Kurt Kreiler


To Bill Bryson, who in his short biography of Shakespeare firmly advocates the case of the man of Stratford, who is, as Bryson observes himself, for “being nowhere and everywhere”, the literary equivalent of an electron, we owe a summary of the reasons why, according to the orthodox view, Oxford cannot be Shakespeare. What do I have to argue against it?

1. “Oxford”, so Bryson reports the orthodox viewpoint, “was arrogant, petulant and spoiled, irresponsible with money, sexually dissolute, widely disliked and given to outbursts of deeply unsettling violence. At the age of seventeen he murdered a household servant in a fury (but escaped punishment after a pliant jury was persuaded to rule that the servant had run onto his sword). Nothing in his behaviour, at any point in his life indicated the least gift for compassion, empathy or generosity of spirit – nor indeed the commitment to hard work that would have allowed him to write more than three dozen plays anonymously, in addition to the work under his own name, while remaining actively engaged at court.”
Oxford’s contemporaries, it should be underscored, have contradicted this assessment in every point. The Earl was one of the most generous Maecenases of his time. His extant letters show him to have been sympathetic and very well able of compassion. That the seventeen years old youth lethally hit Thomas Brincknell by accident, posterity cannot judge objectively. And to which arduous labour Oxford was able is shown through the publication of the dramatic novel The Adventures of Master F. I. (with an appendix of fifty poems) at the age of twenty-three. The report, propagated for over three hundred years, about his moral and sexual abjectness, springs from his irascible foe Lord Henry Howard, whom the Encyclopedia Britannica calls “one of the most unscrupulous and traitorous characters of his time.”
2. “Looney (1920) never produced evidence to explain why Oxford – a man of boundless vanity – would seek to hide his identity. Why would he be happy to give the world some unremembered plays and middling poems under his own name, but then retreat into anonymity as he developed, in middle age, a fantastic genius?”
The learned aristocrat had to conceal his identity because, as the great scholar John Selden still in the middle of the seventeenth century held, it was “ridiculous” for a lord to put his verses into print during his lifetime. Still less the courtly aristocratic behavioural codex did allow the Lord Great Chamberlain to publish his dramatical work. Young Oxford chose as his first pseudonym “Meritum petere grave”. He also chose the pseudonyms: “Fortunatus Infoelix”, “My lucke is losse”, “Ignoto” and “Phaeton”. As for the eight printed poetical lamentations signed “E.O.” in 1576, the poet intended them as self-legitimations. Oxford’s “unremembered plays” are Shakespeare plays. And, finally, his early poems are not, as his detractors are wont to rehash, of inferior quality, but are, on the contrary, poetical and intellectual jewels, among them compositions such as “My mind to me a kingdom is”, “A crown of bays” and “If women could be fair”, which reveal Oxford as a stylistic perfectionist only equaled by one other contemporary poet, to wit Shakespeare.
3. “The problems with Oxford don’t end quite there. There is the matter of the dedications to his two narrative poems. At the time of Venus and Adonis, Oxford was forty-four years old and a senior Earl to Southampton, who was till a downy youth. The sycophantic tone of the dedication, with its apology for choosing ‘so strong a prop for so weak a burden’ and its promise to ‘take advantage of all idle hours till I have honoured you with some graver labour’, is hardly the voice one would expect to find from a senior aristocrat to a junior one, particularly one as proud as Oxford.”
Bill Bryson proves himself ignorant of the courtly phraseology of the sixteenth century. The display of modesty is the hallmark of the courtier, a straight application of the rule prescribed by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier: “To make no mistake at all, the courtier should, on the contrary, when he knows the praises he receives are deserved, not assent to them too openly nor let them pass without some protest. Rather he should tend to disclaim them modestly...” A rule so wonderfully pithily epitomized and ironized by the singer Balthasar (perhaps an allusion to Castiglione’s Christian name) in Much Ado About Nothing: “Note this before my notes; / There’s not a note of mine that’s worth the noting.” (II/3) A tinge of irony also shines through Shakespeare’s dedication. Another trope of a courtier’s rhetoric with regard to his own artistic production is found in the dedication: that it was exclusively reserved to “idle hours”. Evidently, Ben Jonson, Chapman and other non-aristocratic authors living of their pen never used it. The dedication of The Rape of Lucrece also points to an aristocratic author; such a dedication, if written by a commoner, would have been presumptuous and foolish: “The love I dedicate to your lordship is without end; whereof this pamphlet, without beginning, is but a superfluous moiety.”
4. “There is also the unanswered question of why Oxford, patron of his own acting company, the Earl of Oxford’s Men, would write his best work for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a competing troupe.”
Simply because after 1586 Oxford’s company of players became insignificant or was partly transferred to other companies as in the case of the Dutton brothers, who moved to the Queen’s Men.
5. “Then, too, there is the problem of explaining away the many textual references that point to William Shakespeare’s [Shaksper’s] authorship – the pun on Anne Hathaway’s name in the sonnets, for example.”
The lines in sonnet 145 read:
“Those lips that Love’s own hand did make, / Breathed forth the sound that said ‘I hate’ / ... But when she saw my woeful state, / Straight in her heart did mercy come, / Chiding that tongue that ever sweet, / Was used in giving gentle doom: / And taught it thus anew to greet: / ... ‘I hate’, from hate away she threw, / And saved my life saying ‘not you’.”
To make Anne Hathaway, even if she had been bequeathed the second-best bed, into Miss Hate Away does not correspond to Shakespeare’s style. And, then, would Sir Philip Sidney, too, in the ninth song in Astrophel and Stella (c. 1583) have punned on the name Hathaway: “No, she hates me, well-away, / Faining love, somewhat to please me.”
6. “But easily the most troubling weakness of the Oxford argument is that Edward de Vere incontestably died in 1604, when many of Shakespeare’s plays had not yet appeared – indeed in some cases could not have been written, as they were influenced by later events. The Tempest, notably, was inspired by an account of a shipwreck on Bermuda written by one William Strachey in 1609. Macbeth likewise was clearly cognizant of the Gunpowder Plot (1605), an event Oxford did not live to see.”
The Tempest contains no verbatim echoes of Stracheys’s report (written about 1610 but not published until 1625). Shakespeare knew the descriptions of a storm from Ovid, Virgil, and Ariosto, though his own decription is mainly based on Erasmus’ Naufragium (1518) and Richard Eden’s Decades of the New World (1577). The description of the St. Elmo’s fire is not for the first time found in Strachey but almost identically in Erasmus and the third volume of Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations, Voiages, Traffiques and Discoveries (1600). (And why has it never been noted by orthodox scholars that Marston-Chapman-Jonson in Eastward Ho! (1605) not only parody Hamlet but also The Tempest?)
And another thing: There is no connection between Macbeth and the Gunpowder Plot (1605). There is, however , a connection between Macbeth and Henry Garnet’s doctrine of “equivocation”. (Macbeth II/3: “PORTER. Faith, here's an equivocator that could swear in both the scales against either scale, who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.”)
But A Treatise of Equivocation was written during Robert Southwell's lifetime, between 1593 and 1595. It is clear that Garnet made some corrections in the time of Queen Elizabeth. The priest declares in his examination that “his correction was made in Queen Elizabeth's time, soon after Mr. Southwell's death [1595].” Six or seven years later the Treatise was printed. “And here,” says the authorized Report of the Proceedings [1606], “was shewed a booke written not long before the Queene's death, at what time Thomas Winter was employed into Spaine [1602], intituled A Treatise of Equivocation , which booke being seene and allowed by Garnet, the Superior of the Jesuits, and Blackwell, the Archpriest of England”. (See Sir E. K. Chambers, William Shakespeare, vol. I, p. 474 (Oxford 1930): “No doubt the Jesuit doctrine of equivocation had been familiar, at least since the trial of Robert Southwell in 1595.”) - Criticised for his use of equivocation, which Coke called "open and broad lying and forswearing", and attacked for not warning the authorities of what Catesby planned, Henry Garnet was sentenced to death in 1606.
7. “Altogether more than fifty candidates have been suggested as possible alternative Shakespeares.”
If after a murder more than fifty persons are suspected, it does not follow, that none of the suspects is guilty and that no murder has occurred. And the poor chap of Stratford has been waiting too long for his well-deserved acquittal.