Querulous Notes (2002-2003)
August 20, 2003
New records relating to William Shakespeare come to light only rarely. Thousands of professional and amateur scholars have, after all, been turning over the same patches of documentary ground for more than 300 years, leaving very few pickings for late comers. Nonetheless, something new has turned up - and from a highly unlikely source. An Oxfordian, Paul H. Altrocchi, M.D., has found, in a copy of the 1590 Latin edition of William Camden's Britannia, a handwritten annotation mentioning the bard by name and evidently written before 1650, possibly within a few years of Shakespeare's death. Dr. Altrocchi's article on his discovery is available on-line [PDF file], and Professor Alan H. Nelson of Berkeley has posted some comments and additional information. The article has given rise to a long thread on HLAS, which will be of interest primarily to those who relish watching anti-Stratfordians twist their their minds into new knots. (The leadoff post, from one of the harmless lunatics who haunts the newsgroup, is headed, "News!! News!! A New Shakespeare Annotation Proves Willy a Fraud!!")
Britannia is a topographical survey of England, with notes about towns and their famous citizens. Stratford-upon-Avon gets only a brief mention, as a "little market town that owes all of its reputation to two of its sons", who are identified as John of Stratford, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1333 to 1348, and Sir Hugh Clopton, who was Lord Mayor of London in 1492. In the copy examined by Dr. Altrocchi, someone has added the words "et Gulielmo Shakespear Roscio planè nostro" ("and, obviously, to William Shakespeare, our Roscius"). The most likely annotator, Professor Nelson observes, is one Richard Hunt, who can be identified as the vicar of Little Itchington, a town not from Stratford. Hunt was born in 1596, received his M.A. from Oxford in 1618 and took up his post in Little Itchington in 1621.
Dr. Altrocchi commendably rejects far-fetched attempts to find an alternative reading more compatible with anti-Stratfordian doctrine. The most that he can do is try to salvage a shred of comfort from the observation that -
The annotation, likely written so soon after Shaksper of Stratford’s death in 1616, does confirm the remarkable early success of what Oxfordians view as William Cecil’s clever but monstrous connivance: forcing the genius Edward de Vere into pseudonymity and promoting the illiterate grain merchant and real estate speculator, William Shaksper of Stratford, into hoaxian [sic] prominence as the great poet and playwright, William Shakespeare.
In other words, all testimony tending to show that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him is actually evidence of the sinister success of the conspiracy against the True Author. Leaving that possibility aside, the most interesting point about this marginalium is the comparison of Shakespeare to Roscius. Quintus Roscius Gallus (d. 62 B.C.) was the most famous of Roman actors. He gave the young Cicero lessons in elocution and was, in turn, defended by Cicero in one of the great lawyer's earliest cases. (Many a student has floundered his way, as I did once, through Pro Roscio comoedo.) It is possible, of course, that Fr. Hunt invoked Roscius simply as a general reference to prominence in the theater, but the choice of that name, rather than one that we would today consider more apt (e. g., Terence, Seneca or Ovid), hints that revisionists like John Southworth may be right to argue that Shakespeare's fame as an actor stood higher in its day than we realize. Most of the surviving allusions are from the pens of men of letters, to whom poetry was the measure of greatness, but perhaps more ordinary mortals recalled the player on the stage more vividly than the writer of scripts.
March 15, 2003
Perhaps this post belongs in my Public Policy section, for its subject is an important public servant, one of the nine men with ultimate authority to interpret our nation's laws. Bob Grumman, a minimalist poet and pro-Stratfordian controversialist, has called attention to a letter from Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens to Paul Streitz, author of Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I. His Honor's note, on Court letterhead and dated July 1, 2002, reads:
Thank you for sending me a copy of "Oxford", a most interesting and impressive piece of work. Although I learned a great deal from it, and find your central thesis fascinating, it seems unlikely to me that so many people have been mistaken about the date of Edward de Vere's birth. You do, however, provide strong additional evidence supporting the Oxfordian position on the authorship issue.
John Paul Stevens
Justice Stevens' Oxfordianism is a well-known fact, and everyone, especially a judge, is entitled to a harmless eccentricity. This letter points, however, to something for which "eccentricity" may not be le mot juste. Mr. Streitz's opus is, in fact, quite a lunatic production. Here is the author's own summary of its thesis [reproduced without alteration]:
1. Oxford was born in Cheshunt, England, 1548. He was the son of Elizabeth tudor and her stepfather, Thomas Seymour.
2. Oxford married Anne Cecil because her father changed the laws of England to make him the legal heir to the throne.
3. Oxford had a child with his mother.
4. Oxford did not die in 1604, but either was abducted or disappeared to the Isle of Man to write the King James Bible.
He opines that his work "does clear the way for removing the Windsors off the throne, because there is a direct line from Elizabeth to present day". Perhaps he hopes that Englishmen disgusted by royal scandals will convert to his views.
David Webb, a professional mathematician and amateur (in the best sense) authorship debater, adds further details:
In Mr. Streitz's scenario, the young Elizabeth Tudor is molested by her stepfather, Thomas Seymour; Elizabeth somehow contrives to keep her pregnancy secret, and her son is passed off as Edward de Vere.
Of course, mere chronology renders this fantasy untenable – Thomas Seymour was inconveniently executed for treason well before he could have gotten around to fathering the lad (no pun intended), so either Oxford was sired posthumously, a possibility that should not faze Mr. Streitz in the least (in view of his infatuation with incest, why not add a little necrophilia to the mix?), or else Elizabeth endured the longest human pregnancy on record, rivaling the gestation period of an elephant. However, Mr. Streitz is by no means finished with incest – later, we learn that Oxford was the Queen's lover, and Southampton their clandestine son (evidently Elizabeth once again managed to keep her pregnancy secret).
But Mr. Streitz STILL hasn't begun to exhaust incest's abundant possibilities! Mr. Streitz describes the attack by pirates on Oxford's vessel, and opines that the attack might have been a calculated attempt on Oxford's life. He writes:
On the other [hand], could it be that this was an event set up by the one man capable of having information on when and how Oxford would cross the channel and also capable of orchestrating a cooperating band of pirates to stage the attack to kill Oxford? William Cecil was the only man in England with the extensive spy network and foreign operatives to carry out such a plot. He was also the only one who would have a motive to kill Oxford. The newborn heir, Oxford's child and William Cecil's grandchild, would inherit Oxford's estates and would be heir to the throne.
It does not appear to have occurred to Mr. Streitz that it would have been imprudent and decidedly premature for Cecil to have acted so decisively and so irreversibly before ascertaining that the child would even survive infancy. Indeed, in the event that the child did not reach adulthood, Oxford's chances of begetting Cecil another grandchild and heir the to throne – after Oxford's own death – would have been rather slim. However, since Mr. Streitz believes that Oxford himself was sired by a man who died long before the date of Oxford's own birth, perhaps Mr. Streitz surmises that Burghley reasoned that posthumous conception ran in the family, so perhaps Burghley would not have been unduly troubled by an early demise of the goose that laid the golden egg for the Cecil family.
After a paragraph recording Oxford's refusal to meet with his wife and child upon his return [from his tour of Italy], Mr. Streitz continues:
The unresolved question is 'Who fathered the child?' Here there is a division of opinion among those knowledgeable about Oxford. One group believes that the father was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who, to spite Oxford, raped Anne Cecil. However, the probability of this scenario has the drawback that to get to Anne Cecil, Robert Dudley would either have had to have the consent of William Cecil or reach Anne without his knowledge. Both seem to be unlikely scenarios.
The other candidate for fatherhood is unspeakable, Anne Cecil's father, William Cecil.
Mr. Streitz's evident infatuation with the idea of incest makes its presence felt throughout the book. Mr. Streitz continues:
He [Cecil] had the most to lose if Oxford died abroad without an heir. [Why doesn't Mr. Streitz fall back upon his reliance upon posthumous conception? Or, failing that, why doesn't he take the point that it would be folly for Cecil to sever his ties to the putative Crown Prince before Cecil's grandchild made it past infancy?] If Oxford died on his European tour without an heir, his properties and titles would revert to others in the Vere family. Conversely, Cecil had the most to gain if Anne Cecil had a child.The child would be the legitimate heir of Oxford, and no one would be the wiser. As to some other father for the child, if anyone else was to impregnate Anne, there would be the possibility that the information could leak out and the paternity of the child would be legally questioned. This is what makes the attack on Oxford in the channel that much more suspicious. It may have been a gamble to eliminate Oxford, but William Cecil was a ruthless man who had resorted to murder before (John de Vere) to advance the Cecil family.
After the first few pages, I rapidly lost count of the errors in Mr. Streitz's risible tome; however, after the above, I began even to lose
count of the instances of incest!
Of couse, Mr. Streitz's "evidence" for his imaginative, if lurid, fantasies rarely advances beyond the formulation of paranoid rhetorical questions:
What does it mean when it is said [by whom?] that Thomas Seymour "woke the fifteen year old Elizabeth each morning?" A hard look, a skeptical eye, and a strong stomach are required to understand the nasty, brutal world of the Elizabethans.
Claudius in Hamlet may represent a combination of Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley, murderer of Oxford's foster father [sic], John de Vere, most likely through poisoning. Was it a historical reality that poison in the ear caused the death of John de Vere? More importantly, Dudley usurped Thomas Seymour's place in Elizabeth's bed.
By the time he is finished, Mr. Streitz has endowed the fecund Virgin Queen with no fewer than five illegitimate progeny. Some of his evidence for the identification of Southampton is particularly amusing:
If a child was born to Elizabeth in this year , this [May] may have been the period for it to happen. In the sonnets, we find these references to the months of April-May:
[Here Mr. Streitz quotes an innocuous line from each of four sonnets]
And there are forty-one uses of the word "may."
I am not making this up – Mr. Streitz apparently regards instances of the word "may" as pointers to the date of Southampton's birth! I wonder what he makes of the surname of Steven May? He continues:
Oxford had the largest vocabulary in the history of the English language. Yet, in the sonnets he uses a few words repeatedly. This appears to be an indication that he means these words to convey a message outside the poetry, that message would be that Southampton was born in the period [sic].
One of the great marvels of Mr. Streitz's book is that one can open it virtually at random and hit upon gems like this!
Such is that "most interesting and impressive piece of work" from which Justice Stevens professes to have "learned a great deal" and in which he discerns "strong additional evidence supporting the Oxfordian position on the authorship issue". His mild demurrer regarding the Earl's date of birth scarcely negates the impression that he cheerfully swallowed – and was incapable of recognizing – bushels of absurdity.
A recurring and constitutionally insoluble problem afflicting our highest court is that of easing out members whose mental faculties are no longer adequate for the performance of their duties. I am far from saying that a single letter, which may, I suppose, be mere politeness to a madman, is proof of incompetence. Nonetheless, I shall from now on read Justice Stevens' opinions with an extra measure of care and skepticism.
January 5, 2003
In due time I will complete further installments of my analysis of Roger Stritmatter’s Oxfordian opus, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible. In the interim, here are couple of recent tidbits from other discussions of Dr. Stritmatter's theories.
On October 20, 2002, Terry Ross, co-editor of the Shakespeare Authorship Web site, debated Dr. Stritmatter in front of the pro-Oxfordian "Shakespeare Fellowship", whose Web site had only this to say about the encounter: "Mr. Ross needs to sharpen his pen, and refine his position. Ross's argument was summed up by one PhD witness as a display of 'mind-boggling triviality'." Readers can draw their own conclusions about "triviality" vel non from the notes that Dr. Ross posted on the HLAS newsgroup, a frequent forum for authorship debates. The thread eventually drifted off-topic (drawn into the black hole of the prospective war between the United States and Iraq), but, so long as it kept its bearings, it was interesting for the feebleness of the Oxfordian response. While the members of the Shakespeare Fellowship present at the debate seem to have unanimously accorded the honors to Dr. Stritmatter, none of their many sympathizers on HLAS defended his work with much vigor.
Dr. Ross has also posted an interesting comment (part 1 and part 2) on the last few pages of the Stritmatter dissertation, showing that a key element is “is built upon an egregious misreading” – not of Shakespeare but of Samuel Sheppard, a slightly later poet whom Dr. Stritmatter adduces in the following terms as witness to a mystery surrounding the author of the Bard's works:
Contemplating Shakespeare's condition, Sheppard is struck mute ("alas I cannot speak for teares") and can only communicate by means of innuendo, invoking those "community-founding" powers of language which "plumb the paleosymbolic depths of equivocal expressions" of which Sue Curry Jansen writes so eloquently. Like Prospero, Sheppard's Shakespeare is one who has been condemned to purgatory unless rescued by the posthumous "prayers" of knowing readers who can heed "what silent love hath writ" and [are] able, in turn, to write what they now know -- "between the lines."
What Dr. Stritmatter misses is that Sheppard’s verses are not about Shakespeare at all. Their subject was alive when they were written (c. 1651) and was almost certainly William Davenant, a pro-cavalier poet then imprisoned by Parliament under sentence of death. (As some readers will recall, he avoided execution and in later years claimed to be William Shakespeare of Stratford’s illegitimate son.) A minor confusion but all too typical of Dr. Stritmatter's method of reaching conclusions.
* * * *
I am informed that there will soon be new and possibly more mind boggling purveyors of stritmatter. Two linguistics professors named Michael Brame and Galina Popova have set up a vanity press called "Adonis Editions" to publish their trilogy on the authorship controversy. Here is what their Web site has to say about the first two volumes:
Shakespeare's Fingerprints: "This is the first installment of the authors' FINGERPRINT TRILOGY whose major thesis is that the name William Shakespeare is but one of a range of pseudonyms adopted by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. This first volume provides the first cogent explanation for why de Vere chose to write his masterpieces under pseudonyms, effectively muting a familiar orthodox objection. The authors treat in detail Shakespeare's wordplay on his Oxford title." (Update: I have posted a review of this work.)
Never and Forever: "The second installment of the Brame-Popova FINGERPRINT TRILOGY supports and confirms the authors' major thesis to the effect that the name William Shakespeare is but one of a range of pseudonyms adopted by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. This volume provides breadth and depth to the authors' explanation for why de Vere chose to write under pseudonyms. Never and For Ever treats of Shakespeare's wordplay on his family name Vere, explaining the authors' choice of title. Many apparent riddles of Shakespeare's poetry and plays are resolved in this work, including the following lines drawn from Sonnet 76 [quoting the second quatrain, an old Oxfordian chestnut whose cogency depends entirely on ignoring the lines' context]."
There is no information yet about the concluding book, entitled Faerie Love. From the same hands, though not part of the trilogy, is an edition of a "new" Shakespearean work:
Secret Shakespeare's Adventures of Freeman Jones: "Brame and Popova marshal a wealth of arguments showing that Shakespeare wrote novels, including this one. . . . professionally edited with footnotes cross-referenced to the main text. The footnotes elucidate de Vere's play on his family name Vere and provide clarification of his wanton wordplay. The book is complemented by an Afterword that expounds the evidence confirming that the novel was indeed written by the genius we today know as Shakespeare." N.B.: This work was published in 1573 as A Discourse of the Adventures Passed by Master F. J. and is conventionally attributed to George Gascoigne. The idea that "Gascoigne" was an Oxenford alias is one of the wilder flights of Oxfordian fancy, passed over in silence by the soberer adherents to the sect.
Can professors of linguistics believe such absurdities, you may ask? Well, consider that Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics, and all will be clear.
October 10, 2002
Today, rather than swinging cudgels at the proponents of the theory that the Earl of Oxenford was the true author of the works of Shakespeare, I am going to try to be helpful, in fact, to offer my own small contribution to “Oxfordian scholarship”.
One area that Oxfordians tend to treat rather casually is the chronology of the Shakespearean corpus. If it was written by Oxenford, the accepted dates of many of the plays must be wrong, if only because the Earl died before about a dozen of them were supposedly written. On the other end of the time scale, the conventional dates of Shakespeare’s earliest plays - the late 1580’s and early 1590’s - seem latish for a man born in 1550 and already a published poet by 1573.
Chronology seems like a natural line of Oxfordian inquiry, but it is not one that is diligently pursued. In his Alias Shakespeare, for instance, Joseph Sobran looks at the dates of only a handful of the plays, and his glance at most of those is fleeting. The Winter’s Tale should perhaps be dated before the standard 1610, because “Shakespeare evidently used the 1588 edition of [Robert Greene’s Pandosto], though it had been reprinted in 1607.” The Comedy of Errors could conceivably be the same play as The Historie of Error produced in 1577 (though a partial resemblance of one word in the titles isn’t much ground for Charlton Ogburn, Jr.’s conclusion that the identification is “highly likely”). Since As You Like It alludes to Christopher Marlowe’s death, it could have been produced shortly after that event (1593) rather than several years later. Ben Jonson’s statement in 1614 that Titus Andronicus was “five and twenty, or thirty years” old imprecisely supports a date as early as 1584. (It also supports 1589, which is in line with the general opinion.) Mr. Sobran’s discussion of Hamlet, Macbeth and The Tempest is somewhat meatier, but his final judgement on Shakespearean chronology as a whole leaves many questions unaddressed:
These earlier dates for five very diverse plays mean that all the plays could have been written by 1604, the year of Oxford’s death. We have indications that The Comedy of Errors existed by 1577, Titus Andronicus by 1584, Hamlet by 1589, As You Like It by 1594, and Macbeth before - perhaps some years before - 1605. So the dates of the plays seem to move back several years, without doing violence to their apparent sequence; Errors and Titus, judging by their style and quality, are early plays, Hamlet and As You Like It belong to the poet’s urbane maturity, and Macbeth is written in his concentrated “late” style, when his verse achieved a unique freedom and density.
Whether the sequence can be retained so easily is a question that demands deeper examination than Mr. Sobran gives it. If the Hamlet that appeared c. 1589 is really Shakespeare’s, rather than a different work with the same name (as virtually everyone else believes), it must be nearly contemporaneous with the three parts of Henry VI, which draw material from the 1587 edition of Holinshed’s Chronicle [Geoffrey Bullough, Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare III:32, 90]. That conclusion certainly does a modicum of “violence to their apparent sequence”!
The only way to determine how well the plays fit into an Oxfordian chronology is to review each one individually. As a starting point for Oxenford partisans, I offer these thoughts on what is universally regarded as one of the first Shakespearean productions, The Two Gentlemen of Verona.
Like many of the plays, The Two Gentlemen is set in Italy. It is, however, unlike the other Italian dramas in one crucial respect. The rest display a degree of knowledge of the country and its customs. How high a degree is controversial, but the author went to some trouble to create verisimilitude, at least to the point of giving characters distinctively Italian names and tossing occasional bits of phrase book Italian into the dialogue.
The Two Gentlemen is different. Nothing in the text suggests that the author knew anything about the nominal setting beyond a few place names and the scarcely recondite fact that the inhabitants were Roman Catholics. He certainly had never traveled there, for he commits howlers that would be astonishing for even an unperceptive tourist.
The play’s Verona is situated on a tidal river. Proteus must cut short his farewell to Julia, because “The tide is now” (II.ii.14-15), and in the next scene he and Launce quibble over the risk of losing one’s voyage along with the tide (II.iii.40, 43-8, 48-61). The real Verona’s river is not tidal. It could not be, because the Mediterranean Sea has no perceptible tides, a fact that could hardly be lost on a visitor from a maritime nation like England.
Planning his pursuit of his daughter and her lover, the Duke of Milan instructs his companions to “meet with me/ Upon the rising of the mountain-foot,/ That leads towards Mantua” (V.ii.45-7). The mountain’s foot rises, however, to the north of Milan, in the direction of the Alps, while Mantua is to southeast, at a lower elevation than Milan.
Men are addressed by the Spanish title “Don” (I.iii.39, II.iv.55), presumably picked up from Diana Enamorada, the play’s principal source. The Italian “Signior”, which Shakespeare employs frequently in other Italian settings, occurs only once.
The character referred to in the dramatis personae as the “Duke” of Milan was conceived by the playwright as the holder of a loftier title. He is referred to as the “Emperor” (I.iii.27, I.iii.41); his court is imperial (I.iii.38, I.iii.66-7, II.iii.4-5); and his daughter is an “Empress” (II.iv.76-8, V.iv.141). Milan had not been the seat of an Emperor since its brief period as capital of the Roman Empire in the 4th Century.
Among the “petty crimes” of the outlaws whom Valentine encounters is this: “Myself was from Verona banished/ For practising to steal away a lady,/ An heir, and near allied unto the duke” (IV.i.47-9). Verona had been a territory of the Venetian Republic since 1405 and never had a Duke - a venial oversight but no evidence of acquaintance with the peninsula.
These points of ignorance are not balanced by any positive knowledge. The play is devoid of local color. The names of the principal characters are not notably Italianate (Valentine, Proteus, Julia, Silvia, Eglamour; contrast Petrucchio, Baptista Minola, etc. in The Taming of the Shrew). Even the outlaws, swearing “By the bald scalp of Robin Hood’s fat friar” (IV.i.36), smack of England. The only Italian touches are the place names, and those are famous cities and one tourist attraction, St. Gregory’s Well near Milan.
One or another of these items might be explained as artistic license or Homeric nodding. Taken together, they demonstrate with as much certainty as is possible in such matters that the author had never set foot on Italian soil. His Italy is no more authentic than the China of Puccini’s Turandot.
If The Two Gentlemen comes to us from the pen of Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, the lack of authentic Italian atmosphere is unremarkable, significant primarily as evidence that this play precedes The Taming of the Shrew, in which local color is laid on thickly with the enthusiasm of a neophyte. If Oxenford was the author, on the other hand, we have a virtually irrefutable terminus ante quem for the composition of the work. In early 1575 the youthful Earl set out for Italy and spent ten months there, including a visit to Milan. Hence, if he wrote The Two Gentlemen, he must have done so in 1574 or earlier.
A pre-1575 date for this play presents Oxfordians with a wealth of research questions.
1. The principal source of the plot of The Two Gentlemen is Diana Enamorada, a Spanish novel published in 1559. A French translation appeared in 1578. The first English translation, by Bartholomew Yong, was printed in 1598, though a manuscript version existed as early as 1582. [Bullough, 3:205-6]
Someone writing in 1574 or earlier could have read Diana only in the original Spanish. There is no evidence that Oxenford knew that language, and his life is well enough documented for silence to be significant.
Furthermore, most scholars believe that The Two Gentlemen relies on Yong’s translation. The notes to the Arden edition set forth verbal parallels that, in the editor’s opinion, “make it virtually certain that [Yong] was Shakespeare’s immediate source” [Clifford Leech, ed., The Two Gentlemen of Verona, xlii]. If those resemblances are real, the only conceivable Oxfordian explanation is that Yong saw the play performed and echoed it when he translated its source - not an impossible theory but far from a plausible one.
2. A c. 1574 date for this play must be fitted into the chronology of the other Shakespearean works. Two that ought to be close to it in time are A Comedy of Errors and Love’s Labour’s Lost, both of which are generally regarded as early and imperfect apprentice pieces. There is no way to date Errors firmly. One joke (France "making war against her hair”, (III.ii.128)) would not have been funny, or even comprehensible, before Henry of Navarre became heir to the French throne in 1584 (a date after the war of succession broke out in 1589 is far more plausible), but perhaps it is a late interpolation. Love’s Labour’s Lost, on the other hand, is not easily shifted from the accepted date in the early 1590’s to one 15 or 20 years earlier. The names of the fictional King of Navarre’s companions are derived from military commanders who became well-known during the civil war; none of them was associated with Navarre before 1589. The burlesque Russian embassy would most naturally come later than the first Russian embassy to England (1582-3). Various allusions to contemporary literary quarrels, none conclusive in itself but suggestive when taken together, reflect the first half of the 1590’s.
That two presumptively early plays should have been written at least 15 years apart is odd, if not inexplicable. Sobran’s naive idea that, if attributed to Oxenford, Shakespeare's oeuvre can simply be displaced backward in time, without any other significant chronological adjustments, does not appear to work very well.
3. Finally and most importantly, we must consider the play’s location in the history of the Elizabethan stage. If written c. 1590, it is not unusual for its time. Placed in the early 1570’s, it is an outlier. Several features are unexpected in that period:
Most of the lines are blank verse, with some admixture of prose and not many rhyming verses (66% blank verse, 28½% prose, 5½% rhymed verse, according to E. K. Chambers’ counts [Chambers, William Shakespeare: A Study of Facts and Problems, 2:398]). Only a handful of lines, mostly given to the clowns, are longer than five metrical feet. A quick survey of comedies known to come from c. 1570 shows a much different pattern: either rhymed verse (as in Damon and Pithias, where the meter is irregular, and Cambises (8-foot lines)) or prose (as in Gascoigne’s Supposes and John Lyly’s slightly later plays) throughout. Contemporary verse was also notable for Alexandrines, “fourteeners” and poulter’s measure. Those meters, abundant in Oxenford’s published early verse, are all but nonexistent in The Two Gentlemen.
The cast, though small by Shakespearean standards, is larger than was customary in the 1570’s. Eleven or more actors were needed, with doubling, to fill the speaking roles [John Southworth, Shakespeare the Player, 73-4]. An extant doubling list for Cambises shows that only eight actors played all of the parts in that expansive production [J. Q. Adams, Chief Pre-Shakespearean Dramas, 639].
On a more subjective level, the play’s treatment of romantic love, its use of subplots, its casual attitude toward time and space, and its mixing of the serious (friendship betrayed) with the comic (the antics of the clowns and the dog) contrast sharply with the kind of work that other dramatists were producing before the middle to late 1580’s.
Did a young playwright adopt radically different theatrical conventions from his contemporaries, only to see his innovations universally adopted a dozen years later? Or is there a body of lost comedies from the early Elizabethan period that are quite unlike what has survived? Or does some other explanation await unearthing by a diligent Oxfordian?
The place of The Two Gentlemen in the “Oxenford canon” presents great scholarly challenges. I have no doubt that the Oxfordian school will rise to meet them.
August 17, 2002
Note: This is the third in a series of discussions of Roger A. Stritmatter’s Oxfordian dissertation, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence. Part One looked at the ways in which Dr. Stritmatter deploys facts and logic. Part Two examined his key proposition: that the marginal markings in the Bible once owned by the Earl of Oxenford must have been made by him rather than by other owners.
Dr. Stritmatter’s dissertation makes a great show throughout of nonchalant scholarship. I haven’t tried to scrutinize his every statement, but at one point he sets foot in an area where, as a quondam (albeit rusty) classicist, I can check his competence without too much difficulty. The results are unflattering to the scholars who allowed his work to pass without correction.
In 1578 the humanist writer Gabriel Harvey addressed a flowery Latin encomium to the Earl of Oxenford, in the course of which he praised the earl’s (entirely suppositious) military qualities in the following lines:
Virtus fronte habitat; Mars occupat ora; Minerva
In dextra latitat: Bellona in corpore regnat:
Martius ardor inest; scintillant lumina: vultus
Tela vibrat: quis non redivivum iuret Achillem?
Courage dwells in (your) forehead. Mars fills your speech [lit. “mouths”]. Minerva
Lies hidden in (your) right hand. Bellona reigns in (your) torso.
Warlike flame is within (you). (Your) eyes flash. (Your) visage
Hurls missiles. Who would not swear that Achilles was reborn?
[The parenthesized pronouns are implied but not stated in the Latin text.]
In his biography of Oxenford, B. M. Ward, an “Oxenford was Shakespeare” believer, translated vultus tela vibrat as “Your countenance shakes a spear” and speculated that this phrase was either the inspiration for or an acknowledgment of Oxenford’s pseudonym of “Shakespeare”.
Dr. Stritmatter offers his own translation, accompanied by a footnote “explaining” the Latin of vultus tela vibrat. The translation runs thus:
Virtue occupies your helm; Mars stirs his steed in your mouth when you speak; wise-counseling Minerva lies concealed in your right hand and Bellona the war goddess assumes her royal seat in thy martial pose. The ardor of smoke and fierce battle blazes in your heart; the flint sparks: Your brow trembles in expectation of new-woven plots. Who would dare to say that Achilles had not come to life again? [p. 35 (published edition)/p. 57 (UMI edition)]
A lot of fustian there and a number of outright mistakes: Frons is part of the head, not a thing worn upon it. Nothing is being stirred “in” the addressee’s mouth. (Dr. Stritmatter apparently took ora for an ablative singular, as if os were a first declension feminine noun.) Lumina is plural and means “lights” (figuratively “eyes”), not flints. Iuret means “takes an oath”, not “dares”, and non goes with the verb iuret rather than the adjective redivivum.
The footnote (quoted in color to distinguish it clearly from my commentary) is remarkable for its combination of brash assertion and gross ineptitude.
The pivotal phrase “vultus/Tela vibrat” was originally translated in[to] English by Ward as “thy countenance shakes a spear” (1928: 158). More recently, Hannas (1993) [Andrew Hannas, “Gabriel Harvey and the Genesis of ‘William Shakespeare’” (Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter, Winter 1993)] has noted that the word “tela” does not seem to be the most natural choice for the Latin rendering of the English phrase “Shake speare”. Hasta is alleged to be a much more standard Latin equivalent for “speare”;
As any Latin dictionary will confirm, hasta is in fact the ordinary word for “spear”. One might as well say that “spear” is alleged to mean “a long striking weapon with a sharp point”.
telum denotes a broader class of weapons thrown by hand, though in practice it is often translated as “spear,” sometimes by “weapon,” and least often as arrow, javelin, or missile.
This assertion contradicts the fact that the primary meaning of telum is a throwing weapon. Any Latin dictionary will show that Dr. Stritmatter is wrong. Mr. Hannas concedes that “spears” for tela, while “permissible”, is “stretching”.
Therefore its usage must be dictated by some other consideration,
The most obvious possibility is that Harvey had nothing about “shaking spears” in mind but was thinking of a stern or wrathful countenance hurling metaphorical darts at its bearer’s foes. Our modern near-parallel is, “He transfixed him with his gaze.” To assume that spears must be meant is a petitio principii.
which Hannas suggests was Harvey’s intent to form a double-punned phrase, in which vultus can mean either “will/intention” or “face/countenance”
With his usual credulity toward anti-Stratfordian “authorities”, Dr. Stritmatter accepts Mr. Hannas’ conclusion that “will” was a possible meaning of vultus. Lewis & Short has no citations of that meaning, and it is etymologically untenable. The reason for Mr. Hannas’ belief is that Sir Thomas Elyot’s Latin-English dictionary, published in 1538, has two entries for vultus. One gives the word its familiar meaning, “countynaunce or chiere”. The other says, “of olde wryters is taken for wylle, a Volendo [i. e., from volens, the gerund of velle, to will]”. The latter was, however, a mistake on Elyot’s part. No “old writer”, either classical or (so far as I can glean from glossaries of later Latin) medieval, uses vultus for “will”. When Elyot’s dictionary was revised by Thomas Cooper in 1565, he dropped the entry. Since Gabriel Harvey prided himself on the classical purity of his Latin, he is extremely unlikely to have conceived of a sense of the word that appears in no classical author.
and tela can be the neuter plural for either spears (correctly translated into English as either plural or singular)
While the poetic use of the plural for the singular certainly does occur (as when Harvey writes “Mars occupat ora [plural]” in the present passage), it is not common usage. Where there is no obvious reason to interchange numbers, one cannot “correctly” do so arbitrarily. Mr. Hannas forthrightly states, “Ward has a spear where the Latin is plural. Such difference could be seen as additional Oxfordian bias.”
Tela is the nominative singular of the word meaning “web”, not its neuter plural. Lewis & Short gives no instance of its meaning “enterprise”, though it can be used figuratively for a “plan”.
Since, as Hannas cleverly notes, tela is a neuter plural which can be either subject or object of the verb,
As the plural of telum, “weapon”, tela may be either subject or object - but not in Harvey’s passage, where the verb vibrat is singular. If tela means “weapons” here, it must be the object of vibrat. As the singular tela, “web”, it could be the subject only. The objective (accusative) form is telam.
and vultus is a fourth declension neuter which can also stand as either subject or object of the verb,
Vultus is a fourth declension masculine noun. Dr. Stritmatter is right, apparently by accident, when he states that it can be either the subject or the object. As subject it is singular (“countenance”); as object plural (“countenances”). Mr. Hannas, incidentally, gets both this point and the declensions of telum/tela right; Dr. Stritmatter has intruded his own illiteracy.
the three words yield two perfectly coherent and probably fully intended translations into English: “thy will/countenance shakes a spear” or “thy web/enterprise shakes (ie, disturbs) the will/countenance [of others].”
As noted above, “will” is not a possible translation of vultus, nor “spear” (singular) a plausible one of tela. Furthermore, vibrat with tela means “throw” rather than “shake”. The attempt to turn vultus into the object of tela suffers from a couple of shortcomings: (i) If one takes tela either literally as “web” or figuratively as “plan”, it does not fit Harvey’s imagery. Every other element in the series invokes a part of Oxenford’s body (forehead, face, hand, torso, etc.) and has a clear military reference. The irruption of an abstract “plan” that “disturbs” other people’s countenances would break the pattern. (ii) Lewis & Short give no instance of vibrat as “disturb”. The word’s figurative meanings are more on the order of “scintillate”, “glitter”, “gleam”. The connection between “shaking” and “disturbing” is English, not Latin, and is unlikely in a classicist as ostentatiously pure and pedantic as Harvey.
A third possibility, employed in the translation here, is to take vultus as the nominative subject of the verb but treat the tela as [De Vere’s] plots: “your brow trembles in expectation of new-woven plots,” a reading which to me seems most consistent with the motion of the entire passage. Harvey was a master, somewhat pedantic, it is true, of such linguistic arcana.
Tela, “web”, as the object of a verb, is telam (singular) or telas (plural). Therefore it cannot here be the object of vibrat. What it could be, in prose, is an ablative with an intransitive verb, which is the only construction congruent with Dr. Stritmatter’s attempt at translation. In verse, however, the ablative is impossible: That case has a long final a, which does not fit the meter; a short syllable is required at this point.
Even were the Stritmatter translation possible, how is it “consistent with the motion of the entire passage”? It is not martial; it is not even brave. A countenance trembling as its possessor devises some sort of “plan” is prima facie unheroic.
I have devoted so much space to this passage not because it possesses any intrinsic importance but because it illustrates two significant points about the dissertation:
1. While ignorance of Latin is no disgrace (nor much of a surprise in this day and age), a false pretense of knowledge violates the principle laid down by Socrates: A wise man knows what he does not know. Dr. Stritmatter either thinks that he is competent to translate a Latin passage, in which case he is unaware of the limitations of his knowledge, or assumes that he can fool his readers. Maybe he had grounds for that assumption: He did, after all, fool his dissertation committee.
2. Aside from being inept, the display of pseudo-scholarship is pointless. It appears in a chapter entitled “Secret Intents”, the purpose of which is to demonstrate that Oxenford was busy with schemes that were not public knowledge. The discussion of Harvey’s poem comes right after a brief mention of Henry Peacham’s list of famous poets, well-known for including Oxenford and omitting Shakespeare. About Harvey Dr. Stritmatter then says:
Gabriel Harvey’s 1578 apostrophe to the Earl may certainly be suspected of hyperbole, not to mention anti-Spanish jingoism. That it should be neglected as mere “flattery” begs the question; and in any case the classical symbolism is not without intrinsic interest for those capable of comprehending the ludic potential of the name “Shakespeare” as it might have been heard by an Elizabethan readership schooled in the Renaissance topos of “arms and arts” and ever-fond of that lost cultural form, the rebus:
[Here follow the Latin poem and Dr. Stritmatter’s “translation”.]
There is much which might be said about this famous encomium, immortalized in gentle satire by Edmund Spenser in the October Eclogue of the Shepheard’s Calendar in Piers’s speech beginning “Abandon then the base and viler clown” (37-54) and urging a rapprochement between Cuddie and “the white bear” chained to “the stake” (48) - the Earl of Leicester - an ambitious project of which Harvey and Spenser both dreamed. [Needless to say, all of this pother is unknown to experts on Spenser and Harvey.] Let us focus only on the most immediately pertinent aspect of Harvey’s oration. Are we reading the local origin of the sobriquet “Shakespeare”, in the phrase “vultus tela vibrat” - which B. M. Ward first translated as “[your] countenance shakes a spear” (1928 158) but which may with equal plausibility be translated as “[your] will shakes a speare”? [Apparently not, if Dr. Stritmatter believes that his own rendering, which says nothing about wills or shaking or spears, is “most consistent with the motion of the entire passage”.] Evidence from the same passage of Harvey’s encomium supplies further insight into Harvey’s “insider” knowledge of de Vere’s “secret intents”. When Harvey declares that “Minerva in dextra latitat” - “the Goddess (of statecraft and the arts) Minerva lies concealed in your right hand” (emphasis added [by Stritmatter]) - he places the patron saint of the “Shakespeare” gambit - the spear-shaking Pallas Athena - in de Vere’s secret hand. [pp. 34-5 (published edition)/pp. 56-8 (UMI edition); footnotes omitted]
In the very next paragraph, we leap eight years forward to Oxenford’s secret appointment - so secret that no evidence of it has ever been found - to “the role of theatrical impresario and patron for the Queen’s Men as well as for the nation as a whole” [p. 35/58].
If there is any logical thread here, it is too subtle for my reasoning powers. Let us make the rash supposition that Harvey hinted that the Earl of Oxenford was engaged in secret projects involving “statecraft and the arts”. (More likely, the war goddess lies hidden in the young man’s hand because, for all his martial ardor, he has yet to see military service.) Such testimony in 1578 tells us nothing about what Oxenford was doing, secretly or openly, in 1586, much less about his alleged adoption as a pseudonym of a name that is not associated with literature until the 1590’s.
Strange juxtapositions like this, setting one piece of sloppy analysis next to another with little explanation of how they relate to one another, abound in Dr. Stritmatter’s work. As time and patience allow, I shall exhume further examples.
June 19, 2002
Interest in Shakespeare’s Sonnets as autobiography has declined sharply since the 19th Century. Scholars now read the poems simply as literary works and interpret them by reference to other poems, rather than haring after the identities of the Fair Youth, the Dark Lady and the Rival Poet. By hopeful Oxfordians, this change of fashion is taken as a concession: Unable to reconcile the sonnets with the known facts about William Shakespeare of Stratford, “orthodoxy” hides its dismay by pretending that they were mere “literary exercises” disconnected from the author’s life.
The distinction between “literary exercises” and literature would not have meant much to an Elizabethan. The definition of “poetry” was not yet Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity”. The poet was still what the word’s etymology suggests, a “maker”, an artisan with words, as others were artisans with marble or paint. There is no reason why an artisan’s work must draw particularly upon what has happened to him in his life. In a trivial sense, he has no resource except his own experience, but that experience includes everything that he has heard or read or thought or dreamed.
Little real poetry is narrowly autobiographical. In fact, a recent commentator says of Wordsworth’s own “Lucy” poems, which have all the appearances of being deeply felt and personal: “It is not possible to relate the poems to specific incidents or a specific person, despite the theories that have been advanced. The loved and lamented one may be emblematic.” [Michael Schmidt, Lives of the Poets, pp. 367-8]
Aside from such general considerations, Francis Meres wrote in 1598 that Shakespeare was known for “his sugred Sonnets among his private friends”. If those are the sonnets that were published a decade later, we must suspect that we are reading not anguished, candid entries in a poetic diary but verse written for an audience.
Oxfordian Joseph Sobran offers a moderately clever argument for the Sonnets’ historicity: “. . . if Shakespeare is telling a story, he is telling it badly. It lacks exposition, plot, pacing, suspense, and resolution as well as characterization. . . . [I]t seems obvious that the Sonnets are about real people and events in the poet’s life. Otherwise, his artistry would have formed them all more perfectly.” [Joseph Sobran, Alias Shakespeare, pp. 84-5] But the dichotomy between well-shaped dramatic poem and autobiography is false. A collection of verse rarely exhibits “exposition, plot, pacing, suspense, and resolution”. None of the other Elizabethan sonnet cycles does. Shakespeare’s material is more complex and varied than theirs, but he writes in the same genre, one that is neither memoir nor narrative.
The hypothesis that the Sonnets give us an intimate glimpse of the author’s life is thus neither necessary nor probable. There is, too, a more mundane reason why mainstream scholars no longer mine the Sonnets for biographical nuggets: After two or three centuries of prospecting, no vein of bullion has been found. Even if the poems were unanimously inspired by discrete incidents in the poet’s life, discerning from the poems what those incidents were has proven beyond human capability.
The principal obstacle to making use of this evidence, if evidence it be, is that the sonnets do not appear to be arranged in chronological, or any other biographically useful, order. There is a loose grouping by topic, but that is all. Nor can we be sure that the author was himself responsible for the present arrangement. For all we know, the printer Thomas Thorpe, or some intermediary, such as the dubiously real “Mr. W. H.”, collected Shakespearean sonnets from various sources and put them into a sequence that he found pleasing, without regard for, or knowledge of, their sitz im leben.
As an instance of the problems that the lack of order causes the would-be biographer, take the conventional assumption that the first 126 sonnets are about the “Fair Youth”, while the rest deal with the “Dark Lady”. That may be true, but there is no way to demonstrate it with more than a faint degree of probability. Very few of the poems specify the sex of the beloved. Number 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”) could be addressed to a man or a woman. We may think the former, because the next two sonnets are unambiguously about men, but all three may well have been written years apart and may have been inspired by three completely different objects of the poet’s affection.
Oxfordians generally brush these problems aside. Their key to the Sonnets is the identity of the Fair Youth, whom they take to be Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton. That identification also has enjoyed some popularity among “orthodox” Shakespeareans, though it is largely abandoned today. (The eccentric A. L. Rowse was its last prominent champion.) Once the Youth is equated with Southampton, so the Oxfordian argument runs, any commoner is ruled out as the author of the Sonnets, because the author and the Youth are social equals, and no “Mr. Shakspere” would have dared assume equality with a peer of the realm.
That reasoning accepts without examination several axioms that demand closer scrutiny, not the least being the assumptions that the Fair Youth has to be a portrait of a single person and that social distance precludes a simulacrum of familiarity in verse. Even the most strictly autobiographical poet can fantasize a relationship that does not actually exist. (Dante never exchanged more than a few words with Beatrice.) It would not have been impossible for Shakespeare of Stratford to have pictured himself as the intimate friend and mentor of a handsome young nobleman and for that fancy to have worked its way into his poetry.
There is no need, though, to entertain that hypothesis very seriously, as the case for Southampton as the Fair Youth is unimpressive. It rests entirely on the first 17 sonnets, which exhort the Youth to beget children. He is not married (9.1-2), so implicit in the exhortation to beget is a plea to find a wife. As it happens, young Southampton was at one time considered a likely prospect as husband to Elizabeth de Vere, daughter of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxenford, and granddaughter of Queen Elizabeth’s chief minister, Lord Burghley. The lad resisted the project, eventually falling in love with and marrying someone else. The Jesuit priest Henry Garnet records gossip to the effect that Burghley was incensed by Southampton’s recalcitrance and, taking advantage of his legal rights as the youth’s guardian, fined him £5,000 (a staggering sum, three times the estimated annual rents from Southampton’s inherited lands).
So, we have a set of poems urging a young man to marry and a real young man who doesn’t want to. How easy the leap to the conclusion that the poems are part of a “campaign” to win the latter’s acquiescence and thence to the conclusion that the Fair Youth “is” Southampton. Oxfordians add that Oxenford, the prospective father-in-law, is a natural candidate for the role of the campaign’s poet laureate.
Upon examination, the leap between facts and conclusion proves to be a long one. To begin with, the picture of a concerted effort to persuade a reluctant Southampton to marry Oxenford’s daughter is overdrawn. Surviving letters show that the match was discussed with the Earl’s mother and uncle in 1590, that the 17-year-old was hesitant to commit himself (his heart was set on winning military glory under his idol the Earl of Essex) and that the idea remained alive for a couple of years before fading away. [A. L. Rowse, Shakespeare’s Southampton, Patron of Virginia, pp. 54-6] There is no sign that he was pressured very intensely, except for Fr. Garnet’s story about the huge fine, and that bit of evidence has little credibility. Fr. Garnet, living incognito in the countryside, had little access to authentic information about the court, and his detestation of Lord Burghley would naturally have made him credulous of any anecdote that portrayed the minister as the oppressor of a Catholic nobleman. As the sole source of what would have been a spectacular punishment of a socially prominent figure, he is implausible. The whole story is dismissed by Joel Hurstfield, the leading authority on Elizabethan wardship, in his study The Queen’s Wards.
Lord Burghley, moreover, had no motive for setting his heart on this particular husband for Elizabeth. As the daughter of an earl and granddaughter of the most powerful man in the kingdom, she was preeminently marriageable. In the event, she wed William Stanley, Earl of Derby. Missing out on a connection with the Earl of Southampton, inferior to Derby in both lineage and wealth, was not much of a loss.
External evidence, then, undermines that idea of a pro-marital juggernaut unleashed on young Southampton. The internal evidence of the poems points the same way. They are not about marriage, except in the sense that marriage is a normal, if not necessary, precondition to having children. The emphasis is entirely on reasons for begetting offspring. Far from having one woman in mind as a wife for the Youth, the poet alludes to his freedom to select almost any woman as a mate:
For where is she so fair whose unear’d womb
Disdains the tillage of thy husbandry? (3.5-6)
Now stand you on the top of happy hours,
And many maiden gardens, yet unset,
With virtuous wish would bear you living flowers. . . . (16.5-7)
If the point was to persuade the Earl of Southampton to marry Elizabeth de Vere, it was a tactical blunder, to say the least, to remind him of how many girls would gladly sleep with him. In other respects, too, the sonnets seem ill-suited to winning the heart and mind of a 17-year-old boy. How many lads of that age are concerned with how they will look “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow” (2.1) or feel the urgency of “Now is the time that face should form another” (3.2)? The steady harping on what we today call “the biological clock” would make more of an impression on a man in his late twenties, when old age first becomes a believable prospect. (That the Youth is past adolescence is suggested also by the comparison of his current age to “summer” (6.2) and to the Sun at noon (7.5-8).)
Completely missing are the arguments that Lord Burghley or his agent might have made in real life: that marriage is a happy, blessed and virtuous state; that chasing after flirtatious coquettes leads only to heartbreak; that the chosen bride is supremely beautiful, virtuous and wise; that a nobleman contemplating going off to the wars should take care to leave an heir behind.
As C. S. Lewis noted, it is hard to conceive of any circumstances in which the plea made by the first 17 sonnets would be natural [English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 503]. What the verses do reflect is a theme that we find elsewhere in Shakespeare, particularly in his early works: the man or woman who, in the pride of self-sufficiency, scorns human love:
But thou, contracted to thine own bright eyes,
Feed’st thy life’s flame with self-substantial fuel, . . . (1.5-6)
Profitless usurer, why dost thou use
So great a sum of sums, yet canst not live?
For having traffic with thyself alone,
Thou of thyself thy sweet self dost deceive:
Then how, when Nature calls thee to be gone,
What acceptable audit canst thou leave? (4.7-12)
Lines like these could be applied to Adonis, to the King and his companions at the opening of Love’s Labour’s Lost, to Valentine in The Two Gentlemen of Verona, to Katherine in The Taming of the Shrew. The opening sequence of the Sonnets sounds like a marshaling of reasons to reject such ostensibly high-minded, but in actuality selfish, celibacy. In this way the poems take a natural place in Shakespeare’s literary work, as they do not in his or anyone else’s life.
April 27, 2002
April being the birth month of both William Shakespeare and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxenford, Joseph Sobran, one of the premier True Believers in the latter's authorship of the works attributed to the former, makes it a custom to devote one of that month's columns to the controversy. This year his principal concern is to deny that Oxfordians are motivated by snobbery ("Shakespeare and the Snobs"). For once, I agree with him. It is simple-minded to say that the Oxfordians "love a lord" and therefore are determined to have an earl as the greatest genius in English literature. The defect in Mr. Sobran's analysis is more fundamental: He is a doctrinaire philosophe, espousing a severely schematic picture of the world and either unwilling or unable to subject his dogmas to empirical examination.
That his literary analysis would be of this kind is not surprising. Mr. Sobran is primarily a political commentator, and his political views are similarly doctrinaire and schematic. He was, once upon a time, a respectable conservative, widely regarded as one of the potential successors to William F. Buckley, Jr. Then, in the early 1980's, he soured on conservatism and aligned himself (except on the issue of abortion) with a cranky brand of isolationist antifederalism. Pari passu he became convinced that the federal government was the handmaiden of the State of Israel and plunged into conspiracy mongering. He espoused the crackpot "October surprise" theory (that Ronald Reagan and Ayatollah Khomeini secretly joined forces to oust Jimmy Carter from the Presidency), saw Israel's hidden hand behind the Gulf War, and, more recently, declared that President Bush's reaction to September 11th was no more than an excuse to wage war on the enemies of the Jewish state.
None of those political positions, however bizarre, disqualifies him as a literary critic, but his Oxfordian theorizing exhibits the same fundamental weaknesses as his political thinking. This year's "Shakspere" column is illustrative.
At the core of his argument is the idea that the relationship between a writer's life and his work has to fit a simple, clear-cut pattern. Shakespeare wrote plays about monarchs and noblemen; therefore, he must have been a nobleman himself. Literary reality is far more varied and complicated than that. Occasionally there is a close fit, but often there is no fit at all. Louis Auchincloss really was a New York society lawyer. On the other hand, P. G. Wodehouse was not an English aristocrat idling away his evenings at the Drones Club. Rudyard Kipling was the definitive chronicler of 19th century British army life yet never served a day in the military. Anthony Trollope's great subjects were high politics and the day-to-day life of English clergymen; he had no first hand experience with either. Despite the exhortations of writing schools, writers do not limit themselves to writing about what they know. They are capable of imagination or even, if it comes to that, research. A glance at the works of Shakespeare's contemporaries confirms that middle class playwrights were not reluctant to people their dramas with high-born protagonists and that they portrayed court doings just as plausibly (or implausibly) as Shakespeare.
Mr. Sobran cannot conceive that "William of Stratford might have acquired the wide knowledge the plays display" in the inegalitarian society of Elizabethan England. His conclusions about what was and wasn't possible in that time and place derive, however, from a priori assumptions rather than examination of facts. Ben Jonson, one of the most learned of Elizabethan writers, came from a lower socioeconomic stratum than Shakespeare of Stratford (his stepfather was a bricklayer) and had equally little formal education. The Elizabethans were not modern egalitarians, but neither did they live in the immobile caste system of Mr. Sobran's quasi-Marxist imaginings.
Also conspicuous in Shakespeare's works, Mr. Sobran thinks, is "aristocratic perspective". Upper class characters "are subtly individualized. But his lower-class characters are generally buffoons with little individuality, and he constantly makes fun of their illiteracy, verbal blunders, and malapropisms." Assuming arguendo the truth of that generalization (and is it really true that characters like Bottom and the Fool in Lear exhibit "little individuality"?), the idea that only aristocrats have an "aristocratic perspective" is an inference from abstract notions of class conflict. The most casual observer can see that the middle classes have begotten many defenders of social hierarchy (e. g., Samuel Johnson and Edmund Burke). Likewise, scorn for working class bumpkins is most common among those who are just a rung or two higher on the socioeconomic ladder.
Finally, the parallels between events in the plays and Oxenford's life, which Mr. Sobran finds so striking and numerous as to defy the laws of probability, are unspecific and unimpressive, the sort of unexciting coincidences that impress conspiracy theorists and nobody else. If, for instance, Lord Burghley, Oxenford's father-in-law, was the model for Polonius in Hamlet (and, if he was, the model was heavily retouched - not even his worst enemies saw Burghley as a loquacious old bungler), the playwright hardly needed to draw on personal acquaintance for his portrait. Burghley was the most conspicuous figure in the kingdom next to the Queen herself. Mr. Sobran is also given to exaggerating his "evidence". "Names of men he [Oxenford] met in Europe turn up in The Taming of the Shrew," he tells us. Actually, it is one name, and that one (Baptista Minola, Katherine's father) is merely an approximate conflation of two men whom Oxenford encountered in Italy. On the other hand, the "Induction" to the play is set within a few miles of Stratford-upon-Avon and mentions obscure people who apparently lived nearby. That coincidence Mr. Sobran does not find noteworthy.
Nothing makes it inevitable that conspiracy-minded ideologues will doubt the authorship of Shakespeare, but Mr. Sobran shows how compatible the one is with the other. I await now his revelation that Israeli agents have been concealing the truth all along.