Prologue to a Tour de Farce
The Festival Robe has been quiet. It is time to advance the argument once again, and to apply new critical methods, to new data. Our journey will take us into a relatively uncharted corner of the Shakespeare authorship question; the 100 year period from the mid 18th century into the 19th century when the Baconians emerged on the scene. My method is to find a bare thread or two of the topic, and pull on it to see where it leads.
The work here is built upon a foundation supplied by the Rambler in his masterful blog, Quake-speare Shorterly. Someone has actually counted the volume of information on QS, it runs to approx 2500 pages (or more.) Every page is worth reading. The Rambler has more recently moved behind the arras where he continues to educate his private friends with the same prolific output.
Rambler’s QS is devoted most exclusively to illuminating the who of the authorship question. The Festival Robe attempts to complement that question with a look at how and why. I believe there is no satisfying argument to be made to the general public that does not address all three parts.
The story so far.
The literary allusions and allegories uncovered consistently point to a single solution for the origin of the Shake-speare name. The author assumed the name of his page/servant, who was Will Shaksper of Stratford. My sense is their relationship had three stages; the young Shaksper as page to the banished noble, traveling the countryside with their troupe of players. This is alluded to in both Jonson’s The New Inn where the disguised lord recounts his time with his assistant Fly as a “fellow gypsy,” and in Chapman’s The Gentleman Usher where Mendice (Shaksper) recounts his youth with gypsies and that he had the “love of a great prince.” Phase two of their relationship was the working, theatrical years of 1586-1597. Here Shaksper is the assistant helping the master. He’s quartermaster Fly to Vere’s Goodstock in Jonson’s The New Inn. He’s also Captain Face to Vere’s Dr. Subtle in Jonson’s The Alchemist. The final phase, after the break-up, we find Shaksper is William to Vere’s Touchstone in As You Like It, and Osric/Braggart Gentleman to Vere’s Hamlet in Hamlet. In both instances, the Shaksper character is no longer a servant, and is told to put on his hat, appropriate to his new, higher station. The contempt of the author for his former servant/assistant is palpable in both scenes.
The reference to the story I want to keep front and center is from Thomas Nashe’ The Unfortunate Traveler. There the page, and narrator of the book, Jack Wilton, trades places with his master, the Earl of Surrey. They travel to Italy together and engage in much adventure. Here’s Nashe on the identity swap.
By pretending to be his own page, the earl “meant to take more libertie of behavior.” That’s our story in nutshell. The Unfortunate Traveler is a historical novel set in the time of Henry VIII. The earl of Surrey was Vere’s uncle, and the inventor of the Shakespearean sonnet form. It is accepted by scholars that the characters in the novel represent later personages from Nashe’s time. Surrey stands for Vere, both earl/poets with a love for things Italian. The page, Jack Wilton is Will Shaksper. There is support for Shaksper as page to the author’s wit on the monument in Stratford upon Avon which closes the phrase, “..but page to serve his wit.”
A Stratfordian Pillar
A central argument in the Edmondson and Wells edited volume, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, is that authorship skepticism originates with Delia Bacon in the mid 19th century. There’s a brief discussion about an alleged skeptic, a Warwickshire clergyman named James Wilmot, supposedly having heretical, skeptical thoughts in 1785. Wells and Edmundson summon James Shapiro to dismiss those claims. The Stratfordian pillar is that the authorship question began with Delia Bacon, and Delia Bacon was crazy, so do the math, the skeptics must be crazy too. The converse of the orthodox argument is to show that there was a consistent thread of authorship question across time. To demonstrate that evidence is to destroy a central pillar of Edmundson & Wells’ thesis. Yes, we’re going to take that pillar down in “high style.”
My Monastery for a Thread
The topic of authorship pre-1850 is not virgin territory. Our starting point here is the work of Chuck Berney, who published three articles in Shakespeare Matters on allusions to Vere in Sir Walter Scott’s novels of the early 19th century. Berney’s third article, in the Fall 2004 issue, discussed the character of Sir Percie Shafton in Scott’s The Monastery. Berney’s work implied that Scott knew not only that Vere was the author of Shakespeare, but that he was familiar with details of Vere’s life. When I read The Monastery, I did it through the lens of allusion and word play that Rambler has provided. What is startling is that features of Vere/Shakespeare that Rambler had identified were contained in the Scott’s Percie Shafton character. An example is presumptuousness. A search of Quake-speare Shorterly will find many examples of characters who Rambler has identified as standing for Vere who were noted for their presumptuousness. In The Monastery, Scott’s picture of Shafton’s presumptuousness is loud and clear.
There’s another facet to Scott’s Monastery that stands out when read through Rambler’s glasses (if i may borrow Adm Holland’s trope). Scott relies heavily on the Vere as tailor/weaver allusion/allegory that runs through so much of what Rambler has discussed. Shafton’s ancestry as a tailor is the secret he tries to keep, and a tailor’s bodkin is his undoing. Rambler has discussed Robert Armin’s The Italian Taylor and the Boy, and before him Penny McCarthy cites that book as one containing authorship allusions. (The Festival Robe’s previous posts on Italian Taylor are here.) Was Scott drawing from Armin? Here’s where things get interesting. Armin’s Italian Taylor was printed in 1610, it was reprinted on its 200th anniversary 1810, in Scott’s era! Why was Armin’s book reprinted in 1810? Who was the audience for this book? Was that audience interested in allegories and allusions contained in Italian Taylor?
The question of Sir Walter Scott’s interest in Shakespeare authorship, and his depiction of Vere as a tailor, and the contemporary re-printing of Armin’s Italian Taylor is a thread to be pulled on. And so I did.
Googling Sir Walter Scott and Shakespeare turns up an interesting entry in his journal from March 2, 1827.
It seems that in a play in 1827, the question is asked “Who wrote Shakespeare?” And one answer to the joke is “Sir Walter Scott.” It would seem that authorship as a topic was alive and well, and a topic of humor on the London stage long before Delia Bacon. In the next installment of this Tour de Farce series, we’ll begin an in-depth examination of the play in which this joke was told, “High Life Below Stairs.” The farce was originally staged in 1759.