March 18, 1999
surprise movie hit of the season is Shakespeare in
Love. It shouldnt have been such a surprise. This decade has
already seen more Shakespeare films than any decade in memory.
The perennial debate over who
Shakespeare really was is also getting renewed attention.
Time magazine recently devoted two full pages to the
question, leaning toward the view that the Bard was actually Edward de
Vere, Earl of Oxford.
Now an issue of Harpers
has addressed the issue with a long special section. Ten scholars join
battle; five argue for William of Stratford, five (including me) for Oxford.
There are also excerpts from prominent doubters of the past (Emerson,
Whitman, Mark Twain, Freud, Charlie Chaplin), with an eloquent
introductory essay by the editor, Lewis Lapham.
The orthodox scholars, who dominate the
universities, wish the whole authorship question would go away.
Williams defenders in this debate insist that theres really
nothing to debate. Williams authorship is an absolute; anyone who
doubts it, in their minds, is twisted and evil.
Gail Kern Paster, of George Washington
University, calls such doubts bardolatry for paranoids. She
condemns the ugly social denial at the heart of the Oxfordian
pursuit. She describes Oxfords partisans as
Lets see. Oxfords
partisans must be snobs and paranoids, as is proved by the fact that they
believe Oxford is the author; therefore Oxford cant be the author,
since his partisans are snobs and paranoids. Only in an English department
would this sort of thing pass for an argument.
Jonathan Bate of the University of
Liverpool denounces the Oxfordians cloak-and-dagger
mentality, but he proceeds to get some basic facts wrong. He says
William anglicized the name of Amleth, prince of Denmark,
to Hamlet a distinctive Warwickshire name
and also named his own son after his old friend Hamlet
All very learned, but all wrong.
Sadlers name and Williams sons name
was Hamnet, not Hamlet. And the name Amleth had
been anglicized (by a French writer!) long before William
could have written the play. The play has nothing to do with
Harold Bloom of Yale, author of the
best-selling Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, says flatly
that Oxfordians are the sub-literary equivalent of the
sub-religious Scientologists. You dont want to argue with them, as they
are dogmatic and abusive. After this touching plea for tolerance
and civility, he proceeds to speak of the Oxford lunacy.
Professor Bloom is quite a character;
hes the only celebrity among the Harpers
contributors. True to form, he takes every reference to Shakespeare as an
invitation to discuss his favorite subject, which may be gleaned from the
fact that he uses the words I, me, and my more than the other
nine contributors combined. If he were to meet Shakespeare, Shakespeare
wouldnt get a word in edgewise.
Unfortunately, Mr. Bloom cant
bring himself to tackle the specific question at hand: whether the
Shakespeare Sonnets tell us anything about their real author. In fact, they
tell us plenty the poet is aging (my days are past the
best), lame, of high birth, trained in
law; hes also a public figure who has fallen into
poverty and disgrace, and hopes his name
will be buried and forgotten after his death.
He may also be bisexual.
All this fits Oxford to a T. Hardly any of
it can be stretched to fit William of Stratford. And it fits Oxford even
better when you realize that the first 17 sonnets were probably written
to urge the young, handsome Earl of Southampton to marry: the girl he was
being pushed to marry was Elizabeth Vere, Oxfords daughter.
What it comes to is that a good many
experts simply dont know what theyre
talking about. They literally dont know who Shakespeare was, they
dont want to know, and they resent it when the question is even
Can this debate ever be resolved? I think
so. If a lost work by Shakespeare turned up, it might bear
evidence of Oxfords hand. And I believe Ive found at least
one such orphaned work, lying in plain sight but overlooked by the
experts for 400 years.
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The Shakespeare Library
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