A Test of Sobran's Method
Joseph Sobran, Alias Shakespeare (Free Press, 1997)
Joseph Sobranís Oxfordian tract Alias Shakespeare rests much of its case on the authorís self-proclaimed ability to detect resemblances between the phrasing of the Earl of Oxford's small corpus of undisputed poems and the works conventionally attributed to William Shakespeare. The parallels, Sobran asserts, run into the "hundreds", "far too many to be dismissed as insignificant". A skeptical observer may suspect, to the contrary, that the number of parallels is not at all surprising, because Mr. Sobran's methodology is entirely subjective: He looks into the clouds and sees the shapes that he wants to find.
Recently I discovered that Alias Shakespeare itself contains an inadvertent experiment that provides evidence concerning the acuteness of the Sobran method. An appendix reprints all of the poems certainly or with a fairly high degree of probability ascribed to Oxford. The selection follows Steven May's (first published the journal Studies in Philology (1980) and conveniently reprinted in Professor May's book, The Elizabethan Courtier Poets). Mr. Sobran accompanies these texts with his lists of what he sees as Shakespearean parallels, of which he does indeed find hundreds.
Through some oversight, however, he has included, as part of the poem beginning "In Peascod time when hound to horn gives ear while buck is kill'd", sixteen lines that were written not by Oxford but by Thomas Churchyard, a middling poet and minor functionary at Elizabeth's court. Professor May prints these verses as "Poem IVa" in his edition. Twelve lines (probably) by Oxford ("Poem IV") continue Churchyard's piece.
We have, therefore, a passage that Mr. Sobran believes to be Oxfordian but that is really from a different pen. If his method is useful and reliable, one would expect him to find few Shakespearean resemblances here. If it is mere wishful thinking, alleged echoes of Shakespeare should be discovered about as densely here as elsewhere.
What is the result of the experiment? In sixteen lines of Churchyard, Mr. Sobran finds sixteen parallels to Shakespeare. In the next twelve lines, really written by Oxford, he uncovers ten. Looking more widely, I cannot find any Oxfordian passage of comparable length where Sobran finds as much "Shakespeare" as he does in Churchyard. The one poem that the Earl published under his own name has fifteen parallels in nearly twice as many (26) lines.
What does this mean? That Thomas Churchyard was the real mind behind "Shakespeare"? He has never been a candidate before, and the fact that Venus and Adonis appeared when he was in his 74th year might tell against him, but he lived, like Oxford, until 1604 and strikes me as at least as plausible a pretender to Shakespeare's bays.
That will not, I'm sure, be Mr. Sobran's solution. No doubt he will simply annex Churchyard to Oxford's oeuvre. He has already shown signs of becoming an Oxfordian imperialist, claiming the sonnet cycle of one "E.C." for his hero and announcing last year in his newsletter that he will argue in a future book that "a thousand Petrarchan sonnets ascribed to others were actually Oxford's".
If Mr. Sobran continues on this path, the study of Elizabethan literature will be greatly simplified. I eagerly await word that the busy nobleman ghosted Marlowe and Kyd and Nashe and Peele and Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher and Sidney and Donne and Spenser. Indeed, since he was able to create a third of the Shakespearean canon from beyond the grave, why should he not also be the true Dryden and Pope? One does hope that Mr. Sobran has the time and energy to pursue his parallels whithersoever they may lead.
Letters of Comment, 11/14/03: Paul from Toronto notes, regarding my final paragraph, "Oxford the real Dryden and Pope? Well, this would certainly give new meaning to The Oxford Anthology of English Verse."