The Magazine

O For a Bit of Certainty!

A letter from Charlton Heston.

May 19, 1997, Vol. 2, No. 35
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Paul Cantor scathingly dissects Joseph Sobran's conviction that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays bearing William Shakespeare's name. I would like to add a few words.

Sobran is a good writer, but he makes a sorry case for his clearly cherished conviction that the works of William Shakespeare were not written by the provincial glover's son whose name they bear. Sobran joins an earnest band who, citing how little is known of Shakespeare's education, experience of the world, and private life, believe not only that Shakespeare didn't write the works, but that he couldn't have written them.

A few years ago, Claremont College completed a three-year computer-driven battery of tests to determine whether any of the 27 most mentioned candidates for the mantle of the Bard of Avon actually matched Shakespeare's stylistic peculiarities. None does. Modal analyses of the work of each, using pattern-recognition techniques borrowed from radar to measure the incidence of hyphenated compound words, relative clauses, open lines, and feminine endings, disqualified everyone tested.

Sobran disdains such an approach, pointing out instead what a dashing, well-traveled, and altogether admirable fellow Oxford was. The queen and Oxford's family would have been "scandalized," Sobran says, to know he'd written works of genius. Why? Elizabeth's father, Henry VIII, published at least one book and wrote music and songs for court masques; her successor, James I, sponsored the first production of Macbeth mounted indoors, at court.

Sobran deals with the plays themselves only glancingly, avoiding the fact that many, including four of the five tragedies and the sonnets, are dated after Oxford's death. Are we to conclude that this prominent nobleman wrote 36 plays and a wealth of poetry in the last dozen years of his life, arranged to have them produced and published anonymously and, largely, posthumously, and did not preserve one page of this glorious work, nor leave behind one note to claim his authorship for posterity? Why?

And, how? Did he smuggle them into the theater in disguise, or was Shakespeare a willing ghost--which gets us back to, "Why?" The record of Shakespeare's life is meager because he was a commoner. Lacking a title, men lived and died in obscurity, unless they got in trouble, like Marlowe. Shakespeare was exactly the parvenu player from the country Sobran describes, scribbling away on the South Bank and turning out the 16th-century equivalent of Movies of the Week. It took the richness of the middle plays for London to realize his true size. The world began to catch on only after his death, when Heminge and Condell published the Folio, prefaced by praise from his fellows. (They did not ignore him, as Sobran states.)

Being a writer, Sobran misreads Shakespeare as academics do: He treats him as a writer. I know, there he is on the page, but that's not where he or his plays live. Shakespeare leaps alive in air, in the spoken sound of his words. Only actors really understand this, though audiences sense it subliminally, in performance. When you're redacting the plays in rehearsal, you make the changes in terms of the sound as much as the meaning. Also the pauses.

That's what Shakespeare did as actor/manager. His plays loom so massively over all the other writing in the world because of his sublime gift, but it was a poet-player's gift. He created those men and women to live on a stage, seen in light and sudden dark, heard in cries and whispers. Exploring them there reveals more than a lifetime in a library can.

I began working on the plays when I was in high school, and I guess I've played his people more than any other current American actor. I know how they defeat you, leave you bleeding on your knees in the sand, aching to try again.

When I was adapting Antony and Cleopatra for a film, fearing the outrage of scholars over some radical redactions I'd made, I asked Laurence Olivier's advice. "Do what you think he would've done, laddy," he said. "They none of them f--g know."

--Charlton Heston