Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn's This Star of England

Reviewed by Giles Dawson

Shakespeare Quarterly, 1953, pp. 165-70

This Star of England, by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn (New York: Coward-McCann, 1952).
This 1300-page book is another attempt to demonstrate that not "William Shaksper," whom the authors describe as a small grain dealer of Stratford, but rather Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford, alias William Shakespeare, was the true author of Shakespeare's plays and poems. It cannot be called a good book even were we to grant the validity of the attribution of authorship. It is a dangerous book, written with a specious plausibility likely to mislead the nonspecialist reader. This review therefore will examine not so much the conclusions of the book as its method. For in my opinion it is the basic unsoundness of method in this and other works of similar subject matter that explains how sincere and intelligent men arrive at such wild conclusions as those contained in This Star of England.

In a letter to the editor of the Washington Star published on 11 January 1953, Mr. Charlton Ogburn asserts that he and Mrs. Ogburn have "endeavored, in a diginfied and scholarly manner, to establish through authentic evidence an important historical truth revealed by conscientious research." Letting "dignified" and even "conscientious research" stand, the reviewer may perhaps be allowed a close look at "scholarly" and "authentic evidence."

Scholarship implies an attitude toward truth and a method of working toward the establishment of truth -- whether of historical events or of the meaning and significance of a literary work or of the nature of the world about us. The scholar has no axes to grind. He is not eager to prove his own hypotheses correct, but rather to find out whether they are correct or not. He is ever ready to reevaluate and reinterpret his evidence and to discard one hypothesis in favor of a better. When he uncovers a fact which does not square with his hypothesis he neither shuts his eyes to it nor tries to explain it away nor trims it to fit his own preconceptions, but rather adjusts the hypothesis to fit the facts. The ability to evaluate and reevaluate evidence in any field comes with training and experience in that field.

In the field of literary history, as in others, the scholar attempts to construct the whole picture. Familiarity with many points of view enables him to determine which of his predecessors and fellow workers can in general be relied upon for sound scholarship, though even in such reliance he will always test and question. He is humble in attempting to solve problems that have baffled many before him and slow to announce discoveries that will upset well established beliefs. He will familiarize himself with all tools and methods in his field and know which are sound and applicable to the work of the moment. In presenting the results of his research he will distinguish carefully between demonstrable fact and tentative conjecture, never building on the latter, and by full and sound documentation will furnish the reader with the means of testing both conjecture and stated fact. And finally in publishing he will scrupulously check all quotations and references.

A brief examination will enable us to evaluate the quality of the scholarship which Mr. Ogburn claims for himself and his collaborator. The discovery, as a start, that the book is equipped with a six-page bibliography, promises well. We assume that it lists the pertinent works known to the authors and used in their research -- at least those works judged by them to be important.

It is plain at once that they have made use of the more important dramatists of the period: Chapman, Dekker, Greene, Heywood, Jonson, Kyd, Lyly, Marlowe, Marston. Very good. But a second look shows that the plays of Kyd, Marlowe, and Marston are represented only by the few specimens provided in Neilson's Chief Elizabethan Dramatists, a textbook anthology published in 1911, and that the Herford and Simpson Jonson and Parrott's Chapman either were not known to the Ogburns or were not judged to be of value, though it seems not unreasonable to expect that anyone writing extensively about Jonson's life and character, as they do, would feel it necessary to consult the most scholarly, substantial, authoritative, and recent work on the subject. And in a study much concerned with the early publication of Shakespeare and the relations between author, actor, and publisher, it is surprising to find in the bibliography no mention of any of the most eminent authorities in this field, such as Pollard, Plomer, McKerrow, Greg, and Willoughby.

Nor, except for a footnote reference to an article in The Library, do I find, in bibliography, index, or text, evidence that the authors have made use of any of the leading learned journals in the field of English studies. Instead, we find everywhere abundant exploitation of writers who have relied on similar methods: Alden Brooks, Eva Turner Clark, Montague W. Douglas, Sir George Greenwood, B. M. Ward, J. Thomas Looney -- to name only a few.

Even more revealing is the use they have made of a few of the leading works of scholarship in their field. W. W. Greg, Dover Wilson, and T. W. Baldwin I find cited once each. [note1] In "A Hundreth Sundrie Flowers" (Library, 4th ser., VII., 1926-27, pp. 269-82), a review of B. M. Ward's edition of Gascoigne's poems, Greg produces excellent and convincing evidence against Ward's identification of a Latin motto on the title-page of the 1573 edition as an acrostic of the name of the Earl of Oxford. In a note on p. 269 the Ogburns quote one of Greg's sentences, lifting it from its context in such a way as to imply Greg's assent to Ward's proposition -- a proposition which they themselves accept, apparently without a glance at the contrary evidence.

The Ogburns cite Dover Wilson in an attempt to demonstrate that Macbeth was written between 1588 and 1591 [note2], with two allusions perhaps added in 1603. They assert (p. 788, n.4) that "Prof. Dover Wilson, too, has stated that Macbeth could well have been written not later than 1603." I find no such statement in Wilson's New Cambridge edition, whence I suppose (for they have provided no reference) that the information was drawn. There Wilson argues that an older and longer version than now exists was written late in 1601 or 1602, and that it was "re-born as the Macbeth of 1606" (p. xxxvi); again he says (p. xxxiii) that "passages of Macbeth were written in the summer of 1606."

Discussing Sonnet 78 the authors assert (p. 895, n.) that "The learned commentator, T. W. Baldwin, has the following to say, apropos of this sonnet: 'Shakspere [sic] [note3] has not Art, only rude ignorance, but with his patron as muse, he has been equal to learning, even when that learning itself was inspired by the patron.' -- William Shakspere's Small Latine and Lesse Greeke; vol. I, p. 16." They certainly here give the impression that Baldwin is expressing his own judgment upon Shakespeare. But such was not Baldwin's intention; in his text the sentence quoted immediately follows the whole of Sonnet 78 and is obviously only a paraphrase of it. Their offense is aggravated by a high-handed (and silent) alteration of Baldwin's sentence, for he wrote .".. has been able to equal learning, even when ..." The difference in meaning is striking.

Further and even more telling illustrations of the Ogburns' misuse of recent scholarship may be seen in their treatment of the greatest living authority on the biography of Shakespeare. Sir Edmund Chambers began his work before the turn of the century, but his William Shakespeare, a Study of Facts and Problems (2 vols., Oxford, 1930) only appeared three decades later. After he discovered that much of the groundwork necessary for a definitive biography had not been done, he first produced, by way of preparation, his Medieval Stage (2 vols., Oxford, 1903) and The Elizabethan Stage (4 vols., Oxford, 1923), works which, if at some few points superseded, will yet long stand as the base of further studies and as models of thorough documentation and sound scholarship.

Our authors found six points at which Chambers proved worthy of mention.

Worse is to follow in the final example, where, twice, without volume and page reference, one of Chambers's sentences is quoted. First, on p. 555, discussing Ferdinando Stanley Earl of Derby and his relations with Oxford, our authors continue: "Sir Edmund Chambers's speculations regarding this association and the man he calls 'Shakespeare' are interesting, if exasperating." Then -- after an intolerably patronizing sneer at the "tortuous conjecture and supposition" into which Chambers is led -- we read, in the same paragraph, that "One honors him for his truthful summing-up of one phrase: 'After all the careful scrutiny of clues and all the patient balancing of possibilities, the last word for a self-respecting scholarship can only be that of nescience.'" This quoted sentence is, it appears, a "summing-up of one phrase" of Chambers's speculation regarding this Derby-Oxford association. The same sentence is again quoted on p. 1231, where, talking about the alleged paucity of contemporary records of Shakespeare's life, the Ogburns observe that Camden fails to list "Shaksper" in his 1605 Brittania among Stratford's worthies or to mention him in his Annales under the year 1616, and similarly Stowe in his Annales of England. Then, immediately:

        The most recent biography of Shaksper with any
        pretentions to scholarship, William Shakespeare,
        by Sir Edmund K. Chambers, makes this important
        admission:  "After all the careful scrutiny of
        clues and all the patient balancing of
        possibilities, the last word for a self-respecting
        scholarship can only be that of nescience."
Here Chambers is clearly made to express this cautious opinion concerning the whole life of Shakespeare. If Chambers had so meant it he would have so written it, but he did not. He wrote the sentence (William Shakespeare, I, 26) on a very different and very specific matter, namely the eight or so "lost years" between Shakespeare's begetting of his twins in 1584 and his first traceable appearance in London in 1592, a period concerning which, in the not surprising absence of records, many a biographer has engaged in uncurbed guessing. Despite appearances we cannot here suspect the Ogburns of wilfully omitting any adequate reference for this quotation in an effort to deceive the reader, since similar omissions are but too frequent throughout the book.

The foregoing samples of documentation and employment of secondary sources I have not picked and culled out of the book; they are the only ones I have investigated and presumably represent what any similar sampling would reveal of the "scholarly manner" of the writers who feel themselves entitled to sneer at E. K. Chambers, whose caution and meticulous documentation they would do well to adopt as their model for the future. It is evident from these examples, first, that the Ogburns' quotations are unreliable, and this not only in the mechanics of quoting but in spirit as well, for one of the basic principles of scholarship is that in quoting, the words of a writer shall be so handled as to bear the same signification as he intended and not be made to say or imply something which he would not say. Second, it is plain that the Ogburns have gone through some of the most respectable recent works of orthodox scholarship, but with their eyes averted from all the reasoning and conclusions there found, merely snatching instead an isolated sentence here and there which could be pressed into service in a new context.

Turning to contemporary Elizabethan sources we find no improvement in method. A good illustration is the treatment of Meres's well-known list of the "best for Comedy amongst us," [note4] which names "Edward Earle of Oxforde, Doctor Gager of Oxforde, Maister Rowley ... Maister Edwardes ... John Lilly, Lodge, Gascoyne, Greene, Shakespeare, Thomas Nash, Thomas Heywood," and six others. The presence of both Oxford and Shakespeare in the same brief list surely indicates two different persons. But the Ogburns easily take this in their stride. Meres was, they say, "patently instructed" (p. 1033) to name Shakespeare, and elsewhere to list his plays, since under this name his Lordship was concealed, while under his own proper name Oxford had earlier been "acclaimed ... by too many of the best writers."

On pp. 1204-05 we find the exact reverse of this reasoning. Of a similar list of eight poets, headed again by Oxford (the customary order -- by social rank), the Ogburns write that "Having mentioned the Earl of Oxford, Peacham does not name Shakespeare." To clinch the argument (that "Shakespeare" means Oxford) they observe "that the afterwards famous man from Stratford is not mentioned by the Master of Arts of Cambridge [Peacham], who was covering the whole reign of Elizabeth and nineteen years of James, though he only refrains from listing 'those admirable wits yet living' in 1622." Peacham himself says (Compleat Gentleman, 1622, sig. O2) that what he is here dealing with is "the time of our late Queene Elizabeth," not nineteen years of James, and he concludes his list (quoted inaccurately by the Ogburns) with "M. Samuel Daniel, with sundry others; whom (together with those admirable wits, yet liuing, and so well knowne) not out of Enuie, but to auoide tediousnesse I ouerpasse." As I read this, Peacham "refrains from listing" two classes of poets: (a) those living, (b) "sundry others," including Shakespeare, because by Peacham's time he was known chiefly as a dramatist. Is this a specimen of the "conscientious research" by which the authors "establish through authentic evidence an important historical truth"?

What I might call the main current of thought in the book may be well illustrated in several passages taken at random.

Page 1004. After quoting As You Like It V.i.39-65 (Globe numbering, Ogburn text), including Touchstone's advice to William: "Therefore, you clown, abandon, -- which is in the vulgar, leave, -- the society... of this female..." the authors continue: "How can a man speak more plainly than this? Oxford -- or William Shakespeare -- tells Shaksper, another William, to abandon all pretensions to the plays and clear out, forthwith.... What other possible interpretation can be put upon these candid lines?"

Pp. 745-746. "Perhaps when very young he had written the 'lost' play, Wily Beguiled, and now, in 1585, elaborated it into The Merry Wives, as a relaxation after Hamlet, partly for the sake of reminding Anne that he had loved her once, as Hamlet says he had loved Ophelia...." Wily Beguiled has never been a lost play; seven early editions (1606-c.1650) have survived, and it is easily available in reprints. [note5] Perhaps if the Ogburns would read it they would observe how little it resembles The Merry Wives and also how little credit the Earl of Oxford gains by being named as its author.

Page 219. "There are only a few recorded facts about Anne Vavasor, but she will appear more vividly in the plays and sonnets than documentary facts could ever present her." This requires no comment beyond the suggestion that Mr. Ogburn must have forgotten it when he wrote, in his letter to the Washington Star quoted above, "Questions of fact... can be decided only by authentic evidence, and not by surmise, supposition, and conjecture," and "It is we who have the documentary evidence."

Page 593. Quoting Flute's

        Most radiant Pyramus, most lily-white of hue,
        Of colour like the red rose on triumphant brier...
                                             (Ogburn text),
the authors comment that it "suggests that whenever this passage was inserted he had already written some of the sonnets which allude to Elizabeth's motto, A rose without a thorn, although even in his early poems he had used the rose-and-thorn imagery." They then point out that the lines
        Quince. shall be written in eight and six.
        Bottom.  No, make it two more: let it be written in eight and eight
indicate "that at least part of this scene belongs to a later date -- 1586-88." Do they indeed! The rustics are disputing what meter shall be used for their prologue -- whether the ballad meter of alternate eights and sixes or the more dignified eight-syllable lines. Is there any reason for not taking this at its face value? Must it have a hidden meaning? If it is to indicate the date of writing, it is odd that the author did not know whether it was 1586 or 1588.

By similar parallels hundreds of identifications are made. References to a worm (Lat. vermis), and even to a serpent or an adder, "of the worm-family," point to Vere (p. 583), as do "ever" (That E. Ver, I was born" -- p. 654) and "every" (as in Every Man Out of his Humour, and Every Man In -- p. 1032). Queen Elizabeth is, among others, Helena, Portia, Rosalind, Olivia, and Cleopatra; Oxford is Antony, Berowne, Brutus, both Fenton and Ford, Hamlet, Leonato, Leontes, Mercutio, Romeo, and many others.

These example illustrate the kind of "evidence" which comprises a great part of the whole book. The plays, to which early dates are freely assigned to fit the activities of the Earl, are represented as primarily crypto-autobiography and contemporary history. The fantastic story which the Ogburns reconstruct for us rehabilitates the bankrupt and profligate Earl of Oxford as the most resplendent of noblemen, the queen's favorite and lover. They picture him as destroyed through the machinations of the alleged villains, Leicester, Hatton, and, cheif among them, the Cecils. Frustrated in establishing his rights and those of the Earl of Southampton, who masquerades in this book as Oxford's son and Elizabeth's son and lawful heir, Oxford took to play writing in order to record his "noble and tragic story" for after times to read. Even in this a wicked fate was against him, for Oxford's relatives, the Pembrokes among them, employed the services of the treacherous and envious Ben Jonson, of Heminges and Condell, and others, almost succeeded in their Great Hoax of the First Folio -- a success frustrated only by the recent discovery of the whole glorious truth!

The part played in all this by "Shaksper" of Stratford is, according to the Ogburns, a minor one. This uneducated provincial business man, connected in some obscure way with theater and actors in London, took advantage of the fortuitous similarity between his name and the pseudonym of the Earl to blackmail the great dramatist, thus acquiring enough cash to set himself up in the world as an armigerous gentleman. A concluding section of the book, compact of wild conjecture, arbitrary assertion, and gross misuse of evidence, is devoted to his life and reputation, to argue that there is no shred of evidence this this Shaksper ever wrote a word beyond six virtually illegible signatures. Much is here made of the various spellings of the surname and their imagined significance. Much is also made of the lateness and unreliability of the traditions connecting the man of Stratford with the profession of letters. Yet when it comes to the story ("which Halliwell-Phillipps accepted") of his being a butcher's apprentice, late tradition is valid enough. In short, late tradition is admissible evidence when it supports the Ogburns' hypotheses, otherwise not.

Refutation of all this is neither necessary nor in a review possible. I can only add that for me one of the most questionable features of this and all similar attempts to create another author for Shakespeare's works is the towering fabric of secrecy, deceit, and intrigue that they inevitably lead to. Elizabethans were as fond of gossip and loose talk of dark mysteries as anyone and not easily frightened off from the writing and reading of scandal, as, for example, the many contemporary manuscripts of Leicester's Commonwealth attest. And I cannot believe that with scores of men and women [note6] privy to the secret -- many of them Oxford's enemies -- it could have remained hid till our own century.

In his Washington Star letter, previously quoted, Mr. Ogburn writes that the book "will stand on its merits." Or, perhaps, fall?

--Giles E. Dawson
The Folger Shakespeare Library


Note 1

The index contains two references to Dover Wilson, but one of these is to p. 1237, where the only mention of a Wilson is the name of Henslowe's hack, Robert Wilson, in a list with Dekker, Marston, and others.

Note 2

On p. 785 it is suggested that it was performed "during the season of 1580-90."

Note 3

The Ogburns' "sic."

Note 4,

Readily available in Chambers, William Shakespeare, II, 194-195, whence my quotation.

Note 5

The Weakest Goeth to the Wall is likewise said (p. 982) to be lost; two editions survive (1600, 1618), and the play is available in reprints.

Note 6

On p. 1225 the Ogburns name, among the secret sharers, Spenser, Marston, Greene, Nashe, Marlowe, Lyly, Munday, Kyd, and Dekker, and elsewhere, as we have seen, many others.

The text of This Star of England
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