The return of the Earl
"The rentboy theory of Shakespeare."
[This poast is an ad for the De Vere Ball in NY on August 13. It is sold out but I think the organizer has some comps if you have a good story.]
Most writers of Oxfordiana (Joe Sobran being a notable exception) are shy about the political and historical implications of the Oxford theory of Shakespeare authorship. Actually—Oxford unlocks the whole political story of the last half-millennium.
Yes. really. But… let’s start with a summary.
The case for Oxford
The positive case for Oxford as the real Shakespeare is too long, and too easy to find. Let me make a narrow case, and mention the one detail that convinced me the most.
It is the Earl of Oxford’s poetry, which reads as Shakespeare juvenilia. Oxford is not as good as Shakespeare. He it still ridding himself of awkward, precious embroideries. But by sometime before 1576—in his 20s—he can produce premium content like:
Is he god of peace or war?
What be his arms? What is his might?
His war is peace, his peace is war;
Each grief of his is but delight;
His bitter ball is sugared bliss.
What be his gifts? How doth he pay?
When is he seen? Or how conceived?
Sweet dreams in sleep, new thoughts in day,
Beholding eyes, in mind received;
A god that rules and yet obeys.
This is not just in the general style of Shakespeare, but has the mastery of rhythmic variation that we see only in Shakespeare. Look at the way he plays with the caesura. In the shower, try singing these stanzas to yourself in the style of the Beastie Boys. You can do this with a lot of Shakespeare. With almost anyone else from the period it would be either prosy or sing-songy. But Shakespeare often just rocks.
Now: it is a documented historical fact that the author of these lines lived for at least 28 years after writing them. What did he write in the next three decades? A mystery. As the Britannica, not an Oxfordian source, puts it:
It has therefore been suggested that the [1000-pound, ie, huge] annuity may have been granted for his services in maintaining a company of actors (Oxford’s Men, from 1580) and that the obscurity of his later life is to be explained by his immersion in literary pursuits. He was indeed a notable patron of writers, and numerous books were dedicated to him, including ones by Robert Greene and Anthony Munday. He also employed John Lyly, the author of the novel Euphues, as his secretary for many years and gave the lease of Blackfriars Theatre to him.
The Oxford theory of Shakespeare is that the Shakespeare corpus was written by a brilliant, super-educated poet (the quality and intensity of classical education given to Oxford, one of the highest nobles in the realm, is not available anywhere today), who for the last quarter of the 16th century was “immersed in literary pursuits,” yet who has no known literary output for that period.
This is like hearing a bark and assuming that it was produced by a dog. Also, there is a dog around the corner, which is known to bark. I also do a pretty good bark. Maybe I snuck up next to the dog, and barked. Or maybe the dog barked.
How did a rural bumpkin who could barely sign his name write Shakespeare’s plays? Also a mystery—see below. These mysteries fit as nicely as the outlines of Africa and South America. (Most people don’t know that plate tectonics was a crackpot theory between 1912, when it was invented, and the mid-1960s.)
The case against Stratford
More complicated is the negative case for William Shaksper of Stratford (who used many different spellings, but this is a standard disambiguation) as not Shakespeare. (Two excellent works from this perspective are Mark Twain and George Greenwood). Once you are looking for someone else, it is easy to find Oxford. But why look?
For readers unfamiliar with the identification of the true author of the Shakespeare corpus by J. Thomas Looney (pronounced “Loaney”) in 1920, here is a brief summary. Suppose a corpus of witty, erudite academic novels, set in an unnamed Ivy League English department, is published under the name of an illiterate immigrant from Ghana, who sells sunglasses on a blanket on the street in Morningside Heights.
In this case, it would take an enormous mental density not to suspect a literary hoax. Without any other evidence, a hoax is more probable than the official story, because the official story is so improbable. The best way to construct a plausible story is to find the simplest, most banal reality that could underlie the documentary facts.
For example, we might hazard a guess that the real author of the academic novels is an English professor, and the miraculous Ghanaian (who really exists) is his lover. Perhaps there is some practical reason to publish under this false name. The professor does not want to be outed as lampooning his colleague; the Ghanaian is eligible for affirmative action; etc.
Doctors say: when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras. (The principle is specific to the milieu; on the Serengeti, think zebras, not horses.) The zebra is the theory that an unschooled immigrant, with an accent thicker than cream cheese, deconstructed the Columbia English department. The horse is the narrative above. We generally think of “conspiracy theories” as zebras. In some cases, they are horses. By the way, the Elizabethan era is a golden age of literary hoaxes—if it is even a “hoax” when someone tweets under a handle that isn’t, like, their actual name.
From direct documentary evidence, we have a clear and simple narrative of William Shaksper of Stratford. His signatures are those of a semi-literate man from the lower middle class, to which he belonged. (His daughter Judith signed her name with a mark.) Fleeing a bad marriage, he ran away to London, where his rustic dialect was barely comprehensible, he got into the theater business. He found work as a stagehand, then became an actor, then ended up as what we would now call a producer. Liking money, he branched out in his business career and became a dealer in malt and wool.
Hearing that this individual wrote the plays and sonnets is a zebra. It is like hearing a cat bark. Something seems wrong. Therefore, we think again from first principles.
When we read the Shakespeare corpus through a veil of ignorance, seeking Bayesian priors, our first goal is to identify the genre of the work. We quickly identify it as Elizabethan poetry—specifically, Elizabethan court poetry.
For example, a “comp” (as realtors put it) for Shakespeare, at least as a poet, are the sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney—whom Wikipedia describes as “the finest Elizabethan sonneteer after Shakespeare.” Perhaps a similar corpus has a similar author—this would be a horse. At least, we know an illiterate Ghanaian did not write Arcadia.
Here is a good long-form biography of Sidney. Compare it to the documented life of Shaksper. Now compare the sunglasses vendor’s CV to the English professor’s. (Kids: if you’re classy you don’t have a resume, you have a CV.)
The Elizabethans had climbers; Ben Jonson was one. Sidney himself was something of a climber; his lineage was nowhere near as illustrious as Oxford’s. The Elizabethans had climbers—but not invisible or reclusive climbers. J.D. Salinger was not a thing. You did not submit your scripts to the Globe Theater with a stamped, self-addressed envelope. A climber of Shakespearean proportions would leave a smoking trail in the documentary record—as both Sidney and Jonson did.
What is the documentary evidence for the identification of Shakespeare as Shaksper? We find exactly one unambiguous source: the preface to the First Folio, printed under the names of two other actors. London at the turn of the 17th century was not full of barista actors writing screenplays in the attic. Acting was a menial trade. Writing was an aristocratic hobby. Maybe your Mexican landscaper plays polo. What are the odds? Horses, zebras. Maybe Ben Jonson, who wrote the inscription, also wrote the preface. It kind of sounds like him. Suppose this one document is a hoax? This is all we need.
On hypothetical inference
What is the evidence against Oxford?
Oxford—whose biography is so similar to Sidney’s that they competed for the same woman—died in 1604. Many of the plays are “dated” after 1604—I say “dated” because all Shakespeare dates are a nebulous tissue of hypothetical inference.
For example, The Tempest has a shipwreck. This must refer to a certain famous shipwreck narrative, which happened after 1604. (Looney himself is fooled by this one, and tries to argue The Tempest out of the Shakespeare canon. It takes only the slightest familiarity with Oxford’s biography to see that Hamlet is the young Oxford, Prospero the old.) Needless to say, the 16th century is full of shipwrecks, etc.
Conclusion: the dates, like most of “Shakespeare’s biography,” are an inferential tissue of fancy. In Twain’s words:
All the rest of his vast history, as furnished by the biographers, is built up, course upon course, of guesses, inferences, theories, conjectures—an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rising sky-high from a very flat and very thin foundation of inconsequential facts.
Without clear facts, we have to infer. We should infer horses, not zebras. This story is missing one detail: how did Oxford come to use Shakespeare’s name? How were the two associated?
It is a pretty name. Perhaps Shaksper’s first London job was not as a stagehand—but an older profession, one often associated with the stage. Oxford, his patron, needed a Twitter handle… and chose one that would be a ribald in-joke to everyone he knew.
And as Shaksper’s acting/producing career advanced, the joke only got better. Ascribing the plays to this uncouth, successful bumpkin, who everyone knew and laughed at (he is probably Ben Jonson’s Sogliardo), and who had started his career as a rentboy, was utterly hilarious. Unfortunately, the world spent the next four hundred years believing the joke.
Yes, you heard this “rentboy theory of Shakespeare” here first. I admit that I have no evidence for it. I also have no evidence that Shaksper even went to school. But such is the real story, or something like it—I think. I see no more probable narrative. (For a good life of Oxford as Shakespeare, without the rentboy part, see Mark Anderson.)
But—what does it mean?
Oxford, the reactionary
Most would tell you that it means nothing. Given Conquest’s law—“everyone is reactionary on the subjects they understand”—many adopt a craven, but all too human, corollary. After taking a bold stance in their own specialty, they have no stomach for any other fight.
Reactionary enlightenment in one field should cast Bayesian doubt on other fields. Instead, local enlightenment reinforces global ignorance. Logically, the specialist should reason that if his own field, which he knows closely, is corrupt, other fields which he cannot examine in detail may be corrupt as well.
But emotionally, the cost of a general dissidence far exceeds the value of extending the inference. The sweet spot is general compliance, local dissidence. So Oxfordians are at great pains to deny any hint of reactionary sympathies. Instead of the Oxford theory being the keystone to the story of the last half-millennium, it is a literary curiosity.
Even for Oxfordians, it remains possible to think of Shakespeare as somehow, like, a democrat. (Bear in mind that in the English political lexicon, the word “democracy” was considered utterly cursed, more or less universally, right up to the 19th century.)
In the literary Piltdown that is Shaksper of Stratford, every clue in the corny rustic romance of the country genius is a false lead pointing in the democratic direction. Once we cleanse our brains of this cheese, we notice that democratic themes are virtually absent in Shakespeare.
Strangely absent, in fact—since the idea of all men being created equal is, uh, obvious. Also, uh, Christian. Might the writer of the Shakespeare canon have had an aversion to democratic thinking?
Strange, for a climber. A climber would seem unlikely to write:
When that the general is not like the hive
To whom the foragers shall all repair,
What honey is expected? Degree being vizarded [hidden],
The unworthiest shows as fairly in the mask.
The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order;
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans cheque to good and bad: but when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues and what portents! what mutiny!
What raging of the sea! shaking of earth!
Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite from their fixure! O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder to all high designs,
Then enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenitive and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark, what discord follows! each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy: the bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe:
Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead:
Force should be right; or rather, right and wrong,
Between whose endless jar justice resides,
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.
Then every thing includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Incredibly based, right? An illiterate immigrant from Ghana definitely wrote that. (Also, look at the variation in rhythm—much more complicated than in the Oxfordian rap above, but showing the same kind of skill.)
Shakespeare is indeed full of explicitly anti-democratic rhetoric. Coriolanus is an anti-democratic play. In Henry VI there is zero sympathy for the peasant rebel, Jack Cade. In The Tempest, Shakespeare basically invents racism. Etc.
Perhaps the most interesting clew in the corpus is a tossed-off line in Twelfth Night:
I had as lief be a Brownist as a politician.
We know what a politician is. It’s a democracy thing. Shakespeare didn’t like it. You don’t either. That’s because you’re based too.
But what is a Brownist? Wikipedia to the rescue:
The Brownists were a group of English Dissenters or early Separatists from the Church of England. They were named after Robert Browne, who was born at Tolethorpe Hall in Rutland, England, in the 1550s. A majority of the Separatists aboard the Mayflower in 1620 were Brownists, and indeed the Pilgrims were known into the 20th century as the Brownist Emigration.
That’s right: Shakespeare hates America. That’s how reactionary he is.
Shakespeare is two people. One is a far-right America-hater, like Putin, Saddam, or George III. (Actually, Elizabeth I makes George III look like Deepak Chopra.) The other is a rentboy. Now, this is what Al Gore meant by “an inconvenient truth.”
Ok, sure. But what does it mean?
The meaning of Oxford
The meaning of Oxford is that under Elizabeth, monarchy works.
Elizabethan court poetry is Elizabethan poetry. Imagine if Trump was President, and all the best novels and films and poems in the country were produced by members of the Trump administration—or at least, the Trump entourage.
Is there a great physicist in the country? Trump will invite him on the Trump plane. Trump will send him Trumpbux. Trump will appoint him to cool gigs and stuff.
In fact, if you are a physicist, in this alternate Trumpworld, you don’t measure your career by awards and titles you got from some alphabet-soup agency. Succeeding in physics, or poetry, or painting, is measured in one way: how close you get to Trump.
(JFK, of course, had a bit of this energy going on. If you want libs to dig monarchy, after you talk about FDR, talk about the Kennedys.)
And in this imaginary world, this success metric works. In a working monarchy, the monarch is the center of everything awesome. All awesome people rise toward the court, which is simply a fancy-dress ritual for the coolest, most important people in the country. “Office and custom, in all line of order.”
In our fallen democratic world, we refuse to process this frame. We insist that our kings and queens, if we still have them, be what we made them: ceremonial fops, crowned Kardashians, normal people in abnormal clothing. And when we take the magic of their power away—the prophecy fulfills itself.
In Shakespeare himself—the writer, not the rube—we see a clear awareness of the ripeness of the age, the fragility of Elizabethan excellence. Already in the early 17th century, the Jacobean age is a diminished version of the Elizabethan. There is simply no Jacobean Shakespeare—
And already, the democratic waters begin to swirl beneath the weak, imported king. Elizabeth could control the religious ferments of the 16th century, which had tired the English of civic strife. In the 17th century, the strife returned in a new, more political form, and utterly smashed the delicate, beautiful fishbowl of the Tudor-Stuart court. Anglo-American culture has never fully recovered—and there has never been a talent as great as Shakespeare.
The Puritans—the Brownists—closed the theaters for a whole generation. But paper endures. After the civil wars, these amazing plays still existed and still could be performed. And they were—albeit often butchered to be cornier and pornier.
But after the civil wars, the democratic legendarium had penetrated into the Anglo-American mind. The kitschy romantic idea of a rustic natural genius, “warbling his native woodnotes wild,” no longer seemed like the ridiculous joke that Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have read it as.
And today the joke is still read as fact… for now.
The return of the Earl
Many people feel that if they write enough books and essays, if they make enough videos and podcasts, they can carry the day for the lost king of the English language, and restore the Earl to the place of Master Apis Lapis that he deserves forever.
Unfortunately, this is not possible. If it was ever possible, it was possible a hundred years ago. It was not possible a hundred years ago, so it is pretty impossible now.
The market for ideas is what machine-learning nerds call an optimization landscape. Imagine you are in a landscape of rolling hills. Your goal is to find the highest point in the landscape. Solution: wherever you are, walk uphill. At the top of the hill, stop.
But wait: you might be able to go downhill, then uphill again, to get to a higher hill. You might be trapped in what we call a “local maximum.”
Optimization systems will often include techniques for agitating the system to leap out of local maxima. But there is always a limit to these techniques.
If Shakespeare was Oxford, everything written about Shakespeare as Stratford is more or less nonsense. An entire field has to meme itself out of existence. Fields just don’t do that—not when there is no one above the field in charge of it. They cannot leap out of the local maximum of their own existence. The leap is too great.
We live in an oligarchy of prestigious institutions that is full of super-smart people. But these institutions cannot change their minds. They cannot leap this far. They operate by process, and there is no process for any such leap.
There is no process for displacing the Stratfordian theory of Shakespeare. There is no process for displacing the amyloid theory of Alzheimer’s. There is no process for displacing string theory. There is no process for displacing the guilty-looking bat virus hunters. Or rather, there is a process—and that process runs straight through the Stratfordians, amyloidists, string theorists, and bat virologists.
Thomas Carlyle once said of the British Foreign Office that there was no remedy for it but to set a live coal under it. Alas, this was not done. 65 years later, it set up WWI.
How can four impossible problems be easier to solve than one?
If all four problems have the same solution, they are the same problem. All the energy being used to solve the individual problems, which are not actually the real problem but just symptoms of it, can be focused on the actual problem upstream.
The problem is not to change the Foreign Office’s policy in the Crimea. The problem is to set a live coal (metaphorically speaking) under the Foreign Office. As we broaden the set of downstream symptoms of the actual problem, we broaden the constituency of actors who should be attacking the actual problem—instead of the symptoms.
Attacking the symptoms is a flashlight. Attacking the problem is a laser. In this case, the problem is—the whole regime.
When we picture the level of power that it would take to change all the high-school English textbooks in America to treat Oxfordian authorship as an established fact, we are simply picturing absolute power—or absolute regime change. At this level of power, there is nothing that does not change.
An example: regime change in Germany in 1945. There was no trace of National Socialist ideology in the school textbooks by ‘46. The level of power needed to enforce Oxford as Shakespeare is sovereign power—the power of absolute regime change, the power of the Allied occupation government of Germany.
Of course, our regime thinks it is eternal and permanent. So did the Third Reich. So has every other regime since the dawn of time—such is the definition of a regime. Dynasties tend to outlast constitutions; and yet dynasties fall. What Oxford teaches us is that we are not helpless; the problem is perfectly solvable; and history isn’t over.