The world is often so depressing that I comfort myself with fiction — and of course like everyone I have enjoyed Shakespeare’s work as some of the finest in any language.
I also like movies (some of them), and recently enjoyed Anonymous — a superb tale of Elizabethan court intrigue, skullduggery, plotting and betrayal that incidentally makes the case that the author of the work we know as Shakespeare’s was in fact not William Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon, but the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere.
The movie — which takes some historical liberties but gets much of the paranoia and drama of the period just right — is loosely based on Mark Anderson’s book Shakespeare by another Name and other books by so-called “Oxfordians” who argue for de Vere’s authorship.
The standard academic view is that William Shakspere, a rural actor who was born and buried in Stratford, came to London and over 20 years wrote the Shakespeare cannon, which appeared in full only after his death. But curiously for the master author of the English Renaissance, there is not a single remaining manuscript in his hand, nor letter of any kind to anyone, nor record of payment from publishers, nor any books or papers owned by Shakspere. There were no elegies at his death, which was evidently unremarked by contemporaries, and unlike other master poets or playwrights of his day, such as Drayton, Spenser, and Jonson, he was not buried at Westminster Abbey but in his hometown churchyard, with a doggerel verse on his headstone that reads:
“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare,
To dig the dust enclosed here.
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
It is hard to imagine a more un-Shakespearean verse! But in the absence of any real evidence to the contrary, Shakspere of Stratford-on-Avon is conventionally considered the same man as Shakespeare the author of Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear, the Sonnets and so much more.
The absence of evidence and odd burial of Shakspere of Stratford, however, have led to centuries of speculation on whether another author wrote the famous works and hid behind the Shakespeare name (Mark Twain was one of those who believed in a hidden author). Anderson’s book offers many clues that he claims point to Oxford as the true author; but others have argued for Francis Bacon, or Philip Sydney, or the latter’s sister Mary Sydney, or Christopher Marlowe (if his death was faked). All of these claims argue that the author of Shakespeare’s works was too well-educated, too well-travelled, too knowledgable about the classics and foreign literature, to be the same as the provincial Shakspere, who lacked formal education beyond grammar school (if he had that) and never left England.
One of the strongest arguments that Shakspere of Stratford was Shakespeare the author comes from the fact that aside from the doggeral gravestone, there is also a memorial plaque in the church at the graveyard in Stratford, which includes a Latin inscription that gives the highest praise to Shakespeare as an author. This was evidently erected some time before 1623, but likely after Shakspere’s death (in 1616), about the same time that the First Folio (the first fairly complete and authorized collection of his plays, edited by the court playwright Ben Jonson) was being prepared for publication. This memorial therefore seems to have been constructed specifically to link the Shakspere buried in Statford with the author of the plays.
Still, there have been suspicions that the memorial itself is a red herring, purposely designed to deflect attention from the true author (whose family was too prominent to risk linkage to the stage), and that the inscription has a double meaning. I have been pondering this myself this weekend, and I offer my own take on the controversy here. As far as I know, these arguments are original — they are prompted by, but are mostly distinct from, the arguments made by Anderson in his book presenting the Oxfordian case. I should also say that I am a Shakespeare fan and classicist by hobby, not a professional scholar of the Elizabethan period. But I spotted some simple things that raise substantial doubts about the equation of the Shakspere buried in Stratford and the author of the classically knowledgable and allusion-rich plays of Shakespeare.
The Latin inscription on the Shakespeare monument offers the highest praise to the person buried in the churchyard. It lauds the person buried there as being “Judicio Pylium” (a Pylian in judgement, comparing him to King Nestor of Pylos), “Genio Socratem” (a Socrates in genius), and “Arte Maronem” (in artistry a Maro – evidently comparing him to the Roman epic poet Publius Vergilius Maro, better known today as Virgil). Such high praise seems to fit the master storyteller and poet who created the Shakespeare canon.
Yet these are in fact very strange people to hold up as comparators to shower praise on Shakespeare. Nestor was hardly the most wise or talented judge known to the Renaissance; in fact he was mostly known for his judgment leading to bad outcomes. Most of the people he advised ended up dead if they took his advice. Indeed, his most famous bit of advice was to Achilles’ companion Patroclus, whom he advises to disguise himself as Achilles, the Greeks’ greatest warrior — an ill-advised ruse that leads to Patroclus’s death at the hands of Hector. The judgment of King Nestor of Pylos is thus, most famously, advice to disguise oneself as someone of far greater ability.
Similarly, the “genius of Socrates” is an extremely odd plaudit for a master poet and playwright, as Socrates never wrote a line himself, as far as is known, much less created any plays or poetry. Indeed, according to Plato’s Republic, Socrates would ban poets from his ideal republic. In The Republic, Socrates makes a distinction between poetry (including plays) which he demeans as presenting a twice-removed imitation of reality, and the true reality which is accessible only through philosophy. For Socrates, poetry is a misleading deception, presenting a world shaped by the gods of Olympus and full of misleading but compelling figures, so poets should be driven out of society in order for the wisdom of philosophy to hold unchallenged sway. How can this viewpoint be identified with the author of the most compelling poetry and dramas in the English language? Why not compare Shakespeare to one of the master philosophers of antiquity whose written works showed a deep appreciation of poetry and nature, such as Aristotle, or to famous ancient playwrights such as Sophocles or Euripides, or the ultimate poet such as Homer? The “genius of Socrates” was to gain immortal fame not for anything he ever wrote, but solely for figuring as the front man for another author (Plato) whose words, put into the mouth of Socrates, made the latter famous.
So thus far, the first two phrases are best understood as saying “disguised as a person of greater ability, and famous for words written and put in his mouth by another.” Of course, the third comparison seems clear-cut: “Arte Maronem” compares Shakespeare to the most famous epic poet of Latin antiquity, Vergilius Publius Maro, author of the The Eclogues, The Georgics, and The Aeneid. Or does it? Again, it is an odd comparison, insofar as Virgil was a leading pastoral poet and was most often compared in the late 16th and early 17th century with Shakespeare’s rivals, Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser. The latter authors were far more famous for their achievements in the field of pastoral poetry than Shakespeare – indeed Spenser has been dubbed “England’s Virgil.” Sidney had written a famous pastoral poem called Arcadia, while Spenser wrote a pastoral called The Shepheardes Calendar and explicitly took Virgil as his model for his masterpiece The Faerie Queene. Why choose an ancient poet more identified with Shakespeare’s chief rivals than with Shakespeare himself for the latter’s final praise?
However, there was another “Maro” known in the Renaissance, and that was the medieval writer Virgilius Maro, known as “Grammaticus” (the Grammarian). This Maro was known for two works, the Epitomae and Epistolae, that were parodies of scholarly writings. They were cast in the form of late classical grammatical texts and claimed to be based on the expertise of ancient grammar authorities; but in fact were filled with outlandish tales and references that were obviously mistaken or deliberate twists or inventions presented as facts. The Epitomae and Epistolae based their authority on citations from a host of authentic sounding classical authors whose names in fact appear nowhere else, and on quotes that similarly appear in no other sources, which those truly familiar with the classical cannon would recognize as clever fabrications by someone with knowledge of the major classical and patristic works. Maro’s works thus appear to have been a form of medieval scholastic humor – an inside joke for accomplished scholars to appreciate. Thus the words “in Art, a Maro,” if actually referring to Virgilius Maro the Grammarian, could be read as “using the arts of outlandish claims and false attribution to claim authority and authorship, even though all educated readers would recognize such use as fraudulent.”
Pointing to the art of Maro the Grammarian would in fact be a clear message that the classical inscription on the Stratford monument was itself an “inside joke” for the truly learned to decipher and laugh at. Of course, Maro the Grammarian was fairly obscure. However, the writer Ben Jonson, who is suspected of being the author of the monument’s inscription, was himself a grammarian as well as playwright and poet, and in fact published a book titled English Grammar in 1640. Is it mere coincidence that a noted grammarian might have authored an inscription that pointed to a classical author known as “the Grammarian?” In point of fact, there is another clue that does not depend on authorship — the two Latin lines take the form of a heroic couplet, but as E.K. Chambers pointed out 70 years ago, there is a grammar mistake in the first line! The scansion is wrong: the second word has a long vowel in its second syllable, so should the fourth word; but the ‘o’ in ‘Socratem’ is a short vowel. What better way to signal that the “Maro” in this line was “The Grammarian” than to include in the first line a clear error in Latin grammar?
The three phrases are now completely matched, and clear in intent. Superficially, to someone familiar with Nestor, Socrates, and Virgil only by their general reputation and without any detailed knowledge of their writings or of the more obscure Maro the Grammarian, the epigraph would appear as high praise. However, to someone intimately familiar with the classics and the actual judgments of Nestor, the philosophy of Socrates, and the existence of Maro the Grammarian, the three phrases were skillfully chosen to convey the opposite meaning – “here lies someone who disguised himself as someone who was his better; someone who gained fame through the words of another author placed in his mouth; and who made outlandish claims that were obviously false to those who knew their texts.”
The second line of the Latin inscription is similarly ambiguous. It reads “Terra Tegit, Populus Maeret, Olympus Habet.” This is conventionally translated as “The earth buries him, the people mourn him, and Olympus (i.e. heaven) possesses him.” And that is a passable translation, provided one supplies the missing pronoun “eum,” meaning “him” for Shakespeare. But that pronoun is missing, suggesting other possible meanings. For example, one could also imagine the missing object of the verb phrases to be “the truth.” This actually fits better with the standard translation of the Latin verb “tego/tegit” – to cover or protect, especially if one also translates the Latin word “maereo/maeret” not simply as “mourns” but as “is bereaved of.” The passage then would translate into English as “The earth covers [the truth], the people are bereaved [of the truth], Olympus possesses [the truth].”
Why consider this meaning, which of course would again point to someone other than the playwright Shakespeare as being buried there? The use of the term “Olympus” is a marker. After all, Olympus was the abode of gods, not poets; none of the famous poets or playwrights of antiquity ended up there. In classical literature, the final resting place for the most virtuous and blessed mortals was Elysium, not Olympus. Why say that Olympus now possesses Shakespeare? To a classicist, that would make no sense. If what is meant is heaven, then the Latin word for heaven, as used in the Lord’s Prayer — “Our father in Heaven” — is caelis. If Shakespeare is to be raised on high, why not put Shakespeare in heaven, or in the stars (astra), another ultimate destination for outstanding mortals, as in fact Jonson calls for in his dedication to Shakespeare in the First Folio?
But Olympus was the abode of the Muses, and Hesiod begins his Theogeny with a famous hymn to the Muses that contains this passage in lines 22 ff.:
“They, the Muses, once taught Hesiod beautiful song, while he was shepherding his flocks on holy Mount Helicon; these goddesses of Olympus, daughters of aegis-bearing Zeus first of all spoke this word to me, ‘Oh, you shepherds of the fields, base and lowly things, little more than bellies, we know how to tell many falsehoods that seem like truths but we also know, when we so desire, how to utter the absolute truth.’ Thus they spoke, the fluent daughters of great Zeus.” [my emphasis]
Shakespeare was frequently identified with the Muses; indeed Jonson invokes the Muses three times in his dedication to the First Folio. The use of “Olympus” in the inscription therefore could well point to the Muses, who “know how to tell many falsehoods that seem like truths” but also know “when we so desire, how to utter the absolute truth.” If this allusion is correct, then the Latin inscription suggests that the monument itself bears “falsehoods that seems like truths” but also, for those who know and desire it, will “utter the absolute truth.”
Thus deciphered, for those familiar with their classics in detail, the inscription on the Stratford monument reads:
“Here lies someone who disguised himself as someone who was his better; someone who gained fame through the words of another author placed in his mouth; and who made outlandish claims that were obviously false to those who knew their texts. The earth covers [the truth], the people are bereaved [of the truth], Olympus [the Muses, who live there] possesses [the truth].”
Of course, the author of the memorial inscription for Stratford could hardly put things so plainly for a monument located at the gravesite of the Stratford Shakspere; but for those with a reasonable knowledge of classical literature, the message is quite specific in its allusions and has a meaning opposite to the usual translation, but one that is cleverly disguised in words of apparent praise and wrapped in “falsehoods that seem like truths.”
This interpretation of the inscription does not point to any one particular alternative author for the Shakespeare canon (although Oxfordians will be pleased to point to the motto of the Oxford crest — “Nothing truer than truth” — as another basis for reading “truth” as the missing word in the second line of the inscription.) However, this interpretation seems to offer a plausible and witty solution to the oddities about the inscription, and clearly indicates the falsehood of the Stratford Shakspere being the author “Shakespeare.”
So count me a skeptic too — I no longer believe the Stratfordian is the author of the Shakespeare plays. Can you too find allusions, evidence, or proof? It seems to be an open game and anyone can play. Here are some links to sites that present the authorship controversy — Happy prospecting!