Saturday, November 27, 2010

Allusion or Illusion? William Covell's Gaveston by Ros Barber

A Shakespeare allusion containing what has widely been considered an error, if read as correct, suggests that a Cambridge University contemporary of Christopher Marlowe understood "William Shakespeare" to be Marlowe’s pseudonym.

A belief is a perceptual framework. The nature of human neurology is such that our perceptions are filtered through our beliefs, and where we meet data which conflicts with a strongly held belief we will either not register the existence of the anomalous data at all, or will consider it to be an error and discard it as insignificant.

An experiment by Bruner and Postman in 1949 demonstrated that subjects exposed to a pack of playing cards that included anomalous cards (a black four of hearts, for example) repeatedly failed to identify any problems with the pack. Only with longer and repeated exposures did certain individuals begin to register the anomalous cards, and even then, they often couldn’t identify what exactly was wrong with them. Some did not register the anomalies no matter how long or how often they were exposed to them.1

It is important to our general functioning in the world that we keep our perceptual frameworks fairly rigid; thus even when the brain does identify a piece of data as anomalous, we tend to simply explain it away as an error or fluke. Fugelsang, Stein, Green and Dunbar, studying scientists at work in their laboratories, discovered that in over half of the scientific experiments they studied, the results were inconsistent with the scientists’ predictions, and that scientists were reluctant to consider that data as "real."2 The surprising finding was usually classified as a mistake: "perhaps a machine malfunctioned or an enzyme had gone stale."3 "The scientists were trying to explain away what they didn’t understand," said Kevin Dunbar, one of the neuroscientists involved. "It’s as if they didn’t want to believe it." Even after scientists had produced the anomaly consistently, they would often choose not to follow it up. The research of Fuselang, Dunbar and others demonstrates that despite their discipline’s reputation for impartiality, scientists are not immune from confirmation bias: the human tendency to seek out and give attention to data consistent with one’s initial theory.

Confirmation bias is probably the greatest danger to those of us with an interest in the Shakespeare authorship question. Non-Stratfordians are accused of it more than most – and often quite rightly – but as you would expect of a basic function of human neurology, it affects orthodox Shakespeareans too. Indeed, I would contend it is the orthodox scholars’ lack of engagement with significant quantities of anomalous data – that is, data inconsistent with the orthodox theory of authorship – that spawned the authorship question in the first place. Here, I will look at just one of the numerous anomalies that are no longer anomalous when viewed from a Marlovian perspective.

One of the earliest allusions to Shakespeare as an author is a marginal note in William Covell’s Polimanteia (1595). The note reads:
All praise
Sweet Shak-

Katherine Duncan-Jones and H.R.Woudhuysen explain his apparent error thus:
Carried away with enthusiasm, Covell appears to have added Piers Gaveston (1594?) – strongly influenced by Shakespeare but written by Michael Drayton – to Shakespeare’s authentic poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and Lucrece (1594).4
It seems odd that Covell would make such a mistake given the prominence of Michael Drayton’s name on the dedicatory epistle accompanying Piers Gaveston, but an error must necessarily be assumed under the orthodox narrative.

However, it is perfectly possible that Covell was not making a mistake, but rather recognised that Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were written by the same author who had depicted Piers Gaveston in Edward II, a play which preceded Drayton’s poem both in performance and publication. Gaveston in Marlowe’s play is at least as eloquent as Drayton’s narrator, and the play opens with Gaveston speaking for two dozen lines before anyone else says a word. It is worth noting that Covell is connected to Marlowe’s Cambridge years, being a student at Christ’s College, Cambridge – whose alumni included Marlowe’s "nemesis" Richard Baines - at the same time that Marlowe was a student at Corpus Christi. Covell gained his BA in 1585 (the same year as Marlowe) and his MA in 1588 (the year after Marlowe).

The idea that Covell believes Shakespeare to be a pseudonym for Marlowe is strengthened by his observation that the author is "Watson’s heyre." It is well-documented that Marlowe was a friend of Thomas Watson (nine years his senior), both from the legal accounts of the Hog Lane incident,5 and from the published dialogue between Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey. There is no evidence whatsoever that Thomas Watson was connected with Shakespeare of Stratford, though it has long been recognised that the author of Shake-speares Sonnets was familiar with Watson’s work.6 If we allow ourselves to read Covell’s comment from a Marlovian perspective, no error exists – Covell is saying that Marlowe, the man who put eloquence in the mouth of Piers Gaveston and was the natural heir to Thomas Watson, was the author (as "Shak-speare") of Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece.7

This does not in any way count as proof of Marlowe’s authorship of Shakespeare’s narrative poems. It is, however, one of many examples of how the historical data reads differently when viewed through different interpretive frameworks, and demonstrates clearly how an "error" according to orthodox scholarship can be read at face value and treated as correct when viewed through a Marlovian lens.

© Ros Barber, November 2010

Ros Barber ( is the first person in the world to complete a PhD in Marlovian authorship theory. Her PhD was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (UK). Her first degree was in Biological Sciences. A founding member of the International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society, she has published articles challenging the orthodox biography of Marlowe in academic books and journals, including the peer-reviewed Routledge journal Rethinking History. Her essay "Was Marlowe a Violent Man?," which was presented at the Marlowe Society of America conference in 2008, is featured in Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman (Ashgate 2010). A published poet, her latest poetry collection, Material (Anvil 2008), was a Poetry Book Society Recommendation and was funded by Arts Council England.

1Bruner, J. S., and Postman, Leo (1949). "On the Perception of Incongruity: A Paradigm." Journal of Personality, XVIII, 206-23.
2Fugelsand, J. A., Stein, C. B., Green, A. E. and Dunbar, K. N. (2004). "Theory and Data Interactions of the Scientific Mind: Evidence from the Molecular and the Cognitive Laboratory." Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58, 86-95.
3Lehrer, J. (2009). "Accept Defeat: The Neuroscience of Screwing Up." Wired Magazine.
4Duncan-Jones, K. and Woudhuysen, H. R. (Eds.) (2007). Shakespeare's Poems, Arden Shakespeare, 5.
5Details of the Hog Lane affray can be found in any Marlowe biography, but the definitive account remains Eccles, M. (1934) Christopher Marlowe in London, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.
6According to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Watson's sonnets "appear to have been studied by Shakespeare." Harvey, P. S. (1969). The Oxford Companion to English Literature, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 874.Emmerich Anonymous
7Unlike Shake-speares Sonnets, the hyphen here is accounted for by the requirements of the text’s layout.Shakespeare Anonymous

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Anthony Kellett said...

As you rightly say, Ros, this does not prove anything. However, in combination with all the other 'errors', it surely gives justification (for reasonable people) to harbour reasonable doubts about Shakespeare's authorship of these works.

I would also reinforce another point you make, in that it is the almost universal refusal (of mainstream Stratfordians) to engage on these issues that, in my mind, casts grave doubts on their judgement or impartiality.

Though I currently consider Marlowe to be the leading candidate, speaking as someone without a particular affinity with any candidate, I am perplexed that Shakespeare’s authorship is not more widely questioned (even if that falls short of ‘doubted’).

Textor said...

Quite remarkable piece of the jigsaw! And not only does the hyphenation ("Shak-speare") indicate a pseudonym, but also the line break that literally cuts through the cover.

Isabel Gortazar said...

When I first saw these lines in Polimanteia I was struck by the mention of Gaveston and, like you, I felt I had found a piece of interesting evidence.

However, I realized that by 1595, Marlowe's reputation of homosexuality had been going the rounds for almost two years and therefore had to be taken into account.

I therefore refrained from taking this any further since: "Sweet Shak-speare / Eloquent Gaveston" might be intended to mean: "Sweet Shak-speare. / Eloquent Marlowe." Identifying Marlowe with his "gay" and eloquent character could have been Covell's little joke.

The unusual hyphenation I also found perplexing, as the reference to Minerva and her"spear-shaking" is lost in the absence of an "e" in Shak.

So, you may be right and, in fact, your reading does not actually contradict my reading: "Sweet Shak-speare. / Eloquent Marlowe." may refer to just one and the same poet.

In any case, I'm glad you have brought the matter up for comment.

JosBayers said...


Sylvain said...

a wonderful website that I can't seem to get enough of lately...looking forward to reading more from Ros!

Christine said...

Well done, Ms. Barber.

BridgeofSighs said...

very interesting.

MJClairmont said...

both this and your Cobbe article are quite interesting.

LucasP said...

marvellous work!

Chris Cassin said...

Yes, fascinating.

I was drawn to the article after watching the University of Sussex talk which can be found on Ros's website. A superb distillation of the vexed issues in respect of Shakespeare as improbable (at best)author. The illiteracy of his children should be the clanging bell moment when people should think "something's not right here".

I thought the analysis of the probability of the assassination theory as opposed to the escape theory (re Marlowe) was very compelling.

Another sceptical thought however. The literary paper trail point - one of the reasons why I cannot accept the Stratford man - does in fact apply equally to post-May 1593Marlowe, or at least from what I have read.

Finally I was lucky enough to be at the British Library launch of the "Marlowe papers" last night, which was very enjoyable. I had to rush for the train to Liverpool otherwise I would have bought it. You'll have to take my word for that Ros.

Claire Hayward said...

The concept of a 'literary paper trail' (as introduced by Diana Price) is related to evidence that the person in question was writer. There is no primary source evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a writer (or considered to be one by those that knew him personally) whereas we *do* have a literary paper trail/personal testimony relating to Christopher Marlowe. A literary paper trail does not indicate *when* a person was writing but rather that writing was one of their chief activities.

You are right that there is as yet no conclusive evidence Marlowe was alive and writing after 1593, but then there has hardly been an exhaustive search! What we do have, however, are some intriguing possible clues such as the one Dr Barber introduces here.