A very brief summary of the Oxfordians…

wsmontage-001It is hard to decide when the Oxfordians came to prominence. Before the Oxfordian renaissance there had also been claims for Christopher Marlowe and Roger Manners, the fifth Earl of Rutland, among many others. It is not entirely clear when Edward de Vere emerged from the pack; it was possibly when John Thomas Looney wrote “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford certainly became a popular candidate around that time.

The originator of Oxford’s claims (and author of the best book on the subject), John Thomas Looney, claimed great artists do not write for money and that Shakespeare ‘had an ‘acquisitive disposition’ and indulged in ‘habitual petty money transactions.’ But if this disqualified Shakespeare, does it somehow qualify Oxford who, according to the Dictionary of National Biography written by Alan Nelson, was

’notorious in his own time for his irregular life, and for squandering virtually his entire patrimony on personal extravagance.’

He was also

‘Eternally short of funds, he did not scruple to burden lesser men with his debts.’

Oxford stabbed a servant to death, but was exonerated when the authorities decided that the servant had deliberately impaled himself on Oxford’s knife, thereby committing suicide. Do Shakespeare’s plays give the impression that they were written by a very nasty piece of work – a cold blooded murderer?

It is also interesting that Macbeth, King Lear, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, Pericles, The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline and Henry VIII were all written after Oxford’s death. Looney believed that the plays were written before Oxford died and posthumously released or left incomplete and finished by other writers, which would also explain references to events that occurred after Oxford had died. This is rather clever because it naturally discounts any claim against it. If it is true. It isn’t, of course.

In 1921 Looney said that ‘circumstantial evidence cannot be accumulated for ever without at some point issuing in proof.’ Yet proof there has never been. There must also be a good reason why the murderer de Vere, the greatest poet of all time, would suppress his identity. The answer was that Oxford was the secret lover of Queen Elizabeth I, their affair producing a son: the Earl of Southampton. This theory was later modified. According to Oxfordians, de Vere was not only Elizabeth’s lover but her son as well: the lie that Elizabeth was the Virgin Queen led indirectly to the lie that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays. A continuous series of cover ups on the part of authority, the Tudor Court and hundreds of academics remained committed to protecting Oxford’s identity and denying him his rightful place. So desperate were the Oxfordians for proof that Percy Allen, President of the Shakespeare Fellowship, decided he would gain the necessary proof by conversing with the dead. He published Talks with Elizabethans, an account of his conversations with Oxford, Bacon and Shakespeare. Shakespeare later thanked him for his efforts.

For many years after Allen’s revelations the Oxfordians seemed dead on their feet. In 1968 their newsletter reported that

‘the missionary or evangelical spirit of most of our members seems to be at a low ebb, dormant or non-existent.’

A biographer of Shakespeare, Samuel Schoenbaum, fed up with having to plod through so many questioning accounts said in 1974 that their

‘voluminousness was only matched by their intrinsic worthlessness. It was lunatic rubbish. The produce of mania.’

By the mid-1980s it had become the habit of the media to give both sides in any controversy an equal hearing. Any point of view, no matter how mad, demanded equal time with its opposite view. Oxfordians took their chance. Now, many years later, we have Vanessa Redgrave and Jeremy Irons as supporters of the cause; children’s bookshops stock Oxfordian titles; magazines feature the Oxfordian cause; the New York Times runs sympathetic articles; Supreme Court justices declare themselves Oxfordians; supporters around the world are able to join discussion groups and Oxfordians have their own peer reviewed journals. The Oxfordians have come a long way. The Oxfordian case has the advantage of appealing to the sort of people who doubt the circumstances of Princess Diana’s death or Marilyn Monroe or Kurt Cobain – Elvis still alive on the moon anyone?

Oxfordians needed to tone down their wilder conspiracy theories now that they were being taken seriously. Talk was shelved of sexual dalliance with Queen Elizabeth and the Tudor Prince. Peter Moore told fellow Oxfordians in 1996 to

‘Face reality on the Prince Tudor business, and submit it to proper historical scrutiny. If you can’t make or listen to the strongest arguments that can be made against your own theories, then you’d better keep them to yourself.’

Fairly intelligent use of Google and Wikipedia has gained the Oxfordians many more followers. So many people are keen to join any controversy and they now have the means: the Internet. A very silly film has been made. The Oxfordians have become a conspiracy theorist’s wet dream.

This has happened without one single piece of evidence to support Oxfordian claims.

This of course is a very brief summary of the Oxfordians. Their history is so bizarre and convoluted that any full and detailed account of their beliefs is impossible. There are many, many ways to counter Oxfordian claims; I will slowly go through them over the coming months. Here’s just one for now.

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The number of Shakespeare’s works that filled Elizabethan bookshops is relevant. Publishers usually restricted printings to 1500 copies. Fifty thousand copies of seventy different publications bearing Shakespeare’s name were circulating in his lifetime. He was an actor, sharer and playwright for the most popular company in the country and also very well known about town and in court. If, during the twenty five years that Shakespeare was acting and writing in London, he turned out to be an imposter, and not the writer whose plays the people had watched and purchased, I think somebody would have spotted it. Someone would have mentioned it.

Nobody did.

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A few more reasons why Shakespeare was the man from Stratford…

 

01v/11/arve/G2582/016It is often noted by anti-Stratfordians that Ben Jonson said of Shakespeare that he had ‘small Latin and less Greek’. This is often, out of context, taken to mean that Shakespeare had almost no classical knowledge and, by extension, was uneducated. The comment was actually an extended compliment to Shakespeare, where Jonson said that Shakespeare eclipsed not only his contemporaries but the ancients. He outshone Lyly, Kyd and Marlowe and though he ‘had small Latin and less Greek he stood alone in comparison for comedy and tragedy with all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.’ Anyway, most authors had small Latin and less Greek when compared with Jonson’s prodigious classical learning.

 

Shakespeare left school well equipped. By the time a grammar-school boy left his school he had as much classical education as a university student of Classics today. Of course education does not stop on leaving school. Shakespeare read medieval poetry (Chaucer, Gower), Italian fiction (Boccaccio, Cinthio), contemporary history (Holinshed), ancient history (Plutarch), contemporary romance (Philip Sydney, Robert Greene), Greek romance (Apollodorus), and contemporary philosophy (Montaigne).  Richard Field, a printer, was a contemporary of Shakespeare in Stratford and the printer of his first poems. It is remarkable that Field also printed many sources of Shakespeare’s plays: Ovid, Plutarch and Holinshed, three of Shakespeare’s favourite texts. It is clear that Shakespeare kept up with new ideas and literary discoveries as they reached the English market.

 

It is often alleged that the level of technical knowledge of certain areas of Shakespeare’s plays – such as the law or the court – is not compatible with that of a grammar-school boy. This strange assertion is often behind attempts to prove that Shakespeare was not the man from Stratford. Thus an argument is created that for legal knowledge the plays must have been written by a lawyer (Francis Bacon) or that for knowledge of the court the plays must have been written by an aristocrat (the Earl of Oxford). Similar arguments have been made for Shakespeare’s knowledge of birds, botany or seafaring. This is a very strange line of thought. It assumes that authors depend on their own professional experiences. Shakespeare did not need to be a lawyer to gain legal knowledge, especially in extremely litigious Elizabethan times; he was involved in at least six legal cases himself. Court life was familiar to Shakespeare, especially after the Chamberlain’s men were invited to perform there. To believe that only lawyers can make legal references or that only aristocrats know of the court, misses a crucial aspect of being a writer: imagination. Added to the undoubted research that Shakespeare indulged in, there is nothing in his plays that could not have come from close observation of the world around him; of human idiosyncrasy, hypocrisy, humanity, compassion, politics and paradoxes.

 

Shakespeare was intellectually proximate with Montaigne. Montaigne was a psychological philosopher, whereas Shakespeare was psychological dramatist. Gonzalo’s speech on the ideal commonwealth in The Tempest comes from Montaigne’s essay On Cannibals. Montaigne’s influence on Shakespeare’s language is interesting. Montaigne’s Essays were introduced to the English speaking world in 1603. Shakespeare must have read it because after 1603 Coffin Taylor identified 750 parallels, words and phrases that were not in Shakespeare’s language before. All the examples are too numerous to mention, but there is ‘concupisible’ in Montaigne (translated)  and Measure for Measure; ‘harping’ and ‘pregnant wit’ in Montaigne and Hamlet and ‘chirurgions’ in Montaigne and The Tempest. Many, many new words and phrases appeared in tandem with Montaigne after 1603. The Earl of Oxford died in 1604.

 

Another strange question regarding Shakespeare involves travel. How did he gain knowledge of ancient Greece (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida), ancient Rome (Julius Caesar, Coriolanus, Romeo and Juliet), Egypt (Cleopatra) and ancient Britain (King Lear, Cymbeline). Well, the answer is obvious: he didn’t go to these places; he read about them. Nothing in Shakespeare’s use of foreign locations requires more knowledge than might be gained easily from reading or gained from an existing story. Shakespeare set Romeo and Juliet in Verona because that is where Arthur Brooke set the poem that is the play’s source. If he didn’t already have a story to adapt then there is nothing in the plays that could not be discovered from reading Plutarch or Ovid.

 

Anti-Stratfordians have often claimed that Shakespeare’s plays require direct knowledge of foreign locations and that, since there is evidence that Shakespeare never travelled, the plays must have been written by someone who travelled to Europe. This is a ridiculous argument. Edward de Vere travelled in Europe as a young man in the 1570s. This is often cited as one of the reasons why he, and not Shakespeare, wrote the plays and poems. Although the travel may open up the possibility of his being the author, his rather negligible poetic skill somewhat diminished his claims. Shakespeare’s career shows that it is possible to write great plays without actually visiting the places those plays are set in. Oxford shows us, very clearly, that travel does not necessarily lead to great writing.

 

To me, the fact that Oxford died in 1604 rather discounts him anyway, and, of course, he made no claims himself. To get around that fact we have all sorts of conspiracy theories from people desperate to believe that the plays were not the product of the ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’ from Stratford. Shakespeare was an ordinary man with an extraordinary talent. Some people find that hard to accept. Poor them.

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Blocked…

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I spent most of December in Cuba. Apart from the usual fun aspects, my intention was to read for a week, write a few blogs and get on with my novel. The first draft of the novel was complete. I had to go through it and tidy the whole thing up. I significantly changed the plot and finished the whole thing quite easily. I knew the end of the novel but couldn’t quite decide how to write it. With a few days left I decided to leave ending the novel until I got home.

 

Five weeks later I still haven’t finished it. I tinkered a little with the earlier chapters but have not even looked at the ending. For the first week, and then two, I thought it was just jet lag or being back at work, but work has been easy and jet lag only lasts a few days. It is very strange; I am forcing myself to write this, trying to get myself back in the mood, back in the writing mood. Writing is never easy, but sometimes it flows, and the writing I’ve done during the past year suddenly seems to have been very easy (it wasn’t), compared to now. How did I do it?

 

I have written one blog since Cuba, the one about an argument in the street and the heavy police response. It said something about crime in Havana, about crime in Cuba – I was pleased with it. Although it didn’t get much response, I thought it neatly summed up much about Cuba: the nature of their arguments, quickly over and forgotten, the temperament of the people and the fact that crime is almost non-existent. It was a short piece but I felt I could return to it in more detail, explain it more fully. But since then – nothing. Blocked.

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Blocked. It’s over two weeks since I wrote anything and I have not even looked at my novel for three weeks. At first you look for excuses, but now I must admit that blocked is what it is. Writing this is like swimming through treacle or going into work with the flu – I really don’t want to do it. Norman Mailer described the difficulties well:

Writing every day is a depressing activity. Sometimes after two hours of writing I feel as if I’ve done seven hours of manual labour.

Of course Norman Mailer is referring to the general difficulty of writing, not being blocked. He was an incredibly industrious writer and didn’t always find it so hard. Throughout his life though, despite enormous success, he had to keep working, mainly to pay for his five ex-wives and his numerous children.

 

Writing this does feel like seven hours of manual labour, but I feel that I must get back into it, and perhaps writing about being blocked is as good a way as any of removing the block. And as Norman Mailer put it:

One must be able to do a good day’s work on a bad day, and indeed, that is a badge of honour decent professionals are entitled to wear.

I feel I have had too many bad days (in terms of writing) and must, if I want to be a writer, continue, even though it is the last thing I want to do. I still want to earn that ‘badge of honour’ that Mailer neatly applies to professionals – you simply must be willing to work on a bad day.

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Life is fine apart from the writing. Most things are going quite well. It is at times like this that one echoes Hemingway, when one would rather be anything but a writer, when any other occupation or pastime seems enormously attractive:

I would rather have a good life than be a bloody great writer.

There is a strong temptation to feel like this, that any occupation is better. Hemingway managed to make his life startlingly unhappy, but as he said about his friend F Scott Fitzgerald:

Scott took literature so seriously. He never understood that it was just writing as well as you can and finishing what you start.

And Hemingway’s unhappiness was more to do with his personal life than his writing. He ruined his talent and lost his friends. Writing gave him the means to be happy; his character made him unhappy, and probably would have made him unhappy whatever he’d done.

I haven’t returned to my novel for a long time. I’m not sure why that is: if I think it isn’t good enough or if I think it is good but am nervous of the reaction – I really don’t know.

Writing was not always a chore for Norman Mailer. When he was working on a book his routine, which he kept to, was seven hours of writing a day, at least four days of the week. And it wasn’t all suffering; on some days he was:

…manic, alive, filled every day with the excitement and revelation of everything I see.

He apparently always had an aura ‘that projected a love of life’; one of his admirers said she was:

…amazed to see how jolly Mailer was; most of the writers she knew were anxious and unhappy.

I suppose I would like to follow the Mailer model, not exactly, but certainly in his love of life. Too many writers are miserable, see everything as an unpleasant task and write negatively about life. I may be blocked, but I’ve started again with this, poor as it may be. I will get to my novel again soon and finish it. Who knows what the response will be. I hope it’s good, but if it isn’t, well at least I will have completed it. And there’s plenty more where it came from. Well, there will be, just as soon as I rid myself of this writer’s block.

And ultimately I know there is only one way to do it. As GK Chesterton said:

 

“Apply the seat of the pants to chair and remain there until it’s finished.”

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