The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues
OCT 2011 Issue

A Binary Star with Anonymous

Charles Beauclerk
Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom
(Grove Press paperback, 2011)

One challenge that writers of scholarly works about Shakespeare have widely pursued over the centuries, and increasingly in recent years, is to reconstruct the Bard’s life story. Drawing upon historical information from the period and combing Shakespeare’s works for clues to his life and times, these writers shape their narratives from what they imagine Shakespeare to have been like, based on what they know, understand, and feel.

For many, from English professors to theater lovers, the traditional account of a bright lad from Stratford-upon-Avon who grew up to be the stellar poet and playwright is a great story, but for others it is a hollow void. The disconnect between Shakespeare’s works and the life of the traditional Bard gave impetus to the authorship question, with copious results, leading some faithful Stratfordians to reject any biographical interpretations of Shakespeare’s plays and poems: to them, even the sonnets are off limits.

An entire Shakespeare genre has arisen drawing connections between the life and the works. The efforts are commonly denigrated, but they fulfill a need shared by many: to provide an image of the author as a real human being and not, as some would have it, God.

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom by Charles Beauclerk, first published last year and reissued this year in paperback, is an account of Shakespeare’s life that relies heavily on a biographical interpretation of the plays, poems, and sonnets. “A vital part of the process is to see the works as a single story,” Beauclerk writes, “for despite their apparent diversity, the tales Shakespeare dramatized have a strong thematic unity, bound together as they are by the author’s inner story.”

The release is timely, because in major respects its story coincides with that of Anonymous, a film by Roland Emmerich that will open in New York and London later this month. Both book and film depict Shakespeare as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, and project him as a son of Queen Elizabeth with whom the queen later coupled to incestuously give birth to Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton—the dedicatee of Shakespeare’s poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, who is widely considered to be the young man to whom most of the sonnets are addressed.

Both Emmerich and Beauclerk say the book had no influence on the film, and Beauclerk (pronounced bo-CLAIR) told me he has “not been paid a penny by Emmerich, Sony, or anyone else involved.” Though clearly there are affinities, as Emmerich and Beauclerk have helped each other’s projects. Emmerich has distributed hundreds of copies of Beauclerk’s book to journalists at media events promoting Anonymous. The paperback edition of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom features a promotional blurb from Emmerich. In early June, Beauclerk appeared with Emmerich in London on the Oxfordian side of an authorship debate held to promote Anonymous.

In addition, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom is dedicated to Lisa Wilson, who has been a consultant on the film for years, as has her twin sister, Laura Wilson Matthias. They are co-producing a documentary on the authorship question with the working title Last Will. and Testament, expected to be released soon, that includes on-camera contributions from both Beauclerk and Emmerich.

Meanwhile, another drama has played out in Oxfordian circles over Beauclerk’s book. In March, the newsletter of the De Vere Society, a British Oxfordian group, printed a scathing review of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom. The writer, like many Oxfordians, is distressed by the double-incest story, but the review is also personally insulting to Beauclerk, starting from its epigraph, from Thomas Paine: “To argue with a person who has renounced the use of reason is like administering medicine to the dead.”

Beauclerk, who founded the De Vere Society, resigned as its president and said he would have nothing further to do with it. The distinguished actor Derek Jacobi, who plays a role in Anonymous and has championed the Oxfordian cause, also resigned his post as the society’s patron. Asked recently if there had been any change in the situation, Beauclerk said no, adding, “They have taken the decision to be a narrow church, a dogmatic church, and to keep their minds firmly closed. It just shows you: You can be an Oxfordian and still have a Stratfordian mentality.”

In advance of the release of Anonymous, Stratfordian defenders have manned the battlements. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has set up a website where 60 speakers give 60-second answers to 60 questions, some of them quite loaded (“How do you respond as an actor and director to the Shakespeare Authorship Conspiracy Theory?” “What other theories might be compared to the Shakespeare Authorship Conspiracy Theory and why?” “What do you think about Shakespeare’s reputation being stolen and passed off as someone else’s?”). Fifty-nine give answers to support Stratfordian dogma. The one exception is Emmerich.

In the preface to his book, Beauclerk discusses the problems of the Stratfordian case, summing up in the words of the 19th-century editor of the variorum editions of the Shakespeare plays, W.H. Furness: “I am one of the many who have never been able to bring the life of William Shakespeare and the plays of Shakespeare within planetary distance of each other. Are there any two things in the world more incongruous?”

Countering the conspiracy charge, Beauclerk says Shakespeare’s “identity was an open secret, which remained concealed from the public at large, rather like Roosevelt’s polio during the war, which never leaked into the press but was common knowledge among White House staff.” After the death of King James I, “the issue of the author’s identity remained off limits during the reign of his son Charles I. Not only were the offspring of statesmen lampooned in Shakespeare’s plays now in positions of power and influence, but the works gave notice of Tudor heirs yet living.”

One Stratfordian chestnut about alternative authorship studies is the charge of snobbery, that Oxfordians are elitists for believing that Shakespeare was a nobleman rather than a commoner. Beauclerk, whose bio on the book jacket says he is “a descendant of Edward de Vere,” is an easy target for such traducement.

In discussing Shakespeare’s history plays Beauclerk offers sound reasons for his perception of a noble point of view in the plays. “It is easy to forget,” he writes, “what a genealogical tour de force the history plays are. Shakespeare’s deep knowledge of the ruling families of late medieval England, many of whom were still in power in his own time, and their various interrelationships, to say nothing of the complex threads leading from them to the throne, is quite astonishing…. These are plays of succession and royal right, written by an insider who had made it his business to master the legal and dynastic intricacies of succession from the reign of Richard II to his own day. Like Churchill in his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Shakespeare writes history with an easy knowledge of the ruling class, and a subjective flair that is shaped by his deep investment in the destiny of his country.”

Beauclerk’s interpretation of Prince Hal as an image of the author shows how far he tends to go in developing his royal Shakespeare theory:

It is as well Oxford was able to express his violent resentment at his exclusion through literature, or he may have become a regicide. (His deep fascination with king-killers is everywhere evident in the plays.) Instead, he cast himself as the hero of the histories in the shape of the maverick heir to the throne, who devises skits on his royal parent, yet metamorphoses into the victor of Agincourt.

Through Hal, Beauclerk sees Oxford pleading his case to Queen Elizabeth: “His rejection of Falstaff at the end of Henry IV, Part 2 is a pledge of his commitment to fulfill his royal destiny. If only she will trust him, he will lay aside his Falstaff persona and step up to the plate.”

Special attention is given to Venus and Adonis and Hamlet. “Both Hamlet and Adonis stand for Shakespeare, the truth teller, whose words are his chief weapon,” Beauclerk writes. “Both relationships share the undercurrent of incest.” To Beauclerk, as for Harold Bloom in Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, Hamlet is Shakespeare’s self-portrait.

While the sonnets, written in the first person, can easily be construed as reflecting the poet’s personal life, it is much more difficult to make that case for a third-person narrative poem like Venus and Adonis or a play like Hamlet. The poetry in Hamlet’s soliloquies is so sublime that it can cloud the ironies that permeate Hamlet’s character and actions, while Venus and Adonis is so satiric about the title characters as to raise serious doubts about a self-portrait there.

Beauclerk imagines many other characters in the plays as identities for Shakespeare, some of them rather unusual. To cite one example in the tragedies, there is Lavinia in Titus Andronicus:

Shakespeare was, in effect, reduced to speaking through signs or gestures (like Lavinia with her stumps)…. Lavinia comes to stand for both Shakespeare himself, the silenced poet, and his butchered and pirated works.

In the histories, besides Hal, there is Richard II:

In Richard’s self-deposing one can sense Shakespeare using the theater to stage his own abdication, and so inscribe the secret history of his nation. Both he and Richard convert their loss of political power into an access of dramatic power.

And in the comedies, Hermione in The Winter’s Tale:

With Leontes as the paranoid Queen Elizabeth and Hermione as her court entertainer, William Shakespeare, everything falls into place. Although she has commissioned Shakespeare’s “entertainment,” the jealous tyrant misconstrues it, feeling betrayed in some way, as if the playwright had been disloyal or made a fool of her.

In addition to Leontes, Elizabeth is also imaginatively identified with King Lear

In dividing his kingdom, Lear indulges in an extraordinary charade—an act of emotional blackmail—making his gifts of property dependent upon his daughters’ professions of love. This is redolent of Elizabeth’s well-known weakness for conferring honors on those who flattered her most shamelessly.

The Shakespeare authorship question is well known, having been debated far and wide by Stratfordians, Oxfordians, and Otherfordians. More under the radar is the debate over the stories of Elizabeth and “Shakespeare” as mother and son, as parents of Southampton, or both—the double-incest story that Anonymous and Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom endorse.

Speculation about a special relationship between Elizabeth and Oxford goes back to 1932, only 12 years after J. Thomas Looney introduced the case for Oxford as Shakespeare with “Shakespeare” Identified. In The Life Story of Edward de Vere as “William Shakespeare,” Percy Allen, who was a serious scholar before he took to relying on spiritualism as a research tool, argued that “de Vere’s relations with Queen Elizabeth—could they be sufficiently known—would completely solve the mystery that still hangs about ‘Shakespeare’s’ paradoxical and enigmatic career.”

In 1952 Coward-McCann published This Star of England: “William Shake-speare,” Man of the Renaissance, by Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn Sr., a 1,297-page study of the Oxford case that broke the story that Southampton was the son of Elizabeth and Oxford. It is long out of print, but it was the book that split the Oxfordian movement. Among Oxfordians themselves, no other issue is so contentious as what they refer to as the “Prince Tudor” or “Tudor Rose” theory.

Several books in print, not major press but all available on Amazon, preceded Beauclerk’s book in telling one or both parts of the disputed story, including Shakespeare and the Tudor Rose by Elisabeth Sears, Oxford: Son of Queen Elizabeth I by Paul Streitz, and The Monument by Hank Whittemore.

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom represents something of a breakthrough, as it is the only book in print on the subject that has a mainstream publisher.

Beauclerk notes that, as Elizabeth Tudor was the daughter of Ann Boleyn—and with less absolute certainty, the daughter of Henry VIII—sexual proclivity was rife in her family. Mary Queen of Scots, Beauclerk writes, “let it be known that she suspected Elizabeth was the child of Anne Boleyn’s alleged lover Mark Smeaton, and not the daughter of Henry VIII.” Skepticism about Elizabeth’s being a “virgin queen” is not unreasonable. Gossip about her sex life, whether true or not, was common, even though it was libelous under English law.

Beyond the virginity question, it is much more speculative to argue that Elizabeth had children, and an order of magnitude or more precarious to propose that one of them was Oxford. The idea of a Tudor as Shakespeare, as the grandson of Henry VIII, does not compute intuitively.

Beauclerk dates the story of Oxford as Elizabeth’s son to a 1950 manuscript by a Fairleigh Dickinson University professor, Walter Freeman, whose work, he says, “did not become available to students until 1991.” But advocates for Francis Bacon as the author of Shakespeare’s work had their own claim of his royal birth at least since the 1890s, when the charlatan scholar Orville W. Owen, M.D., of Detroit, claimed that his multi-volume work, Sir Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story, written in poetic form, was retrieved from the First Folio of Shakespeare using a cipher wheel he constructed. Obviously a work of fantasy, Owen’s family drama seems an easy direction for a storyteller to take, allowing for dramatic scenes with shocking psychological twists.

Oxford’s father, according to Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom and other speculative authorship works, is Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour. The brother of Henry VIII’s wife Jane Seymour, he married Henry’s widow, Catherine Parr, and Elizabeth lived with them when she was in her early teens.

Beauclerk’s narrative has dramatic potential:

It was not long before Seymour managed to get a key to Elizabeth’s apartments and was letting himself in at all hours, even interrupting her studies. Then, one day in 1548, Catherine, who had gone in search of her 14-year-old stepdaughter, found her in the arms of the lord admiral. Whether they were making love or just kissing, the sight was sufficiently shocking for Catherine to raise the house with her cries. Her anguish was the more poignant because she was carrying Seymour’s child…. Catherine Parr gave birth to a daughter, Mary Seymour, on August 30. A few days later she contracted puerperal fever, and in the ensuing delirium made wild charges against her husband, accusing him of attempting to hasten her death so that he could marry Elizabeth.

It was all part of Seymour’s plan to gain the crown, Beauclerk says. A few months later Seymour was caught entering 11-year-old King Edward VII’s “bedchamber at night with a loaded pistol. In the succeeding melee, Edward’s pet dog was shot dead.” Seymour was soon “executed without trial…, having been condemned under act of attainder (i.e., ‘taintedness’), whereby all his titles and properties were forfeited to the crown.”

Beauclerk suggests 1548 as the likely year when Elizabeth gave birth to Oxford, whose historical birth year is 1550. The main reason given for concealment and the nurturing of a bastard son is the Tudors’ need for a male heir who would be raised as a Protestant. As evidence of Elizabeth’s having given birth, Beauclerk cites the refusal of Mary Queen of Scots to sign the Treaty of Edinburgh (1560) because she would have to “renounce her claim to the English throne during the life of Elizabeth and ‘any issue’ Elizabeth might have.” Mary demanded that in the language of the treaty, “any issue” should be replaced by “rightful issue,” Beauclerk writes, “signaling her awareness that Elizabeth was already the mother of bastard offspring.”

But of these questionable story lines the one that most strains credulity concerns the incestuous relationship between Elizabeth and her would-be son, Oxford. Beauclerk relies on the work of Hank Whittemore here, according to which, he says, Elizabeth “spent time alone” in the summer of 1568,

with Edward de Vere at Havering-atte-Bower, an ancient estate in the Forest of Essex, with the intention of coming clean about his parentage. Instead, she ended up making overtures to the bewildered young man, for this was Elizabeth’s habitual way of controlling men she felt threatened by. Oxford may have been her son, but he was unruly and ambitious, and might one day make a bid for the throne; therefore, Elizabeth would not think twice about using her sexual charms to subdue him.

No source is cited for Whittemore’s work, and I couldn’t find it in The Monument, so I contacted Whittemore. He said he was pretty sure that the source was his private papers, and when I relayed this to Beauclerk, he confirmed it. Whittemore said that particular writing was exploratory and speculative, adding that he had not yet decided one way or another on the idea of Elizabeth and Oxford being related as mother and son.

Whittemore has received no remuneration from Anonymous, either. Having seen a screening of it recently at the annual Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference in Portland, Ore., he said that other than in his own work, he did not know where Emmerich could have gotten the idea for several crucial issues in the film story. “I was glad to see the political context as put forth in my book,” he said of the film, and had hoped that at least “they might cite The Monument in their credits, but no such luck for even that.”

In response to questions about the film’s sourcing, Marco Shepherd, an Anonymous spokesman, said Emmerich got the Prince Tudor story from reading Whittemore and Streitz.

Beauclerk (whose book, Shepherd noted, was released long after the shooting script was in place) continues: “Many years later, the Catholic malcontent John Poole would say that ‘the Queen did woo the Earl of Oxford but he would not fall in.’ This episode would be dramatized in Oxford’s first published work under the name William Shake-speare, Venus and Adonis.”

Historically, the birth date of Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, is October 6, 1573. Beauclerk proposes that Wriothesley’s birth actually took place a few months earlier, in late May or early June, just before, Beauclerk says, “the court was rocked by the news that Oxford had fled to the Continent.”

Beauclerk explains:

It could be that the queen had given birth to Oxford’s child at Havering in late May or early June, and that in a sudden panic about the possible repercussions for her political security had gone back on her promise to acknowledge the child, deciding instead to place it with foster parents, whereupon Oxford had flown into a rage.

He cites Sonnet 33 as referring to “the birth of the child, and Elizabeth’s change of mind”:

Even so my Sun one early morn did shine
With all-triumphant splendour on my brow;
But, out alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath masked him from me now.

Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom could be read simply as a story, and it is written skillfully enough that it does create a world in which the imagination can take flight. A critical reader might mark up the book’s margins with notes like, “far out,” “very far out,” “wrong,” “sheer fantasy,” and “ridiculous,” yet would also occasionally write, “good,” “true,” “clever,” “interesting point,” and “reasonable inference.” The book is not written to attack any other scholar or storyteller. It is tolerant of opposing points of view, often favorably cites traditional scholars, and it makes all of its assertions conditionally, so it is possible to just follow along without having to be judgmental, to see where the story goes.

These two ways of reading reflect two different ways of looking at the world—the subjective and the objective—and this division applies to Allfordians.

The subjective school comprises those who love to imagine what Shakespeare was like and to tell stories based on their reading of both the canon and historical literature. They do scholarly research and refract it through their own lens and give us books like Will in the World and Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom and films like Shakespeare in Love and Anonymous.

The objective school seeks precision and certainty, and wants to say no more than what can withstand tests of definition, theorem, and probability. Its achievements, such as Shakespeare, Co-Author and Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography are lighthouse beacons to guide all scholarly ships.

Last month, astronomers discovered a planet orbiting two suns in a way that demolished theorists’ expectations. Circumbinary planets had existed only in science fiction. The new planet’s official name is Kepler-16b, but astronomers recognized a precedent and are freely referring to it as Tatooine, the planet Luke Skywalker hailed from in Star Wars.

There is the elusive truth of the spirit and art on one hand, and the enlightening truth of the mind and science on the other. The contribution each makes can help both, and in the world of Shakespeare, there should be room for both. The price of having the objective scholars continue to ridicule and belittle the work of storytellers could be scholarly stagnation and asphyxiation, while allowing such work a place in the Shakespeare cosmos could lead to inspiration and progress.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2011

All Issues