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.

The establishment strikes back: Contested Will

A statue intended to represent William Shakespeare adorns the gardens of the Festival Theater in Stratford, Ontario

Nothing changed in 2010: the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (Stratford, Ontario) still doesn’t grant that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, England, might not actually have written Richard III, King Lear, or the other “Shakespeare” plays.   The programs for Shakespeare plays still recite the same stale “facts” about the life of the Stratford man and still blithely credit him with the plays.  As we wrote in this space a couple of years ago, the question of who wrote Hamlet just doesn’t seem to be up for discussion. 

We don’t blame Stratford General Director Antoni Cimolino for keeping mum on the subject — how better to keep people from being mad at  you!  Still, we must point out that on the other side of the continent, Oregon Shakespeare Festival executive director Paul Nicholson has now joined the long list of theater luminaries on record as doubting that the Stratford man deserves credit for writing Hamlet and The Merchant of Venice.  (Nicholson runs the largest Shakespeare festival in the United States, nearly up to the scale of the Stratford Festival.) 

Paul Nicholson

According to a September 23, 2010 article in Southern Oregon’s Mail Tribune, Mr. Nicholson has noticed how implausible it is that the Stratford man could have had the intimate knowledge of law, falconry, life at court, and English history that the playwright clearly did.  Mr. Nicholson also points out that William Shakespeare was only in his twenties when the sonnets were written; most of the sonnets, of course, are poems written from the standpoint of a man of mature years in relation to a much younger man.  Mr. Nicholson is one of several other actors and directors at at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival who recently signed the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare,” which has been circulating online since it was drafted in 2007. See this website. (Presumably the Oregon Shakespeare Festival itself takes no official position on the question of authorship.)

What Mr. Cimolino, Des McAnuff, Lucy Peacock, Martha Henry, Brian Bedford, and others at the Stratford Festival really think about the authorship question, we’d love to know.  Some of them, we suppose, think it doesn’t matter and don’t take any interest in it; we’ve met a a surprising number of Shakespeare lovers who feel that way.  Personally, we think it does matter.  A work of art has so much more interest when you know a bit about its creator and his life. 

At any rate, we are gratified to see that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare is heating up, as evidenced by this well-written, well-researched new book by James Shapiro.  To the author’s credit, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare gives Shakespeare lovers something different from the usual Shakespeare “biographies,” which invariably rehash familiar material about the historical and cultural climate during which the plays were written but have little to say (because little is known) about the Stratford man. Contested Will gives us, instead, a history of the controversy over who really wrote the works of Shakespeare.

It’s a good story, with plenty of colorful characters. There was William-Henry Ireland, who in 1794 first began “discovering” correspondence to and from William Shakespeare (including a letter to him from Queen Elizabeth!), then manuscripts of the plays (King Lear!), then “lost” plays of Shakespeare. (We were reminded of P.D.Q. Bach, whose compositions, like The Short-Tempered Clavier, the “Erotica” Variations for banned instruments and piano, and the opera A Little Nightmare Music, have been “discovered” by Peter Schickele over the course of the last 40 years.) James Boswell was among those taken in by Ireland before he was exposed as a fraud (though not until a new “Shakespeare” play, Vortigern, was debuted in London).

Another forger, John Payne Collier, produced so much phony Shakespeare memorabilia in the 1830s and 1840s that it took Shakespeare scholars decades to sort it out from the real thing. And then there was Delia Bacon, the first major proponent of Francis Bacon as the author of Shakespeare, a pioneer (as a woman) in the field of literary scholarship who got the attention of Hawthorne and Emerson, but whose monomania and paranoia (she was afraid to publish her findings for fear that others would steal her ideas) eventually led her to the madhouse.

It wasn’t until we were halfway through Shapiro’s book that we realized that we’d been taken in ourselves. It gradually dawned on us, as we were reading about what Emerson, Mark Twain, and Freud thought about Shakespeare authorship, that Shapiro had an agenda: he intended, ultimately, to portray Oxfordians and other anti-Stratfordians as mere dabblers in the subject (Twain), or perhaps a little neurotic (Freud), or caught up in passing trends like the “Higher Criticism” that had challenged traditional notions of authorship of books of the Bible.

Edward de Vere

Not till the latter pages of Contested Will does Shapiro get to the present-day groundswell of support for the authorship of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford.  By then, though, his mask is off and the book’s pages drip with scorn and ridicule. True it is that there has been no shortage of nutty ideas associated with the question of who wrote Shakespeare. Here we think, for instance, of those who not only maintain that Oxford wrote the plays and sonnets, but also insist that the Earl of Southampton (presumed subject of the homoerotic sonnets) was also the love child of Oxford and Queen Elizabeth. Personally, we don’t have much trouble telling the loony stuff from the solid arguments for Oxford; Shapiro, clearly a smart guy and a scholar, ought to have been able to do it too. But he chose not to.

For the last couple of decades, the main tactic of Stratfordians has been simply to ignore the doubters (and the Oxfordians) and to marginalize the whole issue by preserving a chilly silence. Now, clearly feeling the heat, they’re starting to fight back. Contesting Will represents one of the first open counter-attacks.

Meanwhile, in southern Ontario just seven miles east of Stratford, a new controversy is brewing that may end up affecting more lives that the debate over who wrote Shakespeare. We gather (solely from the evidence of a number of lawn signs) that transportation officials are proposing to widen that part of Highway 7/8 that runs through Shakespeare from two lanes to five. (This is the route most folks take to get to the Stratford Festival.) A number of houses and shops are already pretty close to the highway, and some are clearly going to have to be torn down or moved if the project goes through. We sympathize with the locals, but take no sides.

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 directors 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.

Ron Rosenbaum writes about himself in The Shakespeare Wars

The Shakespeare WarsSome thoughts on The Shakespeare Wars, by Ron Rosenbaum:

This book is about what scholarly experts in Shakespeare are debating these days, and the issues are more interesting than you might think.  Why are there variations among the early editions of Shakespeare plays – did the author revise his work, were some editions prepared from the shaky memory of actors, or were the printers to blame?  And given the variations, what texts should an edition of King Lear be based on, and what should directors use?  Why are some of the passages in the late plays so obscure? How much of an ass is Harold Bloom?  Or the discussion that especially grabbed me: do stimulating new ideas and images pop out if you read Shakespeare in the original unanchored spelling?

I was disappointed that none of the issues selected for full-chapter discussions by Ron Rosenbaum in The Shakespeare Wars was the question of authorship, despite the rising tide of opinion in recent years that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, actually authored the plays and sonnets.  The reason is surely that most of the startling new research in the field has been done by people who do not teach Shakespeare at major universities.  The academics, heavily invested in the status quo, apparently don’t take it seriously.  Surely, however, if this isn’t the most burning issue in the world of Shakespeare scholarship, it should be, given all the energy exerted by scholars in trying to relate the plays to what little is known of the life of William Shakespeare.

Unfortunately, The Shakespeare Wars is also too much about the author, whose personality obtrudes and distracts. It appears from the book’s biographical information that Ron Rosenbaum bailed out of a potential academic career to become a writer.  But he still likes to fly with the eagles – that is, the big names in Shakespeare scholarship, who are the real subjects of this book, more than the issues.  So Rosenbaum interviews them, corresponds with them, goes to their conferences in Bermuda, and takes sides with them. In passing, he also echoes their dismissive attitude toward the Oxford partisans).

All the while, he’s careful to make it clear that he, Rosenbaum, a non-academic, could be doing what they’re doing and doing it better, if he wanted.  He takes particular delight in skewering scholars who write impenetrable prose in their own peculiar jargon, and who get so caught up in post-modern ideology that they can’t appreciate the plays on an aesthetic level.  And at every turn, he unkindly mocks America’s best-known writer on Shakespeare, Harold Bloom, a former professor of his at Yale.

This books has real merits.  But it’s the last book by Ron Rosenbaum that I’ll buy.  Only an outsized, overbearing ego could have persuaded editors at Random House to let Rosenbaum litter his book with so many sentence fragments.  This problem is not just an occasional glitch; it’s so pervasive that it was clearly deliberate.  It’s one thing to try to make one’s book more readable by adopting a moderately breezy style, as Rosenbaum does (he could have spared us that, too); it’s another to abuse and irritate readers by amputating dependent clauses from sentences and leaving them to twitch by themselves.  Educated readers rely on subjects and verbs as guideposts to comprehension.  Time and again I read one of Rosenbaum’s “sentences”, thought I had missed something, went back to read it again, then realized that a subject or predicate simply wasn’t there.  Never again.