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The Ass Made Proud

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom: The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth
By Charles Beauclerk
Grove Press, 2010

We must not be abrupt; we must not be rash. We must not let our collective impatience prompt us to intellectual arrogance or the petty tyrannies of certainty. We must remind ourselves, when our tempers are fraying and we’re feeling trapped in a repeating loop, that there are no autograph copies, no letters, no video sequences. No matter how much we might wish it to be otherwise, we must remember: there is room for doubt.

So we brace ourselves and take on Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom by Charles Beauclerk, a book whose subtitle, The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth, artfully evokes that third name you just know is coming, the third name that destroys any possibility this book might be about, say, the portrayal of kingship rights in Shakespeare’s early works, or the politics of royal arts patronage under Elizabeth.

The third name is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, and this is a book on the much-vexed Shakespearean authorship question, and we must not be rash. Beauclerk claims descent from the earl (so we will not be getting the brief for Francis Bacon), and those of us who’ve made a study of the Bard will already be familiar with his name, since a much younger version of the man makes an appearance in Samuel Schoenbaum’s magisterial (but, apparently, ineffectual) rebuttal to any and all Shakespearean pretenders, Shakespeare’s Lives, where he’s referred to as “the youthful Charles Francis Topham de Vere Beauclerk, a collateral descendant.”

Beauclerk has spent decades writing articles, giving lectures, and presumably researching his period, and Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom is the result, a formidably learned and surprisingly enjoyable full-fledged assault on the literary ascendancy of the Man from Stratford. Ordinarily, anti-Stratfordian tomes are marathons of teeth-gritting minutiae marshaled in the place of either inductive or deductive reasoning. There are exceptions (2005’s “Shakespeare” By Another Name by Mark Anderson being foremost among them, a genuinely important work to which Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom owes quite a bit), but by and large they’ve seldom managed to find their right praise and true perfection. Instead, they tend to cackle like geese, and the only reason we pay them mind is because we must not be abrupt. We must guard against being small-minded. We must keep discussing the subject, until – and not before – a copy of “Hamlet” turns up written in Shakespeare’s own hand.

Or written in somebody else’s own hand, more to the point. The essence of the whole Shakespearean authorship question is that such an autograph of “Hamlet” won’t be in Shakespeare’s hand because the corn-factor and malt-broker, the loan-shark and land-holder from Stratford, could not possibly have written “Hamlet” and all those other works of immortal drama and comedy. For anti-Statfordians, there is always a Jekyll-and-Hyde partitioning of personae going on, as Beauclerk summarizes quite well:

If we separate the two Shakespeares – the citizen of Stratford and the man who emerges from the works – the incongruity between them is clear. On the one hand, we have a successful man of business who, beginning life as a glover’s son and butcher’s apprentice, made a small fortune out of real estate, play broking, shareholding, and dealing in bagged commodities. He bought the second biggest house in his native Stratford, to which he retired before the age of forty. When, several years after his death, a monument was erected to his memory in the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford, it depicted him holding a sack of wool or grain, the quill being an eighteenth-century addition. His strongly mercenary and uncharitable nature is well attested; he was guilty, among other things, of hoarding grain in times of famine and charging a visiting preacher for the wine he served him. This wholly conventional man is the author bequeathed to us by history, or, more properly speaking, legend. On the other hand, there is the man who stems from a study of the themes, prejudices, outlook, and philosophy of the works themselves. This is the cultured, well-traveled aristocrat, whose fluent wit and easy erudition are reflected in the facetious exchanges of his court characters with their puns and multilingual jokes, and whose contempt for money and the social ambitions incident to it is everywhere apparent.

This will be familiar stuff to anybody even remotely conversant in the whole who-wrote-Shakespeare debate, and Beauclerk’s book is as vigorous and intelligent an addition to that debate as anybody could want. The problem is that it reaches too far, as all anti-Stratfordian tracts do. More on that later.

At one point early in his book, Beauclerk makes a deceptively simple illustration, and we might think about it instead of rushing to the security of our foregone conclusions. He tells us that if we picked any other comparable large body of complex work – say the complete poems and plays of Dryden, or the vast corpus of Samuel Johnson – and then posited a writer analogous to what we know of William Shakespeare, we would see immediately the absurdity of the thing. The plays attributed to Shakespeare display enormous wit and scholarship, far more than any comfortable extrapolation could give to a middle-class country bumpkin who spent so much of his personal time suing his neighbors for shillings. Beauclerk’s point isn’t snobbery – he isn’t saying a malt-brewer from Stratford couldn’t get a good basic educational grounding, nor even that such a man could be a fierce autodidact (he’s not, in other words, ruling out the existence of a Marlowe, or a Jonson). What he’ saying is simple and (at least at the beginning) irrefutable: the sheer amount of specialized learning and epitomized world-experience in Shakespeare’s plays is not just vast but extraordinarily so.

The basic articulation of his point is this: lacking any autographed copies, it’s a much, much greater leap to attribute those plays to somebody like William Shakespeare than it is to attribute them to somebody else. If you do as Beauclerk asks, if you divest your estimate of all tradition and received opinion and simply match the works to the man, if you pretend for a moment that there is no contemporary evidence that seems to link a man named William Shakespeare to the works we know under his name, the matter couldn’t really be much clearer. As Mark Twain pointed out a century ago, there’s no evidence the man from Stratford ever read a book, much less owned one – and there’s much evidence of posthumous tampering with his reputation. Occam’s Razor leaves the man from Stratford in ribbons.

If the anti-Stratfordians – if any anti-Stratfordian – stopped right there, they would stand on firm ground. If they stopped right there, all they’d have to explain are a few apparent factual discrepancies, if that (the dates traditionally given for some dozen plays, for instance, fall after the death-date of the Earl of Oxford). But they never stop right there.

Beauclerk certainly doesn’t. His mental exercise is perfectly telling: if we were told that a pipe-fitter’s son with a grammar school education and some rental properties to his name was also the author of the collected works of Lionel Trilling – if we were told to believe it simply on the basis of tradition and a few scraps of ambiguous corroboration (did Trilling once mention pipe-fitting in an essay? Or perhaps a contemporary satirist made a jeer about an author ‘trilling’ a new song?), we would quite rightly refuse. We would say, “Look, I’m not a snob, but the plain fact is, that guy couldn’t have written the works in question … he didn’t know any of the matter involved, didn’t speak or read any of the languages quoted, hadn’t – and couldn’t – read any of the hundreds of books quoted and paraphrased, hadn’t met any of the people or the kind of people described, and most importantly, hadn’t achieved the breadth of mind that a lifetime of rigorous scholarship – and world citizenship – can impart.” And we’d be right to say it. Beauclerk says it, and he’s quite convincing. The problem is, he says a lot more.

“Just as it is an axiom of psychoanalysis that what we deny in ourselves drives our lives, so with Shakespeare what remains unsaid becomes the motive power behind his corpus,” he writes, seemingly unaware of how meanly the whole thing can be turned around on himself. “Any Mozart is bound to have at least one Salieri hovering in the wings,” he tells us, and though he appears to be deaf to the irony, we certainly are not: the jealous, scheming Salieri is a fictional creation (created by a playwright, irony of ironies) who became obsessed with destroying his more famous contemporary. Beauclerk would have been well-advised to seek a different illustration.

He tells us that his ancestor was born the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth by Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour in the autumn of 1548, a “royal changeling” who was whisked off into the care and disposition of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who foisted the infant on John de Vere to raise as his son. The son grows up embittered and disaffected not only by his mother’s Virgin Queen façade but also by the connected fact that he himself will never inherit the kingdom that is rightly his. He channels this disaffection into his plays (Beauclerk rightly points out just how many of them deal with displaced identities and thwarted royal ambitions) – and into his sonnets, especially those to the Fair Youth, here identified by Beauclerk as Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton … Edward de Vere’s son! In this scheme, then, we have a veritable hidden Tudor dynasty, and all of it is in plain sight, according to Beauclerk, if one only has eyes to see:
The language of the Sonnets, in stark contrast to the plays, has been deliberately restricted. Nearly all the words are key words that reverberate with great connotative depth as they fashion a private symbolic world, designed to keep the royal mysteries of which they treat veiled from prying eyes. Yet the right people could understand them if they put their minds to it.

That allusion to ‘the right people’ is of course supremely troubling, but the main problem with Beauclerk’s book isn’t elitism (although given the man’s pedigree, some of that could scarcely be avoided), it’s severely disassociated delusional hysteria. Edward de Vere, the illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth? Southampton, the illegitimate son of Oxford? And as a warm-up act, Anne Boleyn, the illegitimate daughter of Henry VIII, thus Elizabeth’s half-sister as well as her mother? If you wanted to draw a blueprint of the type of contentions that cause the literary establishment to mock all anti-Stratfordians – if you want an illustration of the kind of weird, wild thinking that could draw forth a response as sustainedly furious as Schoenbaum’s Shakesepeare’s Lives, this is exactly how you would go about it.

Once Beauclerk describes his scheme, he sees it everywhere. Some of this forensic filling-in, a good deal of it, actually, makes for invigoratingly thought-provoking re-readings of the plays, especially the historical dramas. As ironical as it might seem to say it, Beauclerk is a first-rate and sensitive reader of Shakespeare, but his acumen is hampered by ideological zeal, and it causes him to smile knowingly at phantoms. For example, after telling us that Lord Burghley died in 1598, Beauclerk assures us that Oxford buried himself even deeper in his ‘Shakespeare’ persona, but:

Richard Barnefield smuggled this eulogy into The Encomium of Lady Pecunia (1598), with the usual puns on Oxford’s family name, Vere (emphasis mine):

And Shakespeare then, whose honey-flowing vain
(Pleasing the world) thy praises doth obtain,
Whose Venus and whose Lucrece (sweet and chaste)
Thy name in fame’s immortal book have plac’d.
Live ever thou, at least in fame live ever.
Well may the body die, but fame dies never.

Even the most sympathetic audience won’t know whether to laugh or weep at those added emphases. I’ve read Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom twice now, and I still don’t know.

Beauclerk calls the plays “a priceless dossier of the man himself,” and, like all anti-Stratfordians before him, he makes use of Robert Greene’s comment in his 1591 Farewell to Folly:

Others, if they come to write or publish anything in print, which for their calling and gravity being loath to have any profane pamphlet pass under their hand, get some other to set his name to their verses. Thus is the ass made proud by this underhand broker.

The ‘some other’ here is the man from Stratford, drafted with the winking collusion of every stagehand, actor, manager, fellow (and rival) playwright, statesman, and sovereign in the land – the biggest open secret in the history of the world. Beauclerk’s serenity rests on Elizabeth’s tyranny: all of these people high and low kept this open charade going because they knew the key figure was the Queen’s bastard son, and so they likewise knew any overt revelation of theirs would sign their own death warrant.

“Elizabeth did not so much brainwash her courtiers in the matter of her sexuality as they brainwashed themselves,” the author tells us, trying to explain how the whole process worked. “This is not to say they did not realize the truth; rather, they saw with parted eye, for their livelihoods depended on maintaining the official truth.”

And where the mighty were fearful, the powerless were joyful, exulting in the favor shown to such a darling boy of England. Beauclerk finds the evidence everywhere and reads it all one way:

But why should Oxford have been so popular [with the common people, in the 1570s], unless it was at least suspected that he was the queen’s son? After all, there were many charismatic noblemen at the court of Elizabeth. Or maybe Oxford was already famous for mounting public spectacles, such as the mock battle he helped stage at Warwick Castle in 1572.

Those ‘or maybe’s are lethal to his entire enterprise, although he appears not to know it, or care. Yes, what reason could the common people have had to cheer Oxford, other than their suspicion that he was the Queen’s son? Unless, that is, they cheered him because he staged lavish free spectacles for their amusement. In which case that might be why they cheered him. You have to feel a certain admiration for an anti-Stratfordian who’s so unwilling to outright suppress contradictory evidence, but it’s an admiration tinged with pity.

“Shakespeare’s plays are his surrogate kingdom,” Beauclerk asserts:

created by way of compensation for the political kingdom he lost through bastardy, incest, political machination, and the official virginity of his royal mother. Yet even this second kingdom, created not only to assert his royal right but to redeem the sovereignty of the nation, was threatened by the same forces that opposed his dynastic ambitions.

Those dynastic ambitions are shared by the Cecil family – especially Sir William, Lord Burghley, who agrees to further Oxford’s interests (and keep his secrets), in exchange for the privilege of marrying his family into the ‘royal’ line, in this case by betrothing Oxford to his daughter Anne Cecil, who was only 14 in 1571 when the plighting took place. This scenario is extremely intriguing to contemplate, and it isn’t entirely wrong-headed. Cecil, after all, had a history of backing the right horse, as it were; he’d professed his loyalty to Elizabeth long before she had the crown, and in a scheme like the one Beauclerk imagines, he might have thought to repeat that luck, to have his own family perfectly placed when her own mortality forced the aging queen to reveal Oxford’s true heritage to the court and the world.

Intriguing as it is, however, the flaw in all of it is that it’s historical fiction, not fact. “Throughout his life,” Beauclerk rightly tells us, “no one knew quite how to treat Oxford. He was alternately deified and demonized, as one would expect of a hidden prince, whose presence promised a bright new future – and blew a hole in his mother’s carefully crafted myth.” But that life was turbulent even by Elizabethan standards; the man’s uneven personality might easily have earned him those conflicting reactions from the people who dealt with him, and besides, how many of them were in on the secret? The implication here is chastisingly sloppy: instead of one massive secret that virtually everyone in London was conspiring to keep – that ‘Shakespeare’ was really Oxford – Beauclerk gives us that and a second – that Oxford, who was really Shakespeare, was known by everybody in London to be the queen’s bastard. And all of it is offered without a scrap of evidence, not a hint in any of the voluminous records we have of Elizabethan and Jacobean times – and with the usual anti-Stratfordian double-dealing of the knowing wink and the sly assurance that of course there would be no written evidence. It can be maddening, especially since Beauclerk is capable of some very good reading between the historical lines. For instance, I’d read many times about the queen’s near-fatal attack of smallpox early in her reign, but until I read this book, I hadn’t thought through the interesting implication Beauclerk finds in it all:

In October 1562, at the age of twenty-nine, Elizabeth almost died of smallpox. In her delirium, with her councilors crowded round her bed, she named Robert Dudley as lord protector, an office that would have made sense only if the heir to the throne was a minor – in which case Dudley might conceivably have been appointed to govern until the lad reached his majority – or if Elizabeth intended to create a republic. If Elizabeth had died, the meaning of her extraordinary appointment would doubtless have been called into question; but as she survived, no one, even today, seems to have thought to ask for whom Dudley was supposed to be protector. After all, her heir under the will of her father, Katherine Grey, was alive and well, and with a healthy son of her own, Edward Seymour.

What did Elizabeth have in mind, then, naming Dudley as lord protector? Did she consider her own long, successful female rule sui generis and therefore assume the young Edward Seymour would come next and need a guardian at court? Or are the records ambiguous, and did she only mean to name Dudley chief of the privy council until the succession could be worked out? We don’t know, but Beauclerk’s suppositions are thought-provoking. Unfortunately, for every time he sheds light by stripping away some assumptions, there are other times where he dims his whole picture by burying it in assumptions. We know almost nothing of the boyhood of this earl of Oxford (ironically, it’s as blank as Shakespeare’s, except that, given Oxford’s social standing, it’s far more likely to have been filled with travel, time at court, and advanced language-training than was that of a stage-door horse-handler in London), so we certainly don’t know any of the things Beauclerk so confidently tells us, in this and many other such passages:

[as a boy] Edward probably spent more time up at [the de Vere ancestral estate] Hedlingham visiting his foster father … He would have enjoyed fooling around with his father’s actors, the Earl of Oxford’s Men (the de Veres had kept players since 1492), who, when they weren’t traveling, put on plays before their lord and lady. Edward was being bought up as an only child under the care of a rigorous mentor, who was in touch with some of the most exciting minds of the time, and literature and the theater quickly became his [Edward’s, presumably] refuge and delight. Through them he was able to orient himself to the world, and imagine a role for himself that was in keeping with the power and daring of his imagination.

And the overreaching doesn’t stop there. For Beauclerk, it isn’t enough that Oxford grew up to write the plays we attribute to Shakespeare; a talent so bright must have manifested much earlier. Our author’s attentions are drawn to the boy’s dour tutor, Arthur Golding, the famous translator or Ovid’s Metamorphoses – or was he:
There is nothing in Golding’s life or philosophy to suggest even remotely that he would or could bridge the gulf in style and outlook between Calvin and Ovid. Even the Renaissance mind could not imagine two such strange bedfellows.

The way to disentangle those bedfellows? Tell us Oxford wrote Golding’s celebrated 1565 translation of Ovid, and tap-dance as quickly as you can to explain why this credit-hungry tutor would let somebody else – even a noble somebody, even a royal somebody – take the bow for it on the title page. Try not even to mention the rather noticeable difference in quality between the ‘two’ authors.

Ultimately, we must dismiss Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom as just another botched example of anti-Stratfordian mania, albeit a far more intellectually adept one than most. We are not, in the end, rash to do so – the central, overriding flaw of the thing leaves us no choice. The flaw, appropriately, is Shakespearean: dissatisfaction with the terrain within reach, striving too high, leaping beyond hazard. Somebody wrote the plays of Shakespeare, and it will always seem supremely unlikely that it was Shakespeare himself, lacking education, travel, training, and expertise – but as long as this is the best his opponents can do, his bones will remain unmoved.

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Garrett Handley is a graduate student in the Film Studies program at Northeastern University.