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Whalen reviews Hope & Holston

Review of The Shakespeare Controversy: An Analysis of the Authorship Theories, Second Edition by Warren Hope and Kim Holston. Jefferson NC: McFarland & Company, 2009.

Richard F. Whalen

This second edition of Hope and Holston’s Shakespeare Controversy expands and brings up to date their selective survey and analysis of the literature on the authorship issue over the past 280 years. Well-written and well-researched, this book is not only an entertaining, good read but also a valuable reference work.

At the outset, the authors state that they are Oxfordians and “. . . what we track in this book are the efforts of a number of people which culminated in that recognition of Shakespeare’s identity, and the consequences, thus far, of that recognition. . . . Our aim is to be critically selective, not exhaustive.”

To cover the years since their first edition, published in 1992, the authors have added three chapters and extended their “Chronological Annotated Bibliography” with selected books and articles published in the past seventeen years.

In the first of the new chapters, the authors expand on works treated briefly in their first edition. They devote five pages to an admiring review of Hamlet Himself (1997), Bronson Feldman’s booklet published in 1977 that is out of print and almost impossible to find. The first edition gave Feldman four paragraphs. They follow with reports on the 1987 debate before three justices of the Supreme Court of the United States and the Frontline Public Broadcasting System television program on the authorship controversy, “The Shakespeare Mystery”, that was first broadcast in 1989.

The second new chapter, “The Stratfordian Response,” contains new, post-1991 material, including books by Irvin Matus, an independent researcher, and by Alan Nelson, an English professor emeritus. The authors devote five pages to Matus’s earnestly Stratfordian Shakespeare In Fact (1994), a book rarely cited by Oxfordians today. In the end, they say, Matus aims “to urge ‘the actor’s Shakespeare’ at the expense of ‘the scholar’s Shakespeare.’”  Alan Nelson’s anti-Oxfordian, archival biography of the earl of Oxford, Monstrous Adversary (2003), gets four pages, mostly on Nelson’s handling of three minor characters in Oxford’s life, George Brown, Orazio Coquo and William Hunnis. “His book,” say Hope and Holston, “is a piece of propaganda posing as scholarship.”

The third of the three new chapters reports on the work of various contemporary researchers of various persuasions. They include:

  • Peter Moore on the circumstances and votes for Oxford for membership in the Knights of the Garter, The Lame Storyteller, Poor and Despised;
  • Daphne Pearson on Oxford’s inherited income, “Edward de Vere (1550-1604): The Crisis and Consequences of Wardship”;
  • Roger Stritmatter’s dissertation on Oxford’s Bible, “The Marginalia of Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible”;
  • Elliott Baker’s shortened edition of Delia Bacon’s book, Shakespeare’s Philosophy Unfolded;
  • Diana Price’s biography of Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography;
  • William Rubinstein and Brenda James’s case for Henry Neville, The Truth Will Out;
  • Robin Williams case for Mary Sidney, Sweet Swan of Avon;
  • Mark Anderson’s detailed and fully annotated biography of Oxford, Shakespeare by Another Name;
  • and Bill Bryson’s informal, popular defense of the Stratford man, Shakespeare: The World as Stage.

Two of the chapters carried forward from the first edition are valuable essays on important early figures in the authorship controversy. They are the book’s opening chapter on Delia Bacon, the often unfairly maligned first Groupist, followed by a chapter on Mark Twain, quoted at length, and Walt Whitman with his friend William O’Connor.

The flamboyant, Baconian cryptologist Ignatius Donnelly gets a twelve-page chapter. The skeptic Henry James shares a chapter with Joseph Skipsey, the disillusioned custodian of the Stratford Birthplace. Grouped together in the next chapter are the respected anti-Stratfordian George Greenwood and two writers they call “rebels:” Samuel Butler and Frank Harris, who are not often heard from. Then comes one chapter entitled “Many Candidates: Marlowe, Rutland, Derby, and So On,” and an excellent, full chapter on J. Thomas Looney’s life and ground-breaking identification of Oxford as Shakespeare.

The last of the original, pre-1991chapters covers works of numerous researchers and witnesses, including John Galsworthy, B. R. Ward and his son B. M. Ward, Gerald Rendall, Eva Turner Clark, Charles Wisner Barrell, S. Schoenbaum, Percy Allen, Gerald W. Phillips, Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn, and Ruth Loyd Miller. For whatever reason, Clark, the Ogburns and Miller — major, influential Oxfordian authors — are not treated as fully as some of the more obscure writers.

It is of course impossible to include every book and article or do justice to any of the writers in a short survey of the immense literature on the authorship controversy by Oxfordians, Stratfordians and others. In most cases, but not all, Hope and Holston select one or two aspects of the writer’s work for discussion, instead of providing a generalized summary of each. This makes it more interesting reading but at the expense of a more comprehensive, if brief, description of the work.  They do an admirable job, however, of weaving together claims by Stratfordians and Oxfordians, showing the back-and-forth of the debate over the centuries. They have little patience for most Stratfordian claims.

The “Chronological Annotated Bibliography” picks up in November 1991 with “The Nose Job,” an episode from the TV program, Seinfeld. (A landlord contends that “Shakespeare was an imposter.”) The longest entries from 1991 to 2008 are on books by Ian Wilson, Irving Matus, John Michell, Joseph Sobran, Jonathan Bate, Diana Price, William Rubinstein, Rodney Bolt (a conjectural Marlovian,) Mark Anderson, Scott McCrae, and Robin Williams. The extended chronology also includes entries on the Harper’s Magazine (April 1999) collection “The Ghost of Shakespeare” that includes five articles by Stratfordians and five by Oxfordians and The Tennessee Law Review Vol. 72, No. 1 (Fall 2004) devoted to the authorship debate. (Full disclosure: This reviewer’s books and articles are included.)

Readers new to the book and its organization would do well to start with the chapters on Delia Bacon, Whitman, Twain and Looney; then browse here and there; and then keep the volume handy as a reference tool, consulting the index to find information on a specific author. Hope and Holston are especially good on biographical background.

Oxfordian readers will find anomalies. Some notable works receive scant attention while some obscure works are treated at length. Some bibliographic entries seem less than consequential. Major authors are covered in both chapter narratives and annotated bibliographic entries that sometimes run to several hundred words, so both should be consulted. Missing are any of the more significant Oxfordian research papers published in the Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, the De Vere Society Newsletter, Shakespeare Matters, The Oxfordian annual journal, and the book Great Oxford, published in 2004 by the De Vere Society.

The chronological sequence is unusual for a bibliography. Rarely will readers have occasion to seek works published in a specific year. Nor does the sequence of entries convey any particular insights.

But these are quibbles. The authors state at the outset that they do not aim to be exhaustive. The book’s idiosyncrasies and the sidelights that caught the authors’ attention are a large part of its appeal. The book’s achievement, the result of an incredible amount of reading and thoughtful interpretation, is impressive. Warren Hope and Kim Holston have produced a worthy, if quite selective, survey of an immense subject — 280 years of literature on the Shakespeare authorship controversy in 227 pages.

About Linda Theil

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