Here Comes Everybody

John Michell's Who Wrote Shakespeare?

reviewed by Bob Grumman

Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1996)
John Michell is no stranger to the suspect side of Orthodoxy. In what seems to be his major work, The New View Over Atlantis (1988), a revised edition of a book first published in 1969, he discusses the world-wide system of "vast astronomical instruments, circles of erect pillars, pyramids, underground tunnels, cyclopean stone platforms, all linked together by a network of tracks and alignments" that he believes the researches of various adepts and visionaries have brought to light (page 83). He contends that this system, which he tentatively associates with ancient Atlantis, was used by our forebears to control and exploit the force later rediscovered by Dr. Wilhelm Reich and given the name, "orgone energy." Edgar Cayce, Ignatius Donnelly, and Immanuel Velikovsky are among the truth-seekers Michell favorably mentions in his book; self-levitation, numerology, geomancy, and communication with the dead and with beings from other dimensions are among the subjects whose probability he takes for granted. It is thus unsurprising that he has also recently written a book of what one might call "alternative literary history," Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Michell strains in his new book to establish a philosophical climate of "anything goes." He constantly emphasizes the uncertainty of historical knowledge, the unreliability of experts, and the subjectivity of any answer to any phase of the authorship question. He doesn't want to have to contend with common sense or any other form of rationality when, near the end of his book, he finally reveals who he thinks wrote Shakespeare: everybody who has ever been proposed as having done so (including William Shakespeare of Stratford).

To be fair, it should be stated that he withdraws his theory almost as soon as he offers it as "just one story" among many, a number of them "very attractive, by first-rate scholars and mythmakers," but none conclusively right--or wrong (page 261), but this seems more sneakiness than modesty.

Michell spends most of his book trying to discredit Shakespeare's claim to exclusive authorship of his works, and to build up the claims of his rivals. He marshals all the arguments, pseudo-arguments, and pure propaganda against the Stratford man that he can while neglecting or misrepresenting almost all of the best evidence for him--such as his name and picture in the First Folio and the monument erected to him in his hometown shortly after he died, whose inscription compares him to Virgil for artistic talent and speaks of his now residing on Mount Olympus. On the other hand, Michell is ever-gentle when he discusses Shakespeare's rivals. That's why, when Roger Stritmatter, who believes Oxford alone was Shakespeare, reviewed Who Wrote Shakespeare? in the Winter 1997 issue of The Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, he didn't fault it for insufficiently dealing with the flaws in the Stratfordian (or pro-Shakespeare) case but for being overtolerant of the claims of those championing Francis Bacon; nor did he accuse it of not presenting the Stratfordian side as well as it might have but rather of not doing justice to the Oxfordian side. He gave Michell's book as a whole a thumbs-up.

Revealingly, Michell opens his campaign not with hard evidence, but with the standard antistratfordian attack on the paucity of references to Shakespeare in the official records of his time, and in the memoirs, letters, and other writings of his contemporaries. Surely, Michell contends, the author of King Lear, The Tempest, and Hamlet ought to have been much more visible than he was. From our twentieth-century perspective, the number of contemporary official records that refer to Shakespeare is disappointingly small, but it's absurd to contend that they have "mysteriously vanished," as Michell does (109). There is no reason to expect that there would be many references to any commoner of Shakespeare's times in those records that have withstood the ravages of time, inasmuch as they are concerned largely with legal matters.

To his credit, Michell mentions many of the extant public records concerning Shakespeare, but he nearly always does so in a manner calculated to undermine the Stratfordian position. For instance, he says that the "date of Shakespeare's death is known only from the anonymous inscription on his Stratford monument" (78). This, however, is true only in the narrowest sense, since we have the record of his date of burial from his church. Moreover, William Basse noted the month and year of death in his elegy to Shakespeare--something Michell never lets us know, although he elsewhere cites Basse, when it suits his purposes (56). Furthermore, since most tombstone inscriptions are anonymous, why should Michell have said that this one also was except to hint of skullduggery?

Michell is also concerned with what he considers to be the absence of contemporary references to the Stratford man as a great poet, a "unanimity of silence [that] has never been explained" (112). Michell misrepresents the evidence:

  1. There were references to Shakespeare in the writings of his contemporaries, but Michell doesn't want to count them because they do not explicitly identify him as "William Shakespeare of Stratford." Aside from the fact that this standard would invalidate at least 99% of Elizabethan literary references, several of these references do refer to Shakespeare the poet as an actor or as an untitled gentleman.
  2. That there weren't even more references to Shakespeare might only have been because he was too quiet offstage to have had a wide circle of London acquaintances, or to have been the object of much gossip. Consider that his contemporary, the distinguished playwright John Webster, left so few clues about himself that he was not identified until 350 years after his death. And, finally,
  3. there wasn't the lust for scraps about celebrities' personal lives there is now, and to most people at that time Shakespeare was not a celebrity but a mildly well-known poet and an actor who wrote material for his company.

Like just about all his fellow antistratfordians, Michell questions Shakespeare's very literacy, ignoring, among much else, the formidable scholarship of T. W. Baldwin who--in his Shakspere's Petty School--showed just how easily Shakespeare could have gotten all the educational background he would have needed from his hometown's grammar school.

If we grant Shakespeare a grammar school education, Michell agrees he might have picked up the Latin needed to read classical authors, "but it is still a mystery how he acquired the temperament and leisure for these studies, and where he found the necessary libraries" (25). But temperament is innate, almost everyone would agree, and the leisure to read and otherwise master their field is something all achievers somehow find, regardless of their background. Shakespeare's contemporary Ben Jonson was for seven years apprenticed to his stepfather as a bricklayer, yet still managed to become the most learned classical scholar in England. As for libraries, it has by now been well-established by scholars that there were adequate book-collections in his neighborhood. His Stratford neighbor Richard Quiney, for instance, whose father was an associate of Shakespeare's father, had a library which he kept locked up, as he mentioned in one of his letters. Richard Field, who was born in Stratford and then became a printer in London, had access to books from the time Shakespeare was twelve on, and might have brought him books when visiting Stratford. All this is speculative, of course; the point is, there were ways for Shakespeare to have gotten books--and to have gone on to accomplish great things, as so many others without noble blood or college have in Britain, like Jonson, Shaw, Dickens, Keats, Blake and Stoppard.

Michell can't resist bringing up another of the stock antistratfordian arguments: that only an aristocrat could have written Shakespeare's works. His leans heavily on Abel Lefranc, who, using contemporary records, particularly a 1626 memoir by Marguerite de Valois "proved"--according to Michell (198)--that no one who was an outsider to court life could have written Loves Labours Lost. But if Valois could in 1626 have written enough about court life to make Lefranc an expert in it, why couldn't someone else have written enough earlier, or simply told Shakespeare enough, to make him an expert in it (if, indeed, he was, which is questionable)? In fact, a great deal was published (some of it by Richard Field) about Henri III of France and the Court of Navarre, the nobles Loves Labours Lost refers to, in the late 1580s and early 1590s, right about when most scholars believe that play was written.

But, Michell argues, if Shakespeare wasn't a noble, how can we explain his immunity to prosecution by the government, once in Elizabeth's reign, and once in James's? In the first case, there is nothing in the records to indicate that he was ever arrested or questioned preceding the Essex trial, nor did he testify in it. This strikes Michell as "extraordinary," for his Richard II was acted as part of Essex's plot to overthrow Elizabeth (218). But Richard II was published in 1597 and had been written years earlier; Essex was arrested in 1601. The play itself was not a problem for anyone, just the use of it at the wrong time, so the authorities intelligently concentrated on those who had had it performed, not on the man who wrote it. There is nothing "highly mysterious," as Michell puts it, about the affair (218).

In the second case, Shakespeare wrote favorably about magic in The Tempest. For Michell, this made him "uniquely privileged," all other authors having had to treat magic with disapproval. "Only Shakespeare could present at court a play which delighted in spirits and enchantments and glorified the late disgraced Dr. Dee (206). But Shakespeare had written with impunity about magic in The Merry Wives of Windsor and A Midsummer Night's Dream long before James came to power. There was no reason for James to prohibit him from continuing the practice, and there's no evidence that James ever explicitly prohibited anyone from treating magic in plays, as Jonson around the same time did in The Alchemist. As for the glorification of Dr. Dee, if it existed, it was too surreptitious to have bothered anyone.

When Michell finally gets to the documentary evidence, he interprets it rather loosely. Such is the case with the famous passage from Greene's Groats-worth of Wit about the untrustworthy "upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers heart wrapt in a Players hide, supposes he is as well able to bumbast out a blanke verse as the best of you [i.e., the three playwrights Greene was addressing], and being an absolute Johannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrie." Michell agrees with Shakespeare scholars that Greene was referring to the Stratford man as the Crow, and considered him an actor--but he argues that Greene has "specifically charge(d) him with plagiarism (68)." Odd that Michell would suddenly picture a man whose literacy he has spent so much time bringing into question as literate enough to plagiarize, but if he had not, he would have had to agree that Greene considered the Crow a playwright, and that would pretty much wreck his thesis. In any event, he is wrong. The quoted line clearly indicates that Greene condemned the Crow for supposing that he was as good a writer of blank verse as Greene's three friends, and that he was chief theater-man in England.

Worse is Michell's interpretation of the passage in Jonson's eulogy to Shakespeare having to do with Shakespeare's classical learning.

. . . if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
For names; but call forth thund'ring AEschylus,
Euripides and Sophocles to us . . .

Michell cheats here by leaving out the lines preceding "And though thou hadst . . ."; consequently, like other antistratfordians such as Ogburn, who also incompletely quoted this passage, he is able to take "though" to mean "even if." He states that "(g)rammarians have pointed out that Jonson's lines . . . do not really impute any classical knowledge to Shakspere [sic]. The words, 'hadst' and 'would,' form a conditional construction" (76). Oddly, Michell's interpretation differs from Ogburn's in one startling way: whereas Ogburn thinks the lines give Shakespeare credit for more than "small Latin and less Greek," Michell thinks they give him credit for no Latin or Greek. That's because Ogburn wants Jonson to be really speaking of Oxford, while Michell wants him speaking of the Stratford man.

No matter; in fact, "hadst" is not in the subjunctive but is merely the past tense of "has." Jonson is referring to Shakespeare in the past tense, as revealed by his use of "didst" two lines before (as Michell fails to show us). As for "would," that is in the subjunctive because Jonson had put the passage containing those words in the subjunctive with "if" five lines previously (as, again, Michell fails to show us). The most reasonable paraphrase of the passage is thus, "If I thought I were judging the years (of your flourishing), I'd tell how much better than the other playwrights of the time you were, and although you had little knowledge of Latin and Greek, and thus had little genuine connection to antiquity, I'd go there (i.e., to antiquity), not "thence" (i.e., to the years of your flourishing) for writers to compare you with."

Perhaps the texts that the antistratfordians mangle the most are those they believe contain important anagrams. Michell discusses the description in Hamlet of Ophelia's death. Gertrude speaks of Ophelia's having climbed into a willow tree when "an envious sliver broke." Michell finds this a strange way to describing a branch's breaking and depositing Ophelia into the water--but Shakespeare was a poet and therefore fond of metaphor. The tree envied Ophelia's beauty: such envy was standard in verse of the time. Oblivious to metaphor, Oxfordians find a near anagram in "envious sliver" of "Nil vero verius," Oxford's family motto (although they cheat somewhat by changing one "s" to an "r"). Ophelia, they claim, is Oxford's first wife, Anne, and Oxford is speaking sadly of having let her down (184).

An even daffier foray into anagram detection involves a title-page emblem to Henry Peacham's Minerva Britanna of 1612. The phrase mente videbori is said to be an anagram of "nom tibi de vere," a macaronic half-English half-Latin way of saying something like "Thy name is DeVere" (184). The antistratfordians are ever-ingenious in finding and creatively interpreting anagrams (which every long text must by chance have), but they ignore the obvious question: if Oxford, or one of his supporters, wanted to use anagrams to show people he had written the works of Shakespeare, why didn't he do a better job of it? That is, why forge a flawed anagram like "nil vero verius" or a forced one like "nom tibi de vere" in a book that has nothing to do with the Shakespearean works when you could insert "I, DeVere, am sole writer of this play," right into Hamlet, with the following anagram that I made up without great effort: "I fed some very low earl this rat pie"? True, it's not an immortal line and doesn't scan, but with more time surely Oxford, or even one of his followers, could have come up with a better one. After all, Hamlet, in his mad scenes, could have gotten away with any line--even several different repetitions of the above.

Once he's done as much as he can against Shakespeare with the arguments already discussed and sundry lesser ones I lack the space to respond to (but which, I assure you, have been well-answered elsewhere, particularly at this site), Michell turns his attention to the other candidates. There are five serious ones: Bacon, Oxford, Derby, Rutland and Marlowe. Each of them, according to Michell, is better qualified than Shakespeare because of his college degree, continental travels, and--except for Marlowe--membership in the high aristocracy. There are all kinds of parallels between known details of their lives and details of the Shakespearean plays, too, as there aren't between the known details of Shakespeare's life and those of the plays.

Michell, following Lefranc, found one such parallel between a story that was a favorite of a queen whose court Derby might have visited and the relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. In both cases a man acted coldly toward a woman he loved; in one the woman died of grief; in the other (Hamlet) the woman lost her mind and died. To clinch the parallel, in both cases the man involved learned of the woman's death only when happening upon her funeral rites--and did something dramatic as a result (the first man fainted dead away while Hamlet jumped into Ophelia's grave). I should add that both women had brothers. Says Michell: "There is no other source for the tragedy of Ophelia and Hamlet than this beautiful old French love-story" (203). Can this be so? Can it be that there are no other similar stories Shakespeare might have used as a source, or that he needed any source for his quite simple treatment of Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia? Even if he did, and his source was indeed the French story, it's far from "highly convincing," as Michell puts it, that Shakespeare's use of the story meant he must have been Derby (or possibly Derby collaborating with Oxford) .

Another Derby parallel has to do with Holofernes, the pedant in Loves Labours Lost, who is supposed to be a cruelly accurate caricature of Richard Lloyd, Derby's irksome tutor. The play Holofernes presents in Loves Labours Lost might have parodied a poem by Lloyd. Lefranc's identification of Lloyd with Holofernes has never been refuted, according to Michell, but he neglects to mention that many other people have been proposed just as plausibly as the model for Holofernes--most notably John Florio and Gabriel Harvey. Since Lloyd's poem was published in 1584, the author of Loves Labours Lost needn't have been Derby to have mocked him --if indeed Holofernes's play had anything to do with Lloyd's poem.

A third parallel favors Bacon. The Merry Wives of Windsor features a scene in which the comic schoolmaster Evans quizzes the boy named William on his Latin. "Accusativo hing, hang, hog," Evans says, in correcting William's "Accusativo hinc." Thereupon, Mistress Quickly comes in with the juvenile humor of "Hang-hog, is latten for Bacon, I warrant you." This echoes a Bacon family joke, so must mean that Bacon wrote the play. Otherwise, Michell assures us, "its occurrence in The Merry Wives of Windsor is a [yes] mystery" (154).

Oxford seems to be top dog in being a twin for Shakespearean characters. "Hamlet was a royal prince of Denmark," says Michell,

Oxford a premier nobleman at the English court. They both lost their beloved fathers and felt dispossessed by the men who married their mothers. They both suffered under the tyranny of father-figures--the usurping king and Lord Burghley--and both were sensitive and rebellious, seeing through other people's pretensions and having no faith in women. Like Hamlet, Oxford maintained a company of actors, was skilled in music, knew Italy, fought a duel, and killed a man in his guardian's house. (169).
There is much more--but Michell fails to mention the "anti-parallels" between the lives of Oxford and Hamlet that Irving Matus has found, such as the way Oxford treated his Ophelia, his wife Anne, making her life a living hell, and not even bothering to attend her funeral, much less leap into her open grave. Nor does he mention how closely Hamlet follows the Danish folk tale that is its source (probably via an English play, also based on the folk tale, that most scholars believe preceded the Shakespearean play by ten or more years). Michell acknowledges that the parallels between the lives of various nobles and the lives of leading figures in Shakespeare's plays could be seen to cancel out one other--but not if you believe, as Michell does, that everybody of the time whose life ran at all parallel to some Shakespearean character or other must have contributed to the plays.

Beyond the parallels (Rutland--who attended Padua University at the same time as a Rosencranz and a Guildenstern--and Marlowe have theirs, too, though Michell for some reason overlooks Marlowe's Romeo and Juliet duel), Michell finds sundry other reasons for believing in the various candidates.

One is the text of the prologue to Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, which is spoken by Machiavelli. It seems straightforwardly about Machiavelli, but Michell finds references to Marlowe himself in it, noting, for instance, that the first four letters of Machiavelli's name, "MACH, "equal "Ch Ma," which "is almost Ch. Marl. which is the name under which Marlowe's Dr. Faustus was published in 1604" (237). Another, this one on behalf of Bacon, is the existence of a mural c. 1600 that was found on the walls of a room in Bacon's home town. It depicts a scene from Venus and Adonis. No similar mural has ever been discovered in Stratford-on-Avon. One of the many Oxford family crests depicts a lion holding a broken spear (presumably the lion broke the spear by shaking it). I'm afraid it's hard for me to say anything about such lame coincidences except so what? Coincidences happen. Michell himself shows that coincidences, like parallels--a specific kind of coincidence--can be found for every authorship candidate. No reputable historian uses parallels except (knowingly) to speculatively flesh out the established facts, or to suggest targets for investigation where little or nothing is known.

The long and the short of it is that Michell produces no more reason for any rational, knowledgeable person to prefer his alternative candidates than to reject Shakespeare. He reaches his pinnacle as a pseudosophist, though, with his group-authorship theory. The head of Michell's fancied group was Bacon, with Oxford and the Stratford man both making approximately equal, lesser contributions: something I'm surprised Oxfordians haven't complained more about. The group's aim was to "create a state myth" for England. The popular plays its members would write would contain "an all-inclusive code of knowledge and wisdom [that would act] as the guiding standard for an enlightened order of society." Everything was carried out secretly because "if it were known by whom and for what purpose the plays were written, that would diminish their effect." The plays, of course, could not have been created as mere works of art. It might have looked like that's all they were, but that "was the secret of their influence. No one was meant to suspect that the purpose of Shakespeare was to change the world, nor that behind the name was a very determined group of reformers, radical and resourceful" (258).

Michell hopes his "Everybody did it" theory will explain away explain the weaknesses of the claims of any of the pretenders. Oxford died before The Tempest might have been written? No problem: Derby, who was still alive at that time, wrote it. Hamlet's life too exactly matches Oxford's for Derby to have written the play? No problem: Hamlet must have been written by Oxford. Neither Derby nor Oxford had been to Denmark? No problem: Rutland, who had, would have been the one to supply the bits about that country in Hamlet. As for the super-exalted world-view all the antistratfordians find in Shakespeare (and which, I strongly suspect, goes back to Atlantis), Bacon took care of that. Meanwhile, William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon took care of all the vulgarities, being the only one sufficiently impoverished of culture to be able to do so. What more could one ask for--aside, perhaps, from a little direct, concrete supporting evidence and simple sanity.

After offering a titillating glimpse of his theory, then pulling it back out of danger from enemy fire, Michell finishes his book with more arguments in favor of anything goes. To be certain who wrote the works of Shakespeare, says he, is to "miss or misrepresent the central point, that it is a complete mystery" (11). He alludes to "the points [antistratfordians] have raised [that] have never been answered" (253). That Stratfordians would dispute that there are any points raised against their position that they haven't fully answered numerous times is merely additional evidence that they are "no less victims of their own beliefs than the Baconians or other dogmatists" (257). We're all supposed to recognize--and this is a cardinal point throughout Michell's book--how "largely subjective are the theories behind [our] different viewpoints" (257). Perhaps. But there is a difference between a subjective belief in something for which there is overwhelming concrete evidence, like the moon's being a mass of various minerals, and a subjective belief in something for which there is no concrete evidence, like the moon's being made entirely of green cheese, and portrayed as otherwise by a conspiracy of scientists.

On the Shakespearean authorship question, the concrete evidence is entirely on the side of the Stratfordians. There is no mystery about it: William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the works ascribed to him. Michell's conclusion, that only a cabal of inspired aristocrats (plus Marlowe plus Shakespeare) could have created the works, is, as I hope this review has made clear, ridiculous. As a work of literary history, Michell's slanted book is thus valueless. As a monument to dysfunctional thinking, however, it comes close to his earlier tome on geomancy and related pseudo-sciences. I strongly recommend it to all who find such works as entertaining as I do.

--Bob Grumman

Bibliographical Note:

I got most of my information about Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon from Charles Boyce's Shakespeare A to Z (Facts on File, 1990), Neilson and Thorndike's The Facts about Shakespeare (Macmillan, 1913, 1961), F. E. Halliday's Shakespeare and His Critics (Schocken, 1958), T. W. Baldwin's Shakspere's Petty School (?), and The Folger Guide to Shakespeare (Washington Square Press, 1969). I also consulted Irvin Matus's Shakespeare In Fact (Continuum, 1994) and Charleton Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare (Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984) For information about Ben Jonson I consulted Marchette Chute's Ben Jonson of Westminster. I'm grateful, too, for the substantial amount of data, ideas and advice I got from David Kathman and Terry Ross, both of whom spent a good deal of time going over various drafts of this essay.

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