Who’s to blame for the Shakespeare authorship controversy?
Thank God. Someone (Dispositio, here, hat-tip Dainty Ballerina) is writing something sensible on the Shakespeare Authorship issue. The whole blog is worth reading, and the basic argument – more needs to be done to counter the conspiracy theorists – is surely right.
But I was particularly pleased to see someone say this: “the entire authorship controversy is Bardolatry’s evil twin”. I couldn’t agree more. In many respects, the Shakespeare industry deserves the plague of Oxfordians currently, well, plaguing it.
The fundamental flaw in the arguments of those who want to claim the plays for someone who wasn’t William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon is the contempt for anything approaching the norms of historical evidence. That is, contemporary sources within either the subject’s life-time, or within the life-time of those who knew him or her personally. (We do not, for example, ignore things said about Elizabeth I by those who knew her merely because they were written down after her death.)
By that unremarkable standard, there is no evidence that the works in question were written by anyone other than William Shakespeare, and a good deal of evidence that they were: fourteen of the plays were attributed to him in print in his lifetime, with the Folio – compiled by two former colleagues with the formidable authority of Shakespeare’s greatest competitor, Ben Jonson, behind them – attributing the other 24 seven years later. And that is not to mention the poems, Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and the Sonnets, again all publicly attributed in his lifetime. There is no counter evidence of similar weight. Ergo, there is a reason no-one questioned those attributions for some three hundred years: there is no historical basis for doing so.
But Shakespearean authorities are careless about such matters too, when it suits them. There has been far too much willingness – no, eagerness – among Shakespeareans over the last 150 years or so to assert as true things that are merely speculation: the overwhelming desire to flesh out our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life compresses possibilities into probabilities, and probabilities into facts.
In his book, Shakespeare’s Lives, which I can’t recommend highly enough, one of the great 20th Shakespearean scholars, Samuel Schoenbaum, relates an observation of Desmond McCarthy’s about Shakespearean biography which illuminates this process. Trying to discern Shakespeare’s personality, McCarthy said, is like looking at a portrait set behind darkened glass in a gallery. At first the portrait seems flat and lifeless. But the more intently you regard it, the more the sitter’s features seem to come to life: eyes at first dull now spark and gleam; the solid brushstrokes around the jaw soften, melt to flesh; the mouth parts, as if exhaling a long-held breath. Only then do you realize that it is, in fact, your own face you are admiring, reflected in the glass.
Dispositio mentions the dating of the plays in this context – the presentation of literary guesswork as fact – but there are many other examples derived from the text of the plays: the nod to Marlowe’s death in As You Like It (“it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room”), say, or the recollection of Leicester’s Kenilworth entertainments (written by George Gascoigne) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. From recollection, Greenblatt’s Will in the World, is particularly flawed in this regard.
These “facts” share the same fault as those that form the basis of the anti-Shakespearean position: they are not facts. They are not evidence of anything; they are merely possible readings of the play-text, and readings, moreover, which are built out of a worldview in which all literature is reducible to – and rendered more explicable by – its sources. That is, they reflect the idea that there are hidden meanings and references woven – consciously or otherwise – into the texts which relate to external people, documents and events and which an appropriate depth of thought and expertise can elucidate. As a literary approach it is almost gnostic; as a historical approach it is nonsense.
To go back to my examples, tired though they may be: if Jonson, say, had mentioned Shakespeare’s elegaic nod to Marlowe in As You Like It, it might be different; but there is nothing approaching historical evidence that a) Shakespeare was intentionally referring to his dead rival, or, failing that, that b) contemporaries considered him to have done so. (To be honest, I’m not wholly convinced we can be sure Shakespeare would have known much of the circumstances of Marlowe’s death, but perhaps I’ll let that point pass for the moment.)
A particular bugbear of mine is the genuine historical facts get distorted by the pressure Shakespeareans put on them. We know, for example, that Shakespeare dedicated his two early poems, Venus and Adonis (1593) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594), to Henry Wriothesley, the third earl of Southampton. Southampton was, therefore, a patron of his in the early-to-mid 1590s. There is no evidence that such patronage extended any further. It is inadmissable therefore to refer to Southampton as Shakespeare’s patron without offering some kind of qualification on date.
This may sound petty, but what I am leading up to is the claim, put forward by Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust a couple of years ago, to much ballyhoo in the media, that the Cobbe portrait is a contemporary likeness of Shakespeare. This is Wells on the subject:
The evidence that it represents Shakespeare and that it was done from life, though it is circumstantial, is in my view overwhelming. I feel in little doubt that this is a portrait of Shakespeare, done from life and commissioned by the Earl of Southampton.
Circumstantial is a polite word. The evidence is shaky, to say the least. One of the central planks of the argument is the suggestion that the painting may have belonged to Southampton (two hundred years before it came into the possession of the Cobbe family, that is).
Well, so what? Everyone accepts, I think, that the painting dates to c.1610. On the evidence we have, that is 16 years after there was any link between Shakespeare and Southampton. How likely is it that the fourth earl would have commissioned a portrait of someone with little more status than a servant, who last served him 16 years previously? Not at all, I would suggest. (Even if Shakespeare were still in his service in 1610, I think the idea borders on the ridiculous, but that’s beside the point.) Is there any evidence that he did? No.
Another key argument, as I understand it, is that the Cobbe portrait is clearly related to the Janssen portrait, which used to be considered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare until it was restored in the 1960s and everyone realised it had been doctored to look like the genuine portrait of Shakespeare in the First Folio. Mmmm.
So desperate are professional Shakespeareans like Wells for something as definitive as a portrait of their man, that they will happily ride roughshod over the proper cautions a historian – or anyone without a dog in the fight – would employ. It isn’t good enough. We know far more about Shakespeare than we do about any contemporary playwright with the exception of Ben Jonson, who was both a relentless self-publicist and an inveterate trouble-maker, and therefore in regular contact with the authorities over one scandal or another. That should be enough.
New facts may come from new documents; they will not come from over-thinking the documents we already have. That way hokum lies. And what hope have Shakespeareans have of retaining the intellectual high ground if they continue to chase after it?
UPDATE: I’ve added a new post on the authorship controversy – and the use of sources – here