Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Shakespeare Authorship, Part Two: Class Issues and Conspiracy Theories

In yesterday's post, I started writing about the NPR stories (July 3rd and July 4th) on the Shakespeare authorship question. Today I'd like to continue, and focus on questions of social class and conspiracy theories.

"Social class" is how we talk about stratifications of society and our stereotypes and understandings of those stratifications. It's not how early moderns talked about such things, because they simply hadn't read Marx. But I'm going to use the term for now, because the anti-Stratford folks are contemporaries now, and it's our sense of social stratification and stereotyping that matters for me today.

One of the arguments against the authorship by William Shakespeare of Stratford of the texts associated with that name is that no one of such a low social status could have written such great texts. The July 3rd NPR article write up quotes some of Mark Twain's commentary, which provides a starting point to look at readings of social status:
It is sorely embarrassing. If he began to slaughter calves, and poach deer, and rollick around, and learn English, at the earliest likely moment- say at thirteen, when he was supposably wrenched from that school where he was supposably storing up Latin for future literary use- he had his youthful hands full, and much more than full. He must have had to put aside his Warwickshire dialect, which wouldn't be understood in London, and study English very hard. Very hard indeed; incredibly hard, almost, if the result of that labor was to be the smooth and rounded and flexible and letter- perfect English of the Venus and Adonis in the space of ten years; and at the same time learn great and fine and unsurpassable literary form. (Source)
So what's "embarrassing? That he was involved in something so dirty as butchering? That he poached? That he had a Warwickshire accent, rather than the accent of someone raised in London?

The supposed embarrassment that England's biggest writing name was lower class reveals a lot about the anxieties of anti-Stratfordians. But if one looks around at most of the playwrights of the period, one doesn't see mostly wealthy men, but rather men who managed to write pretty amazing plays despite low social status. We have Thomas Middleton, the son of a bricklayer. And Ben Jonson, stepson of a bricklayer. Christopher Marlowe's father was a shoemaker. In contrast John Fletcher's father was a clergyman and bishop, making Fletcher a gentleman from the start, and a well-connected one, too. In general then, the glover's son was in good company.

Can we reverse the question? How would an upper class writer (Queen Elizabeth, de Vere, whomever) have come to know the seamier side of life? Did s/he play Hal and hang out in taverns? (And are the tavern type representations "realistic" in any sense? Was Cheers representative of bar life in the 80s, with no one ever drunk or even tipsy? It was a pretty popular TV show, but realism wasn't the point.)

In order to posit that Shakespeare didn't write "Shakespeare," you have to believe that there was a pretty grand conspiracy going on. For example, the folks who want to credit Edward de Vere (the 7th Earl of Oxford) with the plays, point to Francis Meres' Palladis Tamia, where, on page 283-284, Oxford is included first in a list of "the best for Comedy amongst us" (Meres, Francis. Palladis Tamia. London, 1598. sig. Oo3v. Image from EEBO: STC 17834) (Upper left, about five lines in.)

Of course, Meres also talks about Shakespeare, and with a tad more detail (upper right, first full paragraph):

What do we make of Meres' comments? Do we take both comments seriously? Do we ignore the list of Shakespeare's works, as the Oxford folks do?

The theory goes that someone in Oxford's position wouldn't have put plays in his own name, but Meres knows the name as a comedy writer. So if there's a conspiracy, it's not a very well kept secret, perhaps?

I don't buy most conspiracy theories, frankly, because I don't believe most people are good at keeping secrets for long. I have a hard time imagining that Ben Jonson, for example, having outlived Shakespeare and de Vere, wouldn't go out of his way to say something to reveal that his biggest theatrical competition wasn't Shakespeare after all? Or that if Meres knew about Oxford being a great playwright, someone else didn't, and didn't bother to mention it, even in letters between courtiers?

Other questions I have about the Oxford claims:
The Wikipedia page on Oxford says that he supported a couple theater companies. If he'd written the plays, why wouldn't he get them into the hands of the companies he sponsored? There's pretty ample evidence that Shakespeare's plays were profitable for the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men; why put profit in the hands of competitors?

Sonnets have lots of cultural cachet amongst courtiers in the 1580s and early 1590s. We have sonnets attributed to Elizabeth, Sidney, and so forth. Why wouldn't Oxford have circulated at least some sonnets under his own name in manuscript? Meres mentions that Shakespeare's sonnets have circulated amongst his friends, but nothing about Oxford. (Do we have any verse attributed to Oxford? I can't find anything on EEBO searching with Edward de Vere or Oxford Earl, except the 1717 proceedings against the then earl for treason. But I don't have a good way to search manuscript holdings from my couch.)

Oxford seems to have died in 1604. That means 1) that the only monarchal court he knew while he could have been writing the plays would have been Elizabeth's. The plays' representations of court life are even more unlike the Elizabethan court than the Jacobean court. Surely Oxford, growing up in Cecil's household, would have seen the Elizabethan court in action, and would have known how important someone in Cecil's position was? If he were to represent a court realistically, wouldn't a Lord High Treasurer be some part of the action? Oxford was also Lord High Chamberlain (not Lord Chamberlain. What a confusing distinction!). And 2) that you have to do all sorts of contortions to explain the plotting and such of The Tempest, with the imagery coming from Strachey's 1610 report? (You have to do the same sorts of contortions if you claim that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare.)

Occam's Razor is a principle that says that the argument that the best argument is one that makes the fewest untested assumptions and is the most straightforward. It's not a surefire thing, of course, but it's easier to think that a genius of language and drama was born the son of a glover, survived, got some education, went to work as an actor, and wrote some great plays, leaving behind a fair bit of evidence of his life, connections with the theater company that acted the plays associated with his name, and increased wealth, than to believe that Oxford wrote the texts and managed a grand conspiracy so that while people knew he wrote them (Meres, for example), no one "told" until the past century.

Next and last: Who Cares?

Postscript: I spent a goodly part of the day, more than I should have, flipping through Palladis Tamia, looking for the references to Shakespeare and Oxford. I found them in the 280s. The references are famous, but I wasn't able to quickly find a page reference to look at a digital image of the page, so I flipped through on EEBO.

And as I flipped through, I wondered about who found the reference to Shakespeare in modern times. At least I'm assuming that it didn't get noted again and again since publication, but rather that the book was put away, and some "modern" scholar type found the reference as s/he was reading, probably along in the 19th century sometime. Nowadays, someone who finds a new reference to Shakespeare would get all sorts of name recognition, at least among the Shakespeare crowd. So I imagine some scholar, reading along, and getting to that point, and thinking, "I've got it made." And yet, I have no idea who this person was, or even if they existed. I'd love to know, too.

And just so you know, those 280 some pages aren't scintillating prose about the wonders of England and English poetry. They're mostly an "argument" for Christianity and such, using lots of similes. Here, for example, is a transcript from the section on "Women":
As Pigeons are taken with beanes, and children intised with Balles:so women are wonne with toyes.
As the beast Chimer hath a Lions face, but a Dragons tayle: so many women have continent words but unchast works. (sig G, pg. 41)
The section goes on for many pages, including this gem about Russian women:
As the kinde Spaniell the more hee is beaten, the fonder he is: so the women of Russia, the oftner their husbandes beate them, the better they love them. They will not be perswaded that their husbandes love them except they beate them. (sig G8r-v, pg 48-49, he cites Hackluyt for this bit of wisdom).

I wonder how many of us have actually read this tripe, rather than just looking at the Shakespeare references?


  1. Speaking of spaniels, isn't there a line a lot like this in Midsummer Night's Dream?

    Ok, that's all I got; I'm no Shakespearean. Tho' I do agree that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare's plays, but I don't have anything particularly informed to say.

    Although, what's even more interesting than the idea that some Earl or Francis Bacon or whatever secretly wrote Shakespeare's plays is the idea that some of his plays were co-authored. Middleton or somebody? Once we bring that up, we start thinking about collaboration, and revision by another person, or even the idea of the company making major changes in a partnership-type way, and then you do really interesting ideas to the notion of authorship.

  2. THanks for reminding us that Meres is not mostly interested in Shakespeare, or indeed Oxford. (I haven't read Meres, but I've read a lot of conduct books, so I've read quite a bit of that tripe. It's hard going.) I totally agree with you that the issue of class is central. Some time in the middle/late 18th C (I'd associate it with early romantic notions of creativity) there emerges the idea that great art comes from those of high status. And we get the art/craft division.

    Oh, and Sis on the collaboration piece -- the other thing we have to get our heads around is that authorship of plays is not as proprietary at the time. I haven't worked my way through the Middleton edition on what parts of Macbeth may be Middleton, but it's clearly important. The key to these arguments about collaboration is that there is evidence, often in the use of language, to support it.

    Oh, and while Shakespeare did not go to university, a grammar school education is not to be sneezed at!

  3. Interesting posts.

    From the NPR site: "We don't have anyone attesting to him as a playwright, as a poet." How can they say that, given what you've cited from Meres?

    I read _The Reckoning_ a couple of years back, and even with the more amply documented facts of Marlowe's life, there was still a lot of "maybe Marlowe would have seen this" or "he could have done that."

  4. Thank you for another excellent refutation of the authorship "argument"! While many academics in Early Modern Lit/Drama seem to think that the issue is not relevant, it's surely useful for teaching students critical thinking skills. The arguments in favor of Oxford's (and others') authorship of Shakespeare's plays engage denialist methods of rhetoric and fact-picking uncomfortably similar to other pseudohistories.

  5. Sisyphus, Good point about collaboration! Theatrical texts are highly collaborative, indeed!

    Susan, I think you're absolutely right about the different conceptions of authorship in the period, as well, though we certainly get a sense that Jonson, for example, thought of himself as Author with a capital A.

    Undine, We have other hints about Shakespeare here and there. But it's not as much as lots of people really want.

    Primroseroad, I don't spend much time on it in class, to be honest, because the texts are so exciting and fun to talk about in themselves. But it's a good reminder that we are teaching critical thinking skills!

  6. Anonymous6:54 PM

    Meres wrote "best for comedy" not
    "best for "comedies." Meres may have alluded to Oxford's fooling around during the "interludes" between acts. Oxford was a little man, probably not five feet high,
    which drew a lot of attention.

    There's a historical reference to
    Oxford marching in a procession to
    welcome the victorious Ralegh home
    to England. The writer notes "the
    people laughed" as Oxford passed by.

    There was nothing funny about Oxford, one of his biographers writes "we may never know how many men Oxford's killed." When he
    wasn't "brutalizing his wife" (I'm
    quoting a 15th c. letter published in Allan Nelson's biography of Oxford, "Monstrous Adversary"), Oxford was out on the streets
    at night with his bodyguards kiloing townies for sport.

    The Oxfordian movement is entirely
    reliant on Looney's romantic
    Gothic Revival version of Oxford.
    Nineteenth century historians
    had an entirely different view of

    In the end, Oxford's destruction
    of his family, his castle, his title, caused Parliament to extinguish the ancient and once
    honorable Oxford title.

    I read the Lord Chief Justice'
    speech on the theme "all things must past." I cried. I think
    you can find the speech in Sir Bernard Burke's Peerage or in
    his Vissitudes of Familes. It's
    a beautiful funeral oration for
    a ruined ancient family.

    An Oxfordian, Canon Gerald Rendall,
    mentioned that Oxford tore his
    ancient family seat down to the bare ground in order to sell the stones. It was a huge, walled structure, probably smaller than Warwick Castle, but built in the same era in the same graceful Norman Gothic style. All that's left is the keep. Built to resist seige engines, it resisted Oxford.