It seems sensible that the approach to Shakespeare’s biography should be detached and scientific to yield meaningful and worthwhile results. However, many participants appear to connect so emotionally to their particular beliefs that they will go to great lengths to protect them; the destruction or creation of evidence has even been alleged. Why would someone do that? Let us dwell on this for a moment. I can grasp someone defending the reputation of the author by foul means, out of a misplaced loyalty, evolved from a love of the plays. Whilst reprehensible, I can at least understand that mentality. However, no one seeks to denigrate the plays or playwright; non-Stratfordians are merely seeking to identify him. Surely, any loyalty to Shakespeare of Stratford results solely from the belief that he wrote the works. If evidence contradicts that, why is there a continuing attachment to this man? Instead, one would think that former supporters, drawn to the Stratford man by the works, would be moved to seek the true author with renewed vigour; keen to find the bringer of joy, deserving of their hitherto misplaced admiration, denied to him for 400 years.
It could be that my expectations have been unreasonably raised by my long associations with those people I call “Scientific Historians.” Archaeologists and palaeontologists examine evidence and frequently extrapolate their findings to draw theoretical conclusions. However, in doing that (in my experience) they seek to uncover the truth and, furthermore, present the full evidence, enabling others to draw their own conclusions. Though I am sure there are bad apples in every barrel, personally I am yet to encounter a situation where these people distort or hold back evidence. Moreover, I have witnessed the joy as they uncover new evidence that destroys their own existing beliefs, and long-held theories are constantly adjusted to accommodate those changes.
I dismay at the scholarship standards applied to the Shakespearean authorship issue, on both sides of the argument. Unavoidably, the lack of facts requires the derivation of theories based on circumstantial evidence. My own piece on "William Shakespeare, Businessman" is merely my interpretation of what the evidence leads me to conclude. If facts were presented conflicting with this view, then I would adjust the relevant aspect or, indeed, the entire theory, if necessary. Therein lies the difference; those seeking the truth are constantly reassessing the data to find a suitable conclusion. However, Stratfordian scholars already have the immovable verdict; they are stuck with the conclusion that the Stratford man is the author. What chance does this give them of reaching a reasoned conclusion? Worse still, the necessity for “William Shakespeare of Stratford” to be the universal answer inevitably evolves into deceiving the general public and twisting arguments to manipulate opinions. Surely, this is wrong. Again, I have no problem with their having a theory to fit the known facts, but give the public the whole truth with which they too can form a valid opinion.
I am sure many readers will be shocked to read such allegations and call for me to be pelted with rancid fruit in the Stratford stocks for even suggesting such a thing. In that event, and as an appeal for clemency, here are several cases to illustrate my point.
This is a classic quote, regarding Shakespeare, from Collier in 1857: “A young man, so gifted, would not, and could not, wait until he was five or six and twenty before he made considerable and most successful attempts at poetical composition.” Excellent, some sanity at last; it appears Collier doubts Shakespeare’s authorship of Venus and Adonis. No, I’m afraid not, for he continues: “[W]e feel morally certain that 'Venus and Adonis' was in being anterior to Shakespeare's quitting Stratford [widely believed to be 1587]…it seems to have been written in the open air of a fine country like Warwickshire, with all the freshness of the recent impression of natural objects." For just one second there, I thought Collier had seen the light.
Shakespeare was age 29 when Venus and Adonis was published in 1593. The “five or six and twenty” used by Collier was his supposed age when he arrived in London. Notwithstanding this, can you see Collier’s problem? His logic dictated that Shakespeare would not have produced his first work at age 25 or 26, never mind at 29. However, it was equally impossible for Collier to conclude that Shakespeare did not write the poem, since that would contradict all that Collier held sacred. The only choice he had was to dispute the date of the work.
My bewilderment is not limited to nineteenth-century scholars. Jonathan Bate discussed, with Michael Rubbo in Much Ado About Something, how “we know” Marlowe could not write comedy. His justification was that Henslowe’s diary records payments to Mr. Bird and Mr. Rowley for the comic scenes in Dr. Faustus. Bate cannot be faulted, insofar as everything he said was, indeed, true. However, the facts he omitted tell us far more about the play and, significantly, Bate himself, than the truth he spoke.
Dr. Faustus was a very successful play; the Admiral’s Men performed it at least 25 times between 1594 and 1597. It is widely believed to have been first performed at least as early as 1592. All of which Mr. Bate surely knows. What he must also know is that the payments to Bird and Rowley were not made until 1602. Furthermore, I assume Bate is aware that the earliest extant copy of that play is Text A from 1604 (at best, prepared from foul papers). We can only guess at Bird and Rowley’s additions by comparing this earliest text with a 1616 extended version, known as Text B, not exactly a satisfactory solution. Therefore, Bate is judging Marlowe based on a play that had been enormously successful for as long as ten years before these scenes were added. Even now, Bate has never seen a copy of Marlowe’s original play so that he can properly judge the author’s vision. That is not acceptable scholarship, for me, from someone whose opinion will be taken as fact by an unsuspecting public. Can you imagine, 400 years from now, having no copies of Peter Sellers's work, we deduce that he could not play comedy because Steve Martin added comic lines to The Pink Panther?
If readers consider Bate’s claims to be misleading, they pale in comparison to the fables compiled by Michael Wood for his TV series, In Search of Shakespeare.
At the beginning of the second episode, Wood wonders how Shakespeare became such an immediate sensation on arriving in London since, he explains, “Ten years before, Shakespeare had been a teenage father in Stratford with no job and few prospects.” Adding, “What did he do in those ten lost years?” Wood therefore identifies “The Ten Lost Years” as 1583-1593, since Shakespeare could not have been a “teenage father” until May 1583, when his first child was born. The next scene sees us transported to Lancashire and the house of Sir Bernard de Hoghton and Wood tells us: “Sir Bernard and his family believe they have the key to William’s lost years.” We are shown the will of Alexander Hoghton that makes a bequest to a William Shakshafte which, this family claims, was actually William Shakespeare, living over 100 miles north of Stratford. The date of the will is omitted from the program.
In fact, this will was executed on August 3, 1581, when Shakespeare was only 17 years old and some 21 months prior to him having “a family to support” as Wood claimed in this section of the program. Having already covered the first “Lancashire-free” 19 years of Shakespeare’s life (including the birth of his daughter) in episode one, where does Wood suggest we insert this phase?
The worst part of Wood’s presentation is not, surprisingly, the shoddy and haphazard chronology. In the notes of his accompanying book, tucked away in the back (and out of sight of his TV viewers) Wood states that “the Shakeshafte theory has not survived closer scrutiny.” Since Wood first visited Hoghton Hall some twenty years earlier, I am staggered that he presented these spurious facts, to a worldwide audience, without that “closer scrutiny." It took me around 20 minutes to discover the slight chronological flaw in this theory, not 20 years; and yet it appears Wood has no problem leaving his television audience completely misled, as he grins his way to his next scholarly masterpiece.
Daryl Pinksen has recently produced a study of Greene’s Groat’s-worth of Wit and its reference to a “Shake-scene,” which Stratfordians maintain is William Shakespeare of Stratford. We all understand the desperate need for Stratfordians to claim this as fact. Without the Groat’s-worth allusion, there is no known reference to Shakespeare, connected to the London literary world, until the publication of Venus and Adonis in June 1593, around two weeks after Marlowe’s disappearance. However, whilst we cannot completely rule out Shakespeare as Greene’s target, the obvious conclusion to draw is that Edward Alleyn inspired Greene’s work. Greene had previously referred to Alleyn as “Aesop’s Crow” and Alleyn would be recognized (by the supposed addressees) as the great actor “beautified” by them, the writers. As far as we know, Shakespeare, by contrast, had never been mentioned by anyone, anywhere (outside the Stratford records) by 1592. Why would a reader be expected to guess Greene was referring to Shakespeare? Moreover, since Greene had already referred to Alleyn in these terms, even Alleyn would assume the “upstart crow, beautified by our feathers” in Groat’s-worth was referring to him. Greene, we are told, wrote this on his deathbed; he probably knew he would not be around to explain his warning to fellow playwrights. Why would he risk being completely misunderstood by referring to Shakespeare in terms that all his friends would assume to be Alleyn? This is not sensible to conclude “Shake-scene” was Shakespeare. The only connection is that it contains the word “Shake.” Seriously. That is not even scholarship, never mind good scholarship. Stratfordians would argue that Greene adapts a line from Henry VI, Part III. Indeed he does. “A tigers heart wrapped in a player’s hide” is the expression Greene used. This is a classic problem with a vast wealth of Stratfordian arguments. In order to prove Greene was referring to Shakespeare as the crow, you have to already assume Shakespeare wrote that line which is hardly established fact. Alleyn, on the other hand, very likely recited that line on stage since it was said by Richard Duke of York, the part Alleyn would most likely have played. It was a current play and so Alleyn had probably spoken the line very recently. What would a reasonable historian be expected to conclude?
Let us consider the recent contribution by Sally Jenkins, in the Washington Post Magazine. It is not unusual for even sports journalists to contribute to the debate since, as she explains, “all journalists are by nature untrained historians.” And Jenkins curiously affirms: “The Author Controversy persists despite considerable documentary evidence. We have the man from Stratford's pay stubs for performing at court, his certificate of occupancy for the Globe Theatre, and his will, in which he left memorial rings to some London actors. Funny he would do that if he was just a country burgher who didn't write the plays."
First, I do not wish to be pedantic, but we don’t have pay stubs for Shakespeare performing at court. We have a record that he was paid (with two of his other sharers) when his company performed at court. Whether Shakespeare performed is not known; though, in this context, it is somewhat irrelevant. Is Jenkins seriously claiming that, because Shakespeare was an actor, a theatre sharer and had actor friends, he therefore wrote the plays? Is that reasonable? Surely I am not alone in thinking this is a preposterous assertion. I suppose it reasonable, therefore, to conclude that the plays written by Burbage, Kemp, and Alleyn (all theatre sharers, actors and friends of actors) were the equal of Shakespeare’s but, we must assume, lost in the sands of time. I would suggest, to Sally Jenkins, that before she employs sarcasm to emphasise a blatantly obvious fact, she ensures the fact is obvious to everyone else. It would be far more “funny” as a result.
It is noteworthy that an expertise on the works of Shakespeare does not imbue people with similar authority on the authorship issue. A number of Stratfordian scholars are reluctant to enter into the debate and, as a result, cannot be assumed to know the arguments in detail. Nevertheless, their opinions are still held in great esteem, which does not so much remind me of Shakespeare, as it does Hans Christian Andersen, who wrote an immensely underrated and perceptive story called The Emperor’s New Clothes. Adapted to this situation, loosely, it would be a story about a person respected purely because he studied Shakespeare and, mistakenly, someone to whom others should listen. As Hans Christian Andersen astutely observed, the masses are quick to admire the things they think they should, when they have little or no confidence in their own judgment. It is a very human trait for one to assume that so-called experts are far wiser than you. This is a dangerous assumption. It is for this reason that some, such as Terry Ross and David Kathman, must be applauded for at least entering into a proper, scholarly argument of the issues and defending the Stratfordian corner on evidential grounds. It is only unfortunate that most their attention is directed towards the Oxfordian lobby, which is not the Stratford man’s strongest opposition.
Alexa Stevenson, Penn State University, recently wrote an article, on the ResearchPennState website, based on an interview with Patrick Cheney, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature. She says: “One of the chief arguments of those who doubt his authorship is that Shakespeare lacked the education and experience to have produced such a wide-ranging body of work. Not so, argues Cheney, noting that William Shakespeare had a superior education, some of it acquired from grammar school in Stratford, but much expanded upon as an adult.” Most know that this is pure speculation, but let us give Cheney some rope here. Stevenson continues: “Adds Cheney, research shows that even in a pre-library age, Shakespeare had a good deal of access to books. ‘Shakespeare was not simply a genius; he was by all accounts a voracious reader: the plots from nearly all his plays and poems come from books.’” Ah, it appears Cheney used the rope to hang himself! I would like to see that research. I have never come across anything to suggest “Shakespeare had a good deal of access to books.” I would also be keen to hear the “all accounts” that describe him as a “voracious reader.” Let me not be cruel; it is obvious what Cheney is really saying. If I reword the relevant passage (as an impartial historian may write it) it would look like this: “Research shows that, even in a pre-library age, the author had a good deal of access to books. The author was not simply a genius; he was by all accounts a voracious reader: the plots from nearly all his plays and poems come from books.” This is a proper, true statement of the facts and sensible assumptions. One’s evidence, in support of the Stratford man’s education, cannot be to cite the same plays that many claim he was unable to write because he had no education. Cheney may as well have said, “We know he was educated enough to write the plays because he wrote the plays.”
It could be that Cheney has far more convincing reasons for believing Shakespeare of Stratford was capable of writing the plays. This, after all, is merely the briefest comment from a short article. So, if that be the case, Professor Cheney, let us hear them; but do not treat Shakespeare’s doubters as idiots that can be swept aside with ill-considered sound bites. Non-Stratfordians have, in many cases, devoted as much time to their research as you have to yours. Therefore, (and probably very soon), you will need to be better prepared to defend your case than you are currently.
Then we have that Shakespearean giant, Stanley Wells. He even brings a smile to my face, as he grins like the proverbial Cheshire cat, proudly standing next to his “newly discovered” Shakespeare portrait – the Cobbe (in reality, the only thing that is “new” is Wells’s declaration, since the portrait has been debated for many decades now). There is a thorough analysis of this claim, by Ros Barber, on the Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog, with a link to Katherine Duncan-Jones’s TLS response, both of which I recommend you read for a more detailed account.
Wells has responded to Duncan-Jones’s criticism with a staunch defense. I apologize, in advance, for reducing years of toil to such simple terms, but space (and a finite lifespan) dictates that I do so. Simply put, Wells’s team claims the Cobbe to be the original of the Janssen portrait owned by Folger; whilst KDJ’s team claims the Cobbe is a copy of a Bodleian library-owned portrait of Sir Thomas Overbury. Let us assume the Cobbe is the original of the Janssen - a painting which may, or may not, be Shakespeare. I do not see that this helps us a great deal, since many believe there is no reason to think the Janssen portrait depicts Shakespeare either (including, amusingly, Folger’s own Erin Blake, who seems to think the Janssen might be Sir Thomas Overbury!). Wells disagrees, claiming that the addition of a receding hairline was not an attempt to mimic the First Folio’s balding Droeshout engraving, but was, instead, an early addition, proving the Janssen was “updated within living memory of him [Shakespeare].” I can see his reasoning: updating portraits is commonplace; I have recently had all the hair removed from a portrait of me, aged 22, just so it looks more current. However, why this negates someone mimicking Droeshout’s work, Wells doesn’t explain, but I assume it is obvious to him.
In fairness to Wells, the Cobbe does appear to have belonged to the Earl of Southampton, claimed to be the patron of Shakespeare because he dedicated two poems to the Earl. He may have known the author of those two poems, we don’t know. However, there is no evidence that Southampton, despite being an avid theatregoer, ever paid, met or even mentioned anyone called Shakespeare, let alone Shakespeare of Stratford. There is no evidence Southampton mourned when Shakespeare died; the First Folio was dedicated to the Herberts, not Southampton. Even so, we are supposed to believe that, if Southampton had a portrait of anyone in his house, it had to be of Shakespeare. Conversely, Sir Thomas Overbury was a great friend and political ally of Southampton, which, some say, adds weight to the claim that the portrait is more likely to be of him. Wells, once more, disagrees, claiming, “Overbury was notorious,” making it “astonishing” to suppose that multiple copies of his portrait had survived unnamed. The fact that multiple copies of a Shakespeare portrait survive unnamed is obviously far less “astonishing” to Wells, since he knows, as do we, Shakespeare’s name is rarely found where expected.
I would highlight one point here, in order that newcomers may become better attuned to a non-Stratfordian mindset. Imagine that Wells gets his day of glory and the Cobbe portrait actually turns out to be Shakespeare. What does Wells have: a portrait of the author of the plays and poems, or a portrait of the businessman from Stratford? The major contribution this would make is to link a man named Shakespeare with Southampton, but that is all. It will tell us nothing more about the roles of either Shakespeare, a writer or the Stratford man. Non-Stratfordians have no ulterior motive for doubting the provenance of the Cobbe portrait, other than a dislike of wild, illogical reasoning.
Since I am berating Stratfordian scholars for biased and ill-conceived theories, it would be remiss of me not to highlight similar transgressions committed by the non-Stratfordian lobby. They are far from innocent; and their amateur enthusiasm, for conspiracy at every turn, often manifests itself in far more outrageous claims than any Stratfordian would countenance. This piece is not the time or place to start debating the relative merits of various authorship theories. However, I am frequently baffled that a complete lack of the correct literary talent is not deemed a problem. Some, like Neville’s supporters, avoid this by the absence of any creative works whatsoever (all, presumably, written anonymously). Others seem to overcome this deficiency by seeing great genius in work that, in reality, contains little or none. Whilst it is not illogical to assume that an author, writing under a pseudonym, would have no extant works attributed to him by name, I find it a little more difficult to reconcile claimants with extant works of inferior (or, at least, ill-matched) quality. That said, perhaps there is even a logical explanation for that somewhere. I am trying to be as open-minded as possible (Stratfordians, look and learn). However, the fact that Henry Neville owned a foundry (Shakespeare, apparently, mentions metal a lot), is not really of major significance. Shakespeare’s canon is filled with expertise on many trades. If the author did not know about a particular subject, it is far more logical to assume that he simply asked someone in possession of that knowledge. Authors are not required to be experts in all subjects to which they refer.
The similarities between the life of Oxford and Hamlet, whilst interesting, are no sensible reason for concluding Oxford wrote the play. The similarities between Hamlet and Saxo’s Amleth are equally strong. Marlowe, at age 15, could, conceivably, have been Mary Sidney’s lover and fathered William Herbert. Then again, so could just about every poet, playwright, artist and scientist that visited Wilton House. It is for wild, unsubstantiated claims, such as these, that we chastise Stratfordians; and we must apply the same tests, to our own theories, that we demand of others.
It could be that I am completely wrong, comparing literary scholars with historians. Perhaps literary scholars do not consider themselves as historians, and would simply say to me that it was not their job to enlighten the world about Shakespeare in a fact-based way. If that is the case, then I apologize unreservedly. However, it raises the question, “Why do we not have some proper historians study this issue and bring more relevant expertise to the subject?”
I have an enormous admiration for the intellect and knowledge of men like Jonathan Bate and Stanley Wells. I could not begin to tell you what I would give to have that breadth of knowledge demonstrated by the author of Soul of the Age. It clearly displays an encyclopaedic familiarity with Shakespeare’s works. The “lament” of this piece is that I mourn the fact we do not have intellectual giants, like Bate, searching for the truth behind the authorship, rather than using that knowledge to manipulate the facts to support the Stratford man’s claim. Unfortunately, I am sure the response to this plea will be that these scholars have indeed examined the facts and completely satisfied themselves as to the validity of Shakespeare’s authorship claims. I am not suggesting they do not believe this with every fibre of their being. Moreover, I very much doubt it would be possible to render such a staunch defense of the Stratford man without this unshakeable belief. I do not question their sincerity for one second; I simply question their judgment.
Continued loyalty to the Stratford man is not a sensible reaction to the doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship and, in truth, is an improbable explanation for the staunch defense. It is far more likely that these scholars are defending their own reputations, not Shakespeare. For too long, the establishment has been fighting in William’s corner and it is far too late for them suddenly to see the light while maintaining their credibility. The battle for the hearts and minds of this generation of entrenched Stratfordians is, I’m afraid, one the doubters are never likely to win.
© Anthony Kellett, October 2009
Also by Anthony Kellett: "Shakespeare's Anonymous Death" and "William Shakespeare, Businessman - Forgotten Genius"
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