The 1604 Question: Of Silver Bullets and Red Herrings
Essay #3 for Gather.com
By Mark Anderson
It is often objected that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford could not have written the works of Shake-speare because many Shake-speare plays were allegedly written after 1604, the year de Vere died. However, upon closer examination, chronological evidence supports rather than refutes the theory that de Vere wrote Shake-speare. After 1604, the London stages and bookstalls appear to have been reviving bits and patches of a posthumous canon.
Because no original Shake-speare manuscripts exist, and because no other records provide an unequivocal date of composition of the Shake-speare works, what remains is a host of scholarly suppositions â€” some more founded in historical fact than others. Will Shakspere (1564-1616) is conventionally assumed to have written the Shake-speare canon from his late 20s through the end of his 40s (c. 1592-1613). The progression of Shake-speare plays from stylistically "early" (such as The Comedy of Errors) to "late" (such as The Tempest) is thus folded into the span of Will Shakspere's assumed career like liquid plastic is poured into a mold. Orthodox scholars then point to the assorted plays that convention places after 1604, which in turn, they claim, present conclusive proof that de Vere could not have been Shake-speare. Dogs have been known to do a similar trick with their tails.
There is no such thing as a "standard" chronology of Shake-speare. The Riverside Shakespeare, a textbook used in many classrooms today, dates eleven plays to sometime after 1604: King Lear, Macbeth, Antony & Cleopatra, Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles, Cymbeline, The Winter's Tale, The Tempest, Henry VIII, and The Two Noble Kinsmen. On the other hand, some orthodox scholarship yields the now-heretical conclusion that Shake-speare stopped writing in 1604. Alfred Harbage's Pelican/Viking editions of Shake-speare (1969; 1977) provide a range of dates for the likely composition of each of the plays: Only The Tempest and Henry VIII fall beyond 1604. And the nineteenth century German literary historian Karl Elze dated both of these plays to the period 1603-'04, theorizing that Henry VIII was originally written in early 1603 to celebrate the 70th birthday that Queen Elizabeth never lived to see, while The Tempest, Elze concluded, "would at latest fall to the year 1604."
One eighteenth century scholar, unaware of the significance of the year 1604, flatly stated what the above amalgam of Elze and Harbage's scholarship implies. In Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Ben Jonson (1756), W.R. Chetwood concludes on the basis of performance records that "at the end of that year  or the beginning of the next, 'tis supposed that [Shake-speare] took his farewell of the stage, both as author and actor."
Below are the methods scholars use to determine the dates of Shake-speare works followed by an examination of the three strongest cases for post-1604 composition: Macbeth, Henry VIII, and The Tempest. Each play and each method, in fact, reinforce the conclusion that Chetwood innocently put forward in 1756: The man who was Shake-speare stopped writing -- and existing -- in 1604.Â
Â One unassailable fact establishes the latest possible date by which a Shake-speare play must have been written: The year of first publication.
The 1593 epic poem Venus & Adonis was Shake-speare's print debut. During the ensuing decade, new Shake-speare plays and poems appeared in print, on average, twice per year. Then, in 1604, Shake-speare fell silent.
The silence was broken twice. The first break came in 1608-'09 when de Vere's widow Elizabeth Trentham de Vere was preparing to move out of King's Place in Hackney, the house that she shared with her late husband during his final years. Four new Shake-speare works (Pericles, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida and The Sonnets) were printed during this period. The second window began with the publication in 1622 of the debut edition of Othello and culminated the following year in the publication of the 36 plays (18 of which had never been printed before) that constitute the 1623 "Shakespeare First Folio."
The early history of reprints of Shake-speare plays and poems also points to 1604 as a watershed year. Some Shake-speare texts appear, by their shoddy nature, to have been cobbled-together versions of actors' playscripts or transcriptions from a live performance by an audience member, Elizabethan equivalents of a video camcorder smuggled into a movie theatre. Other Shake-speare texts â€” responding to these pirated editions â€” appear genuine, boasting on their title pages that they contain the author's revisions and corrections.
The title page of the second edition of Romeo and Juliet (1599), for instance, states that it has been "newly corrected, augmented and emended," while the third edition of Richard III (1602) notes that it has been "newly augmented." The title page of the second edition of Hamlet (1604) states that the ensuing text has been "newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy."
After 1604, the "newly correct[ing]" and "augment[ing]" stops. Once again, the Shake-speare enterprise appears to have shut down.
Shake-speare draws upon contemporary scientific events and discoveries through the end of the 16th century. Yet Shake-speare is mute about science that appeared after de Vere's June 1604 death. A 1572 supernova in the constellation Cassiopeia becomes in Hamlet "...yond same star that's westward from the pole [making] his course to illume that part of heaven." William Gilbert's theory of geomagnetism (published in 1600) inspires a geomagnetic metaphor in Troilus and Cressida ("As true ... as iron to adamant, as earth to the center"). Yet a spectacular supernova in October 1604 â€” appearing nearby a celestial conjunction of Mars, Saturn and Jupiter â€” occasions no mention in Shake-speare, nor does Johannes Kepler's revolutionary 1609 study of planetary orbits.
Shake-speare's source texts are also consistent with the proposition that the author was born in 1550 and died in 1604. Shake-speare's chief source texts appear at a frequency of seven to eight per decade from the 1560s through the end of the 1590s. Then, excepting two publications in 1603, the final curtain rings down. In Geoffrey Bullough's eight-volume Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, the twentieth century literary scholar locates only one post-1604 Shake-speare source text that Bullough claims had more than just a "possible" or "probable" influence on the Bard. Bullough's single post-1604 "source," for The Tempest, will be discussed below.
The spotty record of Shake-speare performances provide less reliable conclusions about dates of composition. Shake-speare plays were performed for private audiences such as the students at Gray's Inn in 1594 (The Comedy of Errors) or Middle Temple Hall in 1602 (Twelfth Night). In November 1611, The Winter's Tale was enacted for King James at court. None of these recorded performances, however, indicate the plays were newly written at the time. It is only assumed that these Shake-speare plays were performed soon after they were written. Yet, as will be seen below, Macbeth defies this logic: Its first recorded performance was at least five years after than its composition. There is no good reason why this same general fact wouldn't hold true for other Shake-speare plays as well.
One performance record, in fact, points to 1604 as a speechless moment in Shake-spearean history. When The King's Men performed at court during the winter of 1604-'05, Queen Anne requested that the company perform some Shake-speare that she hadn't already seen. They told her they could not fulfill her request. So the King's Men staged the old standby Love's Labour's Lost instead.Â Â Â
Shake-speare's alleged references to early seventeenth century historical events as well as early seventeenth century Londoners' references to Shake-speare provide a hotly contested set of clues about dates of composition. Three plays in particular have been the site of pitched scholarly battles over whether the man who was Shake-speare died in 1616 or 1604.
Macbeth:Â The first recorded performance of Shake-speare's Scots tragedy was at the Globe Theatre in 1611. (The next known staging of Macbeth after that was in 1664.) However, for once, orthodox scholars suppose this play was written years earlier than what the scattershot performance records might imply. In Act 2, Scene 3, a drunken Porter answers the knocking at Macbeth's castle door with the line
"Faith, here's an equivocator, that could swear in both the scales against either scale; who committed treason enough for God's sake, yet could not equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator!"
These words, along with other references to equivocating throughout Macbeth, lead historians to a controversial Catholic policy of church-sanctioned duplicity, known as the Doctrine of Equivocation. Equivocations and equivocators gained notoriety around London in March 1606 during the celebrated trial of Father Henry Garnett, when he cited the Doctrine of Equivocation against an accusation of trying to blow up Parliament. (The defeat of the "Gunpowder Plot" is celebrated to this day in England on Guy Fawkes Day, November 5.) Because of the play's multiple allusions to equivocation, Macbeth is thus conventionally dated to c. 1606.
However, equivocation was hardly a novel concept in 1606. In a 1583 tract, A Declaration of the Favorable Dealing of Her Majesty's Commission Approved for the Examination of Certain Traitors and of Tortures Unjustly Reported To Be Done Upon Them For Matters of Religion, Edward de Vere's father-in-law Lord Burghley mused over Catholics who, when tortured, used "hypocritical and sophistical speech" to evade their torturers' questions. In 1584, a Spanish prelate named Martin Azpilcueta first formally laid out the Doctrine of Equivocation, which was disseminated across the continent and into England. A 1595 trial of the English Catholic martyr Robert Southwell raised the issues central to Azpilcueta's thesis: That God-fearing Papists could with clear conscience lie to Protestant inquisitors. While it is true that Garnett popularized the topic of equivocation in London in 1606, Macbeth makes no allusions to equivocation that can be tied to the Gunpowder Plot trial specifically.
"Shakespeare" By Another Name hypothesizes that the regicidal anxiety expressed in Macbeth stems from de Vere's role as a juror who condemned Mary Queen of Scots to death in 1586. So, in fact, the wider context of the play would suggest that Burghley's 1583 treatise and Azpilcueta's 1584 formulation of the Doctrine of Equivocation were the more likely wellspring for the equivocation references in Macbeth.
Henry VIII: On 29 June 1613, the Globe Theatre burned to the ground during a performance of Shake-speare's Henry VIII. At least six independent eyewitness accounts of the fire exist. Two of these six â€” July 1613 letters written by the poet Sir Henry Wotton and the London merchant Henry Bluett â€” refer to the play as being "new."
Then again, in December 1663 the London diarist Samuel Pepys also referred to Henry VIII as being "new."
The testimony of random audience members may be useful in discerning more immediately accessible things such as the public's response to a play or their preference of one actor over another. But groundlings at the Globe had far less access to technical details of a play's composition than the average moviegoer has to any given film today. It's hardly surprising that someone who had not seen an old play before might mistake it for "new."
In fact, the story Henry VIII tells -- a historically biased tale that celebrates the ascendance of Queen Elizabeth I from the dangerous world of her father's court -- strongly suggests that the play's propagandistic focus was alive and reigning at the time Henry VIII was written.
For this reason, many of the leading lights of eighteenth and nineteenth century Shake-speare scholarship concluded that Henry VIII was written sometime during the reign of Queen Elizabeth (1558-1603). Scholars such as Samuel Johnson, Lewis Theobald, George Steevens, Edmund Malone and James Orchard Halliwell-Phillipps recognized the absurdity of dating such a Tudor apologist play as Henry VIII to the reign of King James, who never forgave Queen Elizabeth for beheading his mother. With characteristic polite understatement, Malone wrote of Henry VIII
"It is more likely that Shakspeare [sic] should have written a play, the chief subject of which is the disgrace of Queen Catharine, the aggrandizement of Anne Boleyn and the birth of her daughter [Elizabeth] in the lifetime of that daughter, than after her death: at a time when the subject must have been highly pleasing at court, rather than at a period when it must have been less interesting."
It is only in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries -- when more and stronger evidence has been needed to bolster the case that the author must have lived and worked well past 1604 -- that Henry VIII has been transformed into another Excalibur that might slay the Oxfordian menace.
The Tempest, however, is surely the ultimate sword and silver bullet that could indeed silence those who advocate that de Vere was Shake-speare. There was a shipwreck in 1609 off the Bermuda coast that many scholars have argued has been portrayed in this play. If this were so, de Vere could not have written The Tempest. And since The Tempest is stylistically similar to the rest of the Shake-speare canon, the argument would naturally follow that de Vere had little if anything to do with the composition of the other plays and poems too.
The 1609 Bermuda shipwreck of an English ship called the Sea-Venture produced a flood of recollections written by a survivor named William Strachey, who circulated a manuscript about the wreck that was published after The Tempest first appeared in print.Â Nevertheless, orthodox scholars compare Strachey's manuscript (which they must presume the author to have somehow acquired a copy) to the plot and dialogue of The Tempest. Strachey writes of "great strokes of thunder," while two characters in The Tempest use the term "thunder-stroke"; Strachey writes that his crewmates "purposed to have cut down the main mast"; The Tempest's Boatswain cries out "Down with the topmast!"; Strachey's account of the survivors has them splitting into two parties; The Tempest has two parties of survivors plus Ferdinand.
Perhaps the single most impressive Strachey-Tempest similarity is Strachey's detailed account of St. Elmo's Fire and Ariel's description of the heavenly lightshow he provided for the storm-tossed mariners
"...now on the beak,
Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin,
I flam'd amazement: Sometime I'd divide,
And burn in many places; on the topmast,
The yards and boresprit, would I flame distinctly
Then meet and join."
Yet Strachey was not the only seaman of his day to marvel at St. Elmo's Fire, a continuous electric spark often seen in thunderstorms around ship's masts and church spires â€” essentially a neon light without the glass. In 1600, in a collection of nautical tales and discoveries published in London, the voyager Robert Tomson noted
"...in the night, there came upon the top of our mainyard and main mast, a certain little light, much like unto the light of a little candle... this light continued aboard our ship about three hours, flying from mast to mast and from top to top. And sometime it would be in two or three places at once."
Ultimately, however, the Strachey argument is a red herring. There may well be linguistic echoes between Strachey's manuscript and The Tempest, but new research has established that the commonalities between the two texts were not due to one's influence on the other but rather because they both were quoting from a common source.
New evidence unearthed by the American-Canadian research team of Roger Stritmatter and Lynne Kositsky demolishes the case, adduced above, for dating The Tempest to sometime after the 1609 shipwreck. The structure of their argument is three-tiered.
1) Strachey's manuscript was unavailable until after orthodox scholars say The Tempest was written. It is conventionally assumed that the play was written soon before its first recorded performance, at Whitehall palace on November 1, 1611. But Strachey only returned from the New World on a ship that landed in England in late October or early November of 1611. His manuscript, it now appears, did not precede him. Another Strachey book from 1612 (Laws, Moral and Martial) refers to a work he hasn't yet completed about the Bermudas. If this is not the manuscript in question, then Strachey describes a phantom. Moreover, Strachey's 24,000 word manuscript refers to more than a dozen external sources â€” rare books that Strachey would almost certainly have needed to wait until his return to London to access. (His papers probably sank with the shipwreck that he describes, while the Jamestown colony was in a state of utter ruin at the time, hardly a worthy resource for his bibliographical needs.) These facts effectively point to the conclusion that Strachey wrote his New World musings sometime after his return to England, rendering it chronologically impossible that Strachey's manuscript Bermuda pamphlet â€” what was previously thought to be the one undeniable post-1604 source in Shakespeare â€” could have had any influence on The Tempest.
2) The extensive nautical and New World imagery in The Tempest â€” what orthodox scholars believe originates in Strachey â€” actually comes from a 1523 dialogue written by the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus ("Naufragium") and a 1555 book by the English author Richard Eden (The Decades of the New World). Stritmatter and Kositsky demonstrate that Strachey, too, borrowed heavily from Erasmus and Eden. So it's understandable how scholars have long recognized parallels between Strachey and The Tempest. But such alleged parallels do not reveal Shake-speare's debt to Strachey; rather, they reveal both authors' debts to their early-16th century forebears.
Eden's book and perhaps personal papers as well would have been accessible to de Vere from an early age, as Eden had previously been a pupil and protege of de Vere's tutor Sir Thomas Smith and a private secretary to de Vere's father-in-law Lord Burghley.
3) Contemporary references to The Tempest date it circa 1604. Several plays from the period exhibit strong verbal or thematic similarities to The Tempest, including the Jacobean comedy Eastward Ho! (1605), the Scots play Darius (by William Alexander, 1603) and Die SchÃ¶neSidea by theÂ German playwright Jakob Ayrer. Some may suggest that The Tempest is just borrowing from these plays, but the direction of influence is particularly pronounced in the final case. Ayrer often drew inspiration from the English comedies imported to his country by traveling bands of British actors, and he wrote carnival entertainments (what the Germans called Fastnachtsspiele) that lifted plots, characters and dialogue from Shake-speare. But the Bard nowhere reveals stylistic or artistic debts to Ayrer. In all likelihood, then, Ayrer was the borrower and Shake-speare the borrowed-from: The Tempest thus dates to sometime before March 1605, when Ayrer died.
The above is an adaptation from the book "Shakespeare" By Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare (Gotham Books) online at http://shakespearebyanothername.com. Sources and citations for the statements and conclusions contained herein can be found in the endnotes section of "Shakespeare" By Another Name.
I look forward to hearing from you during a live chat next Wednesday, August 23 from 1-3pm.