Best Wishes, Mr. Shakespeare

I was saddened to see the front window painted white at the Palomar College Shakespeare website, "Mr. William Shakespeare and the Internet," beneath a sign that reads "Mr. Shakespeare is now retired."  I first ran across it ten years ago, and since then I've happily whiled away many a night of insomnia exploring its resources and following the numerous links, active and broken.  It was an elegant and impressive place, not at all like the nickel-and-dime home-brew operation I'm running here.  While I hope that someone picks up the chores of hosting and site maintenance, I can understand the desire to take one last curtain-call and then leave the stage.  I've only been at this for two months and some change, and I'm already exhausted.  I wish "Mr. Shakespeare" a long and contented spell of doing whatever pleases him.

The past few years have been a fun time to be into William Shakespeare, with some grand treatments of three tragedies and four history plays featured on PBS's "Great Performances," two widely different takes on "The Tempest" arriving on video (Yeah, one of them opened in theaters, but just barely), Ralph Fiennes' impressive film version of "Coriolanus," and Joss Whedon's lighter-than-air rendering of "Much Ado About Nothing."  There is also James Shapiro's book "Contested Will," which deserves to be the last nail in the coffin of the so-called “authorship question," but almost certainly won't be.

For those who aren’t familiar with it, there’s an odd notion out there that somebody besides the Bard of Avon wrote the plays and other works usually attributed to William Shakespeare, somebody with connections, a university education, and a noble lineage.  The usual suspect is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who was considered a gifted amateur poet and playwright.  For Oxford’s champions, the lack of even the slightest scintilla of contemporary evidence connecting the Earl with the plays of Shakespeare, is simply proof positive of a vast and sinister conspiracy of silence to keep his authorship a secret.  How can you argue with logic like that?  Since you can’t, it’s best just to ignore it, except that Oxfordians won’t be ignored.  They band together in societies of true believers and build websites and publish books.  Two years ago there was even a movie about their hero, “Anonymous.”  

Some critics suggest that Oxfordians are motivated by simple snobbery, a refusal to believe that a common glover’s son from Warwickshire, one whose educational high point was probably the local grammar school, could have grown up to be the greatest dramatic poet of the age.  There may be an element of snobbery at play, but I don’t think the criticism is completely on target.  As Shapiro suggests, the Oxfordians engage in the same games all historians play (Even family historians), just on a larger scale.

Traditional Shakespearean scholars are not above making guesses and taking leaps, connecting dots that are barely visible to the naked eye.  There has long been an effort to identify William Shakespeare with a young William Shakeshaft mentioned in a will filed in Lancashire.  The will concerns the maintenance of players and instruments and "play clothes," and would establish a theatre background for Shakespeare years before he made his way to the London stage.  It would also give us some insight into what he was up to during his “lost years.”  In short, the strength of the identification depends on how much wishful thinking we are willing to put up with.  William Shakeshaft is a back door for getting William Shakespeare into a wealthy Catholic household that liked to put on plays.  The world of the Oxfordians and Baconians (Yes, Francis Bacon also wrote Shakespeare’s plays; so did Christopher Marlowe) is all back doors, labyrinthine alleyways, whispering campaigns and conspiracies.  The line between history and fantasy can be a tempting one to blur.

Last year I ran across a family tree which contained an excitingly detailed timeline for Emery Perry Moore and his wife Rosa.  Emery was the man from Cameron, Texas, who corresponded with Orel Jane Lovewell for years, claiming to be her son from an earlier marriage.  The tree contained new information about Rosa and her parents, their migration to Texas, her divorce from Emery and eventual remarriage to a rancher from Oklahoma.  It made fascinating reading for a while, until I explored the citations and began to suspect that the tree’s owners had simply tracked a few people with rather similar names through the various census returns, and then stirred the resulting hodgepodge.  I can’t blame them.  I’ve been there myself.     

A few years ago I pieced together a brief history of my great-grandfather, the mysterious John Robinson, entirely out of one family story, two census records and listings from directories of cities where he may or may not have lived.  The story was all smoke and mirrors, but I found it appealing, and clung to it for two or three days before casting it on the debris heap of screwy ideas, where it belonged.

John Robinson, like Emery Perry Moore, is a shadowy figure whose life left few clues.  He is nearly as elusive as that Shakespeare fellow.  On the other hand, plenty is known about the Earl of Oxford.  There are letters galore and diaries, descriptions of travels, bits of court gossip.  His life is an open book.  When I glance at the latest volume purporting to prove beyond all doubt his authorship of the works of Shakespeare, I’m reminded of an old groaner of a joke I read in grade school.  A young man is crouched under a streetlamp, carefully surveying the pavement.  His friend walks up.  “What are you doing?”  “Looking for a coin I dropped.”  For several minutes, the friend helps him search the ground for any trace of glinting metal.  “I don’t see anything.  You sure you dropped it here?”  “No.  I dropped it over there.”  “Then why are you looking here?”  “The light’s better here.         

Makes sense to me.

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com