“Mufario, Mufario! But who is Mufario? And why does he hide his face behind a mask? You don’t know? Well, I’ll tell you . . . ” – misquoted from Scaramouche, MGM, 1952.
In my recent post, 3.What Authorship Question: Shakespeare? Who? Homer? I toyed with the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were written by several hands. Why? His universal view of women changes between the genres of his plays, and does so in a stratified way i.e., his comedies show a greater understanding than his histories.
Group Theory is not a new concept in terms of the discussion of the Bard’s immortal plays. It dates back to at least Delia Bacon’s, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, 1857. Despite the vaccuous, vapid logic of people who haven’t actually read her manifesto, and who will tell you otherwise, she was not a Baconian but a Groupist. She proposed a group of writers working together with the aim of bringing enlightenment to their audiences using that great educator of the soul, storytelling. Her group included Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon, and the Earl of Oxford, among others.
The idea that more than one hand created the works, is popular today also among orthodox Shakespearean scholars who concede collaboration. A book that I have found very persuasive on the topic is John Mitchell’s, Who Wrote Shakespeare? (1996). In it he goes through the candidates, popular to his day, and discusses the strengths and weaknesses of their cases beginning with William of Stratford. If he had to choose a single candidate, he leans towards Bacon because he sees in the workings of Bacon, “(a) subtle, devious mind and (a) practical idealistic purpose.” (1). However, a single author doesn’t satisfy him and he at one point proposes a group headed by Oxford (2), that included the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe, and of course, Bacon was an integral member .
The problem with Group Theory is talk. If such a Group existed and were sworn to secrecy, wouldn’t someone let the cat out of the bag? And what of the theatre shareholder who bore their label, William Shakespeare, wouldn’t he talk? Where is the evidence of this talk? Can it all be restricted to euphemistic and oblique references in plays whose meaning has now exited, pursued by a bear?
Well, it’s not all obscure. Sonnet 81 is the author’s paeanful dirge to his unacknowledged authorship. I am not the first, nor the last, to proclaim its importance to the SAQ. It’s the alpha and the omega of why William Shakspere was not the author, William Shakespeare. However, it isn’t the only published slight.
Bought Wit is Best, or Tom Long’s Journey to London to Buy Wit, by the anonymous pamphleteer, W.S., is very telling. The pamphlet is a parody of Theophrastus’ ancient parody on human character, Characters. Tom Long is a countryman who comes from the town of Gotham(3) where the citizens have the reputation of being witless. He has been sent to London by the aldermen because the town has been prevailed upon to stage a comedy or masque for the entertainment of its lord. The problem is that there is no one in the town with the wit to write it, so they have sent Tom off to procure wit by the horse-load. Unfortunately, Tom can’t read. If he is to learn wit, it has to be spoken to him. He hears tell of a marvellously witty scholar, Mufario, who he presently encounters.
Mufario proceeds to satirise all different kinds of scholars that he sees in society. Because life is a School of Repentance, his witty scholars are just people who have had to learn wisdom from their experiences. His advice to these people is that rather than suffer the consequences of experience, buying their wit would be preferable. Conversely, he also promotes the idea that by their suffering and repentence they have paid for their wit, or wisdom if you like.
Mufario has a broader understanding of wit than we commonly use today. For Mufario wit is wisdom, experience, understanding, and the ability to laugh at our own foibles. Thus he associates having wit with the capability to write comedies.
Mufario is presented, and then presents himself, as a doyen of wit. The point of view of the author quickly moves from a god’s eye perspective to Mufario’s perspective. Tom Long is presented as a country bumpkin. Coming from a place of no wit, he stays in London at least another five years after which time he has Mufario’s words of wisdom published. Why? “So by mingling wit and mirth together, he might please those that desire to be merry.”
The question to be asked of the pamphlet is whether Mufario had in mind certain people who he was satirising? One of the scholars, Mr Phantastes bears a great resemblance to the polymath, John Dee. Mufario describes a humoursome man with too many professions to spend his estate on, who cannot focus on one. He dabbles in alchemy to the point that he changes his own form until he looks, “a page of Saturn … melancholy black, looking so pale and wan.” Is he having a bit of fun at specific wits of London? Were they contributors of Shakespeare’s canon?
To tackle this question the first thing that has to be determined is when the pamphlet was written as opposed to when it was published. Mufario tells us that it was first published 5 years after he wrote it. The copy that I have read was published in 1634. Nowhere on the front cover does it state whether it is a first or subsequent printing. By this reckoning the latest it could have been written is 1629. But when is the earliest? To ascertain this we may look at the names Mufario gives his Wits. One of them is Pierce Pennilesse the Ploughman. Pierce Penniless first appeared in print in a pamphlet by Tom Nashe in 1592. It was an incredibly successful pamphlet of the early 1590’s going into three print runs and being translated into French. It stands to reason that Bought Wit is Best was first published after Pierce Penniless, His Supplication to the Divell but soon enough in memory for the reference to have meaning.
A probable date of composition for Bought Wit is Best is in the 1590s. Shakespeare’s greatest period of writing in London. Shakespeare, like Tom Long, was from the country and came to London to do commerce in wit. But if Tom Long is supposed to be Shakespeare, why is it that he can’t read? Mufario couldn’t mean William Shakespeare? Was he of the opinion that it pained Shakespeare to write, too?
Who was Mufario anyway? Was Mufario a construct of the author W.S., or was he W.S.? Who is Tom Long supposed to be? Is Gotham really the historic town in Lancashire? Is London meant to be London?
Who was the pamphleteer, playwright, poet and lyricist, W.S.? In the 1600s the publishers of the third and fourth folios knew him to be William Shakespeare. They published three of W.S.’s plays in the Third (1663) and Fourth (1685) Folios of the Collected Works of William Shakespeare: The History of Thomas Lord Cromwell, The Puritan Widow and The Tragedy of Locrine. All of these plays had been printed in quarto editions during the lifetime of William of Stratford with the initials, W.S.. According to Wikipedia, The Puritan Widow has now been reattributed to Thomas Middleton on stylistic comparison; the Tragedy of Locrine is still of unknown authorship, but it’s stiff verse excludes it from Shakespeare’s hand although he may have edited it; and the penmanship of The History of Thomas, Lord Cromwell, has also eluded scholars and baffled them with the strange way the first half of the play is more polished than the second.
For scholars, the three plays in question just don’t live up to their expectations of Shakespeare. But what of his juvenilia? Did he not cut his teeth somewhere? Was he born with a full set of teeth? Why were these plays excluded from the first and second Folios? Was there an induction process whereby only the best plays were included? These plays by W.S. were added to the canon alongside 4 others. Of the seven, only Pericles, Prince of Tyre has been acknowledged a genuine Shakespeare original. However, even Pericles is said to have been a collaborative effort.
Interestingly enough, when reading through the Wits satirised by W.S., a few bring to mind characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Antonio from the Merchant of Venice can be though as having bought his wit thus:
There is a third way of buying wit, and that is by suretyship, when some young man or any other (being of a good nature, and so more easily deceived) is willing to pleasure his friend, and to stand between him and harm by being bound for him and by setting his hand and seal to it, makes so fair a hand, that in short time his friend shrinks away and he is left to the mercy of the creditor… (4)
Shakespeare’s fascination with the cuckholded husband also runs through a few of the characters as a consequence of their actions. Is this enough to pin the Shakespeare name on the pamphlet? Would he lampoon himself as being from the country, unable to read, unable to write comedy, and from a society whose greatest foible was its propensity to go to court over petty concerns eg a trespassing goose?
W.S. holds Tom Long apart from Mufario. In fact, Mufario’s wits are almost all Londoners. Be they men or women, they are from the merchant class or above. They are educated and have money to spend. He doesn’t understand the countryman’s concerns and can only poke fun at his antics involving lawyers in the city.
From Mufario’s judgements we can infer certain things about him. He is a man-about-London-Town, a scholar and a wit. He has knowledge enough of English folklore, Old Testament stories and Greek mythology but not the confidence to quote in Greek, though he bandies about his Latin. He hints at his once having been wealthy when he talks of prodigal youth waxing philosophically. His advice to women on choosing a husband brand him an aristocrat. In marriage to choose money over birth/social rank is folly. As is choosing money over wit. In fact his advice is best kept by those with money and/or rank. In this pamphlet he presupposes that living in the country, in an agricultural profession precludes having wit.
The exhibited knowledge in this pamphlet overlaps with that of Shakespeare the writer down to Ben Jonson’s claim that his Latin was better than his Greek. But why would he lampoon countrymen, his own? And if he did, why doesn’t the satire encompass the various issues of countrymen and their character stock types? For Mufario, countrymen are litigious, petty, uneducated “Goodmen Clodpoles” who in coming to the city can best hope for local preferment on their return having gained city wit.
We aren’t told whether Tom Long learns enough wit from Mufario to write his own comedies. From the little factual information that has come down to us about William of Stratford, the evidence of his life resonates with Tom Long and the Goodmen “Halfpenny” and “Clodpole” of Bought Wit is Best: a litigious nature, an extended stay in London, a return home a success, an interest in civic advancement (the attainment of the coat of arms for his father) a delving into the production of comedies, and a questionable education (the only evidence of his handwriting are the near illegible signatures and the story that it pained him to write.)
Was Tom Long meant for William Shakspere of Stratford? Are the Wits satirised in the pamphlet Shakespeare’s collaborators? Who was W.S.?
For references to the greatest poets in the Elizabethan Age, that omit Shakespeare and pre-date the publication of the first folio see: http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/peacham-on-oxford/
On Pierce Penniless https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierce_Penniless
- Mitchell, John, Who Wrote Shakespeare, Thames and Hudson, London, 1996, Chapter IX: A Last Look Round, 259.
- ibid, p.244.
- During the reign of King John the citizens of Gotham did not want the upkeep of a new highway by their town so they feigned madness to dissuade the powers that were from building the King’s road through there. The legend of the madness of their citizens stuck.
- S., W, Tom Long’s Journey to London to Buy Wit or Bought Wit is Best, E.A. for Francis Smith, London,1634. From EEBO.
John Dee’s seal