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VERitable Lunacy
Michael Brame & Galina Popova, Shakespeare's Fingerprints (Vashon Island, Washington: Adonis Editions, 2002)
Once the man behind the Shakespeare pseudonym is identified, all the pieces of the larger puzzle will be seen to fall together to reveal a coherent and revealing whole. Much to our delight, it all makes sense!
Shakespeare’s Fingerprints, p. 30
To see what “makes sense” to the authors of this new venture into the Shakespeare Authorship pseudo-controversy, let us begin by baldly summarizing their thesis:
The leaders of Queen Elizabeth’s government wanted to promote the use of English as a literary language in order to secure their country’s position as a Protestant, mercantilist power. To accomplish this end, they called upon Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (whom I shall refer to as “Oxenford”, since that was his own preference), a genius scarcely paralleled in human history. Between 1558 and 1604, the prolific peer wrote most of what is memorable in English Renaissance literature, including the works now attributed to William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Christopher Marlowe, Philip Sidney, John Lyly, George Peele, George Gascoigne, Raphael Holinshed, Robert Greene and a host of lesser lights. An appendix to Shakespeare’s Fingerprints lists 38 Oxenford pseudonyms, more are mentioned in the text, and the authors do not claim to have made a complete search of Elizabethan literature. Applying their methods yields, as we shall see, further suspects for the role of Oxenfordian fronts (or “name lenders”, as Brame/Popova call them).
The motive for this multitude of noms de plume, almost all names of real people who consented to play the auctorial role, was to create the illusion that England possessed a flourishing community of letters. Oxenford shored up this facade by such tactics as having his personae exchange flatteries and dedicate books to one another.
Despite the prodigious pace of this writing, the Earl found time for his other hobby, romantic dalliance, including an affair with Queen Elizabeth that, in 1573, produced a son. The baby was passed off as the child of the Earl of Southampton and grew up to be the third holder of that title, noteworthy as the dedicatee of pseudo-Shakespeare’s narrative poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. He was also the “Fair Youth” of Shake-Speare’s Sonnets, in which Oxenford paternally urged him, without success, to marry his half-sister, Oxenford’s legitimate daughter Elizabeth de Vere.
The literary earl was less successful in money than in love. By 1586 he had exhausted his inherited wealth and was granted an annuity of £1,000 a year, payable from secret service funds, to support his labors. This official subvention created a complication, for it would have been embarrassing to admit that the supposed efflorescence of the English tongue was a subsidized charade. Therefore, it was important to keep Oxenford’s role secret. Furthermore, knowledge of the true author’s identity might have enabled the regime’s ill-wishers to infer unpalatable facts about the “Virgin” Queen. These considerations of state explain why no one disclosed the secret, though the truth remained known to a small elite, including the balladeer Charles Dibdin and the actor David Garrick, well into the 18th Century. All knowledge then died out until J. Thomas Looney’s pioneering work, published in 1920.
Looney was able to identify Oxenford as the mind behind “William Shakespeare” by comparing the small number of poems extant under the Earl’s real name to the Shakespearean corpus and demonstrating, to the satisfaction of those not blinkered by academic orthodoxy, both that the two sets of texts were stylistically the same and that pseudo-Shakespeare contained extensive allusions to events and characters in Oxenford’s life.
Brame and Popova have extended Looney’s analysis to reveal the many other Oxenford pseudonyms and the ubiquity of the traces that he left behind. The present volume is the first of a trilogy, after which we are promised additional books spelling out the evidence for Oxenford’s authorship of Spenser and Marlowe as thoroughly as the first three will present the case for his identity as “Shakespeare”.
Such is the thesis. Some readers may be giggling too hard at this point to formulate clearly the questions that ought to be asked in order to test it, and others may wonder whether questioning is worth the time and effort. One needn’t be a stodgy, orthodox academician to dismiss the whole enterprise as fantastical. Still, the authors, both of them endowed with Ph.D.’s and one a tenured professor at the University of Washington, give every sign of taking it seriously, so I will too, and will begin by calling attention to a few perplexities that beg for further elucidation:
1. The authors’ theory that Queen Elizabeth and her advisors had a policy of promoting vernacular literature rests on no more substantial evidence than the fact that, as the 16th Century wore on, English prose and verse flourished while their Latin counterparts declined. A parallel phenomenon occurred in every other European country. If it was anywhere the product of government planning, that fact has gone unremarked by historians. At no time during Elizabeth’s reign, so far as I can determine, did any government official propose an “English first” program or any writer advocate one as a way to serve the cause of Protestantism or trade.
Had there been a conscious desire to promote English belles lettres, one would expect it to have begun at the Court, yet until the 1570’s most verse written by courtiers was in Latin. [Steven W. May, The Elizabethan Courtier Poets, pp. 43-45; May has found only eight English poems written by courtiers between Elizabeth’s accession and 1571.] The Queen herself was fluent in Latin, wrote in that language, and listened delightedly to Latin orations and plays. There is no sign that she cared tuppence about the international prestige of the English tongue.
2. The earliest work that Brame and Popova attribute to their “genius” (as they repeatedly label him – and rightly so if their theory is correct!) is a translation of the first seven books of Vergil’s Aeneid, printed under the name “Thomas Phaer” in 1558. Phaer was a real person, author of a book on legal writs that, one presumes, was not part of Oxenford’s pseudonymous production. By 1558, he was practicing medicine. C. S. Lewis commends his translation as one of the better such efforts of its day, calling him “a master of his metre” and concluding, “On the whole, any man who cares for epic and cannot master either Vergil’s Latin or Douglas’s Scots will be tolerably safe with Phaer.” [C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama, p. 249]
In 1558 Lord Bulbeck, as the future earl was then styled, was just eight years old. Leaving his tender years to one side, Elizabeth, the patroness who, in the Brame/Popova universe, assigned him the task of creating English letters, was, as the year dawned, not yet Queen. She lived as a semi-prisoner on a country estate, heiress presumptive to the throne but unlikely to succeed for many years, if at all. We must suppose, then, that either the precocious boy himself thought up the idea of peopling the English literary landscape with invented authors or the Princess originated the grand project while her sister “Bloody Mary”, only 42 years old with the expectation of living for a couple of further decades, occupied the throne.
3. The Brame/Popova Oxenford was not merely the most prolific writer in English literary history but also the most versatile. Stylistically he runs the gamut from Shakespeare and Spenser down to George Turberville and Arthur Brooke. A sign of his genius to which Brame and Popova do not call attention was his astounding ability to maintain a consistent voice for each of his “name lenders”. “Christopher Marlowe” does not sound like “George Gascoigne”, and neither is much like “Arthur Golding”. Apparently, the brilliant earl saw that a variegated English literature required lead as well as gold. Thus, for instance, a few years after demonstrating his mastery of the fourteener line in the “Phaer” translation of Vergil, he employed it ineptly in “Arthur Golding’s” Englishing of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (Lewis, op. cit.: Phaer “uses hardly any enjambment (the fourteener will not stand it)” [p. 249]; “The great defect of [Golding’s] version is that he uses enjambment not for musical delight but . . . for mere convenience, and to a degree which the fourteener will not endure” [p. 251].)
4. Despite the deep secrecy enveloping the English Literature Project, the author had no qualms about leaving abundant clues to his true identity. The pseudonymous works abound, according to Brame and Popova, with puns based on his name, as well as autobiographical snippets. One presumes that these identifiers were more transparent to contemporaries than to 21st Century readers, so that Oxenford ran a serious risk of exposing the whole plot. Every other Elizabethan was, it seems, sedulous to keep his secret, while he himself proclaimed it to any alert reader.
The Brame/Popova “fingerprints” include plays on the names “Edward” and “Vere” and “Oxford”, and plays on those plays, until the list of “veronyms” and “oxprints” stretches to (a partial list) ever, every, fever, whenever, never, quiver, deliver, lover, verbal, verse, discover, quiers [“choirs”], suffer, fair, over, flower, sweet, glowed, owed, cave, O, woe, so and green (“a ver-translate via Romance languages” [p. 444]).
It might seem like a challenge for any writer to avoid all of those words, and the authors do concede that “Literal readings are surely sprinkled throughout Shakespeare’s opus” [emphasis added]. They do not, however, try to demonstrate that, say, “every” is far more common in the works that they assign to de Vere than elsewhere in contemporary prose or to give other reasons why any reader should expect paronomasia in these instances. They do argue that, “when a pun is intended, its status as a pun is often obvious to one who is aware of Shakespeare’s identity as de Vere”. Yet it is the presence of the “puns” that supposedly furnishes the evidence of that identity. The circle is, as so often in Oxfordian argumentation, neat and meaningless.
5. The “name lenders” raise further perplexities. Oxenford, it seems, would not borrow any old name. He preferred specific categories of lenders, such as soldiers, government spies and men whose names were in some far-fetched way puns on his own. For example, the authors regard any Elizabethan named “George” as a likely name lender, because that name contains the initials “E. O.” (“Edward Oxenford”).
We must imagine Lord Oxenford going about London, asking men with the “right” names or occupations whether they would let him give them credit for his own literary creations. That is the kind of conduct that, in many times and places, gets one a reputation for – well, he was an earl, so it would have been called “eccentricity”. But Elizabethans had no comment, and a remarkable number were quite willing to go along.
Think of Thomas Phaer, a physician in his middle 40’s, being approached by eight-year-old Eddie de Vere. “Beg your pardon, sir, but I’ve translated seven books of the Aeneid and need a pen name. Yours is a veronym [Phaer = fair], so may I borrow it, please? Oh, thank you kindly.”
Several of the lenders entered the game in a vigorous spirit. Not only did they let Oxenford borrow their names, but they then wrote letters discussing their suppositious works, copied out the manuscripts in their own hands, sent copies to friends and generally acted like real authors. Brame and Popova neglect to give them proper credit for their patriotic endeavors and seem unsurprised that this massive charade, carried on for almost half a century, has left behind no trace of direct evidence. Many people must have known that England had only one author, happily a supreme genius. All of them maintained a rigorous silence, while those who weren’t in on the scheme either failed to infer it from the veronyms and oxprints or realized that one could not properly make such inferences public.
The Brame/Popova case makes no appeal at all to common sense, and the authors do not try to defend its plausibility. Instead, they are so confident of their methodology that they will follow it wherever it leads.
That methodology can be conveniently divided into two parts: First, the authors employ “heuristic strategies” to locate works likely to have been written by Oxenford. Then they confirm that attribution through the presence of Vere word-play (veronyms and oxprints) and stylistic comparisons using “the 4C criterion”. They are not, it should be noted, at all interested in external evidence. Unlike conventional Oxfordians, they do not try to prove that the First Folio’s attribution of the Shakespearean plays to an actor from Stratford-upon-Avon was a devious cover-up or that John Davies’ epigram “To Our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shakespeare” has an esoteric Oxfordian subtext or that Robert Greene’s famous calumny of “Shake-Scene” had nothing to do with anyone named “Shakespeare”. No, the books proclaim their author, and other testimony is not required.
The “heuristic strategies” have a broad sweep. In addition to those that we have already noted (soldiers and government agents as purported authors, authors with veronym or oxprint names, authors named “George”), here are a few more:
Alliterative-Title Strategy: Consider all Elizabethan works with alliterative titles as possible works by De Vere.
Flowers Strategy: Consider all Elizabethan publications whose title involves the word flower(s) or its variant flowre(s) as potential works by de Vere.
Original-Source Strategy: Consider Shakespeare’s English language sources with the expectation that they themselves are the works of Shakespeare-de Vere.
Ox-Strategy: Consider occurrences of orthographic o in Elizabethan literature [yes, they do mean any word containing the letter “o”, particularly if capitalized] as possible clues to de Vere’s authorship, especially in connection with e as eo.
Pilferer-Pilfered Strategy: If an author A living during Edward de Vere’s lifetime pilfered or was pilfered by Edward de Vere (by Bush’s orthodox standards), then A = Edward de Vere.
Eulogy Theorem: If authors A and B living during de Vere’s lifetime were such that A eulogized B and also A = Edward de Vere or B = Edward de Vere, then A = B.
A simple and accurate summary would be, “Suspect that everything written in English between de Vere’s birth and his death was written by de Vere”.
Few, if any, of the suspects will be eliminated by a shortage of veronyms and oxprints, but perhaps “the 4C criterion” will winnow the crop.
The “4C’s” are “congruence”, “convergence”, “cumulation” and “cascade”, which, though long-windedly presented, add up to no more than a notion that two writers must be the same person if they use the same words in more or less similar ways or contexts. Brame and Popova rule out a priori the possibility that two men writing in the same language at about the same time might draw on a common vocabulary, syntax, and set of quotations and clichés. Take, for instance, “I beat the bush and others catch the bird”, which recurs frequently in Elizabethan writings. Brame and Popoval cite five nearly identical examples from five superficially different authors [p. 440]. Hidebound orthodox scholars call that a “commonplace”. Brame and Popova scoff at “commonplaces”. If the bird-and-bush figure occurs in five different passages, all five must come from the same pen, which must be that of Edward de Vere. It is only chronological impossibility, one presumes, that keeps them from ascribing to their genius the Vergilian epigram (“Sic vos non vobis mellificatis apes”) from which the concept ultimately derives.
Examination of the 4C’s at work will show how little constraint they impose on the authors’ fancy. Let us look at what they headline as “A Striking Example” [pp. 154-56], in which they compare Oxenford’s authentic sonnet beginning “Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart” to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 150. The textual markings are Brame and Popova’s, highlighting what they regard as convergences between the two poems.
Who taught thee first to sigh, alas, my heart?
Who taught thy tongue the woeful words of plaint?
Who filled your eyes with tears of bitter smart?
Who gave thee grief and made thy joys to faint?
Who first did paint with colors pale thy face?
Who first did break thy sleeps of quiet rest?
Above the rest in court who gave thee grace?
Who made thee strive in honor to be best?
In constant truth to bide so firm and sure,
To scorn the world regarding but thy friends?
With patient mind each passion to endure,
In one desire to settle to the end?
Love then thy choice wherein such choice thou bind,
As naught but death may ever change thy mind.
O, from what power hast thou this powerful might,
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness does not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I see and hear just cause of hate?
O, though I love what others do abhor,
With others thou shouldst not abhor my state:
If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
More worthy I to be beloved of thee.
While the authors concede some differences between the poems, to their minds “the similarities are truly impressive. The revealing nature of the examples will only be denied by those supporting an unwarranted bias against de Vere.” And what are those impressive similarities that only “unwarranted bias” can deny?
“. . . both poems are English sonnets following the familiar Shakespearean format; so we recognize a general case of pattern congruence.”
“. . . we discover a hefty case of lexical congruence of no less than twenty related items.” Those are the bold-faced words in each sonnet. Who can doubt that two different authors could not independently have stumbled upon such words as “love”, “truth/true”, “thy”, “thee” and “best”?
“What may be described as most revealing for our purposes is the anaphora indicated by the underscored boldfaced items. Its remarkable presence includes the sequence who taught thee . . . to, which is surely no accident. On top of all this, syntactic congruence is again evident, both sonnets exhibiting multiple occurrences of the syntactic device of wh-questioning.” What these sentences mean is that both poems include a series of questions beginning with words whose first letters are “wh”, viz., “who”, “what” and “whence”. Whether two different human beings could devise such questions, or could introduce them with “wh-“ words, the reader may be left to ponder.
“Finally, we witness syntactic devices such as the use of infinitival phrases.” Compared are “To scorn the world regarding but thy friends” and “To make me give the lie to my true sight”, in both of which, amazingly, “the infinitival particle to appears . . . and . . . governs a transitive verb, which in turn governs an object”. The authors display less than perfect familiarity with English grammar when they add, “That object is in turn followed by a verbal complement, marked by the complementizer -ing in the first instance and bare in the second.” Here they are mistaken. “Regarding but thy friends” is complementary to “To scorn the world”; it shows one of the ways in which the speaker’s scorn is expressed. But “give the lie to my true sight” is not a complement of “To make”; it is part of the objective clause whose subject is “me”. The de Vere and Shakespeare verses are similar at only the most superficial level, one at which every infinitival clause with a transitive verb is like every other. It ought to strain even Brame and Popova’s vast store of credulity to imagine that only one author in Elizabethan times employed that ordinary construction.
This, let it be noted, is one of the authors’ more thoroughly worked-out proof texts. Most of the time, their demonstrations are casual. The coincidence of a scattered handful of words proves auctorial identity.
So far as I can see, there is no way to establish, using Brame and Popova’s principles, that any two works were not written by the same author. They themselves furnish only a single instance of a book produced during Oxenford’s lifetime that they are willing to assign to someone else. That is Joseph Hall’s Virgidemiae (1597). The title of the book (which the authors ludicrously mistranslate as “half-virgin”) is a veronym, and the text contains what Brame and Popova take to be allusions to Oxenford’s life [pp. 77-81]. Normally, they would credit it to their hero with no further ado, but, without explanation, they demur this time: “We may turn out to be wrong, but the conjecture that the Virgidemiae were penned by de Vere and that the name Joseph Hall should be counted among his pseudonyms appears not to be supported, although there are many brilliant lines in this poetry and Hall does parody de Vere’s style, or if you will, Shakespeare’s.” [pp. 77-8]
This reluctance to claim Hall as another “name lender” could spring from the fact that he outlived Oxenford by over half a century and wrote many books that Oxenford could have authored only through spiritualistic means. Applying the Brame/Popova methodology does not, however, exclude him.
Brame and Popova are not the first Oxfordians to credit the earl with more than just the authorship of Shakespeare. Their claims for him may be the most ambitious and astonishing ever, but, when one looks at their methods of literary detection, it is evident that they have been rather modest. The diligent application of their principles would uncover further “name lenders” to swell Oxenford’s oeuvre.
A premise underlying two of Brame and Popova’s “heuristic strategies” (“Original-Source” and “Pilferer-Pilfered”) is that, in the Elizabethan age, there was no such practice as plagiarism. If A copies B, A and B have to be the same person. Thus Oxenford must have written not only Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet but also Arthur Brooke’s poem Romeus and Juliet, of which the play is a close adaptation. This revulsion against plagiarism does not apply just to literary greats. The authors refuse to believe that so minor a figure as George Pettie plagiarized from George Gascoigne [pp. 359-68]. Given the impossibility of plagiarism, it is surprising that Shakespeare’s Fingerprints does not discuss Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives, a source that Shakespeare follows so closely that it is possible to restore a line accidentally omitted from the text of Hamlet by consulting the corresponding passage in North (I.i.117, “Astounding portents fill’d the element”). When one also observes that Thomas North was a soldier whose name contains the letter “o” twice, how can anyone without an irrational bias against Oxenford fail to add him to the list of de Vere pseudonyms? An incidental benefit from doing so is that we learn more about the genius’ early career, for The Dial of Princes, translated from the French, appeared under the name “Thomas North” in 1557, when Edward de Vere was seven years old.
Further investigation yields yet more remarkable results. Few, if any, books “influenced” Shakespeare as much as the Geneva translation of the Bible. [Naseeb Shaheen, Biblical References in Shakespeare’s Plays, pp. 39-40] The Brame/Popova heuristic strategies lead us to suspect that this translation may be Edward de Vere’s, and, sure enough, veronyms abound in the text. Consider the Gospel of John. Its opening verse repeats “Word” (a veronym by way of the Latin verbum) three times. A few verses later comes “truth”, whose importance to Oxenford (the Latin is veritas) is repeatedly noted in Shakespeare’s Fingerprints. And what could be more characteristic of John than “Verily, verily, I say unto thee”, which runs like a refrain through the Gospel?
Having swallowed so much implausibility, Brame and Popova surely would not balk at attributing the Geneva Bible to their hero. That he was just seven years old when the preliminary version of the New Testament appeared, and ten when the complete Bible was published, can scarcely be a serious obstacle.
There is so much nonsense in Shakespeare’s Fingerprints that even a long review cannot touch on all of it. I would encourage connoisseurs of absurdist humor to read the volume for themselves, except that, alas, it is veritably a tedious tome, devoid of the faintest leavening of learning or wit. Plodding from one argument-by-assertion to the next, the authors have nothing interesting to say about Elizabethan literature or history, and they indite inelegant, wearily academic prose. Their announced attention is to continue in this vein for at least five more books. In Dr. Johnson’s immortal words, “Sir, a man might write such stuff forever, if he would abandon his mind to it.” Wait! “Forever” – a veronym! Do you suppose that Johnson’s Dictionary. . . .
[To comment, click here.]
Letters of comment: Gene Gordon (1/16/04); Steve Paulson (3/4/04)
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