Mars Review of Books: Issue 2

The Man Who Would Be Shakespeare by ~habsul-rignyr

Sep 20, 2022 • ~bidbel

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Your mock’d Eie

Certain currents in the social milieu have conspired to make the Shakespeare Authorship Question relevant again. First is the advocacy of political theorist Curtis Yarvin. The other—more germane to a little history of The Question—is the work of historian and biographer Alexander Waugh. To Mr. Waugh’s latest work we shall at length return. Let us begin with a note on terminology.

Oxfordians is the name given to people who subscribe to the belief that the author of Shakespeare’s plays was not a man from Stratford, but rather Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, Viscount Bulbeck and Lord High Chancellor of England. Those who believe Shakespeare to have been the man from Stratford are called Stratfordians by everyone but themselves; this is always and everywhere the prerogative of those who occupy the majority position. There are also Baconians, for those who believe Shakespeare to have been Sir Francis Bacon. Other candidates include Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Edward Dyers, Roger Manners, fifth Earl of Rutland, and many more. I am not sure what these advocates call themselves, though Dyerists seems unlikely and Mannerists is taken. In any event, the collective term for anyone who does not believe in the Stratford man is anti-Stratfordian. Anti-Stratfordians tend to refer to the historical person who was indeed born in Stratford as Shaksper.

I shall tell you in one sentence what we know for certain about Shaksper: He was the son of an illiterate glover, he inseminated and later married an older woman named Anne Hathaway, he moved to London and became involved in the theater business where he was billed as an actor and then part owner of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and then, while still relatively young, moved back to Stratford where he lived out his remaining years, amassing a few hundred pounds of wealth through trade—a lot of money in 1616—and executing lawsuits until he died and left his wife, in his will, his second best bed. There are a few other morsels of legal wrangling for the pedant vultures to pick at, but otherwise I have given you a full accounting.

What we do not have from Shaksper are the following: a record of him ever having been educated anywhere, an account of his parents or his children having been educated (his daughters signed their names with illiterate marks . . . are these the daughters of the man who wrote Rosalind?), correspondence to or from Shaksper with any writer of the time, a record of the ownership of any books, a provision in his will for his supposed unpublished plays, a provision for the education of his children or his godson, a provision of any sort to his friend and supposed literary executor Ben Jonson, a record that he ever visited the continent, or a mention of Shaksper as a writer by anyone in his own family for 80 years after the fact of his death in 1616. We also do not definitely have a grave for him (the one you get shown in Stratford doesn’t and couldn’t contain a body: it’s too small) and the ‘house where Shakespeare spent his childhood’ is a tourist industry fiction of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, an organization built on avarice, widespread misapprehension, and one imagines not a few Stratford dowagers in their final destructive burst of busy energy before the tomb.

An absurdity rounds out the life of Shaksper to mirror the one that rounded it in: He rose from utter obscurity to intellectual heights never before or since equalled in the arts, only to return to Stratford and live out his life without leaving any trace on the town. As the original Oxfordian J. Thomas Looney put it:

Having it is supposed by virtue of an immeasurable genius forced himself out of an unrefined and illiterate milieu into the very forefront of the literary and intellectual world, he returns whilst still in his prime, and probably whilst relatively still a young man, to his original surroundings. For the last eighteen years of his life . . . there [in Stratford, with] such intellectual gifts as he is supposed to have possessed, such force of character as would have been necessary to raise him in the first instance, he passes his life amongst a mere handful of people without leaving the slightest impress of his eminent powers or the most trifling fruits of his attainments and educational emancipation upon anyone or anything in Stratford. In the busy crowded life of London it is possible to conceal both the defects and qualities of personality, and men may easily pass there for what they are not; but one man of exceptional intellectual powers, improved by an extraordinary feat of self-culture, could hardly fail to leave a very strong impression of himself upon a small community of people, mostly uneducated, such as then formed the population of Stratford.

Even the little monument erected over his death, where we’re looked upon by a boorish butcher’s face, is a fiction. If you look at it today, Shaksper’s hands are resting on a pillow of dark blue and red. The pillow was originally a white woolsack befitting a wool dealer, but someone later painted it and slipped a quill and paper into his hands. The robes he wears are those of a university graduate at a university he never attended and with which he had no affiliation: Oxford.

Two Bacons, Mistaken

Anti-Stratfordianism gets a rather infelicitous start in the unfortunate history of one Delia Bacon (no relation to the philosopher), a woman who rose to fame from obscure beginnings in frontier Ohio on the wings of her considerable literary talents. Straitened family circumstances forced the young Ms. Bacon to leave school at the age of 14, in despite of which she became a schoolteacher and ultimately a successful traveling lecturer. In 1832, at the age of 21, she bested Edgar Allen Poe in a short story contest in the Saturday Courier. She had an early fling with a minister; it ended with him brought before ecclesiastical trial and her breaking with her Puritan upbringing. In 1857, after a decade of research, she published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded.

This treatise advanced the argument that Shakespeare was not the man from Stratford but likely a cadre headed by Sir Francis Bacon and including Sir Walter Raleigh, Edmund Spencer, and others. Their reason for secrecy was the advancement of a philosophical system they could not themselves claim. They were, according to Delia Bacon’s construction, “a little clique of disappointed and defeated politicians who undertook to head and organize popular opposition against the government, and were compelled to retreat from that enterprise . . . . Driven from one field, they showed themselves in another. Driven from the open field, they fought in secret.” Delia Bacon sensed a republican agenda where there was none, a revolution that was alive for her in America and her break with the Puritans, but can be found nowhere in the works of Shakespeare, which everywhere praise order under God’s chosen monarch and militate against sedition.

A true misfortune, perhaps, that Ms. Bacon befriended Samuel Morse and became enamored of codes, which she then tried to find buried in the works of Shakespeare. She was put into an asylum by her family near the end of her life and died in 1859, but not before becoming a star of the mid-19th century literary scene, charming the likes of Emerson, Hawthorne, and Carlyle. Her work was taken up by one Ignatius Donnelly, who turned the Shakespearean corpus into a kind of kabbalah of code-seeking which has embarrassed anti-Stratfordians ever since. But his arguments against Shaksper as the author of the plays were as robust as Delia Bacon’s, and had either of them been able to stop before combing Much Ado for hints of the Instauratio Magna, we’d today look on their works more sympathetically.

Searching the works for deep coded messages, by which I mean ciphers and encryptions, is foolish; to encode anything of length, one has to first create the message and then skew it, working backwards to make a message that fits. This would not work for Shakespeare, who really was writing plays for the stage and had his primary interest in meter, rhyme, characterization, and so on. True hidden meanings are locked in every text but at about the depth of puns, allusions, and call-backs: that is, on the same level as the rest of the text. That is not to say that encryptions do not exist, but that one should generally expect the more elaborate ones to be separate from the main work, hiding in plain sight for those bothering to look—not as a substantial rearrangement of the text.

In 1913, a millionaire and Baconian named Colonel George Fabyan started the first privately owned research facility in the United States, Riverbank Laboratories. Fabyan was motivated to prove cryptographic methods of determining Shakespeare Authorship were real and ended up precipitating cryptanalysis and cryptography in the United States. However, a husband and wife team, William and Elizebeth Friedman, who were both trained at Fabyan’s lab, published, in 1957, what was considered the definitive argument against all proposed ciphers to that time in a book called The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. Bacon, who was never a good fit anyway, has seen his sun set of late, though several societies exist to carry on the work of being wrong about it. Why a poor fit? We already have a lifetime’s work under the name of Bacon, and making Bacon Shakespeare means he lived two lifetimes. We also have the poetry of Bacon. And while it is, of course, excellent, we see there and elsewhere a totally different cast of mind.

If the names Fabyan and William and Elizabeth Friedman sound familiar to the reader it’s because I have just told you the origin story of the NSA.

By Hercules, I think I am i’ the right.

In 1920, a new theory was put forth by an English schoolteacher named J. Thomas Looney in his book entitled Shakespeare Identified. Looney largely ignored the cipher angle—except to praise Donnelly for his first hundred pages or so of lucid argument—and instead focused on finding a man of the times to fit the plays and poetry, which were obviously the product of a mind as far removed from the climes and custom of the Stratford man as Venice is from Bosworth Field. The poetry and plays indicate a first-rate classical education—not, Looney writes, “the mere bookish learning of the poor, plodding student who in loneliness had wrested from an adverse fate an education beyond what was enjoyed by his class.” Of other intellectual interests besides drama, we may count law (with which Shakespeare’s familiarity suggests professional experience) and medicine, seafaring (and there is some indication that Shakespeare had especial knowledge of it not available in the books of the time), heraldry, falconry (the sport of nobility before it was replaced by shooting), but above all else, classical poetry.

The man Looney proposed as the author of Shakespeare’s plays was Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. Let me say what we know of De Vere, in a space too brief to convey all the ways his life intersected with Shakespeare’s as set down in his plays and poems.

De Vere’s father died when he was young and his mother remarried scandalously quickly. He was made a ward of the Queen and his lands were siphoned away from him by his caretakers. According to the curriculum created by his new guardian, William Cecil (the Queen’s private secretary and later Baron Burghley, Lord Treasurer), de Vere daily studied “dancing, French, Latin, writing and drawing, cosmography, penmanship, riding, shooting, exercise and prayer.” Other tutors included Thomas Smith (England’s preeminent Greek and legal scholar) and Laurence Nowell, cartographer and ‘premier scholar of Anglo-Saxon literature—it was Nowell who possessed the only known copy of Beowulf’.

De Vere spoke fluent French, Latin, and Italian and in the mid-1570s based himself in Venice and traveled Italy extensively “armed with letters of introduction from Queen Elizabeth to the ducal heads of Italian city states.” Of the 106 scenes Shakespeare set in Italy, all took place in destinations de Vere is known to have visited or en route to them (except in the case of Genoa, where de Vere’s bankers were located). According to Alexander Waugh, a comprehensive study of Shakespeare’s allusions to Italy “leaves little doubt that Shakespeare’s precise details of Italian places, names, paintings, buildings, routes, rivers, manners, customs, habits and language demonstrate that the playwright had first-hand knowledge of Italy.”

A typical example of de Vere’s precise knowledge of Italian art comes from his Venus and Adonis. In de Vere’s rendering of the source material, he puts Adonis in a “bonnet” (a man’s cap). The inspiration for the poem was Titian’s painting, then famous in copies all over Europe (most recognizably in the Prado), but none of the copies in any of the museums has Adonis in a bonnet. But there is one that does: the studio model in Titian’s workshop in Venice.

Despite Shakespeare’s precise knowledge of Italian and wider European geography, Stratfordian scholars find evidence of Shakespeare’s base education in his description of travel by boat, rather than by land, from Verona to Milan in Two Gentlemen of Verona and from Milan to the Adriatic in The Tempest. Yet in both cases was Shakespeare correct and the Stratfordians wrong, as there was in his day a series of canals called ‘roads’ between the cities of northern Italy, and one can find even in Pliny reference to travel from the sea to well beyond Milan. A favored one, ridiculed by the likes of Jonson, Voltaire, Saint Beuve, and Sterne, is Shakespeare’s apparently ridiculous notion that the Kingdom of Bohemia had a ‘desert coast’ (Winter’s Tale). Yet if one consults a map of Bohemia during the reign of Přemysl Otokar II, he’ll find that the Bohemian Premyslid Dynasty controlled a region of modern Hungary bathed by the Adriatic.

On his journey home from Italy to England, de Vere and his crew were attacked by pirates, stripped, and left naked on the shore, just as happens to Hamlet (a detail not attributable to the original story from which the tragedy is adapted). When he returned home, he was greeted with the rumor that his daughter, born while he was abroad, was the product of an unfaithful wife. The timing was apparently questionable, though his wife maintained her innocence and de Vere eventually reconciled with her. The falsely accused woman who is later found to have been faithful is a theme of several Shakespeare plays (remember Othello and Much Ado).

During his split with his wife, de Vere took up with a woman called Anne Vavasour, a maid of Queen Elizabeth’s, whom he impregnated; the incident caused a royal scandal and the Earl was sent to the Tower of London for a time. The dishonor brought upon Anne caused street fights between de Vere’s men and those of Vavasour’s family (do you bite your thumb at me, sir?), causing injury and death on both sides. De Vere was himself wounded and later wrote in letters to William Cecil of his lameness, just as Shakespeare repeatedly complains in the sonnets.

But could de Vere write? Stratfordians will say he could not, having as evidence in his own name only juvenalia probably published without permission. As an adult nobleman, his poetry and dramas were necessarily written pseudonymously, but Frances Meres (1598) placed him first on his list of seventeen living English playwrights as “best for Comedy.” The anonymous author (probably George Puttenham) of Arte of English Poesie (1589) wrote “for such doings as I have seen . . . [de Vere’s] Comedies and Enterludes . . . deserve the highest prize.”

The above is but a fragment to the mountain of evidence connecting the Earl to Shakespeare. After Looney’s publication, interest flared and then died down, though skirmishes took place throughout the 20th century. Sigmund Freud and Orson Welles were Oxfordians, Henry James and Robin Williams Shakespeare skeptics. The Question resurged in 1984 when David McCullough, Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning historian, wrote a preface to Charlton Ogburn’s Oxfordian book The Mysterious William Shakespeare. In 1987, a moot court was held before three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court (Blackmun, Stevens, and Brennan, Jr.), where law professors of the American University acted as opposing counsel for the Stratford man and the Earl of Oxford. The bar that had to be crossed was proving both that the Stratford man wasn’t Shakespeare and that de Vere was; the professors did not do so to the satisfaction of the judges. But later, Blackmun and Brennan both expressed opinions in favor of de Vere, and Stevens became one of de Vere’s most famous proponents. Scalia would join him.

Today, Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Mark Rylance are both counted as Oxfordians. One Hollywood movie, Anonymous, has been made—with the usual Hollywood looseness with historical fact, making it an easy target—starring Rhys Ifans as the Earl. At least two well-known societies exist dedicated to the study of the Earl of Oxford as Shakespeare: the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship and the De Vere Society. This latter society operates under the leadership of Alexander Waugh, the grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh.

Mr. Waugh operates on the assumption that the identity of Shakespeare as the Earl, rather than being only the subject of cryptographic occlusion (for there is plenty of that, too), was in fact a more-or-less badly kept secret of the Elizabethan Oxbridge set, who couldn’t help but titter about his Shakespeare pseudonym or his embarrassing love life and littered punning allusions about it, both visual and textual, throughout English letters for a hundred years. Mr. Waugh’s YouTube page elaborates both original work of this type and the work of other Oxfordians over the last century. The series is called “Who knew?” Each video is entitled “X knew . . .”, where “X” is the name of a contemporary who knew the real identity of Shakespeare and worked an allusion to it into a publication.

One of the earliest mentions of Shakespeare is William Covell’s Polimanteia (1595). On the line where Shakespeare appears, the word Oxford—referring ostensibly to the university but written in italics in a triangle with two other names, both of which are also in italics and both of which also have a double meaning—is directly above the seemingly clumsily written phrase “courte-dear-verse” which is just opposite a marginal note on the same line referring to Shakespeare. That clumsy phrase is a perfect anagram of “our de Vere, a secret.” Myriad other references to Oxford’s embarrassing love life are found within.

Another allusion is Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna, an emblem book published in 1612. Emblem books, unfamiliar to most of us today, brought together words and images in a way to mark out some idea of religious or social significance in displays of intellectual virtuosity.

Classical Minerva, to whom the title alludes, was reimagined in Medieval and Renaissance Europe as a patroness of the liberal arts. So the book title invites us to ask who Britain’s greatest liberal arts patron was. Waugh and ‘sother Oxfordians point to Oxford, who was, in the words of Derek Jacobi, “perhaps the most downwardly mobile person in history” because he spent his vast fortunes as England’s preeminent patron of poets and the theater. Minerva connects to Shakespeare via her spear (later she was called hastivibrans, “the spear shaker,” though it is unclear whether she was referred to in this way before Thomas Fuller used the word to refer to Shakespeare in his 1662 Worthies of England). The title page’s central figure is surrounded by bay leaves, the symbolic crown of great poets, and a hand reaches out from behind what Waugh calls “a Jacobean or Elizabethan theater curtain.” The hand inscribes the words “Mente videbor”: “With the mind, I will be seen.” If the figure is turned upside down, it appears to be a hand reaching out from a robe above an earl’s coronet, and one can better note that an i is formed from a blot of ink and the nib of the pen—an I seen with the mind. Mente videbori is a perfect anagram of “Tibi nom de Vere”; the English translation would be “thy name is de Vere.”

Or take John Warren’s publication of the poetry of Shakespeare, in which he states that the ‘learned’ and those of ‘true judgement’ can discern Shakespeare’s ‘true art’. The poem is in iambic pentameter in every line but the third.

Scholars of every camp have, since the 19th century, debated the missing name. Whose love is shown to Shakespeare despite the labor having been his? Virbius is an allusion to Hippolytus of Athens, who was said to have died and been resurrected, thereafter moving to Rome and calling himself Virbius from Vir (man) + bis (twice): two times, or the double of, a man. Notice the pun on Vir/Vere, which renders forth Vere’s double. Could it be “’Tis Oxford’s love that thus to thee is shown”?

Or consider the 1637 poem by Sir William Davenant, “In Remembrance of Master William Shakespeare.”

Beware (delighted Poets!) when you sing

To welcome Nature in the early Spring;

Your num’rous Feet not tread

The Banks of Avon ..

The piteous River wept it selfe away

Long since (Alas!) to such a swift decay;

That reach the Map; and looke

If you a River there can spie;

And for a River your mock’d Eie,

Will finde a shallow Brooke.

Davenant is warning poets not to look to Stratford, where their “mock’d Eie” [deceived eye] will see not “a River” [an auditory pun on our Vere] but “a shallow Brooke.” Here, Davenant manages to take a shot simultaneously at the Stratford man and Sir Fulk Grevile, Lord Brooke. Davenant did for some time work for Grevile, so knew the man. And Grevile certainly was a “shallow” poet. If you do as Davenant asks and “reach the map,” you can trace the Avon up to Warwick, and Grevile’s castle there; or, look to London and consider Brooke House, which Grevile named for himself after buying it from, guess! . . . the widow of the 17th Earl of Oxford. For, or in place of, our Vere, you get a shallow Brooke.

The list of “Who knews” goes for several hours and two dozen videos, including names such as Ben Jonson, Samuel Sheppard, John Davies, Henry Willobie, Thomas Bancroft, and John Dee. With Dee, Waugh finds a point of departure to do his own gematria. He claims to have found connections to proto-Masonry and cryptographic clues to the real identity of Shakespeare and his burial place. At this point one wonders whether the soberer discussion of open punning at Oxbridge gives way to the same fault we found in Delia Bacon and Ignatius Donnelly: early promise spoiled by excess. But let me stake my reputation. Mr. Waugh really is a careful and restrained academic, reading him or watching his videos is a masterclass in early modern English letters, and he is right about pretty much everything.

My necessaries are embark’d

It’s an accident of history that Shakespeare should be thought to have been the actor from Stratford; Stratfordians began to exist at the end of the 17th century only as those who were in on the joke died out. They read the jokes and puns and allusions and took them at face value. Unfortunately, this misapprehension took hold in a time when Shakespeare as an Everyman Hero could get cultural purchase, for the Shakespearean project was a project of revolutionizing the language and of civilizing and enlightening the English. De Vere and the Oxbridge set thought they were lifting the minds of the English. This worked as well as the common substrate would allow. But if the people can’t be made to go all the way to Shakespeare, they can imagine themselves to have done so anyway by making Shakespeare as common as themselves. This is the story of the last 300 or so years of Stratfordianism.

As for the revolution itself, it began with Tyndale publishing the Bible in English, for which he was strangled and burned. George Gascoigne steered the course of English from trivial love poems with his A Hundreth Sundry Flowers (1573) and the third fourth of the 16<suth</sup> century ushered in a burst of creative energy that saw verse written in English to approach that of Latin and Italian. Thomas Nashe in 1592 wrote that “the Poets of our time . . . have cleansed our language from barbarisme and made the vulgar sort here in London (which is the fountaine whose riuers flowe round about England) to aspire to a richer puritie of speach, than is communicated with the Comminaltie of any Nation vnder heauen.”

Shakespeare stood before the competing streams that died out before his genius: the conservatism of Gabriel Harvey and Philip Sydney, the preciosity of Lyly’s Euphues, the classicism of Jonson and others. And he gave the world its romantic tragedies and romantic comedies, and such perfect examples of characterization, but always, everywhere, undergirded by a deep bedrock of learning and world experience, and an effortless facility with the classical forms. Shakespeare was not a commoner. Like Dante, he was a man of high status who translated his cultural treasures into a vulgate to create a language and a people with. He created an Empire of the Word. And, in time, the Empire became a Koine. Invade the word, invite the word.

As a nobleman, de Vere could not have published the works in his own name. Neither, under his name, could he have made a Polonius of William Cecil or a Petruchio and Kate of his brother-in-law and sister. We have contemporary testimony that he did write under the names of other men. An upstart actor in a London theater company with pretensions of greatness is as good a choice as any. The secret was not tightly kept; it leaked. But there was indeed a conspiracy to keep the Earl’s name hidden, known to such friends as Thomas Nashe and Ben Jonson. The latter’s First Folio dedications are dripping with allusion and sarcasm.

The conspiracy is trivial in its simplicity, so trivial as a matter of fact that the worst thing to say for the work of Mr. Waugh is that he damages an otherwise excellent theory if he in excess proves wrong, for in modesty he is surely right. So trivial, even, that I expect most of my readers have themselves taken part in just such a conspiracy: Are you not a famous anonymous shitpoaster, or the friend of one whose real name you know? If you are not, work on being more likable, interesting, and trustworthy. As for the rest of you, you understand the Earl’s condition very well.