Creative Anonymity

The Droueshout Portrait

There is a great body of literature that was written anonymously especially that of primitive societies of an oral tradition, for example the “Homeric Tradition”. We do not know who wrote Beowulf, or who authored the Epic of Gilgamesh. Among those written anonymously are many fairy tales, sagas, annals, ballads, chanson de gestes, fabliaux, proverbs, and nursery rhymes. What remains of the Shakespeare canon is a derogatory term of “anonymuncule”-a nameless little man who is a shifty little writer who hides behind anonymity for some reason or another. However, strictly speaking the term “mummers” means to perform in total silence ie: grimace or mime, and perhaps the wearing of masks or taking on of disguises to remain anonymous in a theatrical personage. Edmund Spenser anonymously published his own translation of the Dutch Calvinist Jan Van de Noodt was published in 1569 entitled A Theatre Wherein be Represented As Well the Miseries and Calamities that Follow the Voluptuous Worldlings. This was an apocalyptic, anti-Catholic allegory. The existence of a theatrical and literary “Janus” (a Two-Faced God) was again satirised in the anonymous play Return From Parnassus, and in a much later satire The Great Assizes Holden in Parnassus by Apollo and His Assessors (1645) by the satirical poet George Wither (1588-1667) who was himself a Puritan and patronised by the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Pembroke and Montgomery. It was not uncommon at the time for a poet or writer to disguise their contribution or authorship. The reasons are varied and depend largely on the nature of the text. The Art of English Poesy (1589), an apparently anonymous work attributed to George Puttenham gives numerous reasons why poets and their craft were derided in their day by other nobles as being effeminate, sentimental and fantastical. Three reasons why any writer, poet or playwright would have chosen to remain anonymous are; That it might undermine their personal status, second that what they were writing about was too controversial or contentious, thirdly that they would have compromised their close family or friends.

Clearly, in the majority of cases, the pen was mightier than the sword. It was also a time when most people had to conceal from public attention their views and opinions especially if they differed considerably from Protestant or Catholic ideals. Sir Thomas More wrote plays under a pseudonym, William Ross (Guielielmus Rosseus) and arranged to engage a “mask” to conceal his polemics from his majesty Henry VIIIth. Thomas Nashe wrote under the pseudonyms Cuthbert Curryknave and Pierce Penniless, Edmund Spenser used Colin Clout and Immerito and the anonymous author of the Martin Marprelate pamphlets is still unknown to us today. In 1610, the poet John Davies of Hereford published a volume entitled The Scourge of Folly, (a parody of Marston’s Scourge of Villainy-1598) which consisted of poems to several famous people and to some of Davies’s acquaintances. The idea of a mysterious, unknown heroic figure who works on the side of humanity is not new. Even today several artists as well as media characters remain out of the public eye or wear a mask to protect their identity (eg: Batman, Banksy, the Scarlet Pimpernel). They assume some anonymity in order to enlarge and puzzle their audience. An aristocrat would therefore fear that being un-masked that he was on the side of the power elite and not on the side of the common man. All that despite the quality of his work or that his true allegiances were questionable? It would seem that in an age or epoch when secrecy and double-dealing were the order of the day that the author sought to secure his own safety by remaining anonymous except to a small inner circle of acquaintances.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Parthenogenesis” are as follows:


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The links to my publications 
“Shakespeare’s Qaballah”,
a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry,