William Shakespeare may be “lost in the mists of time”… but Hamlet seems to be ever-living. As a character, he has an uncanny number of parallels with the documented life of Edward Oxenford. Therefore, as long as scholars maintain that William of Stratford wrote Hamlet, other scholars will be asking why the earl has such an overbearing presence in Shakespeare’s greatest work.
Is this really true? That’s me speaking, by the way, circulating my tempered version of a standard Oxfordian claim. Twice in the last three months, I’ve made this assertion in public, and both times I’ve attracted rapid-fire response from scholars who beg to differ. Just last week, Tom Reedy (in the comments section of the Press Telegram) shot back:
I can tell, however, that you don’t know the biographical parallels to the life of James I, Essex, Rutland and Derby that are found in Hamlet, some of which are closer and more abundant that those of Oxford…
Is this really true? A quick survey turns up some intriguing mirrors and allusions (see the links below), some new and some that I’d long forgotten I knew. But are they closer, and more abundant than the parallels to Hamlet claimed for Oxford? Hmmm… How does Tom know this, I wonder? Has someone, somewhere, tabulated these things, a la Diana Price?
If so, I wish that list had come up in the “Parallel Universe” discussion I had with Michael Dobson during his 6-week Hamlet MOOC (massive open online course) this past February. Michael’s immediate response to my Hamlet-parallels-to-Oxford comments echoes Tom Reedy’s:
The category of people with things in common with Hamlet extends well beyond the Earl of Oxford, even if one were to mistake the play for an autobiography.
A few days later, to counter my persistent dragging of a “dead earl” into the picture, he went even further:
…it would be possible to find parallels to almost anyone somewhere in the text of Hamlet if that’s what one wanted to do.
Now surely this statement is truer than true! True, but utterly useless. Shakespeare’s creations continually invite us to wonder and speculate on their glorious specificity. Sensing the inherent weakness of Prof. Dobson’s stance, and even better, the opportunity he’d opened for testing my own assumptions, I countered with a challenge:
I haven’t drawn up my own list of the many parallels – of situation, of temperament, or of plain biographical documented fact – between Hamlet and Oxford, but will happily do so and match them against whatever figure(s) of the times you care to propose, including Richard Burbage. It would be an excellent exercise in critical thinking.
While he didn’t accept my invitation per se, for some reason, over the next few weeks the professor kept answering everything I wrote, so I kept writing, offering more parallels, or responding to his objections with more documentary support for previously cited parallels. Most of his “shoot downs” were superficial dismissals, but one day Michael actually said Something Really Useful:
…if someone kept buttonholing you and asking whether it wasn’t perfectly obvious that Hamlet was all about Philip Sidney – why it even mentions the porcupine, his family crest! he had a powerful uncle! he died of an infected wound! – you’d surely assume that they had a distorting obsession with Philip Sidney that was preventing them from seeing the play, wouldn’t you?
Bingo! That one hit home. Did I have a distorting obsession with Oxford that was preventing me from seeing Philip’s presence in Hamlet? Immediately, I picked up my Variorum edition of the play, and turned to a passage that another student had recently mentioned, (“whilst this machine is to him”) which for some reason had called to mind Oxford’s lifelong foil and Fulke Greville’s hero, Philip Sidney. A day later, after much reading and searching of Sidney’s poems and prose, I found out why – and when I shared one part of my “aha!” moment with Michael, he was gracious enough to admit he found it “truly interesting”. For me, there’s a sweet-n-sour comfort in realizing that both of us may have missed a fascinating allusion by shutting Sidney out of our Shakespearean sights.
Must the establishment of true believers – and by believers I mean those who accept William of Stratford as Shakespeare as well as those who choose Oxford – ignore the evidence of parallels and/or allusions in the text of Hamlet to Essex or Rutland, King James, Derby or Sidney, to protect their candidate? Absent the pressure of authorship contentions, earlier scholars allowed a much wider lens to the author’s hawking eye.
That’s the way I propose to look at Tom Reedy’s four candidates (plus Sidney) for “closer and more abundant” parallels with Hamlet: as if there were no Shakespeare Authorship Question. Shakespeare will simply be Shakespeare, sans quotes or hyphens. For the purpose of this investigation, he’s the author of the Hamlet text we find published in three separate editions: 1603, 1604 and 1623.
Since the play unfolds in time, building on each prior scene, the approach I’ll adopt is to begin with Act 1 scene 1, and examine all proposed allusions or parallels within that scene before proceeding to the next. Each proposed example will require a supporting document. Evaluation will include comparison with Shakespeare’s sources, Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest, along with other relevant analogues to highlight either the differences or similarities to one or more of these sources.
In my next post, I’ll start with The Ghost. If you’d like to participate, please join the Facebook group “Hamlet’s Parallel Universe”.
James VI and Hamlet : Lillian Winstanley, Hamlet and the Scottish Succession, 1921
Essex and Hamlet in David Bevington, Murder Most Foul: Hamlet Through the Ages, 2011
Rutland and Hamlet: Ilya M. Gililov, “For Whom the Bell Tolled” in Russian Essays on Shakespeare, 1998
Derby and Hamlet: John M. Rollett, William Stanley as Shakespeare: Evidence of Authorship by the Sixth Earl of Derby, 2015
Sidney and Hamlet: George Russell French, Shakespearana Genealogica, 1869