Why I Am a Stratfordian PDF Print E-mail
History
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 04 July 2011 08:37
Editor’s Note: Astute rememberers will recall that we have gone into print on the Stratfordian/Oxfordian question before. If you don’t recall that, you can refresh your memory here. In our previous assault on the public, we discussed some interesting possibilities surrounding an Oxfordian authorship of the Shakespeare plays. Here, in an admirable display of even-handedness, we present Peter Leithart’s thoughts on the subject. Enjoy.

On September 25, 1987, the American University in Washington DC sponsored a moot court in the Metropolitan Memorial United Methodist Church. Presiding over the court were three Supreme Court justices: Harry Blackmun, William Brennan, and John Paul Stevens. More than a thousand people turned out hear Peter Jaszi and James Boyle debate the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Jaszi argued that Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, had written the plays, while Boyle argued for the Stratfordian burgher and actor William Shakespeare. All three justices concluded that the Oxford case was unproven, though the de Vere Society Newsletter later complained that Brennan was more a witness for the Stratfordians than an impartial judge.

Some try law courts; some try séances. In the early 1940s, Percy Allen, a supporter of the Oxfordian view, went to a London medium named Hester Dowden, who had lengthy conversations with Shakespeare, Bacon, and Oxford, and confirmed that Oxford had filled in the sketchy outlines that Shakespeare came up with.

The Oxfordian view dates back to the early part of the twentieth century, to a English schoolmaster named Thomas Looney (pronounced, most unfortunately, “loney” rather than “loony”), whose book Shakespeare ‘Identified’ (1920) laid out the Oxfordian case. Looney was not the first to doubt the standard account of the playwright’s life. During the middle part of the nineteenth century, a pitiable woman from Hartford, CT, Delia Bacon, published a book on the philosophy of Shakespeare’s plays in which she argued that Francis Bacon, whom she eventually claimed as a forebear, had written the plays. She received grudging aid from Emerson, Hawthorne, and Thomas Carlyle, though none believed her. Bacon believed that the evidence could be found in Shakespeare’s grave, and snuck into Holy Trinity in Stratford late one night to poke around in an unsuccessful search for confirmation of her theory.

The authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has been established in the way that authorship is established for everyone in the Elizabethan age. His name appears on published editions of the plays and poems. He is known to have been an actor who performed the plays that were published under his byline. He was part owner of Globe Theater. Contemporaries say he was a playwright and poet. Ben Jonson called him a friend, and described him as an actor and playwright. Critic Francis Meres spoke of Shakespeare as author of sonnets, and the Oxford don Leonard Digges said that Shakespeare was known for his plays and sonnets.

Yet, the “quest of the historical Shakespeare” goes on, and asking Why? is worth a moment’s reflection. Two reasons stand out. First, it seems we know tantalizingly little about Shakespeare. We know the date of his baptism but not of his birth. Little is known of his education. There are the famous “lost years” between his departure from Stratford and marriage to Anne Hathaway and his appearance in London. Second, what we know doesn’t seem to fit with what we expect from the greatest poet of the English language, the “man of the millennium.” The records from the late sixteenth century are mainly court records, purchases and sales of property, lawsuits. It’s a thoroughly bourgeois, not to mention a startlingly litigious life, not the life of a poet or artiste.

To both of these suspicions there are compelling responses. To the first: Our “ignorance” of Shakespeare is more apparent than real. Christopher Marlowe left no manuscripts or letters, and nobody mentioned his work as a playwright during his lifetime. John Webster, author the Duchess of Malfi and The White Devil left no biographical trace – not the date and place of his birth and death, nor the place where he was educated. We know far less of Shakespeare than we do about literary figures from the following centuries, but we know a great deal more about him than we do about most literary figures of his own time. Were it not for Shakespeare’s titanic stature, there were be no conspiracy theories, no furtive searches of his grave, no moot court. It all makes for great fun, but nobody does it for Marlowe or Webster, poor fellows.

To the second: It is no accident that the first doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship surfaced in the Romantic period, when conceptions of art and authorship changed radically. Literature came to be seen as self-expression, and poets were expected to wear a persona. The authorship question is bound up with a post- Romantic belief that the true artist has to be a man who lives by his own unconventional lights. That is a very specific, and very recent, notion of authorship. Anti-Stratfordian Christmas Humphreys spoke volumes when he expressed his dismay at the “worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman.” For all we know, most artists and poets prior to the modern period were “petty-minded tradesmen.”

Why am I a Stratfordian? Finally, my stance is negative. I have heard no convincing evidence that makes me budge from the obvious.




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Last Updated on Monday, 04 July 2011 08:44