Monday, November 7, 2011

Leslie Howard was not an Oxfordian

Eforgan, Estel. Leslie Howard: The Lost Actor. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2010.

Boyle, Charles. Another Hamlet: The Mystery of Leslie Howard. N.p.: Forever Press, 2011.

Pimpernel Smith (a.k.a. Mister V). Dir. Leslie Howard. Perf. Leslie Howard. 1941. British National Films, 1941. Timeless Multimedia, 1997.

Shapiro, James. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010.

I started researching and writing this post because I wanted to demonstrate just how easy it is to conflate the view of a character and the views of the author creating or the actor playing that character. As the great mills of research ground on and on, I found myself confronted with conspiracies within conspiracies.

Leslie Howard was a noted actor on the stage and the screen, and he also produced and directed films. He played Romeo in George Cukor's 1936 Romeo and Juliet, Professor Henry Higgins in the 1938 film version of George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, the title character in the 1934 Scarlet Pimpernel, and Professor Horatio Smith in 1941's Pimpernel Smith (for which, q.v.). He also frequently appears on lists of "famous people who do not really have the authority to speak on the subject but who nonetheless think that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays attributed to William Shakespeare." I've become more and more skeptical of such lists, and the research I've done has borne out my suspicions.

Howard's role as Professor Horatio Smith is the one of importance to the authorship question. In the film, Professor Horatio Smith speaks lines about the Earl of Oxford writing the works of Shakespeare. In Contested Will, his great work defending Shakespeare as the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare, James
Shapiro describes Pimpernel Smith, but, as he does so, he conflates the character played by Leslie Howard with Leslie Howard himself (I've inserted editorial clarifications in the quote):
By the early 1940s, the Oxfordian movement had achieved a surprising degree of visibility, most famously in the 1941 British war movie Pimpernel Smith (released in the United States as Mister V), which starred Leslie Howard, who also produced and directed the film, in the role of an archaeologist who foils the Nazis. When Shakespeare’s name comes up in conversation, Leslie Howard[’s character] casually mentions that he had “been doing a little research work . . . on the identity of Shakespeare” | which “proves conclusively that Shakespeare wasn’t really Shakespeare at all . . . He was the Earl of Oxford.” Later in the film, holding up a skull at an excavation site, Howard[’s character] recites the famous “Alas poor Yorick” speech from Hamlet, then adds, “The Earl of Oxford wrote that, you know.” (193-94)
I don't write this to show up Shapiro—who is undoubtedly the greater scholar than I. I merely wish to show how easy it is to commit the Oxfordianesque error of assuming that the author writes and the actor acts entirely out of his or her own beliefs and experience. Shakespeare scholars take heed: Be vigitant, I beseech you.

This conflation of character and actor does Howard a twofold disservice. First, there is no indication at all that he himself held the Oxfordian position. A new biography—one that is well-written and filled with admirable scholarship—has a delightful chapter on the significance of Pimpernel Smith and the British war effort but doesn't say a word about the essentially-irrelevant issue of Oxford. Second, it underestimates the intelligence and sagacity given to Professor Horatio Smith in this role.

Watching the film in its entirety will remove any suspicion that the lines about Oxford are meant seriously. Whenever Professor Smith is with his students or on his secret spy missions, he's absolutely brilliant, resourceful, and decisive. Whenever the Nazis seem to be close to discovering the true nature of his activities in Germany, he speaks the most absolute piffle. In effect, the lines about the Earl of Oxford are spoken when Leslie Howard is playing Professor Horatio Smith playing the role of a complete ignoramus in order to fool the Nazis. The context of these lines is crucial—he's not speaking straightforwardly to his own students; he's trying—and, indeed, he's succeeding—in looking like an idiot so that his enemies will not suspect him of being a genius.

All the same, that doesn't prevent the Oxfordians from attempting to claim the brilliant actor and director Leslie Howard rather than the idiotic character-within-a-character of Professor Smith for their cause. But it isn't true. Leslie Howard was not an Oxfordian.

But that fact didn't prevent a new conspiracy from arising! This much is true: Leslie Howard was shot down on a flight from Portugal to England on 1 June 1943. Charles Boyle's Another Hamlet: The Mystery of Leslie Howard makes the completely fanciful proposal that he was shot down because of his Oxfordian beliefs. In Boyle's silly proposal, Winston Churchill knew that the plane was going to be shot down, but he allowed it to take off and be shot down because he would rather have Howard and many other civilians dead than to let Howard continue to proselytize for the Oxfordian position. The Stratfordian conspiracy strikes another blow for its cause, and another Oxfordian is lost to the ages.

This is so laughable than it could only have come from an Oxfordian. Since Howard never tried to convince anyone—ever—that Oxford wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare, he cannot have died for doing so. Additionally, the British had a bit more on their minds in 1943 than debunking ludicrous conspiracy theories or perpetrating literary conspiracies of their own.

If the Nazis knew that Howard was on board (itself a questionable assumption), it's much more likely that they shot down the plane because of his effective morale-boosting anti-Nazi work than his views on literature.

Leslie Howard did remarkable work. His memory should not be profaned by those who wish to use him for their nefarious ends. Instead, he should be remembered for the remarkable work he did.

In that vein, here's a longer clip than one usually sees from Pimpernel Smith. Note that the Professor starts his twaddle about the Earl of Oxford precisely when the Gestapo agents need to be distracted. Under the crate the agent is examining is a secret compartment containing the people Professor Smith is attempting to smuggle out of the country:


As a final point to any who would wish to read Oxfordian biographical details into Howard's portrayal of Smith, I call our collective attention to a contrary biographical detail. In 1933, Howard played a role in "This Side Idolatry, by Talbot Jennings, a witty imagining of Shakespeare's life" (Eforgan 97). Would any Oxfordian play a role in such a production?

An Update Follows.

Howard, Leslie. Trivial Fond Records. Ed. Ronald Howard. London: William Kimber, 1982.

Since there are those who remain unconvinced (see the comments below), I'm providing a few pages written by Leslie Howard himself.  In 1936, Howard performed the eponymous role in a production of Hamlet.  In the midst of doing so, he wrote up an interesting imagined conversation with Shakespeare. The conversation indicates no skepticism about the authorship: Howard addresses Shakespeare as a "man of the theatre" and says, "you did write for the Elizabethan theatre" (134). I shall type up the paragraph that introduces the dialogue (it appears on page 134 of the book); then I'll provide three images that contain the rest of the dialogue (click on the images to enlarge them).
I have gone to Shakespeare as one man of the theatre to another. I have tried to understand the methods of his craftmanship and the conditions under which he worked. I have been governed by a spirit of reasonable humility, but not of slavish reverence. I have had the never to consider two of us co-workers in a theatrical enterprise and have tried to forget that my partner is separated from me by over three hundred years of tim and ringing fame. In this light I have had the following conversation with him:

The skeptical may still say, "But he may have changed his mind between 1936 and 1941, when Pimpernel Smith was filmed." My reply must be that he never indicated any change in his belief that Shakespeare authored the plays attributed to him. No biography of Howard indicates any Oxfordian beliefs. In the face of such resounding silence, the only reasonable conclusion is that Howard believed that the man from Stratford wrote the plays attributed to the man from Stratford: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Links: The Film at IMDB.

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Papa Pantaloon said...

Thanks for setting the record straight on Leslie Howard and Professor Horatio Smith, whose Oxfordian attributions are meant to tweak the Nazis and mock their ridiculous claims to cultural supremacy. It's satire, for heaven's sake! I'm surprised that Shapiro missed this. You'd think his "Shakespeare and the Jews" would have prepared him for a more careful treatment of Howard who was both Jewish and a English patriot. Here's hoping he links to Bardfilm as "Anonymous" takes center stage. "Contested Will" is the perfect antidote except for this not insignificant slip.

Anonymous said...

A very weak attempt at a debunking. Agreed that there's no specific evidence to support the contention that Smith was voicing Howard's actual belief, but you singularly failed to demonstrate the opposite. Even given that appearing in This Side Idolatry has the signifance you suggest, what's to say that Howard couldn't have changed his mind between 1933 and 1941?

kj said...

Thanks, Anonymous.

I've puzzled over your comment for a while now. Perhaps this is a weak debunking, but I'm not sure the opposite case is any stronger. You're right that there's "no specific evidence to support the contention that Smith was voicing Howard's actual belief," and the implication is that there's no specific evidence to support the contrary.

There is general evidence, however, that Leslie Howard considered Shakespeare to be the author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Does not Occam's Razor lead us to the conclusion that the character Smith is voicing beliefs that the actor Howard found ridiculous--particularly when the portrayal in the film involves the character shifting into idiotic dribble whenever the Nazis approach.

Yes, I suppose Howard could have changed his mind between 1933 and 1941 (although I'm going to post some information from 1936 that brings the earlier date up some), but that seems to place an unnecessary burden of proof on those who would argue that Howard was a Stratfordian—especially when no evidence to the contrary exists.

I would like to watch the film again to see what other claims the character Smith makes when the Nazis are present. If we ascribe Oxfordianism to Howard because of what Smith says, we must also ascribe other believes that Smith voices to Howard.


Sandra said...

I just found this, way many years later than I would like. Bless you for posting it. Howard's dialogue with WS is a witty delight. I'm occasionally in the middle of eye rolling debates with Oxfordians that are comedies on their part and futility if some get dragged into the defense on the other side. I usually just say I'm not interested, for theirs is an eccentric crusade that was already lost over 400 years ago, but I had to share this bit today - the nonsense occasionally needs some brilliant relief, and this is an example of such. Well done...

TheatreDude said...
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TheatreDude said...
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TheatreDude said...

Oxfordians don't need Howard to show that many worthy and brilliant men of every vocation have registered doubts about the Stratford story. From men of letters such as Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain and Henry James, to actors of note such as John Gielgud, Michael York and Derek Jacobi, to great thinkers such as Mortimer Adler, Harry Blackmun, and Sigmund Freud, all doubted the Stratford myth and there is ample evidence to prove it.

To hear their reasoning in their own words, See:

The only reason for the existence of such a list is to counter the childish claims the only fools support the Oxfordian theory. If these people are fools, then I'm honored to be included alongside them.

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Unless otherwise indicated, quotations from Shakespeare's works are from the following edition:
Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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