Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Shake-speare Authorship Primer

Shakespeare: Who was He?  The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon by Richard F. Whalen.  Connecticut: Praeger, 1994.  208 pp., $39.24 cloth, $19.00 paper, $18.05 Kindle.  ISBN-13: 978-0313360503



Having decided to do reviews of books past and present relating to the Shakespeare Authorship Question, I begin with Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who was He?  Published in 1994, it seems fair to describe it as something of a standard S.A.Q. reading-list item.

Whalen’s book is an introduction to the debate as it stood at the time but not an exhaustive one.  In the Introduction to the book itself, he gives a passing explanation as to why the only viable candidates as the great English poet and playwright, William Shake-speare, are William Shakspere from Stratford upon Avon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.  He seeks to quickly catch the reader’s interest with a list of well-known names involved in the authorship debate and mention of the fine PBS documentary then current on the subject.


He makes a virtue of moderation.  He strives to remain within strict bounds in order to avoid the kinds of claims that provoke accusations of “conspiracy theorist” or just plain “nut job”.  The reader is provided the main categories under which the dispute generally proceeds.  Limited detail is provided sufficient to illustrate his points.

The text is uncluttered and straightforward at all times.  The goal is to remain within easy grasp of the general reader and it seems fair to say that the author succeeds admirably.  We learn that there is considerable information regarding the minor business dealings of William Shakspere, of Stratford-upon-Avon, but none whatsoever, during his life, connecting him to writing of any kind.  The now standard references to Mark Twain’s cynicism about the traditional assignment of the author of the plays are cited.  A quote from the venerable Ralph Waldo Emerson is brought in for incidental support.

Whalen points out that a very young Shakspere, busy hustling for a living, on the streets of London, could not possibly have found the time to extend his provincial command of the English language to such a high level, and to simultaneously become an amateur historian, a classical scholar (learning “Latin, French, Italian, and at least some Greek and Hebrew”) and much more, before the appearance of the already highly sophisticated early plays of Shake-speare.  This was already long a mainstay of the Oxfordian argument, by 1994 — context rather than evidence, safe territory.  The author is writing to introduce the neophyte to the common lines of battle and to gain audience for the debate.  Little or no new information is presented.

Whalen does introduce us to the importance of a particular lacuna regarding the man traditionally said to be Shake-speare.  Shakspere’s son-in-law, the Doctor John Hall, made a point of entering some bit of personal description in his records, at least once, indicating his pride at treating a poet.

Dr. Hall kept medical diaries in Latin and referred to one patient, Michael Drayton, as “an excellent poet.”  But he left not a word about his father-in-law, Will Shakespeare.

The importance of this detail had never dawned on me.  I am not sure that it had been introduced into the debate prior to this book.  While not determinative, is it thought provoking.  Shakspere was often at New Place in Stratford (both his and Dr. Hall’s home), especially at the time the doctor married into the family.  Presumably a small town such as Stratford had few doctors.  One of their number was his very competent son-in-law.  The likelihood that Hall was his personal physician is high.

As for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the neophyte learns that:

The works of Shakespeare mirror Oxford’s life.  In them can be found a surprising number of parallels and allusions to his education, marriage, travels, theater activities, and personal concerns.  Some of them are specific and quite striking.

Again, this is quite general indicating the author’s consistent attempt throughout to provide, in Shakespeare: Who was He?, a primer for the uninitiated.  By way of example, Whalen points out the now famous parallel between Prince Hal’s youthful indiscretion, in Shake-speare’s Henry IV, Part 1, in which the Prince involves himself in a highway robbery committed by Falstaff (and his rag-tag gang) and a corresponding incident in the life of Oxford.  Letters discovered since Oxford was first advanced as prime candidate for the true author of the works of Shake-speare accuse Oxford himself of being involved in just such a youthful indiscretion at precisely the same location.

Whalen also points out that the First Folio of the plays of William Shake-speare, while it seeks at least on the surface to connect the plays to the Stratford man, was dedicated to two very close nobleman friends of the Earl of Oxford.  Oxford had known William Herbert (eldest son of the then Earl of Pembroke) since at least the year 1598, when he was advanced as a husband for Oxford’s daughter Bridget.  William’s younger brother, Phillip, married Oxford’s youngest daughter, Susan, shortly after her father’s death in 1604.

There is much more, all of it painted with a broad brush in order to prevent Whalen’s effort from being vulnerable to arguments over the fine detail.  In this way, few outright errors find their way into the text.  As is common, even at present, the theory that Oxford was paid by Queen Elizabeth to write his plays as propaganda is noticed.  There is no particular evidence to support the highly popular claim.  The Earl had been out of favor since his affair with a lady-in-waiting to the Queen.  His return, upon demand of the Queen, to the wife he had spurned, regained him only the right to attend once again at the Royal Court.  All appeals of which we know for the return of Elizabeth’s favor met with evasion or worse.  Documents indicate that Oxford’s annuity from the Crown was provided in exchange for turning over control of his estates for management by the Crown.


Perhaps the only outright misconception in the book is the off-hand description of Ben Jonson, the director of the production of the First Folio, in 1623, and famous playwright in his own right, as

Ben Jonson, who later became, in effect, the queen’s poet laureate,…

Jonson’s Cynthia’s Revels, was written as if it had been intended to be shown before the Queen and Court, and was performed at Blackfriar’s Theater which she sometimes attended, but no record survives of Her attending a performance.  There would seem to be no other basis for a claim that Jonson was the equivalent of poet laureate in Her estimation or that of Her Court.

Ben Jonson did, in fact, become the de facto first poet laureate.  He held the unofficial rank, however, under Elizabeth’s successor King James I.  Jonson would have become familiar with James’s Lord Chamberlain, William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke, during the nobleman’s youthful fling among the denizens of the London theater districts some twenty-five years before.  Soon after Pembroke rose to his exalted position, Jonson was receiving an annuity from the royal coffers.

Among Jonson’s most cherished privileges, he seems to have had an open invitation to the breakfast table of Pembroke’s countess.  The Lord Chamberlain himself gave Jonson an annual New Year’s gift of ₤20 towards the purchase of new books.  Given the dedication to Pembroke (and to his brother, Phillip Herbert, the son-in-law of Edward de Vere) as the patron(s) of the First Folio, Jonson would seem surely to have been recruited by him to direct the project.

Whalen begins the last chapter of the book: “Maybe it’s all coincidence.”  He follows the sentence with a brief overview of how big the coincidences would have to be in order to properly dismiss out of hand claims for Oxford as author of the works of Shake-speare.  He lobbies for an “interdisciplinary study by a university or humanities foundation”.  The first signs that some very few universities will no longer dismiss the authorship debate without hearing only now appear.  That effort remains nascent and could too easily be starved in the cradle.

The four appendices to Shakespeare: Who was He?  The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon are well-chosen but lack detail.  The notes and bibliography, on the other hand, are extensive for such a volume, and strike just the right balance for an introduction to the authorship debate.

On the whole, Richard F. Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who was He?  The Oxford Challenge to the Bard of Avon is an excellent introduction to the Shakespeare Authorship Question.




Gilbert Wesley Purdy is the Review Editor of the online journal Eclectica Magazine. He has published poetry, prose and translation (from Italian, Spanish and Latin) in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine, Poetry International (San Diego State University), The Georgia Review (University of Georgia), Grand Street, SLANT (University of Central Arkansas),The Evansville Review (University of Evansville), Consciousness Literature and the Arts (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), Orbis (UK),and Valparaiso Poetry Review. His work in online journalism has been cited by Newsweek.UK and Huffington Post.  [See more about Gilbert here >>>]




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