Some time ago, I put up a post about Professor Graham Holderness, a Shakespearean scholar who, at a seminar, made a comment that seemed to imply that the Earl of Oxford's biography is reflected in Shakespeare's plays.
Oxfordians like myself made much of this. But today I received an email from Prof. Holderness, which I gather he is circulating to all interested parties, and which he gave me permission to make public. In his statement, he disavows any belief that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare.
The statement is long, but in fairness I think I should quote all of it. (Ellipses are in the original.)
The Road to Oxford
Graham HoldernessNearly twenty years ago I launched, together with my colleague Bryan Loughrey, a series of Shakespeare Quarto texts under the title Shakespearean Originals. The texts were presented in an unusual way, and claims were made for them that seemed, at the time, quite radical. But they were essentially just the same old Quartos that everyone had known about since the 16th century ...
A couple of journalists got the idea that these texts were hitherto unknown and newly discovered: mouldy books dug up from Shakespeare’s grave perhaps, or crumbling texts located by some Professor Robert Langdon in the Vatican archives. The consequent publicity was both extensive and embarrassing. I remember feeling, as I sat down in front of my Amstrad, ready to put the record straight, a distinct sense of impending deflation. After all, here beckoned celebrity, here was the clarion-call of fame, here was Indiana Jones’s ‘fortune and glory’, just within my grasp. Did it matter that it was all based on inaccurate and unsustainable claims that we’d never even made? You just can’t buy publicity like that ...
So I proceeded to set out the banal truth, that there is nothing new under the sun. I’m not aware that it did me any good, though I certainly learned that all is vanity and vexation of spirit. So what to do when another opportunity for fame, another shot at fortune and glory, presents itself? I was informed by various internet sources that during the ‘Rowe to Shapiro’ conference at Shakespeare’s Globe, a light flashed around me, and I fell to the ground, and blurted out that the true author of Shakespeare’s plays was: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Headlines can’t lie: ‘Holderness: Shakespeare’s biography is that of the earl of Oxford’, blogs Roger Stritmatter. And here is Julia Cleave of the Shakespearean Authorship Trust:
From an Oxfordian point of view, most startling of all was the declaration made by Professor Graham Holderness, University of Herefordshire (sic). In the middle of a discussion re the questionable facticity of tales of deer-poaching, calf-killing and horse-holding, he stated baldly - without further comment:
If you were to construct a biography which ticked all the boxes - if you were to read Shakespeare’s plays and infer a biography from it - it wouldn’t be Rowe’s, it would actually be the Earl of Oxford’s.
Clearly the earth moved for somebody. The comments flow thick and fast: ‘The very foundation of Stratfordian biography is on the verge of breaking apart’. The centre cannot hold. ‘The quote from Holderness is a swinging gate through which Oxfordians ought to immediately drive their full coach and horses’.
One of the great things about conversion narratives is that your pre-conversion life gets revised until it precisely parallels your new one. St Paul was never so zealous a persecutor of Christians as he appeared, retrospectively, to be, after he had became one himself. In the same way, it wasn’t until I blindly stumbled upon the road to Oxford that I became quite so definitively ‘a major Shakespearean scholar’ of ‘considerable reputation and standing’: indeed ‘one of the foremost "orthodox" Shakespeare scholars in the world’.
Now before I was suspected of falling out of the Oxfordian closet, no-one ever called me ‘major’ or ‘foremost’, and certainly not ‘orthodox’. I sort of like it in a way. Could I have this all the time, I think to myself, if I just keep dropping suggestive pericopes into the conversation? Could I really retain this reputation as ‘one of the foremost orthodox Shakespeare scholars in the world’, if I just occasionally blurted out mysterious soundbites on the Shakespeare Authorship Question: ‘I’m an Oxford man, you know’; or ‘I’m only here for de Vere’.
Tempting as it is, I’m going to have to pass. My eyesight is a lot better now, and though in my temporary visual impairment things might have appeared brighter, much more shiny and new, the hard grey light of another common day gives light enough to read the truth by:
‘My name is Graham Holderness, and my position on the Shakespeare Authorship Question is that I am interested in reasonable doubt, but not in alternative certainty’.
I don’t think Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays and poems. I wouldn’t especially care if he did, or if the real author was proven to be a wandering Kentish tinker, or Queen Elizabeth I, or the Pope. I don’t have any strong personal investment in ‘the Stratfordian hypothesis’, but it does seem to me a reasonable one. Of course there are lacunae, and doubts and questions about ‘the man from Stratford’ (who is not in these circles permitted even to enjoy his own name). But they are nothing compared with the lacunae and doubts and questions that would apply to any other candidature. There may well be ‘reasonable doubt’ about Shakespeare. But how much reasonable doubt would one have to countenance to explain that someone else wrote those works? How much historical evidence would we have to dispel, how many conspiracy theories would we have to swallow?
Nicholas Rowe’s 1709 biography of Shakespeare, whose tercentenary was celebrated at the Globe conference, depicts Shakespeare as a young man from a peasant farming and agricultural trading background; who received little formal education; worked in his father’s business; got into trouble with a local landowner by poaching deer from his estate; fled from Stratford, and turned up outside a theatre in London seeking work as a ‘serviture’. Rowe’s biography has been widely regarded as inaccurate and fanciful, but recent scholarship has offered to revise this view, demonstrating that Rowe’s narrative is historically sourced, independently corroborated and not in itself improbable.
Of course this raises issues for Stratfordians, since it depicts a life of some deprivation that seems unlikely to have flourished into that of the world’s greatest dramatist. Biographers of Shakespeare have looked for better explanations, scenarios that put the author of the plays into an environment of literacy and learning, and provide him with access to the cultural and entertainment industries, to the worlds of aristocratic patronage and court favour.
Anti-Stratfordians would rather believe Rowe, since it is their contention that the subject of his biography could not possibly have been the man who wrote the works: quod erat demonstrandum. The more authentic and credible Rowe becomes, the less likely it is that this Stratford man is the true author.
I think, with René Weis and the late Eric Sams, that Rowe should be trusted. His historical sources were sound and verifiable; his claims are corroborated by other early traditions; and most importantly, there is nothing in his account that should seem in any way improbable as a life of the author of the plays of William Shakespeare. A young man from a trading family in a provincial town, who acquired there a rich and varied education in both life and learning, who worked in his father’s business, ran wild and got into trouble, left home and entered the theatre as a menial, became an actor and then a writer. None of that seems incredible to me. To assert, as Oxfordians invariably assert, that only an aristocrat could have mastered such learning, acquired such favour and displayed such genius is surely to underestimate the lower orders, and to overestimate the upper class. Let’s list on our fingers all the great writers produced by the British hereditary aristocracy ... all right, then, just use one hand ...
Now it is true that the facts of the Shakespeare life as depicted in Rowe do not necessarily quite match up with the works. It would be very odd if they did, since the works are dramatic poems in which every word is spoken by a character on stage, and no space at all is provided for confessional material (would the same were true of modern literature). Even the Sonnets are not as clearly autobiographical as they have often been received. But for me the problem lies deeper than this. In this blogging, twittering world we have lost all sense of any relationship between the self and writing that does not invest heavily in autobiographical narcissism and the refraction of personal experience. We have no equipment for tracing the complex and subtle connectivities between the self and more impersonal forms of writing. Shakespeare might have become an actor, as in Jorge Luis Borges’ great story ‘Everyone and No-one’, because he had no sense of identity at all; and he may have written so many lives, because he never felt that he had lived even one.
And so if you tried to infer a life from Shakespeare’s works you might not, it is true, arrive at the man from Stratford. But that is not because he did not write them: but because the relationship between the life and the works is far more complex and devious than you imagine, and may consist in discrepancy and discontinuity rather than in coherence. You might think that some other life-story would fit the works better: the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or the Holy Roman Emperor. But you would be whistling in the dark, because these works will never give up the identity of their author in anything like so definitive a way.
Insofar as Shakespeare Authorship inquiry is interested in pursuing these profound questions about life and writing, the self and identity, personal expression and impersonal artistry (and I know that some authorship doubters are interested in such matters), then there is common ground for debate. Insofar as such inquiries are obsessively concerned to lobby for alternative candidates, and to discredit ‘the man from Stratford’, there really won’t be all that much to talk about.