Monday, December 19, 2011

Suspicious Minds

Now that I am reading over these authorship posts, I can see where it all started to Go Wrong. The whole authorship controversy took me too far away from the real reason I started this blog, and it was downhill from there. Authorship people are, for the most part, anti-literary and anti-metaphor. Both of which I hold dear. I have a poet's heart, I guess, not a cryptographer's brain. (Sadly, I don't have a poet's talent). Well, anyway. There's only one more post after this--then we'll see if I still have the desire/will to get back to Othello, a play which, not surprisingly, is seldom if ever mentioned by the authorship folks. I will speculate on why that is...later.

Well, it’s been awhile. I find that more free time is actually having a deleterious effect on my  blogging schedule. I inevitably find other, more enticing things to do with my time. Plus, I have another, more personal blog I’m writing under a pseudonym (“Sophia”—get it?), which is more fun right now. I confess that some of the reluctance to sit down in front of this one probably has to do with the subject matter. I feel guilty admitting this, because the authorship question has obviously been very compelling for a great many people, among them minds far more impressive than my own—Mark Twain, Henry James, and Sigmund Freud being the most notable of these doubters.  Nevertheless, I just can’t get very excited about this whole thing. There’s no poetry in it at all. It’s an interesting psychodrama, but that’s about it.

Still, I promised to make this a complete narrative arc, and so I shall.

One of the things that does interest me in exploring this issue is the fact that many— perhaps most—of the more celebrated Shakespeare doubters came to this question quite late in life, at a time when they had begun to worry about their own legacies. This cannot have been a coincidence. Mark Twain, for example, became a convert to the Baconian argument partly in writing his own autobiography. Twain was a notorious spendthrift, and had squandered most of his wealth by the time he reached old age. He was forced to keep writing to pay the bills. Having pretty much run out of ideas, he turned to one of his favorite topics—himself.  He began publishing his autobiography in installments in The North American Review—interestingly, and perhaps ironically, his autobiography was (according to people who knew him well) as much an imaginative work of fiction as a factual narrative.

This is, I think, true of most autobiographies. Despite the fact that—or perhaps because—they pretend to be the Truth, they are more often the repositories of fantasies we have about ourselves. Our motives are purer, our enemies more malevolent, our courage more enduring in story form.  We’re much better as fictional characters than we are as real people.

While Twain had a somewhat liberal attitude toward the writing of his own autobiography, he was convinced that all great fiction derived from life, not imagination, and that, by implication, the facts of an author’s life could be discerned with accuracy from his works.  In taking on the Shakespeare question in his last book, he revealed perhaps more than he intended about his own motives. The book was entitled Is Shakespeare Dead? but the subtitle was more telling: From My Autobiography. The question that really worried him was, “Is Mark Twain Dead?”  Had he exhausted his creative drive? Was his historical moment over? How will he be remembered? It was, ultimately, all about him.

Greatness is often embarrassing in its old age. Great men have trouble letting go of their own myths, and often squander their last years trying in vain to top the triumphs of their youth. Maybe Shakespeare knew this, and had the good sense to retire before he turned fifty—a ripe old number in those days.

Uh-oh. My attention is wandering. Time for a digression.

There are collateral benefits to these authorship posts.  I’ve been finding out interesting trivia about various historical figures and trends. For example, did you know that, late in life, Mark Twain was surrounded by handlers who called him “the King?” For real, he was the early twentieth century Elvis. Twain was a consummate self-promoter, and the first genuine celebrity of the modern era. He dressed in iconic white suits, made sure his hair and eyebrows were suitably cotton-candyish whenever he went out, and had a ready store of folksy sayings to hand out at every public appearance.

Also, Helen Keller first introduced the Japanese Akita dog to the US.  Yep, bet you didn’t know that, either.

Anyway, like many very successful, very famous people, Twain viewed the rest of the world through his own mirror. It was inconceivable to him that Shakespeare could have simply walked away from fame and fortune in his forties, and lived out his remaining years in obscurity. A man as desperate for immortality as Twain obviously was simply couldn’t fathom turning his back on the public life. Ergo, the Stratford retiree was not the real Bard.

Twain convinced others, most notably Helen Keller, to take up the Baconian banner. Keller, too, wanted to write a book about the Real Shakespeare, but was strongly dissuaded by her publisher from Tainting Her Brand with weird speculative research. Keller was a real cash cow for her promoters—she had published several inspirational best sellers about her struggles and triumphs.  No one was interested in any non-autobiographical books by a blind and deaf author. Ironically, although Keller felt creatively trapped by her own autobiography, and was herself a living testament to the fact that creativity does not depend on sensory experience, she, like Twain, refused to consider that literature is not, on some level, autobiography in code.

Yes, code!  The next phase of this story is about encryption. I love code stories, especially 1960’s espionage films. My favorite one is about a code-breaking team of hot girls run by a repressed but sexy guy played by Dirk Bogarde. This gem is called Sebastian, made in 1968. It even has the requisite corny LSD-trip scene in it! Check it out—it’s totally retro-cool-camp.

But I digress. Again.

The late nineteenth/early twentieth century was mad about encryption. Delia Bacon’s friend, Samuel Morse, invented the commercial telegraph machine and, of course, Morse Code. Suddenly, encrypted messages and acrostics were everywhere. In poems, plays, documents, songs. The world was just an encrypted version of a truer reality that lay beneath the surface. It was like that old Police Box in the Doctor Who series. Ordinary on the outside, but teeming with unlikely adventures and mysteries within. If only one could break the code…

Ignatius Donnelly, a popular writer of the late nineteenth century, thought he could unravel the encrypted messages buried in Shakespeare’s plays and thereby prove that Bacon had written them. He’d had a bestseller with his book on Atlantis in 1882, and another about his theories of prehistoric planetary cataclysm--grippingly entitled Ragnarok: The Age of Fire and Gravel--a few years later.

Yeah, he was a crackpot. But the late nineteenth century was a golden age for crackpots, and he totally cashed in.  It was just a short conceptual leap (for him) from Lost Civilizations to Lost Poets. In 1888, he published The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays.

Now, to be fair, Francis Bacon did create some actual ciphers. But it’s a pretty big leap to then assume that he’d embedded a bunch of them in plays with someone else’s signature. Nevertheless, Donnelly insisted that Bacon had slipped into the plays “a cipher story, to be read when the tempest that was about to assail civilization had passed away.”  It wasn’t just a story about secret identities, it was about the Coming Apocalypse!

A great marketing scheme, but ultimately unprovable. Even Twain, who published the book, wasn’t convinced by Donnelly’s tortured argument, whereby Bacon was said to have written the code first, and the plays as window dressing! I know, it sounds ridiculous. But pretty much all these anti-Stratfordians see the literature as secondary to the mystery of its composition.


Anyway, this whole crazy cipher thing culminated in the invention of a machine that promised to sort it all out.  Orville Ward Owen, a Detroit physician, took Donnelly’s argument many steps further in his six-volume study, Francis Bacon’s Cipher Story. The book detailed the results of Owen’s cryptographic research using his famous cipher wheel, pictured on the left. This machine supposedly revealed not only that Bacon wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but that he was the son of Queen Bess herself, by means of an illicit liaison with the Earl of Leicester.  Oh, and Bacon also wrote all the works of Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser, Robert Greene, and a few others.

Anyone who’s ever read both The Faerie Queene and anything by Shakespeare can see this is absurd. But none of these guys had even a hint as to how poetry works, or what it means.

The cryptography drama went on for a few more years, but ultimately proved nothing. It did, however, lead to some new inventions that proved quite useful in wartime espionage. Neither Twain, nor Keller, nor Henry James (another, more circumspect anti-Stratfordian), ever came up with a convincing argument. Eventually the Baconian moment fizzled out, yielding to a new, more exciting candidate: The Earl of Oxford.

Next:  The Manly Bard—or, old Prospero gets the boot.

1 comment:

  1. Re: anti-Strat commentary on Othello, Richard Whalen and Ren Dreya have produced an Oxfordian edition of the play, info at: