R E V I E W

 

Richard F. Whalen, Shakespeare: Who Was He? The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon (Westport, Conn. & London: Praeger, 1994). ISBN 0-275-94850-1.

 

One of the more exotic phenomena associated with Shakespeare is the authorship debate. Though one hears relatively little about it in Europe, it is rather a big issue in the United States. This is hardly surprising, as one of the founding mothers of the so-called Anti-Stratfordian movement, Delia Bacon, was an American. She argued that Shakespeare's works had been authored not by the "man from Stratford," but by (no prizes offered) Francis Bacon. Other luminaries that adhered to one branch or another of Anti-Stratfordianism included Mark Twain, Henry James, and even Dr. Sigmund Freud. Among those put forward as candidates for the authorship, we find Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Ralegh, and Queen Elizabeth I. These are only a handful out of the 60 or so candidates that have been proposed.

If we may believe Richard F. Whalen, the hottest claimant is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. In this recent book, Whalen tries to present the merits of the Oxfordian case by giving an overview of the evidence as it has accumulated ever since the unfortunately named J. Thomas Looney first identified de Vere as "Shakespeare" in the early years of the century. Whalen's book is aimed not at the specialist but at the layman. For those daunted by the prospect of ploughing through mountains of secondary literature, it makes a good and readable introduction to the subject: it is short, and summarizes the most cogent arguments both against Shakespeare's authorship and for that of de Vere. Having read this book, the reader can decide for himself whether he wants to know more.

Like any anti-Stratfordian tract, Whalen's sets out to prove two things: first of all, that Shakespeare (or rather Shakspere, as Oxfordians usually spell the name of the "man from Stratford"), could not have written the plays attributed to him; secondly, that his own candidate, the seventeenth earl of Oxford, did. The main argument is that a simple country bumpkin from Stratford like Shakspere would have had a hard time acquiring a polite accent, classical learning, legal knowledge, experience of court life, insight into the corridors of power, acting skills, and poetic facility in several genres, in the three or four years between the birth of the twins and the presumptive date of his first plays. Edward de Vere, on the other hand, was considerably older, so that the earliest works, in traditional chronology, would fall in his maturity. More significantly, de Vere was, as it were, to the manner born: an aristocrat, ward to William Cecil, one of the Queen's most influential advisers, and nephew to Arthur Golding, the translator of the Metamorphoses. He studied at both Cambridge and Oxford, and then received his legal training at the Inns of Court. He saw military action against the Armada and in the Low Countries, and travelled widely on the Continent, including Shakespeare's favourite setting, Italy.

A similar profile would fit dozens of courtiers, of course, and Whalen is aware that his case for Oxford must be more specific than that. He finds this specific evidence in parallels between Oxford's own life and Shakespeare's plays. For instance, Oxford was himself the victim of a bed- trick reminiscent of those in Measure for Measure and, especially, All's Well: at twenty-one he married Anne Cecil, the daughter of his guardian, after the wedding had been put off for three months. Whalen suggests that this was because of Oxford's doubts about the match; her father, William Cecil, had after all been a commoner until the Queen created him Lord Burghley for his merits. A few years after the marriage, Oxford "ran away to the wars on the Continent but was summoned home by the Queen" (105). The fact that the marriage was still childless suggests to Whalen that it must have been as yet unconsummated. Later, a "retainer of one of Oxford's sons-in-law" reported that Anne had played a bed-trick on her husband, resulting in her first pregnancy (105). Similar parallels between life and works are found in the resemblance of the quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets to the real-life feud between Oxford's men and those of Thomas Knyvet, who was, moreover, the cousin of Oxford's lover Anne Vavasor. Hamlet, in particular, provides Whalen with numerous similarities: Oxford's mother remarried a commoner after his father's death, and she only once referred to her son in writing. To Whalen this (absence of) evidence explains why there are so few "Shakespearean mothers who show warm maternal feelings towards their children" (108). Similarly, Hamlet's relationships with Polonius and Ophelia are not dissimilar to those between Oxford and William and Anne Cecil; Polonius had, indeed, long been regarded as a parody on Lord Burghley, a kind of joke that, in Whalen's view, a commoner like Shakspere would not have got away with but that was tolerated from an aristocratic insider such as Oxford.

Although the parallels between Oxford's life, as presented by Whalen, and Shakespeare's plays are sometimes striking, this approach also reveals one of the two major weaknesses of his argument. For it presupposes that Shakespeare's plays are to a large extent autobiographical. Indeed, Whalen says in so many words that "all the great artists" drew on their own experience in their works, and cites Tolstoy, Proust, Cervantes, Twain, Melville, Kafka, Mann, Moliere, Joyce, Dickens, Hemingway, Faulkner, O'Neill, and Updike as examples. Here the reader may have his reservations. It may be significant that of these many authors only two come before the Romantics; surely the view of art as the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions was not so much in evidence before Wordsworth? Also, only two are predominantly known for their drama, usually the most objective of genres. Furthermore, it is doubtful whether all great art is necessarily drawn from the author's own experience. Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage was received by many veterans of the American Civil War as a faithful account of what the fighting was really like from the perspective of a private soldier. Much to their surprise, it emerged that Crane had never seen action himself: his picture of warfare was built on a combination of hearsay and a vivid imagination.

More fundamentally, Whalen's survey leaves out of account all the known sources of Shakespeare's plays. It is all very well to notice that there were feuds in Elizabethan England, but how revealing is this when we know that Shakespeare, whoever he was, could have found all the essential ingredients of Romeo and Juliet in Matteo Bandello's story as well as in English versions by Brooke and Painter? Similarly, Hamlet is primarily based on an old Norse legend in the Historia Danica, available in Belleforest's French redaction, and possibly also in the form of a lost play, perhaps by Kyd, dubbed the Ur-Hamlet. These sources are well- known; only a thorough comparison of these texts with the plays and the relevant facts in Oxford's life might reveal where Whalen's thesis can survive Occam's razor. Regrettably, Whalen does not even mention such well-established sources.

My second problem with Whalen's argument is that it is wholly based on circumstantial evidence that flies in the face of more obvious direct evidence linking the works to the man from Stratford. The only way to refute this evidence is to argue it away, as either ambiguous or the result of a conspiracy. According to Whalen, Oxford, an aristocrat, could not afford to be associated with writing plays, as that was below his dignity; so a pseudonym was invented that just happened to be rather similar to the name of a second-rate actor from Stratford. Whalen does not see this as a conspiracy, but rather as an open secret. The reader may wonder whether this open secret was more embarrassing, even after Oxford's death, than the intensely private detail of the bed-trick, which did after all get into writing. When Whalen gives examples of recent American presidents with open secrets that were unknown to the bulk of their voters, such as "President Kennedy's womanizing, President Roosevelt's crippling polio, and President Wilson's disabling stroke" (116), it might be objected that these are hardly secrets any more; de Vere's secret, by contrast, has been kept remarkably well.

At the same time as de Vere's authorship was carefully hidden from the public at large, though it must have been widely known in court circles, according to Whalen, the false image of "Shakespeare" was set up by some sort of vague, unexplained, conspiracy. Ben Jonson seems to have been the chief culprit in this obfuscation, without ever lying directly: he was always careful to maintain a certain ambiguity. When he speaks of Shakespeare as "Sweet swan of Avon" this must refer not to the river near Stratford but to an estate on the river Avon that Oxford had inherited and owned for some time; when Leonard Digges, also in the First Folio, mentions Shakespeare's "Stratford moniment," this refers not to the well-known bust in Trinity Church, but to (hypothetical) works that Oxford was finishing during the last years of his life, in his house at Hackney, near the London suburb of Stratford (58). And so on. If we look up the context of Digges' verse, which Whalen only cites in part, its obvious sense becomes clear: Digges is making a contrast between Shakespeare's tomb and the bust, his "moniment," on the one hand, which may fall victim to Time, and his everlasting works on the other, in a clear allusion to Shakespeare's sonnet "Not marble, nor the gilded monuments":

Shake-speare, at length thy pious fellowes giue
The world thy Workes: thy Workes, by which out-liue
Thy Tombe, thy name must; when that stone is rent,
And Time dissolues thy Stratford Moniment,
Here we aliue shall view thee still.

Whalen does not deny this obvious meaning, but he presents the phrase as a deliberate ambiguity. However, in the context the opposition between "moniment" and "thy Workes" only makes sense if we assume that the first does refer to the bust, not to works as well.

More fundamentally, does it make sense for both Jonson and Digges to drop all these hints? Did they really have nothing better to do than to make "nudge-nudge, wink-wink" insiders' jokes in a volume dedicated to the memory of Oxford? Would Digges have spoken of preserving Oxford's name from oblivion if that name is so carefully hidden from the common reader? If Whalen is right, this is, paradoxically, the most half-hearted as well as the most successful attempt at a cover-up the world has ever known.

With similar disdain for plausibility, Whalen dismisses other pieces of unwelcome evidence. The suggestive closing words of sonnet 136, "for my name is Will," are summarily dismissed as pointing to the author's name: such jokes, Whalen arbitrarily judges, would be "puerile" (124). As an alternative explanation he only has to offer the suggestion that this is another instance of the "bawdy word-play" pervading both this and the preceding sonnet. No doubt, but what does the word "Will" play on, then, if not (as the verse says explicitly) on the author's name?

In a review of this kind, one can only scratch the surface of a full-length book. Yet I believe the examples I have given are fairly typical of Whalen's blatant disregard for literary and psychological plausibility, and of his omissions in the field of basic scholarship such as the investigation of sources. Yet, scholarly standards may be irrelevant to books such as Whalen's. Anti-Stratfordianism, it would appear on the evidence of this study, is not so much a matter of scholarship as of faith. As such, like Creationism, it is beyond verification; and perhaps in our teaching practice, we should also handle it like those biology teachers who are to juxtapose Creationism with the Theory of Evolution: as an alternative view that may be worth pursuing for those who are interested, but that falls outside the province of science proper.

 

Paul Franssen

 

NOTES

The fragment from Digges' poem is quoted from the facsimile in The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans et al. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974), 71. For more information on the history of the Anti-Stratfordian movement, see pp. 383-451 of Samuel Schoenbaum's monumental Shakespeare's Lives, New Edition (Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993). For a scholarly investigation of the Oxfordian position, see Dave Kathman and Terry Ross's Authorship page at.http://ShakespeareAuthorship.com

 

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