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William Ray reviews Ver, Begin by Ricardo Mena

Reviewed by William J. Ray

Ver, begin by Ricardo Mena, with an introduction by Hank Whittemore
Self-published, 2015, 529 pages (available in paperback or in a Kindle edition at amazon.com)

Review first published in the Summer 2015 issue of the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter

To evaluate Ver, begin and the challenge it represents for modern Shakespearean scholarship, we revisit an imperative written by J. Thomas Looney:

We shall first have to dissociate from the [canon] writings the conception of such an author as the steady, complacent, business-like man-of-the-world suggested by the Stratford Shakspere. Then there will be the more arduous task of raising to a most exalted position the name and personality possibly of some obscure man hitherto regarded as quite unequal to the work with which he is at last to be credited. And this will further compel us to re-read our greatest national classics from a totally new personal standpoint.

Especially the last sentence applies here. Dr. Mena has reread the authors surrounding “Shakespeare,” i.e., Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and has realigned literary attributions unquestioned for centuries.

He concurs in general with the Oxfordian interpretation of history, that Edward de Vere through governmental and personal secrecy produced works inextricably bound to his life and station, including certain tabooed attachments to Elizabeth I, inevitably bearing manifold effects. The latter include episodic attempts to solve inconsistencies of the authorship story that were studiously ignored through time. He acknowledges the seminal influence of Hank Whittemore, who wrote the introduction.

Discoveries fly out like sparks along the way – the reader sees a new perspective on the age that reaches beyond the Oxford-centered understanding.

Mena adds to the controversy by positing the literary parallelism occurring under the names Thomas Nashe, Edmund Spenser, and John Donne. In these sections of the book his textual and biographical arguments carry considerable power. As a consequence we face a new prospect, that the Elizabethan-Jacobean epoch produced not one prodigious mystery, but two or three.  Authorship was a new and fluid concept. The interchange of language and phrasing among Oxford’s circle has been noted before, but not a literary career starting with the names Nashe and Spenser and ending with the Protestant minister John Donne.

The lengthy volume, copiously punctuated with quotations from Oxfordian and Stratfordian sources, is memorable for something yet more ad hoc: its vital energy, freedom of thought, and imaginativeness to rearrange pieces previously frozen on the Elizabethan chessboard. This makes for an intellectual wild ride. A list of appropriate Internet texts follows each chapter. The quotations are credited but not annotated.

The book shares some minor defects of the industry’s de facto underground, unfunded press.  A detailed index would be helpful. There were typographical errors in the early copies, allayed now by more recent work on the Internet. That the manuscript could have benefited from an editor is like saying the wooly mammoth needed a trim. Several monographs twine together in a single revolutionary epic.

For instance, I have not seen anywhere that it was John Donne who facilitated the elevated style of the King James Bible. That he was utterly familiar with the Bible and one of the supreme English stylists gives this notion plausibility. It has far more plausibility than Streitz’s Gothic explanation that Oxford fake-died in 1604 and spent his last years on Mercer Island rewriting the Bible.

In short, the book is an achievement. Perhaps just because of its driving, prolix, protean character, wherein discoveries fly out like sparks along the way, the reader sees a new perspective on the age that reaches beyond the Oxford-centered understanding. With that flair, I expect it will be picked up by a commercial publisher, Spanish or English.  Ricardo Mena’s website contains some of the liveliest literary commentaries available on the Internet.

I

Critical reviews condemned Ver, begin as all assertion and no evidence, the habitual response to new work in a field that grants credence to only that argumentation proceeding from credentialed labor. Let us take a moment to consider the general sufficiency of status quo standards in American discourse.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, a Shakspere doubter, saw respectable thought as symptomatic of a stultified culture:

Whoever looks at the insect world, at flies, aphides, gnats, and innumerable parasites, and even at the infant mammals, must have remarked the extreme content they take in suction, which constitutes the main business of their life. If we go into a library or newsroom we see the same function on a higher plane, performed with like ardor, with equal impatience of interruption indicating the sweetness of the act. (“Quotation and Originality”)

Writing in The American Scholar, he hoped for the time when  “the sluggard intellect of this continent will look from under its iron eyelids, and fill the postponed expectation of the world with something better that the exercise of mechanical skill.” A century and a half later, Richard Feynman, widely honored as the greatest mind in physics since Einstein, said that science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Printing deceptive author names was part and parcel of the English Renaissance.  The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that Lyly and Munday had writing careers only in terms of their association with Oxford.

For our purposes, where convoluted Elizabethan history has called for courage and scope to mine hidden parallels and buried contexts, the followers of the world cultivate a respectful silence. Years pass. Evolution dozes.  Progress consists in the automation of monthly stipend checks. On the other side, moderately independent academic thinkers such as Cairncross, Rendall, Looney, Slater, and Feldman paid the price for boldly publishing their views. Departmental proscriptions from even mentioning the Shakespeare identity––until very recently––have largely succeeded in maintaining conformity among the intellectual elites. Literary analysis consistently endorses an emotional attachment to the proverbial small-town success story patched onto high art.

Consider further that most scholars do not see that the Shakespeare literary identity might be a central historical issue for Western Civilization, never having heard it seriously discussed in their careers, and we have near-universal sanctioned ignorance self-perpetuated in the field. It takes at least five years just to get a frame of reference upon everything English criticism has missed.  Academics do not have that amount of free time.

Perhaps because Ricardo Mena comes from the Spanish tradition, one recently freed of tyranny (and thus has known propaganda being made the rule of the land), he is not fazed by the official hypocrisy of the English Stratford paradigm. Santayana’s morality lies back of the work, that skepticism is wholesome, that thinkers must not surrender lightly the duty of independent thought. This principled attitude, far from being contentious, imbues the book’s literary criticism with positive rather than adversarial light.  Ver, begin is a spiritual advance upon much invective and polemic that have gone before.

II

Printing deceptive author names was part and parcel of the English Renaissance.  The circumstantial evidence is overwhelming that Lyly and Munday had writing careers only in terms of their association with Oxford. The thirty-five Shakespearean phrases in the Marlovian canon indicate another such association. It is less clear that The Shepherd’s Calendar would be so derivative and puerile coming from the supposed author, twenty-seven-year-old Edmund Spenser, or that he wrote The Faerie Queene as his “unripe fruit of an unready wit” at thirty-eight, unless the works were old. But they couldn’t be and still pay up-to-date obeisance to the leading authors of the time.

Mena adds to the controversy by positing the literary parallelism occurring under the names Thomas Nashe, Edmund Spenser, and John Donne. In these sections of the book his textual and biographical arguments carry considerable power.

One author who presented praises to “Spenser” was “E.K.,” most of the monogram of E.C.O., Edwardus comes Oxoniensis, Oxford’s Latin initials. Mena argues he was Gabriel Harvey, “the only person who can be the patron and tutor of the boy Immerito.”  The latter’s respectful letters to Harvey support the speculation. But to have made the Calendar’s French translations, imitative or not, John Donne would be a boy wonder of six in 1578.  True, he was a prodigy and, interestingly, he experienced tragic family loss, that of his father when he was four, paralleling Oxford’s being orphaned at twelve.  Writing anything at age six seems hard to believe.

Harvey, in a later exchange with Nashe, made a set of three name puns that emphasize John Donne’s identity: “That is done cannot de facto be undone…how deservedly it is done.” Harvey also incorporated a blatant allusion to the boy “Immerito,” by reversing its Latin meaning, “undeservedly,” to the signal “deservedly.”

Mena drops the thread for a hundred pages before returning to Nashe and Harvey, at which time they are in conflict. Using extensive quotations from Nashe, he argues that Donne and Nashe are more than just allies in the 1590s battle for undefiled English. Not only are their prose styles Quintillian-like: “dense, convoluted, full of twisted logic:” They also bear an identical aesthetic: “dark, obscure, complex poetry,” though Nashe did not publish as a poet, only as a critic. Mena considers him Donne’s manqué, a proxy name to be used or discarded in future.

More credence for the Spenser-Donne identity claim stems from “Shakespeare’s” Henry V encounter between Fleullen and  MacMorris, who says in an Irish brogue: “tish ill done”––four times.  Ille is “he” in Latin, so the phrase can be construed to mean, “‘Tis he, Donne,” i.e., “Spenser,” the putative official in Ireland who somehow knew so much that went on in literary London.

Whether formed by Oxford or Harvey, the name cue, usually delivered in a triad quite characteristic of The Faerie Queene, tends to confirm stylistic similarity. The Donnean rhetorical qualities implicit in the epyllion mysteriously reappear in the theatrical nature of the later Donnean metaphysical language. The wonder inherent to poetry illuminates the opening range of hope that is theology. Nashe had said poetry is the most ancient of the expressions of belief. Religion can be considered a sister art to performance.

It is an arresting argument which I have attenuated in the interests of space, but which occupies much of the second part of the book. If it is to be a useful bona fide theory, then the biographical paths of Spenser the civil servant and Spenser/Donne the concealed writer somehow must diverge. And they do. In fact, Edmund Spenser is another shadowy figure in Elizabethan literature, just like Greene and Oxford himself.

Mena cites Conyears Read: “Outside of what Edmund Spenser himself wrote, all that is positively known about his life could probably be written in a few short paragraphs. The rest is inference, surmise, and conjecture.” Though reportedly given a small pension by Elizabeth, like Greene, he died penniless. This curious life story does not align with either the style or content of an artist who was central to courtly architectonic poetry. His funeral, fulsomely described as reverential, had a quality of external show matched only by the outpouring given Philip Sidney.

Clara Longworth de Chambrun:

On January 20, 1599, the poets gathered at the modest
house where their illustrious colleague lay dead.  They carried his
coffin in procession to Westminster Abbey near at hand, and deposited
it in the chapel reserved for famous men of letters.  His tomb was
placed next to that of Chaucer, and each poet with head inclined
dropped on it a symbolic scroll to which a quill was attached.

. . . .

The identity of the eight poets who carried [Spens]er’s coffin to
his burial in Westminster Abbey, is revealed by the historian, who was
an eye-witness of the ceremony. Camden, moreover, declares that they
are the most distinguished authors of his time, and those whom future
Sages will be compelled to admire: “Samuel Daniel, Hugh Holland,
Ben Jonson, Tho. Campion, Mich Drayton, George Chapman,
John Marston and William Shakespeare.

It is barely comprehensible that eight literary worthies might perpetrate such a hoax. All (including Campion) were associated with Oxford. But there was another event in the Elizabethan-Jacobean era that compares, the posthumous lamentations about William Shakspere of Stratford, contrived some years after his death on the occasion of the publication of the First Folio of Shakespeare plays.

By similar comparative linguistics, Mena argues that Donne utilized the name of Marlowe and Oxford the names of his followers, Greene and Daniel. The convenience of promiscuous literary identity never had such a heyday after the late 16th century until Benjamin Franklin bought a printing press in 1728. (The comments above are selective and do not cover the extensive body of inferential evidence assembled in the book.)

III

Historical analysis insists on more than literary alignments to climb the chain of evidence into rational acceptance. Peter Dickson, notoriously contemptuous of literary inference and its advocates, has suggested that literature is not “objective.” Paradoxically, art feigns more than fact can say. Is Donne as Spenser possible? Certainly. Plausible? Yes. Probable? The parallels leave us feeling persuaded. Beyond reasonable doubt? We do not have the luxury of an absolute position. The principals did not arrange things that way. The Latin phrase, Desunt caetera (the rest is lacking), may serve for a moral.  History’s contexts vanish as quickly as clouds across the valley. But we must respect the wider horizon Mena has seen and shown. It gains the more depth for wonder, perception, and study, which is exactly what theorea means, travel a distance and look back.

Mena argues that Donne utilized the name of Marlowe and Oxford the names of his followers, Greene and Daniel.

Finally, I would like to point out a couple of gold nuggets that Ver, begin provides.  First, Oxfordian readers get flummoxed with Sonnet 136, which italicizes and repeats the word Will three times and adds three more will’s for a total of six. Was it as simple as Will Shakspere, the true author, idiotically repeating his name? Stanley Wells said so, no doubt about it. But Aristotelian adepts would look to the three-count as beyond coincidence, and the six-count as playing on Number for a message, for instance, the sum of deux (two) and vier (four) to express a hidden author’s name instead.

Mena adds another reference possibility, the anonymous play The Marriage of Wit and Science. Wit asks his brother Will “if he would serve him in his goal of becoming a great poet.  When Will answers him affirmatively, Wit replies: “Nature is on my side, and Will my boy is fast [i.e., close by].” In explaining Sonnet 136, who can deny that metaphor is a prime engine of evocation, that the sonnet’s author has quoted an early self-reference when he declares he is Will?

In a companion anonymous play, The Marriage of Wit and Wisdom, Mena points out the line, “I am Ipse, he, even the very same!” Not only does this prefigure Touchstone’s monologue in As You Like It, it shows off Oxford’s self-signaling vocabulary. I is io in Italian, pronounced “E’O.” Ipse is himself in Latin. “Even” is close to “ever,” an anagram of Vere. “Very” is a near identity. And the commas evoke Oxford’s Latin name, conveying that he, comes, is “our friend” from Oxford. The exclamation point is an upside down “i”, indicating another i=io=E’O. It is to the author’s credit he found these anonymous plays and assimilated them to clarify the authorship issue.

Second, John Davies of Hereford wrote Epigram 159 to the playwright Shake-speare, “Our Terence,” an obviously mixed message since Terence was known as a front for others. The poem included the non sequitur, “Thou hadst been a companion for a King.” What could it mean? Mena found a play ostensibly by Greene, Farewell to Folly. “In the first story, Greene tells us of a king who had a companion, an Earl (Oxford’s rank), to whom the king asks what it meant to be a king.”  There followed a prose rendition of Oxford’s poem, “Were I a King I might command content.” Again, an allusion to the receptive ear identifies the subject and settles the mystery.

Highly recommended.

[Full disclosure. Ricardo Mena quoted an essay or two of mine, the gesture much appreciated. I had previously assumed that only my wife reads my work when there isn’t a NASCAR race on television.]