Dueling Epistemologies Deepen the Shakespeare Mystery
By Gary Goldstein
|There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don't know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don't know we don't know. -- Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, 2001-2007
Philosopher Slavoi Zizek claims that beyond these three categories is a fourth, the unknown known, that which we intentionally refuse to acknowledge that we know.
There are three good reasons why an authorship controversy exists, according to historian William Rubinstein of the University of Aberystwyth in Wales: 1) There are no sources from Shakespeare's lifetime which unequivocally make it plain that the Stratford actor was the author of his supposed works, only that he was an actor and theater investor. 2) He could not have done what he must have done to have written his works--traveling to Italy, reading the known sources of his plays in French, Italian and Spanish, learning about astronomy, falconry and law, or pursuing a joint career as actor and prolific playwright. 3) There is no mesh between his life and the evolutionary trajectory of his works, accepting the orthodox chronology of when they were written. What little is known about Shakespeare's biography has no explanatory power in understanding why he wrote a particular work when he did.
As a result of these deficiencies in the historical record, serious questions about the true identity of the dramatist William Shakespeare began being asked in the mid-19th century with publication of Delia Bacon’s book, The Philosophy of Shakespeare’s Plays Unfolded, which proposed a group authorship of the Shakespeare canon. Since then, other candidates for the Shakespeare laurels have included Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. In 1920, a book by J. Thomas Looney titled “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford introduced a claimant that has gained significant support by theater professionals and public intellectuals, from Michael York and Sir Derek Jacobi to Sigmund Freud and US Justice John Paul Stevens, who published an essay on the issue in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review (April 1992) called “The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction.”
Despite this support, the academic consensus has been complete dismissal of the Oxfordian hypothesis, although using ad hominem attacks and political posturing in place of scholarly refutation.
For example, Professor of English Steven May of Georgetown College began his 2004 review of an academic biography of Oxford by stating: “The earl of Oxford's biography warrants a review in Shakespeare Quarterly only in part because the authorship controversy so ardently pursued by ‘Oxfordians’ poses a challenge to Shakespeare studies equivalent to that leveled at the biological sciences by creationism.”
Writing in the same vein is James Shapiro, professor of English at Columbia University. He claims in his Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010) that, among other attributes, the originator of the Oxfordian hypothesis, J. Thomas Looney, admired the feudal social system and was a logical positivist. Shapiro’s clear aim was to stigmatize Looney’s world view and that of anyone who accepts his hypothesis as “dead set against the forces of democracy and modernity,” as holders of a “retrograde vision”.
In Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press, co-editor Paul Edmondson describes authorship doubters as dangerous fools, stating that, through its recent efforts, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust “exposed afresh the absurdity of anti-Shakespearianism, ultimately a dangerous phenomenon which can lead to conspiratorial narratives fueled by denial of historical evidence.”
In a separate chapter of the same book, Stuart Hampton-Reeves of the University of Central Lancashire asserts that authorship doubters no longer qualify even as amateur scholars, as James Shapiro repeats in his Afterword to the book: “What Stuart Hampton-Reeves writes about the ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ holds true of the anti-Stratfordian position in general: ‘the Declaration is not just a declaration of doubt, it is also a declaration of faith…’”
The reason for these non-scholarly responses may be found in the epistemologies employed to establish the literary identity of the world’s greatest dramatist.
In essence, the authorship question remains unresolved after 150 years of public contention due to a lack of documentary evidence on both sides of the debate. Neither the traditional author from Stratford on Avon, William Shakspere, nor the chief claimant, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, possess any documentary evidence proving either wrote the Shakespeare plays and poems. Instead, the traditional author’s case relies on bibliographical and testimonial evidence, while the claimant’s case rests on a body of circumstantial evidence using inference and inductive reasoning – one that attempts to show parallels between his biography, poetry, and letters with the contents of the Shakespeare canon.
The Traditional Case
In fact, the traditional author’s bibliographical evidence is not as compelling as its advocates contend. Although 58 editions of Shakespeare's plays and 5 editions of his poetry were published before the First Folio in 1623, no author is listed on 20 of the title pages. What’s more, on 15 title pages his name is hyphenated as "Shake-speare". Finally, the un-hyphenated spelling "Shakespeare" (or Shakeſpeare, with a long s) only appears on 22 of 58 title pages. This erratic history of attribution during Shakspere’s lifetime effectively undermines the integrity of the bibliographical evidence.
It is documented that other authors during the Elizabethan era used a hyphenated surname on title pages to indicate a pseudonym. One prominent example was Martin Mar-prelate, author of eight pamphlets printed during 1588-89 which criticized the practices and prelates of the Anglican Church. The last name was always spelled with a hyphen on its title pages. The government arrested John Penry for being the actual author of the tracts, and executed him for sedition. Indeed, Shakespeare alludes to the episode in As You Like It in the character of a vicar named Sir Oliver Mar-text (note the hyphenated spelling in the FF edition of the play) – see Act III, sc. iii and Act V, sc. i.
Equally important, the traditional author’s case lacks sufficient biographical information that can confirm the bibliographical record. In other words, there is no documentary evidence connecting the private individual, William Shakspere of Stratford on Avon, to the public author, William Shakespeare.
We have no letters or manuscripts in his hand, nor books from his library, nor legal documents from the period identifying him as poet or playwright. All the documents that refer to the traditional author do so in non-literary roles – as a buyer of real estate or grain, as a witness or litigant in law cases, as a tax cheat in London, even as an investor in a theater, but never as poet or playwright. In short, there is no connection to a literary life in all the extant documents, including his will, which bequeaths no books or manuscripts nor leaves any money for the education of his grandchildren. There is only a bequest leaving rings for two fellow investors in the Globe Theater – but as an interlineation, that is, an afterthought.
What’s more, his name wasn’t spelled the same way as the name that’s printed on the title pages. The spelling on the works is very consistent – “Shakespeare,” or “Shake-speare,” over 95% of the time, and invariably with the medial “e” after the “k.” Shakspere never used that spelling in his life. Nor does it appear in any of 26 entries in Stratford parish records relating to him and his family, from the birth of a sister in 1558 to the burial of a grandson in 1617. So there is a clear, consistent, highly statistically significant difference between those two sets of spellings.
The documents with the most evidentiary value are Shakspere’s six signatures, the three appearances of the name in the body of his will, the one on his monument in Stratford on Avon, and twenty-six in the Stratford parish register – thirty-six total occurrences which undoubtedly refer to Mr. Shakspere, or to close family members. In every case the name is spelled “Shakspere” or a close variant. In none is it spelled “Shakespeare.”
Then there is the bibliographical and testimonial evidence in the 1623 First Folio, the first edition to contain all the Shakespeare plays, published seven years after Shakspere’s demise. In considering these two pieces of evidence, the connecting links in the chain between William Shakespeare and William Shakspere of Stratford are: (a) the allusion by Ben Jonson to “Sweet Swan of Avon!”; (b) the allusion by Leonard Digges to “thy Stratford monument”; (c) the funerary monument in Stratford-on-Avon; and (d) the conclusion that the authors of the First Folio prefatory poems, Heminges, Condell, Jonson, Holland and Digges, recognized Shakspere of Stratford as the author.
In the FF’s prefatory poems, we all know of Ben Jonson’s poetic allusion to “Sweet Swan of Avon!,” followed three pages later by Digges’ allusion to “thy Stratford moniment.” Brought together they seem to connect the author with Stratford-on-Avon, but there were seven Avon rivers and at least ten Stratfords in Elizabethan England, including a Stratford-at-Bow in the London suburbs in which were located the public theaters.
Actually, Ben Jonson’s famous reference to the author as “Sweet Swan of Avon!” refers not to the Avon River in Stratford, as has long been assumed, but to a place along the banks of the Thames where Queen Elizabeth and King James saw plays performed:
| Sweet Swan of Avon! What a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames
That so did take Eliza, and our James!
Recent research shows that Hampton Court – the main venue for court performances of plays under both Queen Elizabeth and King James – was well known in Ben Jonson’s day as “Avon.” Contemporary references to it as such exist by John Leland (1543, 1545), by Raphael Hollinshed (1586), by Henry Peacham (1612), by Laurence Nowell (who transcribed one of Leland’s references) and by historian William Camden, in both the Latin (1607) and the English (1610) editions of his Britannia. Ben Jonson probably knew all of them; but we can be sure that he read at least the two editions of Camden’s Britannia, since Camden was his tutor, mentor, and his lifelong friend. Again, in context, “Sweet Swan of Avon!” refers not to Stratford-upon-Avon but to Hampton Court.
Leland’s lines on Hampton Court are rendered as follows in Camden’s 1610 English translation of Britannia:
|A Stately place for rare and glorious shew. There is, which Tamis with wandring stream doth dowse; Times past, by name of Avon men it knew: Here Henrie, the Eighth of that name, built an house So sumptuous, as that on such an one (Seeke through the world) the bright Sunne never shone. (420)
Camden’s source was Leland’s Genethliacon of 1543, but this was not his only reference to the Royal Palace as “Avon.” In his Cygnea Cantio (1545), Leland explained that Hampton Court was called “Avon” as a shortening of the Celtic-Roman name “Avondunum” meaning a fortified place (dunum) by a river (avon), which “the common people by corruption called Hampton.” (108) This etymology was supported by Raphael Holinshed, who wrote in his Chronicles (1586) that “we now pronounce Hampton for Avondune.” (101) Historian William Lambarde, in his Topographical and Historical Dictionary of England, written in the 1590s, includes an entry for Hampton Court which, he writes, is “corruptly called Hampton for Avondun or Avon, an usual Name for many Waters within Ingland.”
Other evidence undermines the integrity of the First Folio in identifying William Shakspere as Shakespeare the dramatist. One is the absence of Shakspere’s coat of arms in the Droeshout portrait of the author. Another is the absence of tributes from notable writers other than Ben Jonson, especially John Fletcher, one of Shakespeare’s collaborators (The Two Noble Kinsmen) who was still alive in 1623. None of the other three persons who wrote tributes for the First Folio was a noted literary person. There is Hugh Holland, Leonard Digges (a translator, brother to Dudley) and a mysterious I.M. who forgoes immortality by hiding his full name. Why such a short and mediocre list for the “soul of the age?”
Finally, there is the physical evidence of the funerary bust in Stratford’s church dedicated to William Shakspere. However, the sketch made by William Dugdale in 1634 of the Stratford Monument shows a man with a downturned mustache clutching a large sack of wool in his lap with both hands. Wenceslaus Hollar’s engraving of the Stratford monument matches the Dugdale sketch, and was published in multiple editions in 1656, 1730 and 1765. Although traditional scholars maintain the monument depicts the same elements as the original in the 1620s, a comparison of drawings and etchings published over the next few centuries demonstrate that the monument was then modified twice in the intervening centuries to show instead a man holding a piece of page while writing with a quill pen on a pillow, representing a radical transformation in its depiction of Shakspere – from a commodity merchant to an artist. In its original representation, however, it has no evidentiary value that William Shakspere was a writer at all. See accompanying illustrations.
|Dugdale's Original 1634 Sketch
||Hollar's Engraving of 1656
||The Rowe Engraving of 1709
||Vertue's Engraving of 1723
||Shakespeare's Monument Today
Orthodox scholars, moreover, steadfastly refuse to acknowledge this evidence is open to multiple interpretations (such as the First Folio testimonials) or is compromised -- either by conflicting attributions (printing history), physical changes over time (funerary monument) or by absence of evidence (no documentary evidence showing Shakspere to be a writer, his missing coat of arms from FF portrait, no testimonials after Shakspere’s death by local observers such as his son-in-law, a physician who kept a diary).
What of the chief claimant’s circumstantial case?
The Case for Oxford as Shakespeare
J. Thomas Looney analyzed the plays and poetry of Shakespeare for consistency in theme, plot and characterization and concluded that their author showed the following general characteristics:
|Shakespeare was a matured man of recognized genius, eccentric and
unconventional in behavior with an intense sensibility, an enthusiast of
drama, a lyric poet of recognized talent who also possessed a superior
education classical in foundation, and was the habitual associate of
Based on the same methodology, Looney further proposed that Shakespeare’s particular characteristics included the possession of feudal connections as a member of the higher aristocracy, to be a supporter of the Lancastrian faction, an enthusiast for Italy, a follower of sport including falconry, a lover of music, to be loose and improvident in money matters, to be doubtful and somewhat conflicting in his attitudes to women, and of probable Catholic leanings, but touched with skepticism.
In assembling these correspondences between the plots, characters and language of the plays with the Earl of Oxford’s biography, Looney and his advocates adhered to historical objectivism. Roger Parisious describes the method:
- Mature man of recognized genius. A lyric poet of recognized talent
Both William Webbe (A Discourse of English Poetrie, 1586) and George Puttenham (The Arte of English Poetrie, 1589) ranked Oxford first among Elizabeth's courtier poets, and some two dozen poems are signed or ascribed to De Vere in manuscript or published form. De Vere's poetry first appeared in the 1576 publication of The Paradise of Dainty Devices, then in The Arte of English Poetrie (1589), The Phoenix Nest (1593), England's Helicon (1600) and England's Parnassus (1600). In 1622, Henry Peacham (The Complete Gentleman) would list De Vere as first among the poets of the Elizabethan period.
- Of pronounced and known literary taste
Oxford was one of the most prominent patrons of writers in the 16th century. Among the 33 books dedicated to the Earl, six deal with religion and philosophy, two with music and three with medicine, but the focus of his patronage was literary, for 13 of the books presented to him were original or translated works of literature. Authors dedicating works to De Vere include Edmund Spenser, Arthur Golding, Robert Greene, John Hester, John Brooke, John Lyly, Anthony Munday, and Thomas Churchyard, the latter three writers all having been employed by De Vere for various periods of time. According to Anthony Wood, another of his secretaries was the English scientist, Nicholas Hill. Moreover, Oxford arranged for the publication of books by Thomas Bedingfield and Bartholomew Clarke and contributed dedicatory prefaces to each.
- An enthusiast in the world of drama
Throughout the 1580s, Oxford maintained a band of tumblers as well as two theater companies, Oxford's Boys and Oxford's Men. The former company played at the Blackfriars Theater in London, the lease of which Oxford purchased and transferred to playwright and novelist John Lyly, his secretary for more than 15 years, and at Paul's Church, until it was closed in 1590. Oxford's Men was a troupe of actors which mostly toured the provinces. In 1602 the Earls of Oxford and Worcester amalgamated their companies and were licensed to play at the Boar’s Head, which is described in extant documents as their accustomed theatrical venue. What’s more, a tavern with this name is where the characters Prince Hal and Falstaff consort in Shakespeare’s Henry IV.
- Of superior education
As a boy, De Vere was tutored in political philosophy by Sir Thomas Smith. Lawrence Nowell, the antiquarian scholar who then owned the sole existing manuscript copy of Beowulf, was another tutor. Shakespeares’s knowledge of the English language is enlarged by this versatile command of both Latin and French. De Vere was apparently tutored in Latin by his uncle Arthur Golding, the most talented Latin tutor in England, who dedicated three books to him. Golding’s translation of The Metamorphoses (1565, 1567) was done during the years the young Earl was perfecting his Latin. Sir Sidney Lee says that “the phraseology of Golding’s translation so frequently appears in Shakespeare’s page, especially by way of subsidiary illustration, as almost to compel conviction that Shakespeare knew much of Golding’s book by heart” (1909 119: emphasis added). Edward de Vere graduated from St. Johns College at Cambridge at age 14, and was created master of arts at Christ’s Church at Oxford at the age of 16. The year after his Oxford education, de Vere was admitted to Gray’s Inn to study law. His extant letters display a precocious and sophisticated knowledge of law among other subjects– many of the six hundred legal terms which appear in the plays and poems of “Shakespeare” occur in his extant correspondence, as first documented by William Plumer Fowler in Shakespeare Revealed in Oxford’s Letters.
An early account book (1569/70) shows Edward de Vere to be the possessor of a Geneva Bible, Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch, and Chaucer. Another account describes his purchase of Plato and Cicero, and “paper and nibs” for writing (Ward 32-33). Plutarch, Chaucer and the Geneva Bible are three of the most important source works for Shakespeare; a fourth is Ovid’s Metamorphosis, translated by his uncle Arthur Golding.
- Of probable Catholic leanings but touched with skepticism
Contemporary documents kept by Catholic partisans describe Oxford as sympathetic to the Catholic faith. It is likely that during his 1576 trip to Italy he was reconciled to the Church. However, in December 1580 he revealed the plot of his Catholic associates Henry Howard and Charles Arundel to murder Queen Elizabeth and establish Mary Queen of Scots to the throne. After this time Oxford apparently made his peace with the Anglican settlement; politically, he remained an Anglican. Such a loyalty to the Anglican cause would certainly be inferred from the persistent Anglican bias of the Shakespearean history plays which Professor Daniel Wright has documented in his Ball State PhD dissertation. Aesthetically and philosophically, de Vere remained under the influence of much Catholic doctrine and belief.
- A man with feudal connections, a member of the higher aristocracy, and connected with Lancastrian supporters
Oxford was an heir to one of the oldest earldoms in England’s history, originating in the Norman Conquest. The de Veres were strong supporters of the Lancastrian faction in the Wars of the Roses, and as every student of the plays knows, “Shakespeare” displays the same bias. Furthermore, as Professor Daniel Wright has recently argued, the historical bias in the plays is actually more specific than this: in many peculiar instances the author displays an idiomatic bias in favor of certain aristocratic families, among them the houses of de Vere and Stanley. Peter Saccio, in his book on the history plays, wonders why the author did not memorialize the successful Yorkist King Edward IV. The answer may lie in fact that Edward IV preserved his power by executing two earls of Oxford.
- An enthusiast for Italy
Oxford travelled to France and Italy in 1575-76, staying in Italy for more than six months, and later became notorious as the most Italianate Englishman of his generation. His Italian servant during this period later testified to the Inquisition that Oxford was fluent in both Italian and Latin. In fact, ten comedies and tragedies by Shakespeare are set in Italy, which display a minute and accurate knowledge of Italian topography, history and custom. (See Richard Roe’s The Shakespeare Guide to Italy, 2011, and Noemi Magri’s The Italian Renaissance in Shakespeare’s Plays and Poems, 2014.)
- A follower of sport, including falconry
Oxford played tennis and was accomplished in jousting, participating in three tournaments. Moreover, some of his early verse has images drawn from falconry which is echoed in the Shakespearean plays and poems, such as in Othello’s description of Desdemona.
- Lover of music
Composer John Farmer in his dedication to Oxford of The First Set of English Madrigals (1599) stated “that using this science [music] as a recreation your Lordship have overgone most of them that make it a profession.” One of Oxford’s poems was set to music by Elizabethan composer William Byrd, to whom he leased one of his manors. In addition, two contemporary compositions bear the Earl’s name – the Earl of Oxford’s March and the Earl of Oxford’s Galliard. The musical substratum of the plays is well known to scholars who have studied this question, in particular Professor of Music Ross Duffin of Case Western Reserve University in his Shakespeare’s Songbook.
- Improvident in money matters and contemptuous of thrift
Oxford alienated many of his estates to his father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, for which he has been criticized by historians. As J.T. Looney was the first to note, Oxford’s legendary improvidence, for which he earned the nickname “Pierce Pennilesse” from Gabriel Harvey and Tom Nashe, is one of the strongest confirmations of his identity as Shakespeare, for in the Shakespearean plays “almost every reference to money and purses is of the loosest description and, by implication, teaches an improvidence what would seem to involve any man’s financial affairs in complete chaos” (98). Roger Stritmatter’s study of the many marked verses in the Oxford’s personal Geneva Bible, which record the annotator’s financial anxiety, also shows a powerful concurrence with Shakespeare Bible references on the same subject.
|… Looney is always governed by the concrete structure of a complete work… Looney does not ‘identify’ Oxford as the protagonist of the Sonnets, Hamlet, Bertram, Prince Hal, and Othello, on the basis of common psychological characteristics, for such characteristics are few. What he does find is a common juxtaposition between the material which is new and particular, and that which does not deviate from the known textual sources; he invariably discovered close and repeated structural resemblances to parallel historical documents pertaining to Edward de Vere. (The Elizabethan Review, 6/1, spring 1998)
In explaining how such circumstantial evidence should be judged, Looney wrote:
|The predominating element in… circumstantial evidence is that of coincidence. A few coincidences we may treat as simply interesting; a number of coincidences we regard as remarkable; a vast accumulation of extraordinary coincidences we accept as conclusive proof. (The Shakespeare Controversy, 2nd. Ed., 2009, 75)
The primary line of evidence in the Oxfordian case thus focuses on parallels in the Shakespeare canon with the presumed author’s biography—evidence which points strongly to an aristocratic author. This entire methodology, however, is misrepresented and then rejected by academics supporting the traditional candidate. As professor emeritus of English at UC, Berkeley, Alan Nelson, describes it: “A crucial element of the self-styled ‘authorship debate’ is J. Thomas Looney’s post-Romantic (and anti-classical) proposition that all literary composition is quintessentially autobiographical. An author must write what he (or she) knows; and all that an author knows is the experience of his (or her) own life.” (Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, 46)
The primacy of the imagination in creating fictional works, however, runs counter to what accomplished artists maintain to be the source of their creativity. American novelist and Nobel Laureate William Faulkner explained late in his career that a writer creates novels based on a mix of three personal attributes – experience, observation, and imagination – the individual streams of which will vary with each work. Thus, to denude experience and observation from the creative process seems a desperate attempt by academics to flee from an epistemology which effectively undermines their position.
British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper was more emphatic in his essay, “What’s in a Name?”, when he wrote that “A great dramatist transmutes all his own experience…” In his essay, Trevor-Roper – like Looney in his 1920 book – used Shakespeare’s creative works to develop a character profile of their author as follows:
|first, to the range and limitations of Shakespeare’s conscious knowledge and thought; secondly, to the underlying assumptions which are taken for granted by all his characters; thirdly, to the world from which he draws his customary images. The first of these methods may show us something about Shakespeare’s mind; the second about his philosophy; the third about his tastes. (Réalités English Edition, November 1962)
What Trevor-Roper discovered was the sensibility and philosophical outlook of an aristocrat pervaded with nostalgia for the past and gloom about the future, precisely because Shakespeare’s arrival as an artist coincided with the end of the Renaissance. The specific parallels between Oxford’s biography and the plots and characters of the plays are routinely dismissed by orthodox scholars for another reason: they claim where incidents are based on historical facts, these are usually incidents in the public realm. Thus, the fact that Oxford was captured by pirates on the high seas between Denmark and England – as Hamlet was – happened to be a public scandal and thus no personal access was necessary for its inclusion in the play.
Confining ourselves just to the play of Hamlet, we find more than a few additional parallels, as Tom Bethell pointed out in The Atlantic:
* His father-in-law, Lord Burghley, wrote out a set of precepts ("Towards thy superiors be humble yet generous; with thine equals familiar yet respective") strongly reminiscent of the advice Polonius gives to Laertes ("Be thou familiar but by no means vulgar...."). Burghley's precepts, intended for the use of his son Robert, were published in 1618. Hamlet first appeared in quarto in 1603. Edmund K. Chambers, one of the leading Shakespeare scholars of the twentieth century, offered the following explanation: "Conceivably Shakespeare knew a pocket manuscript."
* In Act II Polonius sends Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris, possibly catching him "drinking, fencing, swearing, quarreling," or "falling out at tennis." In real life Burghley's older son, Thomas Cecil, did go to Paris, whence the well-informed Burghley somehow received information, through a secret channel, of Thomas's "inordinate love of...dice and cards." Oxford, incidentally, did have a real "falling out at tennis"—not a widely practiced sport in those days—with Sir Philip Sidney, the Earl of Leicester's nephew.
* Oxford and Hamlet are similar figures, courtiers and Renaissance men of varied accomplishments; both were scholars, athletes, and poets. Many critics have noted Hamlet's resemblance to Castiglione's beau ideal in The Courtier. At the age of twenty-one, Oxford wrote a Latin introduction to a translation of this book. Both Oxford and Hamlet were patrons of play-acting companies.
* In 1573 Oxford contributed a preface to an English translation of Cardanas Comfort, a book of consoling advice which the orthodox scholar Hardin Craig called “Hamlet's book." The book includes passages from which Hamlet's soliloquy was surely taken ("What should we account of death to be resembled to anything better than sleep....We are assured not only to sleep, but also to die....").
* Hamlet's trusted friend is Horatio. Oxford's most trusted relative was the general, Sir Horace Vere, called Horatio in some documents (and so named by the Dictionary of National Biography).
* Polonius is stabbed and killed by Hamlet while spying on him. When he was 17 years of age, Oxford accidentally stabbed and killed a servant of Burghley's (possibly another of Burghley's spies) at Burghley’s house. At the coroner’s inquest the next day, a jury found that the servant was drunk and had caused his own death. Burghley later recorded the event in his diary:
|Thomas Brinknell, an under-cook, was hurt by the Earl of Oxford at Cecil House, whereof he died, and by a verdict found felo de se with [Brinknell] running upon a point of a fence sword of the said Earl. (TNA, KB 9/619, part I, m. 13)
Burghley also later wrote that, “I did my best to have the jury find the death of a poor man whom he killed in my house to be found se defendendo.” (Monstrous Adversary, Alan Nelson, 2003, 47)
Whether Oxford’s act was premeditated, provoked, accidental, or done in self-defense, he faced a penalty ranging from death (if it were murder) to imprisonment for up to a year (if it were manslaughter) to loss of personal property (if it were accident or self-defense). De Vere escaped all of these through legal hairsplitting.
Oxford may have been satirizing the legal fictions that saved his own neck when he had the gravediggers in Hamlet discuss the rules of self-defense:
|Second Clown [Gravedigger]. . . . The crowner hath sat on her, and finds it Christian burial.
First Clown. How can that be, unless she drowned herself in her own defense?
Second Clown. Why, ’tis found so.
First Clown. It must be se offendendo, it cannot be else.
Attorney Tom Regnier has analyzed the scene as follows:
|The first gravedigger means “se defendendo,” or self-defense, not “se offendendo,” but here the lower class characters misstate the law, as they usually do in Shakespeare’s plays. The idea that one could drown oneself “in self-defense” (presumably to prevent oneself from killing oneself) is as zany a piece of illogic as to think that a man would commit suicide by running into another man’s sword. It is also a parody on legal treatises of the time that analyzed suicide by the same formulae as homicide while completely ignoring that in suicide the “murderer” and “victim” were the same person. (Brief Chronicles, III (2011), 116)
In other words, the author of Hamlet – Shakespeare’s most autobiographical play - was committed to integrating biographical parallels between Oxford’s life and that of Hamlet’s. But why would a provincial writer such as Shaksper deliberately choose to antagonize a senior peer of the realm and his powerful father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who served on the Privy Council, was the Queen’s Secretary of State and then her Lord Treasurer? Indeed, the author did not suffer any consequences for satirizing these powerful men, while others, such as John Stubbs, an attorney at Lincoln’s Inn, would lose his right hand for writing a pamphlet (The Gaping Gulf) that criticized the Queen’s impending marriage to a French nobleman. Or Thomas Nashe, another playwright, who would have all his papers burned by order of the Archbishop of Canterbury because works of his, including a play entitled The Isle of Dogs, were seen by the crown as seditious.
Shakespeare in Italy
Another line of evidence that is equally compelling are the dozens of allusions to Italian geography, language and culture that appear in ten Shakespeare plays and both narrative poems. All are supposedly incorrect – yet recent scholars have demonstrated that they are all accurate.
To start with the most famous Italian fantasy of Shakespeare’s, the references in Two Gentlemen of Verona of traveling from Verona to Milan by boat was not only feasible but the preferred way to travel between inland cities in northern Italy. The city was totally water-locked until the 20th century: the only way to reach Milan in the 16th century was by barge through a series of inter-connected canals that connected the streams and tributaries of the Po and Adige Rivers to one another.
There never was an Emperor of Milan? Emperor Charles V traveled to Milan with his court for one week in 1533 expressly to accept the public oath of fealty by the Duke of Milan. There never was a St. Peter’s Church in Verona, as indicated in Romeo and Juliet? Of the four St. Pietro churches in the city, only one – and it is still standing – was used as a parish church in the 14th century under Franciscan control: San Pietro Incarnario.
Based on the geographical clues provided in his play The Merchant of Venice, the historical location of Belmont was the Villa Foscari on the Brenta River, designed by the Italian architect, Palladio. Similarly, the historical location of Othello and Desedoma’s house in Venice – the Saggitary – was on the Frezzaria near St. Mark’s Square – the street where arrows were made and sold. And the identity of the three wanton paintings described by Shakespeare in the Induction to The Taming of the Shrew are as follows: Venus and the Rose by Luca Penni; Io by Correggio; and Apollo and Daphne by an anonymous artist.
What’s more, the primary source of Shakespeare’s narrative poem, Venus and Adonis, was not Ovid’s Metamorphoses but a unique version of Titian’s painting of Venus and Adonis that alone displays Adonis wearing a bonnet, explicitly referred to in the poem.
He sees her coming, and begins to glow,
Even as a dying coal revives with wind;
And with his bonnet (which] hides his angry brow,
Looks on the dull earth with disturbed mind, Taking no notice that she is so nigh,
For all askance he holds her in his eye. (II.337-342)
It was held by the artist in Venice until his death, and is now in the National Gallery of Palazzo Barberini in Rome.
That Shakspere of Stratford never received permission from the English Passport Office to travel to Italy has not deterred orthodox scholars from declaring that, since the Bard never traveled to Italy, all of his allusions to Italy are inaccurate.
This lie has persisted for four centuries in order to preserve the reputation of English professors tied to a fabulous biography they cannot defend.
Two other lines of evidence tie Oxford to Shakespeare: parallels between his poetry and that of Shakespeare’s, and the language and ideas in dozens of letters that Oxford wrote to the Queen, Lord Burghley and Sir Robert Cecil over a 40-year period, which tie them to the Shakespeare canon in explicit ways. Examples of these correspondences are for another article, but the main argument for Oxford has been summarized here for examination.
If Oxford wrote Shakespeare, what was his motive for doing so and how did he manage to disguise this lifelong subterfuge? After all, the theater was legally placed at the very bottom of the Elizabethan social order. Why indulge a penchant for poetry and drama by risking membership in one’s caste?
Although the English nobility in Elizabeth’s time was educated to govern as the ruling class, Oxford clearly was gifted for intellectual pursuits. His signed poetry as a young man, his patronage of artists, musicians and intellectuals, his further patronage of theatrical troupes all confirm this. Still he strived for a position of authority at Court, supported by two powerful benefactors, the Earl of Sussex, who served as Lord Chamberlain, and his father-in-law, Lord Burghley, who served as the Queen’s Secretary of State and later as her Lord Treasurer.
Despite this powerful support, Oxford never obtained a single public office. Writing for the theater, then, was the perfect way to create a public office so that he could conduct a dialogue with the general public regarding social and political issues while promoting the crown’s policies. The theater, unlike the printing press, was the era’s pre-eminent medium of communication, with public theaters capable of seating 2,500 spectators for daily afternoon performances in London. To create the cover he needed to preserve his membership in the aristocracy, he conveniently used a front man from the provinces.
The definitive question is why didn’t Oxford ever claim to be the author of the Shakespeare canon? Everyone can understand Oxford’s personal motives for wishing to protect his family’s reputation so that his three daughters could marry into the nobility and his son, the 18th Earl, could inherit the earldom. But what of future generations? Why not leave a statement to be opened after his passing? The most probable explanation is political – the crown wished to avert the general public from the idea that the nobility not only controlled their public lives, but their private ones as well. To have their national playwright be a nobleman would be a politically and socially overwhelming fact to accept. Better to foster a legend that grants the lower class a cultural hero of their own.
Should a public consensus proclaim Oxford to be Shakespeare, the consequent damage to the reputation of professional scholars with their students, academic peers and the general public would be so devastating it is unlikely that English professors will admit the question to research, debate or instruction. Yet the prophecy of Professor Georges Lambin, writing in The Travels of Shakespeare in France and Italy, should be taken to heart. “The moment is near, if it has not already arrived, in which the ‘Shakespeare mystery’ will finally escape the somewhat narrow and jealous competence of the exclusive specialist in literary studies. And when the historians and the geographers (and so on) shall wish to intensively undertake this problem, it will be definitely resolved.”
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