Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Comment-upon-comment: The scholars consider

On the Facebook ShakesVere boards, Geoffrey Green points to a recent blog post by a Stratfordian  scholar who sighs and says, OK, Anonymous now means we have to take on the Oxfordians. 

My comment on this literary scholar's blog after the jump. 

I personally find it fascinating the eminent creators in literature — Whitman, Emerson, Dickens, Twain, H. James, Du Maurier, Gallsworthy, etc. — who have all at least expressed interest in the Shakespeare authorship question if not (in Whitman and Twain’s cases) gone on at length about why they find the conventional attribution of William of Stratford so very wrong.
“It is my final belief that the Shakespearean plays were written by another hand than Shaksper’s [sic],” Whitman said. “I do not seem to have any patience with the Shaksper argument: It is all gone for me– up the spout. The Shaksper case is about closed.”
(Horace Traubel’s multivolume set _With Walt Whitman in Camden_ contains numerous examples of this kind of vehemence from America’s greatest poet about what he saw as the Stratford myth.)
James Shapiro’s _Contested Will_ does go into excruciating psychological detail seeking excuses as to why so many great minds were anti-Stratfordians or held sympathies for that point of view.
_Will_ is an entertaining read, no doubt. But I found myself at the far end of Shapiro’s extended exercise scratching my head. Is the authorship controversy really a kind of strange confluence of unconscious forces over the generations — a psychological conspiracy, as it were — that misled so many creative figures throughout history?
_Contested Will_’s examination of all the famous Shakespeare skeptics throughout the centuries struck this reader, instead, as a kind of deft exercise in projection. We’re left to wonder at how much avoiding of real issues **everyone else** is doing.
Here’s a simpler explanation than Shaprio’s: These skeptics were skeptical for good reason.
And here’s where the discussion must diverge beyond the bounds of a blog and its comments, enlightening and interesting though they are.
Because there is no direct evidence that would settle the authorship question either way. _Pace_ Stratford’s defenders, there is no Dante or Chaucer or Austen or Dickens etc. authorship controversies because the meager requirement of *some* sort of direct proof of their being an author is and has always been there.
Instead, we are left with circumstantial evidence. Nothing wrong with circumstantial evidence. It constitutes a centerpiece of court cases in courtrooms around the world every day. Circumstantial evidence wins cases every day.
But circumstantial evidence requires a patient accumulation of facts and hypotheses that together work toward the larger goal of proving or disproving a theory. Forest for the trees.
So this is why I think you may be guilty of a touch of melodrama when you claim that considering the Oxfordian hypothesis will be such a supposedly dreary exercise. In point of fact, there is a very strong **circumstantial** case that puts Edward de Vere’s life and epic story right at the heart of the Shakespeare works.
As Orson Welles said “I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don’t there are an awful lot of funny coincidences to explain away.”
Say that the Oxfordians, as so many here so confidently claim, are wrong. Fine. But, beyond that, you’re equally certain that picking up the Shakespeare canon and viewing it from a completely different — Oxfordian — point of view is going to be so completely useless or ruinous to your outlook on the Bard and his immortal masterpieces? Really??
Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. You might surprise yourself.
Thank you.
Mark Anderson, author
“Shakespeare” By Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare


Diane Holcomb Wilshere said...

The entire premise that Shakespeare didn't write his works started in the 19th century. Which is also when codes and secret meanings were very popular. At the Folger there is an entire case for the erroneous idea that Shakespeare contributed to the king James bible also using codes (psalm 46) also mid-19th century.
My own argument is thus, if Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare then who were the aristocratic fronts for his fellow playwrights. No claims that Middleton, Marston, Fletcher did not write their plays. And we know even less about their lives

Mark said...

Thank you, Diane. All due respect, but again there's good cause for there being no authorship controversy over the authors you mentioned. Extant records, for instance, all point to these three men each being paid to write. There's extant original manuscript from Middleton. Marston and Fletcher owned books, some of which we have or have records of. Etc.

None of the above, of course, exists for William Shakspere/Shakespeare of Stratford.

In a larger sense, though, I think you are correct in that there is a bigger story of anonymous and pseudonymous writings from the period that are only now coming into focus and being given the critical attention they deserve. Real living authors from the period wrote them, and those authors are being recovered even today.

Set the Shakespeare question aside, for instance, and if you would, take a look at the novelist and Elizabethan scholar Sarah Smith's impressive attribution study [PDF] of the 1582 poem "The Paine of Pleasure."

She makes a strong case that this poem, on meager evidence originally attributed to Edward de Vere's secretary Anthony Munday, was actually written by de Vere himself.

According to one of the definitive works of literary criticism from the period, The Arte of English Poesie (1589), it's clear that there are a number of what it calls Elizabethan "courtly makers" who were writing works behind the scenes and either publishing them anonymously or in some other way disguising their identity.

So even Shakespeare works aside, there's going to be a scholarly reshuffling of the deck to some extent as more obscure and lesser studied authors come into focus and their canons are reconsidered in light -- arguably -- of the Shakespeare question.

That, I think, presents signs of both opportunity and interesting new scholarship ahead.

Mike Stepniewski said...

Dear Mark,
I bought your book when it first came out and loved it. I believe I have all of significant authorship studies, but yours is the most engaging and cohesive; I've purchased about 10 copies for uninitiated friends - to get their feet wet, so to speak. Many have come back and responded: 'well, so it's a done deal, then.'
Yet I'm amazed at the diversity of Oxfordian positions. Many have taken a path analogous to paleo-biologists in assembling the 'box of bones' that links Oxford to the works of Shakespeare. They are uncovering, or bringing to the fore, a wealth of pertinent material; but it is dis-articulated material. Their ideas will make better sense if they discover for themselves that de Vere's non-dramatic poetry constitutes an integrated autobiography. Could a man who hints at, and alludes to, his circumstance on every page, have neglected to put it all together? That is the purpose of the poetry.
Without referencing Venus and Adonis, or the Rape of Lucrece, etc., all the historical material may be easily assembled in a number of ways that lead to varying conclusions. Stratfordians have an advantage in that their biography has grown organically from a single, simple root; dead wrong of course, but unified nonetheless. Oxfordians need to step back from particular themes; the plays take on that task. The plays develop the authors more specific concerns; but the non-dramatic poems tell his story.
From Venus and Adonis we find that the 'Prince Tudor' story is the true root... I know dogmatic Oxfordians can barely bear to hear it mentioned. But we also find that Henry Wriothesley's mother is Mary Browne Wriothesley, not de Vere's own mother, Elizabeth Tudor. Mary is presented in the extended and confusing passages of the 'steed' and his 'breeding Jennet'(beg. l.260). She is a Planta'genet' worthy, as he saw it, of a de Vere Sire. This history correlates well with Sonnet 18, where Henry, a 'darling bud of May' is compared to 'a summer's day'.
The non-dramatic poetry gives us the all-important cover picture by which to proceed with our jig-saw puzzle. It gives context to the author's special lexicon and grammar. It allows the decoding of metonyms used throughout the de Vere canon - which warrant careful analysis in John Lyly, but hardly a mention in Shakespeare.
When de Vere's metonym glossary is complete, it will have cross-referenced the historical allusions in the dramatic works with his poetry for a unified understanding of Shakespeare, Lyly, Griffin, and probably additional minor works as well.
I am working on an essay on this subject: devereshakespeare.wordpress.com
I would be much in debt to you if you would include my website on your site, if you find any merit.
Mike Stepniewski
Wapato, WA

Doc Stritmatter said...

At the Folger there is an entire case for the erroneous idea that Shakespeare contributed to the king James bible also using codes (psalm 46) also mid-19th century.
My own argument is thus, if Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare then who were the aristocratic fronts for his fellow playwrights. No claims that Middleton, Marston, Fletcher did not write their plays.

Yes, Diane, that's the point. You seem to want to turn this into some kind of ideological football. There are no authorship questions for those writers because they really did write the works that are attributed to them. Why don't you read Mark's book, so that the next time you post, you'll have some idea of what it is that he (and other posters) know, and you don't? Just a thought. Everyone is welcome to their own uninformed preconceptions. But is that really where you want to stay?

Hunferth said...

Hi Mark, I just finished Richard Roe's new book about Shakespeare in Italy. Wonderful read! Amazing bit of scholarship conducted over 2 decades. No doubt Roe's research should definitively answer questions about Shakespeare's supposed ill informed "imagination" when it comes to geography and other matters with his Italian plays. But my question to you is, with Roe's book in mind, I would tend to believe that the Tempest is far from the last work of the bard. The facts seem to support an earlier writing of Tempest. Of course, it could have been amended later in the Bard's life. But, based on my reading of Roe, this is not a play of FINAL forgiveness as in a farewell. Oxfordians know of the quixotic nature of de Vere, and it is entirely possible that he composed The Tempest not as a swan song to forgiveness of his enemies, but as an amateurish attempt at romantic comedy so in vogue with the courts at the time of his travails to Italy. To have this play placed so solidly in and about Italy gives me pause to think of it as a later play. Pure speculation, but perhaps de Vere was not up to forgiveness at the end of his life. Perhaps the tragegies better reflect his state of mind. I think perhaps Oxfordians are too attached to the idea by Statfordians that The Tempest is a later play. We have tried to reign in its date by supplying information that suggests that the play at least could have been written way before the early 1600s. But maybe we need to re-evaluate our notion of this play being the last in the long line of de Vere's works. My guess is that de Vere related more to the tragedies at the end of his life rather then the "problematic" comedies.