Bringing History to Bear on Authorship: Peter Dickson's 'Bardgate'

Sun, 25/09/2011 - 18:02 -- Heward Wilkinson

Review of 'Bardgate: Shake-speare and the Royalists Who Stole the Bard' By Peter W Dickson Limited Edition Publication by Printing Arts Press, Mount Vernon, Ohio, USA. 288 pages This is the first major review post I have been tempted to place here, since James Shapiro's Contested Will [] in 2010. It is prompted by a most remarkable book. In the final paragraph, at the end of his book, Dickson writes touchingly about the final interchanges on earth in 1649 between Philip, Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery, (one of the 'Incomparable Paire of Brethren' to whom is dedicated the First Folio of Shakespeare's Plays of 1623), and King Charles the First, prior to his execution. Dickson's final passage and sentences run as follows: 'It seems reasonable to conclude that Shakespeare's identity was an afterthought at this point for both Montgomery (Oxford's son-in-law and Derby's brother-in-law) and also the King whom we believe was a player, and perhaps the mastermind, behind the final act of the Bardgate drama. With King Charles's execution at the hands of the Puritan regicides, and with the endorsement of the literary giant Milton, a dense and long impenetrable fog enveloped the true identity of Shakespeare to be lifted only now with this book.'

Just as James Shapiro, with his 'Don't Seek the Author, Seek the Tale' strategy, in Contested Will, believed himself to have laid to rest the Oxfordian analysis of the Shakespeare Authorship Question

so, conversely, Peter Dickson believes he has finally produced the historical scenario and narrative of the notorious deception and conspiracy, turning it from the merely hypothetical to actuality which can be imagined, which therefore resolves the authorship debate.

This is the opposed and formidable significance of these two books. Dickson believes that no one previously has articulated a historical narrative that makes all the pieces of this mystery fall into place, making the conspiracy scenario intelligible. He does, to be sure, think that previously Thomas Looney (the first proponent of the Oxfordian claim for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, as the author, in 1920) and Abel Lefranc (who in 1918 most fully articulated the case for William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby as the author), in particular, had discovered the true (and, he believes, convergent) paths along which enquiry must lead. Dickson believes that, without appealing to the sweep and detail of the historical context of the late Elizabethan and early Jacobean period, especially from around 1585 to 1632, ending with the publication of the Second Folio, it is impossible to understand the dynamics and historical causality of what he argues to have been a several episode process of concealment and then deception.

Has he done it? Or is that final claim of his book hyperbolic? '....a dense and long impenetrable fog enveloped the true identity of Shakespeare to be lifted only now with this book.' Has he done it? Well!!

i. I certainly do not think Buckingham Palace will lose much sleep over the prior claims, in relation to their Stuart Bloodline, of the surviving descendants of Mary Tudor, sister of Henry VIII, and of her granddaughter Margaret Clifford, mother of Fernando and William Stanley, 5th and 6th Earls of Derby. That would not be British [see The King's Speech].

ii. I do not think Stratfordians, in the short run, will be persuaded, for instance, by Dickson's impressive adducings of four texts which powerfully converge on the textual implication that the author Shakespeare was already dead before the death of William of Stratford in April 1616. As always, they will for a considerable time find alternative explanations. Nor, I think, will those Stratfordians who are powerfully imprinted with the ostensible Catholicism of William of Stratford, be deterred by the immense historical difficulties which Dickson argues ensue for anyone pursuing the Catholic Bard concept, both, firstly, in relation to William of Stratford's maintenance of his position as a recusant or else outwardly conforming 'Church Papist' Catholic, in an epoch of intense and indeed ferocious Protestant retrenchment, in the official Royal acting troupes, right at the heart of Court and London life, the Lord Chamberlain's Men and latterly the King's Men, and, secondly, in relation to the the over-riding Protestant and anti-Spanish impetus behind the production of the First Folio. Indeed I can imagine resourceful pro-Catholic-Bard Stratfordians using Dickson's book as unexpected ammunition for their position.

iii. I certainly, also, think those Oxfordians, who are following, like the 'doting mallard' Antony [Antony and Cleopatra, III, x], the fatal and incestuous Cleopatra of the Prince Tudor Theory of the Essex Conspiracy and Southampton's supposed relation to Oxford and Queen Elizabeth, which is now to be exhibited on the silver screen in Roland Emmerich's 'Anonymous' [], will be not a jot deterred by Dickson's careful presentation of the true historical situation of the Royal Succession at the end of Elizabeth's reign, and the implications for the Succession of the dynastic marriage between Elizabeth Vere and William Stanley 6th Earl of Derby, in 1595. I think, nevertheless, it is worth remembering that they and Dickson do, unlike many Oxfordians, let alone Stratfordians, share the assumption that the Succession issue was central both to people's actions and motivations at the time, and, inextricably intertwined, to the themes and issues of the Shakespearean works.

iv. Whilst the Shakespeare Authorship question, like other ostensibly 'X File'-type issues, is obsessively fascinating for afficionados, I think we have to recognise that the rest of the universe are not particularly thus intrigued, and that it belongs with what Samuel Johnson, in reference to the great Shakespearean actor David Garrick, called 'the public stock of harmless pleasure' ['At this man's table I enjoyed many cheerful and instructive hours, with companions such as are not often found; with one who has lengthened, and one who has gladdened life; with Dr. James, whose skill in physick will be long remembered; and with David Garrick, whom I hoped to have gratified with this character of our common friend; but what are the hopes of man! I am disappointed by that stroke of death, which has eclipsed the gaiety of nations, and impoverished the publick stock of harmless pleasure.' Johnson, Life of Smith:]. I believe, as Dickson believes, that there are aspects to this matter which do indeed transcend mere curiosity, and I shall come back to them, but, with that reservation, I think we need to remember that we would be, or are regarded as, eccentrics in this! And so, with regard to the first three points, supplemented by the fourth, broadly speaking, such insights take a good, a good, while to filter through. The same applies to another highly relevant, persuasive and important book, Richard Roe's 'The Shakespeare Guide to Italy' []. But is the thing, nevertheless, done in this book? My answer, broadly speaking, is: Yes! Yes! Here mainly the paradigm shift is achieved, the thing is done, we do have a believable scenario, not totally watertight, but very cogent, for the whole unfolding of the drama. There are some reservations, but broadly the thing is done, in so far as it can be done at all. Before I mention, to set on one side, initial and local reservations, I want to make some general points. Before Peter Dickson's book arrived from the United States, I was reading what flattered to be a somewhat intriguing Stratfordian book, Charles Nicholl's The Lodger [], about William of Stratford's time with the Huguenot Mountjoys in Silver Street. But, pleasant and piquant as this book is, there were so many of the characteristic bland and slack elisions and assumptions so pervasive in Stratfordian historical documentary writing - such as the speculative list of books on Shakespeare's bookshelf in his room in Silver Street, and the reference to the copy of a French version of the Decameron which Shakespeare may have read and been influenced by - "perhaps it was a book owned by one of the Mountjoys" (!) - that I began to find it soporific, and difficult to engage with. Then Bardgate arrived, and I have not been able to put that book down until I finished it...

Why? What is it about it that makes the difference? It is not that it is faultless or uncontroversial. It is, however, supremely passionate and confident, even hyperbolic at times, as already illustrated, - though it is moot whether it is hyperbolic if Dickson actually performs what he promises. But, above all, we feel the full force of the author's engagement and engrossment with his story, which unfolds with the fascination of a detective story, one of commanding scope, with pieces being added, intricately and complexly, one by one, and often revisited in the light of later developments, as the story goes along. We as it were feel immediately the book being written, we write it with the author, almost, as it unfolds. We take the powerful pulse of the heartbeat of the problem. Dickson is so unreservedly engaged with the story he is unfolding, so authentic, so gripped by his own grasp of the issues and the evidence, that we share his ringside seat with him, agog with the excitement of the quest.

It is incredibly refreshing, when so many books are covering their backs in caution, and in bland neutrality, to find someone so boldly willing to be unmodest, so comprehensive in vision, and so willing to ask almost unthinkable questions, which we explore at his side with him. Most Oxfordian writings work outward from Shakespearean texts to events in Oxford's life, and a mass of circumstantial evidence has been accumulated in this way, but in ways which are constantly open to interpretation in the light of both the ambiguity of texts, and the validity of the cross-connections, and which therefore are not probative to outsiders. This is what, I believe, makes Dickson chary of the value of primarily textually based enquiry (with a dig at Derrida!), and to aim to replace it with historical enquiry, as he sees it. But Dickson, as we shall shortly see, is more than willing to expound texts; the key difference is, rather, that all such interpretations are drawn implacably into the powerful march of the unfolding of the whole picture of the historical events, seen in their full scope and as historical events per se, rather than merely as a background from which circumstantial nuggets are to be plucked.

It is this powerful cumulative organisation of the book, which makes it unique and possessed of a fundamental conceptual strategy, just as Looney's book also originally was. We see the march of events in their full historical causality and the Shakespearean themes and narratives within this overarching context, so that they mostly come to seem obvious, and to fall into place, in that wider context. There is a fundamental difficulty in respect of proof, here, which is the inherent difficulty of historical inference and explanation. Unlike science, history does not appear to hold out the possibility of repeatable experiments, with the doubtful exception of analyses of history pitched around long term historical and economic cycles. Further, history involves persons, who internalise their relations to previous historical events and processes, and carry them forward into the present and future. So historical narrative, even in something as local as a detective investigation, is idiosyncratic, and is vinidcated by emerging patterns of coherence between events and intentions, which may be partially, but never completely, confirmed by events and new discoveries. [c.f., John Lukacs, Historical Consciousness:]

Unlike Shapiro, Dickson's view of history, whilst robust, is not positivistic, but embraces idiosyncracy along with the broad sweep oef events, and is never other than human history. This means, however, that historical judgements and inferences are nevertheless exactly that, judgements, though they can in many cases approximate to certainty. When there is an immense paucity of relevant knowledge. sometimes judgement consists in the ability to make inspired leaps, and then there is the risk of the speculative. It is offset by staying closely tied to concrete events, documentation, and well-specified interpretation. I believe that Dickson's mastery of the whole picture enables him for the most part to stay sufficiently close to the concrete that, I would judge, even if not all of his inferences hold good, there is a preponderance which enables the broad judgements of the whole book to be sustained. I cannot synoptise this book systematically, and to do so would also spoil it for potential readers, who might be tempted to substitute a summary for the indispensable dense cumulative particularity and spine of the whole forward thrust being unfolded. I am going to attempt to provide some core nodal general judgements which I believe are implicit in the book, and, secondly, some illustrations of the force of Dickson's perceptions, informed as they are by his overall vision and judgement. I want very quickly to say that this book bears the marks of hurry, with many typos and condensations, which it is easy to correct mentally, but make the book look unfnished, and of 'final draft', rather than fully proof read, status. The binding is of a provisional character. I hope this book will move to a more commercial publisher in due course, as it deserves, but that when it does so, it does so corrected and rendered more elegant. It is carved out of the rock, and at this point of time some of the rough edges of the unshaped rock are still clinging to it. This is all I want to say on the technical aspect of the book.