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Shakespeare’s True Face

March 14th, 2011 5 comments


Almost no one is pleased by Martin Droeshout’s engraving of our beloved “Star of Poets”.  Here’s the anonymous opinion of a writer for The Sun, reviewing Basil Brown’s Supposed Caricature of the Droeshout:

The abominable eidolon which appears in the First Folio, opposite BEN JONSON’S sly advice to the Reader to look rather upon the Booke than upon the picture, has been for nearly three hundred years the despair of everybody wondering what SHAKESPEARE’S physiognomy really was like. No human being ever even faintly resembled the Droeshout print. The face is as impossible as is the doublet of riveted boiler iron.  ~Feb. 23, 1911, The Sun

Much to be preferred would have been something more closely modeled on the movie-star handsome face in the Cobbe Portrait, or the immediately likable fellow teasing us with his ever-so-sweet-and-shy smile in the Sanders portrait.

Dream on, my friends.  Ben Jonson, who surely knew “The AVTHOR”, says this is our man:

TO THE READER:

This figure, that thou here seest put,

It was for gentle Shakespeare cut;

Wherein the Graver had a strife

with Nature, to out-doo the life:

O, could he but have drawne his wit

As well in brasse, as he hath hit

His face; the Print would then surpasse

All, that was ever writ in brasse.

But, since he cannot, Reader, looke

Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

Is Honest Ben playing with us?   As a shrewd observer of his own times, and passionate imbiber of classic and continental literature, he’s our best contemporary witness to what the real “Shakespeare”  – whoever you believe that may be – looked like, inside and out.   After all, these two enormous poetic egos haunted the same London taverns and bookstalls.  They wrote their comedies and tragedies for the same actors.  Both were born poets, as well as “made”.

In the 1590s, both collaborated with that irrepressible satirist, Thomas Nashe.  And both knew Francis Langley, lord of the manor of Paris Garden and owner of the magnificent Swan Theater.  But there was one significant difference in each man’s recorded acquaintance with this pugnacious entrepreneur.  William Shakespeare and his side-kick Langley were never arrested for their threats of bodily harm to William Wayte in 1596.  A year later, however, Ben Jonson went to prison for his part in writing the disastrous Isle of Dogs, which played at Langley’s Swan. Soon after, the Poetomachia began, during which Shakespeare gave Jonson that famous, if elusive, literary purge.

No doubt about it, Ben knew our Author, and had reason to envy, and even resent him.  When he assures us that the figure we see gracing Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies was “cut” for “gentle Shakespeare”, he speaks from a uniquely privileged position.  We sense that he expects posterity will know this, and thus take him at his word.  With a poetic genius of Jonson’s caliber, however, taking him “at his word” requires us to enter his own peculiar labyrinth of associative language.

Just as we do today, Jacobean followers of Jonson’s irreverent parodies would have sifted his contribution to the First Folio for the inevitable left-handed compliment to the master.  For example, why, in such a short piece of verse, does Jonson use the word “brass” twice?  As I’ve learned by following one of the most brilliant Oxfordian researchers we have, by the time the word “brass” works its way through Jonson’s literary digestive tract, he’s wholly transformed its surface connotations.

Since 2002, Nicole Doyle has been sharing her insights into the mysteries of the Droeshout engraving –  from its mismatched eyes to its “impossible doublet” –  with members of the late Robert Brazil’s Elizaforum.  By placing these visual puzzles alongside Jonson’s words, both in the poems he wrote for Shakespeare in 1623 and where he’s used them in other works, she has shown – persuasively, in my view – that Jonson intended the reader to “read” Droeshout’s disproportionate engraving as an emblem of  Shakespeare’s deformed literary “manners”.

For Oxfordians, this means that Droeshout wasn’t hired to cut a mockery of “the Stratford Man”.   His model – and Jonson’s target – was “The AVTHOR”, whom Jonson belatedly embraces as “his beloved” for this grand occasion.  What we are seeing in this iconic emblem isn’t Edward de Vere as he saw himself in the mirror, or the achingly human and noble being he made of himself in his art, but Edward de Vere through Ben Jonson’s eyes: sans Right, sans Romance, sans Idolatry.

Most likely, Martin Droeshout began his task with an image already in existence, as the British Museum’s website explains:

An engraving is not worked directly from life, but from a flat model, either a painting or a drawing. Droeshout must have been given a painting or drawing of Shakespeare as a young man, from which to engrave his plate.

Since Oxfordians do possess the advantage of a painting or two of our “Shakespeare as a young man” – one when he was twenty-four or so, and the other from when he was in his early thirties – we can readily compare these relatively honest (if not flattering) images of Edward de Vere with the First Folio’s satiric cartoon.  Here they are, left and right profile, side by side with Droeshout’s engraving:








.

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After viewing the Welbeck Portrait (top, right) in 1920, J. T. Looney suggested that:

…a very strong case might be made out for Droeshout having worked from this portrait, of Edward de Vere, making modifications according to instructions.

(Appendix II of Shakespeare Identified).

What do you think?

~Marie Merkel


To the Reader.
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut,
Wherein the Graver had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life :
O, could he but have drawne his wit
As well in brasse, as he hath hit
His face ; the Print would then surpasse
All, that was ever writ in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his Picture, but his Booke.

James Shapiro’s “Consequential Choice”

January 23rd, 2011 6 comments

Dante’s praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher… Emerson

Here’s the problem with William Shakespeare in a nutshell: his expense of poetic spirit went into writing not his own, but the earl of Oxford’s life in colossal cipher.  What a shameful waste!  Why couldn’t he have chosen someone more universally admired and democratic, such as Philip Sidney?

This right here and nothing else, is the seismic fault that caused James Shapiro to write a book called Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? According to Shapiro, folks weren’t doing autobiography back in those days, at least not on stage.  But what he finds most disheartening about the persistent claim that someone else used Shakespeare’s name to surreptitiously write about what he knew best (i.e., himself) is that this “diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination.”

Like many other active Stratfordians, James Shapiro has clearly signaled his dislike of our Edward.  What he can’t see because it so palpably terrifies him, is that Shakespeare himself put Lord Oxford into his plays.  J. Thomas Looney sure didn’t put him there.  There would be no authorship question if Will hadn’t used his exceptional imagination to bring forth the Elizabethan world through all five senses of Sidney’s insolent and haughty foe, Edward de Vere. As Ben Jonson – who truly honored Philip Sidney’s memory this side idolatry – mischievously observed in his poem to “my beloved Master William Shakespeare”:

Leave thee alone for the comparison
Of all that insolent Greece or haughty Rome
Sent forth, or since did from their ashes come.

Just as he began his book with a deceptive title, Shapiro ends by offering his readers a false choice.  And he asks us to base our choice, not on the conclusions of his scholarly research, but on our private beliefs about the Bard’s thoughts and abilities:

We can believe that Shakespeare himself thought that poets could give to “airy nothing” a “local habitation and a name.”  Or we can conclude that this “airy nothing” turns out to be a disguised something that needs to be decoded, and that Shakespeare couldn’t imagine “the forms of things unknown” without having experienced it firsthand.  It’s a stark and consequential choice.”

Is that true?  Shakespeare couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time?  And at this particular time, when all of literate London thrilled to the sport of encoding or decoding the cunning and subversive parallels of Lyly, Spenser, Marston, Jonson and the anonymous author of Willobie his Avisa?  None of his plays were eagerly nibbled to shreds by Nashe’s “legion of mice-eyed decipherers”?  The brash creator of Sir John Oldcastle (oops, make that ‘Falstaff’, says Will) simply refused to play the game?    How dull, stale and unprofitable such a decision would have been!

The Shakespeare that Shapiro believes in plays it straight.  You may have noticed that the professor seems mighty uncomfortable with disguised somethings that need to be decoded – he’s like an intelligencer adrift behind enemy lines, with no cipher wheel in his pocket or “alphabet” lodged by his heart.  So he chooses to valorize imagination over and above the artistic intelligence required to create ever-living dramas that make sense both superficially and when translated as risqué commentary on the times.  We needn’t follow Shapiro’s stark and silly example, of course.  Proof that the Bard could strut and blow bubbles at the same time shows up even in his earliest published play, Titus Andronicus.

The best survey I’ve read of traditional scholarship on the political allegory in Titus Andronicus comes from Lisa Hopkins, in The Cultural Uses of the Caesars on the English Renaissance Stage (2008). Her first chapter, “Reformation and Deformation” is a superb summary of the play’s topical allusions and potential for pro-Catholic interpretations.  My recent article, “Titus Andronicus and the Treasonous House of Howard” (The Oxfordian, Vol. 12) adds a new discovery to these insightful attempts to decode the play.  Through a close reading of the thirty-one lines assigned to Marcus Andronicus at his first entrance, I have shown, through ten strong correspondences, (nine of them from one document) that Thomas Howard, 2nd duke of Norfolk was the author’s model for the battle-weary Titus in the play’s opening scene.

With this key to the main character’s initial historical context now in the public domain, other readers should be able to make the same discoveries that I recorded in the 652 pages of The First Mousetrap – that is, if you dare.  A proven link to the Tudor crown’s most powerful Brit­ish rivals—the  “poor remainder” of the massacred House of Howard— will lead you inexorably towards a singular guiding spirit behind this very personal revenge drama.  “Shakespeare” – now in quotes, you’ll notice, because Wm. of Stratford could never have gotten away with writing so cunningly about the Queen’s dangerous cousins – “Shakespeare” most certainly was a poet who gave voice to the intense memories of wrongs done to the Howard and de Vere families.  And he must have been someone with powerful connections to both the ruling elite and the under­ground Catholic resistance.

In Titus Andronicus, “Shakespeare” has left us a penetrating biography of little Lord Bulbeck’s childhood, with poignant imaginings of how the earl’s father and his noble Aunt Frances would have remembered Henry VIII, Protector Somerset, Thomas Seymour, Henry Howard, the poet earl of Surrey and his beheaded Howard cousins, Queen Anne and Queen Catherine, Henry Fitzroy and Mary Howard, (the duke and duchess of Richmond), Mary Tudor, Robert Aske and Joan Jockey.  They are all in there; if you ask me, I can show you where and tell you why.

No one, not James Shapiro, or David Kathman, or Terry Ross, or Tom Reedy, or Stanley Wells, or Jonathan Bate or a whole legion of blinkered SHAKSPEReans, can take this mirror of Edward de Vere’s childhood out of “Shakespeare’s” canon.

Academic Response to ‘Anonymous’

November 27th, 2010 No comments


In his Oct. 29 post, “Academic Response to Anonymous”, Hardy Cook, editor of SHAKSPER: The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference,  faced the looming crisis of Roland Emmerich’s Oxford-as-Shakespeare film (scheduled for release in September of 2011) by soliciting advice from members:

…how will we as responsible scholars and academics respond to and address the issues that will arise from the premier of this film.

A few days later, in a post offering “Evidence of Authorship ” he restated his query to include the subject of Emmerich’s film, Edward de Vere:

…my original query was concerned with ways to address those who might ask about authorship and in particular de Vere after seeing the film Anonymous when it is released

I especially liked Tom Reedy’s “No More Sneers” advice, and Dave Evett’s sensible caution against presumptions regarding “evidence”. On Nov. 17, I also sent Hardy Cook some thoughts on the matter, but since he didn’t include my response in what appears to have been his last digest on the thread, I’ve taken the opportunity to revise and upgrade my submission for posting here, with links and images.

~*~*~*~*~

Dear Hardy Cook,

It seems to me that most of your respondents reacted against the main issue that will arise from viewing Emmerich’s film (namely, the authorship question) in general, and against the ways in which the case for Oxford has been presented in particular.  My response is more on the nut-n-bolts level of strategic preparation.  In order to anticipate how Emmerich’s story will pique the public’s curiosity, it seemed to me that you might want to have a better idea of what “Anonymous” will actually be about.  A few suggestions:


1) READ THE WORKS THAT INSPIRED THE SCRIPT: In 2004, I had the opportunity to read John Orloff’s original script, which told an imaginative “insider’s story” of the Elizabethan theatre world from the triple perspective of Ben Jonson, William Shakspere and the earl of Oxford.  The script opened from a “Sons of Ben” perspective with the closing of the theaters in 1642, five years after Jonson’s death in 1637, before diving into the bitter rivalries that accompanied the tail end of the Elizabethan era and Oxford’s life.  From what I recall, Orloff’s version of “William” seemed inspired in part by Alden Brooks, who saw him as the frippery-of-wit writer, play-broker and all-around knave that Ben Jonson excoriated in his epitaph “On Poet-Ape” (see “The Dyer’s Hand”, 1943,  and Charles Wisner Barrell’s review, “A King of Shreds and Patches“).

If you take the time to follow Brooks’ reading of the various legends, pamphlets, plays and poems upon which he builds this reprehensible image, you’ll find the essence of his “Wm. Shakspere of Stratford” in the scurrilous character of “Captain Tucca“, who appears in Jonson’s “Poetaster” and in the Marston-Dekker reply, “Satiromastix“.  Scholars long ago identified other characters from these “Poet’s War” plays as lampoons on Marston, Dekker, Weever and Jonson, but no one has yet found a real-life counterpart for Tucca.

If, indeed, Emmerich gives us a Brooks’ inspired play-broker/pander/showman as his take on “William Shakespeare”, the best answer to questions on this portrayal might be to suggest a reading of these plays, along with “The Dyer’s Hand” and more recent (albeit less imaginative) studies of the Poetomachia, such as James Shapiro’s Rival Playwrights, and Shakespeare and the Poet’s War by James Bednarz.

2) READ UP ON THE HISTORY COVERED BY THE MOVIE: We know for certain that Emmerich has chosen the Essex Rebellion and the fateful staging of Richard II by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, for the catastrophe of his narrative.  Students and the general public may see a version of these events that highlights Shakespeare’s play as a provocative transgression – one that should have been severely punished but wasn’t. Be ready for the inevitable question, “Why not?”  With a dispassionate and respectful approach, the Essex Rebellion of “Anonymous” could provide a marvelous teaching opportunity, and a perfect launch into “Henry V”, “Julius Caesar” and “Troilus & Cressida“.

3) KNOW THE BASIC FACTS OF OXFORD’S BIOGRAPHY: Emmerich’s film will show the well-connected earl of Oxford walking about the streets of London as a patron, poet and direct contemporary of William Shakspere.  Be prepared for people to ask, “Couldn’t they have known each other?” or “Wouldn’t Shakspere at least be very aware of the earl, maybe even curious about him?”  Whatever the claims that others have made in his behalf, Edward Oxenford did, indeed, serve as patron to writers and playing companies, and had direct connections, whether through blood, enmity or patronage,  to major and minor literary figures of the day: Henry Howard, Arthur Golding, Philip Sidney, John Lyly, Gabriel Harvey, Thomas Nashe, etc.


Reportedly, Emmerich will present Oxford as a royal bastard with an identity crisis, along the lines of Charles Beauclerk’s study of an alienated poetic psyche, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom. You should know that Oxford was regarded as illegitimate by his half-sister Katherine, who soon after their father’s death brought a case against him that would have stripped him of his name and inheritance.  On record, we have Charles Arundel’s witness of Oxford’s fury “that the Queen said he was a bastard for which cause he would never love her, and leave her in the lurch one day.”

Finally, I suggest that you portray the movie as Opportunity rather than Disaster.  Ridicule – of the film, of the authorship question, of Oxford himself – may seem to your students like a nervous defense against a devil you don’t dare look in the face.  The way I see it, anything you can say that will send your seeker back to The Bard’s ever-living poetry, with confidence in his or her own ability to discern the truth, may turn out to be a kindness long remembered.     ~Marie Merkel