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Hamlet’s Parallel Universe

April 20th, 2015 8 comments

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.

BranaghHamletMousetrap

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.

Martin Wiggins notes that Burbage had recently lost his father, and almost lost his father's business empire.

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?

SidneyPorcupine

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.

RobertDevereux2ndEarlofEssex

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”.

RogerManners5thEarlofRutland

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

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.

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 Shakespeare 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 Shakespeare.  Be prepared for people to ask, “Couldn’t they have known each other?” or “Wouldn’t Shakespeare 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