Shake-Speare Fissionby William S. Niederkorn
Authorship scholars are doing for the Bard what particle
accelerators did for physics. And just as with science, the
results and how to interpret them may seem as if they are
all over the place.
In Shakespeare Lost and Found: Evidence for William Stanley, Sixth Earl of Derby, as the Man Behind the Mask (Park Road Editions, 2011), John M. Rollett, an eminent researcher in the field of Shakespeare authorship studies and a retired physicist, announced that he had discovered something he considered quite amazing in the list of “the Names of the Principall Actors in All These Plays.” Included in the first Shakespeare folio, published in 1623, this list remained unaltered through the course of three subsequent 17th-century folio printings.
It was an intriguing acrostic. Reading down the last letters of the first of the two columns of names, he noticed s-t-e-n-l-e-y. After further study, he claimed that this and much more evidence show that William Stanley is the author of the Shakespeare canon.
It turns out that this discovery was not entirely a solo effort. In a reprint of his pamphlet later in the year, Rollett added a footnote to his announcement: “I am greatly indebted to Jones Harris for alerting me to this circumstance, and for drawing my attention to the columns of actors’ names. His insight and guidance led directly to the discovery of the seven-letter acrostic, which then revived my interest in Stanley as a candidate for the authorship.”
What Rollett did not say, because he had promised Harris to keep it to himself, was that Harris had previously found an acrostic of another authorship candidate’s surname in the last letters in the second column of the folio actors list, and the name was not misspelled.
Harris, who has studied the authorship question for over 50 years and who backs Edward Dyer as Shakespeare, says he had spotted d-y-e-r decades ago.
“Most of these actors were very unimportant people you know,” Harris says. “It isn’t as though it was Edward Alleyn and so forth. A couple of them have some importance, but the rest of them? My goodness me. It’s like the crawl at the end of an old Warner Brothers movie. The audience isn’t going to know the last half of all the people playing the good shepherd and the sheriff and whatever. So I felt all along there had to be a reason for it, and then one day my eye simply fell on the d-y-e-r.”
Now in his 80s, as is Rollett, Harris was born into the theater world. His parents were the stellar legends Ruth Gordon and Jed Harris, and his primary interest for his whole adult life has been studying the authorship question in light of Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand by Alden Brooks.
He does not publish his work, but he has discussed authorship issues with a number of scholars and researchers over the years. Rollett, well known for his work in decryption, was one with whom he was in regular contact by telephone.
“I just thought that I’d try him out on this thing,” Harris says, recalling a conversation from 2008, “and say look at the page that gives the list of the actors, and he did that. I told him that I had already found something and I wanted to see if anything occurred to him. Nothing did. Then not long afterwards I swore him to secrecy with what I was now going to say to him, and he certainly accepted over the phone. I used my old phrase ‘This is between you and me and the lamppost, John. Have I got your word on it?’ ‘Yes, absolutely.’ I mean from an Englishman that’s supposed to be all you need. And then I pointed out the last letters of the names of the actors and the orders that they fell in. Naturally I pointed to Dyer.”
A few years later, it came as quite a shock to Harris to learn that Rollett had just published Shakespeare Lost and Found. He heard the news from Patrick Buckridge, a distinguished Australian scholar and professor at Griffith University, to whom Rollett had sent a copy, and who is also one of Harris’s confidants. “Pat Buckridge certainly was amazed,” Harris says. “He said, ‘You mean he never sent you this thing?’ and I said no.”
Harris was angry. “When I called up Rollett he’d sent out 20 or 30 copies, but I wasn’t on the list,” he says. “Not only did he break his word by publishing, but he was obviously guilt-ridden or whatever, enough not to even include me. And he had sent me things in the past. It’s not as though he didn’t know my phone number, my address, and so forth.”
A resident of Ipswich in the English county of Suffolk, John Rollett has made some remarkable discoveries in Shakespeare studies over the years and continues to do so. In 2003 he exposed a forgery, debunking what was long regarded as the earliest expression of doubt about the Stratfordian orthodoxy, a purported 1805 draft for a lecture for the Ipswich Philosophic Society, about conversations with a doctor who had supposedly believed as early as 1785 that Shakespeare’s work should be attributed to Francis Bacon. The first clue for Rollett on that one was finding no records of the purported philosophic society in his home town. The case unraveled from there.
In an even more highly regarded discovery that he published in a 1997 article, Rollett deciphered what appeared to be a coded message in the dedication of Shake-Speare’s Sonnets that identifies the author.
Noting that the dedication was typographically composed of three inverted pyramids, first of six lines, then two, then four, the same as the numbers of letters in the name Edward de Vere, he decoded the 1609 published text, which has periods after each “word,” by taking the sixth word, then the second word following, then the fourth word after that, and repeating. The method can be seen here in the italicized words of the beginning of the dedication: “To the onlie begetter of these insuing sonnets Mr. W. H. all happiness and that eternitie promised by our ever....” After “ever” there is a hyphen, breaking the punctuation pattern.
This procedure, against stupendous odds, yields a coherent statement: “These sonnets all by ever.” Not only an anagram for Vere, “ever” was frequently used in the late 16th and early 17th centuries as an allusion to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. For most of the 20th century, Oxford had by far the most advocates of any alternative candidate in the authorship debate, and he continues to in the 21st.
Rollett has since renounced this decryption and dropped Oxford. He now supports Derby for the authorship. “The two coincidences (‘ever’ = Edward de Vere = 6-2-4) are highly suggestive, but the human mind is always on the lookout for coincidences, which may just be the random workings of chance,” he wrote in a 2004 disclaimer. Still, many Oxfordians regard his original work as brilliant and correct, as does Harris, saying he has reason to believe it points to Dyer. “I regret that Rollett abandoned what I feel was the best piece of coding work he ever did,” Harris says.
Rollett says he made “a serious error in judgment” over the acrostic matter. He recalls how Harris “told me of his great insight, that if the author’s name was concealed anywhere in the First Folio, it had to have been on the page headed ‘The Workes of William Shakespeare,’ as the only page the ‘editors’ (stationers, or whoever was actually in charge of what was going on) had full control of.”
When Harris called the page to Rollett’s attention, he invited him to see what he could find. Rollett says: “I regret to have to say that I went all over that page and came up with nothing, partly because I didn’t think there was anything to find (Jones gave no hint that he had already found something); also I was expecting a sentence or at least two or three words. He repeated his injunction two or three times, and then (having decided I was even more stupid than he already thought) told me about d-y-e-r, and exhorted me to keep looking.”
Getting back to work, Rollett found s-t-e-n-l-e-y, and “when he next rang me” he told Harris about it, “assuming it was something he had already spotted himself,” Rollett says. “But he hadn’t, became somewhat irritated, and told me to forget it, as Stanley was rubbish and a popinjay only interested in inheriting the throne after Elizabeth.”
Harris “had already sworn me to secrecy about d-y-e-r, which was why I didn’t mention this (or Jones himself) in the first version of my monograph,” Rollett says. After Harris complained, “I immediately revised the monograph to include his name and wrote him a letter of apology. I had assumed my oath of secrecy included everything he had told me.” He adds, “I rather miss Jones’s phone calls, as he was very knowledgeable (and also very opinionated). He used to treat me as a rather backward sophomore.”
So where does that leave us? It seems to me that the two acrostics could be quite important, adding up to more than the sum of their parts, because each reinforces the validity of the other. If only Dyer’s name was acrosticized in the list, it might be dismissed as a fluke within the realm of probability, as many names end in d, y, e, and r. The Stanley contention on its own might be dismissed because of the misspelling. But the presence of both Dyer and the close approximation of Stanley, centered adjacent to each other in the two columns, each with only 13 actors’ names, seems quite credibly intentional.
This type of concealed message is an example of an age-old strategy of coding, Harris says, the idea being that the best way to hide something is to place it out in the open, like Poe’s purloined letter.
In his pamphlet Rollett points out signs of manipulation in the first column of the list, as Henry Condell should naturally have followed John Hemmings. Hemmings and Condell are the actors presented in the folio as the authors of its dedicatory epistles, in which they imply that they are primarily responsible for the book. But in the list, four names intervene between Hemmings and Condell, so that Condell can provide the ‘L’ in Stanley, while the ‘T’ has an even stranger provenance: “This is the only place in print and in surviving documents where the name ‘Kemp’ or ‘Kempe’ is spelled ‘Kempt,’” Rollett writes, citing the authority of John Payne Collier. “None of the players’ names ended in ‘T’, so a ‘T’ was stuck on the end of ‘Kemp.’”
So far, Rollett has not been able to find a contemporary instance of Derby’s surname spelled “Stenley,” but, he reasons, “none of their names ended in ‘A,’ so one ending in ‘E’ was used as the best available substitute.”
While Rollett argues for Derby as the author, and Harris says the evidence points to Dyer, obviously a case could be made for both. There are signs that authorship scholars, who like their traditional colleagues have long tended to advocate that he or she (pace Mary Sidney and Amelia Lanier) was one sole genius, are letting that idea go and projecting that there was more than one principal author. A theory for Oxford and Derby, for example, is now advocated by Peter W. Dickson, as noted below.
Conceivably it could also be argued that the acrostics connote that Dyer and Derby were secret actors in the first productions of these plays. It is a list of actors’ names after all. Or the implication could be that they are both actors and authors. It remains to be seen what will come of all this, but further study would seem to be in order.
It might seem strange that such a discovery would be revealed in such an unconventional way, but coding work has been rare in Shakespeare authorship studies since at least 1957, when William F. and Elizabeth S. Friedman published The Shakespeare Ciphers Examined, definitively refuting a whole class of cryptographic work propagated by advocates of Francis Bacon.
Authorship scholars today are almost entirely concerned with straightforward academic studies, interpreting new or accepted historical data, like traditional academics. But even here they are at a disadvantage, and their work is published, if at all, mainly by non-mainstream or authorship advocacy presses, newsletters, and journals, or is self-published.
There is a great divide between those who believe in the traditional story of Shakespeare and those who think disbelief is justifiable. The believers have overwhelming advantages in this debate, and that will probably continue, because the British culturally have so much invested in their myth, a condition that has come to extend to the entire English-speaking world.
Believers edit Shakespeare canons, hold the lion’s share of academic positions, and are called upon to address the cultural masses whenever there is anything to discuss about a production of a Shakespeare play or when there is news about the history, art, or artifacts of the period, which they interpret according to the tenets of their faith.
Those who think disbelief is reasonable do not have such a major establishment to support them, or huge mechanisms for popularizing their work. Their most striking work is likely to be ignored or at best appropriated and reinterpreted.
Many believers across the Stratfordian spectrum are like members of a cult. They are enthusiastic about the propaganda they create or are fed. They may even believe in it wholeheartedly. They have their watchwords and clever formulas to reassure each other about the dogmas they profess and the heresies and infidels they detest.
Yet, there is a great deal of work that authorship scholars are sharing and eventually publishing that is not being promoted through the offices of publicity behemoths and that might give the believers pause if they allowed themselves to reflect on it.
In any case, here is a roundup of four recently published books by authorship scholars. If for reasons of space this discussion passes over some faults, it is even more limited in noting achievements. There are scores of good arguments in these books, many too complex for a short journalistic summary. Reading the books discussed here would give some idea of the range and depth of non-mainstream Shakespeare studies’ recent progress.
In Shakespeare Suppressed: The Uncensored Truth About Shakespeare and His Works—A Book of Evidence and Explanation (Faire Editions, 2011), Katherine Chiljan, who had studied the authorship question for 26 years, has brought together many striking arguments against “the Stratford Man,” as she calls him, designating him by the name of the town where he was born, lived most of his life, and died, Stratford-upon-Avon.
That part of England where this Stratford is situated has long been considered a good place to look for information that might lead to discoveries about Shakespeare. Indeed, the idea was pursued centuries ago by investigators who were trying to piece together a respectable Shakespeare biography.
People acquainted with famous authors usually can’t wait to share something of their personal knowledge with future generations. Ben Jonson, for example, wrote about Shakespeare in his collection of observations, Timber, or Discoveries, Made Upon Men and Matter, and in candid remarks to the Scottish poet William Drummond. But these pronouncements, like his laudatory poem in the Shakespeare folio, contain no definitive factual data that personalize the Stratford Man. Jonson’s term “sweet swan of Avon” and the reference by Leonard Digges, another folio panegyrist, to “Stratford moniment” are superficial and impersonal, and there is more than one place called Stratford or Avon.
So investigators looked closer to home, trying to find contemporary writers who knew or should have known the Stratford Man, and read what they wrote about him. The idea was to get evidence left by “people who directly knew the Stratford Man or his family and were literate,” Chiljan writes, people who were in a position at least to have alluded to him as an author.
An obvious candidate for providing such knowledgeable information was the highly regarded physician Dr. John Hall. He married the Stratford Man’s elder daughter, Susanna, on June 5, 1607, so he was around for the last nine years or so of his father-in-law’s life. He wrote a work in Latin that was published in English posthumously in 1657 as Select Observations on English Bodies, reprinted in 1679 and 1683. In it he discusses a wide range of patients’ health issues.
Showing his interest in authors, he reports on Michael Drayton, noting that he was “an excellent poet.” Hall does not hesitate to include other important patients, such as the Earl and the Countess of Northhampton, or his own family members. He describes the cases of his wife and their daughter, Elizabeth, and his own as well. Yet Hall wrote nothing about his father-in-law, who if mentioned as an author would have commanded the interest of his readers.
Then there are the contemporary writers Fulke Greville, Michael Drayton, William Camden, and Thomas Greene. They knew of Shakespeare and should have known of the Stratford Man. They had fine opportunities to connect the two in their writings, but none ever did so.
For breaking this research Chiljan credits Ramon Jiménez, who published his work “Ten Eyewitnesses Who Saw Nothing” in Oxfordian newsletters in 2002 and 2003. She adds three names to his 10, including two actors named on the folio list discussed above who were also writers and could have left some word about their fellow.
Chiljan also thoroughly critiques other pieces of evidence Statfordians often cite. She supports the work of A.D. Wraight and Jay Hoster, persuasively arguing that Robert Greene’s upstart crow is not Shakespeare but the actor-manager Edward Alleyn. Identifying Shakespeare/the Stratford Man with the upstart crow has been gospel to Statfordians, and it becomes spurious under these scholars’ scrutiny.
But it is the Stratford Man’s tomb and the Shakespeare folios that Stratfordians have always relied most heavily upon to make their case, arguing that the truth is obvious, and here Chiljan provides detailed reinterpretations of the data and projects scenarios that portray fraud at work in both instances.
She considers whether the “incomparable pair,” the dedicatees of the first folio, the Herbert brothers, William and Philip, Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery respectively, “initiated the Folio project or influenced its production,” and she argues that “all persons named in the Folio preface were connected to Pembroke, or to his protégé, Ben Jonson, or to Montgomery”; that Pembroke used his authority to “control the public image of the great author”; and that “it was also due to Pembroke that the myth of the Stratford Man as the great author was created and imposed upon the public.”
Chiljan finds the Shakespeare tomb just as tainted as the folio production. “Neither the monument nor the gravestone inscription make[s] any overt tribute to a poet and give[s] no information other than a death date,” she notes. “The English inscription does not honor a poet, playwright, or actor, it only makes an obscure reference to ‘all that he hath writ’ which ‘leaves living art but page to serve his wit.’”
Forceful arguments about the folio and tomb are also found in Bardgate: Shakespeare and the Royalists Who Stole the Bard (Printing Arts Press, 2011) by Peter W. Dickson. A former C.I.A. military and political analyst, Dickson raises questions about the tomb of “the incumbent Bard,” as he calls the Stratford Man, and finds “obvious slip-ups regarding the physical arrangement of the incumbent Bard’s final resting place.”
On the floor of the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford are four gravestones, three bearing names, one inscribed with a curse. It is not known how the long-standing tradition started that the incumbent Bard is buried under the stone with the curse. An inscription on the Shakespeare memorial on the church’s north wall, however, mistakenly indicates that the mortal remains are placed “within this monument,” indicating, Dickson says, that the man “actually was interred within the church wall.” The result is “contradictory messages that there are two resting places.”
He asks, “Why would the affluent and prominent Shakespeare-Hall-Nash family members, who later took steps to ensure their coats of arms would be carved on their own gravestones, permit William to be buried and remain buried anonymously beneath an unidentified tombstone and/or permit a gross mistake in the wall monument to remain uncorrected?” Dickson concludes that “this situation is extraordinarily bizarre and is prima facie evidence for fraud” and that “the floor grave dates from an earlier period and has nothing to do with William Shakespeare.”
One strength of Dickson’s work is that he analyzes not only Shakespeare’s lifetime but also the Stuart era, when the folios were published and the monument erected. In discussing the first folio, he draws on a wealth of historical research, including the work of Stratfordian and authorship scholars alike, to determine who controlled publication of the Shakespeare plays, and in particular the 16 plays that were unpublished prior to the first folio. He argues that the “grand possessors” were the Oxford and Derby families and their Pembroke in-laws.
Regarding the Othello quarto registered in 1621 and published in 1622, Dickson notes the strangeness of the 12-year gap since the last previous registration of a new Shakespeare work, the book of sonnets in 1609. He points out that Thomas Walkley, the publisher of Othello, was a newcomer who had been a freeman in the publishing guild, the Stationer’s Company, for less than four years.
The question arises as to how Walkley got this plum at a moment of political turmoil over what was known as the Spanish Match, when King James was trying to arrange a marriage between his son Prince Charles and the Infanta of Spain in order to collect a large dowery and relieve his debt problems, in the face of staunch opposition from the Protestant-controlled House of Commons. Southampton and Oxford’s son Henry, now the 18th Earl, were in the Tower for joining the resistance.
Dickson observes that late in 1622, the year that Walkley brought out Othello, he registered his next book for publication, the English translation of a Spanish work, which he dedicated to the three children of William Stanley and Oxford’s daughter Elizabeth, adding an acknowledgement of his debt to “their Parents themselves, and both the Families from whence they are derived.” His conclusion that Walkley got Othello through his Oxford-Derby connections is well reasoned.
Bardgate is an unwieldy book, not well edited, but it is informed by a vast amount of historical reading and opinions from all sides, more or less what you might expect in a major in-depth C.I.A. briefing on the authorship question. Dickson probes complex issues, from the succession of the English crown to the vagaries of the publishing world, and their connections to Shakespeare. He backs Oxford as the author of much of the canon, but concludes that Derby also had a hand in it, and entertains ideas that others, especially Ferdinando Stanley, Lord Strange, may have been involved, too.
Though he does not mention it, a good argument for more than one author being Shakespeare is the extreme number of words the canon contains. Chiljan reports: “His vocabulary totaled 31,534 different words, including variations of the same word, according to a study made at Stanford University Department of Statistics; his vocabulary without variation totaled about 17,000 words. John Milton’s vocabulary totaled about 8,000 words, and Christopher Marlowe’s about 7,000 words.”
One stumbling block for many authorship scholars is the idea that their candidate had to be forced to give up claim to the work or that he agreed to remain anonymous because of some deal cut with the authorities. The scenarios they come up with to explain this supposed deal are invariably far fetched. The social strictures against aristocrats exposing themselves as playwrights and actors was enough to explain the Bard’s need for concealment during his lifetime. And it is not hard to imagine that his erotic poetry and outrageous life were sufficient reasons for his relatives to wish to distance themselves from him after his death.
Dickson sheds some light on another vehemently debated issue that has divided the Shakespeare world from the establishment on down. One large faction is convinced that Shakespeare was a secret Roman Catholic, while another is equally convinced that he conformed to the Protestant establishment.
Here is where the Shakespeare atom splits, because there are strong proofs that the incumbent Bard was indeed a Catholic, and equally strong proofs that the principal author of the canon was not. Dickson sees a clear parting of the ways here between the incumbent Bard and the real Bard and describes this dichotomy in depth, citing the many distinguished adherents on both sides and providing historical perspective.
The literary works “suggest the Bard had a nonsectarian outlook on life,” Dickson writes. And a bevy of “famous Shakespeare scholars,” from Harold Bloom to Stanley Wells, are aware of the “fatal contradiction between the man long accepted as the literary genius and the nature of the works.”
At the same time, many of the “veritable tsunami” of Shakespeare biographies in recent years have embraced the “crypto-Catholic” theory as a way to explain why we know so little about the Bard’s life, and what’s more, Dickson names a dozen nonfiction books published in the last 20 years advocating it.
Besides the better-known data about William’s father’s Catholic testament document and the appearances by his father and daughter Susanna on lists of those who did not conform to Anglican requirements for church attendance, Dickson cites the incumbent Bard’s purchase of the Blackfriar’s Gatehouse, “a notorious haven or safe house for secret Catholics in London.” The deal went through in 1613, less than a month after eight Shakespeare plays were performed for a major Protestant event—the wedding of King James’s daughter to the German Elector who would briefly rule as king of Bohemia. Synchronized as they are, these events show a strong divergence of intentions.
Counterarguments on the Catholic question are presented by A.J. (Tony) Pointon, a professor at the University of Portsmouth, England, who has a wide range of areas of expertise, from physics and engineering to literature and chess. In his book The Man Who Was Never Shakespeare: The Theft of William Shakspere’s Identity (Parapress, 2011), Pointon examines the religious milieu of the incumbent Bard’s close relatives.
Pointon is certain that they conformed, that John Shakspere, William’s father, was absent from church only to avoid being arrested as a debtor and was not even fined for it. Nor, he says, was William’s mother, Mary, related to the radical Catholic Ardens. The Catholic “testament” of John he sees as an obvious forgery.
But his arguments sound as if they are recycled from points Stratfordians who oppose the Catholic Shakespeare idea push against Startfordians who favor it. Pointon even muddles the distinction between the Stratford Man and Shakespeare when he cites evidence from the plays, such as “the blatant anti-Papal sentiments found in the play King John” and Shakespeare’s treatment of suicide “as noble and dignified, or at least understandable and forgiveable,” when suicide “was a ‘mortal’ or irredeemable sin for a Catholic.” These arguments are good but they concern Shakespeare, not Shakspere, a distinction that is otherwise the main feature of Pointon’s book, as its title states.
To begin with, he shows that “Shakspere” is the way the Stratford Man and his proud ancestors and kinsmen spelled their family name, while the poet-playwright’s name is never spelled that way.
He provides a table showing how family members’ names were written down in christening, burial, and marriage records between 1558 and 1617, overlapping Shakspere’s lifespan, 1564 - 1616. “Shakspere” is the spelling 18 out of 26 times, with seven other variants. Of the seven, only the very close “Shaxspere” appears twice.
Traditional scholarship often relies on a circular argument that Shakespeare and Shakspere are one and the same, and that can become a vicious circle. “Shakspere” was even the standard spelling for a time in the history of Shakespeare studies (witness Will Shakspere and the Dyer’s Hand). Since “Shakespeare” is now standard, Pointon restricts that spelling to the author and “Shakspere” to the Stratford Man to avoid confusion.
Disarming Stratfordians of their routine charge of snobbery by describing himself as “a Midlands boy whose background was comparable to William Shakspere’s,” Pointon has a clever idea, dedicating his book to recovering Shakspere’s life, liberated from the burden of the Shakespeare authorship.
Pointon reviews the education Shakspere would have received if he had attended grammar school, dismantling the inflated claims of Stratfordian scholars but showing why even such schooling, which mainly involved learning Latin, was unlikely for a child in a family with “no tradition of education or literacy,” a defect that extended even to William’s own children. At home the skills William had to learn were wool dealing, lending, and debt collecting, and the historical record suggests he put these to good use.
When it comes to Shakspere’s stage career, “there is no record of the parts Shakspere played or of anyone seeing him act,” Pointon says. If he played only minor roles he had the means for more lucrative work in making loans to theater people. The road to the kind of financial success Shakspere enjoyed could in no way come from writing and acting, but from grain trading and lending.
Shakspere never claimed to be an author, “even when he was having problems getting his coat of arms because he was only a player, and it would have helped his case if he had identified himself as the poet William Shakespeare,” Pointon notes. If Shakspere were Shakespeare his coat of arms would have appeared in the folio, just as it did on his monument in Holy Trinity Church.
Much work on the authorship issue goes uncredited here. For example, Pointon restates research of Richard Roe on Shakespeare’s intimate knowledge of Italy, Roger Stritmatter on authorship allusions in Henry Peacham’s allegorical emblem books, and Ramon Jiménez on the silence of those who could have shared their personal knowledge of Shakspere as Shakespeare. Pointon does not even cite their works in his bibliography.
On the whole, however, Pointon does a fine job of summing up and succinctly stating the anti-Stratfordian case.
Hank Whittemore’s Twelve Years in the Life of Shakespeare (Forever Press, 2012) focuses on another underappreciated area of Shakespeare studies, the politics of the Shakespeare plays. As an Oxfordian regarding Shakespeare as the pseudonym for a court insider, Whittemore offers chapters on individual years from 1564 to 1604, chapters that are less speculative and make for far more rewarding reading than entire books by Stratfordians devoted to individual years in the incumbent Bard’s life.
For the year 1586, for example, on the international front Whittemore pulls together the death of Philip Sidney in the Netherlands in a war with Spain, the assumption of supreme command there by the Earl of Leicester, and anti-Elizabethan communications by Spanish diplomats in London and Paris and between the Vatican and Spain. On the home front for the same year he associates the enactment of censorship laws by the English government, the trial and execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth’s appropriation of huge annual stipends for her spymaster, Francis Walsingham, and for Oxford for unspecified services, which Whittemore identifies with what Thomas Nashe described in 1592 as “the policy of Plays.”
“Nashe referred specifically to ‘brave Talbot’ in 1 Henry VI by way of pointing to stage works recreating the nation’s royal history,” Whittemore writes, and lists the rest of the Shakespeare histories as well as several apocryphal ones, noting that they “in large and small ways evoked the invincibility of English arms, encouraged patriotism, depicted the fate of disloyalty, promoted unity, advocated support for the reigning house, showed the consequence of rebellion and held up the Pope and Spain to mockery and contempt.”
Drawing clear historical outlines with his narrative anchored in facts, Whittemore relies far less on imagination than some of the best-selling Stratfordian biographers have.
And less than he did for his major work on Shakespeare’s sonnets, The Monument (2005), which has won accolades from many Oxfordians, and harsh criticism from others, over his elaborate work supporting the theory that Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, identified as the fair youth of the sonnets, was the son of Queen Elizabeth and Oxford.
The theoretical basis of these ideas, not to mention the ideas themselves, is highly conjectural, especially in light of the sonnets’ eroticism. It is hard to see how for example Sonnet 20, which projects erotic passion, could be written by a poet to his son. The sonnets were long considered embarrassing, and continued to be so until relatively recently. They were not republished with the plays. As Chiljan notes, “There was absolutely no public commentary about Shakespeare’s sonnets for over one hundred years after the first edition,” while in the second edition, published 31 years after the first, some sonnets “were altered to make it appear that the author was addressing a woman instead of a man.”
But if the case for Oxford as Southampton’s father is far out, the case for Queen Elizabeth as his mother has gained support, thanks once again to John Rollett. In other pamphlets he has disseminated, he makes at least a reasonable case that Southampton either was the queen’s son or was believed to be so by his contemporaries. The evidence is also presented by Chiljan, crediting Rollett for the data.
Southampton, Rollett notes, received a nomination to become a Knight of the Garter when he was 19, “at his age unprecedented outside the circle of the sovereign’s kinsmen,” according to “the renowned Shakespeare authority Sidney Lee, in the Dictionary of National Biography of 1900.” Rollett also cites two poems written at the same time by very different authors. Both referred to Southampton in terms that implied he was a royal prince closely related to the queen.
Disagreement over the so-called Prince Tudor theory is perhaps the most contentious problem dividing authorship scholars, and although no one is advocating it, a middle ground might be emerging here.
About the Author
WILLIAM S. NIEDERKORN, who occasionally writes long-form criticism for the Brooklyn Rail, is researching his book on the history of Shakespeare studies.