Was P. G. Wodehouse an Oxfordian?

Read the fiction of P. G. Wodehouse and you’ll come away with a strong impression that, in his personal life, the author

– was raised by dragon aunts (the Wooster/Jeeves stories)
— went to a private school in England and was obsessed with cricket (Tales of St. Austin, The Swoop)
— was set to work by his family in a bank and hated it (Psmith in the City)
— knew first-hand about life in the great English country houses (the Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings stories)
— liked vacationing in southern France (the short story “Aunt Agatha Takes the Count”)
— spent good parts of his life in America (Carry On, Jeeves, The Small Bachelor, Laughing Gas)
— worked in musical theater and wrote for Hollywood (the short stories “Monkey Business,” “The Nodder,” “The Castaways”)
— was devoted to Shakespeare (The Code of the Woosters, Joy in the Morning) (see this post)
— liked dogs, especially Pekingese (the short stories “Jeeves and the Impending Doom,” “Open House,” and “Ukridge’s Dog College”)
— was an obsessive golfer (“The Heart of a Goof”)

P. G. Wodehouse

And you’d be right on all counts. Of course you could do this with most authors.  You need only to read Huckleberry Finn and A Connecticut Yankee to gather that the author grew up in a small town along the Mississippi and later lived in New England.  Yet it’s just this sort of common-sense gleaning from the plays and poems of Shakespeare that Stratfordians like James  Shapiro (see this post) object to when it comes to the question of who wrote Shakespeare.

But we digress from our topic, which is who Wodehouse thought wrote Othello and Macbeth.  We don’t suppose his opinion would carry as much weight as a literary scholar or a classical actor, but Wodehouse had solid credibility as a playwright and a man of the theater, and he spent his life with Shakespeare. You can talk about your “desert island” list of books, but Wodehouse actually had to make one and live with it: when he was interned by the Germans during the Second World War, one of the two volumes Wodehouse took with him was the complete works of Shakespeare. Joy in the Morning, which he wrote during the war, shows it.

The question of who wrote Shakespeare was on Wodehouse’s mind for decades.  Digging unsystematically through our Wodehouse library, we found at least half a dozen mentions.

The earliest we ran across was in a comic sketch called “My Life as a Dramatic Critic” that Wodehouse wrote for Vanity Fair around 1918.  (Thanks to Oxfordian researcher Martin Hyatt for bringing this one to our attention; the sketch appears is in A Wodehouse Miscellany.)  In this piece Wodehouse reminesced about his early — very early — career as a theater critic:

I remember once lunching with rare Ben Jonson at the Mermaid Tavern — this would be back in Queen Elizabeth’s time, when I was beginning to be known in the theatrical world — and seeing a young man with a nobby forehead and about three inches of beard doing himself well at a neighboring table at the expense of Burbage the manager.

“Ben,” I asked my companion, “who is that youth?”  He told me that the fellow was one Bacon, a new dramatist who had learned his technique by holding horses’ heads in the Strand, and who, for some reason or other, wrote under the name of Shakespeare.  “You must see his Hamlet,” said Ben enthusiastically.  “He read me the script last night.  They start rehearsals at the Globe next week.  It’s a pippin.  In the last act every blamed character in the cast who isn’t already dead jumps on everyone else’s neck and slays him.”

The sketch includes a quote from Wodehouse’s rave review for Hamlet‘s opening night, as published in The Weekly Bear-Baiter.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

Around the time Wodehouse wrote this, the vogue in anti-Stratfordian Shakespeare authorship thinking was for Francis Bacon.  But in 1920, the unfortunately surnamed J. T. Looney published a book called “Shakespeare” Identified that made the first real case for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the plays and sonnets.  (Sigmund Freud, who had been a Baconian, became an Oxfordian after reading “Shakespeare” Identified.)

We don’t have any hard evidence that Wodehouse read Looney’s book.  But consider this passage from Joy in the Morning, chapter VII:

One has, of course, to make allowances for writers, all of them being more or less loony.  Look at Shakespeare, for instance.  Very unbalanced.  Used to go about stealing ducks.

Here Bertie Wooster (the novel’s narrator) was apparently referring to the apocryphal story that William Shakespeare, as a lad, was caught poaching (though he is supposed to have poached deer, not ducks).  But is it just coincidence that Wodehouse used the word “loony” only three words away from the word “Shakespeare”?  Or was there no significance to Wodehouse’s once again making fun of one of the dubious legends about the Stratford man, just as, in “My Life as a Dramatic Critic,” he had made fun of the apocryphal story that Will Shakespeare got his start by holding horses outside the theater? We think not. Wodehouse knew how tellingly few were the actual known facts about the life of the Stratford man.

One thing we do know is that Wodehouse was amused by the baroque, conspiratorial thinking of those Baconians who claimed that clues to the mystery of authorship could be found in elaborate ciphers.  One of these Baconians was a prominent character in the short story “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald” (it’s in Mr. Mulliner Speaking, published in 1929).  Young Algy Wymondham-Wymondham is explaining to Archibald Mulliner that the aunt of an attractive girl with whom Archibald is smitten is “potty.”

“Potty?  That divine. . . . I mean, that rather attractive-looking girl?”
“Not Aurelia.  The aunt.  She thinks Bacon wrote Shakespeare.”
“Thinks who wrote what?”  asked Archibald, puzzled, for the names were strange to him.
“You must have heard of Shakespeare.  He’s well known.  Fellow who used to write plays.  Only Aurelia’s aunt says he didn’t.  She maintains that a bloke called Bacon wrote them for him.”
“Dashed decent of him,” said Archibald, approvingly.  “Of course, he may have owed Shakespeare money.”
“There’s that, of course.”
“What was the name again?”
“Bacon.”
“Bacon,” said Archibald, jotting it down on his cuff.  “Right.”
Algy’s careless words had confirmed his worst suspicions.  A girl with an aunt who knew all about Shakespeare and Bacon must of necessity live in a mental atmosphere into which a lame-brained bird like himself could scarcely hope to soar.

Here Wodehouse has merely recycled the gag about Bacon’s owing Shakespeare money that he used ten years earlier in the Vanity Fair sketch.  But a few paragraphs later, Wodehouse demonstrates that he had actually read some of the Baconian propaganda.  He has Archibald Mulliner obtain a set of books by Bacon and read them, so as to ingratiate himself with Aurelia’s aunt, and he succeeds:

[R]eaching out an arm like the tentacle of an octopus, she drew him into a corner and talked about Cryptograms for forty-seven minutes by the drawing-room clock.

The aunt inflicts upon Archibald an explanation — Wodehouse himself goes on with it too long, actually — of how a cipher reveals that Milton’s famous epitaph on Shakespeare actually referred to Bacon.

Francis Bacon

In “The Reverent Wooing of Archibald” Wodehouse skewered the Baconians so thoroughly as to dispose of any suggestion that he was a Baconian himself.  Indeed, when Wodehouse recycled his gag yet again three years later, he left Bacon out of the story.  In April 1932, in a letter to a friend (it’s quoted in David A. Jasen’s P.G. Wodehouse: A Portrait of a Master), Wodehouse was deprecating the plot for his new novel Thank You, Jeeves:

Come, come, Wodehouse, is this the best you can do in the way of carrying on the great tradition of English Literature?  Still, I’ll bet the plot of Hamlet seemed just as lousy when Shakespeare was trying to tell it to Ben Jonson in the Mermaid Tavern.

Wodehouse went on to imagine Shakespeare’s trying futilely to summarize the plot of Hamlet for Ben Jonson.

Wodehouse wrote a final, more elaborate variation of the gag about Shakespeare and Bacon — at least, the last variation we could find — in a humorous sketch he published in Punch in the mid-50s called “Francis Bacon and the Play Doctor” (it appears in America, I Love You, the British edition of which is titled Over Seventy).  Here Wodehouse tells of “a Baconian of my acquaintance” who had documentary proof (“only unfortunately in a cipher which nobody but he can read”) of how Hamlet came to be produced.

In this facetious account, Bacon had “always had the firm conviction that he could write a play,” so he steals time from his job as Chancellor of the Exchequer to dash off Hamlet. Eventually, a theatrical manager takes an interest in the play but explains to Bacon that “it needs fixing.”  Bacon is forced to let the company’s script doctor, “young Shakespeare,” tinker with his play (and it is thus Shakespeare who is responsible for the impossible series of stabbings and poisonings in the last scene of the play.

The program was initially going to have read as follows:

HAMLET

BY

WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE

(Based on a Suggestion by F. Bacon)

“But Bacon, after sitting through a rehearsal or two and reading the revised script, decided to take his name off the bills.”

So did Wodehouse really doubt that the Stratford man wrote Shakespeare? We think he did doubt. Consider Wodehouse’s use of the gag about Shakespeare and Bacon in Joy in the Morning, chapter XXIII. Here Jeeves, who has a bright idea for helping Bertie’s Uncle Percy, Lord Worplesdon, with a thorny problem, suggests that the suggestion should “appear to emanate” from Bertie rather than him in order to bolster Bertie’s standing with his uncle:

I nodded. His meaning had not escaped me. If you analyzed it, it was the old Bacon and Shakespeare gag. Bacon, as you no doubt remember, wrote Shakespeare’s stuff for him and then, possibly because he owed the latter money or it may be from sheer good nature, allowed him to take the credit for it. I mentioned this to Jeeves, and he said that perhaps an even closer parallel was that of Cyrano de Bergerac.

This, we would emphasize, is the voice of Bertie Wooster, the character in Wodehouse whose views most reliably reflect those of Wodehouse himself. And Bertie takes it for granted that the Stratford man was not the author.

One might infer that Wodehouse, in his mid-sixties, was still wrestling with why someone like Bacon or de Vere would have let the Stratford man take credit for writing Hamlet. But one might also infer that, just as Wodehouse’s vast fictional world remained locked in Edwardian England, Wodehouse’s thinking about the authorship question never advanced beyond what he took from the Baconians and (we surmise) from J. T. Looney in the teens and twenties. Any intellectual curiosity he may have had as to who really wrote Shakespeare had long since been eclipsed by the comic value of (a) the gag itself and (b) the nuttiness of some of the Baconians.

We regret finding no evidence that P. G. Wodehouse was, in fact, a Oxfordian.

 
 

 

This is a good opportunity for us to mention an excellent new publication focusing on Oxfordian scholarship that’s come to our attention. It’s called Brief Chronicles and it’s strictly an on-line journal, so far as we can tell. Here’s the link. And it’s free (although downloading a free issue can take a couple of minutes). The recently published second issue has some excellent and thought-provoking pieces.

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. As an ex-Baconian and a neo-Oxfordian,
    I found this a bit frustrating. I wish PGW had worked harder at trying
    to be an Oxfordian. But it makes no difference to his wonderful stories, and I am enjoying the TV series enormously. Three cheers for
    the BBC, Guy Andrews, Timothy Spall, the rest of the cast, and (of course) Edward de Vere.

    John Savage

  2. Coming to this late – but here’s a good post for your consideration:
    http://wmtc.blogspot.com/2011/05/books-on-books-part-2-contested-will-by.html

  3. John:

    You’re right, of course. After I made this list of “what you can infer about PGW,” I looked it over again and thought to myself that the “time in English country houses” item was surely the weakest item, but I figured I could get away with it because so many of the stories were set in the great manors and halls. I think it’s true that Wodehouse did, in fact, visit some of those manors and halls as a guest of friends during his school years, and I expect they made an impression on him, but your point is well taken.

    Emsworth

  4. I’m not sure we can deduce that PGW “knew first-hand about life in the great English country houses (the Jeeves/Wooster and Blandings stories)”. The fictional world he created generally has a rather slight conection to reality, and there is a theatrical and literary tradition of portraying upper-class life which is much stronger than any factual accounts. I assume that you were never a guest at a great English country house before the war, any more than I was, but we both think we know what it was like – more from Gosford Park etc than from memoirs, in my case anyway, so why not in Wodehouse’s?

  5. Nice post!


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