Tom Bethell's case for Oxford demonstrates once again that in the thousands of works on Shakespeare and his plays, something can be found to support any notion. It also demonstrates that, as usual, Oxfordians must often resort to outdated scholarship to find support for their notions. Apparently, modern scholarship is as discouraging to them as the contemporaneous records of Shakespeare and his theater are treacherous.
These problems are on display in Bethell's assertion that there is "abundant evidence" to support the earlier dating of many plays. The dating of plays after 1604, he writes, is merely a matter of "giving breathing space to Stratfordian chronology," and he states that "perhaps as many as a dozen plays were written before the Stratford man reached his thirty-first birthday," in 1595. Well, as Bethell himself notes, the Palladis Tamia of Francis Meres, published three years later, gives a list of plays by Shakespeare, and the total is still only a dozen. According to Oxfordians, Hamlet, King Lear, Henry V, and The Winter's Tale, at the very least, had been written by this time, and yet they do not appear on Meres's list. Where are they? Even if we give the Oxfordians the benefit of the doubt and add these four plays to the ones on Francis Meres's list, and then combine them all with every other Shakespeare play that scholars acknowledge to have been written before 1598, that still means that more than half of the thirty-eight plays attributed to Shakespeare would have to have been written (or "revised") between that year and Oxford's death six years later, in 1604. By then only twenty-three plays that are certainly Shakespeare's had appeared in published editions or been mentioned in printed sources. It doesn't seem like the Oxfordian chronology allows much breathing room at all.
It also lacks a logical trajectory. Only two of the works on Meres's list of early plays—Richard II and Henry IV—are unquestionably works that have the earmarks of Shakespeare's mature command of drama and dramatic poetry. We know of references to nine plays written by Shakespeare during the period that ends in 1604 other than those mentioned by Meres, and again, only one or two are of high dramatic stature. By the time of Oxford's death, then, none but a handful of Shakespeare's most accomplished works had been either mentioned in print or published—quite a suggestive point in itself. But the main point is this: The traditional Shakespearean chronology, which has the author living until 1616, and places much of Shakespeare's best work after 1604, takes his artistic development over time into account. The Oxfordian chronology, in contrast, really offers nothing more than a confused redating of a scattering of plays.
Bethell claims that the King's Men were attaching Shakespeare's name to plays that he didn't write (for example, The London Prodigal and A Yorkshire Tragedy) in order to sell them to printers—something he is sure that the real playwright would not have allowed if he was still alive. This assertion is a reiteration of that unshakable Oxfordian fallacy that the rights of authors were recognized in Elizabethan-Stuart England. In fact authors had no rights. And especially not in the eyes of the Stationers, a guild concerned only with the rights of its printers and publishers. And there is every reason to believe that some publishers took advantage of this, which is nearly certainly the case with A Yorkshire Tragedy, registered to Thomas Pavier. He was also involved in the publication of the falsely dated, falsely attributed Shakespeare volumes printed in 1619, which possibly played a part in the King's Men's attempt to have the Lord Chamberlain forbid publication of any of their plays. There is absolutely nothing to support Bethell's accusation that the acting company was involved in the printing of the books he mentions. Why should they have been? At the time, they had at least a dozen unpublished plays that WERE by Shakespeare.
Another of the supposed mysteries mentioned by Bethell is the absence of an author's name in the early quartos, as though this were a condition peculiar to Shakespeare. Rather, it was so common that it was a major factor in the attribution of Mucedorus, Fair Em, and The Merry Devil of Edmonton to Shakespeare. A substantial number of plays were published anonymously, and when catalogues of plays began to appear, in 1656, the compilers tried to find authors for orphaned plays. In fact, occasionally they would find an author for a play even if it already had one. For instance, although Thomas Heywood's name appears on the title page of The Iron Age (1632), one compiler awarded this play to Thomas Dekker. Needless to say, their methods weren't very exacting in attributing anonymous plays. Thus The Revenger's Tragedy was probably assigned to Cyril Tourneur on grounds no better than that he had written The Atheist's Tragedy—but the former is now generally accepted as being by Thomas Middleton.
What is especially frustrating to Oxfordians, whose fundamental tenet is that a country bumpkin could not have written the plays in which they perceive a man of vast learning, is that they cannot find even one of Shakespeare's contemporaries who agrees with them. Bethell blames Jonson for "spread[ing] the idea that Shakespeare was nature's child"—but no one seems to have disputed this. When someone did reply to Jonson's frequent reproaches of Shakespeare for "want of Learning, and Ignorance of the Ancients," the reply was most enlightening. The "ever-memorable John Hales is said to have told Jonson that
"if Mr. Shakespear had not read the Ancients, he had likewise not stolen anything from 'em (a fault the other [Jonson] made no Conscience of), and that if he would produce any one Topic finely treated by any of them, he would undertake to show something upon the same Subject at least as well written by Shakespear."
Hales's remarks reflect what Shakespeare was most often praised for in his own age: his mastery of the language. This is heard even in Bethell's quote from the poet William Barksted: "His song was worthy merit." Of course, Bethell cites this as evidence that Shakespeare was in the past tense when the poem was written, in 1607. What, then, of the 1611 epigram "To our English Terence, Mr. Will. Shake-speare," in which the author, John Davies of Hereford, addressed the dramatist in the present tense?
But the epigram holds more of interest. Why should Davies have likened Shakespeare to Terence? He probably intended to suggest nothing more than that his contemporary's sense of language and style was akin to that of the Roman dramatist from the second century B.C. The two men have taken on other similarities since. Because Oxfordians are certain that a tradesman's son from a nasty provincial town could not have written the plays of a Shakespeare, it is worth noting that Terence was brought to Rome as a slave from Carthage, a very unfashionable city in its age. What is even more striking is that in Terence's lifetime, because of his lowly origins, it was rumored that his plays were actually written by noblemen. It appears that Shakespeare's contemporaries were more democratic-minded than Terence's. Or some of mine.
Bethell does nothing to rebut Justice Stevens's criticism that "the Oxfordian case suffers from not having a single, coherent theory." In fact, Bethell offers still another Oxfordian variant on the role of "William Shakspere, of Stratford," in the Oxford drama. First there is the familiar version; the "front man" paid off to "ensure his return to that dreary community," where he would be kept "out of sight so that his glaring disqualifications for the role of the dramatist would not queer the game," in the words of Charlton Ogburn. And now the variant: "Shakspere" endowed with a share in the Chamberlain's Men and left to put his glaring disqualifications on constant display as a "factotum and manager." While we anxiously await whatever story Oxfordians eventually settle on, let's consider that both current versions concede that Shakespeare was at some time a part of the London theater scene. Isn't it odd that in an age when even monarchs and (if we are to believe Oxfordians) their councillors were fair game for satire, there is not a hint that anyone sent up the fellow who hung around the playhouses as not being the same man who wrote those plays?
Of course, Oxfordians are in total agreement that the praise of the earl for comedy by George or Richard Puttenham, echoed by Meres, is an indication of his virtuosity. But there is no reason whatsoever to believe that Puttenham or Meres was referring to anything but the comedies written under Oxford's own name. It is interesting what company Oxford keeps in The Arte of English Poesie. He is paired with Richard Edwards in his facility for "Comedy and Enterlude," just as "the Lord of Buckhurst [Thomas Sackville] and Master Edward Ferrers...deserve the highest price" for tragedy. Not only are these men not known to have written anything after 1580, but also they wrote in the highly formal style that signified refined taste. There is no reason to doubt that Oxford was right at home among them—and none would have been at home on the popular stages. Furthermore, if the Oxfordian chronology is right, and his popular plays were revised versions of court plays, then many of his histories and tragedies had been written by 1589. But all we hear about from Puttenham is Oxford's facility for comedy, and that is all we hear about in Palladis Tamia, nine years later.
Most of all, the case of the Oxfordians relies on what they perceive to be stunning parallels between Oxford's life and Shakespeare's plays. Sometimes this calls to mind nothing so much as Fluellen, the Welsh captain in Henry V, who finds striking parallels between King Harry and "Alexander the Pig" ("is not 'pig' great"), especially:
"There is a river in Macedon, and there is also moreover a river at Monmouth....'tis all one; 'tis alike as my fingers is to my fingers, and there is salmons in both."
For instance, Oxford had been to Italy, and Bethell finds scholarly support for Shakespeare's familiarity with its topography. But somehow we find nothing of its people in the plays set in Italy; Shakespeare's characters are always of contemporary England. But Oxford's character was definitely influenced by his Italian travels. Therefore, whereas Bethell discerns "Shakespeare's frequent disgust with court life," it is curious to find the Duke of York in Richard II complaining of the court's taste for the
"Report of fashions in proud Italy,
Whose manners still our tardy apish nation
Limps after in base imitation."
Historically, Richard's court aped the fashions of France. It was Elizabeth's court where Italy was in fashion, and no one, perhaps, was more in this fashion than the Earl of Oxford. Gabriel Harvey, a supposed admirer of the earl's, wrote a poem that, according to Virginia F. Stern, in her biography of Harvey (1979), "depicts with ridicule the attire and mannerisms of an Italianate Englishman and was probably conceived as a veiled caricature of the Earl of Oxford." In fact, John Lyly recognized Oxford's image in it and called it to his patron's attention, purportedly in the hope of damaging Harvey's standing with the earl.
Which brings us to another issue that looms large in Oxfordian arguments: Shakespeare's allegedly privileged knowledge of court life. As a player in an acting company, Shakespeare was in the service, first, of the Lord Chamberlains of the Household (who, as their title implies, were actively involved in court life) and, second, of the King himself. Shakespeare would have been at court frequently, not only as an actor but also as one of a company whose members, under James I, were Grooms of the Chamber, attendant at state functions. It would appear that Shakespeare had ample opportunity to pick up both firsthand and secondhand knowledge of the court. After all, some of the most extensive and intimate information we have of the doings in the court of England during Shakespeare's lifetime is in the letters of John Chamberlain, a commoner with an uncommonly wide circle of friends.
Finally, Oxfordians would have us believe that the earl's last years are shrouded in impenetrable obscurity because he was indulging in his guilty passion. Those years turn out to be not so impenetrable that there isn't good reason to believe that literature was by no means "his main interest in life." What was his obsession from June of 1594, when the Chamberlain's Men was formed, to March 15, 1595, when we first hear of Shakespeare's association with the company? On March 20, 1595, Oxford wrote to Lord Burghley, "This last year past, I have been a suitor to Her Majesty that I might farm her 'tins.'" One year later tin still seems the subject that excites his Muse. And in June of 1599, when the Globe was just finished, or nearly so, Oxford was still harping on tin. Curiously, in the enormous Shakespeare lexicon the word "tin" never once appears.
As it does not seem that there is much that partisans of Shakespeare and Oxford can agree on, it is pleasant to close on a note of accord with Tom Bethell when he calls attention to Sonnet 76 and its declaration
"That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed."
We don't need an Oxfordian decoder (as Sonnet 76 does) to find a secret message that reveals the author's name. Just turn to Sonnet 135, which begins,
"Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy WILL,
And WILL to boot, and WILL in over-plus."
and ends with a sentiment a Shakespearean can regard fondly:
"Let no unkind no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one WILL."