Despite the relentless efforts of diehard revisionists, those intellectual terrorists who seem to be bound and determined to explode and reduce to rubble the best of our Western heritage, the ancient and honorable vocation of scholarship continues, patiently adding to our sum of knowledge and appreciation and perhaps even understanding of the living past, undeterred by the ruthless thought police and by the trendy designers who are transforming the groves of academe into a spotlight fashion runway. The scholar continues “descending / The cast-iron stair of the stacks, shuffling his papers,” in a poem by Richard Wilbur (“For W.H. Auden”) and in “real life.” Here, from the ranks of recent studies of some aspects of the Elizabethan Age, are three exemplary models of the ways and means of contemporary scholarship.

Brownlow’s Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the Devils of Denham is a classic work of scholarship, scrupulous, exact and exacting, finally wise, sometimes witty (“Comedy has a hard time surviving miracle books and ecclesiastical courts, but that docs not mean it was never there.” “Writers who expose preternatural or supernatural fraud seldom attract a very large audience.”) and often as subtle as it is persuasive. The book is a complete and up-to-date reworking and rearrangement of Brownlow’s important, unpublished dissertation of 1963. At heart, we have a strictly edited edition of Samuel Harsnett’s Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603), which concerned itself with the case of some highly illegal Catholic exorcisms of 1585-86. Announced as “essentially new in form and content,” Brownlow’s study “focuses all the materials upon Harsnett’s book, placing it in the context of his career and of the events and personalities that led to its being written. By presenting the text in this way, I hope to give a view of power in the kingdom—intellectual, ecclesiastical, and political—that the book and its author once represented for everyone, including William Shakespeare, who read it.”

Harsnett, who ended his upwardly mobile climb from baker’s son as Archbishop of York, was (is) a complicated, important, and influential figure, not as well known as he ought to be. One of the people his work influenced, eliciting in response a magnificent alternative point of view, was Shakespeare, especially and extensively in King Lear. Brownlow’s chapter, “Shakespeare and Harsnett,” devoted to following “the running allusion to Harsnett’s book” in Lear, is, in and of itself, a major work of adventurous criticism, one which, by the way, should put to rest (if not to shame) some of the arguments of contemporary critics who cannot credit Shakespeare or most other Elizabethans with taking religious life and experience seriously. (The principal named opponent is sociohistorian Stephen Greenblatt, about whose views of Lear Brownlow writes: “This interpretation attributes to Shakespeare and his audience a capacity for radical skepticism that seems to me anachronistic, and is based on an oddly positivistic understanding of religious faith and phenomena.”) The subject is, then, fascinating and the appendices, including the actual examinations and confessions of the Denham Demoniacs, are vivid and engaging. The scholarly apparatus is first-rate—a widely useful glossary, a thorough bibliography, and graceful footnotes pointing out a rich variety of connections and other directions for the reader to follow. Finally, and perhaps above all, this study, while achieving the author’s stated goal, “a view of power in the kingdom,” also greatly enriches our instruction and delight in Lear.

With Shakespeare, In Fact, Irvin Leigh Matus, a proudly “independent scholar,” cheerfully takes on the persistent problem of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and, in particular, the latest and strongest contemporary candidate (there have been more than 30 others over the years)—Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Matus, in my best judgment, demolishes the Oxfordians, leaving them precious little to stand on but thin, hot air. But the real pleasure of this work of popular scholarship, aimed more at the general reader than the specialist (though, judging by the book jacket blurbs—David Bevington, S. Schoenbaum, John W. Velz—specialists are also pleased), is how Matus goes about it, not jeering or picking fights, but taking the Oxfordian arguments seriously and in their own terms and then picking them to pieces with facts and logical argument. Even if the problem seems tedious and irrelevant at this late stage, the reader has much to enjoy here. There is a lively and accurate picture of Shakespeare in his own times and among his own contemporaries, a graceful bringing together of what can be known, all that needs to be known. Matus also follows the historical reputation of Shakespeare, demonstrating the huge irony that doubts about authorship arose in direct ratio to the high regard that Shakespeare’s work later earned. His contemporaries loved and respected him. His later admirers worshipped his works and came to conclude, as the Oxfordians have, that no common Elizabethan man, a modestly educated glover’s son from a backwater community, no matter how gifted he might have been, could possibly have created the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Incidentally, Matus offers an accurate portrait of the Earl of Oxford, a man, himself, to be reckoned with and remembered, though not, by any means, as the secret author of William Shakespeare’s works. Moreover, Matus’s method allows him to take note of “the great transformations of Shakespearean studies over the past two decades or so.” What he sees is the increasing emphasis, call it a kind of resurrection, on the Shakespearean plays as performances on the stage and on film and videotape. Shakespeare, In Fact really should dispose of the authorship problem for a good while. Certainly it is the best written, most accessible, and lively account of the whole matter.

If classic scholarship is marked by rigor and precision, qualities which at once limit and intensify the (inevitable) speculative elements, and if popular scholarship depends upon rhetorical authority and converts speculation to entertaining conjecture, there is another form, what might be called imaginative scholarship, wherein speculation, though equally founded upon facts, takes place in a narrative context and is tested in different ways. The best of historical fiction can sometimes achieve this status. The late Anthony Burgess had already done this with Nothing Like the Sun (1964), a novel about Shakespeare’s “lost years,” the blank time between his departure from Stratford and his appearance on the London scene. Now in his final novel. Burgess returns to the Elizabethan Age with the story, factually sound where there are facts and highly imaginative where there arc mysteries, of the life and sudden death (murder) of Christopher Marlowe. The “lost” parts of Marlowe’s brief life are the stuff of thrillers. He seems to have been a spy at home and abroad, one of some value and importance, in the service of Sir Francis Walsingham. He was involved in a homicide in London. He may have been a homosexual and an “atheist”—a radical skeptic in Elizabethan terms. Burgess has plenty to work with.

Just as Brownlow’s book emerged from an unpublished dissertation. Burgess’s novel began in 1940 as a university thesis on Marlowe which was destroyed by the Luftwaffe passing over Moss Side, Manchester. Burgess had to wait more than 50 years to get back to it and, as it were, finish it in novel form. Here, in an appropriately vivid narrative language. Burgess sticks close to facts when they are known and (often in Marlowe’s case) does his freefalling and skydiving where there are enigmatic mysteries to deal with. One need not agree with all of Burgess’s speculations, nor with his interpretation of Marlowe’s character, to enjoy this book which, with the grace of art, plunges us into the ebb and flow of Elizabethan life and is, as might be expected, about as fine-tuned a study of “the creative process” of a poet as you will find anywhere. The details are right, the surfaces are sensuous, the age rises from the dead.

All three of these books are, each in its own way, dedicated to the proposition that the past is alive and deserves to be preserved and protected against the forces of barbaric ignorance and indifference. Each and all of these books offers occasion for the hope that scholarship is holding its own in difficult times.


[Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the Devils of Denham, by F.W. Brownlow (Newark: University of Delaware Press) 440 pp., $49.50]

[Shakespeare, In Fact, by Irvin Leigh (Matus New York: Continuum Books) 336 pp., $29.50]

[A Dead Man in Deptford, by Anthony Burgess (New York: Carroll & Graf) 272 pp., $21.00]