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November 07, 2006

William Shakespeare and Sir Henry Neville: A conspiracy or an agreement? - William D. Rubinstein presents new evidence which he argues confirms his claim that Sir Henry Neville was the true author of Shakespeare's plays

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

In their controversial 2005 book, The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare, William D. Rubinstein, and his co-author Brenda James, argued that Sir Henry Neville was the true author of William Shakespeare's plays. Now William D. Rubinstein - professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth and also the author of the Social Affairs Unit's new book, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution - presents new evidence which he argues confirms his and Brenda James's claims about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.

Those who believe that the evidence strongly supports the view that William Shakespeare was not the actual author of the works attributed to him are often accused of a "conspiracy theory". This conspiracy must have entailed the cooperation of several men, and perhaps a large group, in advancing the fictitious view of Shakespeare as the real author. Such a large-scale conspiracy is obviously very difficult to credit, and the larger the number of people involved, the less likely it is to remain a secret.

Moreover, the term "conspiracy theory" is not a neutral one. It connotes secret meetings after midnight for some malign and evil purpose like assassinating a President; it also suggests some sinister and mysterious association with allegedly far-reaching powers beloved of crackpots and extremists, such as the "Zionist-Freemason conspiracy".

Alternative theories of Shakespeare as author are - and certainly if they are to be at all plausible - not really like that: what is suggested is not a monstrous conspiracy of some kind, but a deliberate agreement among what in all likelihood was a small group of people to disguise the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Their motives, too, might be plausible and understandable rather than mysterious. What has been lacking, needless to say, is a clear account of this agreement, with plausible supporting evidence. Anti-Stratfordians, especially Oxfordians, have suggested a variety of possible reasons for this agreement, but none has been very plausible and all are lacking in evidence.

Most remarkably, in my view direct evidence for such an agreement appears to exist.

Its significance was unrealized before the recognition, first made by Brenda James, that Sir Henry Neville (c.1562-1615) was very likely to have been the real author of Shakespeare's works, a view put at length in the book I co-authored with her, The Truth Will Out. In or around 1615 Francis Beaumont (1589-1616), the playwright and collaborator of John Fletcher (1579-1625), wrote a letter in verse to Ben Jonson, the great playwright and poet. (It is undated, but Sir E. K. Chambers believes that 1615 was its most likely date, a view with which I do not disagree.) A few lines of this letter are sometimes quoted because they mention Shakespeare by name, but the verse-letter remains relatively obscure and surprisingly little known. The relevant passage in Beaumont's letter is as follows: I would let slippe
(If I had any in mee) schollershippe,
And from all Learninge keepe these lines as cleere
As Shakespeares best are, which our heires shall heare
Preachers apte to their auditors to showe
how farr sometimes a mortall man may goe
by the dimme light of Nature, tis to mee
an helpe to write of nothing; and as free,
as hee, whose text was, god made all that is,
I meane to speake: what do you thinke of his
state, who hath now the last that hee could make
in white and Orange tawny on his backe
at Windsor? …
Like so much of the writing of the period, the rest of this verse-letter is highly opaque and cryptic. The complete text of Beaumont's letter is also not particularly easy to find: the most accessible source remains Sir E. K. Chambers' William Shakespeare, Volume II (Oxford, 1930), which was also the first work to publish this letter in full.

There is so much of great interest and significance in this passage that one hardly knows where to start. Perhaps the first question is why it is not much more widely known than it is. References to Shakespeare as an author in his lifetime, let alone by one famous writer to another, may be written out on the back of a postage stamp; this verse-letter in fact appears to be unique. Yet is was not mentioned at all in a standard biography of Shakespeare like Park Honan's Shakespeare: A Life (1999) or even in Stanley Wells's recent Shakespeare & Co. (2006), although Wells's book is specifically concerned with Beaumont, Jonson, Fletcher and other contemporary playwrights.

One reason, perhaps, is that Shakespeare is here credited with having written "by the dimme light of nature" - in other words, that he was virtually self-taught and self-educated, and that what education he did have was inadequate to explain his genius. Such a view - made by one of Shakespeare's alleged author friends to another - directly contradicts Proposition Number One of the orthodox view of Shakespeare's life, that the education he received at Stratford Grammar School, a local, otherwise unnotable elementary school in a provincial market town of 1200 people, and which ceased at the age of thirteen, was equal to anything on offer in England or even in Europe, and is fully adequate to account for his remarkable erudition.

Francis Beaumont, however, begged to disagree: he not only believed that Shakespeare's education was so deficient that he was, for all practical purposes, self-taught, but that this fact was so remarkable that posterity would surely hear about it.

More curious, however, are the lines predicting that "our heirs" will hear "preachers" explaining to their "auditors" about Shakespeare's meagre education. These "preachers" can hardly be Anglican (or any other) clergymen: clergymen simply did not deliver sermons or homilies about the social and educational backgrounds of secular playwrights. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any topic less likely to have been the subject of a preacher's sermon at the time than Shakespeare's meagre education. These "preachers" must themselves be of a secular kind, perhaps writers like Beaumont and Jonson.

More basically, however, why should "auditors" hear anything whatever about Shakespeare's educational deficiencies? Why that? Why Shakespeare? That our "heires" shall hear this sounds like a remarkably confident prediction. And would William Shakespeare approve? If this verse-letter dates from 1615 he was, after all, still alive. In 1615 Shakespeare was only fifty-one; for all Beaumont knew, he might have lived another thirty years. (As it happened, he died the following April, a month after Beaumont himself died at the age of only thirty-two.) Yet he seems to be discussed as if he were already dead.

Furthermore, there was, of course, no collected edition of Shakespeare's works in 1615, only stray, ephemeral pamphlets and quartos of individual plays. Would these be remembered even twenty years later?

These comments about Shakespeare lead on to the rest of the passage, lines which are seldom quoted because they seem so cryptic (until now). The last four or five lines are assuredly a description of Sir Henry Neville's funeral. Neville died in July 1615 and was buried at Waltham St. Lawrence church, a few miles from Windsor and near his country house, Billingbear Park. He was also the local M.P. for Berkshire and local bigshot in the Windsor area, and might well have had a memorial service in Windsor itself. (This, incidentally, is why The Merry Wives is situated in Windsor, of all places, and why Shakespeare appears to know so much about the minor geography of the area.)

Sir E. K. Chambers does not know who has made his "last" in "white and Orange tawny on his backe", but notes (p. 223) that:

Lord John Hay…had tawny liveries (sic) on an embassy to France in 1616.
Neville was Ambassador to France in 1599-1601, and might well have been laid out in the uniform he had worn as Ambassador, the highest official position he ever held.

If this is indeed a description of Neville's funeral, several inferences can be drawn. Both Beaumont and Jonson were evidently present at his funeral. This is not surprising, since both were friends and admirers of Neville. Jonson wrote an ode in his honour; Beaumont and Fletcher's A King and No King (1611) was apparently inspired in part by his political career and Neville apparently owned the manuscript of the play.

More importantly, of course, it is reasonable to infer that the direct linkage made here between Shakespeare and Neville, otherwise incomprehensible, was deliberate, well-understood by both men, and intended by Beaumont to remind Jonson that there was already a far-reaching agreement to depict the author of Shakespeare's works as a self-educated genius who wrote by the "dim light of nature", an agreement certainly made with Neville's knowledge and approval, and probably at his direct request. One can only speculate as to why - although the apparent reference to Neville's "text" that "god made all that is" is perhaps indicative of Neville's wider philosophy at the time.

Francis Beaumont died in 1616, but Ben Jonson lived to carry out this apparent agreement. In 1622-23 he probably acted as the editor of the Shakespeare First Folio, contributing the celebrated introductory poem about the "sweet swan of Avon" who had "small Latin and less Greek".

At the time when Jonson was engaged in his First Folio work, Jonson was resident at, and almost certainly employed by, Gresham College in London, the capital's only quasi-tertiary institution. Jonson's biographers have been mystified as to what he was doing there and the linkage between Gresham College and the First Folio has been unnoticed in any of the innumerable accounts of Shakespeare.

Gresham College was founded in the 1590s under the will of Sir Thomas Gresham, the famous London merchant. Gresham was the uncle of Neville's mother. Neville's father was the Chief Mourner at his funeral, and two acts of Parliament preserved the interests of the Neville family in Gresham's estate. Neville and his children were Gresham's closest living relatives.

Our view is that Ben Jonson was procured a position at Gresham College by Neville's son and eldest daughter, in large measure to carry out Beaumont's prediction, evidently well-understood by Jonson, that their "heires" would "heare" how Shakespeare wrote "by the dimme light of Nature", a task he did so well that it has taken four centuries to solve the great puzzle. This agreement - not a "conspiracy" - was made between a small group of mortal men.

To read more on the Social Affairs Unit Web Review by Prof. Rubinstein on Sir Henry Neville and William Shakespeare, see Is Sir Henry Neville the true author of Shakespeare's plays? and Sir Henry Neville and the Sonnets: Do the Sonnets show that Shakespeare's work was in fact written by Sir Henry Neville?. To read a critical review of Prof. Rubinstein's thesis, see Lincoln Allison's The Play's the Thing, remember - Lincoln Allison unmasks the true author of Shakespeare's plays, William Shakespeare.

Brenda James' and William D. Rubinstein's The Truth Will Out (Longman, London, 2005) recently appeared in paperback in Britain and in an American edition, published by HarperCollins. William D. Rubinstein is also the author of the Social Affairs Unit's new book, Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution.

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and your agreement is between you and Brenda james, maybe not a conspiracy but a theory. Your theory that Neville wrote the plays and poems is subject to the same as all the other apparent 'agreements' that Sh was not Sh: lack of evidence.
'If' this was a reference to Neville's funeral indeed. 'Probably' edited the First Folio, after making sure his Works had the primeur in the format. So who helped Sejanus to the stage again?

Posted by: william sutton at November 8, 2006 08:04 AM

Dear Sir: There is a great deal of prose in the Shakespearean plays. Why don't you test some of those passages by computerr with Neville's own prose, of which there is apparently a great deal. Computers have already eliminated Marlowe, Oxford and, I suppose, Bacon as possibilities. My apologies if you have already done so. Hunter James.

Posted by: Hunter James at May 27, 2008 05:25 PM
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