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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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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