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The Play’s the Thing

Brenda James and William D. Rubinstein, The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare, Pearson Longman, 2005 (2006 pb), pp. 360.

On more than one occasion at a conference I have been buttonholed by someone who has insisted on informing me, with a glint in their eye, that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were not actually written by him but by someone else. And they have thrust a volume into my hand which allegedly “proves” that to be the case. The thrusters has invariably been American and the candidate for authorship has usually been Edward De Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. When I have politely perused the “evidence” I have invariably concluded that the author’s understanding of a) how the world works in general and b) how it worked specifically in the years 1564-1616 is completely different from my own. For example, they didn’t really understand what a grammar school was or how unimportant universities were or the difference between a town and a village or that they didn’t understand that the pub was the chief means of transferring and developing the culture, ahead of the church and a long way in front of any formal educational institutions.

So here we go again. Exit the Earl of Oxford, enter Sir Henry Neville (1562?-1615) who was at least a fairly exact contemporary of Shakespeare. This is not a review of the book, but it is an attack on the (ludicrous) assumptions which lie behind the argument put by William D. Rubinstein that an actor from Stratford could not have written “the plays of William Shakespeare”. (The argument that Neville did write them is Ms. James department.) Thus:

. . . over the past century and a half, many intelligent and perceptive persons have come to doubt whether William Shakespeare of Stratford, the man who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616, and who was unquestionably an actor and theatre-owner in London as well as a businessman and landowner in Stratford, could conceivably have written the plays and poems attributed to him. (p. 3)

. . . Shakespeare lacked the educational background or Court and political connections which the author of the plays must have possessed. (p.4)

. . . the most serious (problem) is the extraordinary inconsistency between the verbal facility of Shakespeare’s work and the limited educational background of the man from Stratford. (p.4)

. . . The education Shakespeare received at Stratford Grammar School, though wide-ranging in some respects, would be viewed with despair by modern educational theorists. (LA – and vice-versa) . . Recalcitrant scholars would have been beaten at the drop of a hat by the schoolmaster. (LA – they’d cut out the hat-dropping part by my time.) (all p. 5)

. . . how did the Stratford man, an itinerant actor whose formal education probably ended at the age of 12 (and did not include any instruction in modern languages), conceivably obtain, read or use the many, varied and expensive works, which he must have read and digested? (p. 9)

And so it goes on. In contemporary philosophy it is sometimes known as the Nozickian manoeuvre: you start with a wildly false assumption which your reader goes along with since he or she has bought the book or at least bothered to pick it up and then you construct several hundred pages of argument which is, in itself, valid, but based on your ludicrous premise. It is like Flat Earthism or Creationism. Here the manoeuvre is played twice: first we are asked to share the assumption that there is a major “mystery” about William Shakespeare and second that he could not have acquired the knowledge to write the plays without formal education. There is, of course, a mystery in a trivial sense insofar as we don’t know much about Shakespeare and that, especially, we don’t know where he was between 1582 and 1590. But there is no mystery about why there is a mystery! Why should we know anything more about him than we know about his contemporaries? John Webster’s plays are still produced, but we don’t even know when he was born or when he died. And it is mildly amusing that we don’t even seem to know the date of birth of the high-born Neville. Nor is it strange that references to Shakespeare in Stratford at the end of his life and afterwards don’t mention his occupation. Nor do those to his contemporaries – Thomas Dekker is listed as a “householder”, for example – and we must remember that they were only playwrights and probably not particularly proud of it. A much greater question concerns something which Rubinstein does not deny: how did a glover/butcher/whatever’s son get involved in the theatre in the first place?

I find the assumptions made about Shakespeare’s education completely weird. If he went to Stratford Grammar he would have been one of the more educated members of the population and certainly literate. That’s all he would have needed, plus a certain amount of commitment and talent. Since we don’t know where he was from the age of 18 to 26 it is pointless to say that “there is no evidence” that he had access to books or educated companionship or the speaking of French by Huguenot refugees. Or anything else, for that matter – not knowing is not knowing.

But let’s assume, since we don’t even know that, that he didn’t go to grammar school and didn’t either, like many of his contemporaries, have himself taught to be literate by other means. That he remained illiterate, in short, and made up brilliant stuff which was written down by an amanuensis. Nobody is denying, I assume, that it is possible to be brilliantly eloquent whilst being illiterate. You certainly don’t need to read books to be knowledgeable. Actually, I should say that unlike Shakespeare I did attend university (in Oxford) and received my highest mark for an examination answer on an aspect of the thought of Immanuel Kant. I hadn’t read the material in question and I never intend to (and I certainly don’t understand German), but I had had a very good conversation in a pub with a clever person who had read it and I was entirely clear about the strengths and weaknesses of the argument. To those who think that this is not relevant, I reply that I think that Shakespeare’s handling of ideas – slickly eloquent, with an eye to their stage potential and their relation to character and not much interest in their validity – is exactly analogous to this. Of course, I was not illiterate and had to write my own answer, but if I’d conveniently broken my wrist I could have had an amanuensis. Some people – Lord Mountbatten was said to be one of them – can be enormously knowledgeable and brilliantly analytic without ever reading a book.

So who knows what conversations Shakespeare had in the streets and taverns either of London or wherever he was during the “missing years”? Or what writings or printed materials were passed into his grubby hands? Remember that social mixing was more common than it is now – think of the Boar’s Head in Henry IV and that there was no distinction between high and low cultures in the way that we understand it. (Though there was hostility to learning, as represented by Jack Cade in Henry VI, 2).

At the same time as I could have spun you a good line on Kant I could also have told you a lot about Teheran, its driving habits, traffic problems, women, food, the availability of alcohol, etc. I’d never been, but I had been on a drinking tour of Ireland with a mate who had and I was deeply envious of his achievement in hitching that far. So I have no problem with the amount of Shakespeare’s settings which are Italian, even assuming he was never there in the “missing years”.

Gobbo: Master young gentleman, I pray you, which is the way to Master Jew’s?

Launcelot: Turn up on your right hand at the next turning, but at the next turning of all, on the left; marry, at the very next turning, turn of no hand, but turn down indirectly to the Jew’s house.

Gobbo: By God’s sonties, ‘twill be a hard way to hit . . . (Merchant of Venice, Act II, Scene 2)

This is reminiscent of the old joke about asking the way in Venice: they say, “sempre diritto” (“Keep straight on”) when that’s the one thing you can’t do. But you wouldn’t remotely think that the author of the above lines must have been to Venice: it would only require that he’d had a pint with someone who had. The author’s knowledge is pretty limited; for example, he doesn’t seem to understand the ghetto, which had been in existence for 80 years at the time of writing. (This is my own example, incidentally, but James and Rubinstein do try to develop something about the generic knowledge of Italy in the plays.)

I find Rubinstein’s belief in formal education and his rejection of the possibility of what we would now call “auto-didactism” both staggering and preposterous. It is not only possible to learn anything and everything without formal structures, it is the normal human condition and only a mind imprisoned in the bureaucratic mentality of the modern university could imagine otherwise. Whatever your list of “100 greatest writers” contains, at least fifty of them will have little or no formal education and half the rest will say that what they did get was a waste of time and that (like me) they know a great deal more about the subjects they’d never been taught than those they had!

Apart from the Nozick Manoeuvre the commonest move in the Nonsense Game is the Missing Dimension whereby you attempt to account for something whilst ignoring the existence of some major aspect. For example, in accounting for the First World War you entirely ignore the existence of the Ottoman Empire. Here the problem is an almost complete failure to take account of Shakespeare’s role as part of an incredible golden age of theatrical writing. Kit Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Dekker, Philip Massinger, John Webster . . . competition, collaboration, mutual influence, the sense of new worlds to be explored. Put them together with their contemporaries who produced the Authorised Version and with John Donne, Francis Bacon et al. and you have a Golden Age not just of theatre but of language and the creation of language. And most of the new stuff came off the streets, not from the drearily ecclesiastical universities. Shakespeare may have been the pick of the bunch, but they’re all good. I will wager that in the 21st century more plays written by the above team have been put on than those written in the whole of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combined. And Shakespeare was about median in terms of education and social position, yet we are not looking for refined aristocratic minds lying behind any of the rest. (OK, Kit Marlowe, a coachbuilder’s son, did go to Cambridge on a scholarship, but did it really improve his ability as a playwright?) Three of the above are not mentioned by James and Rubinstein and only Jonson is discussed to any extent; of course, he can’t be ignored given his tribute to Shakespeare which has to be explained away.

Many intelligent and perceptive persons” are said to have doubted Shakespeare’s authorship. But perhaps some more intelligent and perceptive persons have seen Shakespeare for what he was. Voltaire, for example, said that Shakespeare was a theatrical genius and that only Lope de Vega could be compared to him. But he also saw that Shakespeare was a vulgarian and a showman, “without the slightest shred of good taste or knowledge of form” (“sans la moindre eticinelle de bon gout et sans la moindre connaissance des regles”). I think that educated “renaissance” aristocrats of his day would have also regarded him as a vulgarian. Hazlitt, though a fan, is continually shocked by the complete absence of principles in Shakespeare’s writing which means (among other things) that he cannot be a gentleman.

The giveaway to understanding the “anti-Stratfordian” mentality is perhaps to be spotted in a passage like this:

While Shakespeare is named in 75 known contemporary documents, not a single one concerns his career as an author. Most are legal and financial documents which depict him as a rather cold, rapacious and successful local landowner, grain merchant and money-lender. (p. 2)

So he wasn’t a soppy modern “intellectual”. In fact, he wasn’t an intellectual or a philosopher at all, but a showbiz entrepreneur with unavoidable criminal connections. Some people (interestingly, mostly Americans) can’t handle this.

You’ve seen those plays, the most supremely theatrical things ever written. Were they written by Sir Henry Neville, who had a political career, whose time in London was mostly alone in the Tower, who was at one time ambassador to the French Court, who otherwise divided his time between two country estates, who never wrote under his own name, who had little experience of the theatre and who was prepared to suppress any desire for literary fame which might have driven his (considerable) efforts . . . . ? And how would Neville have had the opportunity or the willingness to co-operate in the writing of Sir Thomas More, Edward III and Two Noble Kinsmen (only one of which is mentioned here) which most scholars now believe Shakespeare did? Or were they written by a streetwise Midland showbiz theatrical entrepreneur, who spent his time bandying and inventing words in the streets and the taverns with the likes of Ben Jonson, Kit Marlowe and the lads and thinking of ways to put bums on seats (or feet on ground)? It’s a no-brainer (to use a street expression which Will might have invented given time.) Or, to use the phrase of a contemporary, semi-educated wordsmith:

You cannot be serious . .

Lincoln Allison

(Selected for revival because a) it was a rare opportunity to write about Shakespeare & b) it elicited a lot of responses, mostly favourable. And – OK – c) I think it’s pretty good.)