The following essay was originally published in two parts in the Summer 1997 and the Fall 1997/Winter 1998 Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter.
Last year, I wrote an article for the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn’s concept of “paradigm shifts” and the Oxfordian movement. (“A Little More Than Kuhn and Less Than Kind,” Newsletter, Winter 1996.)
In the interim, the essay’s reception outside the Oxfordian enclave has been delightfully mixed. It has been assigned reading lists in higher education, while in the Internet’s online world, the Obfuscation Police were apparently called on to disperse the growing crowds around Kuhn’s work.
“Ever since Kuhn’s book came out in the 1960s, every crackpot whose ideas are rejected by the establishment has piously declared that they represent a new ‘paradigm,’ and that the old guard is just clinging to their outmoded ideas because they can’t see beyond the old paradigm,” wrote Shakespeare Authorship Page co-manager David Kathman earlier this year. “This does not mean that everyone who invokes Kuhn is a crackpot, only that many of them are, and that just invoking Kuhn in favor of your cause doesn’t mean a whole lot.”
Online correspondent Caius Marcius went Kathman one better. He stated that the authorship controversy was about a “fact” -i.e. whether Oxford or Shakspere of Stratford was the author-and not a theory. Therefore Kuhn’s findings were irrelevant to Oxfordianism. (Never mind that the same sleight-of-hand can be performed with Kuhn’s own case study. Namely, the stir Copernicus caused was merely about a “fact”-i.e. whether the Sun or the Earth is at the center of the Solar System. Argal Kuhn’s findings are irrelevant to Kuhn’s data.)
Wrote Paul Crowley in frustration, “The difference in our positions about Shakespeare is so deep and extensive, and the gap is so unbridgeable that an invocation of Kuhnian paradigms is… entirely appropriate.”
Whatever one makes of the e-flak, it’s at least true that beneath all the garble, the nay-sayers have a basic point. Kuhn’s landmark study was the foundation upon which my article was based, and that study was nominally about an entirely different field from authorship research. There lies the nub. Science is not literature, nor is the twain the ‘tother. The differences are obvious. But here is the point beyond which the nay-sayers do not go. Appreciating the less obvious similarities shared by all fields endeavoring to uncover objective truth stands to benefit any truth-seeker, no matter what their discipline. Archaeology or genetics, psycholinguistics or grain science: if the purpose is to gather empirical evidence and construct theories to best explain the evidence, then lessons drawn from one discipline stand to benefit another discipline.
Since literary studies has seen nothing like the Shakespeare authorship question in its two plus centuries of academic investiture, guidance from outside the field could be useful. And since literary studies provide only part of the tools necessary to do Oxfordian research-history, logic, philosophy, theology, rhetoric, classics and science constitute yet more components of the problem-guidance from outside the field is especially germane.
Multidisciplinary studies, after all, call for multidisciplinary solutions.
So it was that Kuhn offered an attractive foundation on which to build an investigation of the “Looney theory.” But it was only a starting point.
Where one turns from there is entirely up to the investigator. The history of history undoubtedly holds revelations for Oxfordians hunting for precedent and instructive analogies. The two millennia of changing tides in philosophy may likewise present opportunities to grapple with the Oxfordian theory’s place in the larger context of paradigm shifts.
However, one needn’t necessarily venture afield from Kuhn either. The sciences are far from exhausted in teaching the patient authorship student how better to pursue her craft. My own background before entering the authorship arena was in physics and astronomy. And as a discipline constantly turning up new empirical evidence, refining and even refuting itself, the physical sciences can provide helpful perspective to Oxfordians up to their neck in 400 year-old historical documents and 16th century drama and poetry.
Perhaps the most valuable thing I learned in my technical training was to appreciate beauty. (Yes, Virginia, beauty is admired and even valued by the pocket protector crowd.) Of course, the kind of beauty one experiences in the sciences is different in substance from the beauty found in a Miles Davis album or a poem by Shelley or a painting by Picasso.
The beauty to be found in a theory, equation or concept is no less profound, though. (And I must confess to a disposition to theoretical beauty beyond the scope of most physicists-I went to graduate school to study general relativity, that most impractical and jobless subfield of physics founded nearly entirely on aesthetic arguments.)
The beauty of a theory is, like all aesthetic judgments, ultimately in the beholder’s eye. Fortunately, though, many great scientific minds have already put down what to their eyes constitutes absolute theoretical beauty.
And it only takes a few select words of advice to see the wisdom waiting to be tapped, for those willing to look.
“Truth and Beauty are all my argument”
Werner Heisenberg is one of the founders of quantum physics. Heisenberg is perhaps best known for his formula codifying the inherent uncertainty found in measurements at the subatomic level-the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. And though he discovered the mechanism for nature’s eternal equivocations, Heisenberg was far from uncertain about the difference between ideas that worked and those that didn’t work.
In his essay “The Meaning of Beauty in the Exact Sciences,” Heisenberg crystallizes the notion remarkably when he notes, “beauty is the proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole.” Like the Sonnets or the Bill of Rights, Heisenberg’s 15-word remark smacks of such precision that one could imagine less eloquent thinkers writing entire books without ever arriving at the core truth Heisenberg lighted upon.
Given Heisenberg’s working definition alone, then, one can begin to explore what is “beautiful” about the Oxfordian hypothesis, how one can further refine its beauty and how best to make that beauty evident to a world ignorant of its charms.
The question of what is “parts” and what is “whole” in Heisenberg’s terms immediately arises for one applying his dictum. The answer, it appears, can be found on more than one level. Begin with the smallest unit of poetic and dramatic meaning, the individual word. At the microscopic level, Oxfordian and Stratfordian theories offer competing interpretations. Neither necessarily emerges as a clear winner in the war of exegeses.
When Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger” (2, 2, 174), Oxfordians titter at the gall of the author to call his father-in-law a bawd. Stratfordians attempt to deny this interpretation, since there is no way a common playwright could so besmirch the memory of William Cecil, Lord Burghley and escape with his head. Ironically, the most topical gloss of “fishmonger” gives the usually topically-allergic orthodox scholars plausible deniability: Burghley introduced Civil Lent to England, requiring all citizens to eat fish on Fridays. In that sense, Hamlet could perhaps only be referring to Civil Lent, thus clearing him of slander in this case.
It’s a big perhaps, but so long as one doesn’t pull the lens back any further, it’s a perhaps that can join the 27,431 other perhapses that make up the Stratford burgher’s hypothesized literary biography. As it happens, though, there are those today who have apparently had enough perhapses. In an amusing theoretical contortion, some of the less strategically-endowed Stratfordians have made the revisionist assertion that Polonius actually has nothing whatsoever to do with Burghley.
Say what you will about the notion’s patent absurdity–as Stratfordian scholar Lilian Winstanley wrote, “The resemblances [between Polonius and Burghley] are too great to be ascribed to any form of accident” –the plan does have immediate payoff.
Over the short-term, denying the canon’s most undeniable link to Oxford does undoubtedly buttress a few stone walls around Stratford, making the ramparts protecting, say, Hamnet Shakspere’s crib more impermeable to heretical assaults. But ultimately it’s pure folly. Oxfordians should in fact encourage such scholarly denial as much as possible, since baggage of that heft being tossed overboard portends titanic things for the “S.S. Stratford.” (Could the cry “Abandon ship!” be far behind?)
Whatever Polonial or even Corambial position a Shakespeare scholar takes, though, the fact remains that when the facts remain at the single-word level, Oxfordians are implicitly ceding ground. Focusing on microscopic details such as individual words, documents, records and facts plays to the Stratfordians’ advantage. When there is no big picture to confront, there is plenty of room for any authorship theory to roam. After he debated Prof. Alan Nelson (April 1997), Charles Burford remarked that Nelson evinced an almost talismanic worship of minutiae–and conversely an allergic aversion to the aggregate.
“I wanted to create a background against which Nelson’s comments would be heard for what they are: fragile, pedantic and artificial,” Burford wrote on the Phaeton online conference after the debate. “Of course, the cult of overspecialization in universities today (or ‘minutism’ as I call it) helps foster Nelson’s approach to Shakespeare. As long as he never steps back from his microscope and views every little detail of the age on a separate slide, he can live out his Stratford fetish. In that regard he’s a bit like the Lady of Shalott, weaving with the aid of a mirror. He may well be half sick of shadows for all we know, but Lancelot is going to have to sing mighty enticingly to break that mirror and force the professor’s confrontation with reality.”
So while there may be “beauty” at the level of the individual word, a debate waged solely on these grounds is probably not winnable for the heretic. “EVer”s and “truth”s may be authorial curios, but rhetorically they’re weak weaponry against a three century-old Stratfordian tradition of fetishistic devotion to the microscopic.
Moving on up
The hierarchy of beauty, however, offers greater rewards the higher an Oxfordian dares to climb. At the next level of “parts” to “whole”-the sentence-one begins to see patterns of meaning emerging where the Stratford burgher’s advocates can only make collages of OED definitions.
In Merry Wives of Windsor, for instance, Ford–an autobiographical character embodying Oxford’s jealousies directed against his first wife circa 1576–has a few authorial moments to give a heretic pause. In the play’s reconciliation scene, Falstaff–who joins Ford and Fenton as the play’s trio of authorial figures–realizes he’s been fooled once again.
The scene as a whole is very funny. Falstaff enters dressed as a stag, and most of the characters have an opportunity to mock him, mock others or mock themselves. Jokes rain from the sky like potatoes. And Ford has his share.
“I do begin to perceive that I am made an ass,” Falstaff says.
“Ay, and an ox too; both the proofs are extant,” replies Ford. (5, 5, 119-120)
Both lines read as if they should be followed with laughter. They’re set up like a comedic point-counterpoint, a parry followed by a riposte. Yet I saw a very funny production of Merry Wives several times this summer, and Ford’s line never got a laugh.
Immediately, of course, any blunderbuss who knows the author’s name can see the quickie joke in “Ox” Ford’s line. He’s filling in the blanks for those slowpokes who hadn’t quite figured out the whole story by now. Its meaning–which in this case translates to humor-is on a single–word level. Funny, but we can do better.
At the sentence level of meaning, then, the remark begs to be glossed. Why does Ford refer to “proofs” that are “extant”? Such quasi-legal words implore the reader to look outside the sentence for context.
At an earlier point in the play the Welsh parson Hugh Evans questions the schoolboy William Page on his Latin. “What is ‘lapis,’ William?” He asks.
William responds, “A stone.”
“And what is ‘a stone,’ William?”
“No; it is ‘lapis.’ I pray you, remember in your prain.” (4, 1, 31-6)
Again, this scene has some funny moments–mostly due to Mistress Quickly’s malapropisms and misapprehensions. The above sentences, though, read like Ford’s laughless one-liner. They feel as though they should be around for a reason, but neither the scene nor the characters seem to want to provide it.
Here’s where context again needs to be introduced. And here’s where one can begin to see the next level of proper conformity of parts to one another and to the whole. In his published letters, Gabriel Harvey audaciously referred to Oxford as “the ass” –obviously pejorative but perhaps also a reference to Apuleius’ Golden Ass.
Falstaff’s line, then, becomes both a contextual joke on his own buffoonery and a subtextual joke about his (i.e. the author’s) many sobriquets.
The “ox” gag continues on that theme.
Thomas Nashe’s Strange News (1592) contains a strange dedication to one “Master William Apis Lapis”–which Charles Wisner Barrell proved quite convincingly was Oxford (cf. Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly (Vol. 5, no. 4, p. 49, Oct. 1944)).
“Apis Lapis,” as he argues, is a “stoned [castrated] bull” or “ox.” So when Ford calls Falstaff an ox, he’s not just playing the name game.
Ford’s proof that Falstaff is an ox was recited by the schoolboy William in the previous act. So long as we remember in our “prain” that ‘lapis’ is stone, the author has given us enough information to get both the reference to and the substance of Nashe’s bilingual joke. Of course, the absurdity is compounded by the fact that Ford is as much “ox” as Falstaff. Perhaps more so.
The irony is often rich when Shakespeare’s authorial characters interact. Ford and Falstaff certainly provide the author ample opportunity to goof around with the very definition of self. Within the play, both characters are unique and distinct individuals. Yet as they acknowledge in the above exchange, their identities are only as different as the two nicknames for the same person. Now that’s funny. “The anchor is deep,” to quote Nym. “Will that humor pass?”
Part II – “Beauty” in the higher realms
In the last issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, the specter of physicist Werner Heisenberg–godfather of quantum mechanics and discoverer of the uncertainty principle which bears his name–was invoked in an attempt to lay out some of the intuitive appeal of the Oxfordian theory.
Heisenberg valued the concept of beauty in a theory, and one of his remarks on the subject speaks to a quality contained in Looney’s looney idea.
“Beauty,” as he said in a 1970 address to the Bavarian Academy of Fine Arts, “is the proper conformity of the parts to one another and to the whole.”
Having already considered examples of the truth of this remark at the level of individual words and sentences, we can now ratchet up the rigging to a higher level of meaning.
Heisenberg’s notion of “beauty,” that is, can be appreciated as one stands back from a painting as well as at the level of individual brush strokes. Indeed, art lovers would no doubt add that much meaning and aesthetic value is lost when one focuses too much on the microscopic. A painter uses individual strokes to be considered with all the rest of her strokes on the canvas, not to be studied in isolation. And so it appears to be with a good theory–it should only get better as one stands back to look at the whole canvas or at one canvas in relation to other works in the gallery.
In this column, I’ll consider Heisenberg’s remark in the context of not a word or a sentence but an entire scene – Bottom and company’s enactment of “Pyramus and Thisbe” in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Act 5, Scene 1.
As it is typically performed today, Bottom’s play-within-a-play is an interlude given over to buffoonery and light laughs. Of course, it’s undeniably a very funny scene, and it holds plenty of opportunities for a good comic actor to show off his or her skills.
But there’s more to Bottom’s antics than such surface-level interpretations would allow. Indeed, the beauty of the Oxfordian theory reveals itself to those willing to dig beneath the surface.
As anyone familiar with the play knows, the dramatic centerpiece of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the marriage do-si-do game played by two young ladies (Helena and Hermia) and two suitors (Demetrius and Lysander). And, as it happens, the quartet’s matchmaking and mis-matchmaking adventures line up nicely with the nuptial antics leading to the 1595 marriage of Oxford’s first daughter, Elizabeth to William Stanley, Earl of Derby.
Without entering into a scholarly analysis of the correspondences–neither space nor format allows for such–suffice it to note that the broken third-party marriage arrangement between Demetrius and Hermia followed by Hermia’s marriage to Lysander at least roughly parallels the broken third-party marriage arrangement between the Earl of Southampton and Elizabeth Vere followed by Elizabeth Vere’s marriage to Derby. (Some Stratfordian scholars have speculated that A Midsummer Night’s Dream was first performed at the Vere-Derby wedding, which would further implicate the Vere-Derby match as potential dramatic fodder for the play.)
While the four romantic leads gallivant in the forest, falling in love and falling under the spell of Puck’s potions, the weaver Bottom and his crew work up to their performance of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” The Ovidian tale of unrequited love, in fact, caps A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Only a series of epilogues by Puck and the Fairy King and Queen stands between the end of Bottom’s drama and the final curtain of the entire play.
Within the orthodox theory of authorship, then, “Bottom’s Dream” –as Bottom calls his interlude– provides a comic ending to the play and burlesques the themes found throughout the drama. “As a part of the whole play the performance is organic not only because it is the achieved goal of the artisan-plot, but also by its relevance to the main themes: love, and the relation between imagination, illusion and reality,” writes Harold F. Brooks in his introduction to the Arden edition of A Midsummer’s Night Dream. That’s about it, though. Stratfordian discussion of any “proper conformity” between Bottom’s interlude and the rest of the play scarcely if ever ventures beyond the broad-sweeping themes Brooks writes about. But if one allows for the above Vere-Derby-Southampton / Hermia-Lysander-Demetrius parallels to creep in, the conformity Heisenberg seeks emerges like the fairies who populate A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s woods.
First, one need only recall that Southampton was the dedicatee of numerous works of literature akin to the story of “Pyramus and Thisbe.” So Bottom’s reworking of the old tale gains a satirical edge as a commentary on the many hacks who dedicated editions of their verse to Southampton after “Shake-speare” did so in Venus & Adonis and Lucrece.
Some of these works –such as John Clapham’s Narcissus, Thomas Powell’s Welsh Bayte and Thomas Nashe’s Unfortunate Traveller– name Southampton as the dedicatee. (Nashe also dedicated but never published a bawdy poem “The Choice of Valentines” to a “Lord S. … the fairest bud the red rose ever bore.” Southampton’s biographers C.C. Stopes and G.P.V. Akrigg have both argued that Nashe’s “Lord S.” is Southampton.)
Other tales –such as Drayton’s Endymion and Phoebe, Chapman’s Ovid’s Banquet of Sense, Thomas Peend’s Harmaphroditus and Salmacis, Lodge’s Scylla and Heywood’s Oenone and Paris– follow the Venus & Adonis model closely enough that a nod to Southampton can reasonably be inferred. One other work bears closer scrutiny in the present context. That is, in 1597, William Burton dedicated his Clitophon and Leucippe–an English translation of a romance by Achilles Tatius–to Southampton. The tale it tells casts both “Pyramus and Thisbe” and A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a revealing light.
The young lover Clitophon, as Burton tells it, finds himself in an unwanted marriage arrangement made by his father and instead pines for his true love Leucippe. (In this case, Clitophon’s distaste for his father’s marriage plans is heightened by the fact that Clitophon’s proposed bride is also his half-sister.) The two lovers elope, and, as in “Pyramus,” one of them mistakenly learns in the midst of the drama that the other has been slain. Unlike the tragic ending of “Pyramus,” though, Clitophon and Leucippe’s story ends happily with their wedding in the presence of Leucippe’s father.
Considering the above in the light of Heisenberg’s dictum, one can see that even a cursory Oxfordian reading of “Bottom’s Dream” reveals entirely new layers of “proper conformit[ies] of the parts to one another and to the whole.”
As noted above, since Bottom presents an Ovidian tale before Demetrius and company, Bottom’s work can be seen as a spoof of the many Ovidian imitations presented to Southampton. But since the publication of Venus & Adonis is itself related to the Elizabeth Vere-Southampton marriage match (a fact well documented in Ogburn, Looney, etc.), “Bottom’s Dream” is also Shakespeare’s self-deprecating portrait of his own “unpolished lines.”
Viewed in this light, the autobiographical character Theseus would in a sense become a co-author of Bottom’s masque. And that may in fact be part of the joke when in lines 42-84, Theseus repeatedly insists on viewing “Pyramus and Thisbe” despite the protestations of Athens’ Master of Revels. As Oxford must have done on many occasions, Theseus both mocks the drama and demands that it be shown, whether it’s “extremely strech’d and conn’d with cruel pain” or not.
Furthermore, like Hamlet’s “Mousetrap,” Bottom’s masque also functions like a dumb show of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It retells the essential elements of the drama in the guise of an ancient tale. In Hollywood terms, it’s conveying to the audience (which is both the characters on stage and the actual audience) something about the “back story” of Demetrius (Pyramus) and Hermia (Thisbe). They may have come to love each other at some point, it says, but there’s a wall that separates them from one another. And, as a note of caution, it shows that a tragic end would have befallen Demetrius and Hermia had they instead gone through with her father’s marriage agreement.
Finally, Bottom’s staging of “Pyramus and Thisbe” brings to mind the language of Sonnet 116. (“Let me not to the marriage of true minds / Admit impediments…”) It is as if The Wall that separates the two protagonists is the ultimate impediment in preventing the lovers’ amorous intents. Rather, the only things The Wall–which is actually a character in Bottom’s play–allows to pass between Pyramus and Thisbe are conversations and plans. The Wall will not be an “impediment” in uniting matters of the “mind”; it will only impede where matters of love and marriage are concerned. (“I kiss the wall’s hole, not your lips at all,” says Thisbe after she tries to kiss Pyramus through a chink in the wall.)
Once Pyramus and Thisbe have unknowingly sealed their fate never to become lovers–they both agree to meet at “Ninny’s tomb” where they will both die–The Wall acknowledges that his job is done: “Thus have I, Wall, my part discharged so; And, being done, thus Wall away doth go.” (Lines 207-208) Over two essays, we have seen several instances where Stratfordian interpretations find few if any “proper conformit[ies] of the parts to one another and to the whole” and where only a few paragraphs of Oxfordian gloss deliver the desired conformities in abundance. That, in Heisenberg’s terms, is beauty.
It has also become apparent that as one climbs to higher levels of “parts” to “whole”–i.e. from words to sentences to scenes–the Oxfordian interpretations gain multiple layers of “conformities” while any gems Stratfordian readings turn up diminish in carat and hew.
This is perhaps where Oxfordians should consider their home turf. For while orthodox scholars may be able to sneak in a topicality or two with individual words (“the author’s father was a glover, and perhaps he heard the words ‘paring knife’ in his father’s shop…”), there is little the Stratfordian theory can deliver vis-a-vis higher levels of “conformity” in the works.
And it’s this same “beauty” contest that ultimately determines the superiority of one theory over another. As J.W.N. Sullivan, biographer of both Newton and Beethoven, wrote in 1919, “The measure of the success of a scientific theory is, in fact, a measure of its aesthetic value, since it is a measure of the extent to which it has introduced harmony in what was before chaos.”
(For a more comprehensive discussion of aesthetics in theory see S. Chandrasekhar’s Truth and Beauty: Aesthetics and Motivations in Science (U. Chicago Press, 1987))