Read an Excerpt
Shakespeare's Lost Kingdom
Truth's Authentic Author
O God, Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story.
In Hamlet's dying appeal to his friend Horatio, it is difficult not to hear the voice of Shakespeare himself speaking to us across the centuries. Such is the urgency of his entreaty that we feel impelled to find out more about the author and his story — i.e., those things "standing thus unknown" — and to tell that story to the world. Only by discovering and telling the author's true story can we hope to heal his wounded name. In its own way, this book is an attempt to do just that.
It may be objected that Hamlet is merely a character in a play, one of dozens that Shakespeare created in the course of his life. Closer examination of the canon reveals that he appears in a variety of guises throughout the Shakespeare plays. Whether writing for Berowne, Romeo, Henry VI, Richard II, Prince Hal, Jaques, Brutus, Edgar, Vincentio, Antonio, Posthumus, or Prospero (to name but a dozen), Shakespeare is forever slipping into what Frank Harris described as "the Hamlet vein," thus confirming our suspicion that the author and the Prince of Denmark are one. This is not consciously contrived (indeed, it could be argued that it is an artistic fault), but is an inevitable expression of the author's individuality. In identifying with a given character Shakespeare reverts, quite naturally, to his own voice — the Hamlet voice.
Macbeth is a good example. So unlike Hamlet on the surface, he is a valiant and decisive general, whose sword in battle "smok[es] with bloody execution." Yet no one can deny that, as Shakespeare paints him, he is also the sensitive, melancholy, irresolute philosopher so familiar to us from the pages of Hamlet. As Harris tellingly observes: "Let us take the first appearance of Macbeth, and we are forced to remark at once that he acts and speaks exactly as Hamlet in like circumstances would act and speak. The honest but slow Banquo is amazed when Macbeth starts and seems to fear the fair promises of the witches; he does not see what the nimble Hamlet-intellect has seen in a flash — the dread means by which alone the promises can be brought to fulfilment." Even the Sonnets bear the stamp of Hamlet's personality.
Shakespeare's works derive much of their power from the curiously personal manner in which they speak to us, as vivid and subjective dramatizations of an individual struggle. In this regard they are unique in Elizabethan literature. Moreover, that struggle seems bound up with the question of the author's identity. Hamlet is one among a host of characters who must feign madness or assume a new identity in order to survive the rigours of the state. A prince by blood, he is prevented not only from inheriting the throne but from exercising any form of political power, turning instead to the theatre as a means of influencing the ruling elite.
Hamlet is no ordinary character. His sincerity and individuality are such that he seems to break free of his literary existence, coming before us with all the sudden drama of his appearance in Ophelia's closet. The vivid realism of his portrayal is startling even today; at the time it must have seemed a truly shocking innovation. More than any other Shakespearean hero, Hamlet steps outside the boundaries of the play to appeal directly to his audience, as if Shakespeare wishes to express more than the restrictions of his art will allow. Hamlet is not interested in convincing the other characters of the justice of his cause (indeed, with the exception of Horatio, we get the feeling he has given up on them): rather it is to us — to posterity — that he addresses himself.
In his desire to "catch the conscience" of King Claudius, Hamlet stages a play called The Mousetrap, depicting the murder of which his uncle is guilty. The play, then, is used to present an alternative version of history, one that so nettles Claudius and his chief minister that the latter stops the performance. Through this device Shakespeare alerts us to the use to which he puts his own plays. Hamlet itself is an Elizabethan Mousetrap designed to hold the mirror up to Shakespeare's queen, Elizabeth I. Through its tale of a disinherited prince asserting his royal right by means of the theatre, Shakespeare tells his own story. With this realization we find ourselves caught up in a political intrigue that seems to demand our participation even today. Suddenly the play becomes thrillingly real. Denmark is England, and we return to the theatre again and again to listen to the agonized promptings of a royal poet, as if aware on some dim level of consciousness that our history has been tampered with.
In putting on The Mousetrap before the King and Queen, Hamlet is opposing his truth and artistic vision to the political propaganda peddled by Denmark's chief minister, Polonius, whom Claudius dubs "the father of good news." In this he is doing more than redressing a personal wrong; he is rewriting history for the benefit of the nation. As the Ghost of his father points out, "the whole ear of Denmark" has been "rankly abus'd" by the official story put out by the government — namely that he, old King Hamlet, died by accident. Through drama Hamlet discloses the unrecorded history of his age; that is why he is able to describe the players as "the abstract and brief chronicles of the time."
Polonius is a ruthless spin doctor who sets himself the task of protecting the lie on which the new reign is founded. In him Shakespeare coined the political doublespeak that holds our modern-day culture in thrall: circuitous, guarded, uncommitted, and ultimately inconsequential. We hear it day in day out from politicians of every stripe; it is the tangled web spun forth from the belly of deceit. Let us not forget that in priming Reynaldo to spy on his son in Paris, Polonius says, "And there put on him what forgeries you please." This is not a man who respects the truth.
It is not enough to study the historical records as they've been handed down to us by the Poloniuses of this world, for they represent a skewed perspective — if not of a single man, then of a powerful family or faction. As George Orwell commented wryly, "History is written by the winners." Queen Elizabeth's chief minister and self-appointed historiographer, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who is widely recognized as the original of Polonius, and his son Robert Cecil, later Earl of Salisbury, are the men according to whose word Elizabethan history has been, and continues to be, shaped. The official records, which are often little more than propaganda, have to be studied in conjunction with the literature of the time. Together they are the warp and weft of the nation's story. It would be impossible to understand the history of the Soviet Union, to take a more recent example, by confining oneself to a study of the Kremlin records. A deeply distorted picture would emerge. To gain a less biased view of the age, one would have to read the dissident poets and novelists, such as Mandelstam, Akhmatova, Zabolotsky, Bulgakov, and Solzhenitsyn, for, like Shakespeare, their works reveal the hidden or missing story: history as written by the losers. If autocratic regimes have taught us one thing, it is that fiction is simply a deeper, more elaborate way of telling the truth.
Ultimately, Hamlet's petition to Horatio to tell his story is Shakespeare's injunction to play the play, for his story is embedded in the text. Polonius, of course, stops the play, as authoritarian governments have been doing for centuries. Powerless to combat the sincerity and magic of Hamlet's art with a valid message of his own, he censors it. If we can imagine Shakespeare in the same position vis-à-vis Lord Burghley and Elizabeth's government, then the plays are revealed as more than simple fictions: they become precious historical and political documents.
When serious and persistent doubts over the identity of Shakespeare began to appear in print in the mid-nineteenth century, the search was on for the man whose life and learning matched the high culture of the Shakespeare canon. The Victorians promoted Francis Bacon, who held the field for over sixty years. Baconians, as they are now called, were the first to realize the significance of the royal theme in Shakespeare, but their reliance on fantastically complex ciphers, as witness Minnesota congressman Ignatius Donnelly's The Great Cryptogram (1888), stretched credulity. Then, in November 1918, a sealed envelope was entrusted to Sir Frederick Kenyon, head librarian at the British Museum, by an English schoolmaster with the provocative name of J. Thomas Looney (1870–1944). Inside was a statement of his discovery of the true identity of the man who wrote under the pen name William Shakespeare.
Those who discover startling new truths, whether in science or letters, tend to be dismissed as mad by colleagues clinging to the old paradigm. It seems appropriate, therefore, that the man who eventually solved the Shakespeare authorship mystery should have borne the name of Looney. After all, it is the fools and madmen who are the truth-tellers in Shakespeare's plays.
Looney's thesis, which was the first attempt at an objective and logical quest for the author of the Shakespeare canon, was published by Cecil Palmer in 1920. Looney wasn't pursuing a hunch; he didn't have one. His faith in the traditional author had been shaken, and he decided to make a systematic search to discover the man behind the mask, whomever he might prove to be. Looney had been a bona fide Stratfordian all his life, teaching Shakespeare to grammar school children, and in the preface to his work confesses that he had a deep-rooted prejudice in favour of the Stratford man's authorship, which he found hard to abandon, even in the face of strong rational doubts.
As Looney relates it, successive years of reading The Merchant of Venice with his pupils induced in him "a peculiar sense of intimacy with the mind and disposition of its author and his outlook upon life," which he found at total variance with the life and career of the reputed playwright. For one thing, it was obvious to him that the author knew Venice like the back of his hand: not only the topography of the city-state, but its customs, culture, legal system, and linguistic idiosyncrasies. The Stratford man, on the other hand, had never left the shores of England. In the absence of contemporary documents relating to Shakespeare the man, Looney realized that the evidence gathered by his investigations would be circumstantial rather than documentary and that the Shakespeare works themselves would provide the most fundamental evidence as to the character, station, and mentality of the author.
Acting like a profiler in search of an unknown criminal, Looney's first step was to examine the works and draw up two sets of characteristics that the author evidently possessed, one general and one special. Totalling eighteen, they included the playwright's doubtful attitude toward women, his erudition, love of music, familiarity with Italy, feudal and court connections, Catholic sympathies, and improvidence in money matters. Looney also surmised that the author must have appeared eccentric and mysterious to contemporaries, as his secret Shakespearean life would not have been known to them. From the eighteen, Looney chose one predominant identifying characteristic: that the author was "a lyric poet of recognized talent." In particular he used as a key the stanza form employed by Shakespeare in his first published poem, Venus and Adonis. Combing through anthologies of the time, he found that the form — ABABCC — was less common than he had anticipated, and before long he was down to two candidates. One was anonymous; the other was a man Looney had never heard of: E. O., or Earle of Oxenforde, known to posterity as Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Next Looney reversed the process, working back from the man to the works to ascertain whether Oxford matched all eighteen characteristics, and thus whether the plays and poems could be reflections of his life experiences. To Looney's astonishment, this obscure nobleman with an illustrious name fitted the Shakespeare profile perfectly. Moreover, all the characteristics Looney listed had at one time or another been identified by scholars as important components of the author's life and psyche. The remarkable thing about Looney's approach, however, was that he was the first person to gather these characteristics, and out of them construct the skeleton of an actual man. For the first time Shakespeare appeared human.
Once Looney began to explore Oxford's biography in depth, the accumulation of apparent coincidences between events in his life and incidents described in the Shakespeare plays was rapid and impressive. But even more important was the fact that Oxford's early poetry provided Shakespeare with his missing juvenilia, and a sense of a whole body of work, with all its stylistic and emotional developments, emerged.
The anomalies between Shakespeare's life and art that had originally prompted Looney to take up his search disappeared when he substituted Oxford as author. Moreover, Oxford's own fractured life became complete and intelligible when his secret Shakespearean existence was revealed. While acknowledging his high poetic gifts and close connections with the theatre, historians had tended to dismiss Oxford as one who, because of his fickle head and violent temper, failed to live up to his early promise. After a brilliant start in the world of letters, he had lapsed into permanent obscurity. As the Victorian literary editor Alexander Grosart wrote, "An unlifted shadow lies across his memory."
Thus Looney's thesis solved the mystery not only of Shakespeare, but of Oxford as well.
Looney, who was ridiculed more for his name than his ideas, could soon count Sigmund Freud among the many adherents of his theory. Freud, who had been profoundly influenced by Shakespeare, now found the psychology of the plays illuminated by Oxford's life. Another convert, the novelist John Galsworthy, described Looney's book Shakespeare Identified as "the greatest detective story of all time." In telling Shakespeare's true story, Looney had rewritten history forever. As the poet and scholar Warren Hope puts it, "Looney's work renders a world figure a nonentity and transforms a forgotten courtier into a leading light of humanity's intellectual life."
Looney was correct in his belief that the plays and poems themselves are the best evidence for determining the authorship of the Shakespeare canon. An author's works are bound to constitute primary evidence of his preoccupations, both mental and emotional. Even if Shakespeare had not deliberately depicted his life story in his works to compensate for his enforced anonymity, his psychology — the peculiar law of his soul — would necessarily be revealed through his principal themes. This is true of any author, be it Homer or J. K. Rowling. The unconscious never lies: there is no hiding the landscape of the soul the moment the pen creates its trail of ink on parchment. All such trails, however convoluted, lead back to the truth.
Truth is an obsessive theme in Shakespeare. In Troilus and Cressida, Troilus is "truth's authentic author" and the phrase "as true as Troilus" will, we are told, both "crown and sanctify" the author's verse. Given that the Earl of Oxford's family name, Vere, meant "truth," the author's persistent assertion of his truth can be interpreted as an assertion of identity. Troilus even puns on Oxford's motto "Vero nihil verius" ("Nothing truer than truth"— or "a Vere") when he exclaims, "And what truth can speak truest, not truer than Troilus." If nothing else, this fixation on truth should convince us that in the works of Shakespeare we have a priceless dossier on the man himself. All the deepest secrets of his soul are there. "Alas!" cries Troilus of his addiction to truth, "it is my vice, my fault."
But Shakespeare's plays and poems reveal more than just the secret map of the author's soul, or his hidden identity; they are highly political documents — the concealed history of the time, no less — with the power to overturn the assumptions of centuries. The idea that the works contain political secrets might go a long way to explain the extraordinary silence surrounding the author, both during his lifetime and after, and thus shed light on why there is a Shakespeare authorship question at all.