EDWARD DE VERE and the REBIRTH OF THE AUTHOR
“There was no one in him; behind his face (which even in the poor paintings of the period is unlike any other) and his words, which were copious, imaginative, and emotional, there was nothing but a little chill, a dream not dreamed by anyone.”
Jorge Luis Borges, in his short story ‘Everything and Nothing’, plays with the idea that William Shakespeare had the power to assume any identity he chose because he had no identity of his own. Borges’ story is based on the surprising fact that almost nothing is known about one of our civilization’s greatest writers – and that what is known about his life reveals nothing in the least bit interesting or suggestive of genius or literary ability of any kind. William Shakspere (sic) of Stratford-upon-Avon was a mediocrity – a run-of-the-mill businessman, a broker and money-lender, a petty, litigious burgher, who got a little rich. This paradox gives rise to Borges’ conceit: nothing less dramatic can be imagined than the life of the great dramatist.
Indeed, William Shakespeare is the Invisible Man of his time. His name on a title page or a dedication; a sole, ambiguous attribution by a contemporary; six signatures all spelt different ways. He owned no books, wrote and received no letters. He was never paid for what he wrote; never arrested either, unlike a number of his contemporaries; never questioned or tortured, even after the use of his work in support of the Essex rebellion.
How can you torture someone who doesn’t exist?
The plays, of course, did not write themselves – but nor were they composed by Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon, who was barely literate. The name Shakspere is thought to be a phonetic spelling of the Norman name Jacques-Pierre; the name Shakespeare or Shake-speare is a contrived pun, deliberately chosen for its classical connotations, a soubriquet for Minerva, the ‘spear-shaker’. The two names are not the same, either in spelling or provenance. But they are close enough for the misdirection.
Ben Jonson eulogizes him as ‘My Beloved, The Author’ in the title of his riddling Preface to the 1623 Folio edition. ‘William Shakespeare’ was a nom-de-plume and a nom-de-guerre, a pseudonym or more properly an allonym adopted by the writer in question, who speaks from behind a mask, and speaks very directly to us today. His identity has been known now for almost a hundred years – since J Thomas Looney exposed it in his definitive work of literary-historical detection, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1920). This ground-breaking investigation establishes the identity of The Author beyond reasonable doubt, and provides a framework for extremely productive research by talented, highly qualified literary historians ever since. But nearly a century later, thanks to the lazy, self-interested intransigence of Academia and the resistance of commercial interests, Shakespeare’s revealed identity is still not widely known – and this despite the fact that de Vere is so explosively relevant to our own times.
We should not be surprised that the Earl chose to disguise himself in public. Drama, after all, is multiplicity, the prismatic refraction of personality. De Vere lived in a dangerous age for writers, the age of the Cecils, Archbishop Whitgift and the English Inquisition, the age of Elizabeth, queen of eyes and ears, and so The Author made himself invisible.
Insiders knew and some cryptically indicated their knowledge to posterity and each other. In one well-known allusion the poet appears as ‘Adon[is] deafly [silently] masking through’ (Thomas Edwardes, Narcissus L’envoy, 1595). The frontispiece of a book of emblems and devices, Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna (1612), shows an intriguing image which reflects the contemporary awareness of a concealed poet writing for the stage. A hand holding a pen emerges from behind a theatre curtain, and writes (upside down) the Latin words MENTE VIDEBORI (By the mind I shall be seen), an anagram: NOM TIBI DE VERE. So the stage itself offers the opportunity of anonymity, a curtain behind which The Author can conceal himself. With the allonym – the use of the name of a living person – another layer of disguise is added.
While de Vere donned his mask out of necessity and circumstance, identity-play was evidently in his blood. How many of the plays feature disguises and assumed identities? From Romeo masked at the Capulet ball, to Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’, to Duke Vincentio posing as a Friar, or Portia as the young doctor of law, to Ariel’s terrifying harpy, to Olivia and Rosalind, cross-dressing and bed-tricks, plays-within-plays and players playing players, the delight in disguise is everywhere.
The theme resonates deep within the traditional culture. In the countryside, ‘pagan’ holiday traditions had been suppressed by the grey asphyxiating forces of the Reformation. For O, the hobby-horse is forgot, as Hamlet mourns. Stephanie Hughes, at PoliticWorm, writes:
Shakespeare repeats this in two of his plays, Hamlet and Love’s Labour’s Lost. The hobby-horse was a feature in the old mummer’s processions. A man dressed in a horse costume, his identity hidden, would dash at the crowd, singling out individuals whom he thought deserved a public reprimand, while the crowd roared in a combined shout of approval and alarm.
These mumming and disguising traditions were anathema to the Reformation, as was theatre. From the beginning, de Vere was fighting a culture war. As ‘one of the wolfish earls so plenteous in the plays themselves’, as Walt Whitman intuited Shakespeare must be, he emerged from the old feudal world – but what he bequeathed to modernity survived the closing of the theatres and the puritan dictatorship; what he fought for was theatre itself, that bright mirror of multiplicity, music and magic, poetry, play and display. In the author’s obsession with persona and mask, the satirical hobby-horse lives on.
A strange and pernicious theory has arisen in the past half century which may (as a number of commentators have suggested) owe its provenance to the disjuncture between the works of William Shakespeare the author and the uninteresting biography of William Shakspere of Stratford. Roland Barthes and other fashionable intellectuals argued from the nineteen sixties onwards against the relevance of the biography to the work, and that critics should regard the author as merely an unconscious or passive conduit or mouthpiece for the culture and the language to voice itself. If ‘it is the language that speaks’, pace the poet Mallarmé, then the author has no authority, is merely a receiver, and literature is reduced to sociology and linguistics. This postmodern attack on the individuality of the artist – usually referred to by Barthes’ formulation ‘the death of the author’ (La Mort de L’auteur) is a leftist assault on the concept of the individual per se. Like the citizen under Communism, the artist is stripped of free will and authentic action.
De Vere is the antidote to such artistic illiteracy. His creativity is about as far from a passive conduit as you can imagine; he didn’t just carve out his individual masterpieces, he did more than anyone else to build the space, physical and cultural, in which they would be heard. The turbulent Earl was one of history’s great individualists, attracting much Puritanical opprobrium for his profligacy and bohemianism, his feuds and affairs. He is death to the ‘death of the author’ theory; he is the rebirth of the author. De Vere’s creative evolution is unique. In his late teens and early twenties he was Elizabeth’s favourite and a star performer at court, both in his own person and as the Puckish spirit behind brilliantly devised court entertainments. High-born and rebellious, driven, brilliant but reckless, his intimate relationship with Queen Elizabeth allowed him to escape punishment for acts of defiance which would have had serious consequences for any other courtier. As becomes clear in extraordinarily personal court dramas such as Hamlet, he saw himself as having occupied something like the position of a court jester or ‘licens’d fool’ in Elizabeth’s court. But things went too far. Banished and re-instated, he ultimately exiled himself, and in ten years of seclusion hammered out the final versions of his greatest works, turning them into literary as well as dramatic masterpieces – the great studies in human folly which became famous throughout the world.
The Stratford misdirection has always met with most opposition from writers, directors and other artists. Any real artist knows the labour of art; genius doesn’t just switch itself on and off like a light on a timer. Good writing is hard, long work, the work of an individual who is both equipped and impelled to write by his or her own history and psychology. Good writing is by definition individualistic and can come only from an individual, as an expression of identity. It is not a passive process. Genius is not magic.
Much of the opposition to de Vere’s authorship seems to reflect unconsciously absorbed class prejudice: in other words, inverted snobbery. De Vere is automatically to be despised because of his birth: he is not the Shakespeare we want. We want an idealized rags-to-riches figure, Mr Nobody from Nowhere like Jay Gatsby, Dick Whittington with a talking cat. Instead what we get is Lord Byron with Faustian gifts and ‘lewd’ friends, the charismatic magnet for a bohemian milieu, whether in Venice or in London. Sentimentalists don’t want to hear about this reckless aristocrat who got himself imprisoned in the Tower and then banished indefinitely from Court. The final trigger was his affair with one of the Queen Maids of Honour, resulting in the birth of a bastard son and a vendetta pursued against him by relatives of the lady, which spilled onto the streets of Blackfriars in lethal brawls and ambushes, leaving three men dead and de Vere badly wounded. Such was the implosion of the child star of Elizabeth’s court. Stratford became the chaste birthplace of a miracle, like some kind of new Bethlehem, but the Brythonic name ‘Avon’, meaning ‘waters’ or ‘watery place’, as Alexander Waugh has proved, was used poetically at the time to signify not Stratford but Hampton Court: the ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ is the poet of Elizabeth’s Versailles.
The ad hoc hypothesis introduced to save Bethlehem is the condition of ‘genius’, which is conceived as something magical. Will Shakspere goes to London and immediately starts producing masterpieces, without the foundation of education, experimentation, or apprentice-work, leaving behind no juvenilia. Twenty years later his genius is suddenly switched back off, and he doesn’t lift a pen again, leaving his unfinished works to be completed by hacks. This is not realistic. It’s a fairytale. It’s time to leave this magical thinking and grasp the grown-up reality – that de Vere’s masterpieces were achieved through a lifetime’s labour and were the result of both exuberant experimentation and painstaking revision. The ‘Shakespeare’ period of the 1590s and early 1600s, which have been traditionally seen as the explosion of Will Shakespeare’s youthful and implausible genius, turns out to have been the maturity of de Vere, who achieved his art through sweat, tears, yes, and blood too.
It’s not just self-interest and inertia that keeps this patched up paradigm together, and it’s not just class resentment either. There is something even deeper here as well, I believe. It’s not even just about the present-day war on masculinity or nationhood or whiteness. I’m talking about the abolition of the individual, as a concept, as a reality, as a moral center – which Marshall McLuhan foresaw as the inevitable effect of the digital age, calling it the ‘new tribalism’.
The tribe is ruled by superstition. In our celebrity culture, we want to believe that education, discipline and mastery are not preconditions for original creative production. We want to believe in achievement without effort, in ‘genius’ without discipline. That these plays somehow wrote themselves.
De Vere is not the passive mouthpiece for an abstraction. His is the highly individual achievement of a highly individualistic man. He flirted with expulsion from the magic circle, and when disaster came, he responded with a fierce creativity and focus. If the banishment hadn’t happened, Fisher’s Folly wouldn’t have happened, and the poetic drama would not have become what it did.
Fisher’s Folly, de Vere’s mansion in the theater district, is the birthplace of Bohemia avant la lettre, and of a new literary style which was the synthesis of the contradictions inherent in de Vere’s personal history. The decade which begins with de Vere’s expulsion from court saw a marked change in the character of English poetry, and this change is connected with Lord Oxford’s immersion in London’s burgeoning theatre world. Looney writes:
We have already had to remark his restiveness under all kinds of restraints imposed by the artificiality of court life and his strong bent towards that Bohemian society within which were stirring energetic forces making for reality, mingled with much evil in life and literature.
Quoting from Dean Church’s Life of Spenser, Looney characterizes the ‘Drab Age’ of English poetry as marked by “feebleness, fantastic absurdity, affectation and bad taste … Who could suppose what was preparing under it all? But the dawn was at hand.”
De Vere’s class-apostasy, his banishment and self-exile, has everything to do with this change. Looney cites Philip Sydney’s ‘In Defense of Poesie’ “as representing the earlier, feebler period, and the ‘rude playhouses with their troops of actors, most of them profligate and disreputable’ as being the source of the later and more virile movement.”
The decade of the 80s constitutes “the period immediately following upon [de Vere’s] first poetic output, and it was during these years that he was in active and habitual association with these very troupes of play-actors […] What distinguishes Oxford’s work from contemporary verse is its strength, reality and true refinement. When Philip Sydney learned to “look into his heart and write” he only showed that he had at last learnt a lesson that his rival had been teaching him.”
During the next ten years, 1590-1600, “there burst forth suddenly a new poetry, which with its reality, depth, sweetness and nobleness took the world captive. The poetical aspirations of the Englishmen of the time had found at last adequate interpreters, and their own national and unrivaled expression.”
In 2016 de Vere is no academic footnote, but a challenge to the weaponized stereotyping of contemporary culture. Just as secret performances of Shakespeare’s plays were staged by dissidents in Czechoslovakia under Communist tyranny, so de Vere’s clandestine art can sustain us in our own times. The Borgesian paradox is void: Shakespeare was not nobody. He was a specific individual, unique and unrepeatable. Great art is not produced by impersonal cultural or historical forces, and certainly not by theory. De Vere’s story is push-back against collectivist mediocrity, identity-play for a surveillance age. Rumours of the death of the author, it turns out, have been greatly exaggerated.
NOTES & LINKS
Shakespeare Identified by J Thomas Looney (1920)
Thomas Edwards’ Narcissus L’envoy
Henry Peacham’s Minerva Britanna
Mumming and disguising