Janet Suzman Skewers the Oxfordians

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I have just finished an interesting book by Janet Suzman, a fine Shakespearean actress. She played one of the best Cleopatras I’ve seen in 1974 and produced and directed a brilliant Othello in Johannesburg in 1987. The book, Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama, deals primarily with women and acting, a topic I will return to later. But here I’ll just reference her first chapter, A Rogue Prologue: A heartfelt plea for a bit of common sense. The chapter deals with those who believe the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays and although Suzman is very reluctant to address the topic, she writes:

Obfuscations shot through with cant, piffle and deception seems to me a poor subject for deep analysis. Furthermore to waste good millions on a lousy film to defend the indefensible seems both profligate and time-wasting. Even spending my time on this counter-blast is irritating. But I find myself wanting to defend the man from Stratford here; the one person in the universe who doesn’t need my defence. But there you go, he’s got it.

She says that the fact that Oxford lived almost concurrently with Shakespeare, had travelled, had some connections and ‘wrote a few poems of uneven quality’ seems to have ‘addled the brains’ of the Oxfordians.

For your Oxfordian, it’s impossible for a writer to conjure up another world in the imagination, he has to have been there, which for a start puts the entire range of science fiction into the rubbish bin. The notion that you can’t write about anything until you have-been-there-done-that is just silly.

Later she writes:

Because you have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine the Earl of Oxford secretly wrote thirty seven plays performed and printed over a quarter of a century without being found out. And you have to be a snob if you hate it that the greatest poet the world has ever produced was born into the humble alder-manic classes of a provincial town.

Janet Suzman admits she is no academic. All the better for that. She has just spent a lifetime among actors, theatre companies and the works of Shakespeare. And guess what? Actors, directors – the whole crew – talk to each other.

Has it never occurred to this bunch of dreamers how such a daft plot might work in a busy theatre company? No whispers and sniggers about such a plonking modus operandi, a deception stretching over twenty-five years? Did this doltish William of theirs never crow in his cups about his secret benefactor and his growing wealth? Did the company never notice how illiterate Will had suddenly turned scribe, brandishing inky cue-sheets under their noses, scribbly fingers freshly stained? Did no one ever mark how rewrites – for rewrites there surely were – happened only after William had returned from a loo-break?

I was pleased that she mentioned the most obvious reason the Earl of Oxford did not write the plays: the fact that he died in 1604.

Not to mention that the earl dies in 1604 and Shakespeare lasts until 1616, but hey, no worries, the late plays secretly mature in the company cellar like bottles of vintage claret, to be broached one by one with a flourish when a new play is required. In the silly film a pile of the late plays are tremblingly handed by the dying earl to Ben Jonson for safekeeping. Ben then manages to hide them in a tin trunk beneath the stage. For nine years those plays lie safe, undiscovered by prying prop hands. Then the terrible Globe fire of 1613 happens, and lo! – they are rescued by a panic-stricken Ben.

One can almost hear Suzman chuckling as she writes, fed up with (yet again) having to rescue Shakespeare from the idiot Oxfordians, but nevertheless quite enjoying destroying their case with accuracy and humour. I only have space for a few of her arguments here, but she picks off the Oxfordian arguments one by one in her (highly recommended) book. The many people who knew Shakespeare?

For heaven’s sake – we have at least a dozen known contemporaries of his who knew him well and who mention him both as an author and an actor, a continuous series of traces left from him from 1592 until his death in 1616.

She supplies several (much deserved) digs at the ‘infuriating circumstantial wooliness of the Oxfordians.’

Not only a dreadful snobbery pervades their view, but a limiting literalness that is hard to fathom, especially as some of the more famous adherents have perfectly respectable imaginations of their own. Remember that not a single trace is discernible in the Oxfordian paper-chase. It’s all smoke and snobbery.

smokeShe has little sympathy or feeling for Oxford, although she refrains from mentioning that he lived beyond his means, owed everybody money and cruelly murdered one of his servants.

The poor Earl of Oxford’s life, such as we know it, is way too complicated, not to mention too short, to have fitted into the sneaky diurnal disguise devised for him. Writing, directing and acting in a slew of your own plays, in a company of performers who knew you well, in a town abuzz with gossip and rivalry, for a quarter of a century is really more than enough for any one man to have accomplished. To have somehow feigned all this, God knows how, without being rumbled, simply beggars belief.

She signs off with

Oxford did not write the plays. William Shakespeare of Stratford is the man who knows the quiet industry of creation and the hurly-burly of staging it. It’s as simple as that. Otherwise we are truly away with leprechauns.

Leprechauns maybe. I would be less polite. To the Tower with all of them.

Not Hamlet: Meditations on the Frail Position of Women in Drama

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