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."

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.