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A Matter of Small Consequence

Shakespeare Authorship Web Page Gets Mud on Authorship Controversy

by Dr. Roger Stritmatter

One healthy sign of the growing impact of Oxfordian studies, both within the humanities in higher education and the broader Anglo-American intelligentsia, is the recently established “Shakespeare Authorship Page” (SAP), founded by David Kathman and Terry Ross, to combat Oxfordians in cyberspace. Mark Anderson (Valley Advocate, April 1996) recently characterized the authorship controversy as “a form of erudite mud wrestling”, and for those who like to get wet and slosh around in the muck, Kathman and Ross will be inviting all comers. But instead of putting the best Stratfordian foot forward, the SAP page actually documents that these two authorship newcomers can’t pass their own test for scholarly accuracy — a test which Ross trumpets as providing decisive proof of Oxfordian dependency on “phony evidence” without which “nothing is left of Oxfordianism.” This startling statement is provoked by the handling of a pair of related quotations from the anonymous Elizabethan work of literary criticism, The Arte of English Poesie (1589) in recent treatments of the authorship controversy.

Often ascribed to Richard or George Puttenham, attributed by B.M. Ward (1928) to Oxford’s friend and confidante John Lumley, and more recently by Purdue scholar Andrew Hannas to Thomas Sackville, the anonymous Arte is the most sophisticated work of literary criticism of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The two disputed quotations are as follows:

I know very many noble Gentlemen in the court that have written commendably well and suppressed it agayne, or else suffered it to be publisht without their own names to it: as if it were a discredit for a Gentlemen to seem learned, and to shew him selfe amorous of any good art (Book I, Of Poets and Poesie: Chapter 8, emphasis added).

Somewhat later in chapter 31 of the Booke I, the author makes the following intriguing repetition, with variation, of the first quote, this time naming some of the authors whose works have been published under false names or suppressed:

And in her maiesties time that now is are sprong up an other crew of Courtly makers Noble men and Gentlemen of her Maiesties own servaunts, who have written excellently well as it would appeare if their doings could be found out and made publicke with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman, Edward Earle of Oxford. Thomas Lord Buckhurst, when he was young, Henry Lord Paget, Sir Phillip Sidney, Sir Walter Rawleigh, Master Edward Dyer, Maister Fulke Greville, Gascon, Britton, Turberville, and many other learned Gentlemen, whose names I do not omit for envie, but to avoyde tediousness …(Book I, Chapter 31, emphasis added).

The recent handling of these two quotes in the 1989 Frontline documentary on Oxford and on the SOS Home Page has provoked the intemperate on-line attack on “Oxfordians” to which the present article responds. On Frontline, when producer and narrator Al Austin is seen reading the quotes from The Arte, they are conflated; that is, the reference to Oxford in the second quote is attached directly to the first so that the result reads “[Oxford was one of those] who suffered his work to be publisht without [his] own name to it.” A variation of this quote with the same implication also appeared in the FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) section of the SOS Web Page.

For their part, Frontline has responded to Ross’s accusation of misuse of quotation, and to avoid the need to waste further precious space defending “Oxfordians” against specious accusations, the SOS Home Page has been altered to more completely represent the original content and context of the quotations. However, Mr. Ross is splitting proverbial hairs in his critique of what may at worst be termed a minor error in representational judgement which (contrary to Mr. Ross’s repeated claims) is neither typical of Oxfordian treatment of the quotation in question nor, in itself, a significant issue in the authorship controversy. Yet, based on this trifling methodological objection, Ross unashamedly attempts to indict “Oxfordian research” in toto of deliberate and willful misrepresentation of facts in general. Indeed, Ross subtitles his web article on this matter “And Why It Matters?” The answer, opines Ross, that it matters because the case in question is a typical instance of Oxfordian manufacture of “phony evidence” a “carelessness which seems to be a part of [their] methodology,” and similar allegations. In the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy according to Terry Ross, “Oxfordians have concocted out of these isolated references [in The Arte of English Poesie] an entire romance in which Oxford, fearing that his works will prove dangerous, invents a pseudonym ‘William Shakespeare’ to protect himself.”

Of course, however, the Oxfordians never did any such thing. Indeed, Mr. Ross has invented his Oxfordian straw men out of the shreds and patches of the Frontline show and the SOS Web page, apparently without bothering to turn the pages of a single standard reference on the subject. If he had done his homework before posting his conclusions for the edification of several million web browsers, Mr. Ross would have learned that none of the following Oxfordian authorities cite the disputed quotations in the manner he alleges: Looney, “Shakespeare” Identified (1920); Barrell, Shakespeare’s Own Secret Drama, The Shakespeare Fellowship Newsletter (Dec. 1941); Amphlett, Who Was Shakespeare? (1955);Clarke, Hidden Allusions (1974 ed.); Charlton Ogburn Jr, The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984), Whalen, Shakespeare: Who Was He? (1992), Klier, Dass Shakespeare Komplott (1993), or even Bethell’s brief summary of the Oxfordian position in The Atlantic Monthly (Oct. 1991) or Justice Stevens’ Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction (University of Pennsylvania Law Review, April 1992). None of these sources conflate the two quotes in the manner done on Frontline. And yet, declares Terry Ross, “this is the way Puttenham is usually cited by Oxfordians.”

Whether Mr. Ross actually did fail to consult these authoritative and standard Oxfordian sources, or merely found it expedient to suppress the truth in constructing his Oxfordian “straw man” out of a single “mistake” found in two recent sources remains unclear. All too evidently, Ross has set out to “debunk” the case for Oxford’s authorship of the “Shakespeare” canon rather than debate it, and his handling of the quotations from The Arte is a clear indication of a willful intent to mislead where rational argument fails to sustain Stratfordian presumption. How could any self-respecting scholar write “this is the way Puttenham is usually cited by Oxfordians” while knowing that none of the above sources do cite the quotation as he claims?

The Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction

When Justice Stevens, in his Shakespeare Canon of Statutory Construction warns that authorship students should be on guard against “comments manufactured by staff members who were unable to persuade legislators to conform the statutory text to their client’s interests (Stevens, 1992: 1374), he has in mind Msrs. Ross and Kathman’s web page. To understand just how these two newcomers to the authorship debate have been led astray by their own contempt for their opponents, we should return to the original fount of the Oxfordian theory, J. Thomas Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified (1920), Looney asserted that the authorship question …is not, strictly speaking, a literary problem –but a historical one (Looney, Miller ed. 1975, p. 71: emphasis added)…

…It is in the nature of historical inquiry that when a theory that we have formed from a consideration of certain facts, leads us to suppose that certain other facts will exist, the later discovery that these facts are actually in accordance with our inference becomes a much stronger confirmation of our theory than if we had known these additional facts at the outset. The manner, therefore, in which facts and ideas have been arrived at becomes in itself an important element in the evidence… (Looney Miller ed., p. 5: emphasis added)

In keeping with this principle about corroboratory facts which may exist, but which can only be discovered and brought to light pursuant to a theory’s original articulation, the full relevance of The Arte to de Vere’s alleged authorship of the Shakespeare canon was not set forth until 1941 (twenty-one years after Looney’s book was published) by his able colleague, Charles Wisner Barrell! In his Shakespeare Fellowship Newsletter article (Shakespeare’s Own Secret Drama), Barrell first brought forward both quotations from The Arte, along with quotes from Meres’s Palladis Tamia (1598), Webbe’s Discourse of Englishe Poetry (1586), Henry Peacham’s The Compleat Gentleman (1622) and Robert Greene’s Farewell to Folly (1591). Based on the evidence of these publications, Barrell argued…

These statements undoubtably provide the best contemporary explanation of a further significant circumstance with respect to Lord Oxford’s fitness for the role of the real “William Shakespeare”. For while it is undeniably true that the literary peer was looked upon by many as the leading Elizabethan poet and dramatist of his day, no volume of verse, and not so much as a single line of dramatic writing bearing his name, title or initials has ever been discovered (Barrell: 1941. p.5).

Therefore, concluded Barrell, these testimonies could only mean one thing:

“if Oxford’s serious literary work survives, it does so under a name other than his own” (ibid, p.5).

Thus Barrell advanced the argument of Oxford’s 16th century reputation as a covert writer for the first time in the history of the authorship controversy. In doing so, he provided a new corroboratory dimension to the case for Oxford’s authorship –but in keeping with Looney’s original provision about the corroboratory significance of evidence discovered pursuant to his original investigation, it must be clearly kept on record that the case originally depended on materials of an entirely different nature and character. Mr. Ross’s attempt to falsify this reality while delivering a gratuitous lecture on methods to the Oxfordians would be laughable were it not also such a tragic verification of the fundamentally ideological character of the Stratfordian premise. To Mr. Ross, “without the phony quotation in Puttenham, there is absolutely no case for Oxford.” But since the case never did, and never will, depend on the “Puttenham quote”, all Ross has done is to expose the rotteness at the core of Stratford for all to see.

Love’s Labours Refound

Now, let us also examine why, contrary to Mr. Ross, the conflation of the two quotations, even if a doubtful move rhetorically, does not, in point of fact, alter their essential meaning. The original reference to The Arte on the SOS Hompage’s FAQ (now amended to avoid any ambiguities) stated that

The anonymous Arte of Englishe Poesie (1589) writes that Oxford was among several gentlemen at Elizabeth’s court who “suffered [works] to be published without their own names to it.”

Like any aspiring spin doctor, Mr. Ross knows when to apply a strict constructionist argument and when to play fast and loose with relevant contextual evidence to defend a tired instutional patron (after all, there’s no conclusive evidence that cigarettes cause lung cancer, is there?). Accordingly Ross rejoins that “Oxford’s name does not even appear in the chapter quoted here.” My, my…not even in the chapter! Aren’t the Oxfordians sneaky, deceitful, and “unscholarly”?

Well, no, not really. On the contrary, it is a reasonable conclusion (as Barrell first considered 55 years ago) that those individuals who are first said (without being named) to have “suffered works to be publisht without their own names to it” are the same persons later described –and now named– who have “written excellently well, as it would appear if their doings could be found out and made publicke with the rest”. What is the difference, after all, between “suffering” a work to be “publisht without [one’s ] own name to it” and writing “excellently well….if [one’s] doings could be found out and made public with all the rest”? They are, obviously, parallel constructions; one passage names the persons (or some of them, at least); the other does not. The quotations appear in different short sections (not, strictly speaking, really “chapters”), of the same Book of a work of criticism which is itself, let’s not forget, anonymous. Indeed, so close is the intimacy in form and meaning between the two passages that the esteemed bibliographer Edward Arber, editor of the Transcript of the Stationer’s Register and other primary research tools in Renaissance literature and historiography, in his introductory essay (p. 5) to the 1869 edition of The Arte of English Poesie, places them alongside one another as correlative expressions of the anonymous author’s “chiding” criticism of the condition of author’s in and about Elizabeth’s court –thus becoming the first “Oxfordian” to sense a connection between the two passages.

Of course, Mr. Ross will have none of this. He goes so far, in fact, as to place a peculiar spin on the meaning of the author’s phrase “if their doings could be found out and made public with the rest, of which number is first that noble gentleman Edward, Earl of Oxford….” According to Terry Ross, Oxford is first on a list of “those whose poetry is known under their own names” — not the first of those who have written excellently well “as it would appear if their doings could be found out”. It is true that the syntactical antecedent of the phrase “of which number” can be either “the rest” (Ross’s reading) or “those “who have written excellently well as it would appeare if their doings could be found out” (the so-called “Oxfordian” reading).

And the grammatical ambiguity is compounded by the curious textual matter of the period following Oxford’s name, which appears to be misplaced (since it turns the subsequent sentence into a fragment without a main verb). But that is very far from justifying the scornful tone of Mr. Ross’s sarcastic substitution of an ad hominum (“if Oxfordians would actually read Puttenham, they would see that he says something very different”) for a reasoned defense of why his reading is better than the other. On the face of it, either reading is possible.

Note: Andy Hannas’ article’s ‘The Rest’ is Not Silence focuses exclusively on this issue of how to read “with the rest”.

Canons of Criticism

In choosing between the two alternative readings of “with the rest” we might wish to consult the advice of Justice John Paul Steven’s second canon, to “read the whole statute. ” This means, if you can’t determine the best meaning of a given expression from the local context, you must widen the range of reference. The meaning of “the whole Statute” is –as Supreme Court Justices are wont to be about such matters–intentionally vague. One discovers its boundaries not by theoretical fiat, but in relation to the problem at hand, widening the search by degrees. In our case, the first option is to read the entire Arte of English Poesie, to see if we can discover other passages which inflect the probable interpretation of the disputed section. The most obvious choice, to which further validating context might be supplied from a thorough consideration of the rhetorical and material aspects of the book, is of course the previously mentioned passage of Book I, Chapter 8 in which the author acknowledges knowing “very many notable gentlemen that have written commendably well and suppressed it agayne, or else suffered it to be publisht without their own names to it” (37). Whatever the reasons for these actions –and Mr. Ross would have us believe that these shy poets were merely doing their best to avoid appearing as common “nerds” in a court without any respect for culture– the passage underscores that the political pitfalls of authorship is at the heart of The Arte of English Poesie. Only one material point distinguishes Ross’s interpretative position from that of the Oxfordians whom he assails for writing things they did not write about a book written by an anonymous writer: The Oxfordians have alleged that the author of The Arte names the writers who suppressed or published with pseudonyms. Mr. Ross says that he does not. From the Oxfordian point of view, the distinction is far less consequential than Mr. Ross assumes; in fact, I would argue that it verges on the immaterial: if the author did intend to name Oxford as one of those “very many” writers who published works under names other than their own, then that is a minor point in favor of the Oxfordian Paradigm. If, instead, Mr. Ross is correct that the writer merely intends to emphasize by repetition the significant role of anonymous or pseudonymous publication in shaping the literary culture of late Tudor culture, then that is, actually, a far more telling and significant corroboration of Looney’s initial insight, since it suggests that the scenario envisioned by the Oxfordians may have been followed by more than one Elizabethan courtier and may indeed have been a common strategy for avoiding direct confrontation with censoring authorities.

That de Vere’s works were among those “suppressed” during the decade of the 1580’s we have secure testimony from a source independent of The Arte: as Ogburn (386; 633) and other Oxfordian scholars have pointed out, the Desiderata Curiousa records Francis Peck’s intent to publish “a pleasant conceit of Vere, Earl of Oxford, discontented at the rising of a mean gentleman in the English Court, circa. 1580.” As Ogburn observes, the “mean gentleman” must have been Christopher Hatton, and the “device” a comedy not unlike Twelfth Night, which pummels De Vere’s enemy Hatton in the character of Olivia’s vain and bumbling steward (Hatton was the captain of Elizabeth’s guard), Malvolio. It is hardly beside the point, then, that both the author of The Arte (1589) and Francis Meres (1598) report Oxford’s excellence as a writer of comedies — none of which, notwithstanding Terry Ross’s attempts to wriggle out of the implication, have come down to us under his name.

Context the Magic Key to Faithful Interpretation

That Mr. Ross appears entirely incapable of comprehending such textual and contextual matters does not bode well for the continued involved of SAP in an authorship dialogue which is rapidly approaching lift off for a theoretical stratosphere beyond Stratford.

Mr. Ross is a consistent and habitual violator of several of Justice Steven’s canons. In fact, he seems not to have read anything on the authorship controversy beyond the SOS Home Page and the Frontline documentary. He routinely makes allegations unsupported by factual evidence or reason –and when the factual evidence is available for contrast, it often fails to support his allegations. While offering his own flawed, or at best plausible but largely irrelevant interpretations of The Arte of English Poesie he has an irritating habit of lecturing the Oxfordians to abide standards of accuracy which he consistently violates. Sadly, then, there’s nothing new in what Ross and his partner David Kathman are doing. Like their mentors, but with less grace and honesty, they seek to prevail by disparaging the Oxfordians with things they have not written while ignoring the things that they have written.

When O.J. Campbell at last reviewed the 1st edition of Shakespeare Identified (Harper’s Magazine, July 1940), Looney accused him of setting forth the case…

…so flimsily, even grotesquely, that hardly anyone but an imbecile would believe in it if it rested on nothing more substantial…This is the kind of argumentation one associates with political manuevering rather than a serious quest for the truth on great issues and it makes one suspect that [Campbell] is not very easy in his own mind about the case.” (Looney, Shakespeare Fellowship Newsletter, Dec. 1940)(emphasis added)

The Spanish Philosopher Santayana used to define fanaticism as “redoubling your efforts when you have forgotten where you are going.” The Shakespeare Authorship Page, authored by Terry Ross and David Kathman, is an illustration of how far Stratfordians have come since 1948.

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