lias Shakespeare

Joseph Sobran (The Free Press, 1997)

Reviewed by John Mucci.
Mr. Mucci is Associate Editor of
The Elizabethan Review.

In the commonality among the mass of material available on Shakespeare's authorship, there is a necessity to cover the same ground to introduce readers to the contention. After reading dozens of such books, one comes to regard them as a kind of familiar tapestry, some with one design brought forward, and others with items subdued or omitted. As the threads are drawn out one by one, the reader may with some pleasure appreciate the skill which the author has selected his patterns and arranged his loom. In this long promised book, Alias Shakespaeare, Joseph Sobran has succeeded in creating a most attractive arras, through which we are invited to run our rapier and skewer the persistent man from Stratford whom traditionalists conflate with William Shakespeare.

On the author's own terms the book is persuasive: those who read this as their first introduction to the authorship question are likely to find it absorbing and thorough. As a mainstream book brought out by a major publisher, it deserves to be taken seriously, and will doubtless be mightily pounced upon by academia for that presumption.

Although Sobran himself regards traditional Shakespearean biographies to be "comically formulaic," his case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford follows many others in the attempt to first compromise the position of the Stratford Man (or, "Mr. Shakspere," as Sobran so disingenuously insists on putting it), then to build up the Earl of Oxford through parallels in his life with the Shakespeare works. The new twist is that so many of the obstacles with which Oxfordians have grappled—one might almost say been bloodied over—Sobran ignores, or casts aside, leaving himself a very clear path of polished touchstones which he uses to smoothly present his case. His introduction is coy: "I have not tried to dispute every point about the authorship question; some interesting problems have been left hanging because I believe they are, for the time being anyway, unanswerable." But this cavalier method will sound the alarum for many Oxfordians, as Sobran continues: "In many cases, I have not tried to refute orthodox criticisms of common anti-Stratfordian arguments for the simple reason... in some cases I think the orthodox are quite right." He then lists items which are dear to every dissenter's heart: the Ashbourne portrait, the hyphenation of the name Shake-speare, the Stratford grammar school, the Trinity Church monument and its changes... he has decided to address none of these. It is a dose of cold water thrown on those who are expecting a full-jugular attack on the Stratford man. "The key issues are sufficiently demanding and, happily, soluble," he concludes.

Once the path is straightened by this bold set of assumptions, Sobran's thesis becomes clear. His new material focuses on the three long poems (Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, and the 1609 cycle of Shake-Speare's Sonnets) and the relationship to Shakespeare's patron, Henry Wriothsley, Earl of Southampton. Hyphenated pseudonyms and Tudor Rose theory be damned, Sobran has weeded out a clear spot to hammer in his groundstake, and this is it. Edward de Vere, the sophisticated rake and man of letters, fell into a passionate relationship with a young earl, and these three long poems express it openly. Rather than have it be an enormous embarrassment to the Oxford and Southampton titles, attention was focused on the plays with the publication of the First Folio in an attempt to obscure these tattle-tale lyrics, which were not printed or even mentioned in the Folio. This despite the popularity of the narrative poems, which had ten editions published by 1623. It is an intriguing theory, and one which does not strain credulity—if one is convinced of de Vere's authorship of the Shakespeare canon.

His method of distilling the salient facts and interpretation of facts to conclude Oxford's authorship is compelling, even though his sources seem to be less than complete. Although Charlton Ogburn, Jr., J. Thomas Looney and William Fowler are mentioned, they are all but glossed over, and only Ogburn's The Mysterious William Shakespeare (1984 edition) is to be found in the Works Cited appendix. For the opposition, although he acknowledges the input of Alan Nelson, Samuel Schoenbaum, and Irvin Matus, their works referred to (when cited at all), are their lesser works, books which do not really address the points at hand. Sobran mentions that his editors pruned much of what he had originally written (and we are all thankful at least he did not keep the working title of Outing Shakespeare), and it is true that many anti-Stratfordians are prolix to the point of asphyxiation. Yet there are times when he misses making a connection in this great swarm of material. He will repeat himself over several chapters for the sake of emphasis, at the expense of developing his material more completely.

For example, the analysis of Hamlet is given a near-royal treatment in this book, yet Sobran misses the connections with both Horatios in Oxford's life (his cousin Sir Horace Vere, a brilliant English general, and the Italian choir-boy Orazio Cogno—both of whom are mentioned in other contexts), and the rest of the Peregrine Bertie report from Denmark which refers to the odd word "Danskers," and the arras in the hall, and the royal guest list which included a certain Guildenstern, and two members of the family Rosencrantz. As long as the road is clear, why not send the whole battalion down it?

Although there are many questions lurking in the shadows—exactly how did they bring off this imposture with William Shakespeare? Why was there no private correspondence mentioning Oxford as the author?—it is interesting to watch Mr. Sobran weave his tale of Oxford. Since his conclusion is one which can stand independently of them, one can only hope that he will continue, in another volume, to address the remaining questions.

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