Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy?

Thank God. Someone (Dispositio, here, hat-tip Dainty Ballerina) is writing something sensible on the Shakespeare Authorship issue. The whole blog is worth reading, and the basic argument – more needs to be done to counter the conspiracy theorists – is surely right.

But I was particularly pleased to see someone say this: “the entire authorship controversy is Bardolatry’s evil twin”. I couldn’t agree more. In many respects, the Shakespeare industry deserves the plague of Oxfordians currently, well, plaguing it.

The fundamental flaw in the arguments of those who want to claim the plays for someone who wasn’t William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the contempt for anything approaching the norms of historical evidence. That is, contemporary sources within either the subject’s life-time, or within the life-time of those who knew him or her personally. (We do not, for example, ignore things said about Elizabeth I by those who knew her merely because they were written down after her death.)

By that unremarkable standard, there is no evidence that the works in question were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare, and a good deal of evidence that they were: fourteen of the plays were attributed to him in print in his lifetime, with the Folio – compiled by two former colleagues with the formidable authority of Shakespeare’s greatest competitor, Ben Jonson, behind them – attributing the other 24 seven years later. And that is not to mention the poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, again all publicly attributed in his lifetime. There is no counter evidence of similar weight. Ergo, there is a reason no-one questioned those attributions for some three hundred years: there is no historical basis for doing so.

But Shakespearean authorities are careless about such matters too, when it suits them. There has been far too much willingness – no, eagerness – among Shakespeareans over the last 150 years or so to assert as true things that are merely speculation: the overwhelming desire to flesh out our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life compresses possibilities into probabilities, and probabilities into facts.

In his book, Shakespeare’s Lives, which I can’t recommend highly enough, one of the great 20th Shakespearean scholars, Samuel Schoenbaum, relates an observation of Desmond McCarthy’s about Shakespearean biography which illuminates this process. Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realize that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.

Dispositio mentions the dating of the plays in this context – the presentation of literary guesswork as fact – but there are many other examples derived from the text of the plays: the nod to Marlowe’s death in As You Like It (“it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”), say, or the recollection of Leicester’s Kenilworth entertainments (written by George Gascoigne) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From recollection, Greenblatt’s Will in the World, is particularly flawed in this regard.

These “facts” share the same fault as those that form the basis of the anti-Shakespearean position: they are not facts. They are not evidence of anything; they are merely possible readings of the play-text, and readings, moreover, which are built out of a worldview in which all literature is reducible to – and rendered more explicable by – its sources. That is, they reflect the idea that there are hidden meanings and references woven – consciously or otherwise – into the texts which relate to external people, documents and events and which an appropriate depth of thought and expertise can elucidate. As a literary approach it is almost gnostic; as a historical approach it is nonsense.

To go back to my examples, tired though they may be: if Jonson, say, had mentioned Shakespeare’s elegaic nod to Marlowe in As You Like It, it might be different; but there is nothing approaching historical evidence that a) Shakespeare was intentionally referring to his dead rival, or, failing that, that b) contemporaries considered him to have done so. (To be honest, I’m not wholly convinced we can be sure Shakespeare would have known much of the circumstances of Marlowe’s death, but perhaps I’ll let that point pass for the moment.)

A particular bugbear of mine is the genuine historical facts get distorted by the pressure Shakespeareans put on them. We know, for example, that Shakespeare dedicated his two early poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton. Southampton was, therefore, a patron of his in the early-to-mid 1590s. There is no evidence that such patronage extended any further. It is inadmissable therefore to refer to Southampton as Shakespeare’s patron without offering some kind of qualification on date.

Cobbe portrait c.1610

This may sound petty, but what I am leading up to is the claim, put forward by Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust a couple of years ago, to much ballyhoo in the media, that the Cobbe portrait is a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare. This is Wells on the subject:

The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming. I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton.

Circumstantial is a polite word. The evidence is shaky, to say the least. One of the central planks of the argument is the suggestion that the painting may have belonged to Southampton (two hundred years before it came into the possession of the Cobbe family, that is).

Well, so what? Everyone accepts, I think, that the painting dates to c.1610. On the evidence we have, that is 16 years after there was any link between Shakespeare and Southampton. How likely is it that the fourth earl would have commissioned a portrait of someone with little more status than a servant, who last served him 16 years previously? Not at all, I would suggest. (Even if Shakespeare were still in his service in 1610, I think the idea borders on the ridiculous, but that’s beside the point.) Is there any evidence that he did? No.

Another key argument, as I understand it, is that the Cobbe portrait is clearly related to the Janssen portrait, which used to be considered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare until it was restored in the 1960s and everyone realised it had been doctored to look like the genuine portrait of Shakespeare in the First Folio. Mmmm.

So desperate are professional Shakespeareans like Wells for something as definitive as a portrait of their man, that they will happily ride roughshod over the proper cautions a historian – or anyone without a dog in the fight – would employ. It isn’t good enough. We know far more about Shakespeare than we do about any contemporary playwright with the exception of Ben Jonson, who was both a relentless self-publicist and an inveterate trouble-maker, and therefore in regular contact with the authorities over one scandal or another. That should be enough.

New facts may come from new documents; they will not come from over-thinking the documents we already have. That way hokum lies. And what hope have Shakespeareans have of retaining the intellectual high ground if they continue to chase after it?

UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on the authorship controversy – and the use of sources – here

14 thoughts on “Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy?

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  1. For this piece, I’ll stick to responding about the Cobbe portrait. It’s one of the things that taught me how important it is to verify an idea. For me, personally – this is Shakespeare. I have reasons I believe that, but I haven’t been able to prove them yet, even though I can see them. What are these things? I see a borrowed collar (The 3rd Earl of Pembroke wears a much too similar collar in a miniature of him made in c. 1605). I see the regularity of a wig on his head, the makeup on his face (compare the portrait to other portraits of gentlemen at the time) and the vanity of a much too perfect nose (can you just tweak that for me, artist, thanks, thanks and many thanks). I see the proportions of a small man who had to overlap the borrowed collar to make it fit, not the lankiness of Thomas Overbury. I can see these things, and have other reasons to think this all is possible, but can I prove them in a solid way that would satisfy the test of time and academia? No. Never. My possibility can’t be a public fact. I took the idea and placed it in fiction.

    One has to know one’s limits when it comes to ferreting out truth. It’s not wrong to put forth ideas and see if they can be taken anywhere. Sometimes an idea works. But one has to be ready to accept when it doesn’t, and move on. Even if one remains very fond of the idea.

  2. Reblogged this on Going Past and commented:
    The one thing the Griffiths fiasco has done for me is place Mathew Lyons’ blog in view. Let me help that along once again…

  3. Mathew, you write: “The fundamental flaw in the arguments of those who want to claim the plays for someone who wasn’t William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the contempt for anything approaching the norms of historical evidence….By that unremarkable standard, there is no evidence that the works in question were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare, and a good deal of evidence that they were.” However, there is a mysterious elephant roaming the halls of Shakespeare studies: the Shakespeare Apocrypha. Scholars have never adequately explained why two separately authoried bodies of literary work were attributed to William Shakespeare in his own time, and for decades afterward. Just rephrase your own statement as follows: “there is no evidence that the APOCRYPHAL works in question were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare, and a good deal of evidence that they were.” By your strict historical standards, making up a bunch of fraudulent publishers and deceitful booksellers who supposedly misled the London reading public over a period of decades won’t fly. Take The Troublesome Reign of King John, for instance. The 1612 second edition attributes the play to “W. Sh.” William Shakespeare, who lived until 1616, never disputed his authorship of the work. The third edition of 1622 also assigns the play to “W. Shakespeare.” The Bard’s King John, a different but closely related play, was printed for the first time in the 1623 First Folio under Troublesome Reign’s publishing license. It seems the two plays were regarded as roughly equivalent works by the same author. The Troublesome Reign of King John, and other works like it, pose a genuine Shakespeare authorship mystery.
    –Sabrina Feldman (http://apocryphalshakespeare.com/)

  4. the Sonnets are written by a man who is clearly much older than William of Stratford. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties (Oxford was 14 years older). Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties.

    The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” “With Time’s injurious hand crushed and o’er worn”, in the “twilight of life”. He is lamenting “all those friends” who have died, “my lovers gone”. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold.”

    The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford’s life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare’s biographers have nothing to go on. There are many arguments against the Stratfordian attribution and there is not enough space provided to
    discuss one quarter of them. Here are a few:

    Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. For example:

    Francois de Belleforest Histories tragiques
    Ser Giovanni Fioranetino’s Il Pecorone
    Epitia and Hecatommithi
    Luigi da Porto’s Romeus and Juliet (Italian)
    Jorge de Montemayor’s Diana (Spanish)

    Shakespeare’s reliance on books in foreign languages puzzles the experts, so we can suppose all sorts of things rather than conclude the obvious. If the man who was Shakespeare regularly relied on books not yet translated from Italian, French, and Spanish, then he must have been able to
    read in Italian, French, and Spanish. We know specifically that Oxford was fluent in four foreign languages, Latin, Greek, Italian, and French.

    The assumption behind the support for William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to be that he was no ordinary mortal because otherwise there is no accounting for the detailed knowledge of the law, foreign languages, Italy. the court and aristocratic society, and sports such as falconry, tennis, jousting, fencing, and coursing that appears in the plays. I do not have any doubt that genius can spring from the most unlikely of circumstances. The only problem here is that there is in this case little evidence to support it.

    Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate?

  5. I am so glad that this question is out in the open. I was very nearly seduced by Ogburn’s book in the early 1990’s. Until I started checking source materials. I attended the shakespeare institute for a year in 98/99 to indulge my Sh passion. My respect for scholars and their work is enormous. But the standard has to be the same for all scholars. Shakespearean biography is a minefield and always has been. The 19thC produced the anti-authorship crowd. They have every right to a fair hearing along the same lines as all scholars work. Orthodox scholars too need to admit when they are fudging the record.

    But biography in the end is just not that important. It assists no-one in questioning the plays and poems. No actor will ever benefit from the knowledge that it was Oxford and not Shakespeare. Holger says the same about his scholarship. Biography is the last thing I look at regarding any body of work. And then it might be interesting, although never determining in what I take from that work. That said I’ve touted this quote from Alan Nelson to the Shaksper discussion group as a rebuttal to the authorship question. None seem to find it as relevant as I do. Ach who am I?

    Cut to a First Folio Facsimile ix pages into the introduction:

    ‘In his Chronicle of the Kings of England, Baker treats in turn the reign of successive sovereigns and at the end he discusses the famous men of the time. For Elizabeth’s reign he notes statesmen such as Burleigh and Walsingham, famous seamen and soldiers -Raleigh, Drake, and the Earl of Essex- and the literary figures who are mostly theologians with the exception of Sir Phillip Sidney. In conclusion Baker observes:

    After such men, it might be thought ridiculous to speak of Stage-players; but seeing excellency in the meanest things deserve remembring, and Roscius the Comedian is recorded in History with such commendation, it may be allowed us to do the like with some of our Nation. Richard Bourbidge [Burbage] and Edward Allen, two such actors as no age must ever look to see the like: and, to make their Comedies compleat, Richard Tarleton, who for the part called the Clowns Part, never had his match, never will have. For Writers of Playes, and such as had been Players themselves, William Shakespeare and Benjamin Johnson, have specially left their Names recommended to posterity.

    This being the attitude of the times, as a large number of other writers testify, it is small wonder that most playwrights did not bother to see that their works were printed.’
    (My FF Facs, with an introduction by Charles Tyler Prouty).

  6. Thank you for the kind words re my blog!

    I quite agree with most of your points; the Cobbe portrait is a particularly depressing episode, and the way the Birthplace Trust has now turned it into the public face of “their” Shakespeare strikes me as nothing short of an embarrassment.

    As far as source study is concerned, I’d be a bit more charitable than you, though. Chasing down every alleged allusion can seem pointless, and it often is; projecting certainty in these questions is also never a good idea. But the enterprise isn’t all about “hidden meanings.” Figuring out what texts inform the plays can be genuinely helpful — it’s enlightening to know which plays rework older works of drama, or what kinds of popular fiction Shakespeare (and others) drew on, and when. It rarely “explains” the plays, but the contrasts between source and adaptation can be very revealing (and Greenblatt has written brilliantly about this); personally, I’m also interested in what adaptation decisions say about popularity.

    You’re right about that confoundedly apt phrase about the little room — but would you say the same thing about the apparent allusion to Hero and Leander in 3.5 (“Dead shepherd, now I find thy saw of might: / ‘Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'”)? I think it’s almost inconceivable that Shakespeare would not have known what had happened to his fellow playwright, and I don’t think the frequent verbal echoes (of Jew of Malta in Titus Andronicus, of Doctor Faustus in Richard II, etc.) are just a coincidence. We’re talking about a fairly small community of theatre professionals working in a small number of venues in close proximity to each other — why does it make more sense to assume that they didn’t know and reference each other’s works than vice versa? (Arguing for hidden meanings is a different, and much more problematic agenda!)

    1. And thank you for taking the time to comment!

      You’re right: my point about sources is stated clumsily – or perhaps merely overstated. (The perils of late-night posting towards the end of a bottle of wine, I’m afraid.) I think identifying narrative sources is a fascinating business, and, yes, studying the way a writer handles those sources is illuminating, both in terms of the way the given writer is thinking about the work at hand, and perhaps also about their wider cultural attitudes or perceptions.

      The question of allusion – while often generating great insight – is more complex and fraught, and needs to be treated with more caution than it sometimes is. Are such echoes conscious or unconscious, for example? The first example you cite is a direct quote from Hero and Leander, so seems to me self-evidently a conscious allusion, especially when framed with the reference to the dead shepherd (that is, the dead Kit Marlowe).

      Other echoes – I don’t dispute their presence – are less clearly intentional and therefore harder to quantify. However, I absolutely agree with your point about a small theatrical and literary community – within what was already a small, closed society – referencing each other, and I think a related point worth making is that 16th-century literary culture was aural to an extent we find difficult to comprehend. Shakespeare and his contemporaries were accustomed to listening intently to long passages of speech – most obviously in church but also elsewhere – and to absorbing and retaining both its substance and style.

      But other than noting their existence, I’m not sure such echoes tell us all that much. Moreover, while it’s clear who is referencing whom with Marlowe and Shakespeare, given that one of them was dead – let’s skip the Marlovian conspiracy for the moment – the question of dating is far less settled than academic consensus would have us believe (as you rightly pointed out) and so the question of who wrote what first can make establishing any kind of certainty almost impossible.

      However, my particular grouch with allusion is where it is used to extrapolate biographical facts. From recollection, it was Greenblatt who placed the young Shakespeare at the Kenilworth entertainments on the basis of the possible allusion in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s a real stretch, and it’s precisely the kind of factual sleight of hand the anti-Shakespeareans get up to – “lots of the plays are set in Italy so the real author must have been there” – so it annoys me intensely when I see it done by someone who really ought to know better! (By the way, as per your blog, I’m on the angry spectrum when it comes to the anti-Shakespeareans!)

      Re: “the great reckoning..”. I’m sure Shakespeare would have known that Marlowe was stabbed, and perhaps who by and where. But I’m inclined to think identifying the reference relies quite heavily on our access to and knowledge of the coroner’s report and the details it contains. I’m not sure we can be certain how much of such detail would have been in circulation – or how much attention would have been paid to it in a society far more used to death than we are. Besides, I’ve seen “a little room” used as a euphemism for the grave, which makes it an odd choice of phrase if Shakespeare were wanting to specify Marlowe’s fate only.

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