Teaching the next generation Oxford was Shakespeare

by Roger Stritmatter

This article was first published in the Winter 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.


Robert Barrett Jr.’s essay, “Shakespeare Meets Robert Frost” seems destined to remain an underground classic. The essay recounts Barrett’s experience teaching the de Vere story to eager students at Central Kitsap Junior High in Silverdale, Washington. “Something there is,” writes Barrett–quoting Frost–in that essay, “that doesn’t love a wall. When I finished reading The Mysterious William Shakespeare, by Charlton Ogburn Jr., something there was within me that didn’t love the wall that hid the true Shakespeare.”

After reading Ogburn in 1990, Barrett brought his iconoclasm into the classroom and soon found that his students were as inspired by the Shakespeare inquiry as he had been when first reading Ogburn.

“As a layman, newly introduced to a difficult subject, I responded to my reading in a way that was undoubtedly visceral–just in part, though, a small part. The larger part–I submit–was intellectual. I looked for reason, plausibility, evidence, and conviction in Ogburn’s words, and I found those qualities much more often present in the book than absent.”

In Spring 1997, after several years of testing the water and guiding students through their questions about authorship, Barrett floated a proposal to teach an after-hours Shakespeare course. A huge overflow of students rushed to sign up for Barrett’s course. On only twenty-four hour notice, twenty-five of one-hundred and twenty-five eligible Central Kitsap ninth-graders signed up for fifteen slots of a course devoted to two hours of after-school study of the Bard twice a week. “What is the world coming to?” wondered Barrett in a letter to parents explaining his own–and by extension his students’–enthusiasm for the after-school Shakespeare project. “How do we explain the excitement of the kids?”

Easy. Barrett’s seminar was not just another dreary exercise in memorizing the words of an incomprehensible genius. It was billed as a course in historical literary detection. Like Al Pacino “looking for Richard” in the film of the same name, Barrett’s students were searching for the truth about Shakespeare. The text came alive with potential clues to the author’s identity — they read with a motive for comprehension.

“The authorship question is highly controversial,” admitted Barrett in his letter to parents of the enthused students, “but it has persisted for two hundred years. We’re not going to solve it in our seminar, but it provides a wonderful entrance into the Elizabethan world and an incentive to study the text and, perhaps, identify a personality behind the text.

“As I type this letter, I hear in the background a PBS telecast of Rebecca, a story by Daphne Du Maurier, who purportedly believed that Shakespeare’s works were written by Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Your child will be hearing that name often in the seminar, and there have been indications during the past ten years or so that it could soon become a household name.”

Since reading Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, Barrett has not made any secret that he agrees with Supreme Court Justices Blackmun and Stevens that the Oxfordians have got the best argument. His enthusiasm for the authorship question, in his regular English classes and now in the after-school Venture Program, has inspired several successive cohorts of Central Kitsap Junior High students to investigate the authorship question and carry forward their enthusiasm into the local high schools in Central Kitsap County, Washington.

In 1997, Barrett took his Shakespeare experience to the Shakespeare Oxford Society Conference (in Seattle, Washington), at which he joined Cleveland State University Professor David Richardson (a renowned expert on the Elizabethan poet Edmund Spenser) to co-chair a seminar on teaching the authorship question in the classroom.

Barrett’s letter to his Washington State Secondary school teaching colleagues, inviting them to attend the Seattle Conference, spells out the potential for authorship studies in the classroom more eloquently than any other document we have read:

Do you, as an educator, yearn to fire your students with the same love for Shakespeare that you have, to thrill to his name the same way you do? When I began to discuss the Shakespeare authorship question with my students, I found I was tapping [into] something almost reflexive in its immediacy. Their natural iconoclasm and vague curiosity about the world around them quickly grew to focused interest in how it was possible that the Stratford man was credited with great works. I was pleased to see students’ eagerness to engage figurative language as they looked for clues to confirm or reject the ideas that were arising in our discussions. Critical thinking skills sharpened. Frequently, we stumbled into teachable moments involving such issues as academic integrity, ad hominem arguments, skepticism, professional tolerance, research methodology, and the concept of the university. And they learned to care strongly about the person who was Shakespeare and, by extension, the wondrous texts themselves. There was connection!

Despite this emphasis on treating the authorship question as a means to the higher goal of teaching the values of tolerance, free inquiry, and informed debate, Barrett’s success soon boomeranged when one of his students got into a contretemps with a local high school teacher offended by inquiring minds. Soon Kitsap County administrators were subjected to complaints about Barrett’s subversive pedagogy. Rumors originating in local high school English departments charged that Barrett’s students were notorious “trouble makers.” They refused to silently endorse the official myth of Shakespeare and sometimes openly expressed their own frustration at what they perceived as stonewalling responses on the part of other teachers. One such teacher, apparently not a student of history, told students that “there is no such person as Edward de Vere.”

One week of sometimes heated email exchanges took place between Barrett and one local high school teacher. Barrett, frazzled and frustrated, was being tarred with the old ad hominem of being a teacher whose students subverted the dominant paradigm by asking difficult questions for which other teachers did not have canned answers.

Although the email exchanges ended amicably, the rumors were less easily silenced, and Barrett felt the damage was done. To clear the air, he wrote to the English Department chairs of Central Kitsap High:

During the past week, I engaged in a letter exchange [via] e-mail with a member of your faculty. It partially touched on the Shakespeare authorship question. You possibly are aware of the argument, which has ended amicably and is no longer an issue. However, in the exchange I was informed of “horror stories” told by your teachers involving my former students who have come to the high school with a “looking for a fight’ attitude.” This revelation is the converse of what I’ve been told by other former students who have come back to me complaining that they have been curtly cut off when they tried to discuss the authorship issue in their classes. Apparently, I have come in for castigation, one of your faculty members informing me that another faculty member said I should be fired. I don’t know how accurate any of this is, since it is mostly hearsay. Obviously, though, something is going on, and I am in the middle of it. I’m tempted to believe that since not a single member of your faculty has been disturbed enough to contact me to find out exactly what it is I’m saying to my ninth graders, there is no real problem. My intuition, however, tells me that that is naive.

Please allow me to make this point crystal clear: I don’t care if someone, student or teacher, is an Oxfordian or a Stratfordian or an Agnostic or a Baconian or an Anything Else in the authorship question. I just want to continue firing up the imagination of kids with the fun and beauty and worth of Shakespeare, and I have chosen Shakespeare authorship as my approach to that goal, which is still my perogative–and which has been remarkably successful. Surely your faculty can respect that and find a way to come to terms with it. For example, why not become familiar with the topic and argue the orthodox view. What better debate topic can there be?”

As we go to press in winter 1999, Barrett informs the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter that the situation has stabilized and that de Vere’s flag flies high in the region. His new web site (www.hurricane.net/~rbarrett/index.html) features pedagogical materials on authorship and discusses his enthusiasm for the potential for authorship courses at the junior high school level. His students, having learned a hard lesson about the dangers of thinking for yourself in high school, continue to pursue their interest in the authorship question after leaving Barrett’s popular classes.

Some of Barrett’s local colleagues have even–slowly–started to come around to the validity of the authorship question and incorporate the issue into their Shakespeare pedagogy.

One of Barrett’s former students, Samantha Harvell, summarized the lessons learned by students who had been shocked at the amount of heat generated by their investigation of the authorship question:

I guess if you have spent your entire life believing something, and possibly based your career on it, then I can see how you would resist the fact that it may be a lie. You’d be surprised, Bob, how many minds you have changed regarding the subject. Pretty much everyone who has had your class believes that de Vere was the true talent behind the writings.

An Interview with Robert Barrett

by Roger Stritmatter

This interview was published along with the article “Teaching the next generation Oxford was Shakespeare” in the Winter 1999 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.

separatorWhat did you want to accomplish when you introduced the Oxfordian viewpoint to your kids?

It’s easier to say what I didn’t want to accomplish: I didn’t want to convince my ninth-grade students that de Vere was Shakespeare. From a teacher’s standpoint, the nature of the authorship debate itself was more interesting than my own, personal conviction of who the true Shakespeare was. Most kids read Shakespeare for the first time in the ninth grade. It’s part of their transition from young-adult literature to adult literature. For some of them, it’s a daunting prospect, so teachers must prepare students for the transition, guide them through it, and instill in them a love–or at least a healthy acceptance–of the new literature. In pedagogic terms, teachers try to address the affective domain of their students. In the ninth grade, that can be even more important than addressing the cognitive domain. The goal, after all, is to develop lifelong, independent learners who can gather facts and experiences and think about them when no teacher is around to help–and are eager to do it .

The other side of the coin, of course, is the cognitive domain. It’s not really a choice for a teacher; that is, affective or cognitive. I want my kids to become enthusiastic, confident readers of challenging literature such as Shakespeare, but I also want them to think about it, and to think about it well. The buzz term in the jargon of educators is “critical thinking,” and what better topic than the authorship question for introducing and exercising critical thinking skills!

For example, there’s the cognitive dissonance of knowing securely and even unquestioningly to the core of one’s young, fifteen-year-old being that Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and then someone comes along and suggests there’s a problem with the question. There’s the accretion of facts that need to be weighed and assembled into a meaningful whole. There’s the appositive learning in history, culture and biography. There’s the interpretation of texts, academic integrity, research methods, tolerance, fairness. There’s the wonder of it all, the reflection on possibilities. The topic is so rich with learning opportunities! And it’s fueled by teacher enthusiasm and the natural, almost proprietary predispositions of teenagers: their iconoclasm and love of mystery.

So, when I stood in front of the class a few years ago, still excited with having read Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare–twice, in the span of a couple of weeks–I was aware that I was doing what I had done many times before. I was sharing something with my kids, and the unfeigned and authentic enthusiasm of my interest in this new topic, a topic of some intellectual scope, which had the potential of being interesting to them, too. I really didn’t give much thought to it. I certainly didn’t have a lesson plan or something I consciously “wanted to accomplish.” I just wanted to talk to them spontaneously.

What was the response?

I underestimated the topic the response was explosive. They asked question after question, many of them of the “Yeah, but what about?” ilk. They weren’t just asking me about what I believed. They wanted to know about the topic itself, to satisfy their own aroused curiosity. They pushed me for clarification and more details. They asked me to repeat certain things I’d already said minutes before. They wanted to know why no one opened Shaksper’s tomb to check for clues, why people get angry about the topic, why de Vere couldn’t sign his name on the plays. Did Shaksper know de Vere? Where are the handwritten plays de Vere wrote? When the tempo of questions and answers slowed down, I’d throw out another tidbit, such as the Gad’s Hill parallel, and the race was on again. I’d never seen anything like it.

What obstacles did you run into?

The part about my being “right” was disconcerting. I didn’t want to be right. I wanted to make them curious, to question, to discuss, to argue, to disagree, to challenge, to think, to look forward to reading Romeo & Juliet, but I didn’t want to be right. I wasn’t even entirely sure myself, and the very idea of presenting myself as having the answer that brilliant scholars for two hundred years had been searching for was arrogant and presumptuous. I want my kids to think critically, but some of them were agreeing uncritically. Being right was ending a thinking process I wanted to begin. It was tossing them just one more “fact” they would receive in school that day to ignore, store, and forget.

I haven’t yet gotten a grip on how to handle that dilemma. Enthusiasm is a two- edged sword in this case. It helps instill an interest in Shakespeare and the reading of Romeo and Juliet, but it also sells the side of the authorship debate I strongly support and find difficult to hide. I saw during the past year that the more neutral I was in my presentation of authorship, the less interested the kids were and the less effectively I was addressing their affective domain where it touched on the reading of Shakespeare. It was a trade-off. I reduced the kids’ uncritical acceptance of my position on de Vere, but instead of more critical thinking, I seemed to gain less interest in the whole topic–and in the reading of Romeo and Juliet!

Why do you suppose some of your secondary school colleagues in Silverdale have reacted to the authorship question not, as you have, as an educational opportunity, but instead recoiled in fear, to the extent of questioning your professional integrity for raising the subject in your classroom?

Simple. The notion that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare is preposterous, ludicrous! It defies simple logic and a four-hundred-year-old historical record. Shakespeare’s biography takes at least 300 pages of fully-documented text to do it justice. It’s a matter of record that Shakespeare was born at Stratford-on-Avon, and to this day one can find his school and monument there. Scholars at every college and university in the world study his life and work. If proof were to be found that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, it would be front-page news, but [since] there’s never been any front-page news, [therefore] there’s never been any proof. What can be found are countless conspiracists and lunatics who attack whatever is good and true and divert decent people from their proper pursuits to counter them. The very idea that an educator would poison young, defenseless minds and shift the burden to others to reconstitute them, namely teachers who are already over-worked teaching facts, not delusions, stains the profession and causes guilt by association. It’s shameful; it’s irresponsible. And it’s infuriating!

…to many Stratfordians, particularly at the public school level, any anti-Stratfordian thesis is so patently absurd, it’s reflexively rejected with nary a second of reflection. There’s no real possibility to activate an initial curiosity, because the reflex instantaneously blocks it. The comfort and security of collegial support, the acute discomfort of belonging to a diminished profession, the resentment of an increased workload–such things just serve to justify the unthinking, hostile Stratfordian response. Again, I emphasize that what I am interpreting here is the psychology at the public school level, where teachers are normally much more occupied in the classroom than in the research library, much more involved in presenting what they already know than what they are discovering.

What can other Oxfordians, readers of this newsletter who may not be involved in secondary education, do to support efforts such as your own to introduce an informed discussion of authorship into the schools?

The target of “secondary schools” is much too broad for what we might want to consider doing through the good offices of Shakespeare Oxford Society. In junior high school, it’s normally quite all we can do just to introduce the controversy!

In the broadest terms, that means– first–creating a little cognitive dissonance with the suggestions that Shaksper might not be Shakespeare, but de Vere most likely is. The specific objectives here are to spark interest and intellectual involvement in the authorship controversy, to raise doubt about the traditional attribution of the works to the Stratford man, and to introduce Edward de Vere.

Once in high school, students can probe much more independently and use much more effective intellectual tools. My point here is that there is a distinct and considerable difference between the abilities of junior high school and high school students, so the Shakespeare Oxford Society does not have one, but two targets, two age levels to support with materials, services, or whatever its involvement might become.

My teaching of authorship is largely unplanned, much like an extemporaneous speech. I have an idea of what I want to cover, so from the very beginning of the school year, I look for ‘teachable moments.’ With wall posters of Castle Hedingham, and the Droeshout engraving, and a plaque reading ‘De Vere Lives!’ over the front chalk board, I carefully lead my kids over time to ask me about authorship, and in answering their questions, I allow class discussions to develop. In a way, they gradually and unsuspectingly take ownership of the topic. By the time we arrive at the fourth-quarter Shakespeare block, we’re ready to draw in the loose ties of all our talks and address the topic of authorship a little more coherently, and we begin looking for de Vere clues in our reading of Romeo and Juliet.

A possible Shakespeare Oxford Society role in my teaching? Again, I’m not sure, but I wonder what I could do with the following:

1) A video documentary biography of Edward de Vere, along the lines of the one for William Shakespeare that’s widely available from cable television’s A&E Biography series. Like it or not, video is an important teaching tool for this generation of kids.

2) A separate web site for research by students (and curious faculty). It would contain such pages as topics-cum-recommended research sources; links to important internet authorship sources, such as Mark Alexander’s wonderful The Shakespeare Authorship SOURCEBOOK; practical advice for writing reports; current authorship news; essay contests with publication of winning entries; school spotlights, etc.

3) A separate web site for teachers. This one would contain curriculum blocks, lesson plans, teaching strategies, issues involving faculty and administration relations, professional development announcements (annual conventions), lending library, roster of available speakers, etc.

4) Oxfordian texts and reading guides for the plays most often read at the secondary schools (for example, Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, The Merchant of Venice and Midsummer Night’s Dream).

Who would create these things? Who would pay for them? Who would administer them? If not the Shakespeare Oxford Society, no one–but efforts such as these could possibly build the foundation for future Oxfordian growth. Costly conventions and current publications and planned libraries largely cater to present members. There needs to be a sea change from the insular applications of scarce present resources, which seem to do little more than maintain status quo, to applications that work through public schools into the institutions of higher learning.

Wouldn’t the SOS recover some of the costs in increased membership? Wouldn’t Stratfordian bastions at the University eventually be forced to respond to the increasing pressure of the Oxfordian influx? I think perhaps so.

How is your current situation at Central Kitsap Junior High?

The situation today seems better than it was two years ago, although I can’t say why, exactly. Sometimes–rarely–inter-necine battles simply exhaust themselves when cooler heads prevail, and perhaps that explains, in part, what’s happened here.

I’ve tried to tone down my authorship rhetoric in the classroom, although there’s a perverse streak in me that surfaces sporadically, such as when I casually substitute the name Edward de Vere for Shakespeare when reading out loud, talking to the class, or writing notes in the margins of student compositions! I’ve also cautioned the kids and instructed them how to handle authorship situations with their “gaining” teachers at the high school.

I still hear from my former students that discussion of authorship is not welcome in many of the English classrooms, but apparently that is very gradually changing. At two of the three high schools, there is at least one teacher who treats students who raise the subject with restraint and circumspection bordering on passive interest. One of them, in fact, was an advisor to one of my past students who was selected as a Distinguished Graduate, based partially on her research paper that argued the Oxfordian case. An indicator of at least a tacit truce on the part of the more militant Stratfordians is their continuing silence and avoidance of contact with me. There can be little doubt, I think, that there is a softening of Stratfordian resistance, and it came not directly and exclusively from any bestselling books (Ogburn, Whalen, Sobran) or research finding, but from the constant pressure Oxfordians have exerted over the past nearly-50 years.

A whole series of events, from the American Bar Association’s series of journal articles in the 1950s, to the SOS Home Page and the Supreme Court’s involvement in the current debates, have helped to bring about this change. Each of these things was scorned at the time–and continues to be scorned– but the total relentless pressure and variegated nature of these iconoclastic attacks on the Stratfordian religion have brought a shift from Stratfordian hostility and unthinking lemming mentality to, if not acceptance of the Oxford theory, then an uneasy respectability for the theory, or at the very least a numb, passive acceptance of the existence of an honest controversy. Time is on our side.

Reading by the Lamp of Biography:

How Knowledge of the artist illuminates our understanding of the art

by Andrew Werth

This article was first published in the Fall 1999 issue of The Oxfordian. It is also available to Net readers at that site.

separatorMost will agree that whenever we seek valuable information, information that will mean something to us, we consider the origin before we form an opinion. Why do credible newspapers bother to cite the sources they quote? Because the person who chooses to live a productive, a thoughtful, a satisfying life chooses always to go ad fontes: to the source. And if considering the source enriches and enlightens our understanding and appreciation for everyday life, does it not afford the same rewards to the student of literature?

There are some who say no. These are mostly exponents of deconstructionist and phenomenological criticism or a host of other schools which assert that authors have no business associating themselves with the text, and readers certainly have no business trying to find them there. Yet many of these same critics and professors study and teach from texts which overflow with biography. If you open an anthology of British literature published by Oxford or Norton, and turn to John Donne, what is the first thing you’ll see? Three or four pages describing where Donne was born, where he was educated, what literature influenced his early years, a discourse detailing how his poetry changed after he joined the church, and so on. In other words, a link will be established between the writer and what he has written. In fact, I could find only one major writer in my British literature anthology whose work the editors did not try to elucidate by using biography, because in this single case there was simply no connection to be made. For many puzzled and nervous academics, it is convenient when confronted with questions about this writer to gruffly assert, “it doesn’t matter!”

There is a discrepancy, then, between those academics who increasingly insist that the author “doesn’t matter,” and those textbooks that are required of university students which devote a great deal of space to discussing the author. There must be a reason for those three or four pages of biography that precede Donne’s poems!

When asked to assemble a popular collection of his poetry, Herman Hesse offered this as one of the criteria for selecting among his poems: “it should have a special position among my own works because it [gives] an expression of my own essential being.” Indeed, how could a poet, a novelist, a dramatist produce anything that in some way was not, as Hesse wonderfully put it, an expression of [his or her] own essential being? Every creative author approaches the task of writing with an inspiration, an idea, a purpose. There are some who diminish or deny the importance and even the presence of this purpose. Yet to do so is to contradict the physics of creation itself: a person must possess materials before he or she can create. These materials include imagination, skill, discrimination, desire, experience. All these components the author binds in the final creation to get something across to the reader; and with each added ingredient the composition becomes powerfully personal. Before we approach a work, we must recognize this fact: in every creation, the author wishes to communicate something to the audience. By choosing to seek the author, we choose to experience the work in its totality. In many cases, a creation is but half understood if the reader is ignorant of the hand that moved the pen.

We know then that beneath any artist’s final product lies a vision. In the hands of a skilled craftsman, or one who is frustratingly abstruse, this vision may be cloudy to the common reader, or a special facet of it may lie undiscovered. It is this vision that the critic attempts to penetrate; not to rationally dissect it, but to see the work of the author in the fullest possible light. Knowledge of biography is a powerful tool in the hands of a skilled critic. Despite theories put forth by some critical schools, most informed readers agree that meaningful critical attempts are those which have as a foundation familiarity with both author and zeitgeist. Maurice Beebe, formerly of Purdue University and author of Literary Symbolism, warns, “failure to consider the genesis of a work has led to some spectacular blunders in interpretation.” While capable critics avoid the so-called genetic fallacy of using authorial biography as the sole basis for interpreting a work, they certainly know its value.

Criticism’s job, asserted Matthew Arnold in his historic essay “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” is to “make the best ideas prevail. Presently,” he said, “these new ideas reach society… and there is a stir and a growth everywhere.” One of criticism’s chief goals is to invite and excite readers by making the work as accessible as possible, and any criticism which proceeds without biographical information can only obscure the work and alienate the reader. In his collection of essays Using Biography, critic William Empson artfully demonstrates that biographical material can help us “appreciate a writer’s methods and intentions,” allowing us to effectively explore relationships not explicit in the work itself. Good criticism serves an important purpose: it carefully unfolds the creation, and helps us to get to the heart of what a work–and its author — are trying to say.

Most serious readers, while studying a work, have at some time encountered a skillful, penetrating piece of criticism, and felt as though they had been handed a key which opened an exciting new door into the novel or poem. As an undergraduate, I recall studying a work by Victor Hugo, and wondering, along with my freshman classmates, what to make of this Frenchman’s apparent preoccupation with a deranged priest and a deformed oaf who scamper about in a fifteenth century French cathedral. Beyond a fine writing style and a gripping, twisting plot, was there anything more? It was only after the professor linked the novel to the tumultuous events of Hugo’s time, and disclosed his intent– his vision — that we were able to truly appreciate and understand the novel.

We asked, “Why don’t any of the characters develop as characters do in other works we’ve studied?” The answer: Victor Hugo discovered the Greek word for “fate” carved into an obscure corner of the Notre Dame cathedral. He followed a line of thought which led him to craft each of the novel’s characters around an unqualified human trait. When we asked, “What purpose is served by the character and actions of the hideous Quasimodo?” the answer was that Hugo, a French Romantic, felt that God created man in an imperfect image of Himself but that this image is marred by man’s corrupt body and soul. However, Hugo felt that man has the freedom to transcend these detriments, shake loose the shackles of superstition, and realize spiritual greatness. In the same vein, the cruel Claude Frollo was intended to personify the impossibility of Man’s effort to realize spiritual greatness. Answers to these and other questions invested the book with a new life which, for us, it had not previously possessed. Far from limiting our thoughts, this special insight gave us the freedom to explore constructive avenues of interpretation. The professor was able to answer so candidly and effectively because he was drawing from a knowledge of history and from the record of Hugo’s own words.

Indeed, teachers have the good fortune and responsibility to act as Virgil-like guides for young students as they wind their way through the labyrinth of western literature; to shine the light of insight and understanding on their path, and increase their understanding of their culture and themselves. Few have a more important and satisfying task, for as Thoreau said, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” Teachers by necessity are critics, who inculcate in their students the capacity and desire to evaluate what they read, to use every means available to shed light upon a work and the artist’s vision — f or the brighter the lamp, the more one can see. The vehicle for this vision — a poem, for example — may be as simple as the red wheelbarrow and white chickens of William Carlos Williams, or as complex as a T. S. Eliot poem to which the poet finds it necessary to add his own copious endnotes, but an intention or desired impression is always present. Many recent critics, often from the groups I mentioned earlier, insist that because we may not be able to access precisely what the author had in his or her head upon writing the piece, we should ignore the original vision completely. Yet doesn’t our knowledge of an author’s life and circumstances contribute something to our understanding of the work?

While we can never know the full extent of Keats’s despondency when he wrote in his sonnet, “When I have fears that I may cease to be… I stand alone and think/ Till love and fame to nothingness do sink,” the knowledge that at the time he wrote those lines he was burdened with terrible poverty, had watched his brother die and knew himself to be mortally ill, and knew it, lends us a keener appreciation for his words. Certainly, the sonnet brilliantly touches universals that are apparent even without knowledge of who wrote them; but if we take a moment to ask ourselves, not the obvious, “What does this mean to me”? but, “What did it mean to its creator? Why has he chosen to color his reflections on life in this manner? Who is he that he has written this way”? — it is not surprising to find that in answering these questions the poem — its painful longing, its delicate suggestion–becomes deeper, richer. In this example, Keats implicitly asks us to consider an existence darkened by the pall of approaching death; to conjure up the dim face of a fading lover; to mourn with him a bright youth and genius slashed by death’s sickle. He was in love with Fanny Brawne, he was dying of tuberculosis, and the brilliance of his “teeming brain” was evident to all who knew him — and to himself. Therefore, to know of Keats is to read his poem and exclaim “Ah, he knew of these things! He felt them truly!”

We often read because we desire to be confronted by the unknown, to feel and know the experiences of a sensitive author so that our lives may be richer for the confrontation; we read as well to find our own experiences, which we believed ineffable, to be expressed so eloquently. Thus Oscar Wilde promises us, “let [a poem's] music steal into your brain and colour your thoughts, and you will become for a moment what he was who wrote it.” But how difficult it often is to yield to this suggestion if we know nothing of the author or his or her credentials.

For example, can you imagine the 1982 New York Times’s best-sellers list announcing the arrival of The Color Purple — by Kurt Vonnegut? The story of a black girl from the rural south, who is impregnated twice in her early teens by her own father, is beaten remorselessly by her husband and finally finds true love with another woman, elicits a response in most readers of “Unbelievable!” If this story were written by a white male, the son of Indianapolis architects, who spent his youth earning a degree from the University of Chicago and spent much of his adult life in Manhattan — Kurt Vonnegut’s biography — the reader’s final response would likely never mature beyond, “Unbelievable!” and the story would be regarded as another of Mr. Vonnegut’s flights of fancy. However, if we are familiar with the biography of Alice Walker–the book’s real author — we know that the novel is informed by the writer’s authentic experiences. The purposes that Alice Walker had in creating her novel–among others, imparting her vision that black women have the capacity to find spiritual health even in the face of the cruelest male domination — are taken seriously. Like the Keats poem, The Color Purple allows its readers to form opinions and feel deeply about issues that pluck a common emotional chord, but which lie outside the reader’s field of personal experience.

Let’s say, for instance, that Bill Gates were to follow up his recent book on the future of computer technology with a book intended to explore the fear and alienation experienced by impoverished Mexican immigrants. Unless readers could be convinced that because of his personal experience he had a right to speak on the topic, all serious readers would reject it. Not only great literature, but worthwhile books of informative journalism as well are simply not satisfying when writers attempt to write about subjects with which they are not demonstrably familiar. Readers want to know if they are peering into an authentic world, or merely being treated to a work purely of the imagination. Often, a major part of the author’s vision may go undetected or become grossly misunderstood if the reader is not familiar with their thought, the climate that informed their work, and often with the author’s world view as stated in their own words. I earlier quoted Herman Hesse, who frankly admitted the dramatic effect of his philosophy on his novels and poems. It is no secret that to read much of Hesse’s work without an understanding of Jungian psychology and of Hesse’s peculiar use of it is akin to viewing a magnificent landscape with one eye closed. Hesse writes in the self-disclosing tradition of Goethe, who said, “all my works are fragments of a great confession.” Indeed, Hesse critic G.W. Field asserts, “We must investigate Hesse’s life to the extent necessary for elucidation of the works.” Absence of this investigation yields predictably dismal results. The first American editor of Narcissus and Goldmund so misunderstood Hesse’s intention to reveal the relationship between mind and body, personified by the two titled characters, that the editor ridiculously titled the work simply Goldmund.

A reader who approached the Sea of Fertility, the tetralogy by Japan’s greatest modern writer, Yukio Mishima, without knowledge of his life and work, would soon find the story disintegrating into inexplicable chaos. Mishima saw post-WWII Japan moving away from its great heritage, and mourned the deterioration of bushido — the warrior’s code of honor — in the increasingly-Westernized Japan. Not knowing his biography, who could understand the plea implicit in this long and complicated work, which was nothing less than the demand that the Japanese people rise up in revolution against their government and restore the proud traditions of their past. How diminished the book appears if severed from the knowledge that he followed this appeal with an actual attempt to overthrow the government of Japan using his own private army.

Mishima’s artistic skill is obvious to any who read his work, but without a knowledge of why he is writing, the work is little more than a sea of brilliantly decorated confusion. Particularly when we come to deal with tropes of illusion such as symbolism, metaphor, and allegory, knowledge of the author ranges from helpful to imperative. Throughout history, such devices have been used to convey meaning. Without knowing something of the author, it is likely that we will be left utterly in the dark, or will arrive at erroneous conclusions. For example, the Elizabethans frequently used metaphor to disguise the authentic purport of their literature (and thus keep their scribbling hands safely attached to their bodies), leaving a body of work that scholars have failed to fully decipher to this day. Indeed, much allegory and symbolism in this century’s literature has become so complex and esoteric that one can only approach it with a knowledge of who wrote it.

The English critic Terry Eagleton in Literary Theory quotes fellow critic Wolfgang Iser as famously saying, “To read at all, we need to be familiar with the literary techniques and conventions which a particular work deploys.” Eagleton follows with this example: he was walking through the London underground system, and noticed this sign: “Dogs must be carried on the escalator.” He wondered facetiously, Does this mean that the person with tired feet must round up a dog and carry it if he wishes to use the escalator? Or is it merely specifying that dogs, as opposed to sheep, must be carried? No answer to these questions is evident in the words themselves. This is a situation, says Eagleton, in which we need a fairly detailed knowledge of the sign’s author and intentions if we wish to avoid mishap. The analogy is a simple one: we risk gross misunderstanding of a work if we don’t know something of the author and his or her purpose.

Those who protest that no knowledge of the author is needed and that, in fact, authors do not wish to be known, often point to Oscar Wilde’s famous statement in his “Preface” to The Picture of Dorian Gray that the goal of the artist is to “reveal the art and conceal the artist.” Yet we more perfectly appreciate Wilde’s own work if we are familiar with the actions and words that supplemented his fiction. The “Preface” is in fact the type of authorial supplement that helps us appreciate and penetrate the author’s vision. While Wilde, the cleverest of wordsmiths, may have striven on one level to remove himself from his writings, he actively involved himself on another. Recall his great comedy, The Importance of Being Earnest. When once we know of Wilde’s private life, the cynical Algernon proves to be a deeper voice that much of the audience could not hear. During the writing of the play Wilde, an active homosexual, was consorting with Lord Alfred Douglas, son of the Marquess of Queensbury. While Wilde turned an upright (or, at least, law-abiding) face to his admiring public, he often escaped to a world where he could safely express his sexuality as he wished. Similarly, when Algernon feels that the immediate trappings of family and society are stifling him, he escapes purportedly to visit his friend “Bunbury” who, we discover, is imaginary. He refers to this periodic escape as “Bunburying,” a sly reference to the sort of activities indulged by Wilde when not in the public eye. This double entendre was invisible to most in Wilde’s audience, but to that inner circle who knew his other side, the pun heightened their appreciation of the play. Because of what we know of Wilde’s private life, we too can appreciate his hidden puns, his ingenious double entendres. When we know something of the author’s biography, the work becomes richer. There is a connection here between Wilde and Elizabethan Court playwrights, whose work, if performed for common audiences, likely contained much which the general audience didn’t catch. However, the inner circles at Court certainly appreciated the subtle pokes, the careful puns, the outright caricatures that the skilled dramatist had planted to delight listeners who were “in the know.” The play was accessible to them on all its levels, and was thus a richer experience for them.

This is one reason why it is so vital for us to discover whether it was such a Court playwright who wrote the plays and sonnets of “Shake-speare.” If we can tie them to a biography, they will become richer for us, and for the generations to come. Yet there is another, perhaps deeper reason which pushes us to discover Shakespeare’s biography: the simple, visceral need to know the source of that which amazes, engages and fascinates us.

As young musicians who grew up dreaming of a career in music, my friends and I worshipped those players whose music we loved. I could name every song that featured Louis Armstrong “scatting”; I could recite interviews with Dave Brubeck verbatim, and could tell you exactly how much John Lennon weighed when the Beatles recorded the White Album. One friend would corner me to explain why Miles Davis continually turned his back on the audience, another would detail (to no one in particular) everything that Jerry Garcia usually ate before a concert. Why did we do this? Each of us has admired a work or a performance so immensely that we felt compelled to know more about the person behind it. Similarly, adopted children who, as adults, seek their biological parents, probably could not explain exactly why they wish to know of their first parents, their source. When something becomes very important to us, becomes a piece of our lives, a part of who we are–whether it is a work of art, a philosophy, a book, a song, a play–it is simply human nature to seek the source of our wonder. Biography satisfies a need that is not favorable to analysis, but which nevertheless demands satisfaction. Where no source can be found, we may be forced to play detective, and investigate the matter for ourselves. Tireless research into the faded pages of the past is necessary, but the literary detective often finds that the greatest clue that an unknown author can leave behind is their work. The critical tool of biography can here be set in reverse: instead of using what we know of the author to better discover the works, we must use what we know of the works to uncover the author. The relationship between author and work is indissoluble, and is a symbiosis ignored at tremendous cost. Biography provides a lamp where there is only darkness.

Rumors of disaster, premonitions of war

by Tom Goff

This article was first published in the Summer 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

separatorSupporters of the seventeenth Earl of Oxford’s claim to the identity of playwright “William Shakespeare” have often shown how much the Shakespeare plays — perhaps the history plays above all — reflect sensitive awareness of Elizabethan politics, scandal, and intrigue. (Hamlet says as much when he avers, in Hamlet 2.2.520, that the players “are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.”) In their magnum opus, This Star of England, Oxfordians Dorothy Ogburn and Charlton Ogburn, Sr., inform us that the two famous opening lines spoken by “Rumor” in Henry the Fourth, Part Two -

Open your ears, for which of you will stop
The vent of hearing when loud Rumor speaks?

– should help alert us to the play’s many topical allusions. “Rumor’s” words, say the Ogburns, were prompted by actual events of Elizabeth’s reign, most of them occurring well before Shakspere the Stratfordian could conceivably have taken a part, real or fictitious, in writing the Shakespeare plays.

In 1585 and ’86 the Babington plot [To unseat Elizabeth and enthrone the Scots queen in her place] was brewing; and the fumes of treachery and rebellion darken the atmosphere of this drama. Rumor was rife. The Fugger News-Letters, reporting to the Continent on current affairs, were full of sensational surmises and scandals. (Ogburn, 723)

The Ogburns also list the Throgmorton plot [another anti-Elizabeth conspiracy]; the presence of Spanish spies in England’s ports; allusions to Sir Philip Sidney and the British campaign in the Low Countries; and Philip 11 of Spain’s anger over his portrayal by English dramatists among the ingredients which served to keep Shakespeare’s dark brew at a rolling boil. (Ogburn, 703,723-726.)

With this in mind, we may be able to date 2 Henry IV’s Induction –where “Rumor” first appears– to the middle or late 1580s; nor is this all the information. If we turn the leaf of history one year past the Babington plot, to early 1587, we may find evidence allowing us to date 2 Henry IV’s opening to that very time: about a decade before the “consensus” date assigned it by Stratfordian tradition (1597-98, according to Barnet, xii). The implications –favorable to the Earl of Oxford, unfavorable to William Shakspere of Stratford– seem unmistakable once we read just how ominous and widespread were the whispers in and out of London in the early months of that year, according to Queen Elizabeth’s recent biographer, Carrolly Erickson:

In January of 1587 fresh alarms swept the country. Rumors sprang from one another, creating unprecedented panic and breeding ever more fantastic news of imagined events.
The Spaniards had landed. They were at Milford, thousands strong, their huge cannon rumbling through the Welsh countryside and their grim legions of cutthroat troops marching ever closer to the capital.
The north was in revolt. It was a rising as stubborn and as ill-disposed toward the queen as the rising of 1569, only this time the Spaniards would aid the rebels and nothing could stop them.
London was in flames. The queen — was she still living, or had she been assassinated, as some said? — had had to flee. In all the confusion, [Mary] the queen of Scots had escaped. She was on her way to the northern rebels. Spaniards were moving toward the burning capital, their crested helmets silhouetted against the red glow of the night sky. Surely, these were the last days of the world. (Erickson 362.)

To appreciate the aptness of the play’s Induction to its time, we need only compare these tidings of 1587 with “Rumor’s” wild stories (28-32) of King Henry’s and Prince Hal’s supposed deaths in 1403 at Shrewsbury:

… my office is
To noise abroad, that Harry Monmouth fell
Under the wrath of noble Hotspur’s sword;
And that the king before the Douglas’ rage
Stooped his anointed head as low as death.

[If critics are in less than perfect agreement that the work of "Rumor, painted full of tongues" (st. dir.) may help pinpoint the Induction to circa 1587, it may be because the poet was worried lest audiences read, between the lines, too many "surmises, jealousies, [and] conjectures” (116) for their own good or the realm’s security: the substance of the Shrewsbury rumors is related in a mere four and a half lines. The author had the sense to sway audience opinion subtly, too; without blatant manipulation. But one thing is clear: nothing is said in Holinshed or Hall — the poet’s primary historical sources — of such rumors sweeping England directly after the battle of Shrewsbury. The passage is evidently the playwright’s addition.]

Erickson’s account continues (362):

The whirl of rumor engulfed the court. The image of a realm in chaos shimmered in the air like a horrifying mirage, unreal yet threatening. Elizabeth fought toward her decision [to execute Mary, Queen of Scots], pressed as much by the wildfire of panic as by the urgent necessity for action…

By the first of February 1587, Elizabeth was ready to sign Mary’s death warrant (363), and to face the Spanish Armada, which Drake was very shortly to beard at Cadiz (365); but she would have been the last person to wish it said she had acted out of panic or had been guided by rumor. At about this time, the monarch decided to take one, possibly two firm actions to stem the unprecedented flow of scandal, gossip and prophesying which was contributing to sap the loyalty and morale of her people.

First, a stern proclamation was issued against the circulating of rumor. Dated February 6, 1586 [-87], it is epitomized (in the authoritative Bibliography of Royal Proclamations of the Tudor and Stuart Sovereigns) as follows:

Rumors have been spread in many shires, and put into ‘simple billettes’ in writing, raising ‘huies and cries’ without warrant and causing extraordinary watches. The inventors, and those who spread them, are to be severely punished, and Constables are to be responsible for their spread unless they find the author. (Steele, prod. no. 792.)

As a glance at the Bibliography will confirm, if Shakespeare was inspired by a royal proclamation it was very likely this one; the relatively few similar ones issued during Elizabeth’s reign were meant to deal either with printed libels in book or pamphlet form (not with crude or ‘simple’ billets); or with specific slanders and libels aimed at targets like Lord Buckhurst (Steele nos. 775, 769, 909).

Second, at this point the queen may have asked a great playwright to help quell the rumors by inserting a cautionary pronouncement into a new –or perhaps already existing– play. If Oxfordians have rightly analyzed the chain of causes and effects involved, Elizabeth had just secretly placed her preeminent court dramatist –Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford– on the royal payroll the previous June (Ogburn, 688-689), authorizing him to write plays which could entertain courtier and commoner alike while expressing the royal will in matters of order, obedience, and that “…degree… / Which is the ladder of all high designs” (Troilus 1.3.101-102). Enabled by a pension of a thousand pounds per annum — granted him under mysterious circumstances — to produce one or two plays a year (Ogburn 19, 402), he may have been working, by February 1587, on both Henry V and 2 Henry IV, given that Henry V also seems to date from the period directly following the queen’s grant to the earl by Privy Seal Warrant (Clark 772-790, Goff 74-89). At any rate, though de Vere seems not to have adopted the pseudonym “Shakespeare” irrevocably until circa 1598 (Ogburn 744-749), he may well have thought himself a theatrical “spear-shaker” in the queen’s service from the time of his annuity. Certainly his Induction to Henry the Fourth, Part Two reads as if composed expressly to identify, even to crush, “Rumor’s” immediate challenge to Elizabeth’s authority”:

… I speak of peace while covert enmity
Under the smile of safety wounds the world.
And who but Rumor, who but only I,
Make fearful muster and prepared defense
Whiles the big year, swoln with some other grief,
Is thought with child by the stern tyrant war,
And no such matter? (9-15.)

It may be possible to trace the specific connections to early 1587. First, more than one plot on Elizabeth’s own life had been made lately under the “smile of safety,” including that of William Parry, member of Parliament and employee of the trustworthy Sir Francis Walsingham (Erickson 357-358); traitors Rowland Yorke and Sir William Stanley smilingly surrendered important English outposts in the Netherlands to Spain; and whether Elizabeth herself thought so, many about her believed the ongoing Spanish peace negotiations a humbug, according to Ridley, 275 (events were to prove that opinion correct).

Second, Oxford’s words about “fearful muster and prepared defense” apply pretty closely to England in January 1587, with the Spanish armies not yet engaged –that is, on or about the British coasts and waters themselves– and the muster-rolls filled with men apt to tremble at a danger anticipated but not yet seen. The suspense lingered through the very eve of the Armada’s attack; Howarth, 90-91, reports that,

Ashore in 1588, the English waited for the armada, not in panic, but certainly with healthy apprehension. They had heard the kind of rumours one might expect, half bred by fear and half by propaganda: that the armada had orders to kill all Englishmen except boys under seven, that it was led by Inquistadores and laden with instruments of torture; that it carried nooses to hang the men and scourges for the women; and, most ingenious of all, in a report from one of [ex-ambassador Don Bernardino de] Mendoza’s men in England, that it was bringing two or three thousand wet nurses to suckle the infants orphaned by the massacre.

What could even the queen’s greatest poet do against such talk? Evidently he tried his best to counter it: Oxford was assuming more than a little poetic license in asserting that what looked like war was “no such matter” (Induction 15), with the Armada in open preparation; but his intent would have been to scotch the persistent rumors, not to report the literal truth.

But what was the “other grief” (13) with which the present year was pregnant, if not war? Here and elsewhere, one suspects that the queen’s relations with her playwright were often less than easy (often the case with patron and artist –Michelangelo and Pope Julius II come to mind); and if Elizabeth Tudor was displeased at all with 2 Henry IV, it could have been due to that faintly ominous mention of “some other grief,” with its words addressed to her private understanding. For Elizabeth was faced with a harrowing decision, one momentous enough to contribute in removing Charles I from his throne some sixty years later: whether to execute Mary, Queen of Scots. It is at least likely that when “Rumor” noises it about that “the king [Henry IV] before the Douglas’ rage / Stooped his anointed head as low as death” (31-32), the dramatist’s thoughts were occupied more with the work of a headsman’s axe upon the execution block than with the action and aftermath of war to be treated in the play at hand. [Whether we are entitled from this surmise to date the Induction's composition more precisely, who can say? The proclamation against rumor went forth on February 6, 1587 (February 16 N.S.), while Mary was executed (Ridley 262) on February 8 (February 18 N.S.); certainly the lateness of year made Oxford's pregnancy metaphors appropriate, since English custom decreed that it was still 1586 until March 25 (Ridley, x). But whatever the state of his Induction at the fateful time, the poet --who was not among the ten persuaded by Burghley to sign Mary's death warrant (Looney 1.302)-- was probably determined to keep his original thoughts on the matter.]

If the queen was not offended by Oxford’s apparent reference to her impending act of regicide — she could have thought the poet meant something else by that “other grief,” a dearth of corn and other foodstuffs in some counties being one possibility (Hurstfield 275, Steele no. 791)– she could well have been pleased by her chief peer’s prompt poetical action for stifling loose talk: the powerful effect produced in the theatre by a good actor playing “Rumor” is apt to make us forget how quickly “Rumor’s” efforts are brought to grief. Lord Bardolph enters with wild tidings of victory for Hotspur and Douglas (2 Henry IV 1.1.11 -23); but then Travers and Morton enter by turns with gradually worsening — though truthful — news. And that is about all “Rumor” accomplishes. We are also to grasp the point that it is the triumphant government army, not the rebel force, which has firm possession of the truth. How foolish of you, my countrymen, Shakespeare seems to say, to place your trust in idle, easily disproven gossip, which scatters through the air at the first puff of wind!

So we leave Elizabeth and Shakespeare at this moment in history, regarding each other’s work –with what mixture of sympathy and disapproval we may never be able to say. But in using the braggart “Rumor” to ironic purpose, the world’s greatest dramatist seems to tell us of his, Shakespeare’s, perfect assurance in affairs of state: assurance possible only to an eminent courtier like Edward de Vere. Ultimately, much of his confidence may have been due to whatever trust he now won in the queen’s eyes, for helping put an end to dangerous rumor when England’s morale most required steady and confident courage. As he was to write elsewhere (King John 5.7.117-118),

naught shall make us rue,
If England to itself do rest but true.

Copyright (1989) by Thomas A. Goff

Vladimir Nabokov and William Shakespeare

by Philip F Howerton, Jr.

This article was first published in the Winter 1990 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

separatorVladimir Nabokov, the great Russian/American writer, was born on April 22, 1899, in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1914 he published his first work, a small book of poems in a lilac folder. It carried an epigraph from Romeo and Juliet. At the time of his death in 1977, he left behind an enormous oeuvre which included, in the opinion of many, some of the finest novels in Russian and English written in this century. Alfred Appel, a Nabokovian scholar, has said that “although the problem has not yet been submitted to a composer, Shakespeare would seem to be the writer Nabokov invokes most frequently in his novels in English.” Nabokov himself once said that the “verbal poetical texture of Shakespeare is the greatest the world has known.”

Vladimir Nabokov, whom Time magazine in 1969 called “The greatest living American Novelist,” was also a professor of literature for twenty years. While at Cornell he published his literal translation of Eugene Onegin in four volumes, together with almost nine hundred pages of seminal notes (over thirty references to Shakespeare) and his “Notes on Prosody.” The latter was a booklength “outline of the differences and similarities” between English and Russian iambic tetrameters and revealed an astonishing knowledge of English as well as Russian poetry.

In 1947 Nabokov published a bitterly satirical novel about totalitarianism called Bend Sinister. In Chapter Seven he look the opportunity (which has puzzled scholars ever since) to make the following, apparently ironical, comments about the Stratfordian attribution:

A fluted glass with a blue-veined violet and a jug of hot punch stand on Ember’s bedtable. The buff wall directly above his bed (he has a bad cold) bears a sequence of three engravings.

Number one represents a sixteenth-century gentleman in the act of handing a book to a humble fellow who holds a spear and a bay-crowned hat in his left hand. Note the sinistral detail (why? Ah, “that is the question,” as Monsieur Homais once remarked, quoting le journal d’hier a question which is answered in a wooden voice by the Portrait on the title page of the First Folio). Note also the legend: “Ink, a Drug.” Somebody’s idle pencil (Ember highly treasures this scholium) has numbered the letters so as to spell Grudinka which means “bacon’ in several Slavic languages.

Number two shows the rustic (now clad in the clothes of the gentleman) removing from the head of the gentleman (now writing at a desk) a kind of shapska. Scribbled underneath in the same hand: “Ham-let, or Home-lette au Lard.”

Finally, number three has a road, traveler on toot (wearing the stolen shapska) and a road sign ‘To High Wycombe.”

His name is protean. He begets doubles at every comer. His penmanship is unconsciously faked by lawyers who happen to write a similar hand. On the wet morning of November 27, 1582, he is Shaxpere and she is a Wately of Temple Grafton. A couple of days later he is Shagsper and she is a Hathaway of Stratford-on-Avon. Who is he? William X, cunningly composed of two left arms and a mask. Who else? The person who said (riot for the first time) that the glory of God is to hide a thing, and the glory of man is to find it. However, the fact that the Warwickshire fellow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily proved on the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose.

Several Stratfordian academics have suggested privately, in response to queries, that Nabokov’s assertion in Bend Sinister that “the fact that the Warwickshire follow wrote the plays is most satisfactorily proved on the strength of an applejohn and a pale primrose,” may be taken at face value. Citing Caroline Spurgeon’s Shakespeare’s Imagery as a possible source, it is suggested that Nabokov may have felt that only someone familiar with the particular fauna and flora of Warwickshire could have written the plays. Nabokov, the argument presumably goes, subscribed to a theory which says, in effect, that because of his “genius” Shaksper was able to acquire by some sort of mysterious osmosis a thorough familiarity with court affairs and international politics, medicine and anatomy, law, music, birds, falconry, hunting, sailing, warfare, French, Latin, Greek, the environs of Italy, and more, but, by Golly, he had to be from Warwickshire to know that applejohns and primroses existed in England!

Could such a man as Nabokov (who, by the way, was an accomplished naturalist) have really believed (for starters) that applejohns and primroses were not only endemic to Warwickshire but could not have been known by, say, a well-traveled nobleman from Essex (a hundred miles away and on the same latitude)? Or subscribed to the notion that only a rustic (with a manure heap in his front yard?) could have appreciated the charms of rural England? Not likely.

In 1941, shortly after he had come to this country, Nabokov wrote a review for The New Republic of Frayne Williams’ book, Mr. Shakespeare of the Globe, in which he had some very pointed things to say about the Stratfordian habit of biography. He began as follows: “The biographical part of this book will not disappoint the imaginary not-too-bright giant for whom blurbs are fattened and human interest lavishly spread.” He ended with this: “Finally, it is interesting to learn that ‘it takes two to make a conversation and the same number to make love’ — which fact, together with the second-best bed (‘the most intimate monument of her life’) is about all we and the voluble author really know concerning that particular marriage.”

But if Nabokov had real doubts about the authorship, why didn’t he ever come right out and say so? Perhaps that was a fight that he did not need. The Nabokovs were very poor in the Forbes and even up to the time of the success of Lolita in the late 1950′s, their finances were never off shaky ground. He was dependent, quite simply, on his sometimes precarious position in academia. Always suspect by the orthodox because of his staunch opposition to communism, he waded into further difficulty with his sometimes scathing appraisals of certain “established” authors and with his attacks on what he called “solidly unionized professional paraphrasts” and their “arty” mistranslations of works such as Onegin. Given what is known about the treatment of other, declared anti-Stratfordians at the hands of the orthodox, it would not be the least surprising if Nabokov had simply decided to keep his opinions to himself. Except, of course, for the few glimpses he did give us.

Anything else? Well, yes, as a matter of fact. In 1924 Nabokov wrote a little poem in Russian which his son, Dmitri, translated into English in 1988. Reprinted here with his kind permission, it is called:


Amid grandees of times Elizabethan
you shimmered too, you followed sumptuous custom;
the circle of ruff, the silv’ry satin that
encased your thigh, the wedgelike beard – in all of this
you were like other men… Thus was enfolded
your godlike thunder in a succinct cape.

Haughty, aloof from theatre’s alarums,
you easily, regretlessly relinquished
the laurels twinning into a dry wreath,
concealing for all time your. monstrous genius
beneath a mask; and yet, your phantasm’s echoes
still vibrate for us; your Venetian Moor,
his anguish; Falstaff’s visage, like an udder
with pasted-on mustache; the raging Lear..
You are among us, you’re alive; your name, though,
your image, too – deceiving, thus, the world
you have submerged in your beloved Lethe.
It’s true, of course, a usurer had grown
accustomed, for a sum, to sign your work
(that Shakespeare – Will – who played the Ghost in Hamlet,
who lives in pubs, and died before he could
digest in full his portion of a boar’s head)…

The frigate breathed, your country you were leaving,
To Italy you went. A female voice
called singsong through the iron’s pattern
called to her balcony the tall inglesse,
grown languid from the lemon-tinted moon
and Verona’s streets. My inclination
is to imagine, possibly, the droll
and kind creator of Don Quixote
exchanging with you a few casual words
while waiting for fresh horses – and the evening
was surely blue. The well behind the tavern
contained a pail’s pure tinkling sound… Reply
whom did you love? Reveal yourself – whose memoirs
refer to you in passing? Look what numbers
of lowly, worthless souls have left their trace,
what countless names Brantome has for the asking!
Reveal yourself, god of iambic thunder,
you hundred-mouthed, unthinkably great bard!

No! At the destined hour, when you felt banished
by God from your existence, you recalled
those secret manuscripts, fully aware
that your supremacy would rest unblemished
by public rumor’s unashamed brand,
that ever, midst the shifting dust of ages,
faceless you’d stay, like immortality
itself – then vanished in the distance, smiling.

How did Vladimir Nabokov feel about the authorship? You be the judge.

Copyright 1979 Vladimir Nabokov Estate
English version copyright 1988 Dmitri Nabokov

The Stella cover-up

by Peter R. Moore

This article was first published in the Winter 1993 Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.

separatorIf “William Shakespeare” was, as many of us believe, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, one implication seems inescapable: Oxford’s contemporaries — courtiers, writers, and theater people — must have maintained a remarkable conspiracy of silence. We can go further. The silence must have been maintained well into the next generation, long after Oxford was dead.

At first glance, this seems implausible. And orthodox Stratfordians scoff at the idea of so extensive a cover-up. As one of them put it, the required conspiracy is so large that it is difficult to see who was left to be deceived.

But anyone familiar with human history or modern American society knows that some things are not discussed in public, and that open conspiracies of silence are common events. The number of examples -political, military, or social – that could be cited is endless. We might begin with the motto of The New York Times. “All the News That’s Fit to Print”, which clearly implies that some news is not f it to print. American journalists have often suppressed what they knew about the sex lives of politicians they reported on — though we may well ask whether this amounts to a “cover-up” or is simply a matter of respecting privacy. When issues of decorum are at stake, it can be misleading to think of suppression purely in terms of sinister “conspiracies.” Thomas Bowdler became infamous for producing a censored edition of Shakespeare in 1807, but it was discovered in 1966 that Bowdler’s sister Henrietta was really responsible for ridding the Bard of ribaldry. The motive behind the Bowdler cover-up was a simple matter of sexual modesty. If Henrietta admitted reading and understanding the bawdy parts of Shakespeare that she excised, then she could no longer be a decent woman, and so her physician brother pretended to be the editor.

But a cover-up far more relevant to the Shakespeare authorship question occurred in Elizabethan England, spread to the English colonies in America, and continued into the twentieth century.

Sir Philip Sidney wrote his sonnet sequence, Astrophel and Stella, around 1582 and circulated it in manuscript. It was published in 1591, five years after his death, and became an immediate and much-imitated best seller.

“Stella” was Penelope Devereux, Lady Rich. Various writers covertly but unmistakably alluded to this identity, but nobody directly said so in print until 1691, a full century after the sequence was published. What is interesting for our purpose is that the Stella cover-up (to call it that) involved the same society, the same mores, and even the same literary genres and stratagems as the conspiracy of silence Oxfordians posit in the case of “William Shakespeare”. It offers a convincing reply to the Stratfordian gibe that such a conspiracy is too far-fetched to be believed.

Most of the literary history in my article comes from Hoyt H. Hudson’s forty page essay, “Penelope Devereux as Sidney’s Stella”, the Huntington Library Bulletin, No. 7 April 1935, which I recommend to all readers. I can only give a summary of Hudson’s arguments, but will add a few items of which he was unaware. Readers might also consult W. A. Ringler’s Sidney’s Poems (p. 435-48), Roger Howell’s Sir Philip Sidney, The Shepherd Knight (pp 181-182), and Sylvia Freedman’s excellent 1983 biography, Poor Penelope; Lady Penelope Rich, An Elizabethan Woman.

Even though much of the story he tells may be imaginary, Sidney’s sonnets do not describe a disembodied poet in love with an abstract woman. That Sidney is Astrophel is clearly indicated by, among other things: Sonnet 30′s reference to his father’s rule in Ireland as the Queen’s Lord Deputy; by Sonnet 41′s description of a 1581 tournament; and by the closing line of Sonnet 65, “Thou bear’st the arrow, I the arrow-head,” an arrowhead being the sole device on the Sidney coat of arms. Stella’s identity is made clear for initiates by Sidney’s puns on the word ‘rich’ in Sonnets 24, 35, and 37; by references to her unhappy marriage in several sonnets; by praise of her black eyes and curly golden hair, which were echoed by other poets and which may be seen in her surviving portrait; and by Sonnet 13′s mention of her coat of arms as “roses gules … borne in silver field”. The Devereux shield was white, with a horizontal orange stripe across the middle, above which were three orange disks in a horizontal line. But in the language of sixteenth century heraldry (the Devereux arms were much older) white and silver were considered identical: both were described by the French word argent, or silver. Orange is not one of the allowed colors of heraldry, being a “stain,” and so a herald who sees orange on a shield will write it down as gules (red). So Sidney is quite justified in naming the three disks on the Devereux shield as roses, gules on silver.

My disquisition on heraldry is necessary because neither Hudson, Ringler, nor any other authority that I know explains how Sonnet 13′s red and silver equate to orange and white. The latter colors of the Devereux Earls and Essex were well enough known that Francis Beaumont could mention them, without further identification, to Ben Jonson in the verse letter which asks to “let slip … scholarship, / And from all learning keep these lines as clear / As Shakespeare’s best are,” etc. Beaumont goes on to discuss a man in misery “in white and orange tawny on his back at Windsor”, a reference to the scandalous 1613 divorce of Lady Rich’s nephew, the third Earl of Essex.

In order to assess the implications of the Stella cover-up, we need to examine the principals. Sidney died in 1586, immediately becoming a cult figure of astonishing dimensions: the perfect English, Christian, Renaissance knight, virtually the Protestant Saint George. Sidney’s sonnets to Stella are extremely chaste; he woos her, and, taking her by surprise on one occasion, manages to steal a kiss, but she is true to her husband. Sidney’s incredible cult lasted through the seventeenth century. It flagged a bit in the eighteenth, but revived mightily in the Victorian age.

Lady Rich’s reputation went the other way. Beautiful and highly educated, she was shoved into an arranged marriage with the dull and detestable Lord Rich in 1581 when she was only 18. While bearing her husband five children in nine years, she managed to be active in society and politics, and in time became a patron of poets.

In 1590 she took as her lover the dashing Charles Blount, Lord Mountjoy, by whom she had six more children. Her husband acquiesced in her adultery, being in awe of her brother, the Earl of Essex. After the latter’s execution in 1601, Lord Rich cast his wife out. Meanwhile, Mountjoy had replaced Essex as commander in Ireland and was methodically destroying the rebellion that had cost Essex his reputation. When King James came to the throne in 1603, Mountjoy returned from Ireland as a hero, and Lady Rich moved in with him as his wife. Mountjoy and Lady Rich had both supported the cause of James, and he made them favored courtiers, promoting both, and seemingly indifferent to their blatant adultery. Mountjoy became Earl of Devonshire; Lady Rich, daughter of a junior earl and wife of a junior baron, was given precedence of all barons’ wives and almost all earls’ daughters.

In 1605 Lord Rich sued for divorce, and Lady Rich confessed to committing adultery with a stranger. Lord Rich wanted a new wife, and Lady Rich and Devonshire wanted to marry and legitimize their children. Divorce was granted, but remarriage was forbidden, and legitimizing the children was out of the question. King James was infuriated by the divorce proceedings, banished Lady Rich from his court, and reprimanded Devonshire. The two lovers made an illegal marriage and continued to live as husband and wife until Devonshire died in April 1606. Lady Rich died in July 1607 and was buried in a London church without any marking on her grave. The register simply recorded the burial of “A Lady Devereux”.

James had no objection to adultery among his nobles. But he did expect them to maintain appearances, and was enraged when one of them publicly admitted her offense. After her divorce Lady Rich was regarded as a notorious woman. But that made it all the more important to prevent her name from contaminating the cult of Sir Philip Sidney.

Enough evidence survives to anatomize the cover-up of the 1590s. The three unauthorized editions of Astrophel and Stella that came out in 1591 omitted Sonnet 37, the poem that most clearly says that Stella’s name is Rich, while a key line in Sonnet 35 was reworded to make the name less apparent (see Hudson, p. 92). One of these editions included ten songs that are part of the cycle, but cut from one a passage in which Stella confesses her love for Astrophel, and cut from another Astrophel’s anticipation of kissing Stella (Ringler, p. 448). This could have been the work of the publishers, but more likely reflected the manuscripts they had obtained. Sonnet 37, the correct text of 35, and the full text of all ten songs were provided in the 1598 folio edition of Sidney’s works that was published by his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. In other words, the Countess, who idolized her brother, saw no need to censor his works to hide Stella’s identity. No one up to that point had publicly named Stella, and if the Countess assumed that the cover-up would continue – well, continue it did.

In 1595 Edmund Spenser published a batch of poems in praise of Sidney entitled “Astrophel.” Two of the “Astrophel” poems clearly imply that Stella was Sidney’s wife, which seems like a deliberate deception. But Spenser’s poem says that Stella died of grief immediately following Astrophel’s death. Sidney’s widow, Frances Walsingham, had by then remarried, becoming the Countess of Essex, and Spenser’s “Astrophel” is dedicated to her. Spenser was obviously creating a pleasant fiction, and as Hudson points out (p. 121), no one even pretended to believe that Stella was Sidney’s wife until 1655.

Further, Spenser’s “Astrophel” puns several times on the word “rich” and describes Stella’s hair as yellow; Frances Walsingham was a brunette. One of the “Astrophel” poems, by Matthew Roydon, provides the only further comment on the matter, saying to Stella: “Sweet saints! it is no sin nor blame, / To love a man of virtuous name.”

Meanwhile, as Hudson shows, a number of other poets glanced at the relationship, usually in poems or dedications to Lady Rich. For example, Gervase Markham dedicated a work to Lady Rich and her sister in 1597, which concluded that if the two ladies approved his writing, then his pen would be “stellified” (Hudson, p. 96). Or, in 1603 Matthew Gwynn wrote a sonnet in her honor saying that “he” praised Lady Rich, followed by ten compliments lifted verbatim from Sidney’s sonnets to Stella. As Ringler notes (p. 436), five out of seven dedications to Lady Rich written between 1594 and 1606 found a way to hint unmistakably at her being Sidney’s Stella, without, of course, deliberately saying so.

The cover-up evolved during the following decades and generations, but the central taboo remained. After Lady Rich’s divorce, public compliments virtually ceased and private slurs on her character multiplied, but her rank sheltered her from public attack long after her death. For example, an obscene epitaph penned shortly after she died was published in 1640, but with her name removed. As the generation that knew her in life died off, the attacks subsided, and the fact that she was Stella was gradually forgotten.

It may seem remarkable that her name was protected through the 1640s, a decade of civil war during which pamphleteers of all persuasions freely libelled the characters and families of their enemies. But here Lady Rich enjoyed posthumous good luck: thanks in part to her adultery, she had, on both sides of the strife, allies with an interest in sparing her reputation.

Lady Rich’s oldest legitimate son had become the Earl of Warwick, Lord High Admiral of England and a leading figure among the Parliamentary forces opposing King Charles. Her other legitimate son was the Earl of Holland, a powerful politician who kept changing sides, until Parliament settled things by beheading him in 1649. Lady Rich’s oldest illegitimate son was the Earl of Newport, a general fighting for the King.

Other families might also have taken umbrage at full disclosure of the story of Astrophel and Stella. Sidney, a moderate Puritan, was a hero to both sides. and his widow’s children had a stake in his reputation, if only to deny that he wronged their mother by loving Lady Rich during his marriage negotiations. Frances Walsingham’s older son was the Earl of Essex (he was also Lady Rich’s nephew), a leading Parliamentary general, while her younger son was the Marquess of Clanricard, one of the King’s strongest supporters in Ireland. Frances Walsingham’s daughter by her Irish husband was the Marchioness of Winchester, a heroine of the Royalist cause in England. Another man who might have taken offense was the Countess of Pembroke’s son, Sidney’s nephew and godson, the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, a political supporter of the Parliament. lastly there was Sidney’s brother’s son, the Earl of Leicester, the then head of the House of Sidney. He was disaffected from the King but wouldn’t oppose him, so he stayed neutral, while his son and heir, Viscount Lisle, was active in support of Parliament.

Hudson’s article does not make clear when the first public attack was made on Lady Rich’s character. He cites only Clarendon’s massive History of the Rebellion, written in the 1670s and published thirty years later, which implies she was immoral without actually saying that she committed adultery, a thing she had admitted ‘ in open court in 1605.

Other seventeenth century discussions of Lady Rich’s offense are instructive. The Jesuit Father John Gerard attempted to convert her during his years in the Catholic underground in England, but was foiled by Devonshire. After his return to the Continent in 1606, Gerard wrote a Latin account of his missionary work, intended for confidential use within the Jesuit order. It was published in 1870. He described his dealings with Lady Rich and the scandal of her affair with Devonshire, but named neither of them. She is called a “sister to the Earl of Essex”; Devonshire is identified as the conqueror of Ireland. Lady Rich and Lord Devonshire were openly named and their scandal was discussed by a contemporary historian, Robert Johnston, but his Latin account was published in the Netherlands in 1655. Archbishop George Abbot wrote a lengthy essay on political and religious affairs in 1627 which was published in 1659. Abbot has a paragraph on the scandal, but calls the participants “the Earl of D” and “the Lady R.” Peter Heylyn published a biography of Archbishop William Laud in 1668; Laud had been Devonshire’s chaplain in 1605 and conducted the illegal marriage of the two lovers. Heylyn does name names, but the whole point of his account is that lady Rich’s 1581 marriage was improper, hence she and Devonshire could rightfully wed.

From the time Sidney died through the late seventeenth century, biographical books and articles kept appearing, none of which mentioned Penelope, Lady Rich. These included an inspiring account of Sidney’s last days, written by George Gifford, a clergyman who attended at his bedside. Gifford wrote that Sidney was insufficiently sure of salvation, but then God delivered him: “There came to my remembrance a vanity wherein I had taken delight, whereof I had not rid myself. But I rid myself of it, and presently my joy and comfort returned within a few hours.” In 1964, Jean Robertson found a manuscript version of Gifford’s memoir, and discovered that between these two sentences was a third which had been deleted from the published versions: “It was my lady Rich.”

In 1638 Anne Bradstreet of Massachusetts, a distant cousin of Sidney’s, wrote a poem in his praise which was published in London in 1650. The poem mentions their kinship, describes Stella and mildly condemns her, but insists that her love for Sidney was not adulterous. Bradstreet died in 1677, and her poems were republished in Boston in 1678; the reference to kinship to Sidney had been removed as had been the attack on Stella. The revised version cites Spenser’s claim that Stella was Sidney’s wife.

In 1691 Anthony A. Wood published Athenae Oxoniensis, which included a simple, unsupported statement that Stella was “the Lady Rich.” This assertion was not treated as a scandalous revelation, it was simply a few words in a large book, and it was ignored. Not until the mid-nineteenth century was the literary and social history of Shakespeare’s England sufficiently reconstructed in detail for scholars to begin building the case for Lady Rich as Stella. But a new obstacle arose to complicate objective scholarship.

The letters of John Chamberlain were published providing a mine of information on Shakespeare’s era. The death of the Earl of Devonshire, and stated that only three of his alleged five surviving children by implication was that Devonshire was not the father

The matter was not cleared up until Devonshire’s will was unearthed. It provided quite generously for all five of his children. Sylvia Freedman’s book also shows that Lady Rich’s two sets of children did not overlap, as had previously been believed. She broke off marital relations with Rich before taking up with Blount. The false belief that Lady Rich mingled her husband and lover, and was not even faithful to the letter, caused her to seem more wicked than ever. To many Victorians and some post-Victorians, Lady Rich’s scarlet sins absolutely proved that the saintly Sidney could have had nothing to do with her.

In 1934 Professor James Purcell published a book purporting to prove that Lady Rich was not Stella. That provoked Hoyt Hudson’s forty page response, which crushed Purcell (he withdrew and revised his book), and has been considered the definitive article on the subject ever since. Subsequent research has strengthened Hudson’s arguments.

But one more group continued to hold out: overly zealous professors of English literature of the school called the New Criticism (now obsolete), a powerful force in academia in the early and mid-twentieth century. The New Criticism insists that a poem “stands alone” and must be examined without regard to any background — historical, cultural, or linguistic. There is something to be said for this approach, if it is not carried to excess. There is no reason why a Lit professor needs to study the Battle of Balaclava in order to appreciate Tennyson’ s “The Charge of the Light Brigade.” But we would surely be astonished if the professor heatedly insisted there had been no such battle.

Some of the New Criticism professors felt that verse was polluted if its background was analyzed. or, for that matter, if it was even admitted to exist. Judging by the quotations from Purcell that are given by Hudson, the former was motivated by New Criticism. My own copy of Sidney is the 1969 Sir Philip Sidney, Selected Prose and Poetry, edited by Robert Kimbrough of the University of Wisconsin. Kimbrough’s introduction to Astrophel and Stella complains that “scholars have fastened on partial and inconclusive evidence to identify Stella as Penelope Devereux Rich,” which Kimbrough dismisses as an “extraliterary controversy” which would prevent us from “open[ing] our ears to … some of the finest music achieved by English poetry.”

We can now characterize the Stella cover-up. That lady Rich was Sidney’s Stella was known to many people, including courtiers and poets. There appears to have been no active attempt to suppress the truth. Indeed, Spenser’s 1595 pretense that Stella was Sidney’s widow was intended to be taken as a fiction, while Sidney’s sister’s 1598 edition of Astrophel and Stella strengthened the identification. Meanwhile, from 1591 to 1619 various writers (Hudson cites about fifteen) published works that made the identification in a manner that was covert but perfectly clear to those in the know. These writers meant to compliment Lady Rich for the honor of inspiring Sidney’s sonnets, but decorum required that the compliments be veiled. Presumably the truth was discussed in private. Vested interests in the reputations of Sidney and lady Rich kept the truth from being uttered openly until exactly a century after Sidney’s sonnets were first published. By then the matter was stale and uninteresting; there was no follow-up. Not until the mid-nineteenth century did scholars begin to assemble the various pieces of evidence. But they still met with decades of opposition from defenders of the cult of Sir Philip Sidney, who were eventually joined by certain English professors of the New Criticism school.

Sexual propriety was the simplest motive behind the Stella cover-up, as, in a different way, it was the motive for the Bowdler cover-up. Sidney’s poetical niece, Lady Mary Wrath, had two illegitimate children by her cousin the Earl of Pembroke (Sidney’s nephew), a matter that was managed so discreetly that it escaped notice until the twentieth century. And sex probably had something to do with the cover-up of the story behind Shakespeare’s Sonnets, which make Sidney’s seem positively tame. Of course, other factors presumably affected Shakespeare’s works, such as the stigma of print, which kept all of Sidney’s works in manuscript until after his death.

The Stella cover-up offers remarkable parallels to what we infer concerning Oxford and Shakespeare. It should become our standard response to sneers about conspiracy theories.