The two-day symposium recently held (May 29-30, 2009) in Watertown, Massachusetts, was a great success. About 50-60 people (many of them first timers) turned out for both the play on Friday night and the all-day session in Watertown Public Library on Saturday. There was coverage in the local media both before and after the event.

The program got under way Friday evening with a performance by Hank Whittemore of his one-man show on the Sonnets, Shake-speare’s Treason. The show is based on Whittemore’s theory of what the sonnets are all about, as expressed in his 2005 book on the sonnets, The Monument. The theory is, in brief, that the Fair Youth is the 3rd earl of Southampton, the Dark Lady is Queen Elizabeth, the Poet is Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford, and the story being told is of the Essex Rebellion and Southampton’s crime in participating, his death sentence, and his reprieve. And the hidden story behind the known story of the Essex Rebellion is that Southampton could have been —should have been— Henry IX. Read all about it at The Monument site, or view this YouTube clip of the presentation given earlier this year in Winchester, Massachusetts (there are other clips at YouTube from this same performance).

The first talk on Saturday was given by Bonner Miller Cutting (daughter of Oxfordian stalwart Ruth Loyd Miller), who had come to town all the way from Houston (TX) to participate. Her talk expanded on one she had given at the Shakespeare Authorship Conference last October in White Plains (NY).

Bonner Miller Cutting answers questions after her presentation.

Cutting has been examining Shakespeare’s (i.e. of Stratford) will for several years now, and has come up with some insights that are noteworthy. She has looked at upwards of 2000 other wills from this same period to make comparisons with the Bard, and the results are not too flattering. For example, everyone knows about the bequest of the second-best bed to his wife, but Cutting’s research makes it unmistakable that this was at least a deliberate insult to his wife, if not an outright attempt to disinherit her by mentioning only the bed and nothing else (for example, he treated his sister Joan much more generously). The well-known absence in the will of books, manuscripts, etc. is accompanied by the glaring omission of any bequests to his daughters for their education in particular, or even to the town in general (e.g., how about something for that famous grammar school that taught him so well?). This is where Cutting’s diligent work over several years in comparing the Stratford will to many other wills of the period makes the point that our friend Stratman seemed to have had no literary interests during his life or after it, and furthermore (as some of us joked after the presentation), his will reveals him as, well, cold. Not generous. Cold. But you won’t find that in any mainstream discussions.

Mark Anderson spoke on the recent Cobbe portrait story (actually, controversy), and also expanded his comments to bring in the Ashbourne portrait (the one that graces the cover of his 2005 book Shakespeare By Another Name as a split image with the Welbeck portrait of Oxford). The Cobbe portrait is the one that was recently discovered by its owner to be identical to a putative portrait of Shakespeare owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library (the “Janssen“). It was unveiled with great fanfare by Stanley Wells and the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust as being a “true likeness” of Shakespeare, painted in his lifetime (and most likely the model for the Droeshout engraving in the First Folio).

Mark Anderson, author of Shakespeare By Another Name.

Anderson has written about the Cobbe portrait on his blog several times since the story first broke a few months ago, and most of us in the audience were aware of it. He highlighted the story in the Times Literary Supplement by Katherine Duncan-Jones that dismisses the Birthplace Trust claim, and agreed with her that the portrait is most likely of Sir Thomas Overbury. The real story here is that Stratfordians are actually engaged in the authorship debate (sub rosa) when they reach out like this …anything to make Stratman more real is the name of the game. The second part of Anderson’s talk was on the authorship debate itself, including a point he has been making for several years now: that after 1604 no new sources or historical facts are ever used or alluded to in the Shakespeare canon. This is significant since 1604 is the date of Oxford’s death.

Marie Merkel led off the afternoon session with a provocative presentation in which she put forth the idea that perhaps The Tempest was actually written by Ben Jonson. This is a topic that Merkel has been pursuing for several years, and there’s no doubt that it is controversial, no matter where one stands on the authorship debate itself. But The Tempest is different from the rest of the Shakespeare canon in a number of ways, and the differences have been commented upon for a long time. Oxfordians understand this very well, since J.T. Looney in his 1920 Shakespeare Identified felt obliged to write an appendix in which he claimed that The Tempest was probably not by Shakespeare.

Marie Merkel creates a tempest.

Merkel quoted such mainstream scholars as Harold Bloom and David Lindley in support of the view that The Tempest is different from the rest of Shakespeare.
She also presented some interesting lists of textual analysis and word usage demonstrating that the play has many characteristics that are not characteristic of Shakespeare, and —most especially— that the play to most critics seems more like a Jacobean masque. As anyone involved in the authorship debate knows, The Tempest, its sources, and its actual date of composition are a hot topic in the debate, since any bona fide composition of a Shakespeare play after Oxford’s death in 1604 would knock him out of contention. But as Merkel’s presentation demonstrated, mainstream scholars themselves puzzle over this play as much as Oxfordians (for more information on The Tempest debate see the Oxfordian Stritmatter-Kositsky essay at the Shakespeare Fellowship website and the Stratfordian David Kathman essay at the Shakespeare Authorship Page).

The final speaker of the day was William Boyle (full disclosure: that’s me), reprising a talk he had given last fall at the Shakespeare Authorship Conference in White Plains (NY), and again (with some updates) at the Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference last April in Portland (OR). This presentation on “Shakespeare and the Succession Crisis of the 1590s” takes a closer look at some of the lesser known historical and publishing events that occurred during the same period that Shakespeare burst upon the scene, and considers that Shakespeare himself (aka Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford) was keenly interested in the succession issue (i.e., who would succeed Elizabeth I) and that the Shakespeare plays and poems published during this period were written (or re-written) with the succession issue in mind.

Two publications were the focus of much of this talk: the political tract Conference about the Next Succession to the Crown of England (1594/95), in which a dedication to the earl of Essex claims that he and his followers will “settle the succession,” and Willobie His Avisa (1594), a notoriously enigmatic poem whose front matter contains the first reference to “Shake-speare” as an author (of Lucrece), and even alludes to Avisa and Lucrece as being the same person (both Lucrece and Avisa are “married chastity,” which is, Boyle noted, also an apt description for Queen Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen “married” to England). Boyle said that Willobie has been successfully “solved” by scholar B.N. De Luna in her 1970 book The Queen Declined. Her solution is that Avisa is Queen Elizabeth. He noted that in Harvard’s Riverside Shakespeare the editors concede De Luna’s work and say that Avisa is Queen Elizabeth; they then —wisely— say no more. This solution has great significance for understanding Shakespeare’s role in the succession crisis of the 1590s, and for understanding how the “Shakespeare authorship problem” may have had its roots in Elizabethan succession politics. The chief example here, of course, is Richard II and its well-known association with Essex and the succession, right up to the disastrous Essex Rebellion.

The day concluded with this final talk, and attendees hung out for a while, with ample time to meet and talk about what had been presented. This was a very well organized, fun event. Thanks to all those involved in putting together this two-day event: Lori DiLiddo, the symposium organizer, Chuck and Carole Berney of Watertown, Barbara Hansen, Anne Atheling, Judith Christianson, and Alex McNeil (president of the Shakespeare Fellowship). We should also note that right before lunch Cheryl Eagan-Donovan showed a clip of her upcoming documentary on the authorship (Nothing is Truer than Truth –information available at the Controversy Films website), which will be available soon and should add more fuel to the authorship fire. Several of those in attendance (i.e. Alex McNeil, Hank Whittemore, Mark Anderson) were featured in the clip shown.

Congratulations to all!

UPDATE: there are two articles available on the web about this event: Caldwell Titcomb at The Art’s Fuse, and Thomas Garvey at The Hub Review (Garvey didn’t attend, but he responds to Titcomb’s article and takes the opportunity to rail at the authorship debate in general and Oxfordians in particular).

UPDATE2: The blog Shakespeare Geek also responded to Titcomb’s article (“How did I miss this?”), and, like Thomas Garvey at The Hub Review, was disappointed to learn that a local Shakespeare event was presented by Oxfordians.

UPDATE3: We added a link to the Controversy Films website for more information about the upcoming documentary film, Nothing is Truer than Truth.