Alex McNeil is considered a classic TV trivia guru and is the author of "Total Television." Now, he has taken a prominent role in the intensifying effort to prove that Shakespeare's plays and sonnets were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
He stopped by Boston.com on May 16 to chat with readers about his two passions.
Alex_McNeil: Hi all! This is Boston.com. Alex McNeil will be on at 2 p.m. to answer your questions.
Polonius__Guest_: Why not leave things as they are and not try to play with what the rest of us are very happy with?
Alex_McNeil: I, and many others, find a very interesting historical controversy worthy of investigation. Historians constantly re-examine the past. (See, e.g., the recent controversies about the extent of native American population in the New World before Columbus). Whether the case for Oxford (or someone else) as the real Shakespeare will ever be "proven" cannot be answered now.
Messy__Guest_: Why would the identity of the author of Shakespeares' works be covered up? Was it a conspiracy/plan or historical oversight?
Alex_McNeil: In the view of Oxfordians, it was a deliberate plan, not a historical oversight. The level of suggestion of the Stratford Man as the author, as put in the introductory matter in the First Folio of 1623, certainly suggests planning rather than oversight.
Alex_McNeil: Why? Two chief reasons -- one, it would be socially unthinkable for it to be known that a nobleman was penning plays for the public theaters. That would shame the nobleman, his family and the nobility. Second, if somehow it were known that a nobleman was the true playwright, it would be too easy for audiences to draw parallels between characters and real-life personages who were being depicted in them, sometimes savagely. With another person's name on the works, you have what we would today call "plausible deniability."
Alex_McNeil: There may be other political considerations lying behind all this as well. Oxfordians are certainly not in agreement among themselves as to all the reasons for adopting the Shakespeare name and for keeping it going after the deaths of Oxford (1604) and Shakspere (1616).
Caitlin__Guest_: Mr. McNeil, regarding your "single most damaging fact" (Shakespeare's daughters were illiterate): Elizabethan plays were written to be performed, not read. Play scripts did not even exist in the readable form which they do today. Elizabethan actors received pages that contained their own lines, plus their cue lines. It wasn't until after his death did scholars and editors compile Shakespeare's plays into what we now know as scripts. Why? Because most of the Elizabethan population was illiterate.
Alex_McNeil: I don't disagree with what you say. I emphasized that "to me" the single most damaging fact was the illiteracy of Susanna & Judith Shakespere. Don't forget that Shakespeare was not just a playwright, but also a poet -- he was probably better known during his time as a poet. "Venus & Adonis" went through many printings. Poems, unlike plays, are meant to be published. So for that reason alone, I cannot see why Shakspere -- if he were the real poet/playwright -- didn't see to it that his two kids (even though they were female, and could have been able to go to school) read and write.
WilliamOne__Guest_: Isn't most "evidence" for Oxford really a collection of suppositions about what a "great author's" life should be? I mean, Shakespeare?s education included some Latin and a fairly extensive literacy education. While Oxfordians claim that there's some definitive "proof" in the plays because some of them are set in countries other than England, isn't it naive to think that a creative artist would have had to witness what he/she writes about directly? The fact that none of the many painters who have painted the Virgin Mary or baby Jesus ever witnessed the actual Mary or Jesus, yet have been able to make stunning works of their imagined likenesses. Also, didn?t Oxford die rather inconveniently before many Shakespeare plays came to light?
Alex_McNeil: Most evidence of Oxford's life establishes numerous congruencies with "Shakespeare" -- learned, patron of the arts, traveled to Italy and France -- not to mention innumerable specific parallels appearing in the plays. On the contrary, the evidence we have of Shakspere of Stratford's life -- land records, lawsuits, hoarding grain, etc. -- are completely incongruent with either a literary life in general or with "Shakespeare" in particular. There is NO EVIDENCE that he received any education -- records from the Starford grammar school do not exist, and no scholar alleges he attended university.
Alex_McNeil: A creative artict need not observe directly what he or she depicts, but their choice of topics, and the level of detailed knowledge they contain about those topics, leads to inferences of first-hand knowledge of many things; in Shakespeare/Oxford's case, specific details about Venice and Verona, extensive knowledge of falconry (a sport reserved to the aristocracy), etc. etc.
Alex_McNeil: Oxford died in 1604, and a number of Shakespeare plays were first published afterward. However, examples of posthumous publication are numerous. More importantly, no source material acknowledged (by scholars) to have been used by Shakespeare was published after 1604, the year of Oxford's death. Many people seize on "The Tempest" as proof positive against Oxford, as they claim it was inspired by a shipwreck off Bermuda in 1609, and a letter written by a passenger not published until c. 1625 (after Shakspere had also dies, a fact they usually ignore). However, recent research shows that there were numerous Bermuda shipwrecks in the late 1500s and that the passenger's "letter" conatined details taken from numerous other literary sources, all pre-1604.
asibtroy__Guest_: What are the top 5 reasons you can give that Oxford wrote the plays, excluding answers that include b/c Shakespeare couldn't...
Alex_McNeil: Interesting question.
Alex_McNeil: 1. He was recognized during his lifetime as a poet and playwright (even an "excellent" one), yet no plays, and few poems, exist under his name.
Alex_McNeil: 2. His life fits the plays in uncountable ways. I would refer you to Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare by Another Name" for a detailed examination. But take Hamlet. Hamlet's mother remarried quickly after Claudius's death; Oxford's mother remarried quickly after the 16th earl's death. Polonius is generally agreed to be caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, Elizabeth's chief adviser. Oxford grew up in Burghley's household. Ophelia is Polonius's daughter, and Hamlet's love interest. Oxford was married to Cecil's daughter, Anne. (Ophelia = O + philia, or "Oxford's love").
Alex_McNeil: 3. The First Folio (1623) is dedicated to two lords, Montgomery and Pembroke, who no doubt financed the project. One was Oxford's son-in-law, the other had been engaged to another of Oxford's daughters.
Alex_McNeil: 4. Shakespeare "thinks like a lawyer," i.e., he has legal training and uses legal terms with ease, when referring to legal matters and in other ways as well. Oxford was trained in law, having spent at least a year at Gray's Inn.
Alex_McNeil: 5. Back to Hamlet -- Rosenkrantz & Guildenstern are two minor characters. Oxford's brother-in-law went on a dioplomatic mission to Denmark, and wrote of it upon his return. Among the guests at the state dinner were Messrs. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern. Yes, those names do appear elsewhere, but the frequency of such coincidences cannot be ex-plained by chance.
asibtroy__Guest_: How do you answer questions that insinuate (or state) that the thinking Shakespeare couldn't write the plays because he was "uneducated" is an elitist and condesending view?
Alex_McNeil: I wouldn't agree with "condescending," but I might go along with "elitist." It is romantic to conceive of the traditional rags-to-riches success story of a poor kid from a backwater town becoming the world's most famous man of literature. But it just doesn't fit with known facts, unfortunately. The point of view of the playwright is that of a nobleman -- the people he depicts in three dimensions are monarchs, nobles, etc. He does not have a similar grasp of common folk, who are depicted as stock characters. Whoever Shakespeare was, he was EXTREMELY well educated and well read. There is no evidence that Shakspere of Stratford was either.
chipperu2: Hi Alex, thanks for chatting! This isn't a Shakespeare question. I'm curious what you think about today's TV shows? Also, what are you favorite TV shows from the past?
Alex_McNeil: Finally, A TV question! Looking over 60 years of American TV history, I'd say there has always been good and bad. The "Golden Age" of the early 50s is cited often, but we forget that boxing was on several nights a week, and so was wrestling -- and there were only 4 networks, so you didn't have much choice about what to watch.
Alex_McNeil: Today I watch "The Office," which I think is up there with any of the best network series ever. I watch "American Idol" too -- and it harkens back to one of TV's earliest shows, "Talent Scouts." Other all-time favorites -- "Action" (a 1998 Fix show with Jay Mohr as a movie executive, canceled after 8 episodes); "The Larry Sanders Show;" the Diana Rigg "Avengers;" "Have Gun Will Travel."
tinfoiled__Guest_: Hi Alex--here's a question from one of your ispen neighbors who is proud to know the pale prince, the bard of the band--have you read James Shapiro's A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare--it seems to tie him conclusively to his plays, but more from the business prospective then anything else. What do you think of his arguments?
Alex_McNeil: I haven't read Shapiro yet. But most Stratfordian biographers reason backwards from their conclusion -- "we know he wrote the plays, therefore this is the kind of life he must have led." Does Shapiro come to grips with the fact that most men (or women) of the arts are poor business people (that's why they have agents and managers)? Shakespeare was most definitely a shrewd businessman.
Caitlin__Guest_: There was a 10% literacy rate among Elizabethan females. Whether his daughters were indeed illiterate is hardly something that could be proved. And still, this is your "most damaging fact?" Your other arguments are far stronger.
Alex_McNeil: Again, I said it's the most damaging fact "to me." Glad you find other arguments stronger.
FriendofHoratio: Is there a way to explain the many parallels between Shakespeare's life and his work?
Alex_McNeil: What parallels? The problem is that there are few parallels between the life of the Stratford man and the works. Is there one play about a guy from a small country town who becomes a big success? Is there one play about a man whose eleven-year-old son dies unexpectedly? The plays are, most often, about royal power and royal succession, matters which the Stratford man wouldn't be expected to know or care about. But an important nobleman would be very interested in these subjects.
asibtroy__Guest_: Could Anne read? Do we have any information on that? Wasn't she the primary caregiver as Shakespeare spent the lion's share of his time in London until the girls were almost completely grown?
Alex_McNeil: I don't believe there's any evidence that Anne (William's wife) could read or write. Yes, she probably was the primary caregiver when William was in London. And yes, I would agree that Shakespeare of Stratford was involved in the London theatrical community -- but I would say mainly as a businessman/money lender/broker, etc. (See Diana Price's "Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography" for more info). But I also believe that Shakespeare was in Stratford a lot more frequently than his biographers do. I think he was tending to his numerous business and financial interests there -- suing people for debt, hoarding grain, etc.
Colonel__Guest_: Was anything attributable to Shakespeare written between 1604 (Oxford's death) and 1616 (Shakespeare's death)?
Alex_McNeil: I answered this above, but the short answer is no. Although Shakespeare works were published after 1604, there is no known source material used by Shakespeare which was published after 1604.
Messy__Guest_: Are there any publsihers involved in the controversy who would stand to gain by a reprinting of the works with the true authors name?
Alex_McNeil: If I understand your question correctly, I think it would have been very dangerous for a publisher to print works under Oxford's name, especially if it were known that higher-ups did not want it so. The printing industry in England was very tightly controlled; to have a license to operate a press was a treasured commodity.
Messy__Guest_: Some people think Shakespaeare suffered from depression; is it possible he did not teach his children how to write in order to save them the agony, or perhaps just because they didn't have the interest? After all shakespeare did have a sense of irony
Alex_McNeil: I think it quite likely that he suffered from depression, or perhaps a bipolar disorder. (The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa wrote a fascinating short essay about this.) But again, I don't see why that would have prevented him from educating his kids.
opled__Guest_: Every ten years along comes another "I want some publicity" guy like you.
tinfoiled__Guest_: Along with his daughters being uneducated--He spent next to no time with them...seeing them perhaps less then a dozen times during their childhoods. Yet in his plays he examines the relationship beween fathers and daughters in intimate detail.
Alex_McNeil: Good point, suggesting that Oxford (who had three daughters who lived to adulthood) is a more likely candidate.
Mari__Guest_: Alex, were Edward's wit and political humor noted in his lifetime? Was there a match?
Alex_McNeil: Yes, Oxford (Edward de Vere) was hailed during his lifetime as a man of wit and learning, as well as specifically a poet and playwright.
Mari__Guest_: Also, did Edward publish under his own name?
Alex_McNeil: Yes, some works (a few poems) exist under his name, initials, or by poesies that are agreed to be his. But bear in mind these all date from 1576 or earlier, and are what Oxfordians would call "Shakespeare Juvenilia." They are not as "good" as the mature Shakespeare, but they explore some of the same themes, and there are numerous other parallels.
Oceaniagirl__Guest_: Have you written a book about this subject or published something we could read ?
Alex_McNeil: Best books are: Shakespeare by Another Name by Mark Anderson; Shakespeare - Who Was He by Richard Whalen; Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography by Diana Price, and of course Charlton Ogburn's tome, The Mysterious William Shakespeare.
Mari__Guest_: Did Shakespeare have any relationship weith Edward?
Alex_McNeil: I'm taking yours as the last question, as it's a good one. There is no historical evidence of a connection between Shakspere of Stratfor and Oxford. To know more -- or anything -- of their relationship would be at the top of most Oxfordians' wish list. But a tantalizing clue is Act 5, Scene 1, of As You Like It, when Touchstone and Audrey encounter a local lad named "William." Don't have time to explain in detail, but if you equate William with Shakspere, Touchstone with Oxford, and Audrey with the dramatic works themselves, you have a very interesting scene. I wrote about, and the article may be on the shakespeare fellowship web site. If not, write the web master & tell them to put it back!
Alex_McNeil: Thanks to all,
Alex_McNeil: Alex McNeil
© Copyright 2007 Globe Newspaper Company.