The Shakespeare Dispute: Bethell Replies

A rebuttal to Irvin Matus's "The Case for Shakespeare"

Irvin Matus has performed a useful service by disposing of some of the weaker anti-Stratfordian arguments. I agree that the Stratford man was at no time "packed off" to his home town, that Lord Hunsdon was the patron of the Chamberlain's Men, and that Elizabethans did not think holograph manuscripts worth keeping. Philip Henslowe's failure to mention Shakespeare doesn't concern me. I am pleased to hear that plays were classified as "riffraffs" by literary folk: this would help to explain the use of a pseudonym by a play-writing nobleman.

I agree that Shakespeare's reputation was not by any means the equal of Ben Jonson's in the seventeenth century. All the easier to believe that his identity could remain obscured, and all the more surprising that plays he did not write, such as A Yorkshire Tragedy, should be attributed during his lifetime to his pen. This never happened with Jonson, Beaumont, or Fletcher. (Beaumont died a month before Shakspere and—in contrast to the neglected Stratford man—was buried in Westminster Abbey.) As for Ben Jonson's "rudimentary schooling," David Riggs writes in his 1989 biography, "By the time he left Westminster, he had committed substantial portions of Cato, Terence, Ovid, Virgil, Cicero, and Horace to memory."

In insisting that the Stratford man was "a man of the theater," Matus is simply trying to smuggle in the playwright with the actor. What is the warrant for claiming that there is "an ample supply of references to Shakespeare as a player and PLAYWRIGHT..."? Except for Greenes Groats-worth of Wit (1592), which I will discuss in a moment, there are no personal references to the Stratford man as a playwright that antedate his death. "Shakespeare" appears on quartos after 1598, but whether the Stratford man wrote them is precisely the point at issue.

The dichotomy that Matus is so eager to establish between the stage-writer and the belletrist depends for its point on the bold claim (inserted parenthetically) that Oxford was not a man of the theater. Any evidence here? Oxford's comedies were praised by Meres, and he was the patron of two acting companies. The praise that Matus heaps on Shakespeare the stage-writer could apply equally to Oxford.

Stratfordian dogma has it that once plays were sold, the playwright surrendered all rights to them. But this claim should be treated with skepticism. By the time Shakspere joined the company, in 1594, Titus Andronicus was a hit and the two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were selling well. Are we really to believe that, having written Othello, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, the Stratford man remained in such a weak bargaining position with his fellow actors that he was reduced in later life to seeking remuneration in the small-claims courts rather than from publishers? Are we also to believe (as his will implies) that he remained indifferent to the fate of these masterpieces, then still unpublished? I don't believe it.

Curiously, Matus fails to mention the main evidence for Shakspere's claim to authorship, found in the introductory material to the First Folio. Poems by Ben Jonson, Leonard Digges, and two others contrive to praise the poet while failing to provide information about his life. As the Oxfordian scholar Peter Moore points out, the Folio even omits Shakspere's proudest claim: his hard-won title of gentleman, his coat of arms and motto. In a society as conscious of rank as England then was, this was tantamount to failing to give his full name.

Jonson does refer to the poet as "Sweet Swan of Avon," however, and Digges alludes to "thy Stratford Moniment." Those phrases, written after Shakspere's death, are the strongest links between the playwright and the Stratford man that we have. Jonson and Digges convey no other biographical information, however. We don't even know if the frontispiece engraving, by Droeshout, resembles the Stratford man.

Certain aspects of the First Folio are more than a little suspect. It opens with a dedication, supposedly written by Shakspere's fellow actors John Heminge and Henry Condell, "to the most Noble and Incomparable Paire of Brethren," William and Philip Herbert, the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery. A preface addressed to "the great Variety of Readers" is also imputed to these players. In the eighteenth century the Shakespeare scholar Edmond Malone argued that in all probability Ben Jonson wrote this preface. In parallel columns over several pages he juxtaposed extracts attributed to Heminge and Condell in the Folio with corresponding passages in Jonson's works. (In the Folio: "How odde soever your braines be or your wisdomes...." In Jonson's Discoveries: "How odde soever mens braines or wisdomes be.") It is likely that Jonson in fact wrote both the preface and the dedication.

Some claims attributed to Heminge and Condell are also suspect. In earlier (quarto) printings the plays had been "maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors," the Folio notes, but now at last they were made available "cur'd and perfect of their limbes." In this respect, it was implied, the author's clean copy had been a help, for "we have scarse received from him a blot in his papers." Textual scholarship has demonstrated, however, that for many of the previously published plays the Folio editors used not manuscripts but the same "maimed and deformed" quartos already cited.

Thus the testimony of the Folio, at least in part, is suspect. It cannot be taken at face value. Ogburn quotes James Boswell the younger (1778-1822) as saying that there is "something fishy" about the whole thing. Some commentators have noted the sharp contrast between Ben Jonson's earlier lukewarm or disparaging comments about Shakespeare and his effusive praise in the Folio. Was this a command performance? The Earl of Pembroke was Jonson's patron, not to mention the Lord Chamberlain. As Lord Chamberlain he controlled the Revels Office and the licensing of plays for performance and publication. In the Folio the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery are praised for having treated both the plays "and their Authour living" with "so much favour."

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