Querulous Notes (March 2002)
March 23, 2002
Note: This is the second in a series of discussions of Roger A. Stritmatter’s recently published Oxfordian dissertation, The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence. Part One looked at the ways in which Dr. Stritmatter deploys facts and logic and proposed that a new noun be formed from his surname.
Central to Dr. Stritmatter’s enterprise is the premise that the 17th Earl of Oxenford was responsible for the markings in the “De Vere Bible”. If all or a significant portion come from other people, the exercise of comparing the marked verses to Shakespeare’s poems and plays is meaningless.
Dr. Stritmatter makes an effort to demonstrate that the markings are indeed Oxenford’s own, but his findings are not nearly so conclusive as he imagines. There are strong reasons to believe that the book had more than one annotator and only weak ones to connect any of the annotations to Edward de Vere.
That the volume now in the Folger Library was once owned by Oxenford is extremely probable. Dr. Stritmatter cites a documentary record establishing that Oxenford purchased a copy of the Geneva translation of the Bible in 1570. The book at the Folger is a 1570 edition Geneva Bible whose binding displays the de Vere family coat of arms. It is conceivable that Oxenford’s Bible was lost and that a later de Vere acquired exactly the same edition of the same translation at a later date, but such an unnecessary multiplication of entities can appeal only to - well - typical anti-Stratfordians, who believe many equally anti-Ockhamite propositions. Conventional scholarship, while realizing that “history does not have to be probable” [W. Bruce Lincoln, Nicholas I], usually plays the odds.
Oxenford was, then, the first owner of the book, but he was not the last. It remained in private hands for 355 years, until the Folger Library bought it from an antiquarian book dealer in 1925 (for £25 - those were the days!). Dr. Stritmatter provides no information about who owned it after Oxenford, and I imagine that none is available. We can be sure, however, that it was not locked away in a trunk at the purchaser’s death. At an unknown date, it was rebound (cutting off parts of some of the marginal notes), and Dr. Stritmatter himself recognizes one intrusive annotation by a later possessor. Simple arithmetic suggests that there must have been a dozen or more owners, many doubtless with spouses, children, bookish bachelor uncles, pious maiden aunts and other household denizens who could have perused, and made notations in, the tome.
The marks themselves are of several types: marginal notes (usually a single word), corrections to the printed text, drawings of hands pointing to passages, drawings of fleurs-de-lis, lines drawn under either verse numbers, printed marginal notes or portions of the text, and a few miscellaneous devices (a drawing of an ear, rows of dots, etc.). Underlining is overwhelmingly the most common. About 40 verses have marginal notes or corrections; over a thousand are singled out with one sort of underlining or another.
Not all of the marks are in the same ink. Dr. Stritmatter distinguishes four shades: brown-black, gray-black, scarlet and orange. Since none of those is a standard color, we can infer that red and black inks of different composition (and, it would be not unreasonable to surmise, ages) have faded to different hues. There are annotations in each color, and it is not unusual for different colors to appear in conjunction.”Different colors of underlining, furthermore, are associated with written annotations with variant inks: scarlet and orange annotations with black underlining, black annotations with scarlet and orange annotations [sc. “underlining” (?)], and so forth.” [p. 433 (published version)/574(UMI version)]
Given these facts - a book accessible to scores of people over a long period of time, marked in different ways with different inks - the most straightforward inference is that the marks are the work of an indefinite number of persons and that the assignment of all of them to a single annotator is a hazardous hypothesis, requiring strong proof to render it credible. Dr. Stritmatter sees matters differently. He recites the facts noted above about the record of a Bible’s purchase by Oxenford and the acquisition of a Bible bearing the de Vere arms by the Folger Library, then avers that the “simplest conclusion based on these two facts” is “that de Vere was the annotator of his own Bible” [p. 49/78] That would be a simple conclusion had it been “his own Bible” and no one else’s. As matters stand, we know that there were other possessors, whose antecedent probability of having made notations in the book is just as great. Proof excluding those others and identifying de Vere as the sole annotator is needed, and that Dr. Stritmatter fails to deliver.
The only analysis that he offers relates to the small number of written annotations, which are, he argues, in Oxenford’s handwriting. Not a shred of evidence or argument is brought forward to show that the person who wrote a few words in the Bible’s margins also drew pictures, underlined text, etc. Hence, were the handwriting incontrovertibly Oxenford’s, that would identify him as the annotator of approximately four percent of the marked verses.
On the narrow issue of handwriting, Dr. Stritmatter’s evidence is far from conclusive. To an unpracticed eye (as mine admittedly is), the marginalia look like the product of more than one hand. Dr. Stritmatter and Mark K. Anderson, his assistant in this phase of the investigation, apparently have the same perception, for they explain the variations by suggesting that the annotator was attempting here and there to imitate the book’s typeface [p. 443/590]. Whether or not that explanation is correct, there is no way to know whether the person who attempted the imitation is the same as the one who wrote other, dissimilarly formed words.
Messrs. Stritmatter and Anderson present an elaborate verbal description of the characteristics of the individual letters penned by the annotator, as compared to exemplars from the known manuscripts of Oxenford, John Lyly and George Peele (the last two brought in as “controls”, though demonstrating that neither of them wrote in the Bible does little to advance the proposition that Oxenford did), but they do not subject their working premise - that all of the marginalia are in the same hand - to any serious examination.
Although Dr. Stritmatter once declared his distrust of professional document examiners, whom he suspected of being corrupted by the Stratfordian establishment ("Shakespeare's Bible Brings Truth to Light", Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter (Fall 1996)), he employed one to opine on whether the Bible annotations match Oxenford’s handwriting. The report of the examiner, Emily J. Will, does indeed conclude “that it is highly probable that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, is the author of the . . . questioned annotations”, but that finding comes with significant caveats:
The questioned material consists of small amounts of handwriting in the margins of a book. This is, to some extent, a mitigating circumstance that could account for some of the differences in form as noted by Mr. Stritmatter. This is also a limiting factor in the examination because characteristics such as alignment, arrangement, spacing, baseline, and proportion cannot be studied.
Much of this questioned material is written in a stylized manner as if to emulate the printing in the Bible. This robs the material of potential individualizing characteristics and leaves the examiner with less information. [p. 473/618]
Also worth noting is that, judging by the professional qualifications detailed on Miss Will’s thorough and impressive Web site, she has no special familiarity with Elizabethan paleography, which would seem to limit further her ability to opine confidently in this instance. As the FAQ section of her site states in response to the question, “Can you examine documents in a foreign language?”:
Yes, it is possible, but the examiner must first learn about the characteristics of the written language and how that writing is taught. For example, in some languages, placement of diacriticals (distinguishing strokes) is important, and in other languages, shading of handwritten strokes is significant. The actual methods of examination are the same, but factors are weighed differently when the structure of the writing varies among languages.
Elizabethan English is not literally a “foreign language”, but writing was certainly taught differently in that era, and it would be rash to assume that “the structure of the writing” was sufficiently similar to modern English to guarantee accurate results without special study by the examiner.
In light of its qualifications and limitations, the strongest conclusion that Miss Will’s report can reasonably be used to support is that Oxenford cannot be ruled out as the annotator. The paleographic evidence is prima facie insufficient, however, to rule him in, to the exclusion of the scores of other people who were in a position to add their own annotations.
One person who is not a document examiner but has probably read more of Oxenford’s handwriting with closer attention than anyone else now living is Professor Alan Nelson of Berkeley, currently at work on a biography of the earl. About the Bible marginalia, he says, “The hand is simply not the same hand that wrote [Oxenford’s] letters. The people who claim this is clearly Oxford’s hand just don’t know their paleography.” [Scott Heller, “In a Centuries-Old Debate, Shakespeare Doubters Point to New Evidence”, The Chronicle of Higher Education (6/4/99), pp. A22ff. (not available on-line)]. Dr. Stritmatter takes note of Professor Nelson’s skepticism but responds only that Nelson had, four years earlier, thought that the handwriting was Oxenford’s [p. 433/573-4]. He does not repeat what he said to the Chronicle reporter:
Word of Mr. Nelson’s position angers Mr. Stritmatter, who sees it as a turnabout. “The argument that Nelson is now making is absurd,” he says. Why, he asks, would one of the richest peers of the realm buy a used and marked-up Bible?
And why would an eminent scholar like Mr. Nelson change his mind? “People are deciding it’s a wise career move to be a great champion of the Stratford man,” Mr. Stritmatter concludes.
Anti-Stratfordians occasionally complain that Professor Nelson does not treat them courteously. I wonder why not.
Readers who wish to exercise their own amateur talents on the controversy will find in Dr. Stritmatter’s dissertation pages of photocopies of individual letters from the Bible notes and Oxenford’s correspondence. Here are four examples:
The accompanying Stritmatter-Anderson descriptions of the styles of writing lean heavily toward finding resemblances between the Bible annotator (“B”) and Oxenford (“O”) but candidly animadvert to numerous dissimilarities [p. 435-41/577-87], as in these examples:
[lowercase c] We see in the exemplars from B both the strong similarities to O’s hand and one obvious difference which will become a recurrent theme in our letter-by-letter comparisons. . . . In contrast to Oxford’s consistent 60° slant, B’s are built around a 90° slant. Letters of the annotator consistently exhibit this more upright characteristic, despite many and telling similarities to O. . . .
[lowercase h] One shows a graceful curve in the initial descender which is consistent with the exemplars from O, but the other three illustrate different and atypical formation, one having a leftward serif and the two others very truncated initial descenders.
[lowercase i] The annotator’s small i shows a marked affinity to Oxford’s, illustrating a definite tendency to the double serif form. . . . Some differences may be observed between O and B samples: a larger percentage of small i’s in B are dot-less, and many show a single serif on the top with none below. The slant tends to be slightly more upright, between 70° and 90°.
[lowercase k] Although somewhat deviant due to the untypical horizontal orientation of the lower arm, B’s sole exemplar of k exhibits all the above features of O’s k design. It also differs from O’s exemplars in having a pronounced serif at the bottom of the descender. More significantly, perhaps, and consistent with a pattern seen in other letters from B, B’s k is oriented closer to 85° than 55°.
[lowercase n] In three critical regards it could be argued that B’s exemplars deviate from the patterns exhibited in O. . . . One is that they tend to exhibit a slightly more open, rounded character, which [sic] a slightly less pronounced point at the apex. The terminal serif is also less exaggerated in these exemplars than in those from O, a fact which may be related to the more generally open character of the letter. Finally, exemplars from B, as we have seen with other letters, exhibit a more upright stance than those f rom O, averaging more like 70° than 45°.
[lowercase o] In one respect only are the exemplars of B inconsistent with the pattern seen in O; some exhibit a slight break in the curvature of the oval not at the top, as is typical in O, but at the bottom, usually towards the bottom right corner of the figure.
[lowercase r] B’s exemplars exhibit the same proportionality and basic design as seen in O. Like other letters in B, they exhibit a more upright character than seen in [O], about 90°. Another marked difference between the exemplars of B and O is that the track of the ascent of the pen in B does not follow back on the track of its descent. The stem consequently tends to exhibit a double thickness, often with a marked flair or foot at the bottom of the letter.
[lowercase t] B’s exemplars show a definite pattern of cramping in contrast to those of O. As in many other letters, they slow less slant than those found in O, averaging 95°-70° degrees instead of the 85°-60° slant of O. The rightward hook at the base of the stem is visible but tends to be more of a flat line, foot or serif than the gentle curve seen in the more relaxed exemplars from O.
Messrs. Stritmatter and Anderson have explanations for discrepancies between B and O (mostly involving limited space in the margins and the annotator’s on-and-off imitating of the printed typeface), but accounting for differences means little unless one begins with strong reasons to expect similarity. On a priori grounds, the probability that Oxenford was the Bible annotator is low. He is merely one of several dozen persons with, so far as we can know, equal access and equal motivation. The handwriting evidence augments only minimally the likelihood that he was an annotator and hardly at all that he was the sole annotator. The usefulness of Dr. Stritmatter’s research for any purpose depends crucially on the truth of both of those propositions. His discussion, loudly though he trumpets the certainty of his results, leaves both in more than reasonable doubt.
With little consensus likely on the handwriting, it may be worthwhile to search for other clues.
At Ecclesiasticus 14:13, the annotator has penned in a correction, crossing out the word “him” and replacing it with “to the poore”. The altered verse reads, “Do good unto thy friend before thou dye, & according to thy habilitie stretch out thine hand, and give unto the poore” [rather than “give unto him”].
As Dr. Stritmatter observes [p. 54/86], the reading “unto the poore” (pauperi in Latin) is unique to the Vulgate Bible. My cursory research indicates that it has no warrant in the Septuagint text (the basis of Ecclesiasticus, which in no longer extant in Hebrew) but was known to at least some medieval Italian churchmen, having been quoted in two 13th century sermons. According to Dr. Stritmatter’s own investigation, it is absent from 16th century Latin Bibles printed in England [p. 54, n75/86, n74].
A plausible way to account for these data is to suppose that”pauperi” was a local variation (an “easy reading” replacing the “hard” exhortation to give to one’s friends) introduced into the Vulgate via the official Clementine revision, which was promulgated by a Papal bull dated November 9, 1592. One must then allow time for the Clementine version to be printed in quantity and to reach England (where books recommended by Papal bulls were not warmly welcomed). Since Oxenford died in 1604, the window for his purchase and close reading of that version was not wide. The most plausible scenario is that a later owner with Romish sympathies, living in a more tolerant climate, was familiar with either the Latin Vulgate or the Douai-Rheims translation (published in 1609) and noted the discrepancy between that text and the one presented by the Geneva translators. Mayhap he derived a certain satisfaction from thinking that “his” Bible was more thoughtful of the poor than “theirs”. (For the pertinent history of the Vulgate Bible, vide S. L. Greenslade, ed., The Cambridge History of the Bible: The West from the Reformation to the Present Day, pp. 207-213 (1963).)
Update, 10/28/02: Terry Ross has come up with a point that renders my explanation of the alteration of "him" to "poore" much more doubtful. The latter reading occurs in several 16th Century English translations, meaning that "da pauperi" must have been a more widespread reading than I imagined. Oxenford could have observed this discrepancy between his copy of the Geneva translation and, say, a friend's copy of the Bishop's Bible. For some reason, though, niggling attention to the details of the Biblical text does not strike me as wholly consistent with young Oxenford's known character. It still seems to me that the most natural explanation of the "correction" is pro-Romish partisanship, which could not have been a consideration until after the accepted Catholic and Protestant texts diverged on this point.
The word “poor” itself furnishes another, albeit smaller, clue. In the Bible marginalia, “poor” appears eight times, more often than any other word. It is three times spelled “poore”, once “poor” and four times truncated by rebinding to “poo”. In Oxenford’s extant letters, it also makes eight appearances, twice spelled “poore” and six times “pore”. Oxenford’s orthography was erratic even by Elizabethan standards, but it is odd that the annotator never employs the earl’s preferred spelling. Also odd is that someone whose alleged annotations place such stress on the poor hardly ever refers to them in his correspondence. (For a complete list of words appearing in Oxenford's letters and memoranda, with his spelling variants, vide Alan H. Nelson, "The Distinctive Orthography of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford".)
One other spelling variation might be significant. The annotator writes “works” next to II Esdras 9:7. The plural form never occurs in Oxenford’s letters, but his singular is invariably “worke” (11 occurrences).
The preceding points are not decisive evidence against Dr. Stritmatter’s premise, but they do reinforce the inherently probable view that the annotations cannot be unanimously attributed to Oxenford.
The most that the Stritmatter-Anderson paleographic presentation demonstrates is that Oxenford could have written some of the words that appear in the margins of the Bible. It does not do anything to identify the originators of the hands, flowers and underlinings. In other words, a minuscule proportion of the material on which Dr. Stritmatter founds his analysis of “Shakespeare’s” theology is linked inconclusively to Oxenford, and the rest is not linked by anything beyond pure supposition.
There is one final point of interest. If the marginal notes really were written by the author of the Shakespearean canon, one would, on Dr. Stritmatter’s premises, expect the verses thus highlighted to have a strong correlation to verses alluded to by Shakespeare. While the significance of mute underlining is questionable, an annotator who adds a comment of his own, however cryptic, most likely takes a special interest in the text.
A comparison of the notes against Biblical allusions found in Shakespeare yields striking results: One of the marked verses has been identified as a Shakespearean source by scholars other than Dr. Stritmatter. Leviticus 25:36-37, next to which is the cropped note “usu[ry]” , is cited by Naseeb Shaheen, the foremost authority on Shakespeare’s Bible, as one of three possible Biblical sources for Shylock’s reflections on usury in The Merchant of Venice (I.iii.132-7). In several other cases, Dr. Stritmatter claims Shakespearean parallels that no one has previously noticed. Many of these claims stretch credulity, as when he associates the annotator’s note “continue”, written at the head of a column, with a verse in that column (Ecclus. 11:27) in which Professor Shaheen locates the source of a Shakespearean line. Even if one adds a few of Dr. Stritmatter’s less far-fetched discoveries, it is hard to see any sign that the verses that the owner(s) of the Oxenford Bible singled out for special attention are specially reflected in Shakespeare’s works.
1. Many people owned Oxenford’s Bible after Oxenford. They and members of their households are no less likely than Oxenford himself to have marked the book.
2. The only marks for which there is any hope of identifying the maker are the handful of written marginal notes. The claim that any particular person, including Oxenford, is responsible for the other 96 percent of the “annotations” is completely arbitrary.
3. Dr. Stritmatter has not established - he has simply assumed - that the marginal notes are all in the same handwriting. On the surface, they have obvious dissimilarities.
4. Dr. Stritmatter’s proof that the notes are in Oxenford’s handwriting is inconclusive. The most that he can rationally assert is that Oxenford cannot be definitively excluded as an annotator.
5. There is reason to think that one of the notes (the correction to Ecclus. 14:13) may not have been written during Oxenford’s lifetime.
6. In two instances, the spelling of the notes differs from Oxenford’s known habits.
7. If the notes are nonetheless assumed to be Oxenford’s, hardly any of the Biblical verses to which they are attached can be identified as having influenced the author of the Shakespearean corpus.
Dr. Stritmatter does not hide his intense desire for the Oxfordian theory to be true. He calls himself a “committed Oxfordian” whose convictions, “as much ethical as intellectual”, were formed “long before ever laying eyes upon the de Vere Bible” [pp. 10-11/16-18]. He goes so far as to call his discovery of that volume “providential” (“not with any necessarily theological implication”) [p. 4/8]. The sincerity of his faith cannot be doubted, and his analysis may satisfy his fellow believers. To those outside the fold, however, the whole structure looks like an edifice erected on a foundation of wishful thinking.
March 16, 2002
The past five years have seen three “big books” promoting anti-Stratfordianism: Joseph Sobran’s Alias Shakespeare (1997), Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography (2000) and, now, Roger Stritmatter’s The Marginalia of Edward De Vere’s Geneva Bible: Providential Discovery, Literary Reasoning, and Historical Consequence. The last is, as the ponderous title suggests, a Ph.D. dissertation. As the first person ever awarded an advanced degree for anti-Stratfordian scholarship, Dr. Stritmatter has become a shining advertisement for his cause.
After reading Marginalia, I feel that the author deserves more than a doctorate. He should, like Captain Boycott and Lord Cardigan, be recognized as the eponym of a noun that takes its meaning from his work. I propose -
stritmatter, n. Unsupported, irrelevant or erroneous factual assertions, strewn thickly upon an argument to give it mass, if not weight.
The quantity of stritmatter in Marginalia is truly astonishing. As time goes on, I shall post observations on its broader themes and purported discoveries, but it is useful to begin with the simple elements of facts and logic and how each is deployed in this “achievement of great intellectual labor that commands the attention of scholars” (in the words of a member of Dr. Stritmatter’s dissertation committee).
Let us examine a single, self-contained passage [pp. 42-3 (published version)/68-71 (UMI version)]. Discussion of the portions marked in red follows.
Another tangible and surprising connection between de Vere’s biography and the Shakespearean corpus which will disturb partisans of the official story of Shakespeare is the prominence of the “bed trick” -- the stratagem by which a woman entraps a reluctant male into having sexual relations with her by luring him to an assignation with another woman for whom the protagonist then substitutes herself -- in plays such as All’s Well that End’s Well and Measure for Measure. [footnote omitted] Such a “bed trick” plays a prominent structural role in both Shakespearean comedies. Curiously, more than one historical tradition connects this Shakespearean “literary” motif to the real life of Edward de Vere. It appears that de Vere’s unhappy marriage to his classificatory consanguine Anne Cecil, which would have been condemned as incestuous under canon law [Stritmatter’s footnote: See Smith, C.E. Papal Enforcement, who shows that under canon law “adoption has the same effect in precluding marriage as does kinship by marriage” (6).], was consummated by means of the same “bed-trick” by which the lowly but lovely Helena snares her man Bertram in Shakespeare’s play. Wright’s History of Essex records that
the father of lady Anne by stratagem contrived that her husband should unknowingly sleep with her, believing her to be another woman, and she bore a son to him in consequence of this meeting
(Vol. I: 517)
just as Helena entraps Bertram by luring him to her bed under the pretense of his assignation with Diana in All’s Well. As Looney observes, it is irrelevant that this episode of the play is conventionally considered a mere reflex of the theme’s occurrence in Boccacio:
The point which matters is that this extraordinary story should be circulated in reference to the Earl of Oxford; making it quite clear that either Oxford was the actual prototype of Bertram, in which case false as well as true stories of the earl might be worked into the play, or he was supposed to be the prototype and was saddled with the story in consequence.... With such possibilities of discovery lying in the play of “All’s Well,” it is not surprising that having first of all appeared under the title of “Love’s Labour’s Won,” it should have disappeared for a full generation, and then, when the Earl of Oxford had been dead for nearly twenty years, reappeared under a new name.
Although the full circumstances surrounding the 1576 birth of Elizabeth Vere, alleged by ancient sources to have been the result of a “bed trick” played on de Vere by his wife Anne (apparently with the active collusion of her father William Cecil), will probably never be known, Cecil’s memoranda confirm that the birth was fraught with intrigue and conflict (Ward 1928 113-129; Ogburn 1984 555-580). Considering the implications of the birth, it is not difficult to see why. By 1576, de Vere had been married to Anne Cecil for five years without producing any children. The continuance of the marriage may well have depended upon Anne’s pregnancy; without an heir, the marriage could be terminated under existing law at the husband’s will. Hence it is not difficult to see grounds for Burghley’s alleged role in the affair (Ogburn and Ogburn 1952; Ogburn 1984 574-75); the last thing this master of court intrigue wanted was a former ward and son-in-law, whose court amours included the kind of conquests of which Falstaff could boast, running free without a leash.
This circumstance is directly and overtly paralleled in All’s Well. Helena’s entrapment of Bertram in the bed trick answers her husband’s flagrant challenge: “when thou canst. . . .show me a child begotten of body that I am father to, then call me husband” (3.2.57-60). Logically, of course, the phrase “that I am father to” is superfluous unless, just as with De Vere, the possibility of the bed trick is conjoined with the alternative means of a wife’s conception. We may not therefore be surprised to learn that de Vere’s own account of his daughter’s conception, as reported by Her Majesty’s physician Richard Masters in a memorandum of March 7, 1575 (N.S.), was that “if [Anne] were with child it was not his” (Ward 114).
So compelling are the connections between Bertram and Oxford, from the wardship and forced marriage to a classificatory sibling, to the bed trick, that even Joel Hurstfield in his study of the Elizabethan court of wards concedes that Bertram may be, “as some critics believe, Shakespeare’s version of Burghley’s ward” -- namely Oxford (1973 129).
which will disturb partisans of the official story of Shakespeare: This prediction has long since been falsified. The Stratfordian response to the claim that bed-tricks in Shakespeare are autobiographical reflections by the Earl of Oxenford [I have decided to starting calling him that, as “Oxenford”, not “Oxford”, is what he called himself] is to point out that this folklore motif is ancient and widespread, going back as far as Jacob and Leah (Genesis 29:23-25). It was commonplace in Tudor and Stuart fiction. An academic study finds that it “appears in at least forty-four [emphasis added] plays of the period”, being used by not only Shakespeare but also Middleton, Shirley, Marston, Fletcher, Heywood, Brome, Massinger, Chapman, Dekker, Rowley and others [Marliss C. Desens, The Bed-Trick in English Renaissance Drama, p. 11 (1994)]. Dr. Stritmatter can hardly be unfamiliar with this line of argument, but here, as in many other places, he will not concede that any rational doubt has ever been cast on any of his theories.
more than one historical tradition: Dr. Stritmatter tells us about only one. Charlton Ogburn, Jr., does offer a second, in which the trick produces Oxenford’s third daughter, Susan, rather than his first. That tale is attributed to a personal enemy of Susan’s husband and is clearly sheer denigration. That Dr. Stritmatter omits it suggests that he recognizes it as nonsense, but it lives ghost-like in his plurals.
marriage to his classificatory consanguine Anne Cecil, which would have been condemned as incestuous under canon law: Anne Cecil was the daughter of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, who held Oxenford’s estates in ward during the earl’s minority. Judging by his footnote, Dr. Stritmatter is under the impression that Burghley adopted Oxenford. He didn’t, and Oxenford was not related to Anne in any legal, ecclesiastical or other sense. Dr. Stritmatter seems oblivious, though, to the distinction between guardianship and adoption. He later says, “It may be worth speculating that perhaps one of Oxenford’s purposes in travelling to Italy was to see if he could acquire a Papal annulment for his marriage to Anne Cecil which, according to Catholic canon law, was incestuous, since Anne was his classificatory adoptive sibling.” [p. 177, n199/274, n197]
Wright's History of Essex: This volume, the sole “historical tradition” that Dr. Stritmatter cites, is not listed in his bibliography. It appeared in 1836, nearly 300 years after the supposed events, and does not give any source for its story, which, when read in its entirety, is preposterous. According to the tradition heard by Wright, young Oxenford interceded with his father-in-law Lord Burghley in behalf of his “intimate friend” Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk (executed for treason in 1572) “and, failing in his attempt, he swore he would ruin his estate at Hedingham, because it was the jointure of his first wife, Anne, lord Burghley’s daughter. According to this insane resolution, he not only forsook the lady’s bed, but sold and wasted the best part of his inheritance; he began to deface the castle, pulled down the outhouses, destroyed all the pales of the three parks, wasted the standing timber, and pulled down the walls that inclosed the castle.” Then follows the sentence quoted by Dr. Stritmatter. All this is nothing but a folk tale.
conventionally considered a mere reflex of the theme's occurrence in Boccacio: “Reflex” is an odd word to use here. Boccacio’s story is, via the translation in William Painter’s The Palace of Pleasure, the source of Shakespeare’s plot, and the bed-trick is that plot’s central element. Omitting it would be like writing a version of Hamlet in which the prince’s father died of natural causes.
With such possibilities of discovery lying in the play, etc.: This passage cannot be blamed directly on Dr. Stritmatter; it comes from the pen of J. Thomas Looney, the pioneer Oxfordian theorist. Dr. Stritmatter does, however, treat Looney as a serious literary scholar and never utters a word of criticism of his work. He therefore presumably concurs in Looney’s implication that the absence of a printed edition of All’s Well That Ends Well prior to the First Folio - for that is all that its having “disappeared” amounts to - is a sign of suppression to prevent discovery of its secrets about Oxenford’s life (which, on Looney’s theory, Oxenford himself had inserted into the text).
the 1576 birth of Elizabeth Vere: Elizabeth, Oxenford and Anne’s daughter, was born on July 2, 1575. We shall see in a moment that the misdating is not a typographical error and is important to Dr. Stritmatter’s argument.
alleged by ancient sources to have been the result of a “bed trick” played on de Vere by his wife Anne: Again the singular source has become plural. Moreover, the child referred to in that source is a son. Oxenford and Anne eventually had three daughters and no sons. Oxford had known sons by a mistress and by his second wife.
Ogburn 1984 555-580: Dr. Stritmatter frequently cites Charlton Ogburn, Jr.’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare without telling the reader exactly what Ogburn says. Here, as in many other places, fuller information calls into doubt the reiterated praise of his predecessor’s scholarly acumen. Ogburn’s theory is that Oxenford was not the father of Elizabeth de Vere. “Thus, exploiting his daughter’s uncommon filial submissiveness and the argument that a child would be the surest means of binding her husband to her, he [Lord Burghley] overcame her compunctions and resistance and brought her to accept service by another male and one of proved fertility.” [Ogburn, p. 575] Ogburn backs up this libel with the “fact” that Elizabeth was not baptized until September 29, 1575, throwing doubt on her official date of birth, July 2nd. (The date is important, because Oxenford and Anne, at least according to Oxenford, had last slept together in October 1574.) Where Ogburn got the baptism date he does not reveal, but Court records show that the Queen stood godmother at Elizabeth’s christening on July 14, 1575 [Steven W. May, The Elizabethan Courtier Poets, p. 269].
By 1576, de Vere had been married to Anne Cecil for five years, without producing any children: The marriage took place in December 1571. Dr. Stritmatter’s “five years” makes the interval sound ominous, but it was really less than three. Anne (wed at only 15) became pregnant in October 1574.
without an heir, the marriage could be terminated under existing law at the husband's will: Where did Dr. Stritmatter get such an idea? Until the 19th century, marriages could be dissolved in England only by Act of Parliament, and divorce is still not possible by the husband’s unilateral action.
This circumstance is directly and overtly paralleled in All's Well. . . . So compelling are the connections between Bertram and Oxford: The parallels between King-Bertram-Helena in the play and Burghley-Oxenford-Anne in real life are feeble. The resemblances are these:
1. Bertram is the ward of the King of France. Oxenford was Burghley’s ward (or, to be precise, a ward of the Queen, who assigned the office to Burghley).
2. Bertram and Helena were raised in the same household. Oxenford and Anne may have been, though there is no evidence that they were closely acquainted before their marriage. Given the six-year difference in their ages, they almost certainly were not.
3. Bertram removes himself to Italy before having sexual relations with Helena. Oxenford left on an Italian tour before the birth of his first child.
4. Helena arranges to become pregnant by substituting herself for the woman whom Bertram is pursuing. According to Dr. Stritmatter’s “ancient sources”, Anne Cecil did the same to Oxenford.
All of these parallels stem from the play’s source, and each is essential to the plot. Bertram’s status as the King’s ward compels him to marry against his will. Helena’s girlhood acquaintance with Bertram accounts for her love for him and her persistent desire to become his wife. Bertram leaves the country in order to avoid contact with his undesired spouse. The bed-trick is the device by which the tale achieves a happy ending. Every one of those elements would have to be present in order to have a coherent play, regardless of what similar experiences the dramatist might or might not have undergone.
Making the parallels even less meaningful are the divergences:
1. Bertram grows up in the household of his mother and returns there after his forced marriage. When he goes to court, he is mature enough to take command of troops. Oxenford left his mother’s household at age 12, immediately after his father’s death, and she played no further role in rearing him.
2. Helena and the King are unrelated. Anne was Burghley’s daughter.
3. Bertram does not want to marry Helena. All of the extant evidence indicates that Oxenford did want to marry Anne. In fact, he agreed to pay for the right to select his own bride (to "purchase his marriage"), a step that would have been unnecessary if he had acquiesced in a marriage arranged by his guardian [Joel Hurstfield The Queen’s Wards: Wardship and Marriage Under Elizabeth, pp. 252-3].
4. Bertram and Helena do not have marital relations until Helena follows him to Italy. Oxenford and Anne’s daughter was conceived before the earl’s departure.
5. The bed-trick in the play is set up entirely by Helena, without any help from her (deceased) father. The trick in Dr. Stritmatter’s “ancient sources” was devised by Anne’s father.
6. When he learns that Helena is pregnant with his child, Bertram begs pardon for his offenses and declares his love for her. Oxenford reacted to his daughter’s birth by trying to disclaim paternity and separating from his wife. Five years passed before they were reconciled.
even Joel Hurstfield . . . concedes: Oddly, Dr. Stritmatter never mentions the name of Professor Hurstfield’s book, and it is absent from his bibliography. The reader who tracks down The Queen’s Wards will discover that the excerpt is handled misleadingly. Professor Hurstfield, having just quoted Bertram’s “but I must attend his majesty’s command, to whom I am now in ward, evermore in subjection” [I.i.4-6], adds, “But if Bertram was, as some critics believe, Shakespeare’s version of Burghley’s ward, the Earl of Oxford, then there is another side of the story; and we shall meet him again in a different context.” [Hurstfield, op. cit., p. 129] That other side of the story is Oxenford’s conspicuous failure to act like a man “evermore in subjection”. Professor Hurstfield manifestly offers no opinion on whether Bertram really was modeled on Oxenford. His point is the contrast between theoretical subjection and practical insubordination.
In the fairly short passage just discussed, Dr. Stritmatter commits multiple errors - not recondite mistakes in interpreting problematic data but elementary blunders that one would not expect of an undergraduate. Nor are these paragraphs atypical. The upshot is that one cannot rely on either the author’s data or his judgement.
Some categories of mistake recur again and again. Three are, I think, particularly debilitating to Dr. Stritmatter’s case:
Credulous reliance on anti-Stratfordian authorities. Dr. Stritmatter believes that orthodox scholarship has irrationally resisted the “powerful, cumulative and persuasive case for the falsity of the official dogma of Shakespeare” [p. 9/15]. That is his justification for thrusting aside scholarly consensus and treating such writers as Looney, B. M. Ward, the Ogburns, Gilbert Slater, W. P. Fowler and Elizabeth Appleton as authorities on a par with such as Samuel Schoenbaum, Naseeb Shaheen and J. Dover Wilson. Indeed, the former are accepted de facto as better authorities, for their reasoning is never challenged and their conclusions are never questioned. This credulity toward his ideological compères extends to areas that “the official dogma of Shakespeare” cannot conceivably have infected. For instance, Dr. Stritmatter takes as established fact Oxenford’s authorship of anti-Marprelate tracts, although no specialist in the English Reformation has ever suggested any such thing. Similarly, he believes that Oxenford had close relationships with Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey, while Nashe and Harvey experts know of none. Comprehensive biographies of the two writers (Charles Nicholl, A Cup of News: The Life of Thomas Nashe (1984); Virginia F. Stern, Gabriel Harvey: His Life, Marginalia and Library (1979)) mention Oxenford only in passing. His most substantial appearance in either book is the suggestion that Nashe may have caricatured him as “the Baron of double Beere” in The Unfortunate Traveller [Nicholl, op. cit., pp. 159-60].
A striking instance of the occultation of critical faculties for the benefit of fellow Oxfordians is Appendix N, “A Matter of Style”. Here the author uncritically adopts the analyses of Thomas Looney and Joseph Sobran, which supposedly prove that Oxenford’s acknowledged poems are stylistically very like Shakespeare’s. He does not take note of Steven May’s observation that “the decisive parallels enumerated by Looney” include several poems that were attributed to Oxenford by Alexander Grosart but were in reality written by Robert Greene, Thomas Campion, Fulk Greville and others [Steven W. May, “The Poems of Edward De Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, and of Robert Devereaux, Second Earl of Essex”, 77 Studies in Philology, No. 5, p. 11 (1980)]. Since Dr. Stritmatter discusses Professor May’s article in some detail, he must have seen this criticism, yet he simply ignores it. Similarly, Joseph Sobran mistakenly misidentifies lines by Thomas Churchyard as Oxenford’s and finds them more Shakespearean than similar stretches of Oxenford’s genuine work. (Vide “A Test of Sobran’s Method”.) This error ought to be glaringly evident to anyone who has read Professor May’s notes on the poem (id., p. 82), but Dr. Stritmatter misses it completely.
Ignorance of religious history and doctrine. The book is ostensibly about the influence of selected Biblical concepts on Shakespeare’s work, a topic that requires, one would think, close acquaintance with Reformation history and thought. It is therefore disconcerting to read statements that display little knowledge of either. The Elizabethan religious settlement is described as a “historical compromise . . . between Catholics and Separatist factions such as Presbyterians and Anabaptists” [p. 37, n48/60, n47]. All three of those denominations were illegal and persecuted throughout Elizabeth’s reign. Dr. Stritmatter thinks that comparison to the heroic liberator Jephthah (Judges 11:1 - 12:7) “would have been in the 16th century certainly an actionable cause for slander” [p. 234, n248/355, n246]. In animadverting on the accuracy of the Geneva Bible translation, he describes the Septuagint and Vulgate versions as the “existing pre-texts”, ignoring the Hebrew, which the Geneva translators regarded as authoritative [p. 176/272]. On one of the great Reformation theological controversies, he tells us, “In affirming that Christ is not ‘in’ the bread but that the bread literally ‘is’ the body of Christ, Luther is rejecting transubstantiation in favor of what became known as the doctrine of the ‘real presence,’ a theory of the Eucharist which dispensed with the priest as an intermediary whose ritual intervention was necessary to transform the bread into Christ’s body prior to the communion.” [p. 176/273] Trying to sort out this tangle, one can only echo the despairing cry of a 19th century Russian bureaucrat: “The main shortcoming of the reign of Nikolai Pavlovich consisted in the fact that it was all a mistake.”
Misconstrual of Shakespeare’s plays as works for reading rather than performance. Most of the Shakespearean canon did not appear in print during Oxenford’s lifetime. It is thus scarcely believable that, had he been its author, he would have taken pains to plant meanings in the text that could be appreciated only by readers who might never exist. Yet Dr. Stritmatter frequently advocates readings that would be unintelligible to a theatrical audience; often they are transparent only to the reader with a research library and plenty of time on his hands. Here is an illustration. The author is discussing Measure for Measure IV.ii.195ff.
Notice that the disguised Duke does not say, when he hands the provost his stage directions, “the contents of this note is the return of the Duke”. He says something much more subtle and intriguing: “The contents of this is the return of the Duke.” Of course, for the line to seem [sic] intelligible in performance, the actor playing the Duke must physically deliver a note to Escalus. But the cognitive effect the line impresses on a reader’s mind is another matter. [p. 169/262 (emphasis in original)]
A whole chapter [pp. 223-30/340-50] is devoted to a reading so labyrinthine that it might be called “Kafkaesque”. To uncover the true gravamen of Mistress Quickly’s quip that “truth” and Falstaff’s “word” “Do no more adhere and keep place together than the hundredth/ Psalm to the tune of Greensleeves” (The Merry Wives of Windsor, II.i.62-3), one must know which edition of the metrical Psalter was bound into Oxenford’s Bible and trace a chain of tune designations through that volume. In all likelihood, Dr. Stritmatter is the very first person who has been in a position to do so. It has thus taken 400 years for Lord Oxenford to acquire a comprehending reader. One hopes that the wait was worth it.
Are all these strictures nothing more than nit-picks and quibbles? None of them is individually crucial, but the overall density of stritmatter is disturbing. Readers of scholarly works cannot avoid placing a great deal of trust in the author. No one has the time or resources to track down every footnote and meticulously think through every argument. If that were generally necessary, learning could never advance, for every reader would endlessly replough the same fields.
Unfortunately, anyone who would sow where Dr. Stritmatter has reaped must put his shoulder to the plough and redo all the work. The weeds of stritmatter have quite choked all the crop. To conclude on a proper Shakespearean note,
. . . ‘tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
March 11, 2002
A popular idea among anti-Stratfordian scribblers is that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was too prosperous, contented and bourgeois a figure ever to have written poems like Shakespeare’s Sonnets. As Joseph Sobran puts it,
Scholars have largely ignored one the chief themes of the Sonnets: the poet’s sense of disgrace. [examples omitted] Would Mr. Shakspere have felt so blue about his reputation and prospects at the very time when he was becoming a popular, critical and financial success? Every public reference to “Shakespeare” in the 1590s was laudatory; none imputed anything shameful to him.
He then itemizes various disgraces suffered by the Earl of Oxford and contrasts the Stratford Man’s happy lot: “Mr. Shakspere, meanwhile, was prospering handsomely; in 1597, he bought New Place, one of the largest houses in Stratford, and soon he would apply for a title [sic] and a coat of arms.” [Joseph Sobran, Alias Shakespeare 199]
Similarly, a writer on the Salon Web site asks, “Why do the sonnets refer to disgrace and a stain on one's name, when William S. was apparently jollying it up in Stratford and, later, London the whole time?”
So a little money, a big house and a coat of arms are all a fellow needs to be content? Let’s take a look at some other aspects of the life of “Mr. Shakspere”. (The factual data are mostly drawn from S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life and are not, except as otherwise noted, particularly controversial.)
His father John was evidently an ambitious man, who early left the family farm and moved to Stratford to take up the glover’s trade. He married into the locally prominent Arden family, acquired rental properties and became a town official. Such were his circumstances when Will was born and growing up. Then, just as the lad was entering adolescence, his father fell into financial difficulty, had to abandon his application for a coat of arms, and at least professed to live in apprehension of arrest for debt (his ostensible motive for illegally absenting himself from church services). Thus his son matured in an atmosphere of family stress, insecurity and fear of downward mobility.
If teen-age Will paid attention to the world beyond his immediate family (and many teen-agers do), he saw stress, insecurity and fear there, too. During the last quarter of the century, Warwickshire endured recession, of which John Shakespeare’s problems were just one symptom. Meanwhile, England lay under the threat of foreign invasion, and religious civil war was more than a remote possibility. It has been rightly said that, had Queen Elizabeth died in the first days of 1588, her three-decade reign would be remembered as a bleak, distressing time.
Adding complexity to ordinary malaise is the possibility that John Shakespeare embraced Roman Catholicism around 1580. If that is true - Schoenbaum declares himself an agnostic on the question, but the evidence for conversion is very strong - his roughly 16-year-old son may well have been troubled, especially after a wave of persecution in 1583 (prompted by a Warwickshire Catholic’s attempted assassination of the Queen). Either accepting his father’s new faith and thus joining an outlawed sect or rejecting it and precipitating a family rift would have been unpalatable. [Cf. John Southworth, Shakespeare the Player: A Life in the Theatre, pp. 19-20 (2000).]
Young Will did not, of course, remain in recessionary Stratford but made his way to London, leaving behind a wife and three children, whom he had to support by one means or another. The professions that he took up - acting and play writing - were neither well-paid nor well-regarded. The theater might be popular at the Court, but the local government in London was dominated by Puritans, who regarded it as comparable to pornography. Official hostility added to the economic hazards of the stage; there was always the looming risk that, as happened in 1593, the local authorities would find reasons to close the playhouses for long periods, throwing men like Will Shakespeare out of work.
For most of his working career, Will necessarily spent a substantial portion of each year in London, several days’ journey from home. Despite much speculation, we do not know anything about the state of his marriage. We can be sure, however, that frequent, prolonged separation was no joy to a young husband and father - unless, that is, his wedded life was miserable anyway, which would have entailed its own kind of unhappiness.
The first literary notice that we have of him is the stinging attack in Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit. If the conventional interpretation of that incident is correct, Will’s reaction was to summon allies to browbeat an apology out of Henry Chettle, the man whom he held responsible for the work published under Greene’s name. It would have been easy to ignore an obscurely worded libel attributed to a dead man. That Shakespeare took the matter seriously hints at sensitivity to criticism and fretfulness about his standing with the public, traits not inconsistent with his later standoffishness from literary controversy.
With the chronological laxness that distance brings, we often overlook how slowly Will established his position in the theatrical world. As he neared his thirtieth year (middle age in Elizabethan times), he had sold a small number of plays but did not have a settled position as "ordinary playwright" for an established troupe. He attempted to break into the world of polite literature with the mini-epics Venus and Adonis (1593, age 29) and The Rape of Lucrece (1594, age 30). Both were widely praised and sold well (to the enrichment of the printer rather than the author), but they did not secure the Earl of Southampton as a long-term patron. The turning point of the young poet’s fortunes was his association with the new Lord Chamberlain’s Men, organized in June 1594. After that, his reputation and prosperity grew steadily, but abrupt good fortune after a long period of uncertainty does not put all minds at ease.
Finally, what looks to us like a steady march forward may have looked very different to the man on the spot. The theater was no more reliable a source of income then than it is today. A bad season could bankrupt a company, and no dramatist, however many his successes, can be sure that the fickle public will applaud his next production. Modern instances suggest that actors and playwrights, including ones who make tons of money, are not always exemplars of happiness, stability and calm.
One does not wish to draw the shadows too darkly, but shadows are there. Shakespeare of Stratford climbed to a position of affluence and social respectability, but it was a hard climb, not without downward slippage. That he more than once felt “in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes” is highly believable.