Indisputable? ‘The Shakespeare Guide to Italy’ Book Review

To say the Shakespeare authorship question is controversial would be an understatement. It certainly divides opinion, the arguments often being quite heated from either side.

And it isn’t new; the controversy has been going on longer than most people realise. By the early nineteenth century the doubts about the ‘man from Stratford’ were beginning to become more vocal.

One such doubter was a remarkable woman from Ohio called Delia Bacon, who proposed her namesake Francis Bacon, was the actual author of Shakespeare’s works.

Another example is Mark Twain, the author of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, who put his doubts into print with his book ‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’. Since then the theories have continued to grow apace.

Groundbreaking

Perhaps the most groundbreaking book of the last century was written by a certain J Thomas Looney (Shakespeare Identified), who claimed that the 17th Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere, was the true genius of English literature. Needless to say there are now numerous books about the issue and many alternative candidates, including Christopher Marlowe and Roger Manners, the 5th Earl of Rutland.

However, what has been lacking is documentary proof of someone other than ‘the man from Stratford’ being the actual author of the works of Shakespeare. The great problem stems from the fact that there is a gaping whole, a paucity of information, in the known biography of the man called William Shakespeare. We know when he was born, when he got married and when he died; added to that are pieces of records of litigious information in regard to someone who seems far more like a businessman than England’s greatest ever playwright and poet. And in his will there is no mention of a library, let alone any books, surely prerequisites for such a literary giant as this.

Materialist rather than poet

The character emerging from the available information, including six rather poor signatures, is of someone who is quite materialistically minded, not at all prone to writing the best blank verse you’ve ever seen.

That said, it is still possible that there is a huge chunk of his biography waiting to be found and that he did indeed write the works attributed to him – genius is still after all, genius, as they say. But genius still needs an education, something which, other than a possible grammar school education up until around the age of fourteen, is also glaringly absent.

I have been interested by this subject, though not entirely persuaded by any candidate, for many years now. For me, just about the best book I have come across in regard to this controversy is The Shakespeare Guide to Italy (HarpPeren; Illustrated edition) by Richard Paul Roe, now sadly deceased. He is well qualified for this undertaking, having a degree in English literature and European history from Berkeley.

Ten plays set in Italy

It has long been speculated as to why at least ten out of the thirty six of the Bard’s plays are set in Italy. Surely the most obvious answer to this fact is that author of the plays visited Italy extensively at some stage in his life, or at the very least knew people who had, or he had access to much information about that country.

What Roe does is set about researching patiently and wholly systematically over some period of time, visiting all the places mentioned in the works; Venice, Padua, Verona, Mantua, Milan, Florence, Messina, Palermo, the latter two locations being in Sicily. Many of the pictures within the book are the authors and you get some idea as to his intelligence, sheer persistence and depth of character.

He produces a logically argued and beautifully illustrated book, which while highly detailed, is also easy to read. What I particularly like is that he does not force upon the reader a favourite candidate for authorship; he presents facts, information, from which the discerning reader can make up their own mind.

Intimate knowledge

Hitherto it has been assumed by most that much of the information that the author of Shakespeare put into his plays about certain locals was either imagined, or learned anecdotally. However, if you know a place more intimately, there are certain facts you can drop in which draws a more convincing picture.

An example of this is from Romeo and Juliet, where Benvolio is describing the scene of a grove of sycamore trees through the western wall of the city of Verona. Roe visited this area and found that to this day sycamores still grow there.

Now, it might be said that such scenes exist from many an Italian city and have done for centuries, and that Shakespeare just ‘got lucky’ in putting in this detail, but it does seem these trees have been a feature here way back into past. And it does create a picture of intimacy, as if the author is seeing things from his own mind’s eye, or recollection, and not merely making it up.

Sailing to Milan?

There are many other examples of course, including the volcanic island of Vulcano off the north coast of Sicily which bears a remarkable similarity to Prospero’s island described in what is regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest.

In The Two Gentlemen of Verona there is the unequivocable statement of being able to sail from Verona to distant Milan, an oft quoted ‘error’ on behalf of the Bard, of whom it has been said was clearly ignorant of northern Italy and its geography. However, thanks to the work and insight of Roe, it turns out that it was indeed possible to sail, by boat or barge perhaps, between those two beautiful cities in the late sixteenth centuries by means of canals and the navigable rivers of the Adige, Po and Adda.

In fact, until the late 1950s, Milan was still considered one of Italy’s prime maritime ports. After all, it must be realised that northern Italy is, at least below the Alps and before the Appenines rise to form the backbone of the peninsula, a vast plain, perfectly suited for navigation as well as growing the rice for risotto.

So what I came away with from reading this book is of having visited Italy myself, albeit in my mind, yet deeply – and yes – intimately. Whoever the author of Shakespeare was, he (or she?) must surely having experienced it at first hand, just like the author of this book.


Copyright Francis 2020

Was Shakespeare Bisexual? — Ripe Good Scholar (Reblog)

The other day I stumbled across an article with the headline “William Shakespeare was undeniably bisexual, researchers claim.” I immediately rolled my eyes at the word “undeniably.” Shakespeare was not undeniably anything. Due to limited records (which is perfectly normal for the period), doubt can be cast on almost every aspect of his existence. Basic […]

Was Shakespeare Bisexual? — Ripe Good Scholar

We may never know the full truth about Shakespeare but the works written under his name are some of the best in the English language.

How to Read Shakespeare — Pages Unbound | Book Reviews & Discussions (Reblog)

Start with a Properly Annotated Edition Annotations are notes that help to explain a text. It may be tempting to read Shakespeare from a free online download or from an inexpensive copy that contains nothing but the text. However, when it comes to older books, sometimes paying more for scholarly notes can really make a […]

How to Read Shakespeare — Pages Unbound | Book Reviews & Discussions

*Shakespeare is a turn off for some, but those works are a part of our culture.

So Who Did Write Shakespeare Then? Favoured Books

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‘Who Wrote Shakespeare?’ by John Michell (Thames & Hudson) is, in my opinion, probably the best book of introduction to the ‘Shakespeare AuthorshipQuestion. However, this book is not so easy to find these days.

I have been fascinated by this Shakespeare puzzle for several years now, though I am still a long way short of doing enough research, and even further away from coming to a firm answer which sits well in my mind. It is an enigma which has occupied many individuals their whole lifetime over the last two hundred years, or more.

So why is there any doubt that the man of Stratford Upon Avon in central England is the true author of the plays which bear the name William Shakespeare? The chief problem is that the known life of William Shakespeare, or Shakspere (the spelling of his name is a subject unto itself), does not appear to be that of the greatest writer of all time.

Where is Will?

To cut a long story short, there are around half a dozen known signatures purportedly of this man, but they are all poorly written. Some say that is because all those that survive are from when he was ill at the end of his fifty two year old lifespan.

More than this, out of around seventy or so pieces of other documentary evidence, none refer to anything to do with literature, or books.

What the records do seem to show are the dealings of a business man, with a keen interest in litigation. This man does appear to be in London at the right time and involved in the theatre, though not as a writer, but as a minor player – at best. His dealings with the London stage scene of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean times all centre around business.

Shadowy Aristocrats

These are the prime reasons for doubt. But who might have written the plays and the poems?

John Michell, who had a very find mind and wrote some fascinating, enlightening books, put the arguments across superbly. He has chapters for the prime candidates, including Shakspere (the spelling of his name is a subject unto itself) of Stratford. First comes Francis Bacon, a known intellectual of the period, a writer and philosopher with all the prerequisite knowledge and library of books to have written the works – if not the genius.

Then comes the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, who has consistently been the favourite candidate for around a century, even though he died in 1604 and the plays of Shakespeare are thought to have been written as late as 1611 with The Tempest. There is much to link his life to the works of Shakespeare, even down to a broad knowledge of Italy and other European areas which feature so prominently in Shakespeare.

Two other earls appear in Michell’s list, namely William Stanley the 6th Earl of Derby and Roger Manners the 5th Earl of Rutland. They both have intriguing links to the mystery, though we still apparently lack definitive and documentary evidence. Why are there so many aristocrats here? The primary reason is that when one looks at Shakespeare’s works as a whole, he does appear to have a deep familiarity with and love of the workings of courtly things and of history. A midlander with barely a grammar school education is far less likely to have been able to write what Shakespeare did. Yes, genius does exist, but even genius needs an education.

Nom de Plume

What is more, in those days it was rather unseemly for high ranking individuals, such as the aristocracy, to publish work in their own name – they would often use a nom de plume for disguise.

Equally intriguing is the case of Christopher Marlowe, born just two months before Stratford Will and the one man whose sheer brilliance as a playwrite and poet can stand alongside the author we know as Shakespeare, creating such masterpieces as ‘Tamburlaine’ and ‘Dr Faustus’.

A Reckoning Over A Bill

However, always a controversial figure, Marlowe’s candidacy is fatally flawed in that he officially died on May 30 1593 at Deptford, London, apparently murdered over a dispute about a bill, or ‘reckoning’. Marlowe was also an intelligence operative and much of his activity is murky. However, some feel that this story and the subsequent inquest are totally unsound, that he somehow survived and continued to write in secret with the nom de plume, William Shake-speare.

There are also proponents who believe that Shakespeare was a collaborative effort, involving two or more of the above. As strange as it sounds, at this point in my research, I tend to favour this, though as to the candidates involved I am not yet certain.

So there it is, a very fine book – if you can find it, whatever you may think of the subject. So who wrote Shakespeare? I don’t know! But I will continue to investigate, little by little. Many still close their ears and shout ‘conspiracy theorist!’ Cognitive dissonance is a feature of our times and is surely something to get over. Do we believe in freedom of thought, or not? That is the question.

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I have only skimmed over the candidates here, but I intend to write some more involved pieces about specific men – and even a couple of women. I will also bring my astrological knowledge into play where I can.

Copyright Francis Barker 2020

Why the Authorship Question Matters — Ripe Good Scholar (Reblog)

Over the holidays, I was discussing the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy with my father in law. He is an admitted novice when it comes to Shakespeare, but – like most of us – he has some basic experience with the plays. He was unfamiliar with the fact that there is a group of people who doubt […]

via Why the Authorship Question Matters — Ripe Good Scholar

***This is one of my interests too – The Shakespeare Authorship question is important and totally fascinating.