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Name in the Window
Margaret Demorest

Name in the Window
Margaret Demorest
Mountain States Lithographing
Wyoming 1996

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Margaret Demorest’s book is an attempt to show that Shakespeare didn’t write the works we associate with his name; he is the "man from Stratford", an unimportant actor. John Donne is the true author. To prove this large claim, Demorest presents ‘evidence’ drawn from history, biography, minute comparison of works, and more arcane material, concerning number symbolism and an acrostic code, amongst other things. I will concentrate here on the general thesis put forward, and some basic problems with it.

Ignored by mainstream literary criticism, the ‘Shakespeare mystery’ continues to thrive, fuelled in recent times by the Internet, whose wide open spaces provide attractive homes for conspiracy theorists. In her defence, Demorest clearly venerates the poetry of the English Renaissance. However, she can’t always steer clear of the main motive of the so-called ‘anti-Stratfordians’- snobbery. In her summary of the ‘authorship debate’ she claims that "Those who accept the man from Stratford must supply him with an advisor who is a classicist, linguist, traveler, lawyer, courtier, and a military man. (And a more attractive record as a person)" (p.5). Why must they? We don’t know that Shakespeare attended the Stratford grammar school, as there are no records of attendance before 1700, but it is not an unlikely assumption. His education would have been more than sufficient to write the plays; nor does his not being highborn debar him from writing about court life. The idea of Shakespeare’s unattractiveness as a person marring his artistic abilities is patently absurd: a connection between behaviour and artistic achievement is hardly tenable, some of John Donne’s more cynical ‘love’ poems would hardly endorse his moral rectitude, for instance.

Every conspiracy needs a motive. Demorest speculates, from a reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream as thinly veiled political allegory, that "…Shakespeare engaged in dangerous subversive writing. This would explain the use of a pseudonym" (pp.l0-11). No. It would suggest that he wrote subversively. So did lots of others, by this standard of evidence. Pseudonyms would be necessary for all Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, if their work is measured for potential subversion. On this shaky premise, Demorest presents her "evidence" for Donne’s authorship. Her argument rests on our lack of evidence of Donne’s early writings. Talking of the posthumous (1633) volume of poems, Demorest claims that: "Though it is impossible to date most of the poems, modern scholars believe the greater part belong to Donne’s mature years" (p.25). This is vague and disingenuous. Modern scholars believe that there is no way of dating most of Donne’s secular verse. However, the assumption has almost always been that Donne’s secular poetry preceded his ordination at St. Paul’s in 1615. What modern scholars believe is that too great a dichotomy between early, secular Donne and late, religious Donne shouldn’t be assumed, as it leads to generalisations about the work. That is almost all we know.

Demorest, however, obscures any idea that Donne’s secular poetry precedes the 1610s, the decade of the death of the "Stratford man", in order to heighten the appeal of her theory that he was busy writing all of Shakespeare’s works. Writing of Donne’s poetry being circulated in manuscript in his lifetime, she remarks that: "Limited availability of such writing makes it difficult for us to account for Ben Jonson’s 1618 evaluation of Donne’s stature as a poet: that he was ‘in some things the foremost poet in the world"’ (p.26). Jonson’s praise is not that difficult to account for if we look at what he is actually reported to have said, in his Conversations with William Drummond of 1619 (not 18): "He esteemeth Donne the first poet in the world, in some things: his verses of the lost chain he hath by heart; and that passage of ‘The Calm’, that dust and feathers do not stir, all was so quiet. Affirmeth Donne to have written all his best pieces ere he was twenty-five years old." Even taking into account the fact that this is Drummond reporting what Jonson told him after the event, (a Jacobean version of the ‘celebrity interview’), Jonson seems to make clear both that Donne had made available a body of poetry, and that much of this was accomplished in his early career; Donne was born in 1572, so the period Jonson refers to takes us up to around 1597. Demorest’s selective mis-quotation here is culpable, as the full text weakens her argument. She similarly half quotes Jonson (in his Discoveries) on Shakespeare’s "blotting". Demorest suggests that ‘blot’ means ‘cover-up’, and twists Jonson into condemning Shakespeare/Donne’s foolhardiness in not ‘blotting’ his subversive material; actually, as the full context makes clear, Jonson was using his commonplace book to point out the solecisms and non-sequiturs of Shakespeare’s dialogue; he wants him to "blot" out the bad lines and the dramatic padding.

It is ironic that the anti-Stratfordian movement should continue its assaults, when it is considered that most of literary criticism has been trying to get rid of the notion of an ‘author’ for some time. Whether or not this is a good thing I leave for others to judge, but its effect is indisputable. The old problems of proving authorial intention from biography are partly what have brought the idea of ‘authorship’ into decline. The anti-Stratfordian line has always been that mainstream academia excludes them as part of an elitist conspiracy. The truth is that the move from studying ‘author’ to studying ‘text’ in modern literary criticism means that it has never mattered less who the author of a book is. But even leaving this aside, those involved in the debate have to use standard scholarly tools. The anti-Stratfordians have consistently failed to do so, and Margaret Demorest’s selectivity in producing and representing evidence does her argument no favours: half quotes and vague generalisations may fool readers without specialist knowledge, but are no substitute for a properly reasoned and judiciously presented argument using all the evidence concerned.

Reviewed by Adam Rounce


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