Janet Suzman Skewers the Oxfordians

01v/11/arve/G2582/016

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

chriscuba-001

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.

masks-001

The Shakespeare Controversy

01v/11/arve/G2582/016Perhaps many of you will have heard that there is a sort of controversy over Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. I shouldn’t really describe it as a controversy because it isn’t, or it shouldn’t be; a controversy exists when there is some doubt about one side of an argument, when there are two sides to an argument and no matter how tenuous one side is, there is some substance to it. Over eighty alternative authors have been put forward for alternative authorship; they have one thing in common: there is not a scrap of evidence for any of them.

This is a subject that, since I became aware of it, has made me quite angry. I have tried to ignore it, but it always creeps back; you see even the ‘Does it matter’ arguments are annoying. Of course it matters. I shall try, briefly, to explain.

Apparently, doubt as to the authorship of his works began in the mid-nineteenth century, well over 200 years after his death. Friends and colleagues of his time had no doubt about his identity; they worked and socialised with him; Ben Johnson said of him that he

‘never blotted a line, would that he had blotted a thousand’.

It seems to have taken rather a long time for people to question his identity. A paucity of evidence from his life has helped, giving doubters ammunition to invent and speculate, but despite the paucity there is ample evidence that he was the author of the works. It takes a rather strange mind to doubt it. Unfortunately, especially now, there are plenty of strange minds around. And, I repeat (it can’t be repeated too often), there is not a scrap of evidence for anyone else having written his works. None whatsoever.

This poses the question as to why there are doubters. If we discount those always keen on any conspiracy theories and those with a vested interests (often lawyers), we are left with a relatively small bunch who simply refuse to believe that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This is important; it is not that they truly believe any alternative, although they profess to do so, it is that they merely refuse to believe the truth. There is a reason for this: it is called snobbery.

The most popular fantasy today is that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays, supposedly because only an aristocrat could have known so much about court behaviour, Italian history and poetry. As Bill Bryson has observed, this does make it rather difficult for him to have written Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, The Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and many others, on account of being dead. But his champions merely point out that there was a conspiracy and evidence was falsified to protect Oxford’s identity. Why it needed to be protected or why it has taken nearly 400 years to discover this, does not seem to concern them. The Oxfordians have some quite well-known followers, Jeremy Irons, Vanessa Redgrave, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance among them.

The fact that there is any controversy at all is extremely irritating, indeed US writer James Shapiro felt the need to write a recent book, Contested Will, to try and end the argument once and for all. It would have been much better had he used his time more productively – he is a marvellous writer on Shakespeare generally – but felt compelled to write on this topic when an 8 year old in his class expressed doubts as to the authorship (the debate, of course, is quite popular in America). I’m afraid that, having reached America and the lawyers and the film makers, even Shapiro’s excellent book will not make the doubters disappear. Although very much a minority, they are vociferous and probably growing. A film with Vanessa Redgrave and Derek Jacobi has already been made. Thankfully, it was awful.

But back to snobbery. Shakespeare has been described as looking like a ‘self-satisfied pork butcher’; he liked money; he hoarded grain; he lent money; he bought a coat of arms and a new house (called New Place) in Stratford. He was far from both the aristocracy and the poor, grammar school educated (a classical education) and with a father on the wrong side of the law. All this is too much for those who need him to be a bit more refined, a bit more superior, a bit more above everybody else. Pork butcher? Money lending? Hoarding grain? A criminal father? No, we can’t have that.

This is where the snobbery comes in. The likes of Irons, Jacobi and Redgrave need to have the author of such wonderful works as somebody a little better than them. Having never struggled to pay a bill, never struggled with anything really, they can’t accept that an ordinary boy from Stratford could be so much smarter than they are, be so wiser than they are – be so utterly brilliant. So they have to believe that it was really an aristocrat who wrote the plays; lacking any evidence for anybody, other than an aristocrat who happened to be dead when many of the plays were written, they cling desperately to an illusion. What awful, silly people they must be.

masks-001Shakespeare was so brilliant, so good, partly because he wasn’t a member of the aristocracy, wasn’t tainted by privilege and received ideas.  He hadn’t been brainwashed by a university education. He was real and he knew people. He lived among them in London, he visited pubs and brothels; he knew and understood life. He is one of us, one of the people – he is ours. That is what the likes of Jacobi cannot abide. They have to try and raise Shakespeare above us. They simply cannot stand the fact that he was an ordinary person and, more importantly, that ordinary people are capable of being Shakespeare – that there may be another Shakespeare out there among the masses. They would have to admit that it was possible, that there is more possibility among the masses than their privileged upbringing and lack of brainpower allows.

That is also why the question of authorship matters, that the greatest writer of all time was ordinary is very important. It should give inspiration to everybody. Allow these idiots to give the credit to an aristocrat and you rob the whole world of the possibility of great achievement. It matters.

I don’t have much space to go into the question of proof for Shakespeare’s authorship, I shouldn’t need to, but feel it necessary to mention a couple of things. The forest is a recurring theme in his plays. I quote from Peter Ackroyd’s biography:

“To the north of Stratford lay the Forest of Arden. When Touchstone enters the woods in As You Like It, he declares ‘I, now I am in Arden, the more foole I’. Shakespeare’s mother was Mary Arden.  Anne Hathaway lived on the outskirts of the forest.  His consciousness of the area was close and intense. The evidence of Shakespeare’s work provides evidence that he was neither born nor raised in the city. He doesn’t have the harshness of John Milton, born in Bread Street, nor the hardness of Ben Jonson, educated at Westminster School; the sharpness of Alexander Pope from the City or the obsessiveness of William Blake from Soho. He is of the country.”

On the question of snobbery I quote from an interview with Bill Bryson about his excellent short biography of Shakespeare:

Interviewer: Is it snobbery? He was a relatively ordinary man from a relatively ordinary background and they want him to be an aristocrat or somebody sort of special.

Bryson: That is really quite insulting to ordinary people. The idea that you could come from a modest background and that somehow that would disqualify you from being William Shakespeare is really a very demeaning thought. There’s no evidence for it. There never has been any evidence for it.

Oxfordians cannot explain Shakespeare’s knowledge of the country and its people. His knowledge of the cities came from living with them, his knowledge of Roman history from Plutarch. He was mainly an adaptor, he took other works and improved them. He wrote what are still some of the best parts for women, 400 years before feminism. He understood both men and women. He was modest; I’m sure he would be baffled by all the fuss about him today, although I’m sure he would take advantage of it.

Academics are generally very polite. In all the works stating (again) that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, they are very kind to the likes of Irons, Redgrave and Jacobi. They shouldn’t be; these people are a menace. They are snobs and idiots, too stupid to realise the damage they are causing. I suppose the best thing now would be to ignore them. I try to, but unfortunately they keep cropping up on television. It’s hard to see a solution.

To the Tower with them?

tol-001