Jan/Feb 2019  •   Reviews & Interviews

William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere, and the Question of Authorship: An Interview with Gilbert Wesley Purdy

Interview by Paul Holler

William Shakespeare is known to most readers as the man born to a glove maker in Stratford-Upon-Avon who became an actor, travelled to London and ultimately became one of the greatest poets and playwrights in the English language. But questions about the authorship of works attributed to Shakespeare have been debated for many years. Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson are among those who have raised these questions.

The debate continues to this day. In recent years, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has been put forward by some commentators as the actual author of the works. One of those commentators is Gilbert Wesley Purdy, an independent researcher, author, and current review editor for Eclectica. His new book, Ulysses and Agamemnon (Virtual Vanaprastha, 2018), presents a first-ever edition of Edward de Vere's play and makes the case that this play is in fact an early version of Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida.

I recently interviewed Mr. Purdy about his new book, the role of technology in literary pursuits and the role of the independent scholar throughout history.


PH     Why did you write this book?

GWP     Foremost, it is part of a continuing effort to convince Oxfordians (people who believe that Edward de Vere wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare) to challenge themselves for more. For years now they have been writing episodes of the poor man's Game of Thrones filled with escapades of a sexually voracious Queen Elizabeth I, incest, pan sexuality, espionage, conspiracy, intrigue. Vast amounts of time and energy go into these episodes. Strict rational analysis pales in comparison. It offers the horrifying prospect of a life sentenced to reality.

PH     I find it interesting that your position on the Oxfordian question was the impetus behind your book. Why is the question of authorship important?

GWP     I did say "foremost" reason. It is by no means the only reason. There are many reasons the question is important and many why it is not. Many Stratfordians (those who believe the man from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare) argue that the Authorship debate makes the actual poems and plays a secondary matter thus robbing us of literary treasures. But, then, don't suggest that neither the Stratford man nor Edward de Vere be offered as author of the plays.

The matter has become so hyper-partisan, it is true, that the poems and plays hardly seem to exist as more than fuel for the fire. Each side, of course, accuses the other of being the cause of that. I've found that disappointingly few high partisans on either side are intimately familiar with the works. Every bit as bad, or worse, fewer still tend to be at all familiar with the context in which they were written. No reference sends them to their books but instead is either glossed over or drafted straight into service.

If the man from Stratford wrote the works (and the evidence says, on balance, that he did not) then he was a traitor to his class. His heroes are all upper class, noblemen and royalty. The common man—other than the humble servant who commits themselves wholly to their master's life over their own—is almost universally a bumbler at best whose attempts at reasoning or using his own language are the stuff of comedy. Shakespeare's soaring images are all drawn from the pursuits of the nobility, his low images from common behavior and people.

If Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the works, students should not play hooky, poach deer in the nearest deer park, and, if they are boys, feel free to get some available woman pregnant thus needing to support a family at an early age. They are not—not, not, not, I repeat not—natural geniuses that can blossom into greatness—or even a decent wage—at any time in spite of such early life choices. Not, as the rule, having Vere's benefit of family money, students need to work with a sense of urgency that he didn't need in order to get the finest education they can.

The works of Shakespeare are the works of a highly educated, multilingual, culturally sophisticated man. As I point out in the commentary and notes to Ulysses and Agamemnon, he knew at least enough classical Greek to read a small swatch of Homer in the original with a Latin gloss for aid. He knew Latin, French, and even Old French. My many short essays on the fine detail of the works themselves show this and more—including more languages.

Oh yeah. And it is always vitally important to a society that it prefer the truth over its cherished myths.

PH     Regardless of where you stand on the Oxford/Stratford question, can the debate over authorship shed any light on the works themselves?

GWP     In a perfectly ideal reading experience a reader is presented with a text and reads it without assistance of another person or text. Whatever he or she finds is all that is actually there. Any reference to an author takes the reader away from the text into a foreign realm.

But the ideal case cannot be accomplished in a real world. Especially regarding texts that are hundreds of years old. The reader would already have to know all of the vocabulary and the meanings of all the phrases in the book at the time the work was written. This would require a lifetime (or longer) of specialized study which would itself corrupt the ideal reading.

So then, in the best real case, there is the need for footnotes and commentaries at the complexity level that one wishes to be able to comprehend. Without them the untrained reader faces a text that is little more than impenetrable phonemes on a page. We as a culture have decided that the corruption of the reading experience that comes with them is more than repaid by the quality of the reading that is possible upon demand.

But footnotes and commentaries do not simply materialize on the page. A group of professionals and amateurs work very hard, often (collectively) for hundreds of years, to make them as correct and informative as possible. Even the tiniest points tend to be debated across seemingly endless pages of scholarly journals.

It is inevitable that, at many points, one scholar is corrected by another with the observation that "The source you detect cannot be real for our author did not know Classical Greek. He did not have sufficient education. It is merely astonishingly improbable coincidence such as our own author teaches us time and again is common among great geniuses." Or "The passage cannot refer to that event because it occurred before our author could possibly have been writing. It is merely astonishingly improbable coincidence."

If it does not matter that having the wrong author has forced the wrong footnotes and commentary, with a correspondingly wrong understanding of what the work says, and how it says it, then the Authorship debate cannot shed any light on the works themselves. One Shakespeare is every bit as good as another and our favorite myth, our collective cultural or political predilection at any given time, is as good a means of choosing as any, better even for it honestly admits that any desire to "shed light upon the work" is every bit as much a myth.

For these reasons, I very precisely document the ancient Greek originals from which Shakespeare's Sonnets 153 and 154 are translated, in an essay, and reveal, in my commentary to the 1584 play Ulysses and Agamemnon, the fact that Edward de Vere went directly to the original text of Homer's Iliad for two of the images. It is why I've been delighted, in the same essay, to add one more to the list of the many close references to the work of the French poet Pierre Ronsard that are strewn throughout the works of Shakespeare. Why I was delighted in my book, Edward de Vere's Retainer, Thomas Churchyard: the Man Who was Falstaff to reveal so many facts about the time and the works of Shakespeare that had been left in obscurity for centuries. This is why I write everything I write on the subject.

PH     I agree that the language of texts that are hundreds of years old require annotation. But I also think that many of these works have lasted precisely because they depict a common experience that transcends the time in which they were written. Do you see any themes like that in DeVere's Ulysses and Agamemnon? Did that attract you to the work in any way?

GWP     Of course, this is true for fiction classics. But the first thing that attracted me in this instance was growing realization, as I investigated further, that the old play remained embedded in Troilus and Cressida intact. That astonishing fact needed to be thoroughly documented.

We have a play of Shakespeare's from before he was Shakespeare—late apprentice work. He did not suddenly begin writing the great plays of Western literature from the minute he sat down at a writing desk. He was exceptional, even in 1584, but definitely still had a good deal to learn before he would become Shakespeare.

The characters in Ulysses and Agamemnon are definitely not as fully fleshed out as they are in the best of the mature plays of Shakespeare. They are, however, a definite advance over the characters of other plays written by the better playwrights prior to the 1590s. Thersites is an hilarious exaggeration and a brilliant social commentator. He always keeps the reader's/watcher's interest. He would definitely be famous for flaming people in Internet comment sections today. The love story between Troilus and Cressida has its moments even by mature Shakespearean standards.

PH     How did you proceed with writing the book? What were your sources?

GWP     I list well over 50 sources in the bibliography. The earliest is Homer's Iliad. Whether Vere needed a Latin gloss or not, in order to read classical Greek, I surely do. I went to Samuelis Clarke's Homeri Ilias Graece et Latine for the original text. That together with Cunliffe's Lexicon, Sechan and Chantraine's Dictionaire Grec / Francais, a couple of Old French Grammars, and, online, The Perseus Project and The University of Chicago Library Woodhouse English-Greek Dictionary (I don't list reference materials in the biblio).

For the Ephemera editions of the Destruction of Troy there was nothing to do but to slog through the dozens of manuscript transcriptions from 5th to 15th century Latin checking vocabulary through the Perseus Project, Wictionary (which is surprisingly well done by-and-large), Google Book Search (for variant usages) and my in-house dictionaries. Together with some 200+ years of modern language commentaries I managed to make it through all of the pertinent text and a good deal more. The 13 volume Dictionnaire L'ancienne Langue Française (1892) was essential in order better to read St. Maure and to be sure of the more obscure words and phrases that went into the brief translations from 12th Century Old French included in the book.

The design of the thing should save the reader from having to read any other language than English. Translations include both the original language and English rendering for those who wish to go further.

I started the process of analyzing what text was included in the original play by applying a number of tests which I describe in the commentaries. The relationship of the play to the political tract Leicester's Commonwealth verified considerable portions of text. Next, the text that dealt only with the Greek camp was almost all original, very little modified and in ways that were easy to identify. Vocabulary, beyond that, was a huge factor. A couple of mistakes Vere made came from sources published immediately prior to 1584 thus belonged to the earlier play. It's all described in the critical commentary.

The standard patter about Chapman's translation of the Iliad being an undeniable source, yadda, yadda, yadda, was out the window as it was nearly 15 years in the future. Quotes are given, on both sides of the issue, in this as in all matters, from dozens of traditional and contemporary scholars.

I built a potential-source-text matrix with over a dozen texts and maybe 20 identification points to compare to U&A. Terminology and spelling counted. Followed it with highly annotated analogue readings of the texts. As a result, mistakes are corrected in various traditional assessments of sources: Caxton not at all, Lydgate much less than thought, Chaucer only in a few (essential) details, etc. A bunch of surprising new sources with exact citations that I think will be highly interesting. Again, the results are fully explained in the commentary and citations included in the matter of sources from dozens of traditional and contemporary scholars.

PH     When I first read your book, I approached it as a creative work with a core of scholarship. But I realize now that it is primarily a work of scholarship. What is the place of writers like yourself, who pursue research but are not associated with a university?

GWP     There is a long tradition of exceptional amateur scholarship. Shakespeare's fellow playwright, and one of the finest classical language scholars of his day, Ben Jonson, was forced to learn the bricklaying trade and then became a soldier instead of attending university. As a Jew, Baruch Spinoza was not allowed to attend university. Isaac Newton seriously studied and wrote at length on alchemy as well as the mathematics he'd learned in university. William Whiston replaced him in his mathematics chair at Cambridge and translated the vast works of Josephus from 1st century Greek on the side. Alexander von Humboldt monitored courses in various universities over the years, taking degrees in none. Of course, there was no such thing as a degree for the discipline(s) in which he was a scholar. Michael Faraday was entirely self-educated and half of the discoveries of early 19th century electricity and chemistry were his. Karl Kraus was an actor and a journalist by trade. Wittgenstein was trained in engineering but pursued philosophy. Pretty much every female scholar before the 20th century was an amateur.

There tend to be two historical patterns that cause amateur scholarship to flourish. 1) The matters of study undergo an historical shift (the Scientific Revolution, Industrial Revolution, computer age) and academia cannot keep up well enough to supply all of the demand. 2) Access to an educated audience is enhanced in a quantum fashion by new technologies of information storage and dissemination (the printing press, Internet, etc.).

A mere 10 to 20 years ago, I could not have imagined having either access to the library available to me on the Internet or the technology to publish my results. What I suspected about the Authorship Question seemed destined to come to nothing. About 5 to 10 years ago, I began to see that I had a vast and growing library and even some primary source materials available to me in digitized format online.

As neat and true as these few observations may seem, however, the genuine amateur scholar is presented with so many obstacles, by various interested parties, that it may prove that there is no place for "writers like myself". The US may have chosen to use our new technologies to override historical factors 1 & 2 above (in everything except computer programming, at least) at just the time that we may need their magic most.

PH     I find it interesting that you refer to "amateur scholarship," which I will define here in its literal sense, meaning someone who pursues an activity for the love of it. What can someone approaching a subject from that point of view bring to that subject that, perhaps, a professional might not? Where might the amateur scholar be lacking?

GWP     If only all scholars were "amateurs" in the sense to which you refer... Provide some regular comforts and we all become jaded. The academic life can easily become a round of teaching introductory courses, publishing a pedestrian paper from time to time, admiring oneself reflected in the starry eyes of coeds, and attending expense-paid conferences if one's department head takes a personal liking to one.

Oxfordians have cried out for years about academia's utter rejection of any and all theses touching upon the 17th Earl. The accusation is that they are blindly protecting their comfortable lifestyles at the expense of the obvious truth. In response they've built their own on-the-cheap variation upon the same. Who can blame them, I suppose? Life is too short.

Still, turn scholarship into social and professional networking and we churn out pablum punctuated by occasional flights of mediocrity acclaimed by all in the respective magic circle. My observation is that no one puts out high-end work for long, today, unless they're masochistic, and being beaten like a dog, by way of reward, encourages them to look forward to an even harsher beating in return for even higher-end work in the future. No one outside of the STEM disciplines, anyway, where rigorous research still tends to be rewarded and rational debate encouraged.

As for writing amateur episodes of Game of Thrones, there is no end of enthusiasm for that. It's the new role-playing game and players can occasionally even dredge up meaningful facts... which are promptly melted down like all the rest into lurid and dramatic plot lines.

To be fair, online social networking is by its very nature a highly problematical means of conducting scholarly discussion. Social networkers just a wanna have fuh-un.

But the grand irony is that there is no other way to get the public interested in a subject. Or for the amateur to get scholarship before an interested public. Once captured in the gravity of it, however, networking trumps reading hundreds of thousands of words in small print for all but the rare masochist. Almost any finding will threaten the premise of a cherished episode or plot line. The mob can turn ugly at any time, even more or less at random. The skills of the petty Demagogue trump those of the scholar (and I use the name "Trump" advisedly). The troll is in his or her element.

PH     Technology has always played a part in how the works of Shakespeare have been appreciated by the general public. In Shakespeare's time, the plays could only exist on a stage, but in more recent times, they have also existed in the realm of film, television and radio, all of which have had an impact on the works and how audiences have experienced them.

Today, the technology of social media and internet resources are changing the way we tell stories. As time goes on, how do you think these technologies will change how the public experiences Shakespeare's work?

GWP     Film has been very good to Shakespeare. At first the audience was treated to legacy stage productions. But we got to see the method of the more famous actors like Olivier. Max Reinhardt's Midsummer Night's Dream managed to include some special effects and playfulness.

In the 1950s and 60s, even black-and-white television—the BBC in particular—put on solid versions of most of the plays. In the mid-70s, the network began to establish a still higher level of acting and production that translated many of the greatest Shakespeare actors on the stage, at the time, into actors on the set. These were the necessary first steps to bring us to Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet (the greatest production of Shakespeare on film) and Much Ado About Nothing. For my money, Michael Radford's Merchant of Venice is second only to Branagh's Hamlet. Al Pacino gave us a Shylock for the ages. (Michael Keaton did the same for Dogberry in Much Ado.) Adaptations such as West Side Story and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet (with Leonardo DiCaprio) add to the riches we have received.

The recently released Hollow Crown productions of the Shakespeare plays on the War of the Roses have once again put television high-up among formats for presenting the plays. I have not seen every play from the series but I am called upon once again to refer to The Game of Thrones. Much to its benefit, The Hollow Crown looked more than a little like Shakespeare done by the crew of the enormously popular television series.

Shakespeare would have killed for the resources we have today. His pacing, depth and methods of characterization seem almost made more for film than the stage. Astonishingly, he is one of the great movie franchises of the 20th and 21st centuries, so far long outlasting all others.

The Internet has not been so good, perhaps. Digitized books and materials have provided a wealth of resources that could hardly have been imagined. They remain largely untouched, chronically underutilized. The amateur scholars we have already mentioned would be in their glory if it weren't for the cultural factors that the web has tended to amplify.

Modern book publishing—even of digital books—has succumbed in more ways than one to the post-industrial model. Its products are not a success unless they sell vast numbers of copies and make the various partners wealthy. That kind of success is a matter of marketing and sensationalism. Nothing is less to the point of a Shakespeare or other scholarly title than marketing and sensationalism (however much one must try to attract the attention of a contemporary audience by whatever humble means lie at hand).

You may have noticed that the persons making money off of the plethora of short stories, poems, etc., that the new age has brought about, are those who have created the services that support them. The publishing platforms that appeared among such fanfare have increased their fees until the author makes next to nothing. The exposure to a potential audience has been nearly reduced to zero unless the author pays their miniscule profits many times over for some bit of "placement" (advertising) behind those who have paid more. Marketing platforms charge fees to get your book in front of a potential audience. Reviewing platforms charge fees for reviews.

Amateur scholarly works are just one more print product. Just like short stories, poems, etc., their role in the production cycle is to purchase services. What can be accomplished above this is accomplished through attaching to the largest possible social networks. Large social constructs quickly devolve into the melodrama of group dynamics. They, too, require very nearly all of one's disposable income and time leaving little left over for research.

I began my Virtual Vanaprastha label with the intention of finding a way to support my efforts through a small number of sales. If this were to become the gift of the Internet—that authors could once again manage numbers of sales in the hundreds or low thousands without going broke for service costs, could fund their efforts through their products and buy some groceries to boot—a great deal would be gained. Otherwise, our culture is doomed to be ever more manic-depressive, its products ever more a parody of ever emptier forms, its landscape strewn with flim-flammers, pirates and trolls.

Nothing to do but to keep on pluggin'.


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