Shakespeare as Shakespeare

Were the works of Shakespeare actually written by the Earl of Oxford? So argued Charlton Ogburn in the November issue of this magazine. In this rebuttal, two Harvard professors state the other side of the case.

by Gwynne Evans and Harry Levin

Harvard Magazine
February 1975

The pleasure of seeing the bust of Shakespeare on the cover of Harvard Magazine, and of browsing through an issue so richly illustrated by contemporaneous portraits, is mitigated --for Shakespeare scholars-- by the article that accompanies those illustrations: "The Man Who Shakespeare Was Not (and Who He Was)" by Charlton Ogburn (November, page 21). There is a silver lining, however, even to that obfuscating cloud. Frequently the anti-Stratfordians (the small but pertinacious band of zealots who will forever argue that Shakespeare's works were written by someone else) have been allowed to make the somewhat paranoid claim that the universities have denied them a hearing. Now they can no longer claim that their heresy--as they like to put it, in an implicit appeal to more liberal views than theirs turn out to be--has been ignored by the vested interests of an academic establishment. It has indeed been heard, at the cost of no little strain on Harvard's Latin motto, and herewith two of "the orthodox professors" are willing to pause for an answer.

Not that the case for Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, has gone unstated or unrefuted before. It was first presented more than fifty years ago by J. Thomas Looney, as Mr. Ogburn notes, while enjoining us that the name should not be pronounced the way it looks. Mr. Ogburn himself seems to be rehashing a book of his own, written in collaboration with Dorothy Ogburn, Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Name (1962), as is indicated in the biographical note. No mention has been made of This Star of England: "William Shakespeare" Man of the Renaissance by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn (Senior), a volume of more than 1,300 pages, prefaced by and dedicated to (inter alios) the present writer. Academic pieties could scarcely vie with such devout familial commitments. Nor is there the slightest recognition of the various other contenders for--or, as Justice Wilberforce would say, pretenders to--the greatest title in literature: Bacon, Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, Queen Elizabeth, et cetera. The fact that the anti-Stratfordians seldom agree on a rival candidate is itself an argument in favor of the incumbent.

Mr. Ogburn cites the Wilberforce decision (in re Hopkins' Will Trusts, 1964), selectively and rather disingenuously, since he does not indicate that the case revolved around Bacon. In ruling upon a bequest to sponsor a search for Shakespearean manuscripts, the judge was quite explicit in foregoing any determination of authorship. Moreover, though he quoted and summarized a methodological caveat from Hugh Trevor-Roper, he made it clear that the Oxford historian was "keeping his own position firmly in the ranks of the orthodox." This is a significant distinction, which Mr. Ogburn blurs into a distortion by including Professor Trevor-Roper on his list of anti-Shakespearean heretics. That list may contain some distinguished names, such as Sigmund Freud and Charlie Chaplin; but no one professionally versed in historical interpretation has ever challenged the evidence as it stands; hence the inclusion constitutes an unwarranted slur against Trevor-Roper's professional reputation. Additional injustice is done to Henry James by a truncated quotation which misses out on his irony.

Mr. Ogburn is candid enough in describing the "scientific method" that staked his claims for the Earl of Oxford: "What Looney did was to identify the characteristics we should expect in the man who was Shakespeare, then comb the records of the period to see who met the requirements." That is a fair description of an irrational procedure. It begins by demanding acceptance for one man's arbitrary reading of an author uniquely notable for the volume and diversity of the critical interpretations--not to say the controversies--that his works have evoked. It follows the exploded assumption that Shakespeare's plays, most of them based on pre-existing narratives and adapted to the conventions of the theatrical medium, can be treated as chapters of an autobiography. Thereupon it undertakes a Cinderella search of Elizabethan England to find a fit for the slipper. Anyone who knew how to comb the records of the period would know that they are too sporadic to cover the probabilities. This further means not only canceling the records of attribution that we already possess, but also having to explain them away.

The reasoning, of course, is circular. It actually starts by presupposing the idealized image of a pseudonymous playwright and ends by bending a flexible body of work to accommodate the superimposition. The autobiographical approach is supported by personal comments from Samuel Butler, Havelock Ellis, Wallace Stevens, and Edward Albee, all of whom are modern figures writing in a subjective vein. Albee is the only dramatist among them, and subjectivity may be his weakness. Drama is traditionally as objective as a literary form can be, and Shakespeare has been praised by most commentators for his ability to understand all sides of any issue he presents. Whether it be impersonality or a chameleonic empathy or Keats's "negative capability," Shakespeare shows the actor's capacity for entering the minds of his vast and highly differentiated cast of characters. It is worth noting that Mr. Ogburn chooses Byron as the closest counterpart to Oxford, for Byron did more than any other English writer to introduce the romantic cult of personality. Byron too was a lord--and social snobbery is an unspoken shibboleth among the anti-Stratfordians.

Mr. Ogburn's most persistent point is that our playwright had to be a nobleman; only a courtier could delineate such a "picture of royal courts." "The characters he considers worthy of his genius are almost without exception of the nobility." Such overwhelming exceptions as Shylock and Falstaff spring to mind at once, together with a host of lesser figures--tapsters, whores, footsoldiers, sailors, peddlers, rustics--who do not seem unworthy of his genius. It would have been harder for an aristocrat to catch their intonations than for an upwardly-mobile writer of middling origins. Tragedies and history plays were bound to deal with courts and rulers, and nearly all of Shakespeare's fellow playwrights likewise came from the middle class. "The world of the nobility" was "foreclosed to him," Mr. Ogburn maintains. Well, Shakespeare's troupe was under the patronage of Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain and later King James himself. Court performance is regularly recorded, as well as participation in one other royal occasion. Like many Elizabethans, Shakespeare's father, alderman and bailiff (or mayor) of Stratford for a while, joined the gentry with the award of a coat of arms.

"Literature affords no parallel for what we are asked to believe of Shaksper [sic]," Mr. Ogburn declares: that a country-born commoner could write plays that delighted monarchs. Mr. Ogburn should be informed that Terence, an African slave, charmed the high Roman circle of the Scipios with the refinements of his style and wit. Such weeping generalizations cast more light on the limits of the generalizer's knowledge than on the outer dimensions of the subject at hand. Again: "In the whole history of literature no writer ever wrote more consistently from the point of view of a nobleman than Shakespeare." Even if his ideological leanings were such as are attributed to him here, and we doubt it, could he stand comparison in this respect with --to mention just one name-- Castiglione? It is easy to see why Mr. Ogburn has been bowled over by Shakespeare's "enormous erudition." Here we encounter a genuine paradox, as expressed in John Ward's testimony, in Ben Jonson's, in the poem quoted and misquoted from Davies of Hereford, in Milton's tribute, for that matter in The Winter's Tale and The Tempest: the antithesis of art and nature.

"The evidence is against Will Shaksper's ever having attended school." There is no direct evidence one way or another, the school records not having survived from those years. But the Stratford Grammar School was a good one, and it was free for inhabitants of the town. What was he doing from seven to thirteen, at a time when his father was a leading citizen, if not going to school? There is a fairly well authenticated tradition that he was briefly employed as a schoolmaster. He had "small Latin and less Greek" by Ben Jonson's standards, not by Mr. Ogburn's. In any case, most of his source material was available in translation. Careful assessments of the curriculum and the extent of his learning have been worked out by T.W. Baldwin and V.K. Whitaker. Whoever he was, he had matchless powers of observation and retention of what he had heard and read. His text reveals no "polymath on the order of Leonardo da Vinci," but it does bespeak the "myriad-mindedness" (Coleridge's phrase) of a Renaissance man. Consequently the more scholarly poets who appraised him early, like Jonson and Milton, established the pattern of a lusus naturae --a genius who owed more to nature than to art.

With that special animosity which the anti-Stratfordians commonly vent upon their bete noire, Mr. Ogburn speaks of him as "a near illiterate." He goes on to reveal his own ignorance of the secretary hand by speaking of "incomplete" signatures, not recognizing abbreviated forms which are standard in that hand. Far from six signatures being "all we know that he wrote," an intensive study of Shakespeare's handwriting would identify his holograph in a scene from the Sir Thomas More manuscript, which has been accepted into the canon of two recent editions. Could it be imagined that the Earl of Oxford would have been called in, as Shakespeare apparently was, to doctor so ill-starred a dramatic venture? Mr. Ogburn seems baffled by the earliest allusion to him in Robert Greene's Groatsworth of Wit, which is clearly a protest against a mere actor who has presumed to become a dramatist. The important reference from the Parnassus Plays (1598-1602), where Shakespeare is specifically saluted in both roles (and as a poet, too) is conveniently ignored. We are told instead: "Shakespeare's contemporaries made it quite plain that they did not consider the Stratford man the author." Plain? Where?

Such cavalier misstatements can only be supported by far-from-plain misreadings out of context, and even these ambiguous contortions yield merely the darkest of hints. Typical is the paraphrase of a line from "the author of Wit's Recreation." The book is entitled Wit's Recreations; being an anthology, it has no author; and Mr. Ogburn confounds the biographical with the theatrical meaning of the key words, "histories" and "chronicle." It so happens that, for an Elizabethan-Jacobean who was neither a peer nor a prelate, we have a good deal of documentation about the man Shakespeare, wholly apart from his writings. Some of it is purely documentary; much of this has to do with business transactions; and, since this is the only kind that Mr. Ogburn allows, he thereby enables himself to conclude that the man was wholly preoccupied with money. Yet there remains a substantial and more interesting series of literary allusions and testimonials, which Mr. Ogburn snatches away from Shakespeare and bestows upon Oxford, thereby making good the bare-faced assertion: "No word of commendation of him has come down to us."

This Solomonic disjunction is sustained by a bold feat of verbal jugglery. Since so many words of commendation plainly allude to Shakespeare, Mr. Ogburn has appropriated the name itself, in its commonest spelling, as a pseudonym for Oxford. Consistently he refers to the stand-in from whom it has been taken - the Stratford bumpkin, the mercenary shareholder - as Shaksper. Now anyone familiar with the irregularities of Elizabethan orthography and punctuation would hesitate to quibble over the spelling of proper names or to draw far-reaching implications from occasionally misplaced hyphens. But, since Mr. Ogburn makes so much of such details, he should scrutinize them with greater care. The villain of his piece is differentiated from its hero under the baptismal designation of "Gulielmus Shaksper (or Shakspere)." The actual entry in the parish register reads "Shakspere," which is the spelling that appears there almost invariably, while "Shaksper" is very uncommon and never used with regard to Shakespeare himself. The spelling in the marriage license is "Shaxpere" - not, as Mr. Ogburn would have it, "Shaxper." (The final e makes a phonetic difference; the substitution of x for ks does not.) The form "Shakespeare" does appear in the christening record for the poet's daughter Susanna.

Mr. Ogburn's handling of Ben Jonson, who is a key witness in this inquiry, illustrates the preposterousness of his tactics. Alleging that Jonson expressed contempt for "Shaksper," he shores up that dubious allegation with a satirical line about a parvenu Jonsonian character; Jonson's editors do not accept the conjecture that the satire was aimed at Shakespeare. On the other hand, Jonson's brief remarks in his conversation with Drummond of Hawthornden are not noticed at all, while the judicious appraisal in the notebooks is handed over to Oxford (masquerading as "Shakespeare"), as is the generous encomium that crowns the First Folio with blessings of the Poet Laureate. Similarly, Mr. Ogburn draws conflicting testimonies from both the Reverend John Ward and the funeral monument in Trinity church. Accepting the epitaph as "Shaksper's" (the non-dramatist's), he naturally finds the Vergilian parallel ("arte Maronem") "an obscure reference," and he goes out of his way to omit the mentioning of "art" and "wit" in the English inscription. Yet by the end he is citing the allusion to Vergil's art as if the epitaph applied to Oxford.

Mr. Ogburn is unwilling to concede a decent role to his "Shaksper" even on the stage. He has searched for him vainly in records of Philip Henslowe and the memoirs of Edward Alleyn - the manager and the leading actor of the rival company to the troupe at the Globe. And he sets no store by the actors' lists in the First Folio and in Jonson's, wherein Shakespeare is prominently named. As for the Quartos, it is stated that the first six of them "- all pirated - appears with no author named." Unsupported statements that are at once so flat and so fuzzy are a little difficult to pin down. Due recourse to the biblical facts, however, informs us that the first six would include a good text of Titus Andronicus and another of Love's Labor' Lost with Shakespeare's name on the title page. Again, "in 1958, Shaksper was bundled back in Stratford" to spare Oxford further embarrassment, and to remain there "in affluent but total obscurity until his death." As a matter of fact, he is mentioned among the cast of Jonson's Sejanus in 1603, and there is legal evidence for his presence during his later years.

It is the essence of anti-Stratfordians to negate any links between "the Stratford man" and the other man with the same name. Yet Caroline Spurgeon's study of Shakespeare's imagery has shown how such poetic sensibilities could have been nourished by the Warwickshire countryside, matching the very eddies under Clopton Bridge with those that swirl in The Rape of Lucrece; and there are local traditions, such as the deer-stealing incident, which may well have been reflected in the plays. Mr. Ogburn's arguments hinge upon his belief that the Stratford "butcher's boy" was not generally linked with the actor-playwright until "the publication in 1680 of a page or so written by John Aubrey." And Aubrey was "a roving maggotty-pated man," according to his employer (the Oxonian biographer, Antony a Wood), who "thought little, believed much and confused everything." We cannot but express a certain admiration when a writer in Mr. Ogburn's position is courageous enough to echo such phrases as these. At all events Wood, who relied on Aubrey for biographical field work, has weathered less well than his research assistant. The notes on Shakespeare have the relative authority of coming from the son of a fellow actor.

But they were not published in 1680; they remained in manuscript until 1761. In any case, 1680 would not have been a "turning-point"; Shakespeare the dramatic poet had been associated with Stratford in the First Folio by Leonard Digges (1623), as well as by Lieutenant Hammond in a travel survey (1634), by Thomas Fuller in The Worthies of England (1661-3). Mr. Ogburn cites Ward on the question of Shakespeare's income, which he thereupon transfers to Oxford. But how could Ward, who has just previously borne witness to Shakespeare's artlessness, have become acquainted with the minutiae of Oxford's finances? Mr. Ogburn's arithmetical theory as to how Oxford was subsidized, play by play under the Privy Seal, hardly squares with his basic reason for Oxford's pseudonymity: the political danger in acknowledging the authorship of so highly placed personage. The notion that it would have been easier for a courtier than a commoner to have penned the admittedly dangerous Deposition Scene in Richard II falls of its own weight. The object lessons of Leicester and particularly of Essex must have served as warnings that the seditious courtier would be caught in the more exposed situation.

It is very wise of Mr. Ogburn not to quote from Oxford's extant poetry. The little that we have gives no indication of either an especially large vocabulary or of any was with language above the conventional range of a court wit. His sonnet in Shakespearean form is markedly inferior to almost any of Shakespeare's. His association with the theater has been misleadingly set forth. He was patron of the child actors at the First Blackfriars between 1583 and 1584; Shakespeare and his partners acquired and rebuilt that house in 1597. Francis Meres, in his critical survey, did not call Oxford "the best author of comedy in his time." Under the heading of "the best comedy amongst us," he listed seventeen names. Oxford, whose plays are now lost, led all the rest for obvious reasons of protocol, followed by two forgotten academics. The appearance of Shakespeare's name on the same list is damaging to Mr. Ogburn's thesis: that the one name was used to mask the other. Even more damaging is the date of Oxford's death, 1604. Given the general consensus on dating, this would not account for a dozen of Shakespeare's best plays, and would leave out his late collaboration with John Fletcher.

It is said that one a Harvard alumnus (who was, like many anti-Stratfordians, an unfulfilled man of letters) offered his alma mater a munificent gift on the condition that Shakespeare be taught as Bacon. To the glory of Veritas, President Lowell, advised by Professor Kittredge, turned it down. Let us suppose that somehow the Oxford heresy managed to establish itself as a pedagogical dogma. What illumination would it shed upon our students' understanding of Shakespearean drama? Mr. Ogburn gives us a glimpse when he interprets Hamlet as a "self-portrait" of Oxford. It is true that the Earl had a stepfather, Leicester; but the analogy can be carried further only by straining and twisting; and Mr. Ogburn cannot make up his mind whether Oxford's mother or Queen Elizabeth should be cast a Gertrude. Nothing is gained and everything is diminished by such far-fetched charades. Hamlet, after all, is not a topical skit. It is the refined end-product of a long sequence of sources, and its powerful resonances of conflict and passion have a mythical origin. Whoever wrote the play did not envisage it as a self-serving letter in code to a puzzled posterity.

We hope that we have not too much wearied the reader with the particularities of the field. We have addressed ourselves to them because so much has been made out of them on the presumption that they would not be subjected to technical scrutiny. We could go on with them indefinitely, but - never fear - we shall not. The tangled tissue of misinformation, garbled quotations, strained explications, non sequiturs, wild surmise, fantasy, and fallacy has been sufficiently exemplified. Had the truth been anything like the story that Mr. Ogburn has sketched, the greatest problem would be to unravel the conspiracy of silence that thus far kept it from coming out. It would have to be taken for granted that Jonson and other literary men, along with Shakespeare's fellow actors and editors, and all who were aware of the glamorous mystery, had to be bribed or browbeaten into covering it up. This would be the hardest thing of all to prove, and the burden of proof must continue to lie with the anti-Stratfordians, while the great weight of the evidence reposes with the Stratfordians. We are confident, in submitting the case to our readers, that they will recognize on which side there has been a suppressio veritas.

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