Arguments about the authorship of the Shakespearean corpus have increased in frequency and ferocity in the last decade, particularly between “Oxfordians” (those who hold that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the poems and plays) and “Stratfordians” (those who hold with the man from Stratford). A rise in polemical temperature has resulted, it is argued, in part because new evidence has appeared, notably Roger Stritmatter’s analysis of Oxford’s Geneva Bible — and in part because considerable scholars are reconsidering old evidence, as in Diana Price’s marvelous Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, which appeared last year. The questions are in fact interesting, not to be compared to the work of the perhaps apocryphal 19th century German philologist who spent his life proving that the Iliad was not composed by Homer, but by another blind Greek — of the same name…
You will be relieved to hear that I will not be fretting my quarter hour upon this stage about the status quaestionis of the so-called “authorship debate,” nor even considering the abstract question of whether genius can bestow information. No, in this symposium devoted to “Shakespeare in America,” I want to consider the fate in America of only one small argument, what might be called the “argument from snobbism.”
The argument is as old as the authorship question itself. You are undoubtedly familiar with it. Partisans of the traditional attribution have frequently asserted that Oxfordians (as well as champions of other candidates, such as Bacon and Marlowe) simply cannot abide the fact that a man from the middle classes created those works of genius. In their snobbery they must, it is averred, find a proper aristocratic replacement for the demotic sage.
Let me remark in passing that there is something odd about this argument or indeed about any argument that seeks to refute a position by denigrating the motives of those who hold it, or even by showing an interest on the part of those who hold it. Obviously, the truth of a position and the motive for holding it can be entirely separate matters. We might be able to adapt Eliot’s couplet, “The last temptation is the greatest treason, / To think the right thing for the wrong reason,” but I doubt it: ideas, it has been said, are not responsible for the people who believe in them.
But the argument from snobbism obviously has at least some rhetorical force, so I want to consider its fate in the “land of the free,” where presumably the democratic ideal opposes snobbism, and the concomitant tendency to celebrate the genius of the people would tend to support the traditional attribution.
The argument depends on a notion of class, one of those categories “over against which [as the late Erich Heller said] we are rightly critical, but without which we cannot do.” And at least since Weber, sociologists have been much more comfortable speaking of status rather than (or perhaps in addition to) class, but here I intend to be perfectly traditional: one’s class position, at lest in the last instance, depend s upon one’s role in the process of production.
Someone who thought a good bit about democracy in America also had some interesting things to say about class. Alexis de Tocqueville in his essay on The Old Regime and the French Revolution contrasts the class situation in France and England in the 18th century. In England, he says, it was virtually impossible to pass from one class to another, but he classes dwelt together in considerable amity. In France by contrast it was indeed possible to pass and quickly from one class to another, but the classes despised one another.
The United States after the Civil War seems to have been a tertium quid. In spite of a uniquely bloody labor history (“I can always hire one half of the working class to kill the other half,” said robber baron Jay Gould), there was an impression in America of cordiality among classes joined to the possibility of rising and falling. A generation of historical studies have questioned the extent of social mobility in late 19th century America, and the real class relations of the Gilded Age may have existed behind an ideological facade; Frederick Jackson Turner may have been right to suggest that the frontier was the essential safety valve for class pressure in the United States.
But it was in this context that America produced a soi-disant poet of democracy in Walt Whitman (1819-44-92), and it was Whitman who produced on the eve of the Civil War what Emerson called “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” Thirty years later, in 1888, rising 70 and in poor health, Whitman published November Boughs, which contains the essay entitled, “What Lurks Behind Shakespeare’s Historical Plays?” He writes, “We all know how much mythus there is in the Shakespeare question as it stands to-day. Beneath a few foundations of proved facts are certainly engulf’d far more dim and elusive ones, of deepest importance — tantalizing and half suspected — suggesting explanations that one dare not put in plain statement.” In plain statement, he’s speaking of the Bard’s bisexuality, and of his own.
“But coming at once to the point,” he continues — he is of course evading the point with which he began — “the English historical plays are to me not only the most eminent as dramatic performances … but form, as we get it all, the chief in a complexity of puzzles. Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism — personifying in unparallel’d ways the mediaeval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) — only one of the ‘wolfish earls’ so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works — works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.”
So here is the vox populi of the American literary 19th century speaking up for an aristocratic author. And he goes much further, to suggest an important connection between American democracy and the Shakespearean canon. “Will it not indeed be strange if the author of ‘Othello’ and ‘Hamlet’ is destin’d to live in America, in a generation or two, less as the cunning draughtsman of the passions, and more as putting on record the first full exposé — and by far the most vivid one, immeasurably ahead of doctrinaires and economists — of the political theory and results, or the reason-why and necessity for them which America has come on earth to abnegate and replace?”
He suggests that “a future age of criticism … may discover in the [historical] plays … the scientific (Baconian?) inauguration of modern Democracy — furnishing realistic and first-class artistic portraitures of the mediéal world, the feudal personalities, institutes, in their morbid accumulations, deposits, upon politics and sociology, — may penetrate to that hard-pan, far down and back of the ostent of to-day, on which (and on which only) the progressism of the last two centuries has built this Democracy which now holds secure lodgment over the whole civilized world.” He even suggests that providing a picture of world so inhuman that it needs to be replaced by a democratic polity was “the more or less conscious, purpose of him who fashion’d those marvellous architectonics”!
For Whitman then, some version of the snobbish argument was the very reason for the existence of a good bit of the corpus, the author’s need to describe what needed destruction, “the dragon-rancors and stormy feudal splendor of mediaeval caste.” And Whitman thinks that it is destroyed, or largely so, and Shakespeare “stands entirely for the mighty aesthetic sceptres of the past, not for the spiritual and democratic, the sceptres of the future.” Indeed, American democracy must supersede aristocratic Shakespeare. “Superb and inimitable as all is, it is mostly an objective and physiological kind of power and beauty the soul finds in Shakespeare — a style supremely grand of the sort, but in my opinion stopping short of the grandest sort, at any rate for fulfilling and satisfying modern and scientific and democratic American purposes.”
Finally, the author’s social position is clear from how he depicts other classes. “The low characters, mechanics, even the loyal henchmen — all in themselves nothing — serve as capital foils to the aristocracy. The comedies (exquisite as they certainly are) bringing in admirably portray’d common characters, have the unmistakable hue of plays, portraits, made for the divertisement only of the élite of the castle, and from its point of view. The comedies are altogether non-acceptable to America and Democracy.”
Very well then contradicting himself, Whitman concludes, “But to the deepest soul, it seems a shame to pick and choose from the riches Shakespeare has left us — to criticise his infinitely royal, multiform quality — to gauge, with optic glasses, the dazzle of his sun-like beams.”
Twenty years after November Boughs, one of the few figures with a better claim than Whitman’s to be the authentic voice of classic American literature spoke up on our subject. In 1909 Mark Twain (1835-1910), then past 70 (this subject seems to attract elderly men), published his little book, Is Shakespeare Dead? Twain had always been more drawn to feudal Europe than Whitman, from The Prince and the Pauper (1882) and A Connecticut Yankee (1889) to his book at the turn of the century on Joan of Arc (1896), whom Twain thought “the most extraordinary person the human race has ever produced.”
It is an old man’s garrulous but not unlearned book, based on “fifty years’ interest in the matter,” he says (p.2). The title Is Shakespeare Dead? Seems to refer to the obscurity in which the man from Stratford died. Twain offers his “opinion that the Stratford Shakespeare was a person of no public consequence or celebrity during his lifetime, but was utterly obscure and unimportant. And not only in great London but also in the little village where he was born, where he died and was buried … if he had been a person of any note at all, aged villagers would have had much to tell about him many and many a year after his death, instead of being unable to furnish inquirers a single fact concerned with him.” Twain contrasts his own circumstances with Shakespeare’s: “if he had been famous, his notoriety would have lasted as long as mine has lasted in my native village on the Missouri” (p. 68).
Twain’s disregard of the man is matched by his admiration of the works. “HE HADN’T ANY HISTORY TO RECORD [Twain’s emphasis]. There is no way of getting around that deadly fact … It’s quite plain significance — to any but those thugs [viz., Stratfordian scholars] (I do not use the term unkindly) is, that Shakespeare had no prominence while he lived, and none until he had been dead two or three generations. The Plays enjoyed high fame from the beginning; and if he wrote them it seem a pity the world did not find it out. He ought to have explained that he was the author, and not merely a NOM DE PLUME for another man to hide behind. If he had been less intemperately solicitous about his bones [i.e., in his epitaph], and more solicitous about his Works, it would have been better for his good name, and a kindness to us. The bones were not important. They will moulder away, they will turn to dust, but the Works will endure until the last sun goes down” (p. 67).
Twain tells of being an apprentice riverboat pilot under the instruction of one George Ealer (who appears in several chapters of Life on the Mississippi). While Twain steered, Ealer would declaim Shakespeare by the hour, with “explosive interlardings” of directions to the apprentice. This practice gave Twain his principal argument against his Stratfordian instructor, “that Shakespeare couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s words, for the reason that the man who wrote them was limitlessly familiar with the laws, and the law-courts, and law-proceedings, and lawyer-talk, and lawyer ways” (p. 6). When Ealer replies that Shakespeare learnt it from books, Twain counters “that a man can’t handle glibly and easily and conformably and successfully the argot of a trade at which he has not personally served … When I got him to read again the passage from Shakespeare with the interlardings, he perceived, himself, that books couldn’t teach a student a bewildering multitude of pilot-phrases so thoroughly and perfectly that he could talk them off in book and play or conversation and make no mistake that a pilot would not immediately discover” (p. 7).
Shakespeare’s familiarity with a wide range of technical knowledge, particularly the law, is Twain’s principal reason for believing that the man from Stratford could not have written the works. The academics’ Shakespeare, says Twain “is a Brontosaurus: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris” (p. 21). “Who did write these Works, then [he asks]? I wish I knew” (p. 47). Twain proclaims himself a “Brontosaurian [who] doesn’t really know which of them did it, but is quite composedly and contentedly sure that Shakespeare DIDN’T” (p. 22; Twain’s emphasis). He surveys Shakespeare’s supposed biography — in a manner not unlike Diana Price’s — and concludes that the man from Stratford is debarred by class position from being a candidate for the authorship.
So finally, who takes class seriously? The holders of the argument from snobbism, who contend that Shakespeare’s class background is an insignificant matter in the face of his genius? That the native hue of resolution could overcome any lacunae in formal education? Or those who contend that class is true, class is earnest, and gravitas is not its goal? That class really does set out barriers of information, of association, and even of sympathy that were difficult to cross in the England of 400 years ago?
It certainly seems clear that two classic American authors thought so, and thought that the Shakespearean corpus in all its genius was shot through with the matter of class, so much so that the portrait of the artist as a young lord — or a young lawyer — could be descried. They agreed with Trollope that “The man of letters is, in truth, ever writing his own biography.” It was in the United States of America, the existence of which posed the question of class (however much the question has been buried in our own time), that this question about Shakespeare could abide.