By ALAN WALL.
Women are great readers in Shakespeare. The first time we encounter Lady Macbeth (perhaps the strongest woman in all literature) she is reading. Ophelia evidently spends an awful lot of time reading Hamlet’s letters. Perhaps the person with the most beautiful script in Europe during Shakespeare’s lifetime was his monarch, a woman of course, Elizabeth the First, who was a great reader. In at least six languages. English, French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, Latin. It’s quite possible she had a go at Cornish and Gaelic too. Is it not curious then that the man from Stratford on Avon had two daughters and both of them went to their graves illiterate? Is there not a cognitive dissonance here? I have two daughters, both of them of a remarkable intelligence, and I have spent much of my life writing, so I have that much in common with Shakespeare, if no more, and I cannot imagine watching those two daughters of mine go through life illiterate, as I scratch away on my parchment. It would stick in the craw, and it sticks in the craw of my intelligence that the man who wrote Shakespeare could ever have done such a thing either. Which leaves me pondering. Scratching that metaphorical head of mine and pondering.
There is something weird about the fellow we call Shakespeare. Not the work, but the man. Go and take a look at that monument to him in his home town. Here’s what it says:
Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forebeare,
To dig the dust enclosed heare;
Blest be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.
If this is the greatest writer in the world, why is the writing on his tomb so crap? If one of my first-year writing students turned up with these lines I’d ask if he’d yet considered switching to combined honours in embroidery and turnip cultivation. And then there’s that ludicrous pork butcher with a feather in his hand sitting atop it all. If that’s the world’s finest writer, then I’m Donald Trump.
So, his daughters couldn’t read or write, it appears. Excuse me, aren’t you the greatest writer on earth? So wouldn’t you like those girls of yours to maybe get to read a line or two before they croak? Nah, he appears to say, fuck ’em. Who cares anyway? The folks round his parts seem mainly to have known him as a buyer of fields and a seller of this and that. Old man was a bit of a bigwig for a while but got himself into some serious trouble. Some say he even practised the Old Faith. Not unknown up there. Bloody dangerous, all the same. Sonnets, did he? What, on the bog wall?
And then there’s some really curious stuff. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, there is an astonishingly detailed knowledge of goings-on in Navarre in 1578, when Shakespeare was fourteen, had not yet stepped out of Warwickshire and did not, so far as we know, speak a single word of French. So where did all that come from then? One French scholar made it plain he reckoned it could only have been known by someone who’d been there, day by day. This whittawer’s son from the West Midlands seems to have grasped an awful lot about my lords and ladies, a fair bit about magic and necromancy, quite a bundoodle of French and Italian, a hell of a lot about sailing and the law. And yet. Not a single book left in his will; and not a single foul paper left around him, this man who must have been writing on one bit of foul paper or another every day of his life for twenty years and more. Rum, no? When, he died, in Stratford, no one even mentioned that he’d done a bit of writing in his time. They said how he’d managed to increase the size of his house, though. Bought a tithe or two. Local lad. Fattened up nicely. Impregnated a local lass, who had a bob or two, and a good few years ahead of him. Then wed her. Well, that’s the way we do things in these parts.
The anti-Stratfordians tend to start from one position: How could this whittawer’s son from the obscure town of Stratford-on-Avon conceivably have written this stuff? Good question, except that it misses the point. The question should be: How could anybody? The writer who produced King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet had propelled himself into such a state of spiritual acceleration, combined with theatrical and linguistic super-competence, that it could be seen as inexplicable. You cannot say, Oh that came from here, This came from there. If you do, you are a breezy barbarian. How did he get to know so much about courtly matters? He got elevated, and he was a quick learner. The equally pertinent question to ask of the nobles who are usually paraded before us as alternatives, is: Where did Lord So-and-So learn so much about what goes on in the street? They would probably have kept a scented kerchief’s distance away from that grubby mob. But Shakespeare knew the street, all right. He knew the sound of it; he knew the smell of it. He had been there. A lot. And he had learnt how to inhabit sentences with a vividness that has never been surpassed. When Shakespeare’s major heroes and villains talk the talk, the world stops and listens.
It is always interesting to know the motivation of anti-Stratfordians. Very frequently, they simply want their supreme writer to be a lot posher. They want him to be Earl This, or Sir That. Not, for heaven’s sake, a glovemaker’s son born into utter obscurity, fathered by a recusant, suffering fines for his non-observance, in a nondescript town in the West Midlands. What kind of King of the Quills is that? No one was ever in any position to teach anyone how to become Shakespeare. Someone had to teach himself how to do that, with no guide book to hand. Someone had to shape himself into this shapeshifter. It could not have been, you see, until it was. And as Sam Goldwyn remarked: he did it all with a feather.
Freud is an interesting case. Shakespeare gave him more information about human possibility than any other writer, doctor, confidant, or analysand. The thanks he got? Freud assassinated him into Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford. He did this as a result of the labours of J. Thomas Looney, who wrote the book Shakespeare Identified. Ernest Jones had to explain to Freud that he needed to be wary as the word looney in English carried a derogatory meaning: one who is not entirely in control of his wits. Freud responded with a ponderous lack of humour, that was not so unusual, when anyone or anything crossed him, or his certainties.
He became convinced the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the real author of the works. He at least had three daughters, like Lear, and he was seriously posh. Educated too. A number of problems solved there then. He was also a bad lot. Pretty good at villainy, in his own aristo way. Not someone to entrust your finances to. Reminds me of what David Niven said once of Errol Flynn: They said you couldn’t rely on Errol, but it wasn’t true. You could rely on Errol. You knew that Errol would always let you down. He was also involved with the theatre, which helped. He was a paragon of fashion, no doubt of that. Aubrey tells the wonderfully cheeky story of how he presented himself to the Queen once at Court and made a magnificently deep bow, such being the fashion in France at the time. So deep was his bow that he broke wind. He was appalled at himself, at such a breach of etiquette before the monarch herself, and promptly sent himself into exile for seven years. On his return, he presented himself at Court once more and made a conspicuously shallow bow before Her Majesty who, ever alert, said, ‘’Tis all right, My Lord Oxford, We had forgot the fart.’
One slight problem with Oxford. No one disputes that he died in 1604. Mmmmm. Bit of a problem of chronology then, unless you are such a bardolator that you reckon your man could write posthumously. We might have to dispense with Macbeth, Lear, The Tempest. Oxfordians wriggle their way round these problems in one way or another. One of the most curious parts of this book is when the author goes to stay with Alexander Waugh, grandson of Evelyn, and an utterly devoted Oxfordian. He is evidently a highly entertaining fellow with a highly entertaining wife. He argues his case well, and has some intriguing items to help argue along his case.
Delia Bacon reckoned it was Francis Bacon who wrote the plays, as well as doing all the other things he did. Freud looked at this one and came to a curious conclusion. He said it couldn’t have been Bacon, because if it had been then the possibilities of the human mind had been altogether too seriously exceeded. One man couldn’t do all those things. Perhaps Delia Bacon was simply a bad case of nominative determinism. She went to extraordinary lengths to try to prove her case. Opening up tombs, that sort of thing.
A few years back I wrote a novel called The School of Night. I researched this question in my own eccentric manner, and I came to the conclusion that if there was one surefire candidate for a substitute for the fellow from Stratford then it had to be Christopher Marlowe. The more I looked at the circumstances of Kit Marlowe’s death and the simultaneous emergence of the writer known as William Shakespeare the more I thought, Hello, this really is seriously weird. Marlowe had made himself a liability. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut. He was a boozer and probably gay, and he certainly seems to have put it about a bit. He had plenty of friends in high places and plenty of friends in low ones too. He was the most brilliant writer of the English stage. He was staying with Thomas Walsingham — now there’s posh for you, given that he was a cobbler’s son from Canterbury. Utterly bizarrely, he was born in the same year as William Shakespeare, and his father too worked in leather, but he went to university, Cambridge in fact, where he was treated with breathtaking leniency by the authorities because, it would seem, he was doing the state some service. He was going abroad to help betray young Catholic priests to their deaths when they returned to England on their mission to convert England back to the true faith, and the State (up to the highest level) was grateful for his endeavours.
The papal bull Regnans in Excelsio in 1570 excommunicated Elizabeth ‘from the unity of the Body of Christ’ and things got seriously nasty after that. So he got his MA, despite repeated delinquency. He seems to have been rewarded with a fair bit of cash too. But he overstepped the mark once too often. He had been summoned to the Privy Council, but he never got there. The official story is that he was killed in a brawl in Deptford in May 1593. The other characters in this brawl are a very shady lot indeed, and some of them had been doing the state some service too. The sort you don’t talk about, if you know what’s good for you. And then just as Marlowe disappears as a writer, Shakespeare appears as one, within a month of the other fellow’s death. One fish goes down; the other surfaces. And how murky the water is around those fishy parts that Shakespeare and Marlowe were swimming in.
So here’s the conspiracy, since it is conspiracy of which we are speaking, and since we live in conspiratorial times, do we not? As did Marlowe and Shakespeare. There’s always the possibility that Kit Marlowe didn’t die at all that day in Deptford, as was reported, but was spirited abroad instead, under a Kentish mist one night, to spend the rest of his life writing plays and sending them back, fronted by a middling actor from the Midlands by the name of Will Shakespeare, who’d been kicking around London at the same time as Kit and whom he knew. This would have stopped a number of high-flyers from having to answer some very tricky questions and possibly having to answer some seriously nasty questions with their lives.
Certain scholars step in at this point and say we can prove by comparison that the style of Marlowe isn’t actually the style of Shakespeare. Prove, mind you.
There has been much talk of late of computer programmes showing definitively how this writer can or cannot have written this or that text. I reckon one should be very wary of this sort of computerised certainty — one should always be wary of any sort of certainty at all, actually, but particularly this sort. Programmed stylistic certainties. And I think I can prove this unproveableness, in my own non-computerised way. I am prepared to put hard money on this, for example. Whatever your programme, feed these two texts into it for me, would you:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
And now this:
Midwinter spring is its own season
Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,
Suspended in time, between pole and tropic,
When the short day is the brightest, with frost and fire…
I’ll bet your programme informs you that the two texts were written by two different people. They weren’t though. They were written by the same hand. T. S. Eliot. Twenty years apart.
Funny thing certainty. When I was sixteen I was obsessed by the lyrics of Bob Dylan’s great song ‘Mr Tambourine Man’. I talked about it to my then inamorata, Susan, in Bradford. I found it a deeply mysterious song — still do, in fact. She didn’t. She explained wearily to me. ‘Mr Tambourine Man is a drug dealer in New York, Alan. Didn’t you know that? Everybody knows that.’ There was no drug dealer in New York called Mr Tambourine Man. Wasn’t then. Isn’t now. But Susan was entirely certain of the fact. Susan, bless her. Who had never been to New York. Nor taken a drug. Nor done much thinking. You don’t need to, of course, in order to arrive at certainties. It’s uncertainties that require a lot of thinking. Certainty’s a doddle. Was then. Is now.
All questions should remain open. We all know that Jesus was born on the 25th of December. Bing Crosby was playing on the gramophone. Snow falling outside. Father Christmas just having come down the chimney. Reindeer with their noses twitching on the roof above. It is in a similar way, it begins to seem to me now, that we all know the works of Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon. Well. I’ve spent a few hours this week peering at the Droeshalt engraving that fronts the Folio Shakespeare, and the more one looks, the more one has to come to the conclusion that either this engraver was the most incompetent at his job in the history of the craft, or he is portraying a mask. From the left ear down, there appears to be a clear portrayal of a line indicating some sort of theatrical covering. This is not a face we are confronting but a disguise.
I have to sit back here in my certainties (ah Susan, where are you now, when I truly need you?) and try to think of a single story about Shakespeare’s life that I feel in my bones is in any way authentic. I can’t. I find myself thinking of Kitty Muggeridge’s remark about David Frost: ‘He rose without a trace.’ And I go back to that moment when Marlowe went out of our lives and Shakespeare came into them, between April and June 1593.
You see, the other great visit Elizabeth Winkler makes is to Ros Barber in Brighton. She has written a remarkable book called The Marlowe Papers. This is in verse. Its argument is that Marlowe did not die in 1593. He went abroad instead. There to write the plays and poems we know so well.
They were after Marlowe all right, back there. He must have rubbed a few too many people up the wrong way. We’ll probably never know who now. On May 18, 1593, the Privy Council issued a warrant for Marlowe’s arrest. ‘Lewd and mutinous libels’ abusing Protestant refugees had been posted around London lately, and allusions appeared to have been made to Marlowe’s plays. They had been signed Tamburlaine. It was all very strange, and has never been properly explained. The charge of atheism was flying about, which is not exactly what we might mean by the word, but was a charge of sufficient unorthodoxy that you did not want it levelled at you. So this fellow who a year or two before was being excused his notable unorthodoxy at Cambridge because it suited Her Majesty that he should be thus excused, was now being summoned before the Privy Council for the sort of unorthodoxy of which no one wished to be accused.
Well, Thomas Walsingham seemed to be standing up for him, but just how much standing up was he prepared to do? And how many more people were about to be implicated? On May 30, 1593, in the tavern of Mrs Eleanor Bull in Deptford — Robert Poley, Nicholas Skeres, and Ingram Frizer were knocking around all day with Marlowe. None of these fellows were any better than they should have been. They had all been inhabiting the Elizabethan underworld. The story is that they got in a fight about the reckoning, as the bill was referred to, and in the fight that ensued Marlowe got killed with a blade in his skull through his eye. A coroner’s report wrapped it up, and in St Nicholas’s Churchyard in Deptford a plaque indicates that here, or somewhere near here, Marlowe’s remains are to be found. It doesn’t look very convinced.
It was only in the twentieth century that the word reckoning turned up when an American researcher found the coroner’s report. That suddenly added a weird and still plangent urgency to these words in As You Like It:
When a man’s verses cannot be understood… it strikes a man more dead than a great reckoning in a little room.
How can a man be more dead? Unless of course he is officially dead, but living on elsewhere, unable to claim the life that still oozes from his pen? Unable to take the bows that nightly attend his words on other people’s stages.
Venus and Adonis was registered anonymously in April, Marlowe died in May, and then the poem came out in June, and the writer we call Shakespeare began his life. How convenient.
So what of Ben Jonson then? Who knew him all his working life. Who greatly admired him — but this side idolatry. And who famously added his encomium to the First Folio in 1623. He makes it plain that he does not have much time for that engraving either, but he still says this is Shakespeare. Ben was a famous boozer and was infamously indiscreet. If he had really been roped in to some conspiracy then he would have let it slip one night with a belly full of wine, probably to Drummond of Hawthornden. There is no way he could have kept it to himself.
Susanna was not illiterate. She could at least manage her signature. The majority of people in Elizabethan England were illiterate. Of those who were literate, many more could read than write. We should remember, there were no girls at that grammar school William Shakespeare attended. That was not their place. Elizabeth the First might have had a beautiful hand. She was a queen. That did make something of a difference at the time.
The most important thing Shakespeare ever learned in his life was how to keep his head down. He had seen his father wreck his status in Stratford by his recusancy. He had watched certain missionary priests go to their terrible deaths for their beliefs. He had watched Ben Jonson go to prison three times for his wrecklessness. He had seen Sir Walter Ralegh imprisoned in the Tower, and Kit Marlowe done to death in Deptford. He himself had come perilously close to imprisonment when his own Richard II was staged as a prelude to Essex’s bid for power. They didn’t know him as anything but a burgher back in Stratford because that was precisely the way he wanted it. That was the pond he went back to when all the ripples stopped rippling. When the hermit crab retreated to his hermitage once more.
ALAN WALL was born in Bradford, studied English at Oxford, and lives in North Wales. He has published six novels and three collections of poetry, including Doctor Placebo. Jacob, a book written in verse and prose, was shortlisted for the Hawthornden Prize. His work has been translated into ten languages. He has published essays and reviews in many different periodicals including the Guardian, Spectator, The Times, Jewish Quarterly, Leonardo, PN Review, London Magazine, The Reader and Agenda. He was Royal Literary Fund Fellow in Writing at Warwick University and Liverpool John Moores and is currently Professor of Writing and Literature at the University of Chester and a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review. His book Endtimes was published by Shearsman in 2013, and Badmouth, a novel, was published by Harbour Books in 2014. A collection of his essays was issued by Odd Volumes, The Fortnightly Review’s publishing imprint, also in 2014. A second collection, of his Fortnightly reflections on Walter Benjamin, followed in 2018, and a third collection, Midnight of the Sublime, has just been published. An archive of Alan Wall’s Fortnightly work is here.
Image credits: Orange door with bronze Shakespeare knocker, Alla Tsyganova; Queen Elizabeth portrait with handwritten text and signature, Grafissimo; First Folio of Shakespeare, New York Public Library, Spiroview Inc.; Sigmund Freud; Christopher Marlowe; Ancient wooden gables and roofs above shops and street level in Church street Stratford upon Avon, oversnap.