The Playgoer: Oxfordians, move over!

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Thursday, October 06, 2005

Oxfordians, move over!

Update 10/7: a more lively news account of this book, with more details of its flimsy claims, can be found here, from the BBC.

Yes, just when I thought there was nothing more to say on the authorship "question", at least for the week, along comes this from Reuters:

Two academics say they have discovered the "real'' William Shakespeare, the never-before-identified Henry Neville, whipping up a tempest of debate among the Bard's followers who have had to defend him against a host of pretenders. Academics Brenda James and Professor William Rubinstein have recorded their findings in a new book in which they make the case for Neville, a Tudor politician, diplomat and landowner whose life span matched that of Shakespeare almost exactly.

Now if these new deniers are indeed credentialed professors at an accredited institution, that would be news. Would be. But it seems that the label "academics" may be applied a bit loosely to James, who is of no fixed university, apparently. Plus, check out her methods:

James, a Briton, says she stumbled upon the new contender Neville while decoding the Dedication to Shakespeare's Sonnets, which led her to identify Neville as the author of the plays. She spent the next seven years gathering evidence to prove her point. When she asked Rubinstein, of the University of Wales, to check her facts, he was sufficiently convinced to agree to advise on and co-author the book.

Ah, "decoding." Of course. (I guess we'll have to read the book for instructions.) Anyway, note no affiliation. Rubinstein, granted, seems to have himself a post. So I say he's owed a good thorough peer review of the book (entitled The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare. I won't deny them the plug). Let's see what happens. I've always thought the best retort to the Deniers' cries of academic conspiracy and intimidation is: man, if you could actually prove any doubt about Shakespeare's authorship, what a way to make your career! (Same with evolutionary science, I'm sure.) But if you don't have the persuasive documents, you deserve the ridicule the academy will heap on you.

(By the way, I don't have the same beef with Reuters here as I do with the NY Times. In fact, this can serve as a model approach to covering fringe theories- objective tone, respectfully and fairly representing them while also getting balance from conventional "authorities".)

So what about their documentation? Well, so far, no smoking gun it seems. Though here's what appears to be their Exhibit A:

James said a notebook written by Neville while locked in the Tower of London around 1602 contained detailed notes which ended up in "Henry VIII'' first performed several years later. His experience in the tower, where he faced execution for his part in a plot to overthrow the queen, would also explain the shift in 1601 from histories and comedies to the great ''Shakespearian'' tragedies.

Well, I'm intrigued to read what's in this notebook. But since Henry VIII is one of the most obviously collaborative of the plays. It has long been the norm to co-attribute it to John Fletcher, and many of us would be happy to lose it from the canon altogether. So let 'em have it!... Plus, journal-keeping and playwriting are two kinda different artforms. If the connections are completely word-for-word, what rules out Shakespeare (or Fletcher) reading the journal???

As for the "shift" from comedy to tragedy, I guess it's refreshing to see a revisionist for once accept that the plays might not have all been written at once! (as the Oxfordians pretty much do.) But this development has hardly been an unexplained mystery in search of more answers. (There was a change in the monarchy, Shakespeare lost a child, etc.) And if political imprisonment around 1600 was a prerequisite for writing Shakespeare's late plays... well, take a number, when it comes to candidates.

In this book we once again get this old saw: "One of the chief reasons given by James and Rubinstein for doubting Shakespeare's authorship is his lack of formal education and familiarity with the ways of the court." As I've already argued over at Spearbearer, this can't go unanswered any more. Here's a few quick rebuttals for those of you playing the home game:

A) Oxford & Cambridge would not have helped Shakespeare at all since classes were all in Latin and the main subjects were law and theology--surely of interest to Shakespeare, but hardly central. Take a look at the far less accessible Marlowe to see what an over-educated Elizabethan playwright reads like. (Hint: lots of Latin) As for classical literature (Greek & Latin), the sources he drew on for the plays were all available in English translation by the late 1500s. (It was the Renaissance, remember.) The conclusive proof of this is the excerpts you'll find in the back of any good Arden edition from "North's Plutarch" and the like, where you can see Shakespeare cribbing lines almost word for word. No other "education" was necessary for a play like Julius Caesar, for instance.

B) Just because he didn't go to university, Shakespeare would not necessarily have been an "uneducated" dolt. Lots has been argued over in revisionist circles about the Stratford grammar schools. The fact is there was a pretty good one there in the 1570s-80s when young Will was growing up. Scholar of yore, T.W. Baldwin wrote two volumes documenting this in his classic tome, William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke. (To the deniers who love to point out variant spellings of the name--which they love to screech out as "Shax-pere" as if that proves anything--I only refer you to the messed up spelling of the whole title of this "uncorrected" Elizabethan quote. The key phrase comes from Ben Jonson's own reference to his friend's deficiencies.) Baldwin's work showed this very good "prep school" gave its boys plenty of rudimentary classical studies and many of the books (like Ovid) Shakespeare would rely upon.... As to those who argue there's no record of young Will ever attending, it is true there are no attendance records at all for his childhood years. Does that mean no one went? As the son of a prominent local merchant and civic leader (some say even mayor) Shakespeare would have been a prime candidate along with the rest of the burgeoning bourgeoisie.

C) Also related to this is the "Travel" issue. That is, how could someone write plays about all those lovely European locales without actually going there! Well, let's leave aside the fact that not even The Earl of Oxford Edward De Vere had probably been to Ancient Rome. I just wonder whether these people have read the plays at all sometimes. They're not travelogues. Romeo and Juliet, for example, has as much to do with Italy as a Stouffer's Pizza. And, besides, everything he needed to know for that play is in this English poem from 1562. (Like Jayson Blair, he could do his minimal "on site reporting" from home.) Seriously, I defy anyone to point out a line in this play (or in Merchant of Venice, or Othello or...) that only could have been written "on location."...And by the way, is anyone claiming that De Vere or Neville or anyone ever visited that "seacoast" of landlocked Bohemia immortalized in Winter's Tale? As the Reuters piece thankfully acknowledges, some experts still maintain, "that someone of Neville's knowledge of Europe would not make the same basic geographical errors that appear in the Shakespeare canon." In other words, the plays do get things wrong a lot. It's not the "Stratfordians" who believe in Bardic Infallibility.

In short, when someone says "the Stratford man" (usually with dripping sarcasm) would have been too stupid, too unschooled, too untravelled to write the plays, please ask them: which one? show me a line? does that go for the glaring errors, too? These theories all seem to subscribe to some cheap fantasy world version of "olden times" when everyone was either a knight or a peasant, and if you weren't a Lord you were basically illiterate. This simplistic scenario has been debunked by historians routinely over the last century but some of us just don't read, I guess. And some of have never heard of this thing called The Middle Class, the Bourgeoisie, even though most of us here (in the US) supposedly belong to it. Which is why it's especially strange that these anti-Shakespeare theories have flourished in America seemingly more than the traditionally more class-bound UK. (Indeed Reuters points out that the Professor Rubenstein of this current book is a Yank!) My hunch: the old American inferiority complex in the world of letters rears its sad head in these endeavors. How else to explain why a bunch of American armchair scholars (usually lawyers, I find) genuflect before great Earls and Lords of the past to push aside that rude Sratford upstart from the canon. Taking Anglophilia to a ridiculous extent I'd say.

My final question is: so what will the Oxfordians make of this new challenge? Surely doesn't help their cause! I call for a knock-down drag-out fight: Oxford vs Neville. Or will they join forces and forge some new, even wackier conspiracy theory of collaboration between the two! Reuters reports that the intro to the new book is written by actor Mark Rylance, who is the head of the new Globe Theatre in London. I think Rylance is a terrific actor. But wasn't he a confirmed "Marlovian" before? Does he just hate Shakespeare so much he'll settle for any other candidate? In theory, each of these camps should have as much problem with each other as with we "traditionalists." How about some consistency, guys...

(Rylance also, by the way, is US-born but British-raised and trained. Between him and Mel Gibson, I'm starting to wonder whether all such American Anglo-transplants are nutcases on at least one issue. Or at least have some huge chip on their shoulders...Disclaimer: Playgoer is not a licensed psychologist, sociologist, nor cultural anthropologist. Just a loudmouth with a blog.)


Kevin said...

I think that the biggest motivation of the Oxfordians might be seeing the rise it gets out of you.

At least, this is the theory that most closely corresponds to what my mom told me about getting teased by my siblings. "They wouldn't do it if it you didn't make it so much fun for them."


The Playgoer said...

Fair point, Kevin. I'm tempted to paraphrase that great Earl of Oxford, "Methinks I do protest too much." But what would that mean? Maybe I am the true Shakespeare and am still covering my tracks...