Frank Lawler at work in his Seattle office on the English translation of Sous le Masque de "William Shakespeare", William Stanley Vie Comte de Derby (1918) by Abel Lefranc. Just kidding! This photo is Frank Lawler in his role as Nicholas II in Last Days of the Tsars at Stimson-Green Mansion in Seattle through March 25, 2020. Photo credit: Joe Iano
By guest writer Frank Lawler
In 1918, a fascinating, yet under-appreciated and rarely mentioned work on the Shakespeare authorship question was published in Paris. Sous le Masque de “William Shakespeare”, William Stanley Vie Comte de Derby (1918) was written by Abel Lefranc, Professor at the Collège de France.
Professor Lefranc waded into the authorship debate at a time when the only alternative candidates were, essentially, Francis Bacon and Roger Manners. Yet adherents to these theories were already being venomously dismissed by the Stratfordian establishment:
"The Baconian case constantly tends to new exorbitances of nonsense."
– John Mackinnon Robertson, 1913
"[Anti-Stratfordian] writers have for the most part been lawyers who lack the required literary training to give their work on the subject any genuine authority."
– Sidney Lee, 1916
Apparently, orthodox attitudes have not changed much in 100 years. Stratfordians still dismiss authorship skeptics variously as quacks, elitists, or most commonly, amateurs who have no academic standing to make them worthy of attention.
Professor Lefranc was, however, an academic with impeccable credentials. Lefranc was a titan of European literary studies from the end of the nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth centuries, and he was firmly convinced that William Shaxper did not write -- indeed, could not have written -- the Shakespearean canon. As chair of Modern French Literature at the Collège de France, director of l’École pratique des hauts études and a member of the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres, Abel Lefranc certainly could not be accused of having been an amateur.
Yet the work of Professor Lefranc seems to have faded from the debate. Lefranc died in 1952, and his own alternate candidate for the authorship of the Bard’s work, William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby, has in recent decades been overshadowed by Edward de Vere as the most-favored anti-Stratfordian contender. Lately, however, many of those pursuing Shakespearean authorship studies have focused on acknowledging the problems with the Stratford man’s candidacy, rather than arguing amongst themselves to promote their own favorite candidate over others.
I came across Professor Lefranc’s name several years ago, but I was able to obtain his work in French only, the sole English translation having been out of print for almost thirty years. I was, nonetheless, hooked by Lefranc's eloquence and persuasiveness; and thought it was high time his contributions to authorship studies be revisited. In this spirit, I am at work on a new translation of what I believe to be a seminal work in the field, accompanied with new footnotes that will provide context to this century-old work.
The original publication is in two volumes, each in the range of 400 pages. The translation is not a short and simple undertaking; the Covid-19 lockdown, however, has provided me with extended free time; so I felt there was no time like the present to roll up my sleeves and begin. I do not have a proposed date of completion, though I anticipate it is at least a year away.
Here, below, is an excerpt from a chapter in my current draft.
July 16, 2020
July 16, 2020
Professor Abel Lefranc (1863-1952)
“La Question Shakespearienne.” Sous Le Masque De William Shakespeare: William Stanley, Vie Comte De Derby, by Abel Lefranc, vol. 1, Payot & Cie, Paris, 1918, pp. 9–14. Translated from the French by Frank Lawler:
Bacon, Rutland and the Anti-Stratfordians
Struck by so many ambiguities, contradictions, improbabilities and -- let us just say the word --impossibilities, a certain number of people have tried, for about sixty years, to ask the Shakespeare question. We know that an entire school of thought came together, starting in the middle of the 19th century, to claim that Lord Chancellor Bacon was the true author of the dramatic works of the Master.
The bibliography of works published by devotees of this theory is already quite large. We have studied its most significant and representative works. Without pausing to address the stretches of imagination, whimsical methods and childish means of research that mar a large number of them, we cannot deny that their negative assertion, that is to say, their demonstration of the non-authenticity of the works of Shakespeare, presents quite appreciable results. These are, in our opinion, the greatest fruits of Baconian efforts. As for their positive assertion that tends to attribute Shakespeare’s comedies and tragedies to the chancellor, we confess that we cannot adhere to it in any form. But if the construction of their work presents no conclusion we can take seriously, the demolition, if I may use that word, that it entails is nonetheless of great value. In attributing Shakespearean drama to a member of the English aristocracy, Baconians have instinctively set us on the right path.
Another, more recent, hypothesis, formulated around 1907 by P. Alvor and K. Bleibtreu, attempts to identify as the author Roger Manners, the 5th earl of Rutland, who was born at Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, in 1576, and died in 1612 at age 36. This theory, unveiled to the French public in 1912 and 1914 in two interesting books written by Mr. Demblon, seems to us even less acceptable than the Baconian one. To suppose that Rutland, around 1593, could have already been, at the age of seventeen, the author of Love's Labour's Lost, The Comedy of Errors, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the three Henry VI plays, Richard III, King John and Titus Andronicus, not to mention Venus and Adonis, nor The Rape of Lucrece, nor various other works that certain chronologies place within the same period, is not worth a moment’s thought. It would mean replacing the Shakespearean [i.e. Stratfordian] improbabilities with even greater ones. There is no need to dwell any further on the weakness of this theory, which disregards even the most rudimentary psychology of human development, as well as the content of the works we have just listed. Let us note again, when referring to the Rutlandian theory, that the hard work it has engendered, in the Anti-Stratfordian sense, has not been in vain. Like the Baconians, its adherents have precisely understood that the works attributed to Shakespeare could only suit a member of the English high aristocracy.
Finally, we cannot omit to mention the group of those who have attributed Shakespeare’s works to a whole series of different authors. The name of the actor from Stratford, following this school of thought, would be some sort of modern Homer, a kind of collective social mind. One of the proponents of this thesis is Mr. Thomas William White, the author of Our English Homer.
It is thus that, bit by bit, a belief contrary to the Stratfordian credo has spread fairly extensively, mainly in England and the United States. It has given rise to an undeniable discomfort. A certain number of those who have not been convinced by Baconian nor Rutlandian theories have nonetheless conceived a skepticism about the orthodox Shakespearean doctrine. In France, where Baconism has never had many converts, various independent researchers have shown an interest in these questions and have aired their doubts, but the movement is not spreading, and even some of the scholars who have exhibited a few independent whims when referring to Stratford orthodoxy have since retracted them. Let us say right away that, in general, institutes of higher education, academic societies, major research journals and newspapers, in considering the anomalies and quite recent evolutions in thought, have almost universally expressed a hostile attitude towards the Anti-Stratfordianism of Baconians and others. We will not deal with the polemics of one side versus another, except to say that they have gone too far, and have sometimes taken on a regrettably personal character. Nonetheless, the positive results that emerged from these arguments have, to no small extent, contributed in usefully advancing our knowledge of the various aspects of the problem.
Along with the three groups of dissenters we have just defined, there has arisen, over the last ten years, a fourth, whose point of view appears particularly interesting: those whom we could call, aptly, the “agnostics”. Their group is quite small. These scholars believe that the Baconian theories offer no shred of evidence, and that they are not worth considering, at least at present. They express their doubts regarding the Stratford man and actively pursue a rather negative struggle, without positively attempting to identify a name or express a belief. They uncouple William Shakespeare from the works but abstain for the moment from replacing his name with that of another. Their proofs tend only to dispossess the Stratford actor of any participation in the writing of the works that were published under his name. They are represented, with scholarship, vigor, and skill, by a member of the English parliament, Sir Granville George Greenwood. His series of works were published under these titles: The Shakespeare Problem restated (1908); The Vindicators of Shakespeare, a Reply to Critics (1904); In re Shakespeare: Beeching vs. Greenwood (1909); Is There a Shakespeare Problem? (1916). Of these four books, the first and the last are generally considered the most important. We should also add, quite recently, from the same author: Some Words of Criticism. These various writings have elicited quite vigorous polemics. It is undeniable that they represent some of the most solid works to come out of the Anti-Stratfordian school. Many of the author's observations, objections and conclusions deserve the attention of anyone whose judgement is not obscured by a faith accommodating neither nuance nor rational thought.
 [i.e., since the middle of the 19th century]
 [although the output of Baconian works seems to have peaked roughly about the time this work was originally published, i.e. 1918]
 [in 1918]
 [pseudonym of Burkhard Herrmann, writing in Das neue Shakespeare Evangelium, Hanover, 1907]
 [1859-1928, German writer, Der Wahre Shakespeare, i.e. "the true Shakespeare", Munich, 1907]
 [Célestin Demblon, 1859-1924, Belgian writer. The two books in question are his Lord Rutland est Shakespeare (Lord Rutland is Shakespeare), 1912, and L’Auteur d’Hamlet et son Monde (The author of Hamlet and his world), 1914]
 [Sampson, Low, Marston and Company, London, 1892]
 [i.e., during the second decade of the twentieth century].
 [full title: In re Shakespeare: Beaching v. Greenwood: Rejoinder on behalf of the defendant by G. G. Greenwood, M. P., author of "The Shakespeare Problem Restated"]
 We have not been able to procure this pamphlet, although very short, which was written for the occasion of the tercentenary of Shakespeare's death. Mr. Greenwood has always denied being a Baconian.