and Irish were forcibly uprooted and relocated to Nova Scotia and other destinations. The Sea Venture displaced 300 tons and had an innovative new design that placed her 24 defensive cannons on the main deck. However, with all this high technology employed, the Sea Venture’s fate was similar to the ill-fated Titanic. Both vessels did not survive their maiden voyages.

The Sea Venture set sail from Plymouth on June 2, 1609, bound for Jamestown, Virginia. Everything was going smoothly until the flotilla ran into a monstrous hurricane. By July 24, the winds had driven the vessels apart from each other and it was each ship for herself. Because the Sea Venture was brand new, the caulking and joining was still loose and the great vessel began coming apart and leaking. They threw the heavy guns overboard. On July 25, with water in the hold rising fast, Admiral Somers spotted land and purposely drove the ship ashore. He wrecked his vessel but discovered Bermuda.

We now know the Bard didn't use this gripping material for his scripts. But it's never too late. Somebody should.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Overbury Overdrive: Live and in concert

For Boston-area residents, tonight and tomorrow in Watertown, Mass. will be home to an event called Shakespeare from the Oxfordian Perspective, with Hank Whittemore's one-man show "Shakespeare's Treason" this evening and public talks at the Watertown Public Library tomorrow -- including discussions about Shakspere's last will and testament, Ben Jonson & The Tempest and the succession crisis of the 1590s.

I'll also be giving a public talk ("Overjoyed, Over Him, Overbury: The New 'Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare' and what it means for the authorship question") tomorrow at 11:15 a.m.

Links here to the program and directions.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

"Billy Vanilli?"

Just a great little Shakespeare authorship-related blog headline posted today.

William Shakespeare: Business man and Actor. Milli Vanilli??
Who is this man? Did he write all those plays and sonnets or was he a cover for someone or some group?

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Monstrous Adversary's Adversary

"Shakespeare" By Another Name first appeared in print, in 2005, soon after Liverpool University Press published an academic biography of Edward de Vere by Prof. Alan Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley. And I've been asked countless times what I think of this book.

Monstrous Adversary is, in short, an infuriating book. And the following set of capsule reviews provides a good sense why.

If Monstrous were just a hatchet job, then it'd be easily dismissed, full stop. But some great, groundbreaking, rock-solid scholarship awaits in there scattered amidst wild-eyed polemic (so viciously against de Vere you almost feel dirty reading the thing), scattered amidst some real howlers of sloppy scholarship too.

There's no simple answer -- at least if you're a curious person looking for as many leads as possible into de Vere's life. I couldn't honestly tell an interested scholar that I don't in some sense recommend the book. But caveat emptor, to be sure.

That said, the book appeared on my desk in time to be able to fit much of Nelson's new scholarship into the narrative of SBAN.

After the jump, I excerpt my favorite review from this latest bunch: From someone who's only interested in biographies about nobility of the period and has no personal ax to grind one way or another on the de Vere = "Shakespeare" question.

The reviewer notes...

I have for some years been interested in the nobility of 16th and 17th century England, and have read a number of pretty good biographies, so looked forward to MONSTROUS ADVERSARY with great anticipation. Unfortunately it was clear early on in the book that Nelson was anything but a disinterested biographer. The tone of the book breathes hostility toward its subject, and after having read it, as well as having looked over Nelson's web site, it's obvious why. This was not a biography per se, it was a polemic, in the guise of a biography, against the idea that de Vere was Shakespeare. Whether that idea is harebrained or not - and Nelson believes it is - is beside the point. Nelson misses no opportunity to defame de Vere, treating as valid every scrap of negative evidence, however dubious - for example, that given by his Catholic ex-friends after he had delivered them to the authorities. Nelson's interpretations are the mirror image of [Bernard M.] Ward's, as he describes the earlier writer's 1928 biography [of de Vere]; where [Ward] infers nothing but the best of his subject, Nelson infers nothing but the worst. I note that Nelson is not a historian, and quite frankly, it shows. That he relies on the likes of William F. Buckley - one of the lousiest writers of fiction I've come across - as an arbiter of de Vere's poetry implies that he must be pretty desperate to prove his case, whatever its merits. He dismisses Ward's book as "hagiography"; as I remember it, having read it years ago, it was pretty good. Nelson's, in any case, is a "hatchet job".

As to matters of style, I can do no better than quote the end of the very first sentence of the Introduction, which made my heart sink from the get-go: "[de Vere's life] ... just overlapped the reign of Elizabeth I at both ends". Ugh. And Nelson is ... oh, yes, Professor Emeritus in the Department of English at the University of California, Berkeley. Ye gods.

Having paid good money for what I assumed was going to be a biography, I ended up with a screed that was obviously produced to demolish the de Vere = Shakespeare movement. If that's what Nelson wanted to write, potential readers should have been made aware of this. As it stands, this anything but impartial view of de Vere disqualifies MONSTROUS ADVERSARY as legitimate biography, for all its invaluable documentation.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Overbury Overdrive - the Radio Parallax edition

The April 30 episode of the radio program Radio Parallax featured an interview with yours truly talking both about the "new Shakespeare portrait" kerfuffle and, more generally, about the authorship question. For your listening enjoinment:

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Kenneth Branagh - Oxfordian in the making? [UPDATED]

[UPDATED May 11] John Shahan, president of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition writes today with this update repudiating the Express article on which this blog post was originally based. Quoting:

I've learned that the article by Sandro Monetti in the Sunday Express on May 3rd was in error. Kenneth Branagh did not mean to say that he has changed his position. The article has been taken down. An authoritative source confirms that he has always believed, and still does, that "the plays of Shakespeare were written by the man from Stratford, of the same name." Mr. Branagh is fascinated by the alternative theories, but he is "a Stratfordian through and through and expects to remain so."

An article from today's Sunday Express (UK) drops a bit of a bombshell:

"Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh... admits he is beginning to be swayed by the theory that the true author was not William Shakespeare but the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere."

Quoting more:

Branagh said: “There is room for reasonable doubt. De Vere is the latest and the hottest candidate....

"I’m fascinated by all the speculation. If someone could find conclusive proof that Shakespeare wasn’t the author of the plays then it would cause a seismic shock – not least to the economy of Stratford-upon-Avon.”

He was speaking at the US premiere of his BAFTA-winning Swedish detective series, Wallander.

(End quoted passage.)

Outspoken Oxfordian Sir Derek Jacobi (who wrote the foreword to SBAN) has long been a mentor figure to Mr. Branagh. It's been a subject of some speculation in Oxfordian circles whether (or perhaps how often) Sir Derek has broached the authorship issue with his protege.

When Branagh was promoting one of his Shakespearean film adaptations (Hamlet? Love's Labour's Lost?), he made an appearance on Dave Letterman's Late Show. And to his credit, Letterman asked Branagh what his take was on the authorship question.

I don't have the direct quote of Branagh's response, but it was essentially that Branagh didn't have any doubt that Will of Stratford was the author.

Clearly something has changed.

(h/t reader D.B.; Creative Commons image by Cien de Cine)

Saturday, April 18, 2009

WSJ: U.S. Supreme Court tackles Shakespeare question

Today's Wall Street Journal has a great feature story on U.S. Supreme Court justice John Paul Stevens and where he and his colleagues fall on the Shakespeare authorship question.

The chart (right) has the details on each justice's stance. With only two justices casting a ballot for Will of Stratford -- and two casting their lots with Edward de Vere -- the nominal vote (with some noteworthy abstentions) is, astonishingly, a tie!

Justice John Paul Stevens and the late justice Harry Blackmun had both previously gone on the record with their conviction that Edward de Vere was "Shakespeare."

But it's news to this blogger that Justice Antonin Scalia -- leader of the court's conservative wing, as Stevens is leader of the liberal wing -- is also an Oxfordian. Scalia's wife, he said, berates him for his conviction that de Vere wrote "Shakespeare."

"She thinks we Oxfordians are motivated by the fact that we can't believe that a commoner could have done something like this, you know, it's an aristocratic tendency," Scalia told the Journal. But, he adds, "It is probably more likely that the pro-Shakespearean people are affected by a democratic bias than the Oxfordians are affected by an aristocratic bias."

[This post edited to add links to four six seven blogs that discuss the WSJ article: One and a-two and a-three and a-four (HuffPo); five (Volokh) and a-six and a-seven.]

More from the article:

All signs pointed to de Vere. Justice Stevens mentions that Lord Burghley, guardian of the young de Vere, is generally accepted as the model for the courtier Polonius in "Hamlet." "Burghley was the No. 1 adviser to the queen," says the justice. "De Vere married [Burghley's] daughter, which fits in with Hamlet marrying Polonius's daughter, Ophelia."

Shakespeare dedicated two narrative poems to the earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley, "who also was a ward of Lord Burghley and grew up in the same household," Justice Stevens says. "The coincidence...is really quite remarkable."


Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who retired in 2006, cast the court's deciding vote many times. On Shakespeare, she says, "I'm not going to jump into this and be decisive."

According to Justice Stevens, "Sandra is persuaded that it definitely was not Shakespeare" and "it's more likely de Vere than any other candidate." Pressed, Justice O'Connor says, "It might well have been someone other than our Stratford man."

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Doublets and Double-takes: Spring Break with the Bard

Through April 19, Tampa, Florida's Gorilla Theatre Company presents troupe founder Audrey Hampton's new drama Elizabeth and Edward --a new play arguing that de Vere was "Shakespeare".

From the Tampa Bay Tribune review, it looks like a hodgepodge of dramatic flashback and rhetorical argumentation.

Ten actors, the review says, "take on several roles and time periods to support the Oxfordian line of thought. Ghosts of actors past open the play at the 500th [sic] Shakespeare Jubilee, 1569-2069, where the question of authorship segues into a series of qualifying vignettes." (No doubt a typo here referencing David Garrick's 1769 Stratford Shakespeare Jubilee.)

Here's the pity:

As the review says, "If de Vere wrote 'Hamlet,' 'Macbeth' and the like, he would have been under pressure to hide his identity. And that would have been even more likely were he Elizabeth's bastard child, as the scholars suggest." [My emphasis]

Some orthodox scholars are indeed taking more and more seriously the Oxfordian argument that Edward de Vere played a key role -- arguably was the author -- behind the "Shakespeare" byline. But I have yet to see a single scholarly paper or book arguing that de Vere had Tudor blood, let alone was Queen Elizabeth's bastard son.

The waters are muddy enough with Stratfordian mumbo-jumbo. It's too bad that Oxfordians, too, have to add to the confusion.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

The Taming of the Streep

This video excerpt, from a 1981 performance of The Taming of the Shrew starring Meryl Streep and Raul Julia (r.i.p.) was posted online early last month and has been busting guts of Shakespeare fans ever since. (H/T reader G.Q.) Two superlative actors at the top of their game hitting all the right marks.

It's tough to imagine a better Kate-Petruchio pair or a more inspired, sexy, vivacious performance. And I don't think it's just the Streep fan in me* that makes me say Shakespeare comedic performances don't get much better than this.

* Don't get me wrong: I think both Meryl Streep and Raul Julia are/were amazingly talented actors. But, true confessions time, only Susanna Hoffs (The Bangles) could claim equal footing with Ms. Streep as a fanboy crush for this blogger as a high school-aged bloke.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 5: The Empire Strikes Back

The genteel slapping sounds of kid-leather-glove-against-cheek have been on the rise in the pages of the Times Literary Supplement of late.

Last week, this blog noted the arguments put forward by Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones that, in short, the eyes have it: The new "Cobbe portrait," featuring the face of Sir Thomas Overbury, is actually a portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury and not, pace Stanley Wells and his colleagues at the Stratford Birthplace Trust, a portrait of Will Shakespeare.

"Sir,--" Stanley Wells begins his rebuttal in this week's TLS. (Isn't it curious how the newspaper as a medium is dying, reaching out to every reader it can, while one of the world's most legendary upholders of newspaperly traditions hasn't quite gotten around to addressing the ladyfolk yet?)

" Katherine Duncan-Jones," Wells writes, "attempts to revive David Piper’s ill-founded suggestion of 1964 and 1982 that the Cobbe portrait portrays not William Shakespeare but Sir Thomas Overbury (March 20). Piper claimed that an “early inventory” of the Ellenborough collection, sold in 1947....."

The snows of largely irrelevant facts and dates continue to fly as Wells urges his readers to pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

"[P]erceived resemblance unsupported by documentary evidence is a naive (though natural) basis for identification," Wells writes. "Different people can look alike."

So, let's see... there's an engraving of Sir Thomas Overbury that says it's an engraving of Sir Thomas Overbury. And there's a miniature that says its sitter is Sir Thomas Overbury. Both of these pieces of documentary evidence have the same face as the Cobbe portrait of "Shakespeare." (Not going to rehash the previous posting that makes this straightforward case.)

But, to quote an old sage, your eyes can deceive you. Don't trust them.

Er... well, except when it comes to noticing some interesting similarities between the Cobbe portrait and the Droeshout engraving in the 1623 Shakespeare First Folio.

Wells continues:

"Duncan-Jones waves away our suggestion that the Cobbe portrait was the basis for Droeshout’s 1623 engraving, where the sitter is only slightly less richly dressed. Certainly Droeshout appears to have simplified the image, updated the collar, and given Shakespeare less hair, possibly reflecting his later appearance. He was keen enough to catch the cast in Shakespeare’s left eye, not present in the Overbury portrait. But engravers commonly simplified and updated... Compositionally, the 1623 engraving and the Cobbe portrait match perfectly.

And there you have it. The Droeshout and the Cobbe match one another perfectly. So says the good professor, anyway.

Remember, the Cobbe portrait hasn't even been shown to the public yet. The Cobbe's official unveiling, at an exhibition in Stratford-upon-Avon, is still 25 days away.

Shall we compare the mounting bluster to a summer's breeze? It's certainly getting drafty in here.

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The Skeptical Enquirer

This week the literary blog "The Muffin Post" published a careful and skeptical review of "Shakespeare" By Another Name. "In sum," the reviewer Bruce Lacey writes, "Trust no one. It appears there are good reasons to take the de Vere hypothesis seriously, and also good reasons to be skeptical of it."

Fair enough. Can't argue with a thoughtful, skeptical point of view. Just so long as that same skepticism is applied to the other side too.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 4: What she said

Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.
     --Trinculo, The Tempest

I'm pleased to report that much of what I wanted to say about the "Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare" has now been stated by the widely respected (orthodox) Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones in this week's edition of the Times Literary Supplement.

It's not the first time I've nodded in agreement with her -- while, of course, still begging to differ on the slight question of who wrote the plays and poems we're all fawning over. ("Shakespeare" By Another Name's endnotes reference Duncan-Jones's work more than a few times.)

The upshot of her piece: The Stratford Birthplace Trust's April 23 unveiling of the "new Shakespeare portrait" is now, already, an embarrassment. The "Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare" is actually the Cobbe Portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury. The question that remains is Will the Cobbe's supporters admit defeat gracefully?

I actually hope not. Because I'm not yet convinced that Stanley Wells and his Birthplace Trust cohorts are wrong when they argue that one of these Overbury portraits may have been the original for the famous 1623 Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare in the First Folio. (They, of course, still operate under the assumption that the Cobbe portrait is the new face of the Bard.)

Seems I've got a dog in both fights.

Here, by the way, are the money quotes from Duncan-Jones's article:

"The “Cobbe” portrait is a splendid painting, whose sparkling colours have benefited from recent restoration. The italic inscription at the top of the picture, “Principum Amicitias!” – “the leagues of princes!” – appears too large in scale, as well as highly unusual in its deployment of an exclamation mark, and was perhaps added later. The “Shakespeare” claim does not rely crucially on the authenticity of this motto from Horace’s Odes, II.i, though the authors of the brochure remark that “it can be no coincidence that Horace’s words were addressed to a playwright”. It might have been helpful to examine the picture’s reverse for further inscriptions or telling marks, but at the preview the back was veiled with a brown paper screen. But the man portrayed, with his elaborate lace collar and gold embroidered doublet, appears far too grand and courtier-like to be [the Stratford] Shakespeare.


"Last week Dr Tarnya Cooper, the sixteenth-century curator at the National Portrait Gallery, declared herself “very sceptical” about Wells’s claim, and remarked that “if anything . . . both works [the Folger and Cobbe portraits] are more likely to represent the courtier Sir Thomas Overbury”. A suggestion made long ago by David Piper that yet another version of the portrait, the “Ellenborough”, is of Overbury, is waved away as “mistaken” by the authors of the brochure. Yet the views of experts such as Cooper and Piper cannot be dismissed so easily.


"[Overbury] was an arrogant and stubborn young man. According to Aubrey, it was “a great question who was the proudest”, Sir Walter Ralegh or Sir Thomas Overbury – but opinion favoured Overbury. As a King’s minion’s minion, Overbury’s status was more fragile than he knew. Unrelenting in his opposition to Carr’s proposed marriage to Frances, née Howard (who, at the time the match was proposed, was still married to the third Earl of Essex), he refused various diplomatic postings offered to him as escape routes. On September 21, 1613, hours after telling Sir Henry Wotton how well his courtly career was going, Overbury was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower. He had succeeded in offending both the Queen (at whom he and Carr are said to have laughed mockingly through a window) and the King. Four months later he was dead. Whether this was the result of repeated attempts to poison him, or, as Considine suggests, the ministrations of court physicians, we shall never know. But the upshot was that Sir Thomas Overbury immediately became a celebrity, his colourful story nourishing both court gossip and penny-dreadfuls. Many of his former friends and allies, including Southampton, would have wanted to possess visual mementoes of their friend. He was also mourned by members of his large family, and especially by his devoted father, Sir Nicholas. Perhaps it was he who commissioned the portrait later given to the Bodleian. It may have been painted by the younger Gheeraerts, possibly on the basis of an Isaac Oliver miniature, as hinted by the blue background. With its solid provenance – first with the Overbury family, then with the library – the “Bodleian” Overbury appears to be the “prime” version of which the “Cobbe” portrait and the rest are fine, but smaller, copies. The lack of later copies is readily explained. National events occurred in the mid-century that were even more sensational than Overbury’s murder."

[Thanks to reader R.W. for the tip.]

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 3: The (modern day) back-story

Here is a fascinating interview Channel 4 (UK) did with the family owner of the Cobbe portrait of "Shakespeare," the art restorer Alec Cobbe. An affable chap. After the 35 minute mark, the interviewer asks a few questions about the possible Thomas Overbury identification. And Cobbe says, essentially, that facial features can't be used to identify a sitter in a portrait.

But rewind the tape by about ten minutes, and there's Cobbe arguing for his portrait being a "Shakespeare" portrait by appealing to the similarities between his painting and the Droeshaut engraving of Shakespeare.

So there you have it. It can when you want it to, but it can't when you don't.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Foofy nihilism

Couldn't let today's New York Times commentary about the "Cobbe Portrait of Shakespeare" go unnoticed.

The thing about the Bard, commentator Verlyn Klinkenborg writes, is that if you "Go looking for the man... you will find only the person doing the looking."

Shakespeare is just one big hall-of-mirrors. Mm-kay?

The article's kicker offers up my favorite sentence:

Every claim to have found some relic of the original Shakespeare is just another reminder that his work needs no biography.

Shorter NYT: Bard's bio no workee. Bio = bad.

Thankfully, north of the border, a letter-writer to the Toronto Globe and Mail chimes in with a fine rejoinder to the Times' muddle-headed navel-gazing:

Too bad [the Cobbe] is not a portrait of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the man who wrote plays and poems under the nom de plume "Shakespeare." That would have been really interesting.

Overbury Overdrive, pt. 2: The Face

Before getting into the new Cobbe (misattributed "Shakespeare") portrait in detail, I wanted to make sure that it is abundantly clear just how precise the match is between the Cobbe's face and undisputed images of the face of Sir Thomas Overbury.

Here is why it matters: The "new Shakespeare portrait" is no such thing. It is a big snafu-in-the-waiting that could also have significant implications beyond this little embarrassment for Stratfordian scholarship. For the nonce, I'm just going to lay that claim out there, with the promise that I'll be following up on these bigger issues in subsequent posts.

Below I've attached a Photoshop exercise that I'll explain after the jump. (Click on the image to enlarge.)

The image here is a gradual fade-in of the Cobbe "Shakespeare" over an engraving of the Jacobean poet Sir Thomas Overbury. As noted in the previous post, it should be as plain as can be that each of these two images is portraying the same face.

Incidentally, I reversed the engraving of Overbury. Note that that would have been the way the image appeared when being struck by the engraver, one Renold Elstrake. The dating of the Overbury engraving is c. 1616, which would put it after Overbury's scandalous death. So presumably Elstrake had to use another Overbury portrait as his source. As the above portrait overlay makes plain, the resemblance between the two faces is close -- so close that I think a good case can be made that the "Cobbe" portrait may have even served as the original for the Overbury engraving.

And, to bring in a third witness here, to the right is another image of Overbury -- revealing the same face as the Overbury engraving and as the face in the Cobbe portrait.

Now just to be clear: I'm not talking about the authorship theory in these postings about the Cobbe portrait. The story, the theory, the whole enchilada of "Shakespeare" By Another Name -- Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare" -- remains.

I just think this "Cobbe portrait" business is a mixed-up jumble of Stratfordian wishful thinking foisted upon an undeniable portrait of Thomas Overbury.

There may well, on the other hand, still be a different kind of "Shakespeare" connection to the Cobbe portrait.

And that's a mouse-trap for another day.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Is this the real Shakespeare?" Um... No.

You may have caught the latest bit of Stratford Birthplace Trust-spawned media hype over the past few days. Here's a quick summary: We have a new portrait of Shakespeare! One painted during his lifetime! At long last!

Ahem. Yeah. Nice "new" picture of an old Jacobean poet there, guys.

Take a look for yourself. The "new portrait of Shakespeare" is to the left. An attributed engraving of the Jacobean writer Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613), to the right. Same guy. Plain as the nose on his face.

The owner of the "new Shakespeare" (a.k.a. Overbury) portrait, a British art restorer named Alec Cobbe, also set off a wave of media coverage in 2002 when he brought out what he claimed was a new portrait of the Earl of Southampton [PDF] that he owned. (Southampton was the dedicatee of the epic Shakespeare poems Venus and Adonis and Lucrece and is widely believed to have been the "fair youth" of The Sonnets. No one, short of the author and his family, is so closely tied to the conventional history of Shakespeare.)

Cobbe's would-be Southampton image was long thought to be a woman. But, in the process of researching an exhibition on his family's art collection, Cobbe says he discovered the Southampton connection.

Compare the media coverage of the 2002 and 2009 Cobbe-related news events:

The Guardian, Apr. 21, 2002:
But it was not until earlier this year, he says, after the Kenwood exhibition had closed, that 'the penny finally dropped. Suddenly I realised that the face reminded me of pictures I had seen during my research into my family's history. "My God," I thought, "could this be the third Earl of Southampton, Shakespeare's patron and, perhaps, his lover?"'

The Telegraph, Mar. 9, 2009:
It remained in the same family for centuries and was inherited by art restorer Alec Cobbe. In 2006, he visited the National Portrait Gallery and saw a painting of Shakespeare that hangs in the Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington. It had been accepted as a life portrait of Shakespeare, but was discredited 70 years ago. Mr Cobbe saw the painting and realised the similarities with the painting he had inherited.

Kind of incredible. So according to the 2002 and 2009 news reports, then, Cobbe has transformed two old portraits owned by his family into two images of the two most important historical figures in Shakespeare studies.

Uh-huh. Sure.

Important to emphasize: I don't know nor do I really care what Cobbe's motives are in making the attributions that he has. I have no cause to suspect that he or anyone else driving this story doubts the "new Shakespeare portrait" attribution they've made. But I do find the attribution faulty. Especially when this "Shakespeare portrait" has Overbury's face!

And the portrait's Latin inscription, I think, seals the case that the portrait's subject was Thomas Overbury -- not William Shakespeare. Or, for that matter, Edward de Vere.

More on that in a day or two. [D'oh! Katherine Duncan-Jones beat me to the punch.]

[Thanks to readers G.Q. and R.C. for their help in putting together this post.]
[Edited to clarify how Cobbe says he made his 2002 discovery and to add the final point of emphasis.]

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

Here's looking at you, scurvy jack-a-nape

(Creative Commons image by dejahthoris)

Poetry, music and culture blogger Remy Wilkins offers up a curious (if a little oddly worded) mind game this weekend on his blog The Whole Garden Will Bow:
"The Movies I’d Watch With Dead People if I Could Watch One Movie With Someone Dead"

[in no order]
1. The Darjeeling Limited with G.K. Chesterton
2. Magnolia with Flannery O’Connor
3. There Will Be Blood with Herman Melville
4. Gattaca with Fedor Dostoevsky
5. The Decalogue with Moses
6. Spirited Away with Booker T. Washington
7. Beowulf with St. Boniface
8. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with E.E. Cummings
9. Die Hard with Jane Austen
10. Casablanca with Edward de Vere

Not to get too Facebook-y, but this top-10 list does have the air of a challenge to it.

Whoever you think Shakespeare was (or wasn't), what movie(s) would you want to sit the Bard down and have him watch? Just to see what the guy thinks about the stories we tell on the screen. Ten that would at least be on the short list, for me, would be Taxi Driver, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Away From Her, His Girl Friday, The Matrix, Brazil, The Incredibles, Trouble in Paradise, The Life Aquatic... and for the last one, I'm thinking either Pink Panther 2 or Paul Blart: Mall Cop. Toss up.

I'm resisting the historical period piece or adaptations of his own canon. You gotta figure, the man would probably have seen enough Shakespeare to last him a lifetime.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Bad Quartos

This bit of Bard-inspired pop passed along by reader A.N.. I kind of like the song "Every Day" -- about Twelfth Night based around a cooled-out version of the riff from Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains The Same." (Originals of songs here.)

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Dr. Horrible

Nothing to do with anything, really. Just one amazing piece of musical dramedy. Made possible, courtesy of Joss Wheadon and family and friends, by otherwise idle pens during last year's writer's strike. DVD here.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Zadie and Barack and Walt and Will (and Edward)

The British novelist Zadie Smith -- born in London to a black, Jamaican mother and white, British father -- does exquisite work in the latest New York Review of Books piecing together the multi-polar, multi-ethnic, many-voiced perspectives of our new American president. Smith's essay "thinks and speaks in harmony," Joe Klein of Time magazine writes, about "the transcendence of Barack Obama."

Smith's article, she says, examines "the many-colored voice, the multiple sensibility." The finest example of which, she says, is the Shakespeare canon.

Our Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing, he is black and white, male and female -- he is everyman. The giant lacunae in his biography are merely a convenience; if any new facts of religious or political affiliation were ever to arise we would dismiss them in our hearts anyway. Was he, for example, a man of Rome or not? He has appeared, to generations of readers, not of one religion but of both, in truth, beyond both. Born into the middle of Britain's fierce Catholic–Protestant culture war, how could the bloody absurdity of those years not impress upon him a strong sense of cultural contingency?

Um... OK. That whole "Shakespeare sees always both sides of a thing" thing? Sure. You bet. But then the sidetracking begins.

Smith continues:

It was a war of ideas that began for Will -- as it began for Barack -- in the dreams of his father. For we know that John Shakespeare, a civic officer in Protestant times, oversaw the repainting of medieval frescoes and the destruction of the rood loft and altar in Stratford's own fine Guild Chapel, but we also know that in the rafters of the Shakespeare home John hid a secret Catholic "Spiritual Testament," a signed profession of allegiance to the old faith. A strange experience, to watch one's own father thus divided, professing one thing in public while practicing another in private. John Shakespeare was a kind of equivocator: it's what you do when you're in a corner, when you can't be a Catholic and a loyal Englishman at the same time. When you can't be both black and white. Sometimes in a country ripped apart by dogma, those who wish to keep their heads --in both senses -- must learn to split themselves in two.

The Protestant-Catholic divisions in the England of 400 years ago undoubtedly constitute a force unto itself. Made very real for a young noble named de Vere schooled by the loyalist Elizabethan Protestant patriots Sir Thomas Smith and Sir William Cecil (later Lord Burghley)... a young noble who then fell out with Protestantism so far that he actually, reputedly, conspired with Catholic agents planning to overthrow the Elizabethan government.

And then the same near-traitor went into service defending his Anglican queen from Puritan zealots under the guise of a rakish, pseudonymous religious pamphleteer, "Pasquill Caviliero."

De Vere's story embodies his era's tumultuous Protestant-Catholic split, but dirtied with the blood and soil of a life that cast this tension in sharp relief. (De Vere's life's epic religious journey is just one instance of how the pallid musings of Stratfordiana ultimately fall short of reaching the kind of multi-layered biographical tapestry that one might expect of the man who created such a multi-layered canon.)

But innate to the Bard is also, just as crucially, a political divide-spanning between medieval and modern, feudal and mercantile, royalist and republican. And Edward de Vere -- 17th successive lord in a storied family of lords that trace back to the Norman Conquest -- embodied that same self-defying creative ferment.

There has been no better an observer of this tendency -- and how feudalist the "Shakespearean" sympathies often strikingly lay -- than Walt Whitman. Living as he was generations before the Oxfordian movement began, Whitman didn't have de Vere to latch on to. But Whitman was such a careful and close reader of Shakespeare that he didn't need de Vere's story either.

Whitman left behind a trail of some very poignant remarks on Shakespeare and the authorship question. (Whitman was, by the end of his life, a firm doubter in, as Whitman said, "The Avon man, the actor" and a speculative believer in one of the "wolfish earls" that populate the history plays as the canon's more likely author.) Whitman's musings were recorded by the American Bard's confidant Horace Traubel in the eight-volume series With Walt Whitman in Camden. As Whitman said:

Shakespeare stood for the glory of feudalism: Shakespeare, whoever he was, whoever they were: He had his place. I have never doubted his vastness, [his] space. ... His gospel was of the medieval -- the gospel of the grand, the luxurious: great lords, ladies: plate, hangings, glitter, ostentation, hypocritical chivalry, dress, trimmings. ...

People don't dare face the fact Shakespeare. They are all tied to a fiction that is called Shakespeare -- a Shakespearean illusion. ... It's very difficult to talk about Shakespeare in a frank vein: There's always somebody about with a terrific prejudice to howl you down. ...

And as Whitman wrote in his November Boughs

Think, not of growth as forests primeval, or Yellowstone geysers, or Colorado ravines, but of costly marble palaces and palace rooms and the noblest fixings and furniture, and noble owners and occupants to correspond -- think of carefully built gardens from the beautiful but sophisticated gardening art at its best, with walks and bowers and artificial lakes, and appropriate statue-grounds and the finest cultivated roses and lilies and japonicas in plenty -- and you have the tally of Shakespeare. ...

But to the deepest soul, it seems a shame to pick and choose from the riches Shakespeare has left to us -- to criticize his infinitely royal, multiform quality -- to gauge, with optic glasses, the dazzle of his sun-like beams.

Having now drawn out her Shakespearean analogy, Zadie Smith returns to Obama and notes, "It's my audacious hope that a man born and raised between opposing dogmas, between cultures, between voices, could not help but be aware of the extreme contingency of culture. ... He seems just the man to demonstrate that between those two voices there exists no contradiction and no equivocation but rather a proper and decent human harmony."

It is these modern-day forces in opposition -- ones that Smith begins to chart -- that could just as easily be taken as a departure point for the study of Edward de Vere's life... and the "Shakespeare" canon it subtends.