'Who Wrote Shakespeare?'
RILKO Interview with the late John Michell,by Christine Rhone
William Shakespeare (1564-1616), the most revered dramatist of the English language, is arguably the most iconic author on earth, as English continues to spread world-wide as a lingua franca. Teaching English to speakers of other languages and tourism represent a significant portion of the British GNP. Stratford-upon-Avon, enshrined as Shakespeare's Birthplace, remains a major item on the cultural itinerary.
John Michell, professor emeritus and a founder member of RILKO, began writing in 1967. He is the distinguished author of more than twenty books on philosophy, sacred number, landscape geometry, Fortean phenomena and other high mysteries. The Washington Post called his Who Wrote Shakespeare? of 1996 The best overview yet of the authorship controversy.
CR: John, we're in my garden in London on the 9th of October 2008. The title of your Who Wrote Shakespeare? is a short question like Is Shakespeare Dead? by Mark Twain. You call Twain's book the most enjoyable item in the Authorship literature. Why do you like his book so much?
JM: Well, Twain was a brilliant writer. Everything he wrote was entertaining, and his book Is Shakespeare Dead? is by far the funniest, and one of the shrewdest of books on the whole Authorship question - and an early one, too. He describes how he became converted to the Baconian view simply because the master of the steamship he was working on wanted an argument. The master was a great Stratfordian - that is, a believer in William Shakespeare as the author - and he wanted an argument. So Mark Twain studied up the Baconian view to give him an argument and he said, "The more I looked into it, the more I was convinced of it, and now it's a faith I'd die for."
Of course, that leads right to the very gist of the question: Why is it that everyone in the subject is so certain - the Baconians, the Marlovians, the Oxfordians, and all these people? Once they get into a camp, they become convinced by it, and it becomes, as Mark Twain said, a faith they live by. And of course the Stratfordians, the orthodox believers in William Shakespeare, they do the same thing - and if people question that view, they get quite angry. So Twain himself took up the case and then found himself being drawn into it and converted to it. He describes it in a most amusing, very finely written way. It is really an excellent book.
CR: Different estimates place Shakespeare's vocabulary at around 21,000 words, more than double that of any other writer in the English language. Milton's was only 7,000. How do the Stratfordians explain that?
JM: I don't think they give a particular explanation. It is a strange phenomenon from someone who had no known education, who shouldn't have had such a large vocabulary. Of course, it gives ammunition to the believers in a group who were behind the work - perhaps a group of idealists of the time, who combined together to produce the writings subsumed under the name Shakespeare. But really there's no explanation for this large vocabulary.
CR: Unlike other plays of their time, the First Folio edition of the plays of Shakespeare contains no dedications, addresses to friends, prologues or epilogues, in which he shows his own thoughts and character. What does this mean?
JM: Its all part of the problem - that we have absolutely nothing written by Shakespeare - nothing personal. We have the six rather different and inadequate signatures, the authenticity of which is sometimes doubted. But as to anything personal, there's practically nothing that Shakespeare ever wrote or that anyone in his lifetime said about him which sheds any light upon who he actually was.
CR: "The mystery of Shakespeare's non-existent library and manuscripts led to the first occurrence of Baconism." How did this happen?
JM: One of the first people to research Shakespeare himself was a local clergyman - the Rev. James Wilmot - who was struck by the scholarship in the works and realized that the author must have had a large library. So he thought he would look for it and he went through all the books in the Warwickshire libraries and he found nothing which belonged to Shakespeare. This set his suspicions going and he began to wonder who this Shakespeare actually was, who had left so little, virtually no trace of himself or any possessions, and that led to the first instance of Baconism, because this clergyman thought that only Francis Bacon could have had the knowledge and scholarship necessary for the plays.
CR: You write, "The Baconian cult at its most luxuriant is an awesome and awful thing. Its adherents credit Bacon not only with the whole of Shakespeare, but with all the great literature of his time, including the works of Montaigne and Cervantes." I can't think of any other cult like this one, can you?
JM: Come to think of it, nor can I. The Baconians have been searching for a long time now and they've developed their theories into all kinds of fantastical directions. Of course, the excesses and the fanatics - that doesn't devalue the Bacon theory as such. But at one time it became almost a Machiavellian cult, with Bacon taken as the father, even the inventor of the English language, the father of English literature, and the father of English thought and so on, and a man of universal knowledge, who alone could be capable of writing something so great as the work of Shakespeare.
CR: I quote again from your book: "The movement for deciphering Shakespeare can be seen as one of the many offshoots of Spiritualism." When did that movement begin?
JM: Spiritualism, the mania for spiritualism, began in New England in the nineteenth century, didn't it? At the same time people who are interested in one odd theory or unusual activity often pass it on to others, as an alternative worldview of hereticism. And so many of the Baconians were interested in communicating with Shakespeare - by the means of calling up Bacon, Shakespeare, and so on - and this led to some amusing literature. People were incredibly ingenious at decoding Shakespeare, many of which were done by channelling and scrying and such. Of course, the trouble with all these cases is they may convince one or two people, but usually they only convince their author.
CR: How did a man named Looney bring the Earl of Oxford into the Authorship Question?
JM: Thomas Looney was a north country schoolmaster, who decided to solve the Shakespeare question and he wrote down what could be attributed to the man who wrote Shakespeare: He was a foreign traveller, had knowledge of Latin and Greek and other subjects ancient and modern, and he possessed all this wealth of knowledge. So Looney wrote down the characteristics he attributed to the author of Shakespeare, and when he'd done so, he then looked for the person who fitted them, and he found they fitted the Earl of Oxford - Edward de Vere - like a glove. And he then wrote a book, the first Oxfordian book, which incidentally influenced Sigmund Freud, who became very interested in the Shakespeare Authorship question. He agreed with Looney - whose name is actually pronounced Loney - that the hypothetical author of the works perfectly fitted the character of Edward de Vere. Freud published this and the English didn't like it, and so he took it out of his works, but he still insisted that Edward de Vere was the most likely character to be the author of Hamlet and the Sonnets and so on.
CR: What is the relationship between the Earl of Oxford's family crest and the name Shakespeare?
JM: The Earl of Oxford's crest shows a lion shaking a broken staff, a shake-spear or break-spear.
CR: You say, "Upholders of Orthodoxy often complain that anti-Stratfordian theorists have no grounding in Elizabethan literature and are not qualified to give opinions on the Authorship question." How did Professor Abel Lefranc fit into this picture?
JM: Of course, that's a good question. The Stratfordians say that no one with any academic, literary qualifications has ever doubted the Authorship, but that of course is quite wrong and misleading. Many learned and highly qualified people have doubted it and have written books about it. Abel Lefranc was a French professor who specialized in literature of the period of Shakespeare. He said that Love's Labour's Lost describes the court of Navarre and that the author of Love's Labour Lost understood it so well, it must have been by personal experience. He captured the spirit of the fast, witty way in which the French courtiers liked to speak - no one else but an insider who had actually known that court could possibly have done it. Lefranc was a qualified man and many others similarly qualified have shared doubts in the Shakespeare Authorship.
But of course the great reason for the Authorship doubts is the huge gap between the mind of the man who wrote Shakespeare and the character of the man from Stratford to whom they're attributed. The first was said to be a universal genius with command of all the world's scholarship of the time, whereas the man himself was apparently a man of not much education, who was quite unqualified to have written these things. Lefranc said that we study the lives of authors to shed light on their works, but uniquely in the case of Shakespeare, there's absolutely no connection at all between the man as we know him and the writings.
CR: "Recent Shakespearian writers, more aware than their predecessors of the mystical, philosophical ideas which entered English minds in the latter part of the sixteenth century, have recognized The Tempest as a product of the perennial esoteric tradition that resurfaced to create the Renaissance." How is the island in this play related to Platonic philosophy and how does John Dee fit in?
JM: The island is ruled by Prospero, who is a mystic perhaps steeped in the Platonic tradition, and he rules it in the ideal spirit of the Republic. It's full of all kinds of illusions, and it's very beautiful place, magical as well as mystical. Who knows what role Dr. Dee and other mystic philosophers of the time might have had upon the man who wrote Shakespeare.
CR: "Many of the leading Shakespeare candidates were so closely related by birth and marriage that they could have formed a 'magic circle' guarding the secret of their literary activities from outsiders. Most likely to have been 'in the know' was Francis Bacon who moved among them and generally organized their affairs." What are the claims of the Group theorists?
JM: It's certainly true that Bacon was a man behind the scenes of that time. He knew everyone's affairs, particularly those of the aristocracy and government people, and the Group theory of course is a natural reaction, meaning a compromise between all the various candidates. Each group is, in some way, qualified to be Shakespeare and, in other ways, not. So one way proposed for this problem is that there must have been a team working together, and that was quite usual at the time. And it's still usual today, after all, the soaps are written by teams of writers. So it wasn't such an unusual thing, and the problem that arises here is - OK - there was a group and other people contributed to it, but who was the leading Shakespeare? Who is Mr. Shakespeare himself?
Francis Bacon is by far the leading contender for that. And there are other contenders, like Mary Sidney, the wife of Lord Pembroke of Wilton, who had a literary salon. She entertained many of the people involved in the Shakespeare mystery - her friends and others, at Wilton House, which is incidentally on the River Avon in Wiltshire. She has been suggested as perhaps the leader or hostess of an esoteric group, who set out to produce a philosophical and social reform by means of traditional philosophy. So yes - a group is a very plausible suggestion, but when it comes to who was the leading Shakespeare, then of course opinions vary.
CR: "One thing that is clearly proved by the Shakespeare controversy is that, as Charles Fort put it, 'For every expert there is an equal and opposite expert'." Could you comment on the graphology and signature experts?
JM: All the handwriting experts really have to go on in the case of Shakespeare is the six signatures, three of which were attached to his will, and the others on various documents. The trouble is they're all shaky and take different forms. So there's not much that they have in common for the graphology experts to get their teeth into. Some people say that the signatures on the will might have been written by the lawyer, which was sometimes the case in those days. And some people think that they show he was almost illiterate - could hardly write - and other people have different views. So really, as is the case with most other expert examinations of Shakespeare - really, it all comes to nothing.
CR: "Despite their superior airs, the Stratfordians are no less victims of their own beliefs than the Baconians or other dogmatists. They too are 'theorists'...." Why does the Authorship question remain a not quite respectable pursuit?
JM: Well of course the belief in William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author - it goes back to the seventeenth century and the time of Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is the official author. In many subjects, I've found that the orthodoxy of a subject is based on very little other than presumption, and it's the case here that the Stratfordians can't really defend their case, because there are so many questions to be asked about how this man from Stratford could have written the works of Shakespeare. So usually - very often - to their discredit, they have recourse to abuse and personal defamation of people who doubt the theory, and this becomes quite unpleasant. Something I noticed very early on in other controversies is when the authorities on a subject abuse their opponents, instead of arguing with them, then that's a significant find. It means there really is a problem
. CR: John, in closing, I'm wondering how you first became interested in the Shakespeare Authorship question?
JM: Well, I read an article once, I think it was in The Spectator, by A. L. Rowse, a scholar who was commenting on some questions raised about the Authorship of Shakespeare. And Rowse answered one or two questions reasonably enough, and then he got angry and began abusing the questioner and the whole movement. This awoke my attention, because I've always found that when the authorities - instead of arguing or proving their point briefly to an interested questioner - instead of doing that, they become angry and start abusing people who question their faith, then it's always a sign theyre on weak ground.
Then I went further into the Shakespeare Authorship question and got some of the books on the subject and found they are indeed on weak ground. It's very much an open question who possibly could have been the person - or the people even - who wrote Shakespeare. And then I carried on and found it a most delightful subject. I think more people should take it up, because it really does open you to the writings of Shakespeare seen from another angle, without being inhibited by the idea of William Shakespeare himself, and it enables you to see for yourself what profound philosophy and learning there is in it, as well as humour.
CR: Wonderful answers, John, thank you very much.
JM: Thank you, Christine.
Interview with John Michell by Christine Rhone, 2008