The Shakespeare Claimants
By H. N. Gibson (Methuen, 1962.)
Copyright 1962 by Gwynneth Bowen
First published in Shakespearean Authorship Review (English), Autumn 1962.
In the first chapter of his “critical survey” of the Shakespeare Claimants, which he has wisely confined to four—Bacon, Oxford, Derby and Marlowe—Dr. Gibson frankly admits that as so many books and pamphlets have been written on the subject, “it would require several bulky volumes to review them all adequately.” What, then, of my task, which is to review his admittedly inadequate book of 308 pages in a few hundred words? Obviously one can only generalize and select.
Let me begin with a selection from his generalizations, which will be gratifying (in part) to all Anti-Stratfordians, or “theorists” as Dr. Gibson calls us, and which are most unlikely to be fairly quoted by orthodox reviewers.
Dr. Gibson makes the usual point that the very existence of so many theories raises doubts about their validity and it is right, he says, that it should do so, but—”it does not necessarily prove that all the theories are false.” The logic of this remark is unimpeachable but, unfortunately, it needed saying! He accuses the theorists of suppression of awkward facts, glossing over of contradictory evidence and making unwarrantable assumptions, but adds: “Although it is not properly my business, I feel that in the interests of fairness I ought to point out that most of the sins of omission and commission I have just laid to the charge of the theorists call also be found among the orthodox Stratfordians when they write a panegyric of their hero.” He observes that most Shakespearean scholars are to be found in the orthodox camp, but—too much must not be made of this fact, for many of them display comparatively little interest in the controversy with which we are dealing. Their chief concerns are textual criticism, interpretation, and the internal problems of the plays, and they accept the orthodox view mainly because it is orthodox.”
So far, so fair! And if we are fair too, we must I think admit that the orthodox are not the only offenders. No party has been wholly free from the faults imputed to us all by Dr. Gibson. And is Dr. Gibson?
What he claims to have done (p. 12) is “to include all the most important arguments in the four main theories, and to select for analysis those which tell most in favour of the various theories in which they appear.” It is on the validity of this claim that he must be judged. He is very fond of the phrase suppressio veri—a tag which the Oxfordians, for their part, might do well to adopt and turn with double truth against their opponents. Perhaps it is only because I am, myself, an Oxfordian that I think least justice has been done to them, but I have neither the space nor the knowledge to criticize Dr. Gibson’s criticisms of each of the claimants separately, so I hope I may be forgiven if I select the Oxfordian case for special treatment. Let it serve as an example.
In the first place, Dr. Gibson has not really dealt with the Oxfordian case at all, but only with what he calls “The Case for the Oxford Syndicate,” being under the impression that all Oxfordians have been “groupists” since 1931. He seems to have taken Gilbert Slater’s Seven Shakespeares as an official statement of the Oxfordian faith, which whatever else it may be, it is not!
I cannot help wondering how many Oxfordian books Dr. Gibson has actually read. Several are listed in his bibliography, though B. M. Ward’s life of Oxford is conspicuous by its absence, but apart from one page reference to Looney, all his footnotes refer to Col. Douglas’s synopsis Lord Oxford and the Shakespeare Group—the Group again! He states that Oxford had published poems in his own name before he inherited the title. As far as his argument, at the moment, was concerned the slip was venial, but no-one who had seriously studied the case for Oxford could be ignorant of the fact that Edward de Vere succeeded his father while still a boy (aged twelve), and Dr. Gibson obviously does not mean to imply that the poems were those of an infant prodigy. Another error that must be pointed out for the sake of accuracy and to facilitate reference, besides giving honour where it is due, is that he consistently misnames the sometime secretary of the American Branch of the Shakespeare Fellowship, whose X-ray experiments on three (not only one) of the alleged Shakespeare portraits yielded such significant results for Oxfordians. He calls him Mr. Charles Russell instead of Charles Wisner Barrell. All Oxfordians will, however, endorse Dr. Gibson’s suggestion that “in the interests of Scientific truth they (the experiments) certainly ought to be checked by a second and completely independent investigator, free from all preconceptions.”
For the rest, I can only say that, though some of Dr. Gibson’s criticisms of minor, and quite dispensable points, deserve serious consideration, he has not succeeded in giving a true picture of the Oxfordian case, or even that of an Oxford Syndicate.
To return to the general argument against the “theorists,” Dr. Gibson recommends to his readers J. M. Robertson’s weighty tome, The Baconian Heresy (1913) and, in a chapter headed “A Tug-of-War with the First Folio,” writes:
“Of the arguments they (the theorists) use only a few are original; many are borrowed from the writings of Sir George Greenwood, whose whole case . . . was so roughly handled by J. M. Robertson in The Baconian Heresy that the name of this latter work is never mentioned in their bibliographies.”
There is a copy of The Baconian Heresy in our Library, which is duly listed in the catalogue. Does Dr. Gibson expect it to be included in Anti-Stratfordian book-lists? And what of Greenwood’s second large volume, Is There a Shakespeare Problem? (1916)? Though Dr. Gibson mentions this book by name, he omits to say that it consists almost entirely of a reply to Robertson. If he had said that Greenwood’s reply was unsatisfactory, however much we disagreed, there would be no real cause for complaint, but from his silence one can only conclude either that he is ignorant of the contents of this important book, or that he, too, is guilty of Suppressio Veri. Well, let us give him the benefit of the doubt—such as it is. The truth will be established in the end by evidence and argument, not recrimination.