Monday, October 26, 2009

Shakespeare's Bad Form

Deciphering the Droeshout Engraving.

For years I kept this image of Shakespeare as my screensaver. Every time the image appeared on the screen, my mind would instantly supply the name 'Shakespeare'. Even after I began to suspect that the deformities of the Droeshout engraving had more to do with Shakespeare's 'Form' than his physical 'Face', I still could not unhitch that famous name from that iconic image.

After hundreds of years, the number one obstacle to understanding the authorship problem (in my opinion) is the idolization of the author of the Shakespeare canon. Even among Oxfordian peers I have encountered almost unanimous resistance to the idea that Jonson may have been offering a serious and sustained criticism of Shakespearean style in the front matter of the First Folio. I understand this. The perceived nobility and genius of the mind of the author demands a noble and inspirational backstory. Yet it is my concern that modern prejudices and misconceptions regarding aristocratic values and behaviours require the historical Edward de Vere to be tested against certain postures that are thought to be reliable indicators of an honourable and virtuous mind, and that when these conditions are not met the Oxfordian case has a tendency to self-destruct.

Alan H. Nelson, in his biography of Edward de Vere, sought to prove once and for all that the vicious character of the Earl of Oxford excluded the Earl from serious consideration as the author of the Works. Much of the content and bias of the book is reflected in its sinister title - _Monstrous Adversary_. While I agree with Professor Nelson that many contemporaries viewed Oxford critically, I was left wondering whether or not standards of aristocratic virtue and vice can be judged from a twentieth-century perspective, and whether or not Prof. Nelson gave serious enough consideration to the political bias of some of these criticisms. Studies of factional politics in the Elizabethan court should render certain judgements as completely inadmissible as testimonies to the Earl's character. For example, the most famous conflict of Oxford's life, the Tennis court quarrel with Philip Sidney - the figure and model of the 'virtuous' courtier - is here again moralized in Sidney's favour. (Fulke Greville, friend and biographer to Sir Philip and, importantly, Recorder of Stratford-upon-Avon, certainly played a role in developing our modern understanding of Oxford's 'evil fame'.) Opposed to Sidney's 'naturally' superior courtier, Oxford is forced to play the part of Monstrous Anti-courtier.

If a writer belonged to the Sidney circle, or was an Essexian (both known enemies of the Earl of Oxford) – shouldn’t that make their opinion of Oxford’s worth suspect? Doesn’t Jonson’s avowed admiration for Sir Philip Sidney make his relationship to an Oxford/Shakespeare figure more interesting, and more problematic? Just as on the historical stage Oxford was made to play the part of the Vice opposite Sidney’s portrayal of Virtue - is Oxford/Shakespeare also‘forced’ to play the part of erring, unclassical and popular Anti-Poet opposite Sidney and Jonson’s virtuous,learned and correct Poets?

Upon Ben Jonson, and his Zany, Tom Randolph.

"Quoth Ben to Tom, the Lover's stole,
"'Tis Shakspeare's every word;
"Indeed, says Tom, upon the whole,
"'Tis much too good for Ford.

"Thus Ben and Tom, the dead still praise,
"The living to decry;
"For none must dare to wear the bays,
"Till Ben and Tom both die.

"Even Avon's swan could not escape
"These letter-tyrant elves;
"They on his FAME contriv'd a RAPE,
"To raise their PEDANT selves.
Endymion Porter

Differences between Oxford and Sidney, 'Shakespeare' and Sidney, and 'Shakespeare' and Jonson and even Oxford and 'Shakespeare' can be studied at the level of style. However, it must be remembered that for many educated Elizabethans, style or 'manner' was the 'Mark of the Mind'.

George Puttenham, in the _Arte of English Poesie_, writes:

And because this
continuall course and manner of writing or speech sheweth
the matter and disposition of the writers MINDE, more than one
or few words or sentences can shew, therefore there be that
haue called STILE, the image of Man (MENTIS CHARACTER)
for man is but his mind, and as his minde is tempered
and qualified, so are his speeches and language at large,
and his inward conceits be the mettall of his MINDE, and his
manner of vtterance the very warp |&| woofe of his conceits,
more plaine, or busie and intricate, or otherwise affected
after the rate.

Jonson, _Discoveries_
Oratio imago animi. - Language most shows a man: Speak, that I may see
thee. It springs out of the most retired and inmost parts of us, and
is the image of the parent of it, the MIND. No glass renders a man’s
form or likeness so true as his speech. Nay, it is likened to a man;
and as we consider feature and composition in a man, so words in
language; in the greatness, aptness, sound structure, and harmony of

Ben Jonson gave a lot of thought to the uses and abuses of language. As the above passage demonstrates, for Jonson a man’s style or manner of writing was a reliable indicator of the qualities of his mind. Expressions such as ‘language is the dress of thought’ and ‘manners maketh man’ are variants on this belief. The movements of the body (manners) are being directed by the activities and motions of the mind. It is also important to remember that stylistic choices became associated with moral and political positions – just as men might wear a certain colour ribbon to indicate the faction they belonged to at court, literary styles could signal political leanings, and vicious speech patterns could bring a man’s moral reputation into question. Vicious habits were regarded with suspicion, especially in the powerful, because they can be communicated to others and can corrupt an entire commonwealth:

For it is VIRTUE that
gives glory; that will endenizen a man everywhere. It is only that
can naturalise him. A native, if he be VICIOUS, deserves to be a
stranger, and cast out of the commonwealth as an Alien.

Deformities of style (vices) were reflections of deformities of the mind. That is why the irregularities of form that appear in the Droeshout cannot simply be passed over. The Droeshout is the image, or figure of Shakespeare's MIND and MANNERS.

Look how the father's face
Lives in his issue, even so the race
Of Shakspeare's MIND and MANNERS brightly shines
In his well torned and true filed lines;
In each of which he seems to shake a lance,
As brandisht at the eyes of ignorance. (Jonson)



This Figure that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle SHAKSPEARE cut,
Wherein the graver had a strife
With Nature, to out-doo the life :
O could he but have drawn his wit
As well in BRASS, as he has hit
His face (note-form) ; the print would then surpass
All that was ever writ in BRASS :
But since he cannot, reader, look
Not on his picture, but his book.

Men's evil manners live in BRASS; their virtues
We write in water. (Shakespeare)

Folly, and brain-sick HUMOURS of the time,
Distemper'd passion, and audacious crime,
Thy pen so on the stage doth personate,
That ere men scarce begin to know, they hate
The vice presented, and there lessons learn,
Virtue, from vicious habits to discern.
Oft have I seen thee in a sprightly strain,
To lash a vice, and yet no one complain ;
Thou threw'st the ink of malice from thy pen,
Whose aim was EVIL MANNERS, not ill men.
(Hawkins, Jonsonus Virbius)