The Shakespeare Dispute: Bethell Replies

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

Who were these literary noblemen? In 1604 the Earl of Montgomery married Susan Vere, Oxford's youngest daughter. Marriage between Pembroke and Oxford's second daughter, Bridget, was proposed in 1597, but it fell through. The Folio, then, was dedicated to Oxford's son-in-law and the son-in-law's brother. The role they may have played in the publication of the Folio is a matter for speculation, but the circumstances are suggestive. In the strange 1609 preface to Troilus and Cressida, incidentally, the author of that play is coyly not named, and other works by him are referred to as being retained by certain unnamed "grand possessors."

Let us turn to Greenes Groats-worth of Wit, a pamphlet originally attributed to Robert Greene but now thought to have been written by Henry Chettle, and one of the stronger weapons in the Stratfordian arsenal. The pamphlet alerts playwrights to an "upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country." Since "Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hide" is adapted from Henry VI, Part III, and since there is a pun on Shakespeare's name, the Stratfordians contend that the passage establishes the Stratford man as a playwright. But does it?

The reference does seem to be to Shakspere—albeit a Shakspere who is apparently passing himself off in the "feathers" of a playwright. If the man really WAS a playwright, of course, this would have made little sense as an expose.

Now notice what happened next. Chettle swiftly backtracked. The pamphlet, written to "divers playmakers," had been "offensively...taken." Two people took offense, apparently. Chettle was acquainted with neither of them, "and with one of them I care not if I never be." (Shakspere, I surmise.) Chettle apologized to the other. "Divers of worship have reported his uprightness of dealing, which argues his honesty, and his facetious [polished] grace in writing...." Possibly, then, Chettle found out that the upstart Shakspere, relatively new in town, was putting on airs as a "playmaker" (that is, fronting for Oxford). Not realizing that a nobleman had arranged it, Chettle imprudently blew the whistle. He soon found out that divers of worship could do without investigative journalism Elizabethan style, and he duly groveled.

Stratfordians sometimes resemble fundamentalist theologians, who cling tenaciously to the idea that a sacred text is literally true and must then ingeniously explain away a mass of subversive evidence that contradicts it. That evidence is not going away, and it cannot be dismissed with the ad hominen argument (now frequently heard) that it is propounded by snobs who can't bear the idea of Shakespeare's being a common man. (Was Looney a snob?) It is the evidence itself that must be addressed. The many connections between Edward de Vere and the works of William Shakespeare can no more be explained away by attacking Oxfordians for their alleged snobbery than the apparent inadequacy of Shakspere of Stratford can be explained away on grounds of the "essential incomprehensibility of genius," to use Schoenbaum's phrase.

There may well be more material yet to be discovered. If the Oxford theory of authorship is correct, a great deal of the Shakespeare research in the past 200 years has been done in the wrong place. The academy's almost total lack of interest in the subject over the past seventy years has ensured that only a relative handful of people have done any Oxford-related research since Looney wrote his book. Steven May, of Georgetown College, speaks eloquently about the still unresearched Elizabethan archives in English country houses and record offices. He mentions in particular Longleat and the National Library of Wales. "The manuscript materials have not been searched as carefully as everyone thinks," he says. He is confident that more material on De Vere is out there.

Oxford's oldest daughter, Elizabeth, married William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, and their granddaughter married into the Wentworth family in Yorkshire. Two years ago an unemployed Englishman (on welfare!) researched Wentworth Woodhouse, one of the largest houses in England. The most valuable portion of its library had been sold to Sotheby's in 1948. Among the books sold were Holinshed's Chronicles (1587 edition), The Noble Arte of Venerie or Hunting (l575), Castiglione's Il Cortegiano (1562), Hakluyt's Voyages, and the Amyot translation of Plutarch's Lives—signed by Shakespeare's friend, the third Earl of Southampton. (Sotheby's kept the names of the buyers.)

Probably nothing to it, Steven May said when I told him about this. And probably he's right. It's interesting, though. They never did find one book owned by the Stratford man. Possibly, just possibly, the big Shakespeare find that so many scholars have looked for in vain for so many years is still out there in the library or attic of one of those country houses.

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