Note: From time to time, I put up a post on the Shakespeare authorship controversy. I realize this subject is of little interest to most of this blog's readers, but I continue to be stubbornly intrigued by it.
Years ago I wrote a brief essay on William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, as a possible candidate for the authorship of the Shakespearean canon. Since then I’d largely forgotten about old Stanley, having become more interested in today's leading candidate, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. But a newly released book, William Stanley as Shakespeare, by John M. Rollett, got me musing on Stanley again.
This is not the place for a detailed recapitulation of the standard arguments used by dissenters (like me) as to why William Shaksper of Stratford is unlikely to be the true author of the original works. Those who are interested can find my short essay on the subject here, or my various blog posts here, or they can read John Michell's Who Wrote Shakespeare? or many other books. Suffice it to say that the erudition, multilingualism, detailed knowledge of European locales, insider's knowledge of affairs at court, obsession with lineage and the "blood royal," contempt for commoners, familiarity with aristocratic pursuits like hawking, and willingness to address controversial topics that got ordinary writers imprisoned or tortured – all combine to negate Shaksper as the author, though he undoubtedly did play a significant role in bringing the plays to the public stage in his capacity as a play broker, impresario, and front man.
The true author, as Walt Whitman shrewdly observed, appears to been one of the "wolfish earls," or some other nobleman – a person who knew about the cutthroat politics of merrie olde England from the inside. Over the decades, many candidates have been proposed, with the Earl of Oxford currently leading the “wolfish” pack.
Incidentally, it’s not the case, as some orthodox authorities maintain, that no one doubted Shakespeare's identity before relatively recent times. In fact, Shakespeare's contemporaries were clearly intrigued by the puzzle of his name. Rollett notes that John Marston and Joseph Hall ascribed Venus and Adonis to someone they dubbed "Labeo,” apparently their codename for Francis Bacon. William Covel wrote the name “Shakespeare” in a marginal note alongside the works of Samuel Daniel. The satirical play Return to Parnassus has a character quote lines from Romeo and Juliet as his own, prompting another character to quip, “Romeo and Juliet: o monstrous theft! I think he will run through a whole book of Samuel Daniel’s.” Other writers hinted at Sir Edward Dyer or made reference to an unnamed "masking" nobleman. Evidently the appearance of Shakespeare's works in print prompted a good deal of gossipy speculation about who this supposed “William Shakespeare" really was, with various possibilities being thrown around: Samuel Daniel? Francis Bacon? Edward Dyer? It seems that, for a while at least, nobody knew and everyone was guessing. This guessing game, needless to say, has continued to the present day.
But what of William Stanley, Earl of Derby? Why should he be in the running?
There are actually some very good reasons to consider him, which Rollett elucidates in his highly readable new book. I can’t list them all, but I’ll give some highlights.
First, we know that Stanley was intimately involved with the theater. He sponsored his own theater troupe, which put on most of Shakespeare's plays. A letter from his wife mentions how thoroughly absorbed he was in the activities of the acting company, while two intercepted letters from a Jesuit spy report that Stanley in 1599 was “busied only in penning comedies for the common players." Even though no plays or poetry in Stanley’s name have survived (his ancestral home, with all of its records, was burned to ashes by the forces of Oliver Cromwell), we can be sure he was a writer and the man of the theater.
Second, there are many curious connections between Shakespeare and the Stanley family. Three of William Stanley's relatives have tomb inscriptions reportedly written by Shakespeare; these verses compare well in style and content to some of Shakespeare's sonnets. In Colin Clout’s Come Home Again, the poet Edmund Spenser, after praising William Stanley's recently deceased elder brother Ferdinando, immediately proceeds to praise a poet he calls “Aetion,” often taken as a reference to Shakespeare. “Aetion" means "man of the eagle," and Stanley's crest was of an eagle bearing off an infant.
The "eagle and child crest" of the Derby coat of arms. The top part depicts an eagle holding an infant.
Third, whoever wrote the history plays seems to have gone out of his way to put William Stanley’s ancestors in the best possible light. Their roles are frequently exaggerated, and their more troublesome qualities are whitewashed.
Fourth, Stanley is likely to have been present at the court of Henri of Navarre shortly after the events that inspired Love's Labour’s Lost. And the character of Holofernes in that play is quite possibly a sendup of Richard Lloyd, the loquacious and pedantic tutor who accompanied Stanley on his European trip and who wrote a pageant of the “nine worthies” that may well have served as the inspiration for the ludicrous pageant on the same topic put on in the play.
Fifth, sonnet 125, which begins “Were it ought to me I bore the canopy …” would make literal sense if applied to Stanley, who was fifth in line to bear the canopy at James I’s coronation.
Six, many of the themes of Shakespeare's works – a marriage torn apart by irrational jealousy, a younger brother overshadowed by his older sibling, a fascination with alchemy and the occult – were major themes of Stanley’s life, although to be fair, the same themes can be found in the lives of other candidates (though not William Shaksper).
Seventh, Rollett – with the help of Jones Harris – discovered what may be an acrostic message in the First Folio. In Elizabethan times, acrostics, cryptograms, and other forms of wordplay were extremely popular. One of the more common uses of an acrostic was to spell out the name of an otherwise anonymous or pseudonymous author. The method involved setting down a list so that the first (or last) letter of each line, when read downward, would disclose the author's name. In the list of actors at the beginning of the First Folio we read (bold emphasis added):
The last letter of each of these names, reading down, spells out “Stenley.”
It might be objected that "Stenley" is not "Stanley," but the Elizabethans and Jacobeans were not over-scrupulous about spelling, especially when applied to hidden messages. Since none of the actors' names ended in “a,” an “e” was substituted. Rollett notes that the “t” was provided by spelling William Kemp’s name as “Kempt” – the only time known to us when this variant spelling was used.
Finally, there's what Sherlock Holmes might have called the curious case of the corrected quartos. In 1622, quarto editions of both Richard III and Othello were published. A year later, both plays were included in the First Folio. The Folio versions appear to have been set in type directly from the quartos, inasmuch as they reproduce specific typographical errors from the quarto printings. Yet there are hundreds of changes in the text, including superior word choices and whole new dialogue passages. It looks very much as if someone went through the quartos by hand, emending them with marginal or interlinear notes.
As I said, these two quartos were printed in 1622. By then, William Shaksper was long dead, as were the Earl of Oxford and some of the other authorship candidates. William Stanley, however, was very much alive – and would live another twenty years. Could he have hand-corrected the quartos to ensure higher quality copy for the definitive Folio edition? Would anyone other than the author take the time – or have the presumption – to revise and emend these old plays?
In sonnet 136, the author says plainly, “… my name is 'Will.'" This could, of course, be simply a reference to the pseudonym William Shakespeare. Or it could be a ribald pun, since "will" was Elizabethan slang for genitalia.
But there is yet another possibility. Maybe the sonneteer was none other than William Stanley, Earl of Derby, who signed his name – not William – but Will.
That's the case for Stanley, in a nutshell (which, Stratfordians and Oxfordians would say, is just where it belongs). Now for the counterarguments.
Stanley isn’t a perfect fit. The author of the sonnets repeatedly describes himself as old and worn out ("beated and chopped with tanned antiquity" – sonnet 62), yet Stanley would have been in his thirties at the time when the sonnets were probably written. (William Shaksper, four years younger than Stanley, makes an even poorer fit.)
John Marston, in The Scourge of Villainy, seemingly describes Shakespeare as a poet “whose silent name one letter bounds” – i.e., whose true but unspoken name begins and ends with the same letter. This is true of Edward de Vere, whose name begins and ends with the letter “e,” but not of William Stanley in any formulation of his name and title that I can come up with.
The purported acrostic is interesting, but the contemporaneous acrostics listed by Rollett as bona fide examples of the technique are much less ambiguous, involving longer names such as Josquin des Prez and Roger Marbecke. The appearance of “Stenley” partway through the list could simply be an accident. Indeed, it was pointed out to me by the combative Stratfordian Tom Reedy that the last letters of four consecutive names later in the list spell out "Dyer," as in Edward Dyer, another authorship candidate!
It's also problematic that we know so little of Stanley's life; as a younger son who was not expected to inherit the earldom, his early years were little chronicled, except in a romantic ballad about his foreign travels, Sir William Stanley's Garland, which can't be relied on for accuracy.
And of course the total absence of poems or plays in Stanley's name is a serious gap in the evidence. Oxford left some poems of varying quality, and was often praised for his talents as a poet; Stanley left nothing and received no such praise, at least in any clearcut form. If not for the Jesuit spy's intercepted letters, we would have no reason to think Stanley ever fancied himself a writer.
A possibility not explored by Rollins, but examined by A.J. Evans in his book Shakespeare’s Magic Circle, is that Stanley and de Vere may each deserve partial credit for the works. At first sight this sounds like a stretch, but it may gain a little credibility when we consider that (a) both earls were known for their obsessive interest in the theater, and (b) they were closely connected on a personal level, Stanley being de Vere's son-in-law. With this in mind, we might imagine de Vere as the originator of most of the works, with Stanley as his later collaborator. This would account for the revisions made to the 1622 quartos for their 1623 Folio publication – revisions made by Stanley – and also for the references to the poet's age and disgrace in the sonnets – which would suit the older and, at times, out-of-favor de Vere.
Such a collaboration is hardly unheard of in the world of theater. If anything, collaboration was probably more common in those days than it is today, as writers were often called upon to revise or update existing material originated by someone else. Sometimes only the last writer to have had a hand in the project received authorial credit – if anyone did.
After so many centuries, with the real story concealed in enigmatic references decipherable only to those in the know, and with all the original documents long lost, it may be impossible ever to untangle just what happened. Maybe that's part of the appeal of the authorship controversy; it offers endless fuel for speculation and debate, with no prospect of a definitive resolution.
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