“Creature of Their Own Creating”
An Answer to the Present Day School of Shakespearean Biography
Copyright 1945 by Charles Wisner Barrell
First published in The Shakespeare Fellowship Quarterly, October 1945.
In reviewing Sir Sidney Lee’s posthumous volume of Elizabethan and Other Essays for the London Mercury, June, 1930, Prof. George B. Harrison, one of the most widely-accepted modern writers on Shakespeare and his times, remarks:
In (Lee’s) imagination Shakespeare was a village youth. (Stratford, incidentally, was not a village), who became ‘stagestruck and longed to act and write plays … he was singularly industrious, singularly level-headed, and amply endowed with that practical common sense which enables a man to acquire and retain a modest competence.’ Lee could not understand how incredible to sensitive people was this stolid bourgeois author of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Lear; and because his pronouncements of Shakespeare unluckily came to be regarded as oracle, some of the weaker brethren, instead of examining the evidence for themselves rejected Lee’s Shakespeare in favour of Bacon or Derby or Oxford or some other creature of their own creating.
Harrison’s patronizing reference to various disbelievers in Lee’s acquisitive Miracle Worker of the Avonside borough as ‘some of the weaker brethren’ because they have sought some more convincing personality to account for the creation of the world’s greatest dramatic literature calls for an answer even at this late date.
After rapping Lee for his obtuseness, it is a bit illogical to accuse dissenters in the same breath of flying off at wild tangents ‘instead of examining the evidence for themselves.’
What evidence, it would seem pertinent to ask, does Prof. Harrison refer to? Might it be:
1) The internal evidence of the plays and poems?—their vital artistic grip, cosmopolitan scholarship, mastery of human psychology, verbal power and felicity—not to mention their deep philosophy—all testifying to a long background of leisured study, observation and experience on the part of their creator?
2) The attested documentation of the life and personal activities of William Shakspere, son of the illiterate John Shakspere, butcher, glover or wool-stapler of Stratford-on-Avon?
In either case, both of these main lines of evidence have been adequately covered by Lee.
It is only when he attempts to bring them together in the person of William of Stratford that the incongruity of his biographical materials becomes glaringly apparent.
But it does not follow, as Harrison suggests, that Lee is to blame because his biographical elements do not fuse. Lee himself did not invent the records. As it happens, he transcribes them quite as fully and honestly as any of the Shakespearean biographers who have come after him.
The great difficulty—which begets so many hundreds of thousands of dissenters from the Stratfordian point of view—grows out of the fact that the two essential lines of evidence in this biographical enigma simply cannot be made to synchronize unless the Great Perhaps, as George Saintsbury quaintly puts it, is continually applied for that express purpose. More readers of the Bard’s works and alleged life are becoming cognizant of this circumstance with the passing years. Despite the oracular insistence of the accepted “authorities,” a growing respect for logic and truth is helping us to differentiate more clearly between fact and authorized opinion. But in getting at the facts behind the Shakespeare mystery. Harrison and his present day school are really no better guides than Lee was. It is merely a matter of emphasis. Lee devotes much space to the Stratford scene, reproducing the records of William Shakspere’s career as a thrifty, money-hungry trader—seeing in these personal characteristics the motives of peerless creative genius.
Harrison and his followers, on the other hand, start the other wav about. Neatly side-stepping the Stratford man’s personal credentials with a well-bred sniff of disdain, they concentrate on the plays and poems, declaring that their author must have been thus and so to produce such masterpieces. To wave aside, either without comment or with a pitying stare of academic pomposity, tactless questions concerning the crude trivialities and blank anomalies of Will Shakspere’s recorded life is now the practice in approved orthodox circles. Such insistence is not good form, you know.
Under this usage, the illiteracy of Will’s parents and his adult daughter, together with his own painfully inept penmanship, become mere social foibles. The synthetic master’s lack of any recorded intellectual training or development in the arts is said to have no significance—the works attributed to him providing sufficient “evidence” to the contrary—while William’s eager pursuit of the glittering shilling, and his persistent hounding, of debtors for minor sums is lightly treated as an amusing eccentricity of creative genius. Inability to identify the personality of “Shakespeare” as it appears in the works with the personal records of the Stratford native, in fine, should bother no one with a healthy respect for good literature and enthroned ‘authority.’
This is all very pretty, and an easy method for the glossing over of many thorny dilemmas. But truthseekers who demand at least a fair semblance of congruity between effect and alleged cause are still constrained to ask whether this new fashion of ignoring or shrugging off the negative personal documentation of William of Stratford makes him a whit more credible as the greatest of English poets?
The answer is obvious. At bottom, guesswork is the main reliance of both the Lee and the Harrison schools of biography. Out of next to nothing, much has been manufactured. Trivialities have been exaggerated and sentimentalized into long-winded romantic fables that serious scholarship rightfully views askance. In this respect, Harrison’s reference to the questioners of the standardized legend of the Stratford Marvel as the weaker brethren is a misnomer—not to say a libel.
It is these very skeptics, as a matter of fact, who insist upon examining the evidence for themselves.
True enough, certain enthusiasts have made overhasty, ill-advised and unjustifiable claims on behalf of various candidates for the authorship of the Shakespearean works. Those of the Oxford persuasion who tend to such excesses must be shown the error of their ways—or disclaimed—as fast as they appear. We seek no conclusions that cannot be logically justified by contemporary records of the literary Earl. Here we differ from the Baconians who have really outdone the Stratfordians in the fantastic exuberance of their conjectures. Assigning to Sir Francis a creative schedule that no two human beings could possibly have carried out in one lifetime, they have piled mystery upon mystery and bedevilled everything with an unworkable cypher alphabet that has accomplished nothing beyond boring the world into glum indifference.
William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, on the other hand, was definitely known to his contemporaries as a public playwright—unpublished under his own name or title—and the friend, patron and personal associate of other playwrights, poets and actors. He was also the son-in-law, friend and frequent companion of the poet-dramatist Earl of Oxford. That Derby actually had a hand in the composition, staging and publication of some of the later Shakespeare plays many people who have taken the trouble to look into the recorded facts of his life will be inclined to believe.
And, finally, it is not only unjust, but a gross distortion of the actual circumstances in the case for Lord Oxford is Shakespeare for Prof. Harrison to intimate that proponents of this attested poet and playwright have in him nothing more than an unsubstantial creature of their own creating. Oxford’s claims are based upon genuine contemporary records, patiently sought and honestly transcribed. The intimation of fakery, unwarranted exaggeration or fictionizing of leading arguments, in his behalf will be resented by all who have followed the evidence published in these pages during the past six years
Prof. Harrison’s patronizing phraseology may be condoned by Oxford-Shakespeare students, however, because of a special circumstance. Having in mind, perhaps, the fact that the Stratford cause, which he represents has been compromised frequently and seriously by the wholesale forgeries and commercialized fakes of the Irelands. Jordans, Colliers and their ilk who have from time to time gilded the Stratford lily to their own purposes. Harrison naturally assumed in 1930 that the same type of creating must be responsible for much of the Oxford-Shakespeare evidence. Undoubtedly he knows differently today.