Matus’s Cannonade Against Oxford Misfires
A chapter-by-chapter review of Shakespeare, IN FACT, by Irvin Matus. (New York: Continuum, 1994. 331 pages.)
©1995 by Richard F. Whalen
In his book, Shakespeare, IN FACT, Irvin Matus promises (p. 23) to challenge the evidence for the 17th Earl of Oxford as the true author of the works of Shakespeare.
While demonstrating extensive research into primary sources, the book fails to address the principal evidence against the Stratford man and for Oxford as the author Shakespeare. It tries to appear to be doing so, but in fact it does not. The prose style is meandering and sometimes snide. It is far from crisp and definitive. Often, an argument against Oxford is announced, but then, pages later, it fails to materialize. No point has been made. The book dwells on a multitude of miscellaneous details, most of them irrelevant to the main anti-Stratfordian and Oxfordian arguments. He simply sidesteps the basic anti-Stratfordian and Oxfordian arguments while chopping the air with his sword and pretending to skewer the Oxfordians.
Paradoxically, the book does not even make a good case for the Stratford man. It often misrepresents Oxfordian positions. Straw men are set up to be knocked down. Points of sometimes obscure Oxfordian scholarship are discussed at length in a critical way, sometimes even with sarcasm, but without any conclusions being reached.
He also poses what he calls “the central question of the authorship controversy: How did Shakespeare, in fact, stand in relation to his contemporaries, both as a man and as a man of the theater?” In answering this question, however, he assumes that Shakespeare was the Stratford man, which begs the question. His answers, therefore, do not address any “central question” and are ineffectual.
Chapter 9 reveals Matus’ flawed technique
This dodging of key issues is most evident in Chapter 9 where Matus trips himself in a way that destroys his credibility and, some might say, his authorial integrity.
Matus opens this chapter by recognizing that “Oxfordians think they have their most powerful case for Oxford’s authorship in those plays where they discern biographical details of the earl’s life.” (p. 233) True enough. So what does Matus do about it? Does he devote at least a chapter of the whole book to this “most powerful case” for Oxford? Does he critique the wealth of correspondences to Oxford’s life that Oxfordians find in many of the poems and plays. Not at all.
He devotes a mere seven paragraphs (p. 233–236) to just two plays, and much of even this is extraneous. Apparently, Matus was unable to find anything wrong with the “most powerful case” for Oxford. So he ignored it. Oxfordians will recognize the usual Stratfordian tactics: Ignore the fundamental Oxfordian arguments. Downgrade Shakespeare’s genius to fit the life of “mundane inconsequence” (Schoenbaum’s words) of the man from Stratford. Snipe around the edges of Oxfordian research. Use the trappings of arcane research to try to imply solid, scholarly judgment.
Claims for Oxford not addressed
In devoting only this one chapter out of ten to the “claims for Oxford”, he still fails to counter the two principal claims for Oxford: first, the impressive, cumulative effect of the parallels between Oxford’s life and Shakespeare’s works; second, the extent and specificity of the direct references to Oxford’s life and concerns throughout the poems and plays. This second claim is crucial, yet Matus does not even mention the extensive Oxfordian literature on the subject. Only two plays out of all Shakespeare’s works are cited and much of the evidence in those two is simply ignored.
All’s Well That End’s Well gets three sentences, which focus mainly on Boccaccio’s influence. Ignored are the many direct references to Oxford’s life, e.g., wardship plus betrothal to commoner/counselor’s daughter, flight to the Continent, and, especially, the bed trick.
Hamlet gets only six paragraphs, much if it on the coat of arms on quartos. Again Matus ignores the many parallels with Oxford’s life that have been identified by Oxfordians, e.g. betrothal to commoner/counselor’s daughter, mother remarrying beneath her, pirate attack at sea, the insider references to Burghley/Polonius, his cousin Horatio, et al.
The many references to Oxford in other plays are not mentioned at all, e.g. the Gad’s Hill incident in Henry IV Part 1, street fighting in Romeo and Juliet, Shylock and Michael Lok in The Merchant of Venice, parallels with Anne Cecil, Burghley and Yorke in Hamlet and Othello etc. (Of course, nothing remotely comparable to these correspondences has ever even been suggested for Will Shakspere by Stratfordian scholars.)
In short, in this chapter on “The Claim for the Earl of Oxford,” Matus dwells on peripheral and often irrelevant details and fails completely even to address the principal claims and evidence supporting those claims for Oxford as the true author.
Nowhere does he dispute the basic historical account of Oxford’s life, i.e., that he was a courtier, poet, playwright and patron of acting companies, a man who traveled extensively in France and Italy, a man whose life seems to fit the works of Shakespeare. He then attempts to downgrade the importance of these characteristics—but without denying their existence.
He begins the chapter by noting that any records of patronage by anybody for any writers are few, but he nevertheless acknowledges Oxford’s patronage of literature, playwrights and acting companies. He uses more than a dozen paragraphs to describe Oxford as a courtier who was not always in favor with the queen, but he confirms that Oxford was an important member of the queen’s court. He uses no less than 18 paragraphs to review what he acknowledges as evidence that Oxford had some military experience, considers it slight and draws no particular conclusion. He argues that Oxford was not a “scholar” (Oxfordians don’t generally characterize him as a “scholar” in the usual sense). Yet he then acknowledges that Oxford was manifestly well-educated, well-read and well-traveled.
He argues that Oxford’s verse was not especially accomplished. Oxfordians agree, noting that it was from his youth but adding that it was remarkably Shakespearean. He uses 13 paragraphs to question whether Oxford was the author of Lyly’s plays, which is not a central issue. He does recognize that Oxford had a reputation as an excellent playwright. He critiques Bernard M. Ward’s biography of Oxford and asserts that the annual payment of one thousand pounds by the queen was simply to relieve Oxford’s ruined estate. He presents this as his own idea, but it’s not. Ward specifically considered and rejected that as the sole explanation, with his reasons given. Here also Matus contradicts himself. He fails to reconcile his recognition of the queen’s extraordinary generosity to Oxford with his insistence that Oxford had been “eliminat[ed] from her good graces for once and all.”
Finally, he again tries to downgrade Oxford’s talent as a poet, which he bases on the small number of youthful poems. He thus misses, or chooses to ignore, the Oxfordian point that after Oxford’s youthful poetry his writings then appeared as “by William Shakespeare”. This is a major Oxfordian observation. Nothing in the chapter contradicts the Oxfordian claim that Oxford’s life fits the works of Shakespeare remarkably well.
In fact, Matus confirms much of the basic evidence while pretending to critique it by dwelling on minor points of scholarship that are mostly irrelevant.
The rest of Shakespeare, IN FACT – Chapter by Chapter
The book opens with a critique of Oxfordian interpretations of two references to Shakespeare: Davies’s poem “To our English Terence…” and references to Shakespeare/Shakspere in the Parnassus plays. This opening salvo, which in fact fizzles, must puzzle even informed readers. Neither one figures conspicuously in the literature. Stratfordians rarely cite either one despite their seemingly direct comment on Shakespeare. Oxfordians suggest that the reason they are ignored is that both cast doubt on Will Shakspere as the author. Matus, of course, finds reasons to disagree. Both allusions require interpretation; both can be read as strong anti-Stratfordian evidence. Neither is essential to the overall case for Oxford.
In chapter 2 Matus takes up anti-Stratfordian arguments. He discusses the inconsistency of spelling of names in Elizabethan England, but does not contradict the Oxfordians’ main point, i.e. that in Stratford and in most legal documents the Stratford man’s name was spelled Shakspere or a close variant, not Shakespeare. In fact, he concludes with the suggestion—and no proof at all—that Will Shakspere used the “Shakespeare” spelling for his pseudonym in London, thus accepting in part the anti-Stratfordian analysis of variant spellings.
He finds exceptions to hyphenated names as pseudonyms. Oxfordians have never argued total consistency, only general practice. He does not cite any other playwrights whose names were hyphenated. He argues that illiteracy was nothing unusual in Stratford and that Ben Jonson didn’t get much education, thus ignoring his close relation with Camden. He does not dispute that Will Shakspere’s father and daughters were illiterate or that there are no records that he went to school, although he might have been expected to, given his father’s position. He raises questions about the Ostler lawsuit, questions that may require re-examination of the original Latin manuscript for commas. It has little bearing on the overall case against the Stratford man. He acknowledges that Will Shakspere’s signatures are questioned, discusses Hand D in the Sir Thomas More manuscript and comes to no particular conclusion.
Finally he notes that literary manuscripts rarely survived. Oxfordians agree. Nowhere in this chapter has he scored against those who reject the Stratford man as the author.
Chapter 3 opens with a defense of Will Shakspere as an actor. Oxfordians grant that possibility, adding that the evidence is meager. Matus thinks it’s not so meager. He reviews Groatsworth but adds nothing new. Any support from it for Will Shakspere as playwright is remote at best; as an actor, maybe. Matus sets up a straw man argument when he says Oxfordians “reject utterly” the idea that Will Shakspere, if the author, could not have saved his manuscripts. That’s not the point. Oxfordians agree that play scripts belonged first to the acting companies, and that most have not survived. Nothing in chapter 3 supports Will Shakspere as author.
Chapter 4 is a long chapter on the publication of Shakespeare’s plays. Matus discusses whether authors had any control over their works and suggests that Oxford could have controlled the publication of his plays if he’d wanted to. He adds that many plays were published without indications of permission yet their authors were not suspected of being noblemen. The logic is weak. A minor point in any case. Then follows a lengthy discussion of Sir George Buck’s role and whether Shakespeare’s (i.e. Oxford’s) plays were suppressed after 1604. Matus argues against that idea and also against the idea that Pembroke suppressed the Pavier quartos.
Thus, in his view it’s not true that Oxford’s survivors were controlling the publication of his plays. This is possibly so; more research on this matter is needed. The fact remains that the First Folio was dedicated to Oxford’s son-in-law and his son-in-law’s brother, not to anyone connected to Will Shakspere. Matus recognizes the false claims of Heminges and Condell in the First Folio but calls them common exaggerations. Then he contradicts himself by accepting as valid their claim that Shakespeare was their “fellow”.
In general in this chapter Matus argues that if Oxford were the author he and his family would have seen to it that the plays were published properly. The argument ignores the realities of Elizabethan and Jacobean politics. The plays commented on court affairs, satirizing Burghley and others. Oxford’s authorship was known, but probably could not be recognized with impunity. Besides, playwriting was déclassé. It’s possible that Oxford’s survivors were ambivalent about preserving the plays after his death. Or there may have been other, highly political reasons. Again, more research needs to be done.
Finally, Matus seems to think that Oxfordians believe that Will Shakspere, if the author, should have saved his manuscripts and had the plays printed correctly. He notes that only Ben Jonson did so. But Oxfordians agree that most playwrights seemed indifferent to publication or unable to secure proper publication. They only suggest that, unlike Jonson, Will Shakspere did not show any concern at all for Hamlet, Lear, etc., an incredible attitude for an ambitious businessman and retired landowner.
Chapter 5 opens with 17 paragraphs on how Elizabethan dramatists wrote plays and whether the ur-Hamlet theory tells how Shakespeare worked. Matus comes to no particular conclusion, and switches to Leir/Lear. He then falls into circular reasoning that Will Shakspere, like others, plundered the plays of predecessors because he was Will Shakspere.
Next Matus disputes the Oxfordian idea that Shakespeare wrote literature, not just plays for pay. His reasoning: The plays were not excessively long for theater performances. This is a matter of opinion, but has little relevance to the authorship question. He disputes Oxfordian claims that many of the plays were written initially and primarily for performance at court and at the Inns of the Court, but with little evidence. And he discusses the publication of Troilus and Cressida, but without mention of its relevance to authorship. He takes pains to show that universities did not welcome acting companies; Oxfordians do not dispute that.
He concludes that the 16 quartos (1597–1622) place Shakespeare and the plays in the public theaters. Oxfordians only suggest that since the plays are all about royalty and nobility their performance for the court and nobility takes on special significance. Moreover, to the extent the plays are seen as not important in court and the Inns of the Court, Will Shakspere is deprived of the opportunity, relied on by Stratfordians, to learn about the law and the ways of kings, queens and nobility that he wrote about so well.
Chapter 5 offers no significant challenge to the case for Oxford.
In chapter 6 Matus appears to come to grips with the dating issue, but his arguments do not refute the Oxfordian position. Matus simply accepts the traditional chronology of Stratfordian scholars without noting their own caveats: Evans (and Levin) says it is “beset with hazards and uncertainties”; Barnet calls it “highly uncertain” and “informed guesswork”. Matus ignores the unlikely phenomenon of no apprenticeship work and early retirement. He barely mentions a Stratfordian argument that Meres’s list forces too many plays into the six years before Oxford’s death. Perhaps he’s seen the error of that argument. He complains that Oxfordians have no chronology, completely ignoring the work of Eva Turner Clark and the Ogburns. Oxfordians today are generally judicious and perhaps overly cautious about the precise dating of the individual plays, while holding that Oxford’s lifespan fits the works of Shakespeare.
Matus begins with a long critique of Cairncross’s re-dating of five pre-1598 plays but never relates his analysis to the authorship question. Nothing prohibits the composition of the five plays well before Oxford died. Matus then examines three plays in particular:
- He argues that The Winter’s Tale could not have been a re-write of a 1594 lost play with a similar name because plays were registered only once and this play was registered in 1623. But Antony and Cleopatra and Troilus and Cressida were registered twice.
- He argues that The Tempest must have been based on shipwreck accounts of 1609 but fails to recognize shipwreck and exploration accounts that pre-dated Oxford’s death and that are at least as similar to Shakespeare’s account. Muir studied the 1609 reports and judged the parallels to be exaggerated.
- He argues that Henry VIII was called “new” in 1613 and dismisses theater references to a Henry VIII gown sometime in the 1590s. More research is needed in this area.
Whatever the dating, nothing precludes these plays or any others first heard of after 1604—from having been written before 1604. (Three plays were not heard of until the First Folio, years after Will Shakspere died.) He fails to wring any significant conclusions about authorship from the dating debate.
Chapter 7 examines Shakespeare’s reputation among his contemporaries, generally denigrating it. There is no discussion of authorship, except that Matus generally considers that Shakespeare/Shakspere was only one of several great dramatists of his time, surpassed in some cases by others; thus there’s no need to search for exceptional education, experience, or background.
Chapter 8 describes the beatification of Shakespeare in the 18th century and then shifts into an analysis of the Stratford bust. Matus makes the usual Stratfordian arguments: Dugdale made a mistake in showing a sack instead of a pillow and omitting the pen and paper, and no changes were made in the early 1700s. This argument rests on a denial that Dugdale sketched what he saw and approved of the engraving Hollar did for Dugdale’s own book.
Dugdale might get details wrong in his poor sketch. But he would not omit paper, pen and writing surface for the bust of “our poet Shakespeare” if pen and paper and writing surface had indeed been present in the bust he was looking at. Unaccountably, or perhaps tellingly, no illustration of the Dugdale/Hollar engraving is provided, although the Folger has it. Instead he features Vertue’s engraving (with pen and paper) of a century later and five other (all later) depictions of the bust. The Hollar engraving, damning to his thesis, is conspicuous by its absence.
Chapter 10 – Closing Arguments
In “Closing Arguments,” Matus takes up miscellaneous points not covered earlier. He finds other playwrights who had “lost years” and indulges in some speculation. Regarding the silence at Will Shakspere’s death, he finds that Fletcher, Massinger and King James did not have proper burials, but burial is not the point, silence is. He finds some educated men from Stratford, and he finds a commoner who knew what was going on at court. He says Shakespeare would have picked up falconry terms, etc. and legal lore by reading and listening to experts talk. Someone else may have written the French scenes in his plays. His knowledge of the classics is not all that great; he could have learned it in grammar school in Stratford. (Even logic and rhetoric?) His vocabulary (largest of any writer in English at any time) was not that impressive; he used words in different senses.
Most of his rebuttals here are simply conjectures or out-of-hand dismissals. The rebuttals can be challenged simply on the basis of common sense. His methodology, moreover, completely ignores the way the evidence accumulates to throw fatal doubts upon the belief in Will Shakspere as the author.
Next Matus accuses Oxfordians of calling Shakespeare’s genius for language “an isolated phenomenon”. This is an exaggerated accusation at best. His commentary on it is weak. Finally, Matus re-states his main thesis: Shakespeare was an actor who wrote plays for acting companies in the common playhouses; we should not raise him above his fellow dramatists. And someone like Oxford, he says, could not have acquired the requisite playwriting skills. But that ignores Oxford’s reputation, recognized at the time and by Matus, as an outstanding poet and playwright, and as patron of acting companies. Besides, most of the playwrights of genius down through history have not (except for Moliere and Noel Coward) been actors.
Irvin Matus, an independent researcher, says that he spent more than six years at the Folger Shakespeare Library researching the book, which does show evidence of extensive reading in primary and secondary sources. Not mentioned in footnotes or bibliography, however, are many standard Oxfordian works, including Clark, Ogburn and Ogburn, and Hope and Holston—serious omissions in a serious book that attacks the case for Oxford.