The Reproof Valiant

My contribution to The Ghost of Shakespeare in Harper's Magazine

The April 1999 issue of Harper's featured a "discussion over authorship of Shakespeare's plays"; an exchange of views on five topics in the controversy by five Shakespeareans: Harold Bloom, Jonathan Bate, Marjorie Garber, Gail Kern Paster and me -- versus five Oxfordians: Mark K. Anderson, Tom Bethell, Joseph Sobran, Richard F. Whalen and Daniel Wright. A link to all the essays in The Ghost of Shakespeare appears at the end of this page.


The "Shakespeare Discussion Area" is a Web page where visitors may exchange comments and opinions on the dramatist and his works, but the greatest number of postings by far are from students seeking help with an assignment. One such plea was for information "on what awards Shakespeare won--either during his life or after his death." From "Harry" came the succinct, definitive answer: "You need a new project." Go ahead and laugh, but you, dear reader, may have a similar question you were afraid to ask. How many times has an educated, thoughtful person prefaced a query to me with, "This may be a silly question..." And how many times has that question sent me to the books to discover a fresh topic of fascinating and fruitful research.

In a way, no question about Shakespeare is silly. It may reflect a general lack of knowledge about how these miraculous creations came into being, but it will almost certainly reveal a problem that has been present in the study of both the man and his works for more than 300 years: the common tendency to view the people and products of another age through the glass of one's own. In the case of Shakespeare and the theater of his time, this is particularly pronounced, for in the years between the outlawing of the theater by the Roundheads in 1642 and the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the records of most of the theater companies disappeared. Nearly all that survive are records of performances and the business of the theater. This was all for the best when the apotheosis of the Sweet Swan of Avon took wing in the last third of the eighteenth century. There was nothing to impede his scholars from indulging in their flights of fancy--not until Delia Bacon came along in 1857, that is. The playhouse Shakespeare, she declared, was but "a stupid, ignorant, third-rate player" in a "dirty, doggish group of players," with nothing in his background that qualified him to be the author of works whose depth and breadth of knowledge had been discerned by his scholars over the preceding ninety years.

Drawn from the ranks of the literary world, these scholars ripened the early-eighteenth-century notion that the plays were only incidentally works for the stage; first and foremost they were works of literature to be read and studied. It is "an indisputable certainty," declared Algernon Swinburne, "that Shakespeare never wrote merely for the stage, but always with an eye on the future and studious reader, who would be competent and careful to appreciate what his audience and his fellow actors could not." This may be recognized as a recipe for Shakespeare studies, and, indeed, ever since his plays were admitted to academia they have been increasingly overwhelmed by footnotes, critical studies, and, nowadays, an array of fashionable methodologies.

This primacy of the page over the stage is agreeable to the Oxfordians. In the words of the late Charlton Ogburn, the Earl of Oxford's forceful champion, "Though he gave us marvelous theater, I think we must recognize that he was above all a novelist, and a novelist above all other novelists." Shakespeareans and Oxfordians converge as well in the assumption that the author's age held him in no less estimation than does our own, and this agreement is the wellspring of the authorship debate; for if Shakespeare was, in the words of Ben Jonson, "not of an age, but for all time," surely his contemporaries broadcast his greatness as we do. But they didn't. Why not? This is the "mystery" at the heart of the mysteries the Oxfordians discern in the record of Shakespeare.

There was indeed a time when Shakespeare's position in the theater was unrivaled--because he was quite literally without a rival. In Francis Meres's Palladis Tamia, we find the names of many playwrights, but Meres places Shakespeare far above all others. Meres names twelve plays as examples of Shakespeare's excellence in both comedy and tragedy, five of which had already been published in individual quarto editions. Therein lurks another Oxfordian mystery, which is that the author's name was not in the first editions of any of these, nor of two other early plays not noted by Meres.

The Oxfordians have a solution: the author's noble name could not be affixed to lowly drama, and so the decision was made to use a pseudonym, supposedly coined years earlier: "William Shakespeare." That it was similar to the name of an ignorant player, William "Shakespeare," perhaps made the choice more amusing to the knowing. But if the need to hide the identity of a noble author of this disdained literature is indeed the reason why these works were published without attribution, playwriting must have been quite the fashion among aristocrats, for in only seven of the forty-two popular plays printed between 1590 and 1597 was the author identified.

Nor were any of Shakespeare's plays brought to press with evident approval from their creator, and the texts of some truly earned their description in the First Folio as "maimed and deformed." This the Oxfordians regard as further proof that the author was a nobleman; a common man, they argue, certainly would have, and could have, complained. The generic anti-Stratfordian Sir George Greenwood acknowledged that although there was no copyright law at the time, authors had recourse to English common law as "a remedy for the violation of so elementary a right." This is as far as the Oxfordian argument usually gets, and so Greenwood's conclusion that there is no record of this common-law right being successfully appealed is not heard, anymore than is his concession that authors may have found "it was better to `take it lying down'" than to try and obtain justice against a publisher protected by the "powerful Stationers' Company."

What makes the attempts to deny these facts remarkable is that Oxfordians are aware that Shakespeare's acting company--the Lord Chamberlain's Men, later the King's Men--tried at various times between 1598 and 1640 to block the unauthorized publication of their plays, only to be flouted on each occasion by members of the Stationers' Company. In initiating these efforts to prevent the publication of plays, the Chamberlain's/King's Men were not acting on behalf of Shakespeare or any of the dramatists who wrote for them. Rather, as the plays were the property of the company and its shareholders, the company was seeking to protect its own interests. This was true of every syndicate or acting company of the day, and the evidence to this effect, in contracts and in the words of playwrights themselves, is overwhelming.

The Oxfordians are unsatisfied nevertheless and point to Ben Jonson's control over his plays. How he pulled this off is not known, but the probable explanation is that he was a dramatist in great demand, and acting companies therefore were willing to surrender to Jonson the rights to his plays. Unlike Jonson, who freelanced his plays, Shakespeare was attached to a single acting company in which he was a shareholder, and the Chamberlain's/King's Men were unrivaled in the protection of their plays. In the forty-eight-year history of the company, only three plays by one of its resident dramatists were published with the participation of their author and with the evident permission of the company.

The most difficult problem for Oxfordians is the dating of the plays, fully one third of which are given as 1605 or later in the Shakespearean chronology, whereas the Earl of Oxford died in June 1604. The Oxfordian response is the assertion that the scholars have fashioned their chronology to suit the lifetime of the man they assume to be the author and that there is no documentary evidence that proves any were written after 1604. But, of course, it is necessary for the Oxfordians to fashion their chronology to suit the lifetime of the man they would make the author, and there is no evidence whatsoever that any of the thirteen plays in question were written before 1605.

Of the twenty-six plays dated 1604 or earlier, fifteen were published and two more were entered for publication with the Stationers' Company; eight more are mentioned in print or in documents, leaving only The Taming of the Shrew without certain contemporary mention before 1605. Which leaves us to wonder why, if the plays ascribed to years after 1604 had indeed been written before then, a stationer would print Titus Andronicus but not Macbeth, why Meres would mention Romeo and Juliet and The Two Gentlemen of Verona but not King Lear or The Tempest.

This last play is one of several for which there is solid evidence of late composition, to which some current Oxfordians give tacit assent. The tempest that gave its name to the play has definite parallels to two tracts and a letter, all three written in 1610, that contain accounts of a shipwreck near Bermuda of the Virginia Company flagship Sea-Venture. There are many such references, and they are so scattered throughout the play that the Oxfordian suggestion that they were later additions made by another is implausible. Nor can there be any doubt that Henry VIII was composed well after 1604. It was during a performance of this play on June 29, 1613, that the Globe playhouse burned to the ground, which is attested to by two letters written within days of the event that describe Henry VIII as a "new play," one of which states that it "had been acted not passing 2 or 3 times before." What is more, this play is the second of three that Shakespeare wrote in collaboration with John Fletcher, whose career as a dramatist began two years after Oxford's death. The Oxfordians also ignore the fact that the Shakespearean chronology is based not only on the dates of publication or on mention of plays in books or documents but on Shakespeare's development as an artist. Where among the pre-1605 plays the Oxfordians would put these later plays, in which are found the highest achievement of the playwright's art, is a problem they have yet to approach. Put plainly, they have no chronology.

Another issue in which Oxford's premature death plays a part is the playwright's sources. All of the primary ones for the later plays, they note, were in print before 1605; "Did he stop reading?" they ask. This is an interesting question, but it is the wrong one. A better question is, "What precisely did he read?" And what we find is North's translation of Plutarch's Lives and Holinshed's Chronicles accounting for five of the plays, an old play first published in 1605 as the source for King Lear, and popular works for the rest. In other words, very much the same sources, exactly or of a kind, that he used for the plays written before 1605, which raises a question about the Oxfordians' Shakespeare. Whereas he is proclaimed to be a person of great erudition, well-schooled and fluent in the ancient tongues, which the Earl of Oxford was indeed, apart from classical authors common to the grammar-school curriculum of the day, or decipherable to someone with even "small Latin and less Greek" (as Jonson defined Shakespeare's ability in these languages), there are relatively few allusions that suggest the author of the plays was particularly well-read in the ancients. There is nothing of Suetonius, Tacitus, Pliny, Dio Cassius, or Velleius Paterculus, among others found abundantly in Jonson's Sejanus, the 1605 edition of which has the author's own citations cramming the margins.

Margin notes of a different kind are of great interest to Oxfordians nowadays. These are in a copy of the 1568-1570 Geneva Bible bound especially for the Earl of Oxford, in which there are annotations and underlinings that have led his adherents to anoint it "Shakespeare's Bible." One example of its supposed parallel to the plays is Hamlet's declaration that Claudius "took my father grossly, full of bread," the last phrase of which is an allusion to Ezekiel, chapter 16, verse 49. We are told--in an article by Mark Anderson in the Hartford Advocate about a study of Oxford's Bible by Roger Stritmatter--that "over a span of more than 300 verses in the book of Ezekiel, Edward de Vere marks only one: Ezekiel 16:49." This is indeed remarkable, because there are as many as fifteen other allusions to Ezekiel in Shakespeare's plays. What happened to them?

This selectivity is made apparent in a further study of Oxford's Bible, by Dave Kathman, on the "Shakespeare Authorship" Web site. Kathman found that of the more than 200 parallel verses identified by Stritmatter, only about 80 are recognized by scholars of Shakespeare's biblical use. Granting Stritmatter the other 120-plus (as well as the benefit of the doubt that all the markings were made by Oxford), Kathman notes that there are roughly 1,000 verses marked in the Oxford Bible, whereas there are at least 2,000 biblical references in Shakespeare's works. Therefore, "only about 10 percent of Shakespeare's biblical allusions are marked in the Bible, and only about 20 percent of the verses marked in the Bible are alluded to in Shakespeare."

The Oxfordian justification for this passionate battle over the identity of the author is that our understanding and appreciation of the plays will be enhanced if they may be viewed in the light of the author's life. Let's see what happens to Hamlet, in which they discern a "master metaphor," the purported "projection" of de Vere's pseudonymous intent: to use his knowledge of court life to expose its inner corruption. But precisely what is the manifestation of the corruption in the court of Denmark? To all appearances, Claudius is an able ruler, sure in statecraft, and respected in his own court as well as in the courts of other nations. The corruption in Denmark's court is hidden in the soul of Claudius, and drama is its purge, in the mortal world of Shakespeare's time as it was in his play. In 1612, Shakespeare's colleague Thomas Heywood wrote a defense of the stage in which he told of performances that "have been the discoverers of many notorious murders, being concealed from the eyes of the world," two examples of which Heywood states occurred twelve years earlier, which would be about the time that Hamlet was written. And in the play we hear Hamlet say:

I have heard / That guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have by the very cunning of the scene / Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaimed their malefactions.

It would appear that the author of Hamlet used his knowledge not of court life to expose its corruption but of drama to expose the corruption in the human soul. And this is, as the scholar Henri Fluchere put it, "the domain of art, not the poet's life."

Self-promoting though he may have been, Ben Jonson has been proved right in eulogizing Shakespeare as "not of an age, but for all time." Later ages have admitted him into their cultures as a contemporary, sought images of the human experience in his words when their own failed, and proclaimed his genius to a degree that Jonson could never have dreamed of. The unvarnished life of the singularly self-obsessed Oxford offers no explanation for the scope of humanity found in the plays, and it is this that must be explained. For the unique achievement of the author is that, in the words of William Hazlitt, "[e]ach of his characters is as much itself, and as absolutely independent of the author, as if they were living persons, not fictions of the mind." And these are qualities that are the special province of the theater and the actor. Shakespeare was a character actor relegated to playing two or three roles in a play, as was the custom of the time, and the actor bears a likeness to the dramatist, who, as Gary Taylor defined him, "had to perform all the parts in his head, momentarily recreating himself in the image of each." In this Shakespeare has had no equal.

The human qualities of Shakespeare's characters have proven common to people of every age and society. Thus could Akira Kurosawa unite the pre-Christian world of King Lear with the medieval Japan of warlords in Ran, and thus could South African playwright Welcome Msomi create Umabatha: A Zulu Macbeth, acknowledging surprise at how readily Shakespeare's play lent itself to Zulu oral tradition. And, most tellingly of all, Peter Brook, who made his reputation directing Shakespeare, said that in the modern theater "we are faced with the infuriating fact that Shakespeare is still our model." The Oxfordians ask us instead to cast the stage aside as incidental to these creations, a disposable framework for the overarching genius of their noble creator.

To those who find that the stage is the only place where the plays truly live, it is a sort of poetic justice that the man who found so many lives within himself has come down to us seemingly without a life of his own. But his mastery of drama and his unique ability to create "an improvisation of life" upon the stage confirms what the documentary records of Shakespeare and his time tell us: that the domain of the poet's life, no less than the domain of his art, is the theater.

1999 Irvin Leigh Matus

The Ghost of Shakespeare on Find