When Absence of Evidence Is Evidence of Absence:
An Incident in the History of the Shakespeare Authorship

An essay by WJ Ray

It is an interesting and significant fact that during the season of 1604-5, beginning four months after the death of the Earl of Oxford, there were eight Court performances of Shakespearean plays, three times as many as were ever given at Court during any previous season. Such an unusual number can be accounted for only on the ground that the King wished to honour the author of these plays by devoting the season to them. They were presented by His Majesty’s Players, who presented only three other plays…Not only is the number of Shakespeare plays given this season unusual, but there is a fact in connection with it that is so extraordinary that it is unexplainable under the theory that William Shakespeare [sic] of Stratford was the author of the plays that bear his name. The fact is stated by the editor of the Irving Shakespeare in the following words:

‘[Shakespeare] is supposed to have written part of, as well as known to have performed in, [Ben Jonson’s Sejanus] in 1603. This is the last we hear of him upon the stage, but that he continued a member of the company until April 9, 1604, we have the evidence of the document preserved at Dulwich College, where the names of the King’s players are enumerated: Burbage, Shakespeare, Fletcher, Phillips, Condell, Heminge, Armyn, Sly, Cowley, Ostler, and Day. If Shakespeare had not then actually ceased to perform, we need not hesitate to deciding that he quitted that department of the profession very shortly afterwards (The Irving Shakespeare, p. xxxix)’

It is very strange to find that Shakespeare has dropped out of the King’s Company just previous to the season when the greatest number of plays known by his name is given. It is inconceivable that a man of forty, in good health, honoured for his writing, acceptable for his acting, should retire from a company which was obviously on the eve of a brilliant career under the patronage of a new sovereign, young and interested in the stage. The time of Shakespeare’s leaving the King’s Company so nearly coincides with the death of the Earl of Oxford that I can but wonder if that member of the company known by the name of Shakespeare was in reality the Earl himself; possibly, the Stratford actor was made a member of the company by the Earl and upon the latter’s death, was immediately dropped. If the plays produced during the season of 1604-5 were actually by William Shakespeare of Stratford, it would be an amazing thing for him to give up any connections with the King’s Company, voluntarily or otherwise, and within six months time for that company to begin the production of more plays known by his name than were ever given at Court during a similar period, before or since. (Ruth Loyd Miller, editor, Oxfordian Vistas, vol. I, pp 531-2)

The usual refutation of circumstantial evidence––that William Shakspere of Stratford was not honored or included in a royal event hugely honoring Edward de Vere and his line–– relies on some form of the adage, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, just because Shakspere of Stratford was in no way recorded in the Jacobean Shakespeare festival lasting over two months in 1604-5, it does not mean he wasn’t there and implicitly honored at the royal occasion.

I Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence: a Logical Fallacy

We begin with an examination of the logic itself and then test its capacity and that of circumstantial evidence to inform about this extraordinary event at the end of the Shakespeare era.

‘Absence’ without a prepositional object denotes lack of condition or existence. Since absence is a state by definition devoid of existence, it does not fall within the class of conditions we call facts. Absence of whom? Absence of what? Only one condition, nothing, strictly speaking, is evidence of absence. An implied but not stated condition in the statement would be, “Absence of evidence is not evidence of THE absence of (future or other) evidence.”

Were the language modified to ”Present absence of evidence cannot by itself invalidate future or unrecognized evidence,” it then would have an object reflecting reality: the possibility of evidence.

As it stands, i.e., a puzzling reversal of phrases made into a sentence, it is a logical fallacy, i.e., 1) no relation to fact and 2) no internal referent. Its glib presentation intimidates the unsuspecting listener into fearing that it does pertain to reality somehow. It serves one of the functions of rhetoric, to confuse with a meaningless proposition—in a phrase, a bluff. The former American Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, famous for his dissembling at the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, made it common parlance.

There are more rigorous ways of saying what the words are supposed to mean, and these do apply to logical analysis. Properly stated, its non-exclusionary principle counters the claim that because there is no evidence at hand, no evidence exists. It counters by establishing that the evidence may just not be accessible presently or through a given method.

How does this apply to the royal celebration for Edward de Vere’s daughter Lady Susan in 1604-5 and simultaneously suggest that he was Shakespeare?

II The Circumstances of Royal Recognition

The unprecedented event of a royal Shakespeare festival occurred at court in 1604-5, but the reputed author-person Shakspere of Stratford was not recorded as being present. There was an absence of evidence he was there. But what is the nature of the evidence of his absence? For there is nothing in writing either way.

The lack of dispositive information has always aided the Stratfordian establishment to ignore the event as a key in the Shakespeare authorship controversy favoring the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. de Vere was dead by November, 1604. His absence is established. Absence of his role in the event is not established.

Shakspere was alive and had been in London months before the Susan Vere wedding. For him to not attend Court on such an occasion featuring eight of his plays seems curious. We would expect the playwright, if he were the playwright and alive, to be present and mentioned under these circumstances. But expectation is not conclusive. Better evidence is necessary.

An additional fact that the unprecedented Shakespeare festival event occurred in honor of DE VERE’S DAUGHTER, Lady Susan Vere, causes curiosity to shift to conjecture about the confluence of these events. They plausibly, naturally, and gracefully explain the motive to royally honor the marriage of the daughter, the King’s favorite, through celebrating the father’s plays.

In point of fact, Lady Susan played in the Twelfth Night Masque. She was also a favorite of Ben Jonson, who put on Masques for the Court.

There is now no absence of evidence. But what is there is still insufficient evidence for the conclusion de Vere was Shakespeare, or Shakspere was Shakespeare, or that the latter attended the event.

From the Oxfordian point of view, given the uniquely shadowy nature of the Shakespeare pseudonymous authorship from the beginning of its existence, explicit reference to Lord Oxford as Shakespeare by the King and Court would not be expected. Nor would the author be referenced in writing since he was an eccentric in the nobility who broke the infra dignitatem taboo about writing plays for the public.

Lady Anne Clifford’s “Great Picture” of 1646, two generations later than de Vere, depicting the books and authors of her education, does not include either the Shakespeare First Folio or its author. An essay by Bonner Miller Cutting brings this point forward as significant to a fuller understanding of the work and of the early English aristocratic nation-state. [http://www.wjray.net/shakespeare_papers/first-folio.htm]

III The Circumstances of Gigantic Modesty

On the other side of the question is the possibility that Shakspere (Shakespeare?) was not “absent” but was there--though without fanfare. No one else in the King’s Men play company merited recorded mention, why should he? This line of reasoning, reductio ad absurdum, aims to dismiss the oddity of the situation of a famous author, known to be alive and also said to be an actor, not being noted in any way at an historic royal event featuring a number of his plays.

The weakness of the argument is that we are speaking not of summoned servants but the creator of eight Shakespeare dramas performed at Court from All Saints Day to Twelfth Night. The modest, anonymous, unimportant actor but gigantic playwright ‘Shakespeare’ argument fails to persuade.

Further recorded information about Shakspere’s life in 1604 exists.Shakspere of Stratford earlier that year had been in London arranging a marriage match related to a family known for its association with houses of prostitution. He could not state his age at the 1612 deposition about it and there gave an illiterate signature. Also, there is record during July, 1604 that Shakspere successfully collected on a March loan in local court from the Stratford apothecary. These facts add a certain amount of clarity to the previous details. Such a person could not be the Renaissance artist Shakespeare, or, expressed more objectively, any claim he was would require more evidence than has been presented heretofore. Illiterate misers do not write Shakespeare plays.

Once we see the documented evidence, to insist that Shakspere’s absence of record at the royal Shakespeare festival does not prove his absence there—defies prima facie evidence, and the area of common sense we term ordinary logic. Any connection between Shakspere and the royal court or Shakspere and the Shakespeare plays is possible, though doubtful in the extreme, given details of his legal activities some months before.

IV Circumstantial Absences

The logical inference from these assembled facts is that for different reasons neither Edward de Vere nor Shakspere of Stratford nor Shakespeare attended the Susan Vere-Philip Herbert wedding. Shakspere manifestly was not the author Shakespeare. Shakespeare was not anyone’s name. And the remaining man who once used it was now dead, being posthumously honored through his art and lineage.

The claim to ‘absence of evidence’ that would confirm the Oxford authorship of the Shakespeare canon has been considerably changed. It is possible now to say there is not an absence of evidence. The evidence that de Vere’s family and the Shakespeare festival were intimately connected and endorsed by King James I seems unforced and appropriate. We have also seen evidence of Shakspere’s necessary absence, due to not being a person who would be invited.

V The Quality Of Mercy Is Not Strained

But we still must evaluate the quality of the assembled evidence.

In doing so, we stipulate this is not a logical proof. Nor could it be, given the historical subject. It is circumstantial reasoning. The value of circumstantial reasoning (which significantly affects court cases that are also obliged to reassemble events of the past) is that it provides sufficient connective fact and reasoning so as to reduce doubt to some state of probability.

The Vere-Herbert wedding occasion; the Vere family of honored guests; the unprecedented entertainment, its scope and specificity; the daughter of the deceased author acting in the Shakespeare Masque Twelfth Night; the lack of celebratory notice regarding the author of the plays; the extreme unlikelihood the second candidate could have been Shakespeare; and the death of the first to explain his absence—cumulatively negate the claim that evidence was absent for a de Verean connection to the Shakespeare canon. It was a family affair.

Only motives based on resistance to the circumstantial probability of a Shakespeare-festival-Susan-Vere-wedding-celebration can explain an industry-wide rejection of all inferences from the compelling circumstances. This is humanly understandable.

On the other side, the disputant who declares that there MIGHT be or COULD be or MIGHT COULD be evidence Shakspere was at the wedding is fantasizing, through avoiding the absence of any fact or circumstance in support of the Shakspere author notion. On the contrary, almost everything supports another but unwelcome idea, that the father authored the play his daughter starred in at her wedding time on Twelfth Night.

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