More on the Shakespeare authorship question

Many thanks to those who have taken the time to comment on my previous post on the Shakespeare authorship controversy. Since one of those, from Howard Schumann – sorry I can’t work out how to link to it – is from an Oxfordian perspective, I thought I should reply more fully.

My general point is that too much evidence is granted a weight of certainty it doesn’t possess. So, for instance, Howard writes that conventional chronology dates the sonnets to 1592-6. To be honest, I don’t know if that is conventional or not. I do know that there isn’t any evidence for it. A couple of sonnets were certainly written in the 1590s, since they appear in the 1599 Passionate Pilgrim collection. For the rest, the only this that is certain is that they were written by May 1609, when the book was registered.

Howard argues from his chronology that Shakespeare couldn’t have written the poems since he was too young to articulate the sense of, in his words, a man in his declining years. Well, for the mid-1590s, maybe. But fifteen years later, when conventional chronology has Shakespeare approaching the end of his writing career? I can’t see a problem there. And even were they written in the 1590s, or 1580s for that matter, I would be circumspect about drawing too strong a biographical inference from the fact. I don’t know, or much care, if the personae of the sonnets mask real historical people – there is no way to reach a definitive conclusion since one can only argue by analogy – but I do know that Shakespeare was an extraordinary dramatic poet, so I don’t find it too much of a stretch to suppose that those personae are fictive. I’m certainly not aware of any contemporary evidence that the sonnets were read as a roman à clef at the time.

By way of contrast, George Gascoigne definitely did run into that problem with his 1573 collection A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres – see my blog here – and Jonson was repeatedly having to defend himself against accusations of slander. My point isn’t that such things didn’t happen – I suspect both Gascoigne and Jonson were guilty as charged – but that there is no evidence that anyone who would have known the principals allegedly behind Shakespeare’s sonnets thought that it did in this case.

Howard also says that for Shakespeare to have written Shakespeare he must have been “no ordinary mortal” to have accumulated all the detailed knowledge he did. I don’t accept either part of that statement. On the contrary, in most respects he strikes me as very ordinary on the basis of what we know – the shining exception being his talent, of course. (For the record, Oxford doesn’t strike as that remarkable either, but it proves nothing either way.) And I don’t think the plays display any particularly deep learning. Compare Jonson’s Sejanus, which is brilliantly woven out of countless classical sources, almost on a line-by-line basis, to any play of Shakespeare’s and you’ll see what I mean. Shakespeare’s knowledge strikes me as wide but shallow, and demonstrative of nothing that an intelligent, inquisitive man couldn’t have acquired as he moved through the many social worlds to which players had access. (I think players, by virtue of their fluid social status and the all-encompassing range of their audiences, had a perhaps unique ability to move between the various strata of Elizabethan society, but I’ll blog on this point another time.)

In any event, I think the cultural pressure to cement Shakespeare as the definitive genius of the English language – no ordinarly mortal and all that – leads to an intensity of focus on the man as reflected in the work that is, in itself, distorting. The truth is that when we marginalise the work of Shakespeare’s peers, which we do when we obsess about Shakespeare, he begins to float free from context, from the historical facts that moor him, and he drifts further into a fantasy world in which information can be assembled in almost any way in order to construct an argument.

As I said in my previous post, the Shakespeare industry itself has been largely responsible for this phenomenon; Oxfordians and other conspiracy theorists are merely reacting to it. Take Two Noble Kinsmen and Pericles, two plays which we have firm evidence to suggest that they were co-authored, with John Fletcher and George Wilkins respectively. I might be wrong, but is there any contemporary edition of either play which acknowledges their authorial status on the cover? Editors names, yes. Men who co-wrote actual plays, no. Whatever the introductions say, the way the plays are marketed reinforces the idea of Shakespeare as transcendent genius, and delegitimises that of him as a working man of the theatre, an inherently collaborative trade if ever there were one.

Even more, take Edward III. At least two major imprints have editions of this play in their Shakespeare series. (I’m thinking of Arden and Cambridge, I haven’t checked them all.) As far as I know, there is no factual basis for this assertion. Yes, there is a lot of fascinating – in places, perhaps even compelling – textual analysis which suggests his part-authorship is possible, even probable. But that doesn’t make it true. And if it is acceptable for reputable publishers to conjure up a new Shakespeare play to add to their lists without definitive evidence of the attribution, how can we criticise anti-Shakespeareans for mixing up their own stew of speculation and inference and presenting it as fact?

The other point Howard makes is about the sources for some of Shakespeare’s plays not being in languages we know him to have spoken. Since we don’t know what languages he knew, that is something of a moot point; one could just as easily argue – as Howard acknowledges – that he must have been able to speak French and Spanish, and so on, because the known sources of his plays are in those languages. It is only obvious to take the other possibility – that someone else wrote the plays – if you already think that someone else wrote the plays. But that isn’t the line I want to take.

I have several problems with the search for sources and the reliance on them for facts. Too often I think there is an implied causality which isn’t justified by the evidence. We take two known facts – the appearance of a story or a phrase in two documents and create a causal relationship: writer B has borrowed, consciously or otherwise, from writer A. But while there is sometimes an obvious historical connection between the two writers, more often than not the randomness of the survival of documents A and B is never taken into account. (And that’s not to mention the problems of accurate dating.)

The truth is that we only have a tiny fraction of the literary material that was once in circulation, and predicating theories – still less historical facts ­– on the basis of what now remains is fraught with difficulties. We may have lost as much as 75 per cent of Elizabethan drama; many other printed works from the period no longer exist; the vast majority of handwritten matter – still perhaps the principal means by which literature in its broadest sense was disseminated – is long destroyed.

Doesn’t Meres say that Jonson is one of the best for tragedy? Yet none of his tragedies from the 1590s survive. Two named plays Shakespeare’s appear to be lost. Who knows what else? I would guess – and it is a guess – that he wrote a good deal of apprentice work in the mid-to-late 1580s that has either not survived, or survives without his name attached. (I seem to recall the late John Berryman arguing that The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, which dates to 1582 but was published in 1589, was one such.)

Moreover, this was still very much an aural culture: people were trained to listen and remember in a way that is wholly alien to us. It follows, I think, that oral sources for even complex narratives cannot be excluded.

Absent other evidence – for example, the survival of writer B’s copy of book A – the transmission of the idea directly from one to the other is often no more than an assumption. To put that another way, the idea that writer B must have got the idea from book A is – on the basis of the surviving evidence and taking into account the fortuitousness of that survival – unsubstantiated. There are simply too many known unknowns for such certainty.

But I don’t think we need to impute bad faith in any of this. It is a very human thing to do, to discern a pattern in an otherwise random array of data. To take an example from my own work, Ralegh’s involvement with the circle around the Earl of Oxford has been long known, but – since Ralegh has traditionally been viewed, as he wanted to be, as a protestant hero in the fight against imperial catholicism – that involvement has often been written off as a brief period of intelligence-gathering towards the end of the 1570s on behalf of Walsingham or, more likely, Leicester. However, I have argued in The Favourite – *cough* all good booksellers *cough* – that Ralegh was a member of the group for several years and that this, therefore, together with other evidence from his riotous, rebellious early twenties in London, tells us a great deal about the young Ralegh, and his contarian, complex, difficult personality. Indeed, I argue that Ralegh’s association with this sometimes seditious, catholic clique also offers us some fresh insights into Ralegh’s political problems both in Elizabeth’s court and, later, on James’ accession. Clearly, I believe quite strongly in my interpretation of the facts; but that does not make my interpretation in itself a historical fact.

That is the trap that some Shakespeareans – and all anti-Shakespeareans – fall into. The Shakespeare industry has, for the last 150 years or so, been so desperate for biographical truths about the man that what are merely interpretations or readings become elevated to certainties, often based on the arbitrary survival of very scant evidence. As I say, it is an easy, human fault – I have no doubt that I will have been guilty of it in my work – but it is nevertheless something we have to guard against as best we can.

8 thoughts on “More on the Shakespeare authorship question

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  1. The purported old age of the author was merely a literary convention of the time, as can be discerned from reading the poetry of Richard Barnfield. The following passage is from Hyder Rollins, Variorum II:

    “RICHARD BARNFIELD’s name was presented long ago. DELIUS (Jahrbuch, 1865, I, 32), for example, referred to the sonnets as an analog of Barnfield’s Affectionate Shepheard, 1594. This notion was restated by W. C. HAZLITT in 1902 (Shakespear, pp. 206 f.). POOLER (ed. 1918, pp. xxxv f.) supplied details: in the sonnets to his male friend Sh. was perhaps “taking a hint from Barnfield’s Affectionate Shepheard. In the person of the shepherd, Daphnis, Barnfield praises the beauty of the boy Ganymede, warns him that this beauty is perishable, declares his love for him, and laments that he has a rival in a woman whose love is light. Moreover, he advises him to marry, warns him against profligacy, expatiates on the courtier’s fawning for his prince’s favour, and on change and decay….And he is even more emphatic than Shakespeare in asserting that his own years are past the best….[though he]was about 20….

    So, Barnfield was in his early twenties at the time he wrote poetry in which the author claims to be old and past his prime.

  2. Thanks for your balanced article. If you don’t think that Shakespeare’s Sonnets have any relevance to external events, there really isn’t much to say. It seems like a rationalization for the fact that William of Stratford has no biographical connection to the Sonnets (or the plays for that matter). My sense is that if the Stratfordians discovered some biographical point of Shaksper’s life that was reflected in the plays or Sonnets, they would be trumpeting them to the heavens.

    The Sonnets are as real as any literature I have ever read, full of reflection, pain, suffering, loss, and yes a gentle beauty. I would sooner believe that the Psalms of David were nothing more than a literary exercise that I would of Shake-speare’s Sonnets.

    As far as dating is concerned, the last referenced date is 1603, the year when Queen Elizabeth died. When the Sonnets were published without Shaksper’s participation, they were referred to as from “our ever-living author”, a phrase normally referring to a deceased author.

    The first 17 Sonnets are written to the “Fair Youth”, who most scholars agree was Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. In those Sonnets the poet is urging the youth to marry and procreate, speaking as one who cares deeply about the boy. The exact nature of their relationship is speculative but it is more than likely as a father to a son. Since during the period 1590-92 he was being urged to marry Elizabeth Vere, daughter of Edward by Lord Burghley, it is a fair assumption that theses Sonnets were written at that time.

    As far as his knowledge is concerned, this is a man who had a vocabulary of 20,000 to 30,000 words and is said to have coined 2,000 new ones. According to Sir George Greenwood, barrister-at-law and member of parliament writing in his book “The Shakespeare Problem Restated”, Shakespeare had a “deep technical knowledge of the law” and an “easy familiarity with some of the most abstruse proceedings in English jurisprudence”.

    “Legal phrases flow from his pen as part of his vocabulary, and parcel of his thought.” He seems to have had “thought in legal phrase, the commonest of legal expressions were ever at the end of his pen in description or illustration”.

    Shakespeare’s knowledge of Italy was also not obtained from books or conversation. Dr. Ernesto Grillo in his “Shakespeare and Italy” says of “The Merchant of Venice”. “The topography is so precise and accurate that it must convince even the most superficial reader that the poet visited the country”. To verify this, read “The Shakespeare Guide to Italy” by Richard Paul Roe.

    Further, according to Dr. Samuel M. Dodek of the George Washington University School of Medicine said “Shakespeare had enough knowledge of medicine to rate hanging out his own shingle as an Elizabethan M.D.”

    The list goes on. Extensive in-depth knowledge of art, nature, music, experiences of war and the sea too detailed to begin to describe here but observable throughout the canon.

    We say that Shaksper could have picked up all this knowledge by talking to friends and hanging out in the Mermaid Tavern. This assaults both logic and common sense.

    1. It’s probably pointless to reply to a six-year-old post, but I’d just like to point out that Mr. Schumann’s arguments for accepting someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of the canon rest on some very tenuous assertions. To mention only one: “The exact nature of their relationship is speculative but it is more than likely as a father to a son.”

      “More than likely” to whom? This is certainly not a consensus opinion. In her essay for the Folger edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Lynne Magnusson writes: “The speaker sounds like a humanist tutor instructing an aristocratic youth in the duties of his class.”

      If Oxfordians are going to convince us that the Fair Youth sonnets are written from a father to a son — and more significantly, that a vast cover-up has deceived the public into attributing the canon to the wrong author — they will need stronger evidence.

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