A number of other considerations militate against the Shakespearean's engaging the topic. Public debates and moot courts, favorite venues for proponents of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, are far more compatible to categorical pronouncements than to the laborious establishment of detail, context, and interpretation required to counter them, not to mention doing so with enough panache to win the approval of a non-specialist audience. Shakespeareans sometimes take the position that even to engage the Oxfordian hypothesis is to give it countenance it does not warrant. And, of course, any Shakespearean who reads a hundred pages on the authorship question inevitably realizes that nothing he can say or write will prevail with those persuaded to be persuaded otherwise.
Perhaps the most daunting consideration for the scholar who intends to seriously examine this claim is the volume and nature of the research that will be demanded. To begin with, he must become completely familiar with the nearly 900 pages of Charlton Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare, the authorized version of Oxfordianism, and then proceed to test at least a wide sampling of random claims of other adherents. He will continually be faced with the prospect of dealing with gratuitous assertions as if they were serious scholarly conclusions, and the necessity of demonstrating such assertions to be incoherent in the appropriate context, or based on incomplete or selective evidence, or logically faulty, or some combination thereof. The research required will be extremely demanding, much of it in quite recondite areas where very few have boldly gone before. He probably ought also to curb his natural temptation to say snide things when refuting especially preposterous claims.
As remarkable as it sounds, Irvin Leigh Matus, in his Shakespeare, IN FACT (New York: Continuum, 1994), has managed to perform all of these tasks, even the last. (Well, he's pretty restrained, anyhow.) Matus notes with some sympathy "The great frustration of the Oxfordians... that academic Shakespeareans do not pay attention to their scholarship nor address their questions." He adds, "It is also their great fortune," which he then proceeds to demonstrate.
To the best of my knowledge, no previous Shakespeare scholar has engaged so much of what Oxfordians have presented as evidence for their positions, or has done so as thoroughly. Matus gives not just fair, but even patient, hearing; and in many instances where a less forbearing respondent might give a short answer, he explores and explains in further detail.
Among such instances is the claim that Ben Jonson's "Sweet swan of Avon" actually refers to the Earl, whose manor at Bilton was on the Avon river and presumably frequented by swans. It might be thought sufficient to observe that the phrase is a direct address in a poem directly addressed "To My Beloved Mr. William Shakespeare," and that the epithet's reference to Shakespeare is, quite superfluously, confirmed in the dedication of the Beaumont and Fletcher folio (of which, more later). Matus, however, performs the supererogatory work of tracking down the history of the Bilton estate. It eventuates that Oxford leased it out in 1574, sold it in 1581, and never regained possession. This particular sweet swan had flown off 42 years before Jonson's poem.
The orthodox claim that The Tempest relies on the Bermuda pamphlets of 1610 cannot be allowed by de Vere's proponents, whose man died in 1604. Other and earlier accounts have been proposed, notably the 1592 shipwreck, off Bermuda, of the Edward Bonaventure, a ship supposed to be connected with Oxford, perhaps even to be the vessel he commanded against the Armada. Matus gives the short answer -- consult Bullough's standard work on the sources for the parallels to William Strachey's 1610 letter on behalf of the Virginia Company -- but he also resurrects the history of the ship. He demonstrates that Oxford's only connection was to consider buying it in 1581, it fought in the Armada campaign under other command, and neither of the two supposed eye-witnesses described its wreck for the very good reason that neither was on board.
The engraving of the Stratford Monument in William Dugdale's 1656 Antiquities of Warwickshire is a favorite artifact for Oxfordians. The picture differs in a number of respects from the monument we know; notably, it lacks the quill and paper which the figure of Shakespeare now holds. Proceeding from this, it is supposed that these items were added when the monument was restored in 1748, probably to enhance its literary aura for the tourist trade; the cushion on which the figure now seems to write is accordingly assumed to originally have been a bag of grain, appropriate to Shakespeare's local reputation as a malt jobber. Previous commentators have been content to cite the letter of Joseph Greene, the local schoolmaster and curate in 1748, to the effect that the restoration was committed only to preserving the original design; that a number of Dugdale's plates are similarly in error is also frequently stated. Matus cites Greene, and more importantly, he too denies Dugdale's reliability -- but not just at the level of assertion. He provides a couple of comparable examples of Dugdale's inaccuracy -- the Clopton and Carew tombs in Holy Trinity Church -- and clinches his argument with the instance of the effigy on the Beauchamp tomb in Warwick. As with the Stratford Monument, here we have existing statuary inaccurately portrayed in the Antiquities, we have the record of an intervening restoration begun in 1674, and, in greater detail, we have records of the restoration that seem to insist that no alterations were introduced. We also know who planned and supervised the restoration: none other than William Dugdale.
Shakespeare, IN FACT is continually generous in treating such claims with a respect appropriate to far more firmly based conclusions by providing abundant materials to refute them. It also strikes me as remarkable restraint, perhaps even mansuetude, that the book never mentions any of the most hirsute of Oxfordian suppositions: that the Earl of Southampton was the illegitimate son of Vere and Queen Elizabeth, for instance; or that Ben Jonson murdered Shakespeare.
A number of the claims Matus engages are necessarily those that every writer on the topic must deal with, but even here he usually presents newly developed evidence. For the hypothesis, of course, "Shakespeare" is Vere, and "Shaksper" the imposter, in spite of the repeated demonstration of the vagaries of contemporary spelling, especially of surnames. Matus, like many others, notes the variations played on "Marlowe," but he also adduces Philip Henslowe, whose name is recorded in 26 different spellings (without indication of 25 false identities). A kind of sub-set to this concern had developed in regard to the hyphenation "Shake-speare" on various title pages, presumably an indication of its pseudonymy. Matus' research, however, shows that of the 15 quartos in question, 13 (all from one publisher) are issues of just three plays, the reprints, as was customary, simply reproducing the typography of the originals.
A defense of the quality of the Stratford grammar school Shakespeare almost certainly attended is also unavoidable in responding to rival claimants. Matus produces a couple of telling indications that are new, at least to me: John Brownswerd, who became master in the year after Shakespeare's birth, was a Latin poet of sufficient repute to be mentioned in Meres's Palladis Tamia; and there survives a 1598 letter in Latin by young Richard Quiney to his father that allusively reproduces language from Cicero's Epistolae ad Familiares. (The elder Richard Quiney in the same year wrote to Shakespeare to borrow money.) Both before and after Shakespeare's time, there seem to be indication of fairly impressive learning at the school. There is, of course, no record of Shakespeare's -- or of any contemporary's -- attendance at the Stratford School; but Matus supplies an interesting analogy: there is no record that Jonson attended the Westminster School (as he undoubtedly did), only his own statement.
As already mentioned, the chronology of the plays' composition is another necessary consideration. Oxfordians regularly try to relocate post-1604 plays by identifying them with earlier, non-extant titles. Thus, the court entertainment The Cruelty of a Stepmother is Cymbeline, A Winter Night's Pastime (quite likely not a play) is The Winter's Tale, and so on. In this view of things, the anonymous King Leir, published in 1605, is, of course, Shakespeare's tragedy. Matus, with his usual thoroughness, dispels the contention by pursuing the copyright history -- through registration, transference, inheritance, and printing -- of three different stage versions of the Lear story: Shakespeare's, the anonymously printed Leir, and a third play performed and registered in 1594, but seemingly never published. Since entry in the Stationer's Register conferred exclusive rights to publish, Matus' research firmly establishes three discrete works, controlled by three different stationers; as a matter of fact, he cogently argues that the specification in the Register entry, "M. William Shakespeare: His True Chronicle Historie of ... King Lear," was to distinguish it from the earlier Lear plays already under copyright.
Matus' discussion of chronology properly and effectively argues that the traditional view is by no means simply pre-determined to fit the biography of "the Stratford man"; he adduces strongly the clear evidence in the canon of continuing change and development, which would be reduced to incoherence by pushing all the plays back before 1604. He also adds a couple of interesting items bearing on the problem of dating: the prefatory epistle of the 1609 quarto of Troilus, which predicts that readers will miss the author "when he is gone," as apparently he had not at that time; and the allowance of The Winter's Tale for performance by Sir George Buck, which points to its composition around the time Buck became Master of the Revels in 1610.
Oxfordians tend to be extremely suspicious of any documentation linking Shakespeare to his acting company, and Matus investigates a large number of attempts to discredit this evidence. As he demonstrates, these attempts often amount to nothing more than inadequate or sometimes astonishingly selective reading of the records. Ogburn, for example, claims that Shakespeare is listed among the hired men remembered in the will of Augustine Phillips, one of the founders of the Chamberlain's Men. In fact, Shakespeare is the first named of Phillips' "fellows," a term he also applies to Burbage, Heminges, Condell, Armin, Cowley, et al.; the hired men are left a bequest of 5 pounds, but none of them is named. Shakespeare is named again in the 1604 account of the Master of the Wardrobe, granting cloth for new liveries to servants of King James, in preparation for the delayed coronation procession. The Oxfordian claim is that the grant is made to Shakespeare and his fellows not as actors, but men of "The Chamber"; technically, the King's Men's position in the royal household was Groom of the Chamber. The document is reprinted in Shakespeare, IN FACT: in the right-hand margin is the word "Players," elaborately inscribed and about five times bigger than the names of Shakespeare and his fellows, written directly opposite.
Relatively recently, I believe, the claim has developed that Shakespeare is referred to as already dead in a legal document filed on behalf of Thomasina Ostler in 1615. Since the lady was the widow of one of the King's Men, William Ostler, and the daughter of another, John Heminges (whom she was suing), one expects her to have been knowledgeable. The matter turns out to be syntactical interpretation of the Latin text: is the aforesaid ("prefato") William Shakespeare to be taken with the next two names, Augustine Phillips and Thomas Pope, as governing the appropriate phrase "generosis defunctis"; or is the intention to specify only the last two, who were in 1615 undoubtedly "departed gentlemen"? Matus handles the matter by the eminently sensible expedient of seeking information about where, earlier in the document, William Shakespeare is aforesaid, and, of course, finds him clearly spoken of as not yet defunct in an earlier section.
Since Vere held the title of Lord Great Chamberlain, his adherents sometimes wish to present him as the patron of Shakespeare's company under its earlier designation. There is, however, abundant evidence to distinguish the hereditary and ceremonial position Oxford held from the appointed post of Lord Chamberlain, the officer of the royal household responsible for court entertainments, and later through his subordinate, the Master of the Revels, for the licensing of plays for performance. The patrons of the acting company were in fact Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon, and then his son George, both of whom served as Elizabeth's Lord Chamberlain. Shakespeare, IN FACT presents a great deal of evidence here that puts the matter out of doubt. Most telling are two items: a payment recorded in the Chamber accounts for a performance on 25 December 1596 by the "servants of the late Lord Chamberlain and now servants to the Lord Hunsdon," and the identification by the 1597 Quarto of Romeo of the company that played it as "Lord of Hunsdon his servants." Both records belong to the interim between the two Lord Hunsdons' service as Lord Chamberlain. When the elder died in July of 1596, his son inherited his title and company of players, but not his post in the royal household. Accordingly, his players were Lord Hunsdon's men until their patron was appointed Lord Chamberlain in March of 1597, and the acting company resumed its old designation. Oxford has no part in the story.
One last such instance. Shakespeare is named, with Burbage and Kempe, as payees for a 1594 court performance. Vere's proponents claim that the relevant record is fraudulent, since it was composed by the dowager Countess of Southampton (the mother of the dedicatee of the narrative poems), under the pressure of having inherited three years' worth of unaudited accounts from her deceased husband, Sir Thomas Heneage, the Treasurer of the Chamber. The assumption is therefore made that Countess, faced with something like an IRS audit, fabricated receipts out of whole cloth. (Why she fabricated Shakespeare's name may be passed over.) Matus explores the record thoroughly, establishes that the Countess was in fact in no financial jeopardy, and advises us that the payment to Shakespeare and friends was audited, endorsed by the Lord Treasurer and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and approved by the full Privy Council.
Matus also explores many of the claims made on behalf of Vere by his adherents. It is, for example, often posited that Oxford had been associated with the name Shakespeare long before the actor arrived from Stratford. The basis for the assertion turns out to be just two items. The first is the claim that the badge of the Viscount Bulbeck, one of Oxford's minor titles, displays a lion shaking a spear; Matus has investigated and found the spear not shaken, but broken. The other bit occurs in a public oration in 1578, in which Gabriel Harvey told the Earl that "thy countenance shakes a spear." Matus notes the inexplicable disappearance of the name until Robert Greene punned on it in his Groatsworth of Wit, fifteen years after Harvey's compliment. (Actually, as Andrew Hammas in the latest issue of The Shakespeare-Oxford Newsletter reminds us, Harvey didn't say "thy countenance shakes a spear"; he said "vultus / Tela vibrat" -- a somewhat different pair of sleeves.) Shakespeare, IN FACT presents a thorough review of the characterization of the Earl in the only full-length treatment of his life, B. M. Ward's biography, which is admittedly dedicated to rehabilitating the Earl's dreadful traditional reputation, and a little less than admittedly to forwarding his claim to be Shakespeare. Ward's portrayal is shown to have grossly overestimated Oxford's significance as a military, political, and literary figure. The matter of his 1000 pound pension, granted by Elizabeth in 1586, is of special interest. Oxfordians explain this as his reward for serving as resident court dramatist, or rousing patriotism by writing Shakespeare's histories, or some other comparable excellence. Matus' finding, substantiated by any number of contemporary testimonies, is far less flattering: Oxford had so completely ruined his estate that Elizabeth granted the pension to save him from destitution; for his last eighteen years, he was on welfare.
Perhaps the most valuable service that Shakespeare, IN FACT provides is the continual evocation of the appropriate political, social, literary, or theatrical context, without which random facts give rise to the most unwarranted interpretations. To demonstrate at a simple level, it is quite true that Shakespeare's name never appears in the provincial records of payments to his company; but the fact is without significance since no member of the company is ever named in 38 records of performance over the course of 18 years. It is equally true that his name never appears in Henslowe's diary. But neither do the names of Burbage, Phillips, or Heminges; William Sly appears because he bought a jewel from Henslowe, Thomas Pope because Henslowe lent someone money to sue him, and Will Kempe only well after he had left the Chamberlain's to pursue a career as a solo entertainer, had apparently failed, and had joined Worcester's men, which came under Henslowe's control in 1602. Henslowe so seldom mentions any of the Chamberlain's Men simply because their operation was independent of his.
In this matter of context, Shakespeare, IN FACT presents a great deal -- far more than can be noted here -- about the conditions that impinged on the writing, staging, registration, and publication or prevention of publication of plays. The resulting picture totally undermines the Oxfordian picture of the "real author," who conceived of his plays as high literature, retained his manuscripts, and was disabled by his high rank from protesting when his copyhold rights were violated by the appearance of stolen and surreptitious copies. The contemporary context equally well demonstrates that there is nothing suspicious in the absence of Shakespeare's manuscripts, or the anonymity of his earlier quartos, or his disregard for the publication of his plays, or the usual control of publication by the acting company rather than the author. Matus notes, for example, that of 42 popular theater plays which reached print between 1590 and 1597, all but seven were, like Shakespeare's, anonymous; and that, over the course of 48 years, the successive resident dramatists of the Chamberlain's / King's -- Shakespeare himself, Fletcher, Massinger, and Shirley -- participated in the publication of just three plays. During this period, it is clear that once a dramatist sold his work to a company, he had no further rights regarding performance or printing. Just as clearly, the major players in this matter were, on the one hand, the acting companies, who tried, with considerable success, to keep their plays out of print, and usually released them only under financial exigency; and, on the other, the Stationers, who printed whatever came their way, subject only to copyrights held by other members of the guild, and at times in surprising disregard of the efforts of the mighty to prevent them from doing so. This is the ambience within which the Shakespeare plays appeared, and pronouncements about what would have, should have, or ought to have occurred are totally without credence if they ignore the conditions which in fact obtained at the time.
Shakespeare, IN FACT, as has been made clear, does a very large number of things exceedingly well, but it is not a flawless book. It omits one or two minor contemporary comments on Shakespeare as a playwright, it seems to miss the connection of Leonard Digges (an important witness) to both James Mabbe and to Stratford, and it badly bollixes the genealogy of the Howard family -- self-evidently, Anne Boleyn was not Thomas Howard's daughter. In this last instance, my hunch is that somehow a sentence was inadvertently dropped here, taking a generation of the family with it, because the book is quite poorly copy-edited. We find "principle" for "principal," "imply" for "infer," "reference" for "reverence," "Chambers" and "Chamber's" (twice) for "Chambers'," and so forth; it deserved better.
A larger reservation might be forwarded in regard to Matus's tactical decision to spend about a chapter and a half on the development of Shakespeare's reputation in the Restoration and the 18th Century. Admittedly, this material has relevance to one of Matus's most crucial themes: that Shakespeare was not, as Oxfordians assume, perceived in his own time as the master spirit of the age. Matus clearly demonstrates that the apotheosis of the Bard is the product of a much later era, but he spends so much time doing so that his primary task -- the engagement of the Oxfordian claim -- seems to float out of critical focus. Besides, the time and space might have been better invested.
This leads to what seems to me the one serious shortcoming of Shakespeare, IN FACT: it does not press home the implications of its examination strongly enough. I hope it will be perceived that this criticism derives from an implicit compliment to the work. Matus has examined so much of the Oxfordian "evidences" and has so successfully disabled them that one can expect his book to be, for the foreseeable future, the book to consult for those teased by the thought that there might be something after all to the Oxfordian claim. Having so well developed the basis for answering, "No, there isn't," Matus himself should, in my judgement, have said so more forcefully.
The matter may be illustrated with both a specific and a more general case. First, the specific.
In late 1601 or early 1602, Ralph Brooke, the chronically contentious York Herald, accused some of his colleagues in the College of having granted arms to a number of unworthy recipients -- one of them being Shakespeare's father. The grants, including John Shakespeare's, were defended in due course by the Garter and Clarenceux Kings of Arms, and the squabble came to nothing. But it did leave behind a manuscript, now in the Folger Library, deriving from Brooke's notes for his challenge; on a page of that manuscript, we find a drawing of the Shakespeare coat of arms, beneath which is written "Shakespear ye Player by Garter" (again, Shakespeare, IN FACT prints the document). The Folger manuscript is in fact about a hundred years later than Brooke's challenge, but, with some exemplary researching and cogent analysis, Matus demonstrates that it can be nothing but a faithful rendering of the original document. And if this is so, Brooke's "Shakespear ye Player" suggests "that it was common knowledge who, and what, John Shakespeare's son was."
So Matus concludes, and quite rightly. But the matter impinges on the Oxfordian claim far more severely. For the Clarenceux King who collaborated on the reply to Brooke's accusation was William Camden, not just the foremost antiquary of the time, but also Ben Jonson's master at the Westminster School and his life-long intimate friend. Camden was also on friendly terms with Lord Burleigh, Elizabeth's most trusted minister, Oxford's long-suffering father-in-law, and, it is sometimes supposed, the executive director of the Great Concealment. Camden was, in fact, selected by Burleigh to write the more or less official history of Elizabeth's reign, and was given access to the government's records and correspondence to do so. Given Camden's interests, expertise, and connections, he would have known the secret of the Shakespeare plays, if there was one to know. Yet in Remaines (1605), Camden names "William Shakespeare" as one of the poets of his time "whom succeeding ages may justly admire." Matus duly reproduces the passage, refutes some misconstructions by Charlton Ogburn, and notes -- again, quite rightly -- that Camden, like other contemporaries, speaks of Shakespeare not as the transcendental genius of his time, but as one talented writer among many. The comment, however, has far more significance.
The mere form is significant: Camden names ten poets and concludes with an et cetera: "and other most pregnant wits of these our times." Shakespeare is the tenth and last specified; and, thus, since there is no measurable rhetorical difference between either nine or ten specifics before a final et al, Camden must honestly have thought Shakespeare one of the age's most pregnant wits, or, alternatively, he was guilty of a most incoherent and gratuitous falsehood.
Even more important, since he had, as Clarenceux King, responded less than three years earlier to Brooke's attack on the grant of arms to the father of "Shakespeare ye Player" -- it may well have been more recent, the preface of Remaines claims it was completed two years before publication -- Camden thus was aware that the last name on his list was that of William Shakespeare of Stratford. The Camden reference, therefore, is exactly what the Oxfordians insist does not exist: an identification by a knowledgeable and universally respected contemporary that "the Stratford man" was a writer of sufficient distinction to be ranked with (if after) Sidney, Spenser, Daniel, Holland, Jonson, Campion, Drayton, Chapman, and Marston. And the identification even fulfills the eccentric Oxfordian ground-rule that it be earlier than 1616.
The more general area that Matus fails to engage sufficiently is, in my judgement, the one most disabling to the Oxfordian hypothesis. This is the question of the nature of the conspiracy to keep the great secret that this hypothesis would require. It should be remembered that what the position supposes is that the ranking peer of the realm batted out over three dozen dramas, many of them among the most commercially successful of the contemporary theater, and that he did so over the course of many years at least, perhaps over the course of two or three decades. This is a remarkably good story -- the one thing that must be allowed to the Oxfordians is that they have a good story. For Shakespeare's contemporaries, the story would have been wonderful out of all hoping -- if they had known it. And this leads to the question of who must have, might have, probably would have known it.
Here, Matus gives us an occasional passing comment that a surprising number of people seem to have been in on the secret, and to have both dropped and caught the most oblique of allusions to it; and his research provides a good deal of the raw material for pursuing the investigation. But, ultimately, the argument is left unmade.
Yet, following this line of inquiry produces not the relatively small number of the knowledgeable that Ogburn claims; it produces not single spies, but battalions. For starters, the secret would have had to be generally known in the Lord Chamberlain's / King's Men Company. As the years went by, servants wearing the de Vere livery continually deposited masterpieces at the theater, and the boob from Stratford struggled with the spelling of his name, the identity of "the real author" would obviously have become common knowledge in the troupe (I'm assuming that the Earl didn't attend rehearsals). The collaborations necessary for the staging of the plays, the inevitable intimacy that daily work develops, and the well-documented closeness and even affection in the group would have made knowledge of the great secret inevitable for all the company. "All" here would have indicated not just the company's eight to twelve sharers, but also the regular minor actors, who sometimes graduated to that status; the boy-actress apprentices, who were raised in the sharers' homes; and a large number of others. There is a 1624 order of the Lord Chamberlain guaranteeing the protection of 21 named individuals in the King's Men's employ -- hired men, bookkeepers, musicians, stage hands, and the like -- whose services evidently were necessary to the ongoing operation; and there is even a request in Henry Condell's will that one Elizabeth Wheaton be assured of her continuing employment as a gatherer, in effect a 17th century ticket taker. Merely within Shakespeare's own company there were more than fifty individuals identifiable by name who would have or should have known of his supposed imposture.
But if the secret were generally known among the King's Men, it would also shortly have been known throughout the theater world, because playwrights often collaborated and usually free-lanced, actors with some frequency moved to new companies, and theater managers kept a sharp eye on the competition. From here it is hard to imagine where or why the ripples would end. If the dramatic writers knew, obviously the non-dramatic writers did as well; almost all playwrights were both. There are any number of close connections between literary and theater circles and that of the stationers -- publishers, printers, and booksellers -- who had an obvious interest in whose work they were producing. The young gentlemen of the Inns of Court, traditionally much given to playgoing and with a number of poets and playwrights in residence, provide a link to the world of law and learning. Noble patrons of the theater companies, favored customers, mere London busybodies, country gentlemen anxious for the latest city gossip, the friends and relations of all the above -- who could have been excluded from so choice a bit of scandal, and how?
The court itself would have been another centripetal source of knowledge. The Queen, Burleigh, Walsingham, Leicester, Essex, Hatton, Raleigh, the whole tribe of Howards, the various Lord Stewards, Lord Chamberlains, and Masters of the Revels -- all would have known, and all had secretaries and confidential advisors. Any courtier, any maid of honor, any foreign ambassador, any mere hanger-on would have been interested, might well have seen this as a matter of self-interest, and would surely have had the means to find out. Oxford himself presumably would have communicated his activities to at least some of his own circle. Even the imposter might have told some of his fellow yokels back home. And if the enforcement of silence is posited, as it sometimes is, we must also add a rather numerous constabulary aware of what they were supposed to suppress.
The number of people who would have known the great secret, if there were one to know, would have been very large indeed, many hundreds at the least, more likely some thousands. If this remarkable conspiracy had occurred, it would have been so extensive that it becomes a serious problem to identify those from whom the secret was being kept.
But the size of the conspiracy is less remarkable than its duration. It is presumed to have begun variously from the late 1570s to the early 1590s, at any rate, from Elizabeth's middle to late years. But when Shakespeare of Stratford was identified as the author of the plays in the First Folio of 1623 -- the centerpiece of the conspiracy -- it was quite late in the reign of James I. It seems quasi-filial piety of a very high degree that he continued his predecessor's concealment of the declasse scribbling of one of her lords and/or of the allegories of scandal in her court -- so the argument runs -- by supporting the fictional assignment to one of his own players. The identification of Shakespeare is restated in both the Second Folio of 1632 and John Benson's 1640 edition of the poems, both well into the reign of Charles I. Like his father, Charles was the patron of the King's Men, but he was also something of a Shakespeare buff, and it is harder to imagine that he would have thought authorship of the canon disgraceful for a nobleman.
The claim for Shakespeare is made yet again in 1647, five years after the closing of the theaters, in the dedication of the Beaumont and Fletcher folio. The signatories, the ten survivors of the King's Men, recall the happier time when Heminges and Condell, "those that had steerage of our company," had presented the works of "that sweet swan of Avon, William Shakespeare." At least two of the ten, John Lowin and Richard Robinson, surely would have known the truth of the matter since they had performed for the company while Shakespeare was still active. So, too, the dedicatee would have known the truth: this was Philip Herbert, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, to whom, jointly with his "(now glorified) brother," the First Folio had been dedicated, and who formerly had been the Lord Chamberlain and the husband of Oxford's daughter. By 1647, Shakespeare had been dead for 31 years and Oxford for 43 -- indeed, Oxford's son and heir, the 18th Earl, had died 22 years earlier. The secrets that Herbert and Lowin and Robinson continued to protect would have become notably musty. But far more puzzling than the question of who would have cared to continue the imposture is that of whose authority enforced the continuance.
In 1647, London, the press, and the King himself were in the hands of the Parliamentary forces. That Cromwell and his fellows exerted themselves to conceal Oxford's authorship seems a good deal less than likely. In fact, the Puritans frequently denigrated King Charles for having read Shakespeare and Jonson rather than his Bible; had it been known that the King preferred the plays of the dissolute, crypto-Catholic Oxford to Holy Writ, one would expect the matter to have been noticed. That Philip Herbert himself required that the charade continue cannot be seriously supposed. In 1647, Herbert was just another member of the vestigial remnant of the House of Lords, a body of no significance whatever in the power struggle between Commons and the Army, and one that would be abolished within two years.
There is, of course, no reason to suppose that the Oxfordian secret died with the last of the King's Men, or, for that matter, that it should ever have been lost to human memory. This surely would have been a story for the good man to teach his son; and John Heminges' son was a playwright, John Shanks' son an actor, and Christopher Beeston, who performed with Shakespeare, became a theatrical manager and left his holdings to his son, William, who in turn is credited with telling John Aubrey that Shakespeare had been a schoolmaster in the country. How curious that he didn't also mention that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare.
But then, no one did. No one associated Oxford with the Shakespeare plays, not during Oxford's life, nor Shakespeare's, nor the rest of the 17th Century, nor, for that matter, the 18th, 19th, and the first couple of decades of the 20th. If this was a conspiracy, it was far and away the most successful in human history.
It should be emphasized that this silence extends to far more than just formal publications. We have references to Shakespeare as an author in private communications like Beaumont's verse epistle to Jonson and Leonard Digges' fly-leaf note to one Will Baker; we have the same identification in reported conversations like Jonson's with William Drummond or that of the anonymous young gentlewoman with Richard James that evoked his comment of the Falstaff-Oldcastle story. Ben Jonson records his esteem (this side of idolatry) for Shakespeare in a judgement that he specifically states is intended for posterity, and Gabriel Harvey inscribes his identification of Shakespeare as the author of Hamlet on a blank leaf of a book kept in his own library. A level of intimidation that would have prevented the Ben Jonson who discussed Elizabeth's membrana with Drummond from telling him that Oxford wrote the plays and that prevented Harvey from telling himself in the privacy of his own study must needs find new heaven and new earth.
And finally, it should be appreciated what contemporaries did in fact say about Oxford. We have records of his being called a profligate, a spendthrift, a fop, a seducer, a cuckold, an adulterer, a sodomite, a liar, a drunkard, a blasphemer, a traitor, an informer, a bully, a feudist, a would-be assassin, and a murderer. (Ogburn and Ward supply the details; some of the charges may not be just.) Later in the century, Aubrey adds a surely (if sadly) apocryphal portrayal of the Earl as a legendary flatulator. That it was permissible to call Vere lecherous, treacherous, homosexual, and homicidal, but heading and hanging to suggest that he wrote plays should tax even Oxfordian credulity.
It may seem that in emphasizing Matus's not pressing home the implications of his work, I am criticizing him for failing to perform a task other than one he contracts for, and fulfills excellently well: viz., the presentation and evaluating of the "evidences" for the Oxfordian supposition. But if the evidences, as Matus establishes, are so unpersuasive in supporting the supposition, it would seem inevitable that the validity of the supposition itself be called into question. And the validity is nowhere more to be questioned than in the consideration of the nature of the conspiracy that the supposition would require.
I do, however, acknowledge that emphasizing such a shortcoming in Shakespeare, IN FACT is less generous than I would wish. Matus has, after all, performed a task about as appetizing to most Shakespeareans as diving to the bottom of the dismal lake to take on Grendel's mother. It might perhaps be better to admire his doughtiness than to carp about how many heads he has brought up.
I will close with one of the choicest bits Matus has presented. In the year of the Armada, Oxford presented himself to Leicester, the commander of the land forces, as a volunteer; he decided, however, that the post offered was of "no service nor credit," and went off to complain to the Queen. Leicester's last words on the matter (in a post-script, interestingly omitted from Ward's biography) were: "I am glad I am rid of my Lord Oxford... and I pray you let me not be pressed anymore for him, what suit soever he make."
Thomas A. Pendleton