Spot the Looney: A lot of bad evidence=good evidence

November 10, 2011

I just got a new tablet computer. Yay! Of course, that means I’ve been downloading free books like a crazy woman. One of the first ones I downloaded was J. Thomas Looney‘s “Shakespeare” Identified in Edward De Vere the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1920). You can read it here, if you really want to. Looney was not the first to suggest that someone other than Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Far from it; indeed, he borrows heavily from the Baconians. His work, however, is  the basis for the claims that Oxford wrote Shakespeare. That’s right, without Looney, there would have been no Anonymous.

A word about the man’s name: it’s pronounced “loney” (rhymes with “pony”), so I won’t tolerate any childish “loony” jokes. Well, all right, but no more than a dozen or so.

I’ve only gotten through the first chapter, but the Introduction was extremely instructive. In it, I found this gem:

I do not maintain that any single objection, to what for convenience sake we must call the Stratfordian view, afforded by itself sufficient grounds for regarding it as untenable; for most of these objections have been stoutly combated severally, by men whose opinions are entitled to respect. It was rather the cumulative effect of the many objections which, it appeared to me, made it impossible to adhere with any confidence to the old view of things, and so gave to the whole situation an appearance of inexplicable mystery. (p. 3)

I reread that several times thinking, “he can’t really be saying what I think he’s saying. Surely not.” I even emailed Bob to ask “Is he saying what I think he’s saying?” Yes, that was the subject line. Eventually I came to the conclusion that he was indeed saying that no single objection to Shakespeare’s authorship has any real validity as they have all been “stoutly combated.” But put all these invalid objections together and–hey presto!–you’ve got yourself a reasonable argument. Wow. That’s almost exactly what critical thinking isn’t.

So, you may ask, what qualifications did Looney have in literary/historical investigation? Well, there’s this:

For several years in succession I had been called upon to go through repeated courses of reading one one particular play of Shakespeare’s, namely “The Merchant of Venice.” This long continued familiarity with the contents of one play induced a peculiar sense of intimacy with the mind and disposition of its author and his outlook upon life. (p. 2)

Ah. He read ONE play and felt he understood the author intimately. Makes perfect sense. More importantly, his lack of qualifications make him the right man for the job:

That one who is not a recognized authority or an expert in literature should attempt the solution of a problem which has so far baffled specialists must doubtless appear to many as a glaring act of overboldness; (p. 4)

I don’t know what “specialists” were baffled by the authorship question. I imagine if you asked the specialists of the day, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” They’d answer “Shakespeare.” If they looked baffled, it would probably be because they were puzzled that someone would ask such a silly question.

Looney continues,

…whilst to pretend to have actually solved this most momentous of literary puzzles will seem to some like sheer hallucination. A little reflection ought, however, to convince any one that the problem is not, at bottom, purely literary. That is to say, its solution does not depend wholly upon the extent of the investigator’s knowledge of literature nor upon the soundness of his literary judgment. (p. 4)

Well, I suppose that’s true. A person who is not trained in literary analysis and research could theoretically discover documentary evidence that proved that Oxford wrote Shakespeare, especially if that person was trained in historical research (which Looney was not). But Looney discovered no such evidence. All the documentary evidence (and there’s a lot of it) is on Shakespeare’s side.

This is probably why the problem has not been solved before now. It has been left mainly in the hands of literary men, whereas its solution required the application of methods of research which are not, strictly speaking, literary methods. (p. 4)

Suck it, experts! I’m not sure what Looney thinks “literary methods” are, but they do involve looking at historical context. He adds, “The imperfection of my own literary equipment…was therefore no reason why I should not attempt the task (p. 4).” It’s no reason why he shouldn’t make the attempt, but it may be a reason some of his conclusions are faulty: he looked at poems ascribed to Oxford and thought they fit Shakespeare. In fact, in many ways, the styles do not match at all. His opinion of actual experts is not high:

The common sense of the rank and file of Shakespeare students, when unhampered by past committals, leads irresistibly towards the rejection of the old idea of authorship: and only the doctors of the ancient literary cult hang in the rear. (p. 11)

Yay! I’ve always wanted to be in a cult. Wait, does this mean that if Stephen Greenblatt tells me to drink poison-laced Kool-Aid, I have to drink it? No, I’m a medievalist; I think I’m safe from Greenblatt’s evil cult-leader charisma.

But Looney’s comments on literary cults and literary men are typical, not just of Shakespeare-deniers, but also of conspiracy and fringe theorists the world over: you can’t trust experts; they are too invested in the “official story.” Either they are too stuffy and closed-minded to see the Truth, or they are actively suppressing it. Ancient alien proponents, 9/11 truthers, Holocaust deniers–they all sing the same tune.

A look at Looney’s biography may help explain why he needed to find a different author for the Shakespeare works. He grew up in an evangelical Methodist household, but he later became a leading light in the positivist Religion of Humanity. They placed great, almost worshipful, emphasis on Great Men (and women), even proposing to rename the months after important thinkers. From Looney’s point of view, Shakespeare-the-poet was a Great Man, but Shakespeare-the-man didn’t fit the bill, so he had to find someone else. Why he picked a murderous profligate, I don’t know. According to Looney’s Wikipedia page, his family claimed to be descended from the Earls of Derby, one of whom, William Stanley, the sixth Earl, is another candidate for the “real” author of Shakespeare’s work.

In assigning a “Great Man” to the Great Work, Looney thought he was performing another Great Work.

The transference of the honour of writing the immortal Shakespeare dramas from one man to another, if definitely effected, becomes not merely a national or contemporary event, but a world event of permanent importance, destined to leave a mark as enduring as human literature and the human race itself. (p. 1)


This Week in Conspiracy (7 Nov 2011)

November 7, 2011

We survived CSICon, and the audience survived my epic spiel (which was never certain). I met some pretty fab folks and enjoyed myself mightily. Eve did too. But just because we played hooky for a few days doesn’t mean that I could help but see the crazy stuff that streamed in on my mail, twitter, and reader feeds.

Let get it on.

This Week in I Made More as a Graduate Student than Anonymous Has Pulled In

I’m pretty sure that Anonymous is losing money hand over fist in the American market. This is as it should be.

And the other crazy:

Twit of the week:

This came from the @poopy_poo, who is the soul of the age: “@davidicke I hope all your 13,000 followers will be attending wembley next year mr Icke, very excited to be coming :-)”


Review of “Anonymous:” The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job

November 7, 2011

So, we finally saw Anonymous. To begin with, the traffic sucked, the popcorn was disappointing and the soda machines refused to give me an adequate diet Coke (machine 1 was a mix of diet Coke and some red Hi-C-like substance; machine 2 mostly just gave me carbonated water). I suppose I can’t blame Roland Emmerich and John Orloff for these problems, but I’m not feeling generous.

One of the previews was for “William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” directed by and starring Ralph Fiennes. Shakespeare is listed as a writer on the IMDB page. Edward de Vere, seventeenth earl of Oxford, is not.

Anonymous begins with Shakespeare-denier Sir Derek Jacobi entering a modern-day theater (that sports “Anonymous” on its sign) and beginning to recite one of Ben Jonson’s poems in praise of Shakespeare in big-time over-the-top fashion. Then he stops and questions Shakespeare’s identity. He first lists the works attributed to Shakespeare, including “thirty-seven plays.” Almost all scholars now count thirty-eight plays. Why no love for Two Noble Kinsmen? Perhaps because it was written long after Oxford’s death?

All these plays, sonnets and miscellaneous poems and “not a single manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand.” Except–quite possibly–Hand D of Sir Thomas More, of course (which, naturally, Sir Derek doesn’t mention). All we have, says Sir Derek, are six barely legible signatures, each one spelled differently. We’ve been over this one repeatedly. See the fourth reason that Roland Emmerich is an idiot.

Shakespeare was the son of a glove-maker and had a grammar school education. Sir Derek doesn’t draw any conclusions from this, but the snobby implication is that it is unlikely that such a person could write the works attributed to Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s daughters were “irrefutably illiterate.” Emmerich mentions this in his ten reasons Shakespeare is a fraud. I had a niggling suspicion about this, but since Susanna and Judith’s literacy has nothing to do with the authorship of their father’s works, I lazily ignored it. In the comments, Fretful Porpentine pointed out Emmerich’s error. Here is the signature of Susanna Hall (née Shakespeare). So, Sir Derek was irrefutably spouting a lie. Oh, but little facts don’t stop Shakespeare deniers. Apparently her signature is “painfully formed,” and she uses three different versions of the letter “a.” Thus she, like her sister, was functionally illiterate. Now since, as Fretful Porpentine notes and even Anonymous admits, reading and writing were two separate skills in Tudor England, this is highly dubious. If Susanna could write her name, she could read. One website contrasts the handwriting of Susanna and her father with that of her husband, John Hall: “His signature is what one would expect from a man who wrote in a clear Italian hand. Would that his father-in-law’s signatures had had such clarity and consistency.” John Hall wrote in an italic hand. Clearly, he was highly literate. Susanna and Shakespeare wrote in Secretary Hand. Clearly, they were functionally illiterate boobs.

Finally, Sir Derek brings up the will, which doesn’t mention Shakespeare’s plays or books. See reason 10 here. So, Sir Derek proposes to offer us a different story. At this point the film moves into the past. I should point out that I took copious notes, but even at the best of times, my handwriting is pretty horrible. That’s right: I am functionally illiterate. When I’m writing in a darkened movie theater, I am even more illiterater (see?).

The cinematography is rather beautiful, especially the scene of Elizabeth’s funeral procession. The facial hair is also extremely impressive. Also, the movie makes no fucking sense. It moves backward and forward in time, but Ben Jonson stays the same age and other characters age at significantly different rates. In particular, Elizabeth and William Cecil, Lord Burghley, seem to age at roughly 3 times the rate of everyone else. This is confusing.

In an early scene, when the queen is very old, she is told that she is to be presented with a play written by “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.” She’s thrilled because she loves plays and “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.” I suppose this is the justification for the film’s title (rather than the more appropriate Pseudonymous). Except it doesn’t make any fucking sense. The play in question is Midsummer Night’s Dream, which, it transpires, Oxford wrote for the court when he was an adolescent. He also played Puck. Everyone at court knows he wrote the play. There was nothing hidden about it. It seems Oxford wrote a whole bunch of plays for court in his youth, including the Prince Hal plays. Again, none of this is hidden, so there is no real reason to refer to him as “[pregnant pause] Anonymous.”

At some point, Oxford attends a public performance of a Jonson play with Southampton (who, we will eventually discover, is his son by Elizabeth; Oxford is also Elizabeth’s son [ick], as is Essex). Shakespeare is AWI (Acting While Intoxicated). Christopher Marlowe has the hots for Southampton. Playwrights Thomas Nashe and Thomas Dekker are essentially non-entities: one’s fat and the other’s skinny, if that helps. All the playwrights, including the highly educated Marlowe, have noticeably less educated-sounding accents than the court characters. All the playwrights seem to be untalented hacks compared to the Incomparable Genius that is Oxford. Marlowe’s a conniving dick; Jonson is kind of a sniveling weasel, although he has integrity and a genuine love of great poetry (i. e. Oxford’s).

Perhaps now is the time to mention how excessively unpleasant all the characters are. Elizabeth is petty and solely driven by emotion. When she discovers that she is pregnant by [her son] Oxford, she declares that she will marry him, even though he is already married: “I LOVE HIM!!!! she screeches, in all caps). She seems utterly useless at statecraft, no more than a pawn of the Cecils. The Cecils (William,  Lord Burghley, and his son Robert) are practically mustache-twirling villains (they plot to murder Oxford, Essex and Southampton; when that fails, they connive to make it appear that Essex and Southampton are in open rebellion against the queen. That’s right, the Essex Rebellion was an inside job). They are also poetry/pleasure-loathing Puritans (“plays are the work of the devil,” says Burghley), a characterization that is simply incorrect, as far as I can tell. Southampton and Essex are pretty and uninteresting (the same is largely true of Oxford as a young man, but he is more actively unpleasant).

And then there’s Shakespeare. He is a drunken, unscrupulous, moronic, conniving, self-aggrandizing, semi-literate (can read but can’t write), inarticulate, barely coherent, petty, malicious, blackmailing, murderous (kills Marlowe for threatening to expose him) little toad. It’s hard to imagine anyone more unappealing. Yet, somehow Oxford manages to be worse. I suppose what makes Oxford so thoroughly reprehensible is the filmmakers’ attempts to make him seem a paragon of, well, everything. Oxford certainly seems to think he’s wonderful. Toward the end of the film, he admits that he’s failed at pretty much everything. But it’s not really his fault, you see. It’s the Cecils’ fault. Also, it’s because of his single-minded devotion to his poetry. The only thing he didn’t fail at is the one thing he didn’t do (write Shakespeare’s poetry). He points out that he had been one of the richest peers in England, but at the end of his life, he is impoverished. Why? Because of his devotion to his Muse. How the fuck much did parchment cost in Elizabethan England? Oh, also he claims Burghley stole his inheritance. Whatever. When he witnesses a performance of Henry V, he silently mouths the St. Crispin’s Day speech and weeps at the beauty of his own words. Barf.

Anyway, after seeing the Jonson play, he has an idea: he can use the public theater to spread his ideas and, somehow, win a kingdom for his son. In this, of course, he fails miserably. Oxford wants Jonson to produce the plays under his (Jonson’s) name. Oxford can’t be seen to write plays in his position (except for all those plays he’s already known for writing; sure, they were written as court entertainments, but you’d think someone might notice some similarity. Nuppers).

Oxford assures Jonson that his plays will make him the richest and most popular playwright in London. He’s modest like that. Jonson doesn’t really want to do it. He has integrity, you’ll remember, and he wants to be known for his own work. But for the sake of the wonderful plays, Jonson agrees. Shakespeare, of course, has no integrity, and when the crowd begins chanting “playwright, playwright” after Henry V, Shakespeare leaps forward and takes credit, to Oxford’s horror: “An actor, for God’s sake.”  Jonson, of course, was also an actor for a time (in real life), but in the film, he tells Shakespeare that playwrights don’t have time to act. Tell that to Nathan Field.

Oxford’s next play is Romeo and Juliet. He announces to Jonson that it’s in iambic pentameter. “What, all of it?” exclaims Jonson, “Is that possible?” Everyone’s amazed that it’s completely in verse. It’s not, of course. And A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was ostensibly written decades earlier, is also predominantly in verse (in reality, the two plays were probably written close together in time, along with Richard II). There were plenty of plays before Shakespeare that were in iambic pentameter, as well. The first English drama in blank verse was Gorboduc or Ferrex and Porrex from 1561.

Some other stupid things: I’ve hinted that there are some problems with the chronology of the plays. Here are some more: Hamlet appears to be written shortly after Romeo and Juliet, and Marlowe is still alive when it is performed. He sneaks off to tattle to Robert Cecil about it. Everyone explicitly makes a connection between the character of Polonius and Lord Burghley. Later, Jonson will similarly tattle about Richard III (which therefore must have been written after Hamlet), though he agonizes over what he’s done. Richard III is supposed to satirize Robert Cecil, who was apparently somewhat hunchbacked. The film suggests that Richard was never portrayed as hunchbacked before the play.

This tendency of rival poets to go around accusing Shakespeare/Oxford of writing seditious plays is, of course, preposterous. Edmund Tilney held the position of Master of the Revels. He was the official censor, and all plays had to be approved by him. If the plays were as obviously seditious as the film suggests, Tilney would never have approved them.

Oxford writes Richard III specifically to achieve…I have no idea what…in his struggles against the Cecils and his plots to promote his son. His plan backfires spectacularly, and the Cecils use it to manufacture the Essex Rebellion. In fact, shortly before the rebellion, some of the conspirators paid the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform Richard II (that’s 2nd, not 3rd) at the Globe. The play was not new at the time. Augustine Phillips, a member of the company, testified at Essex’s trial.

There are more things in the movie that are stupid. So many more. But thinking about it makes me sad and stabby, so I’ll leave you with this brief précis of stupidity.

But remember,

The Essex Rebellion Was an Inside Job!

A Review of Anonymous, Commonly Attributed to John Orloff

November 7, 2011

As the closing credits rolled on Anonymous and Eve and I shouted our disapproval at the names that appeared on the screen (“Shame!” “Fail!” “Weak!”), a pair of old ladies in front of us started laughing.

“We were here for the 3:00 show,” one of them told us, “but the power went out. So they gave us free passes to see it again. I’m glad they did because I didn’t know what was going on the first time I saw it!”

And that’s the movie in a nutshell, a turd in a teapot, a tale told by an idiot, directed by a total spazz, and performed by a troupe of misguided failures.

The story was incoherent. Queen Elizabeth is a total ho, boinking everything that moves in her court. This includes her bastard son, the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. Yuck and REALLY? (Several times in the movie, as Elizabeth was having a snit fit, Eve and I would turn to each other and say in our Queenie voice, “Who’s Queen?” Only really super cool people will laugh at that joke.)

The story was not told chronologically, which was a problem. It starts in the modern era, at a play or a lecture or something called “Anonymous.” It’s not clear. But what you do get, right out of the gate, is a completely useless series of questions by the character Underinformed Git (played by himself, Derek Jacobi), “Why aren’t books mentioned in Shakespeare’s will?” (What part of the “the whole damned estate” don’t you get, Rollo?) So, we were 2 minutes in, and I already wanted to kick a puppy.

Then we go almost to the end of the narrative proper, when Ben Jonson is getting done over good by the local constabulary for reasons that are not clear until the end. He’s hiding the plays written by de Vere-as-Shake-Speare. Jonson must be in on it because he is someone with credibility whose actual work (his elegy on Shakespeare faces the famous woodcut in the First Folio) totally f’in demolishes the Oxfordian fantasy before it got started. And then there is the little problem of the “Sweet Swan of Avon” elegy written, also by Jonson. Oh and the fact that Shakespeare was publishing long after de Vere was worm food. The solution? Make Jonson a conspirator and give him all of the plays to leak to Shakespeare slowly after de Vere’s death. Aaand your evidence for this is….apparently that you need it to be just so.

So, uh, then they are performing A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and everyone in court knows that it was written by a Bieber-aged de Vere…but then they all apparently forget that. My horse-drawn carriage has already thrown a wheel in that plot-hole.

Oxford is orphaned and raised by the Cecils who are advisors to the Queen. Turns out, go figure, that de Vere is smarter than all his tutors. The scene in which we are introduced to his Greek tutor, Latin tutor, cosmology tutor, etc. serves no functional purpose to the plot; it actually only underlines for Oxfordian cultists that de Vere had exactly the type of education they think that you need to write Shakespeare’s work. There were little nods to the in-group like that throughout the movie. For instance, you pan across Oxford’s office and see a falcon, you can almost hear Emmerich wondering out loud about how Shakespeare could know the vocabulary related to falconry if he was a bumpkin. And then you can almost hear a whoosh and a smack as I lose it.

OH! The movie is so insulting to the playwrights of the age. They were basically all hacks and they sat together in the peanut gallery. The treatment of Shakespeare was basically defamation. Shakespeare was slightly less fluent in English than Jesse Ventura, perpetually drunk, and usually whoring. They even suggested that Shakespeare killed Christopher Marlowe! Anything you can do to make him look bad, s’pose. At one point the playwrights are at their whore-and-ale house, the Randy Badger (or something), and Jonson throws down, daring Shakespeare to write his name. Lamest. Challenge. Ever.

Did I mention that it made no sense and that it left two old ladies very confused?

There was one really phenomenal aspect to the film, however, the mustaches. Whoever did the facial arrangements should get an Oscar(tm). If you could roll that clip I brought…..

“F’in roses how do they work?” –Wm. Shkspere

First the Queen dumps him and then there’s a rebellion. Ed’s having a crappy day.

It’s been only 3 days, and I forget who this is. Well acted, my friend. But look at that beard!

Bad guy who is not Shakespeare.

“Fauntleroy, why do you never return my text messages?”

Lord Melchett: “BAAAAAAAAAA!”

“What would you, the audience, do?”

Seriously, Shakespeare’s facial wig carries the performance.

If they had spent half as much time grooming the plot as they did these guys’ upper lips, the movie would have passed. But it was badly told to the point that only a true believer could possibly invest in it. The infuriating thing at the end, however, was not that it crapped on the Bard, who can take care of himself, but that the little old ladies in front of us wondered out loud if their understanding of history had always been that bad. “No,” I assured them. “Roland Emmerich is just a bad person.”


Shakespeare Kitteh

November 2, 2011








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