Friday, October 18, 2013

A.D. Wraight and a Patron’s Property by Cecilia Busby

Having been inspired by Ros Barber’s recent The Marlowe Papers, I have been digging a little into the Shakespeare authorship question. For the most part, I find the arguments for Marlowe compelling – but I also have some sympathy with those orthodox Stratfordian scholars who take exception to the wild flights of fancy that have too often accompanied what would otherwise be strong arguments. Speculations like these do massive damage to the overall case, calling into question more firmly grounded arguments by association.1

I’d like to give one example from my recent reading.  In A.D. Wraight’s fascinating and thought-provoking book on Marlowe, The Story that the Sonnets Tell, there is a curious little chapter dedicated to the publication of Marlowe’s translation of Lucan in 1600 by Thomas Thorpe, later publisher of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Wraight is particularly interested in the dedication of this book to Edward Blount, sometime publisher of Marlowe and associate of Thomas Walsingham. She is convinced that this dedication is a cryptic message to Blount that “he has seen Marlowe alive and in person, and has received a manuscript of a ‘booke’ that he is going to bring to Blount”.2

The dedication to Blount is given “in the memory of that pure elemental wit, Chr. Marlow; whose ghoast or Genius is to be seen walke the Churchyard in (at the least) three or four sheets” – a reference that Wraight takes to indicate that Marlowe himself has been seen, perhaps wrapped in the “sheets” (robes) of a Moor to guard against being recognised. In a characteristic building of one supposition on another, Wraight suggests that Marlowe “was probably a very good actor” and “may well have been careful to adopt a disguise that would completely conceal him”. 3 Yet there is a simpler explanation for the remark: the “sheets” are the publications – the pages – in which his “genius” appears. If there is a hint of a cryptic message, it is likely to be in that parenthetical “at the least” which might hint that Thorpe was aware that more “sheets” in St Paul’s were haunted by Marlowe’s genius than was always (openly) acknowledged.

Wraight notes this “innocent reading” but dismisses it,4 mainly because she is so intrigued by the next part of the dedication, that appears tantalisingly conspiratorial. Thorpe instructs his friend to “be sure to have chang’d your lodgings” when he comes with his “booke”, and to make little marking of “your friends when you have found some way for them to come in at”.  At the beginning of this little section Thorpe seems even more clear about what he is proposing: “you are to accommodate your selfe with some fewe instructions, concerning the property of a Patron, which you are not yet possest of”.

For Wraight there is only one possible meaning of property here, that is, an object of ownership. What this object is, is made clear for her by Thorpe’s next statement, referring to “when I bring you the booke”. “Evidently Thorpe has been entrusted with a manuscript which he is to give to Blount”,5 and equally evidently, she argues, it cannot be the Book of Lucan since that “contains the letter from Thorpe that refers to the ‘booke’ he is promising to bring to Blount – which cannot mean itself”.6

However, a recent LRB review by John Kerrigan has made clear that in Shakespeare’s time there was another meaning of the word property which was considerably more dominant.7 In modern usage, property most often denotes objects which are owned, but it can also be understood as an innate characteristic of a thing, its properties. Thus, the property of ice is to be cold, of metal is to be pliable. For the Elizabethans, this meaning was also commonplace with respect to persons/statuses. Where Shakespeare uses the term he “usually employs the word to designate the quality of something”.8 In Elizabethan English, then, the “property” of a “Patron” would almost certainly have meant the characteristic qualities of such a man.

Taking this as the meaning of the word makes the rest of Thorpe’s dedication completely clear as a satirical set of instructions for how to behave as a Patron. Blount, he instructs, must “study them for your better grace as our Gallants do fashions” (in order to put on a brave show as a proper “Patron”). The instructions include: “you must be proud and think you have merit enough in you, though your are ne’er so emptie”; then, when Thorpe appears to “bring … the book” (i.e., to present the book he has dedicated to this grand Patron, which is indeed, contra Wraight, the translation of Lucan), Blount should “take physic, and keep state, assign me a time by your man to come againe, and afore the day, be sure to have chang’d your lodging”. In the meantime, he should “sweat with the invention of some pitiful dry jest or two which you may happen to utter” but show “litle (or not at al) marking of your friends when you have found some way for them to come in at”, and “if by some chance something has dropt from you worth the taking up weary all that come to you with the often repetition of it”. Far from being instructions to (secretly) let hidden friends in at the back door of his (skilfully changed) lodgings, this is a satire on the way great men (those likely to be addressed for patronage) make their clients wait on them; over-rate and over-repeat their own wit; and do not mark (acknowledge) the wit of their friends, if they even give them a chance to say anything at all! Read in this way, the dedication is a hilarious in-joke between two publishers about the manners of great men.

If it needed any further proof that this reading fits, the end of the dedication says it all: while Thorpe doubts not that, were Blount to “mould himself to [these things]” it would not suit him, he goes on to say: “One special virtue in our Patrons of these daies I have promist myself you shall fit excellently, which is to give nothing”, i.e., Thorpe, unlike usual dedicators, requires no money of his Patron, “yet, thy love I will challenge as my peculiar Object both in this, and (I hope) many more succeeding offices”.

This small correction of a small part of the much larger argument Wraight makes should not be taken as a wholesale criticism of the book – I think there is a great deal of merit in her main argument. But perhaps it could serve as an illustration of the temptation to build labyrinthine twists and turns of conspiracy on very flimsy suppositions, and the dangers of so doing. It is possible to read secret messages into almost anything. Had Wraight stepped back for a second, she might have wondered why the news that Thorpe had spotted Marlowe, or instructions to meet secretly and deliver an important manuscript, would ever have been inserted into a printed dedication (necessitating cryptic and heavily disguised hints) when presumably Thorpe simply had to cross the churchyard and go and knock on Blount’s door.

 © Cecilia Busby, October 2013

Cecilia Busby has a PhD from the London School of Economics and taught Social Anthropology for a number of years at the universities of Edinburgh, Goldsmiths and Kent. She has published The Performance of Gender (2000, Athlone) and a number of academic papers. More recently she has turned to writing fiction for children and, as C. J. Busby, is the author of the Frogspell series.

1As one of the reviewers of this piece has pointed out, orthodox Stratfordians are not guiltless of this tendency to ‘flights of fancy’ either.
2A.D. Wraight, The Story that the Sonnets Tell, Adam Hart, London: 1993, p. 378.
3Ibid., p. 380.
4Ibid., p. 379. The following quotations form Thorpe’s dedication are all from this source, and page.
5Ibid., p.381.
6Ibid., p.380, original emphasis.
7John Kerrigan, Fathers Who Live Too Long: Review of Maus, Being and Having in Shakespeare, LRB, 35 (17), pp. 17-19.
8Ibid., p. 17.

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Anthony Kellett said...

From outset, I should make it clear that I think the main thrust of this piece is logical and reasonable, and I understand the objective of warning against wild speculation; with its inherent reputational risks.

However, I have three points I would like to make, which I feel are important.

First, I have to say that I am a tad reluctant to “have some sympathy” with orthodox Stratfordian scholars, for the few outlandish speculations Marlovians might propose. The wild flights of fancy through which we have to plough, annually, far exceed all those for the other proposed authors, combined. Moreover, the perpetual misunderstanding of Marlovian ideas, shown by virtually every orthodox scholar I’ve witnessed, seems to demonstrate they’ve not even bothered to consult Wikipedia on the matter; let alone any more detailed source.

Second, I would caution anyone, visiting this blog for the first time, against taking the main article as the most valuable part of your inquiry. More than any other group, extolling the virtues of a particular candidate (including those promoting William Shaksper of Stratford), here you will find that any item, containing flawed logic or speculative low-probability scenarios, will be challenged and countered in the posts below it; without exception. Moreover, and what is so refreshing here, these debates, refutations and disagreements happen in an open and transparent format.

So, if anyone leaves the blog, having read only the item in question, they are not adequately qualified to rehearse any views about Marlovians or their credibility. This can only be done, with any integrity, once sufficient people have had time to respond, and those responses have been read.

Third, whilst I cannot speak for everyone, most here are trying to find the truth of the authorship question. I also believe the majority continue that search with the same adherence to sound logic, which caused them to arrive here in the first place. However, these exchanges cannot happen without theories being forwarded for discussion. The fear of proposing scenarios, because it may “make us look bad”, is also unacceptable, to me. Sometimes it is necessary to ask, “Could it be possible…”

In asking these questions, I can guarantee, faithfully, you will not have many people extolling the virtues of any crackpot theory, merely because it suits their candidate. If it is without foundation, the reasons will be made clear, or you will be asked to think on another, more probable explanation.

The important point, for the visitor, is to read that subsequent discussion; and then you may feel free to describe Marlovian scholarship as you will.

Peter Farey said...

Thank you Cecilia. For me, the intriguing thing about this article is that there can be hardly a single Marlovian who hasn't read Dolly Wraight's The Story That the Sonnets Tell at least once, and who isn't also familiar with the opening scene of Antony and Cleopatra in which Philo says "Sir, sometimes when he is not Antony / He comes too short of that great property / Which still should go with Antony." Yet, as far as I know, this is the first time Dolly's interpretation of the Thorpe letter has been questioned in the nearly two decades since she first wrote it. And once this meaning is pointed out it seems so obvious, doesn't it? What we conspiracy hunters thought of as something dark and imprenetrable unless one knew the hidden meaning suddenly becomes, as you put it, "a hilarious in-joke between two publishers about the manners of great men." And it is funny, isn't it?

Where I would perhaps diverge slightly from what you say, however, is that I wouldn't blame Dolly Wraight so much for this error, but those of us (including myself, whom she thought of as one of her most dedicated opponents) who simply took her word for it!


C.J.Busby said...

Thanks to both of you for taking the time to read this and comment - I have to agree with Anthony Kellet that the Marlovians in general strike me as a very sane bunch genuinely trying to tease out important bits of information that might shed light on the uncanny similarity and serial writing lives of of Marlowe and Shakespeare. I have been particularly impressed with Peter Farey's many fascinating, well researched and well argued pieces on this blog. I'd also like to say that I really enjoyed Wraight's book and learnt a lot from it. However, I do slightly disagree with Anthony Kellet's idea that any kind of speculation can be useful. Maybe on a blog like this, where ideas are knocked around and discussed - but when publishing a book or article in the mainstream press or academic journals, too much deviation from what can reasonably be backed up with evidence does tend to do damage to the wider argument.

C.J.Busby said...

Can I just add, though, that this blog is indeed a very open and transparent forum, where I've come across any number of really great and eye-opening arguments - my contribution was not meant to be antagonistic at all - just an example of how easy it can be to get carried away. And as Peter said, once you 'read' that piece of Thorpe's with the right key, it's such a witty and immediately understandable joke that I couldn't resist sharing it.

Anthony Kellett said...

Hi Cecilia,

My apologies, as under no circumstances did I mean to imply that “any kind of speculation can be useful”. If it is baseless and nonsensical, I’d rather people keep it to themselves.

However, there is also speculation founded on slim but tantalising evidence, which may still be worth exploring. Whilst the first attempt may be far from feasible, the subsequent discussion could bring us closer to some ‘most probable’ explanation. It was only this process to which I was referring; and I also intended my comments to be seen in the context of the blog, rather than books.

Personally, I think text books should be the culmination of this process, rather than instigators of it; so, in this respect, I think we agree. That said, I don’t think the example you cite, in Dolly’s book, contradicts this, to any great extent. The fact this has gone unremarked upon for 20 years or so, tends to imply it was not all that outlandish. These things can always be made to look foolish or irrational, once the most probable explanation is there for all to see. How many of us have not, at some time, had to state, “Of course, now you point it out, it’s so obvious!” Also, would we have been having this discussion, discovering the lovely joke, if Dolly had not speculated on it, I wonder?

As for anyone that might be antagonised by sound and reasoned logic, please continue to upset them. I try my best, but the more the merrier.

RRaymo said...

Ms. Busby's explanation makes perfect sense to me.