Could I ask you to comment, for the record, on these points made in Sobran's new book?
First, that deVere wrote the poem Venus and Adonis and the "Shakespearian" sonnets to the Henry Wriothesley and that the two men were homosexually intimate;
Well, there are actually three separate issues here:
As you can no doubt tell from my web site, I think the answer to (a) is clearly "no," an answer that would be shared by essentially all Shakespeare scholars you could ask. The dedication to Venus and Adonis was signed "William Shakespeare," and it was repeatedly attributed to William Shakespeare over the following decades, as was the later poem The Rape of Lucrece, the sonnets, and dozens of plays. A man named William Shakespeare was a prominent member of the Chamberlain's Men (called the King's Men after 1603), the company which peformed these plays. In the First Folio of 1623, Shakespeare's fellow King's Men actors John Heminges and Henry Condell explicitly say that the plays in the volume were written by their "friend and fellow" Shakespeare. This is only the basics, but it's actually much more (and more explicit) evidence of authorship than we have for virtually any of Shakespeare's contemporaries; the lives of members of the middle class like Shakespeare were just not that well documented, and in any case plays weren't considered literature like they are today. If we don't know as much about Shakespeare on a personal level as we'd like to, that's unfortunately but hardly unique. There is no documentary evidence to link Oxford to the works of Shakespeare. All the supposed "evidence" used by Oxfordians is internal -- they reconstruct what they imagine the author "must have been like" from the works themeselves. The problem with that approach is that it's so subjective, and can be used to come to radically different conclusions, depending on who's doing the reconstructing.
Let me get back to Sobran's claim (b) above, which is that the sonnets were addressed to Henry Wriothesley (Southampton). Sobran treats this as virtually self-evident, but in fact the majority of Shakespere scholars today doubt very much that Southampton was the Youth of the sonnets. Sobran says that "it is fairly clear that the youth of the Sonnets is a nobleman," but actually this is not clear at all; it's just a nineteenth-century conjecture that became a tradition, and that is not very widely accepted today among Shakespeare scholars. Those who do believe that the young man was a nobleman believe this because of language in several of the sonnets which seems to indicate a commoner speaking to his social superior (e.g. "Lord of my love" in Sonnet 26). Thus the assumption that the young man was a nobleman makes sense only if the author was a commoner, or at least socially lower than the addressee. It makes no sense if you think the sonnets were written from one nobleman to another of lower social station, as Oxfordians believe.
Even if you think the youth was a nobleman, there was another nobleman who fits all the "requirements" just as well as Southampton, namely William Herbert, who became Earl of Pembroke in 1604. Two of the greatest Shakespeare scholars of this century, E.K. Chambers and Dover Wilson, believed that Pembroke was the Youth, and while I think both they and the Southamptonites are wrong, their opinion can't be dismissed as lightly as Sobran does. Sobran dismisses the case for Pembroke on an astonishingly flimsy basis: he believes that the sonnets must have been written in the early 1590s, and that Pembroke (who was born in 1580) thus would have been too young to be the youth. But there is absolutely no evidence that the sonnets were written as early as Sobran believes: they were first mentioned in print in 1598, and two of them were published in 1599, with the rest being published in 1609. There is in fact very good evidence that the sonnets were written considerably later than Sobran believes, mostly in the late 1590s and early 1600s; this evidence actually makes it more likely that Pembroke was the youth rather than Southampton. There are plenty more arguments against Sobran's scenario, but I've already written more than I planned.
Finally, let me address Sobran's assumption (c), which is that the relationship between the writer of the sonnets (whoever he was) and the youth (whoever he was) was explicitly homoerotic. If we agree that the sonnets are autobiographical (and not everybody agrees that they are, though I think so), then it's clear that the poet is very fond of the youth. He addresses him as "my love" and similar terms, and while people have pointed out that in Shakespeare's day such words were often used for platonic friendship, to me it's pretty clear that Shakespeare had feelings for this youth, whether he wanted to admit the nature of those feelings or not. Whether those feelings were made explicit sexually is not an easy question to answer, and one that people have argued about endlessly. The best and most extensive argument that Shakespeare and the youth were sexually intimate was made by Joseph Pequigney in his book Such Is My Love; this was published in 1985, but I believe it's still in print in paperback. I think Pequigney makes a good case, but that the issue will always be open, because it's mostly a matter of interpretation. Obviously I don't have to tell you that this is a volatile issue, especially in the current American political climate, and that a lot of people are reluctant to believe that the greatest writer in the English language may have been gay or bisexual.
Second, that deVere published his poem Venus and Adonis under the name William Shakespeare to "divert suspicion about his relations" with Wriothesley;To me, this is one of the screwiest parts of Sobran's thesis. He places such central importance on this alleged relationship between Oxford and Southampton, but a major problem is that there is no documentary evidence of any close relationship between the two men. In the 73 letters written by Oxford that have survived, there is no mention of Southampton; I've also been told (though I haven't checked it myself) that in Southampton's voluminous correspondence, there is no mention of Oxford. I find this incredible if there was such a close relationship between the two men as Sobran portrays. The "evidence" Oxfordians (including Sobran) provide for this alleged relationship is all internal evidence from the works of Shakespeare, combined with the dedications of Venus and Adonis and Lucrece to Southampton, signed "William Shakespeare." As I noted above, internal evidence is notoriously subjective, and there is good reason to doubt that the sonnets (whoever wrote them) were addressed to Southampton; and the dedications only count as evidence if you assume that "William Shakespeare" is a pseudonym for Oxford, which is the whole point at issue here. If someone insists on going against all the external evidence and believing that the works of "William Shakespeare" were written by the Earl of Oxford rather than by William Shakespeare, then I suppose they could make a case for a relationship between Oxford and Southampton; but for those of us in the real world, there is no evidence for such a relationship. Saying that a coverup of this supposed relationship was the reason behind an elaborate hoax unprecedented in literary history, as Sobran claims, seems to me even more of a fantasy than the core Oxfordian claims.
Let me excerpt from a recent e-mail I sent on the (non-)relationship between Oxford and Southampton:
I'm sure that Oxford and Southampton, being two lords of the realm, probably met at some point. There is at least one instance where they were certainly in the same room: in 1601, when Oxford sat on the tribunal of lords which tried the Essex conspirators, of which Southampton was one. But there's a very big difference between being in the same room and having a close relationship, sexual or otherwise. Here are the main reasons why I said there is no evidence that Oxford and Southampton had any significant personal relationship, let along a close frienship:
This is why I say that the close homosexual relationship that Sobran imagines between Oxford and Southampton is fantasy, pure and simple. None of the rather extensive evidence supports such a relationship, and quite a bit refutes it. If you want to believe in such a relationship, it will have to be on faith alone.
- Oxford was 23 years older than Southampton, so they were a generation apart in age, and thus would not have had the kind of contact that nobles closer in age (such as Essex and Southampton) would have had.
- By the time Southampton began attending at Court in the early 1590s, Oxford was long out of favor there and had long stopped attending.
- Oxford abandoned his daughters to the charge of Lord Burghley when they were children, and had nothing to do with raising them. (In fact, later writers commented on this abandonment; see the "Deadbeat Dad" section of the "Authorship Question" section of Alan Nelson's web site). The attempt to marry Oxford's daughter Elizabeth to the Earl of Southampton was entirely Burghley's doing, as the surviving records make abundandly clear; Oxford had nothing to do with it.
- As I said already, dozens of letters by both Oxford and Southampton survive, and neither of them ever mentions the others in all this correspondence, though they each mention many other nobles and courtiers. Alan Nelson has spent several years researching Oxford's life more exhaustively than any anybody has ever done before. He has discovered many new documents relating to Oxford, including several new letters, but he has never found any evidence that Oxford and Southampton knew each other on a personal level. I specifically asked him about this.
Briefly, the three things that struck me most: the absence of "hard" Shakespeare dates after 1604, the later datings of the plays being interpolations;
Did you read my long essay on the web page called "Dating The Tempest"? I thought I showed pretty conclusively that The Tempest was written no earlier than the fall of 1610, and thus that Oxford could not have been the author. Also, when the Globe burned down in 1613 during a performance of Henry VIII, at least two separate observers described Henry VIII as a new play, not performed more than two or three times before. More generally, the dating of Shakespeare's late plays is not at all as arbitrary as Oxfordians constantly claim; in addition to external evidence like that for The Tempest and Henry VIII, Shakespeare's writing developed in tandem with the rest of Jacobean drama. For example, Shakespeare's late romances mutually influenced the romances of Beaumont and Fletcher, written between 1607 and 1613. Also, there's plenty of evidence, both internal and external, for Shakespeare's collaboration with John Fletcher, who did not start writing plays until after Oxford was dead. Pushing the dates of Shakespeare's plays back 10 or 20 years, like Oxfordians do, makes a mishmash of Elizabethan dramatic history.
the post-1604 mentions of Shakespeare in the past tense;Sobran really distorts this issue badly. Let me go through his claims, from p.140-141:
After 1604, there are hints that Shakespeare is already gone. His name appears in a roster of players in March, three months before Oxford's demise, but is not mentioned in a similar list in August.Sobran is being misleading here, because there was no "similar list in August." The March list to which Sobran refers is a grant of red cloth to the actors for King James's procession through London; it includes nine names, with Shakespeare heading the list. In August 1604, the King's Men served as Grooms of the Chamber for the state visit of the Spanish ambassador, but the record of payment for that service only mentions John Heminges and Augustine Phillipps, along with "ten of their fellows." Heminges and Phillips were the business leaders of the company, and thus received the payment; the absence of Shakespeare's name is unremarkable. (Richard Burbage is also not named in the August document, and by Sobran's reasoning this is evidence that he had left the company since March.) On the other hand, William Shakespeare did continue to appear in later documents involving the King's Men: he was left a bequest in the will of Augustine Phillipps in 1605, and he was one of the original sharers in the Blackfriars Theater in 1608. I notice that Sobran does not mention either of these documents.
Beginning in 1605, other men's plays are published under his name with apparent impunity.There were, in fact, two plays published under Shakespeare's name before 1616 which are not generally ascribed to him: The London Prodigal (1605) and A Yorkshire Tragedy (1608). But this type of thing happened with other living authors, too, such as John Webster. Shakespeare's name had become a drawing card, and there was no copyright law; once a publisher had a manuscript and entered it on the Stationer's Register, there was nothing an author could do, legally. There is, however, evidence that Shakespeare protested in 1612 when William Jaggard took two previously published poems by Thomas Heywood and published them under Shakespeare's name in the third edition of The Passionate Pilgrim: Heywood, in an epistle to his Apology for Actors, published later that year, said that "the Author (was) I know much offended with M. Jaggard that (altogether unknowne to him) presumed to make bold with his name." I see that Sobran briefly mentions this episode but then ignores it. I guess it's easier to make your case if you ignore all the evidence which refutes it.
William Barkstead pays tribute to him in the past tense in 1607.See the article by Terry Ross and me on our web page called "Barksted and Shakespeare," where we address this claim at length.
A poem in his honor by John Davies in 1610 has a similar memorial ring.This is pure wishful thinking on Sobran's part, and shows that he has not actually read the volume the poem appears in. Davies was demonstrably addressing a living person in this poem, as I discuss in detail in my article "Why I Am Not an Oxfordian,"on the web page. The Davies poem is actually evidence against Sobran's thesis.
His intimate sonnets appear in 1609, published without his cooperation but without his protest; the publisher, not the poet, supplies the dedication.Sobran is here using decades-old scholarship. Most scholars today believe that Shakespeare's sonnets were published with his consent, and he very probably supervised the volume himself. See Katherine Duncan-Jones's "Was the 1609 Shake-speares Sonnets Really Unauthorized" (Review of English Studies, 1983); Duncan-Jones's recent Arden edition of the Sonnets; and Walter Cohen's introduction in the recent Norton edition of Shakespeare's works; among many other places.
The 1609 quarto of Troilus and Cressida contains a preface by someone else, who referes to him guardedly as "this author" and hints that he will soon be "gone, and his comedies out of sale."But the author of this epistle clearly speaks of the author as being alive. He says of the author that "when he is gone, and his comedies out of sale, you will clamor for them." I also discuss this in "Why I Am Not an Oxfordian." I don't see how Sobran could use this piece of evidence with a straight face to argue that Shakespeare was dead in 1609, when it actually says the opposite.
In 1616, when Mr. Shakspere of Stratford dies, there is no recorded notice of the event in London.This old Oxfordian chestnut is actually one of the most deceptive. In fact, Shakespeare was the best-memorialized English playwright, by far, until Ben Jonson more than 20 years later. For a detailed discussion of this Oxfordian claim, see my article "Shakespeare's Eulogies,"also on the Shakespeare Authorship web site.
Plus, there were many indications that Shakespeare the author was alive after 1604. In addition to the Troilus and Cressida epistle (1609), the Davies poem (1610), and the Heywood allusion (1612) mentioned above, John Webster mentions Shakespeare in the present tense along with other living poets (1612), and Arthur Freeman addresses him in the present tense in Runne, and a Great Caste (1614). On the other hand, John Taylor explicitly lists Shakespeare among other great poets who have died, in a poem in The Praise of Hemp-seed (1620). Quite apart from the burial record and the Basse poem, it looks from the evidence like William Shakespeare the author died between 1614 and 1620.
Back to my correspondent's observations:
and third, the contemporary accounts of Oxford, praising him for his plays and referring to his keeping his identity discrete.Did you read Terry's essay on the web page called "Oxford's Literary Reputation"? I thought he showed pretty conclusively that nobody at the time thought that Oxford was a great poet, and that Oxfordians have hugely inflated the evidence to make it look more substantial than it is. Also, Terry's essay "Puttenham on Oxford" deals with the claim that anybody implied that Oxford was using a pseudonym.
To me these seemed the strongest items, and I notice in rereading your page that you concentrate on the textual resemblance issue, avoiding these more troubling issues.I don't consider them "troubling" issues, for the reasons I've given above. True, the verbal parallels article was the only one where I specifically addressed Sobran's claims, but many of the other articles on the page address things Sobran says in common with many other Oxfordians.
Finally--the use of the second person familiar in the sonnets in a commoner-to-nobleman situation really is unprecedented, and I know from my years in Germany that it is regarded as a pointed insult.But there's no evidence that the Sonnets were addressed to Southampton, and very few Shakespeare scholars today believe that they were. This is a non-argument. You should also be aware that Sobran's depiction of a close relationship between Oxford and Southampton, sexual or otherwise, is a pure fantasy unsupported by any evidence. There is no evidence that the two men were even personally acquainted.
I forwarded your e-mail to Terry Ross for any additional comments he might have, and this is one thing he mentioned that I didn't cover:
Where did he get the idea that "the use of the second person familiar in the sonnets in a commoner-to-nobleman situation really is unprecedented"? Of course, we don't know that Shakespeare's sonnets were addressed to a nobleman in the first place, but it was hardly "unprecedented" for a commoner to "thou" a nobleman in a sonnet. Spenser in his dedicatory sonnets in the Faerie Queene uses "you" for some persons and "thou" for others, but the usage does not divide along lines of nobility:
- Thou/thy/thee/thine: the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Northumberland, the Earl of Essex, the Earl of Ormond and Ossory, Lord Buckhurst, Sir Walter Raleigh.
- You/ye/your/yours: Sir Christopher Hatton, the Earl of Cumberland, Lord Howard, Lord Grey, Sir Francis Walsingham, the Countess of Pembroke, Lady Carew.
- Some of each: Lord Hunsdon ("your," "your," "you," "your," "your," "ye," "thy"); Sir John Norris ("you," "thou," "thy," "your").
Also, I hope I made it clear in my reply that, while Sobran seems like a nice person and I don't doubt his honesty, his book presents a wildly distorted view of the evidence and the orthodox position on Shakespeare's biography. He claims to know Shakespeare's works inside out, but he seems not to have looked at any primary sources, and he sometimes displays a distressing ignorance of the context in which Shakespeare's works were written. He's a good writer, but unfortunately that hides the serious flaws in the "evidence" he presents.
Sobran seems to believe that the factual inaccuracies which pepper his book are the main basis for Nelson's accusation of not being a scholar. Indeed, Sobran is very sloppy with the facts, and his book contains many more errors than the dozen or so specific ones which Nelson lists in his review. While some of these mistakes are peripheral to Sobran's argument, as he notes, others (such as some of those noted in the first two sections of this essay) are more central. His blunders show that Sobran has little if any familiarity with the most important facts of Elizabethan history and literature beyond those which he has gleaned from Oxfordian writings. Indeed, Sobran seems to wear his ignorance as a badge of honor, but in most other fields, demonstrating that the field is full of "fraudulent scholarship" (as Sobran believes of Shakespeare biography) requires being familiar with that scholarship in the first place.
Sobran asserts that,
[u]ninhibited by intellectual rigor, Nelson insinuates that to detect factual flaws in Alias Shakespeare, however minor, is to disprove Oxford's authorship.This is, of course, not even close to what Nelson actually says. The many factual errors in Sobran's book merely demonstrate his ignorance and sloppiness; what invalidates his argument is the use he makes of the facts which he does get right. Sobran's lack of scholarship arises not from any factual errors, but from his inability to look at evidence critically, his sneering unwillingness to use the methods which literary historians have used for centuries to settle questions of authorship, and the radical double standard which he applies to the evidence for Shakespeare and Oxford.
Nelson says in his review that Sobran's main argument can be expressed as the following syllogism, where "Mr. Shakspere" is Sobran's term for William Shakespeare of Stratford:
Nelson notes that Sobran "scarcely bother[s] to defend" this absolutely crucial premise in his argument, instead taking it as given. Astonishingly, in his reply to Nelson, Sobran first denies that he believes the major premise as Nelson has stated it, then goes on to take it as given after all. Specifically, he writes,
My real major "premise" is that if the Shakespeare works seem to reflect Oxford's life, letters, experience, and personality, while totally lacking similar resemblances to William of Stratford, we may fairly suspect that Oxford is the real author.It is amusing that Sobran, who sneeringly disparages Nelson's ability as a logician, does not know the difference between a syllogism and its major premise. In fact, Sobran's revised syllogism (which he terms a "premise") presupposes the crucial premise noted by Nelson; Sobran seems to take it as such a given that he is unaware of it.
I assume that authors often do disclose something of themselves in their fictions. Literary biographers of writers, from Dante to Hemingway, have sought to show how their works were inspired, shaped, and colored by their personal lives.Now, nobody would deny that authors often do disclose something of themselves in their works; I certainly do not deny this. What I do deny (but which Sobran assumes without question) is that it is possible to infer an author's biography simply from reading his or her work. As Nelson puts it in his review, "some authors will reveal more of themselves, some less." Literary scholars (unlike Sobran) have always been extremely hesitant about inferring biography from an author's work in the absence of external evidence, because such inferences so often turn out to be mistaken. T. S. Eliot made this point forcefully when he wrote in his Selected Essays, 1917-1932:
I admit that my own experience, as a minor poet, may have jaundiced my outlook; that I am used to having cosmic significances, which I never suspected, extracted from my work (such as it is) by enthusiastic persons at a distance; and to being informed that something which I meant seriously is vers de societe; and to having my personal biography reconstructed from passages which I got out of books, or which I invented out of nothing because they sounded well; and to having my biography invariably ignored in what I did write from personal experience; so that in consequence I am inclined to believe that people are mistaken about Shakespeare just in proportion to the relative superiority of Shakespeare to myself.But if Sobran is aware of the need for caution in such matters, he shows no sign of it. He does try to wiggle out by disdaining Nelson's absolutes: he asserts that "we have enough evidence in the works themselves that Oxford was the author, not because those works 'must necessarily' (as a universal a priori truth) disclose their authorship, but because, as it happens in this particular instance, they actually do so." But this presupposes that Sobran is able to determine which of the supposed parallels he finds in Shakespeare's works are significant, and that they apply to Oxford and nobody else. I have noted else where that it is possible to find similar biographical "parallels" in Shakespeare's works to the lives of other Elizabethan noblemen, such as King James and the Earl of Essex. (See Alleged Parallels Between the Plays and Oxford's Life.) In fact, biographical parallels have been used by proponents of other alternate Shakespeares besides Oxford, and these proponents have always found characteristics in the works which they believe eliminate Oxford (but which support their candidate). The whole method is so subjective as to be virtually worthless. When it is possible to find parallels in the works to the lives of so many contemporary noblemen, a prudent scholar might question the validity of the whole method, and raise the possibility that none of the parallels are significant. But Sobran is neither prudent nor a scholar.
I have pointed out elsewhere that we know far more about the lives of Oxford on those of his social class than we do about members of the middle class such as Shakespeare, and so it is naturally easier to find biographical "parallels" with Shakespeare's works for a person such as Oxford. Even so, it is certainly possible to find biographical parallels between the works and William Shakespeare of Stratford, despite Sobran's curt assertion to the contrary. Samuel Schoenbaum's massive book Shakespeare's Lives details many such attempts. Nelson very sensibly notes that there is much we do not know about Shakespeare's life, and that the works may well reflect further biographical details of which we are ignorant. But Sobran ridicules this idea, asking, "Why, after all, should we assume that some nonexistent documents would prove William's claim?"
This very question, though, demonstrates how far Sobran has strayed from the methods used by literary historians for every other question of attribution. Not only does he believe that he can infer the author's biography from the works with virtual certainty (a very questionable proposition, as I have shown), but he believes that extensive biographical parallels must be present or else the attribution is suspect, no matter how extensive the external evidence is. By the universal standards used by literary historians, there is more than enough evidence to prove "William's" authorship of the works which were published under his name. Tom Reedy and I have outlined the most important pieces of this evidence in How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare. But Sobran would dismiss all this external evidence, instead relying on internal evidence and supposed biographical parallels for his "proof." Such methods are so subjective that scholars are extremely wary of them, preferring instead to rely on external evidence where it exists. When the external evidence is as thorough as it is with Shakespeare, there is really no basis for argument.
There are other major problems with Sobran's reasoning that I can only touch on here. He applies the same double standard that other Oxfordians do, subjecting every fact about William Shakespeare to intense scrutiny while freely speculating about Oxford. As noted above, Sobran flatly asserts that there are no significant parallels between the works and Shakespeare's life; in fact, there are many such parallels, but they are apparently not the kind Sobran finds exciting, so he dismisses them. On the other hand, Sobran feels free to invent a long-standing homosexual affair between Oxford and Southampton, even though (as I noted in part one of this article) there is no evidence that the two men even knew each other personally. See my article Why I'm Not an Oxfordian for many more examples of the Oxfordian double standard in the writings of Charlton Ogburn, Jr., most of which apply to Sobran as well.
Nelson notes numerous internal contradictions in Sobran's arguments, and Sobran's responses do not inspire confidence in his story. Nelson notes that Sobran "argues without blinking that in the early sonnets Oxford was backing Burghley's 1590 campaign for a marriage between Southampton, Oxford's homosexual lover, aged seventeen, and Elizabeth Vere, Oxford's biological daughter, aged fourteen." Phrased like that, it does seem rather silly. All Sobran can do in response is fantasize that
Oxford and Southampton became lovers only when there was no longer the prospect of a marriage between Southampton and Elizabeth Vere,a textbook case of special pleading in action. Nelson notes that Sobran argues against the idea that William Shakespeare could have been Southampton's lover in the 1590s by pointing out that Shakespeare was married with three small children at the time. But, Nelson points out, "Sobran can easily imagine that Oxford, who married at twenty-one and fathered one illegitimate son and at least five legitimate children by 1587, could write amorous verses to Southampton during the very years he took a second wife and fathered the child who was to be his only male heir (1591-93)!" Sobran's double standard is seldom more evident than it is here.
Much of Sobran's rebuttal to Nelson consists of reiterating arguments from his book, such as the parallells he sees between the Sonnets and Oxford's life. As I noted in the first part of this article, many of these "parallels" are fantasies based on no evidence; but even if they were based on actual biographical facts, they would have little or no value as evidence. The real fatal flaw in Sobran's reasoning is his continued insistence that his subjective impressions of what the author must have been like, based on his readings of the works, should have precedence over clear external evidence which attributes the works to William Shakespeare of Stratford. He never bothers to defend this central thesis except in the most superficial way, and indeed seems only dimly aware that it is subject to dispute. But it is this unstated thesis, and not his sloppy command of the facts, which makes Sobran a non-scholar and invalidates his entire argument.
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