Tuesday, February 04, 2014

These c. 1602 references to Macbeth explode the Stratfordian myth

Readers of this blog hopefully already know that a much more active site of SBAN-related discussion these days is the  Facebook group ShakesVere. And a familiar refrain on SV over the past year has been "Please, go read Rambler." 

Rambler is a pseudonymous blogger with an encyclopedic grasp of early modern drama who's been posting on nearly a daily basis since last April about his forays into Elizabethan and early Jacobean plays written by many authors other than "Shakespeare." 

Executive summary of Rambler's posts: Writers from the London literary scene 400 years ago -- Chapman, Middleton, Jonson, Nashe, and numerous others as well -- had all written in guarded terms about Edward de Vere as "Shakespeare." Their testimony taken as a whole exposes and validates what we today call the Shakespeare Authorship Question. And the Oxfordian theory specifically. Stratfordians have COMPLETELY missed the boat here.

Rambler's blog carries the catchy spoonerism "Quakespeare Shorterly" and is at the URL http://lookingforshakespeare.blogspot.com. Anyone interested in the authorship question should really bookmark its RSS feed and Please, just go read Rambler

Rambler's latest two posts concern, in part, Queen Elizabeth as a historical prototype for the character Lady Macbeth. (Post 1, post 2) As I was writing "Shakespeare" by Another Name in 2002-'04, I'd reached the conclusion myself that England's queen seems to have served as a prototype for the play's bloodthirsty Scottish queen -- at least in the context of the Mary Queen of Scots trial and Elizabeth's (and, as a jury member in Mary's trial, Oxford's) ordering Mary's beheading. 

The execution of Mary Queen of Scots in 1587 was an extraordinarily big deal, especially for a member of the feudal nobility who had been reared in the belief that kings and queens were God's handpicked agents in human affairs. (As noted in SBAN's Appendix A and in Roger Stritmatter's landmark PhD dissertation, the motif of anointed kings is a commonplace in the handwritten biblical annotations found in Oxford's copy of the Geneva Bible too.) 

To liken Mary's execution to deicide is no mere exaggeration. The anxiety over the royal blood Oxford and Elizabeth had spilled spills over into Macbeth in multitudinous ways. Books can, and should, be written about this. SBAN only begins to get the ball rolling. (Though it's also been surprising to me to learn how little even Oxfordian commentary there has been on Lady Macbeth and Queen Elizabeth.) 

Anyway, Rambler's two posts argue that the late Elizabethan play Blurt, Master Constable riffs on Lady Macbeth and language in Macbeth that strongly suggests Macbeth inspired this play that was published in 1602. Rambler points out that previous scholarship points to 1600-'01 as Blurt's likely composition date, but 1602 would be a hard-fast number here. For Macbeth to have influenced Blurt, some version of it must have been written and likely performed before Blurt was published.

If Rambler is correct, to put it mildly, this would pose a serious problem for Stratfordian chronology. It would mean some early draft of Macbeth were written before at the latest 1602 -- and would, by extension, stand to devastate no small portion of the whole house of cards upon which the Stratfordian chronology is built. 

Stratfordians have long claimed, on very little evidence, that Macbeth was a direct response to the Gunpowder Plot, a terrorist campaign that quickly became a public sensation in London in 1605-'06. Yet, as noted in SBAN's Appendix on the "1604 Question", the allusions Macbeth makes that might be seen as Gunpowder Plot references also trace back to courtroom trials from the 1580s and '90s, one of which Edward de Vere even sat on the jury for!

Despite all this, Macbeth and King Lear have been emerging lately as the Stratfordian fallback positions to a losing battle they're now fighting on The Tempest. (See here and especially here.) In all 3 cases, the claim is these are plays definitively written sometime after Edward de Vere died, in June 1604. So, if any one of those claims could be established firmly, then – again to put it mildly – it'd be very difficult sledding ahead for the Oxfordian paradigm.

Instead, however, 1604 has emerged as a kind of line in the sand. Attempts to discover firm evidence for composition of "Shakespeare" plays before 1604 often prove fruitful. Oxfordian chronologies of the "Shakespeare" canon from before 1604 draw on much the same evidence Stratfordian chronologies do.*

But after 1604, Stratfordian chronologies are, to put it bluntly, a joke. There is not only no firm evidence to date any "Shakespeare" play after 1604, there's plenty good evidence to argue that a post-1604 date is wrong.

Blurt, Master Constable is just the latest example.

As Rambler signs off, Thank you for reading. 

*That said, Oxfordians are also not bound by the Stratfordian stringent timeline for Will Shakspere. His move from Stratford to London in the late 1580s at the very earliest is presumed to be the earliest possible date for any "Shakespeare" work. Of course with Oxford circulating in Elizabeth's court  from 1562 onwards, Oxfordians have much more leeway to (realistically, I think) stipulate substantial foregrounds for many of the plays. So Comedy of Errors, as an example, may ultimately date to 1594 as Stratfordian chronologies theorize. But the performance at court in 1577 of the anonymous play A Historie of Error (as noted in SBAN) also makes good sense as an early draft of what eventually was staged and published as the mature "Shakespeare" work.


POSTSCRIPT: I can already hear the Stratfordian reply: Who's to say Macbeth wasn't referencing Blurt, Master Constable? To which I say, simply, one is one of the greatest plays ever written. The other is a largely forgettable lark. If you knew nothing else about popular culture over the past 50 years and saw Spaceballs and then Star Wars or Austin Powers and then Goldfinger or even read Pride and Prejudice and then read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.... which one would you think came first and which one came second?

The spoof post-dates the thing it's spoofing. Great masters at the top of their game don't worry themselves with referencing disposable goofs and trifles. Seriously, folks. In anywhere but topsy-turvy Stratford-land, this is Q.E.D.

(cc) image: John Singer Sargent, Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth

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