By Roger Stritmatter
Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell. London: Thames & Hudson, 1996.
The dustjacket blurb on John Michell’s Who Wrote Shakespeare? promises a book which “reads like a series of detective stories” Actually, a better metaphor for the book might be that of a sumptuous tour guide for visitors to the strange but wonderful country of authorship studies. Like a good tour guide, Michell’s book is clearly written, elegantly illustrated, and surveys the relevant landscape with a perceptive eye for significant detail. Above all, however, Michell is fair minded and balanced– a virtue rarely rarely found in the often sordid history of orthodoxy’s contempt for anyone who questions the self-evident tautology that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”
Unlike Ian Wilson’s 1993 endorsement of orthodox pretensions. Shakespeare: The Evidence, or lrwin Matus’ Shakespeare, In Fact (1994), Michell’s survey of the authorship controversy is intelligent, fair-minded, and substantially accurate. For authorship beginners, its a great place to begin; for advanced students in search of a synoptic review which places present events in some historical perspective, the book contains a dazzling abundance of relevant but perhaps unexpected data compressed between the pages of a short book. Combined with one or more of the best Oxfordian texts (Ogburn’s Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984). Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified (1920), Hope and Holston’ s The Shakespeare Controversy (1993). or Richard Whalen’s Shakespeare: Who Was He? (1993), Michell’s book can be heartily recommended for beginner or advanced reader.
And yet. as a work of literary detection. Michell’s book suffers from one paradoxical yet glaring fault. As a self-confessed “agnostic” in the authorship controversy. whose aim is to present the reader with an accurate survey of a complex and turbulent subject, Michell’s narrative strategy is short on assessing motives and character as he gathers the evidence. He rarely probes the question of whether the facts are susceptible to a reconfiguration which will reconcile apparent contradictions, and he rarely considers the basic question of motive, either in relation to literary texts (how authorial motive becomes literary motif) or to the big political problem of the conceal-ment of Shakespeare’s identity, a problem with which any anti-Stratfordian theory must, sooner or later, come to grips.
Instead, he leads his readers on a leisurely tour over the hills and dales of Essex. Hertfordshire, and Warwickshire, exclaiming at each new discovery, but often missing the big picture. He bends over backwards to be fair in examining evidence for as many as six major suspects in the case (Shakspere, Bacon. Oxford, William Stanley, Roger Manners, and Christopher Marlowe), but one never feels the pulse of the detective’s enthusiasm for disentangling the superficial theories from those which lead forward to the case’s solution. Correspondingly. Michell’s method lays far too great an emphasis on the theme of the “writer who knew everything” and not enough on how Shakespeare made use ofwhat lie did know. The man behind the works, then, remains out of focus. The book’s dustjacket dis-plays the names of some 23 authorship “candidates” in blurry type –and that visual emblem testifies to the thematic vagueness with which the testimony of the plays and poems is linked to the life of any of the hypothetical authors.
This failure is most evident in the chapter on Bacon. in which a variety of “Baconian” facts are assembled but the Baconian theory itself is never subjected to critical review: nor are these facts considered in light of other possible theories, even when the same territory has been covered previously by Oxfordian scholars like Dorothy and Charlton Ogbum. In consequence, while Michell’s chapter is superficially the most persuasive it is also the most disappointing — or perhaps “aggravating” is a better word– to a reader who actually knows something about the history of the authorship controversy.
Such lapses, however, need not be taken too seriously as the book has many redeeming merits which go far to correct them and to justify its place in any serious library of authorship books. For example. Michell is refreshingly sober on the entangled subject of “secret writing.” While dispensing with much Baconian decipherment, he does validate the importance of encrypted secrets as a mode of Renaissance communication. “Elizabethan poets,” writes Michell. “were often necessarily cryptic. Like all good writers under censorship, they developed a system of codes and allusions to communicate to knowing readers, and they enjoyed stretching their wits with literary puns and puzzles” (1351. With this in mind. Michell goes to bat for the Latin acrostic on the title page of Minerva Britanna (1612) which, unscrambled, reads “tibi nom. de Vere” (thy name [is] de Vere).
In a theory which was new to this re-viewer, Michell also explores the possible relevance of acrostics and anagrams to the curious typography and wording of Thomas Thorpe’s dedication to the 1609 quarto of Shake-Speares Sonnets. According to Michell, the phrase “OUR.EVER-LIVING.” spells out the anagram variant of de Vere’s motto, “NIL.VERO.VERIUS” -with only one letter’s shift (“G” becomes “S”). Whether this theory is correct or not is perhaps less important than Michell’s drawing attention to the dedication itself, which certainly invites acrostic deconstruction and reconfiguration of the sort he attempts.
As Michell argues, the cipher-mania of classical Baconians was based on a correct but misdirected intuition of the central role of codes, anagrams, puns and ciphers, not just in Elizabethan statecraft, but also in contemporary poetry and other arts of a Hermetic character. Renaissance poets and artists made a habit of commenting obliquely on arcana imperii -the secrets of state- to which they were privy. To consider Shakespeare’s involvement in the same “imaginative conspiracy’ to communicate obliquely to future readers is, then, hardly a novel proposition– however destabilizing it might seem in the face of orthodoxy’s controlling presumption of the “dumb Bard.”
To conclude, I recommend this book without reserve — not because it identifies the real author of Shakespeare’s works, but because it makes an entertaining and lavishly illustrated survey of the relevant territory of authorship studies at large.
Ed. note: Although originally published in 1996, John Michell’s book, Who Wrote Shakespeare? remains an accessible and popular introduction to the Shakespearean authorship question. We therefore take the liberty of reprinting this 1997 review by Roger Stritmatter, originally published in the Winter 1997 issue (33:1) of the Shakespeare Oxford Society Newsletter.