Q: Daryl, in your extensive research that went into writing Marlowe's Ghost, certainly you formulated some opinions regarding Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. What do you make of the theory that de Vere authored the works we attribute to Shakespeare, clearly the most popular of the alternate authorship theories?
Daryl: You're right, Carlo, Edward de Vere is by far the most popular of the alternative Shakespeare candidates, but he wasn't the first. In the 19th century Francis Bacon was the go-to-guy, but that movement seems to have exhausted itself due to its heavy reliance on cryptography, an approach that's been largely discredited. The mantle then settled on the Oxford movement, which gained prominence in the first half of the 20th century and still holds sway. The Marlowe movement, latecomers to the party, didn't get off the ground until Calvin Hoffman's 1955 The Murder of the Man Who was "Shakespeare", so we had some catching up to do. As you would expect, I believe that Marlowe will eventually replace Oxford as the focal point of Shakespeare skepticism. Here's why.
The Oxford claim is based on his education, extensive travel, access to (and participation in) court intrigue - all weaknesses in the Stratford case. Add to this the fact that he was spoken of as a poet and playwright in contemporary documents, who, like many other aristocrats, kept some of his work hidden from the braying masses. He was also credited with having a countenance that "shakes speares," a military metaphor stretching back to Greek hoplite warfare. To their credit, the Oxford case relies much less on cryptography than the Bacon claim. Instead, books about Oxford's claim to Shakespeare's works point to a vast number of similarities between Oxford's biography and events in the Shakespeare plays and sonnets.
But the problem with mining the Shakespeare canon for biographical linkages to Oxford, or any other candidate for that matter, is the extraordinary breadth of the author's creation. The complete works of Shakespeare comprise an entire world of experience. Stephen Greenblatt and Michael Wood have written exhaustively about the biographical connections in the works to the Stratford man: the many instances of Warwickshire words, family and place names, the references to gloves, leather goods and epaulettes, references to grain and harvesting, loans and debt, the actor's life, the agony of separation from family, the death of Hamnet, the complex relationship with Anne, etc. It all sounds incontrovertible. But read Brenda James's book on Sir Henry Neville, or any of the various books promoting de Vere, and you are presented with equally compelling cases employing the same general argument.
Rodney Bolt's tongue-in-cheek biography of Christopher Marlowe, History Play, brilliantly illustrated the folly of relying solely on this approach. Bolt lists Canterbury references in the Shakespeare canon - names, words, family names, places - as evidence of Marlowe's authorship of the plays. He applies the loose rules of Shakespearean (and Oxfordian) biography instead to Marlowe and constructs an equally convincing case. But Bolt never lets his reader forget where he stands - he's playing with the Shakespeare canon. It's a devastating indictment of New Historicism-based biographical reaching.
The case for Shakespeare is weak, but the case for Oxford is even weaker. Oxford made no attempt to hide the fact that he wrote poetry and plays from his peers. Accounts make him seem quite proud, and yet the writing that has survived in his name (the work of a mature, educated man) is clearly that of an amateur. Yet Oxfordians would have us believe that at the same time he allowed middling poesy to circulate in his name, he deliberately withheld his name from benign works of pure genius. To what end? This is a “dead in its tracks” argument. There is no getting past it.
Marlowe, on the other hand, wrote plays and poetry in the years preceding the 1593 Deptford incident which are indistinguishable from the early Shakespeare works. This is the consensus of more than a century of mainstream scholarship. If William Shakespeare did act as a front for some writer who needed to hide, and this is a big if, there really is only one credible candidate - Christopher Marlowe.
© The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, December 2008 Emmerich Shakespeare
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