The real case for Oxford won’t be found in the movie Anonymous

In the past we’ve groused (see, for instance, this post) about how the Stratford Shakespeare Festival has flat-out ignored the Shakespeare authorship question and has snubbed those who think that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, rather than Will Shakespeare, the actor and businessman from Stratford, was probably the real author of Twelfth Night and Julius Caesar.

But we can’t complain any more, because in the last several months the Festival’s boss of bosses, general director Antoni Cimolini, has been all over the subject. It is said that one of Mr. Cimolini’s distinguished predecessors in Stratford, Tyrone Guthrie, who directed the very first Shakespeare performances in Stratford in 1952, very much doubted the traditional attribution of the plays. Unfortunately Mr. Cimolino (who will be directing Cymbeline at Stratford in the summer of 2012 and is also apparently the leading candidate to replace Des McAnuff as Artistic Director after the 2013 season) doesn’t take the issue seriously.

Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford

The reason for all this talk is that movie critics have been interviewing prominent Shakespeare people like Mr. Cimolini about the new Roland Emmerich movie Anonymous, which we’ve finally seen. Just like Shakespeare in Love, this new movie has plenty of historical characters, a few historical facts, a number of historical inaccuracies, and a wholly invented story. When we first heard about it, we hoped that it might draw attention to the real case for the Earl of Oxford. Unfortunately, Anonymous — whatever its merits in strictly cinematic terms, on which we express no opinion — is downright counter-productive on the authorship question.

In the movie, the Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), portrayed by Rhys Ifans, is in the closet as a playwright because it doesn’t befit a nobleman to be mixed up with theater. By the early 1590s, Oxford has written one unperformed play after another, tied them up in neat bundles, and piled them on a shelf — Henry V, As You Like It, Julius Caesar, and plenty more. He writes compulsively.  His wife, frustrated because he neglects his other affairs, comes into his library and says, “Writing plays again? You promised!” (The producers clearly didn’t blow their budget on screenwriters.)

The actor Rhys Ifans, who plays Oxford

Oxford wants to see his plays performed, and fortune delivers into his hands a chance to blackmail Ben Jonson into making it happen. Oxford insists that Jonson put his name to Henry V, but Jonson doesn’t want credit for it and arranges for an vain, illiterate actor named Will Shakespeare to claim authorship instead. The play is a smash, and at the final curtain, when the audience cries “Author, author!” (surely audiences didn’t do that back in 1593!), the oafish Shakespeare comes forward to accept applause. As more of Oxford’s plays are produced, Will Shakespeare continues to take credit. Oxford’s stash still hasn’t given out when he dies in 1604, so “Shakespeare” plays continue to be brought forth for years to come.

But there’s more. It seems (in the movie) that Edward de Vere was the bastard son of Queen Elizabeth, secretly raised and educated as a nobleman’s son. Later, de Vere has an affair with the Queen (his own mother, though neither knew it!), resulting in the birth of the Earl of Southampton, whose mother is thus also his grandmother.

The movie gives Stratfordians new pretexts for piling ridicule on Oxfordians and for ignoring the real case for Oxford. It’s “snobbery,” says Stephen Marche in the New York Times, for Oxfordians to insist that a glovemaker’s son from Stratford with a grammar school education could never have become a brilliant writer. Mr. Cimolini piles on in the Toronto Globe and Mail: “inherent snobbery.”

But (and I think I speak for most Oxfordians) this isn’t the Oxfordian argument at all. Who actually insists that Will Shakespeare was an illiterate bumpkin, as one of the characters in the movie says he was? A few Shakespeare doubters may think that, but most of us don’t. Why shouldn’t such a man have gotten a decent education? And of course Oxfordians recognize that men and women with little formal education can come to write timeless literature.  We just don’t think Will Shakespeare was one of those persons. “Snobbery” is a classic “straw man” argument.


Then there’s the “conspiracy” card. J. Kelly Nestruck, who reviews theater in the Globe and Mail, says that he “made the leap from ambivalence” about Shakespeare authorship to “ardent defender of the Bard of Avon” when he met somebody who not only believed that William Shakespeare did not write the plays, but who also turned out to be a “truther” — one of the paranoid screwballs who think the Twin Towers were brought down by George W. Bush and the Jews. Nestruck charitably lumps Oxfordians with some of the better-known examples of ignorance and hatefulness: “Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking,” a “gateway drug” to becoming a Truther, a Birther, and a believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

What rot! Emsworth, who is willing to bet that he’s read a lot more of Richard Hofstadter than J. Kelly Nestruck ever has, and who firmly resents the imputation of anti-intellectualism, can’t think of a single conspiracy theory, from “who shot JFK” to ” who fixed the Super Bowl” that he ever bought into.

This is just changing the subject. As a class, we Oxfordians aren’t suckers for conspiracies. How exactly it happened that Oxford didn’t take credit for the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, we don’t know, but we doubt very much that it was anything like the elaborate conspiracies postulated in Anonymous. The movie recycles several of the least likely of the speculative scenarios that have cropped up around Oxford and the question of authorship and gives Stratfordians plenty to mock. There’s no historical evidence that the Virgin Queen was actually a promiscuous slut or ever had any bastard children, but in any event why should the love life of Queen Elizabeth or the parentage of Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton, have anything to do with the question of who wrote Hamlet? The movie leaves viewers with the false impression that to believe in Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” plays is to buy into an imaginative set of wildly improbable conspiracy theories. We assure anyone who’s actually interested in the subject that it’s not necessary.

Then there’s the crude slur that to doubt the Stratford man is to have a screw loose. Stratfordians generally begin talking about Shakespeare authorship by sneering about the name of one of the early Oxfordians (Mr. Marche is typical: “the aptly named J. Thomas Looney”), and some them have wasted a lot of ink over the last few months on amateur psychoanalysis of the supposedly paranoid tendencies of people who would doubt something so “incontrovertible” as the notion that the man from Stratford wrote Hamlet. James Shapiro, the writer of a generally interesting book about the history of the Shakespeare authorship question (see this Emsworth comment) is one of the quickest to impugn the mental stability of authorship doubters.

Sadly, the public comments of our Stratford man, Mr. Cimolino, over the last several months don’t suggest that he’s actually reviewed the substantive case for Oxford. He asserts in the Globe and Mail that there is “in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, ‘Of course not: Oxford deliberately deliberately hid his authorship.'” No, Mr. Cimolino, that’s not what we say.  True, there’s no “smoking gun,” no single, irrefutable document that conclusively proves the case for Oxford.  But there really is plenty of evidence, much of which is reviewed, very soberly and with considerable erudition, by such organizations as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (here’s its website) and the journal Brief Chronicles (here’s its website).  Viewing it as a whole, we find it persuasive.

No doubt Mr. Cimolino did not set out intentionally to insult the many patrons of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival who doubt the authorship of the Stratford man, and we’re slow to take offense.  But we invite him to take a closer look.

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,” 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:




(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.

Peter Ackroyd’s case for the Stratford man

We hardly ever buy books when they’re freshly published, which is why we’re only now getting around to Peter Ackroyd’s Shakespeare: The Biography, which came out in 2005. It was a Father’s Day gift this year from our Goneril, the eldest of our three daughters.

Now, Emsworth has grave doubts as to whether the subject of this “biography” was actually the author of the “Shakespeare” plays and poems. (See this post, and this one too.) We think it far more likely that Hamlet and The Winter’s Tale were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), one of Queen Elizabeth’s courtiers.  But we still think Ackroyd’s book is a worthy read.

Peter Ackroyd is a Stratfordian, and like most of his kind he deals with the “authorship” question mainly by pretending to ignore it. His book barely mentions Oxford at all. But Shakespeare authorship was surely on his mind, because good portions of this “biography” amount to an advocacy brief on behalf of the traditional candidate.

The Cobbe Shakespere portrait

Not that it’s a bad brief. We grant that Ackroyd cites a few circumstances that affirmatively tend to link the Stratford man to the writing of the plays. But they’re not nearly enough, in quality or quantity, to convince Emsworth. A lot of what Ackroyd gleans about the writer from the internal evidence of the plays and sonnets — which is his main technique — simply can’t be related to the man from Stratford. Indeed, Ackroyd sometimes admits as much.

For instance, Ackroyd says there is so much woodland imagery in As You Like It and other plays that the playwright had to have been a country boy (as the Stratford man was), not a city boy. There are so many references to gloves and how they’re made, he says, that the playwright must have known a glover (it’s known that William Shakespeare’s father was a glover).

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

That is the sort of thing Oxfordians do, too. They point out (to take two examples out of a great many) that whoever wrote Romeo and Juliet and The Taming of the Shrew almost certainly had first-hand knowledge of the geography and customs of Italy (as de Vere did) and that the playwright had first-hand knowledge of the ways of royals and noblemen (as de Vere had).

Often as not, though, what Ackroyd takes from the plays doesn’t match up to anything we know about the life of the actor from Stratford, which of course isn’t much. Because the plays are riddled with references to falconry, Ackroyd says, the playwright must have known a lot about it — so he infers that, at some point, William Shakespeare must have worked as a tutor for a nobleman who kept falcons. And from the fact that there’s a lot of legal terminology in the plays, Ackroyd concludes that William Shakespeare must have spent time as apprentice to a solicitor in Stratford.

The world’s best-known female lawyer was a fictional character in The Merchant of Venice. This “Portia” is by the Victorian artist Henry Woods.

This is just guesswork. There’s no other evidence that the Stratford man ever worked as a tutor or ever studied law. On the other hand, it is known that as a boy Edward de Vere was tutored by Sir Thomas Smith, who was devoted to falconry, at Smith’s estate at Ankerwycke. It is also known that de Vere was actually admitted to Gray’s Inn in 1566 to study law.

Some of Ackroyd’s other points are a bit of a stretch, too. For instance, stage directions are sparse in the Shakespeare plays, from which Ackroyd infers that the playwright himself was at the company’s rehearsals to tell the rest of the players what to do. But that’s something that might strike you only if you already assumed that William Shakespeare, the actor, wrote the plays.  Ackroyd correctly notes that strife between brothers is a theme in Shakespeare plays (for instance, Edgar and Edmund in King Lear, Prospero and Antonio in The Tempest, Orlando and Oliver in As You Like It) — from which he posits that William Shakespeare, the eldest boy in his family, had trouble with his younger brothers. It’s pure speculation; there’s no other evidence of it.

For all this, we don’t hesitate to recommend Shakespeare: The Biography. Peter Ackroyd is a gracious writer; we know him from of old as the author of our favorite biography of Charles Dickens. Like all Shakespeare “biographies,” only a fraction of his book deals directly with its ostensible subject; this book is essentially a history of the London theater from 1580 to 1620.

But it’s still full of interesting things we didn’t know. And many of the chapters of this book are excellent essays about the plays; Ackroyd’s pleasure in writing about something he loves is transparent.

Richard Brookhiser on Bill Buckley and National Review (Right Time, Right Place)

Right Time Right PlaceIf Richard Brookhiser had to sort out some feelings when he wrote Right Time, Right Place (a Father’s Day gift from Emsworth’s youngest daughter), well, so did we when we read it. Brookhiser’s subject is William F. Buckley, Jr., who discovered Brookhiser as a teenager, talked him out of Yale Law School, gave him a job at National Review, mentored him, and, when Brookhiser was only 23, promised that he’d be the next editor-in-chief and owner of National Review upon Buckley’s eventual retirement.


Richard Brookhiser, a Rochester, New York native. One would think that the local press would have taken notice of this locally-born author of several popular books on the Founding Fathers, but if so, we've missed it.

Brookhiser had to adjust his image of his hero when, eight years later and out of the blue, Buckley told Brookhiser (in a note left on Brookhiser’s desk) that he’d changed his mind and had concluded that his protege lacked executive ability and was “unsuited” to edit the magazine. Brookhiser overcame his bitterness at what he still considers Buckley’s “cowardice” and continued to work part-time for National Review; Buckley died in 2008. On the side, Brookhiser has written several popular books about American history.


William F. Buckley, Jr. with Ronald Reagan

We never knew any of this, even though Emsworth has read National Review faithfully for over 35 years and has admired Brookhiser’s work. We remembered when (without explanation) Brookhiser became a “senior editor” instead of “managing editor” about 20 years ago. After that, all we knew was that we didn’t see Brookhiser in NR nearly as often.

Later, we bought and appreciated his excellent biographies of George Washington and Alexander Hamilton. Knowing no better, we assumed that Brookhiser had independent means and had decided to pursue free-lance writing as his primary career.

In this new book, Right Time, Right Place, Brookhiser tells the story of his years with National Review and yields up his memories of his imperfect hero. Brookhiser has a rare ability to reflect with objectivity on his own life, and his controlled prose has never been better. We were fascinated. The magazine has been part of our life for a long time, and Bill Buckley was one of our heroes too.  Finally, here was something more than the air-brushed stories of life at NR that we’d always had to settle for.

The book also brings into view other long-familiar National Review figures like William Rusher, Joe Sobran, and Jeffrey Hart. Brookhiser was more enthusiastic about some of his NR colleagues than others. (Sadly, Brookhiser’s wariness of Sobran has kept him from appreciating the arguments in favor of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as the author of the Shakespeare plays. Sobran has been a prominent champion of Oxford.)

But it was the glimpses of the human side of Buckley (as opposed to the public figure with the carefully cultivated public image) that kept us glued to the book. We expect more of the same when we get a copy of Christopher Buckley’s book about his father.

And what feelings do we have to sort out as we read Right Time, Right Place? Frankly, jealousy of Brookhiser, his superior talents, and the doors that opened for him. He’s about our own age, he’s a fellow pianist, and his interests in literature very nearly mirror ours. We’ve known for years that his political views are closer to ours than anyone else at National Review. And he’s from Rochester! — born and raised in Irondequoit (sadly, with no more independent means than we have).

We don’t complain about our own career. But how we would have enjoyed working at National Review, making words matter, wrestling with ideas and policies, mixing with people of congenial views, trying to make the conservative case. Brookhiser, to his credit, seems genuinely grateful for the opportunities he’s had.

Bill Bryson on Shakespeare (and the authorship question)

bill-bryson-on-shakespeareShakespeare biographies are something of a pet peeve of ours, since so few hard facts about the life of William Shakespeare are actually known, and nobody ever turns up anything new. And so many new Shakespeare books come out every year that we don’t even try to keep up. So we nearly missed Shakespeare: The World as Stage, a modest little “biography” of the Bard that Bill Bryson published in 2007. 



We really liked this crisply written little book (196 pages and wide margins), even though a lot of it consists of filler material about 16th-century social and political history that doesn’t have any direct connection either with William Shakespeare or with the plays attributed to him. From pages 62 to 65, for instance, and for no compelling reason related to the life of Shakespeare, Bryson gives us a lively account of the English defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1567. From pages 92 to 94 he bunny-trails into an entertaining biographical sketch of Christopher Marlowe. We don’t blame him; if Shakespeare biographers didn’t do this sort of thing, their books would be awfully short.

And we did learn a few things that we didn’t know, or needed to be corrected on. Take the matter of the “second-best bed” bequeathed to Mrs. Shakespeare in Will Shakespeare’s will.  The old conventional wisdom (which we were taught long ago) was that Shakespeare’s failure to leave his wife his best bed was a sign of strained marital relations.  The newer conventional wisdom (which we dutifully accepted) was that the “second-best bed” would have been the marital bed and the one that Anne would have wanted most, after all.  But the latest wisdom, we learn from Bryson, is that it truly was unusual and inexplicable for a husband to leave his wife their second-best bed.

It is hard to imagine why anyone would write a “biography” of William Shakespeare today without giving at least some attention to whether the man born and buried in Stratford actually wrote the celebrated plays and sonnets, or whether someone else wrote them using the pseudonym “William Shakespeare.” Yet many writers on Shakespeare do ignore the issue. To his credit, Bill Bryson does not gloss over the question of authorship and, in fact, devotes the ninth and final chapter of his book to it.


Bill Bryson

To our sorrow (for, as noted in an earlier post, we ourselves are of the Oxfordian persuasion), Bryson is a hardened skeptic on the subject.  He goes so far as to say that “nearly all the anti-Shakespeare sentiment — actually all of it, every bit — involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact.”  Unfortunately, Bryson uses mostly straw-man arguments to support this sweeping statement, making sport of some of the least defensible things said on the subject — assertions that are very far from being pillars of anti-Stratfordian schools of thought.

For example, Bryson mocks a writer for the New York Times for claiming that William Shakespeare (the man from Stratford) never owned a book. As to that, there is no evidence one way or the other (except that that no books are mentioned in William Shakespeare’s will).  Personally, we don’t doubt that he was literate; why shouldn’t an actor, theatrical producer, and prominent citizen of Stratford have read and owned books?  But what does it matter? The argument against authorship by the Stratford man doesn’t depend in the slightest on the assumption that he didn’t or couldn’t read.



Bryson devotes five pages to making fun of the old theory that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author.  As Bryson well knows, however, hardly anything really thinks Bacon wrote the Shakespeare plays anymore.  Bryson gives less space, though he pays more serious attention, to Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a candidate who does have a great deal of support today (including Emsworth’s).  Bryson concedes that de Vere

had certain things in his favor as a candidate: He was clever and had some standing as a poet and playwright (though none of his plays survives [or do they survive? Mr. Bryson, that’s the issue!], and none of his poetry indicates actual greatness — certainly not Shakespearean greatness); he was well traveled and spoke Italian, and he moved in the right circles to understand courtly manners.


Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford

But Bryson goes on to attack de Vere’s candidacy with some thoroughly debatable assertions. Bryson argues that de Vere’s colorful personal history (squandering his fortune and episodes of violence and sexual depravity) is irreconcilable with the “gift for compassion, empathy, or generosity of spirit” reflected in the plays and sonnets. Emsworth emphatically disagrees; the plays are more than violent and kinky enough to suggest that the playwright had first-hand experience with such matters during an irresponsible youth.

Bryson also claims, as if it were an unanswerable point, that de Vere couldn’t have written a number of the “later” Shakespeare plays because he died in 1604. In fact, as Bryson also knows very well, there’s no evidence as to when any Shakespeare play was actually written or even first performed.

In fairness, this book was intended to be a popular biography, not a work of scholarship, and the question of who wrote the plays and sonnets wasn’t Bryson’s main focus at all. Still, on the issue of authorship, we were unmoved either by Bryson’s mockery or by his reasoning.

Who wrote Hamlet? Not up for discussion at the Stratford Festival

Edward de Vere

Nibbling on our breakfast scone at a B & B in Stratford, Ontario last weekend, we were pleased to learn that two of our fellow guests, a couple from Dearborn, Michigan, were fellow Oxfordians. That is, they shared our view that the plays traditionally attributed to William Shakespeare were probably — no one will ever know for sure — written by Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

This led us to wonder, in turn, how many other Stratford Festival patrons share our irritation every time they open their play programs to find the five canned paragraphs that purport to sum up the life of William Shakespeare.

For most playwrights, biographical blurbs in theater programs have to be greatly condensed. Not so with William Shakespeare. So little is really known about him that at least half of the material about him in the Stratford Festival’s 2008 programs is filler — educated guesses about his life and career. We detect the dramaturge’s struggle for hard facts about the playwright from such speculative phrases as these:

“The exact date of his birth is unknown . . . .”

“[T]radition has it . . . .”

“The young Shakespeare is assumed to have attended what is now the Edward VI Grammar School in Stratford, where he would have studied . . . .”

“Nothing further is known of Shakespeare’s life until 1592 . . . .”

“Possibly as early as 1610, the playwright retired to his home in Stratford-upon-Avon . . . .”

Conspicuously absent from the Stratford Festival’s programs is any hint that this man of whom we know so little may not actually have written The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Love’s Labours Lost.

Francis Bacon

But surely the powers-that-be at the Stratford Festival are aware of the issue. And they are surely also aware of the new evidence pointing to Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, a member of the court of Queen Elizabeth, as the true author — far more evidence, both in quality and in quantity, than was ever brought forward in decades past to support the candidacies of Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or other Elizabethans.

Emsworth does not complain that the Stratford Festival has not come out in favor of Oxford. This is a matter on which reasonable minds can differ.

As it stands, though, the Stratford Festival is effectively siding with the actor from Stratford. Have the Artistic Director and the dramaturge decided simply to leave things as they are until someone actually produces a draft of Macbeth in Oxford’s handwriting? What will it take for the Stratford Festival to acknowledge that there is at least a serious question as to authorship?

In the meantime, simply ignoring the case for Oxford is not what one might expect from the most influential Shakespeare organization in North America.

Emsworth refers curious readers to the website of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, which outlines the principal reasons to doubt that the actor from Stratford wrote the Shakespeare plays, along with the facts that point to Edward de Vere as the actual poet and playwright. (We are not connected with this organization.) Emsworth has just noticed that Wikipedia now includes an extensive and seemingly objective entry on “Oxfordian theory,” which sets forth arguments both for and against authorship by de Vere.