Star Chamber: The Question

I am an older man, grizzled, frayed. I’m a silverback, comfortable in worn gray tweeds, my hair uncombed and my beard a three-day stubble. I’m ruminating, leaning back in my wooden chair, my legs crossed on the desktop while I ponder impractical — perhaps useless — academic things. Looking out, I can see ancient trunks of ivy enwreathing my office window, the roots burrowing into the bricks and wooden sill. The building was built in 1910; its ceilings are high and its inner walls are the original plaster with a frieze of carved oak leaves and acorns, the style of a bygone era. I inhale through my nostrils an air steeped in the dust of old books, their pages so parched and the glues of their bindings so desiccated that to open them risks their crackling to bits in my hands. The coiled hot-water radiators occasionally clang to keep me awake lest I slip into an oblivion, like a dried Egyptian mummy, entombed for an eternity as I crumble to powder.

I chuckle at my thoughts. Such self-reflection makes me laugh at my foolishness and vanity, but the truth is that I’ve long ridden the exciting wave of academia, and now I’m winding down an extensive career as a moderately decorated academic Professor of Psychology. Although I see patients in the faculty clinic, my true specialty is the analysis of personalities and psychés of both fictional and historical protagonists. I’m also fascinated by the personalities of the authors who created these fictional characters, more so than even the literature itself. When I imagine Edgar Allan Poe, I see his portrait: his serious expression and the lopsided face betraying the low-self-esteemed inner being of the man who penned acutely tormented characters like the narrator of The Tell-Tale Heart, remorseless characters as in The Cask of Amontillado, determined characters like Auguste Dupin, all of whom were a reflection of the author himself. When I imagine Fyodor Dostoevsky, I see in him the alter ego of his Underground Man: isolated, alienated and angry with a bad liver. The identity of Dickens may be inseparable from the ever-hopeful David Copperfield, but it is the character of Shakespeare which has always been an enigma to the world and also to me — so much so that I gave up trying to figure him out.

That is, until recently.

One thing was always plain to me about Shakespeare — that he was a man of intense passion who felt acutely about events in his life, at times experiencing terrific pain. The epitome of his agony was perhaps the mysterious Sonnet 81, here abridged:

Or I shall live your epitaph to make,

Or you survive when I in earth am rotten…

Your name from hence immortal life shall have,

Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:

The earth can yield me but a common grave,

When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.

Your monument shall be my gentle verse….

 What could this mean, I’ve always wondered? It suggests that the Bard knew he would go unrecognized for his verse. Does this mean that the “recognized” man from Avon is the wrong man? I have always found Will Shakespeare to be as inscrutable as the empty-faced bust which portrays him in Stratford’s Trinity Church until — by a stroke of fortune that I did not see coming — I was invited to London to present a lecture during a conference on Elizabethan playwrights, including Shakespeare. The conference organizers wanted me to speak on the psychological underpinnings of the character Hamlet, my favorite subject, one on which I had written widely and had received some little renown. Further, I felt a kinship with Hamlet, given that my life seemed eerily to mirror his.

But I digress. What I realized about the London conference was that all the other speakers in the symposium and most all the attendees would be professors and doctorates of English literature (with a sprinkling of school teachers and journalists), a group who might know much more on the subject than I. In addition, because they were British, I feared that I might be unable to handle their ingrained directness and rawboned scrutiny. In the end, however, I accepted the challenge.

And so I found myself in an auditorium at the University of London, sitting on the podium at the table for speakers, a name card and microphone in front of me, facing an audience of three hundred academicians and literati. I was pretending to listen to Professor Titania Andrews of the University of London, a woman close to my age who was standing at the lectern, lecturing on the content of her latest book, Day to Day Lives of Playwrights in the 16th Century or, as she put it, “How they wrote plays in cold dark attics, living on bread and ale with the occasional meat pie but without steady incomes for ink, pens and parchment.” She went on to discuss that unless a writer was a lord or had an inheritance, in which case a life of leisure was far more attractive than writing, it was nearly impossible to write prolifically, a la Shakespeare, while simultaneously holding a job to meet the most basic expenses of daily survival.

Professor Andrews herself was visually appealing to a man my age: dyed blond hair, lush black eyebrows and large, round, window-like tortoise-shell glasses which magnified her blue eyes. The glasses signaled the refreshing unselfconsciousness of an academic nerd or schoolmarm, a category she inhabited by virtue of her lengthy title: Professor of English Literature, Professor of Library Science, and Chief Librarian of the Shakespeare Library of London. I was in awe of her brainpower, and as she stood behind the lectern in pleated skirt and blazer, I did what biology commanded men to do naturally without thinking: I used my sideview vantage of her standing figure to admire her calves and shapely torso.

She finished her lecture to prolonged, appreciative applause, followed by questions and answers from the audience, and then it was my turn. Standing on the podium behind a lectern that served as a barrier against a sea of critics, I felt a rush of giddiness. With their eyes clamped upon me, I delivered the culmination of months of hard work, ponderous analyses mixed with moments — brief moments — of inspirational sparks of insight. And in spite of the fact that I was a professor from a different academic field, my presentation was received with great interest and was rewarded, as I finished, with thunderous applause. The audience was generous, and the chairman of the symposium, sitting to my right at the table with the others, nodded approval.

There were three microphones spaced among the audience for post-presentation questions. At one of them stood a thin, sandy haired man in a blazer with wire rimmed spectacles, poised for his first question. “Duncan Campbell, Edinburgh,” he said to introduce himself in the way of academics who advertise their names. “Thank you for an interesting presentation, Professor Doren Wedard Fox. And before I ask you my question, please allow me the small impertinence of asking if your name, Wedard, is derived or descended from the soldier Wadard who fought at the side of the great William the Conqueror and the Bishop Odo of Bayeux at the Battle of Hastings?”

This was not a topic I ever discussed outside the privacy of my closest family, but I could not lie. Strangely, although I was surprised that anyone had uncovered such a primeval detail about me, I was equally surprised at the unexpected inward sense of pleasure that I was experiencing at having my roots so publicly discovered.

“Yes, as a matter of fact it’s a family name descended from that very person, a Norman listed in the Domesday Book.”

“You are modest, Professor — he was no less than a nobleman actually depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.”

“To be exact,” I said, “my family is not descended from Wadard but rather from one — Aubrey — Wadard’s vassal, who fought at Wadard’s side with Odo and William the Conqueror at Hastings. We merely took Wadard’s name into the family to honor him through the centuries.”

I was momentarily proud, but there was a murmur around the auditorium. An uneasy self-consciousness gripped me as I realized what I had long known: that conferences such as these could be snake-pits where honey-tongued academicians might flatter but then suddenly strike one another with lethal blows to both arguments and reputations. I now saw that he had caught me off-guard, and I was a pompous idiot, succumbing to flattery. I was naked and helplessly stranded in front of the audience, blindsided — as to where Campbell’s line of questioning was headed — and ignorant as to whether I was now vulnerable to his manipulation.

“My question, Professor Fox, is this: could you state your opinion on whether authors generally inject their own personal lives into the lives of their protagonists?”

I took a deep breath, relieved at the innocuousness of his question.

“Well, as you know, it isn’t possible to write about something authentically if you don’t know anything about it, so there seems to be at least some, or maybe much truth in what you say. Was Tom Sawyer really the image of the boy Mark Twain? Was David Copperfield really the boy Charles Dickens who was made to work in the inhumane drudgery of a 19th century workhouse? Did J D Salinger have the insecurities that Holden Caulfield had in Catcher in the Rye? It’s hard to know in the latter case because Salinger was as reticent about his personal life as Caulfield is about his when he confides in the reader to keep his story secret.”

I heard a few chuckles around the auditorium.

“Along these lines,” Campbell interrupted, “Hamlet has been said to be autobiographical about Shakespeare. Do you agree with this thesis?”

“I’ve heard it said, and it makes sense. But I defer to the other speakers as this is not something I’ve spent time researching, especially since there is so little known about this author’s personal life.”

“So then,” Campbell continued, “speaking of Hamlet, do you think that the story of a prince, whose uncle kills his father and marries his mother, whose closest kin are royalty, who has a familiar relationship with the chief counselor to the king and then murders that counselor, is in some way akin to the life of William Shakespeare, grammar school dropout from the sticks?”

His words were argumentative. A pervasive murmur swept through the room, punctuated by outbursts of “Sit down!” and “How dare you!” from the audience.

I was uneasy. I said, “It seems unlikely that this would resemble William Shakespeare’s life — at least in the way you state it. But again, I am not an expert on this particular question.”

A woman stood up from her seat in the audience and shouted, waving a finger in the air, “This has nothing to do with the current topic!” She then made her way to another of the microphones in the audience. “He is manipulating the professor into speculating on an unfounded thesis.” The expression on her face was urgent and aggressive. She glanced at Campbell repeatedly with eyes narrowed in antipathy.

Meanwhile, the chair of the symposium leaned over his microphone and said, “Let Professor Fox decide what he will and will not answer. That’s his prerogative. And please wait your turn to speak, Miss — ?”

“Dr Clark. Cambridge.”

Even at a distance, I could see she was attractive but much too young for the likes of me.

Meanwhile, Campbell spoke again, “This is certainly not irrelevant. Think of Sonnet 81 — you can feel his pain: ‘The earth can yield me but a common grave, When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie. Your monument shall be my gentle verse…’ Do you not feel his pain, Professor Fox? Has the man who wrote Shakespeare’s immortal words given credit for his verse to someone else? Could this be evidence that even for a genius of the stature of a Shakespeare, the creations of his mind were not sufficient for his happiness? Without acknowledgement, could it be that the value of his creation was not enough to satisfy his soul?”

Clark snatched up her microphone again, “What genius would reject credit for his own creative work? The idea is preposterous!”

Suddenly there was a commotion as a burly man in a suit and tie, the flesh of his short neck bulging over his shirt collar, stood up from his chair and pushed his way to the aisle in which Campbell stood at his microphone. He then stomped up the aisle, and, while I anticipated his grabbing Campbell’s microphone to make a rebuttal, he unexpectedly punched Campbell on the side of the head, knocking his glasses into the air and crashing him to the floor.

There was mayhem — a woman screamed. Three more men jumped up from chairs and hauled the burly man to the floor in a rugby-style tackle while many others stood up from their chairs, shouting, while still others were grappling in a scrum of tangled bodies. Some pushed their way to the pile of men on the floor to pull them apart; others stood face to face, shoving each other back and forth. One shaven-headed man with wide shoulders had another in a headlock; a few were forehead to forehead while others were grabbing the most aggressive hotheads by waists and arms, holding them back from lunging at one another. It was the same British argy-bargy I had seen on television at football-soccer matches, and there were definitely two opposing factions at odds, but I hadn’t a clue what the fight was about. I was totally taken off guard, a fish out of water, entirely unequipped to grasp what I saw.

I turned to the chairman, but he had run off to find security, so I asked the other panelists, all of whom were sitting in a row in suits and ties, “What the hell is this?”

One man sniggered, “Pub night down at The Pig and Whistle!” but Professor Titania Andrews waved me to my seat next to hers. As I sat down, she spoke over the din, “There’s been some hard feelings over this issue.”

“What issue?”

“Stratfordians versus Oxfordians.”


“Right,” she said. “Forgot you’re the psychologist — perhaps you’re not current on this.”

My American-self perceived a possible British put-down though it might have only been vintage British matter-of-factness.

“Sort of like the struggle between Lilliput and Blefuscu,” she said.

“Ah!” I said, grasping the nettle. “The argument over the egg!”

“The issue,” she continued, “is: who was the true author of Shakespeare’s works? William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon or Edward Devere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, a noble in the time of Elizabeth I.

Now that she had put it so succinctly, I had known about this controversy. I had even read a few bits about it, but I hadn’t ever taken it seriously.

“Let’s meet for a drink and talk about it further,” she said, pulling a business card out of her purse and writing her cell number down. She then stuffed the card in my blazer pocket which prompted the psychologist in me, surprised by her initiative, to interpret her physical touch as potential receptivity for intimacy.

The audience shoving and shouting intensified, drawing our attentions there. As I watched, I saw a momentary fleeting face on a tall and beak-nosed gray-haired man as he fled to the exits at the back of the hall to avoid the pandemonium. He reminded me of someone, perhaps someone from my distant past, but I couldn’t place him. I watched him rush out as several uniformed guards burst in through the same doors that he exited, streaming down the aisle toward the combatants.

It was a spectacle, and I gawped. The guards initially attempted to act as a wall between the two factions, but soon they entered the fray themselves, pushing and shoving like everyone else. The London police burst in; they untangled the fracas and settled things down. Campbell was ushered to hospital with a bleeding face, possibly from his nose, and the burly man who had started it all was pinned flat to the floor by guards and police and summarily hauled off in cuffs. After him, several other aggressive participants were also forcibly taken.

#          #          #

What I had witnessed had shocked me, and now it was one of those rare moments when I needed a good stiff drink. After the presentation, I reflected that Dr Clark had made a good point: which ordinary person, imbued with such rare embers of creativity that he or she is able to construct wondrous art or science, would not want to bathe in the evanescent glory lavished by his or her peers? Why ever would a genius spurn recognition after such hard work? As I am not a genius, I really couldn’t say. Perhaps if one is a genius, the product of one’s mind — its creativity — is enough to satisfy one’s ego, and adulation from others is less important. Perhaps fawning praise from inferior beings is irrelevant since ordinary minds are incapable of adequately judging masterworks of genius. After all, who dares judge a genius? All one can really do is stand in awe of the raging fires of the gifted mind and know that one is in the presence of greatness; one cannot possibly modulate, quantify or pass sentence upon it. One recalls the parable of Semele, immolated to a crisp by merely gazing upon the full blazing glory of the great god Zeus! Such is the power of genius.

In search of booze, I went out and reconnoitered the environs, finding a piano bar called Thermodynamics where I sat at a small coffee table amidst a lively crowd, relaxing with a scotch on the rocks. Within minutes, a couple in their early thirties sat at my table for lack of available space, the woman rather attractive with shoulder length brown hair and a tight fitting, slinky-looking silver dress. I recognized her right away as the argumentative Dr Clark at the microphone, just prior to the melee at the conference, though she had miraculously — within thirty minutes — changed her dress and re-coiffed her hair. Women, I reflected, are amazing!

Nonchalantly, I stole looks while trying not to be noticed because there is nothing worse than a man who tries to horn in on another man’s woman. My biology, however, would not be suppressed as I continued to glance at her and then look quickly away. I subscribe to an honor code among men though, of course, I am not so dull as to think that other men might voluntarily practice this same code as myself, but I do know that I would be both hurt and guilt-ridden if I were to be the source of another man’s misery. On the other hand, here in the piano bar it was always possible that I was reading the situation incorrectly and that the relationship I detected between the young couple was not of the romantic kind.

As I sat and sipped, they made small talk and then turned to me to join in. Dr Clark said she had heard my lecture in the Shakespeare symposium, and “wasn’t she lucky” that the very man whose lecture had gotten her so excited was coincidentally seated next to her.

I knew she was playing me like a maestro plays an instrument, and I allowed it to continue, feeling quite safe as she was clearly in the company of her age-appropriate male escort. However, when the male friend excused himself to go to “the loo,” she turned to me and said, “When he comes back, we’re leaving.”

“It was nice to have met you,” I said.

“You wait here. Don’t move. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes to have another drink, just the two of us. I want to pick your brain.”

I was amused — but also aroused — wondering what could come of a meeting with such an attractive and pleasant young woman. My three daughters, who lived in The States, were close to her age, and the idea of such a liaison felt risqué, however exciting. I nursed my scotch, listening to the pianist playing Ahmad Jamal, watching the glittering beautiful people mixing and churning at the bar, flirting and conversing with loud repartee, showing big white teeth and sparkling gin-happy eyes, batting lashes and touching each other’s arms.

Just as I thought I might pack it in for the night, my lady reappeared in her slinky sliver dress, showing her muscular thighs and buttocks to full advantage.

“Glad you’re still here,” she said.

I must have had just enough alcohol for my face to give away my most intimate thoughts, so she said, “Like what you see?” I must have blushed, and before I could answer, she sat down next to me. “My name’s Helena. Helena Clark. What’s yours?”

“Doren Fox.”

She put out her hand, and I took it in mine, feeling its warmth, noting its relative small size compared to her stature.

“I’ve been dissembling a bit — I know exactly who you are,” she said. “I’ve read about you, and I’ve read your work — Professor Doren Fox from New York, expert on the psyches of literary characters, most notably Hamlet. Tell me, Professor,” she adjusted herself in her chair as she crossed her legs and pulled the edge of her slinky dress forcibly down at the hem to avoid revealing too much thigh and crotch. Doing this forced her to twist her torso, which in turn forced her sizable breasts to strain against the taut overlying material of the dress.

“Tell me,” she repeated, regaining the composure of a tight pose, one of her pumps dangling from the toes of her overcrossed leg, “what do you really think of the authorship question? Unofficially, I mean.”

She sat still, both brown eyes locked into mine, her contracted posture reflecting the cat-like tension of a brain that is ready to spring on its prey.

“You mean,” I asked, “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Or did some other author write the greatest body of literary works ever constructed and then capriciously relinquish — abandon — every ounce of credit for the writing of them? Seems unlikely.”

“Yes, Professor. That’s what I mean. We have to imagine the 1500s — as you are an expert, you know what I mean. The common man did not have access to education as he does now. He certainly didn’t have access to libraries, which were locked away in the guardedly private houses of the aristocracy. There was no such thing as a public library. The common man was not facile with Latin, Greek, Italian, French, the law, or the writings of the ancient poets — like Ovid — not in the deep way that the author of Shakespeare’s works was. The commoner did not have first-hand information on the inner workings of government or the private lives of kings and queens, how they lived and spoke. A commoner could not create realistic portrayals of non-English characters, living outside England in their native countries, without having been to those countries — Italy for example. Certainly not as accurately as Shakespeare does. Only the aristocracy and the peerage had access to the special knowledge and experience required to write so accurately. The common man was a pig farmer who knew the poetry of the slops. Or an alehouse servant who knew the language of empty, clinking mugs. Of course, the American argument — more so today than ever — is that all people are equal, or that (as Orwell might say) ‘some are more equal than others.’ In line with this philosophy, one may aver that an uneducated lout from the town of Stratford, England — a town where, in 1600, you could count the number of inhabitants who were literate on one hand — has written the deepest, most beautiful verse in the history of the English language. Democrats (in the broad sense of the word) might be outraged if one dared suggest that William Shakespeare was incapable of writing Shakespeare’s plays. Even if such a suggestion were true — whether right or wrong — it would run the risk of arousing bitter indignation and even accusations of hate-speech in these testy times.”

She was formidable. It was a stirring speech, and I told her so. She objected to my praise of her argument as if I were being facetious, which compelled me to say that I was entirely genuine. I looked at her and wondered if I were falling in love. Her face was beautiful, a comfort to gaze upon. Her body was glorious, and the fantasy of dipping into such a temple of perfection was a near-unbearable ecstasy. But the mind of this woman, this Helena, was a mind with which I could imagine happily conversing for the rest of my life.

Yet something was positively wrong. I had heard her angrily confront Duncan Campbell at the symposium, and I had the distinct impression that her ideas were antithetical to his — she seemed then to be a Stratfordian who opposed what Campbell, an Oxfordian, was proposing. And this was exactly the opposite of what she was telling me now. The more I thought about it, the more muddled I became. Nothing made sense unless their disagreement in public was a sham — i.e., that she had been acting as if she disagreed with Campbell while, tacitly, she sympathized. But why the act? I couldn’t yet say, but I hoped she might enlighten me and resolve the paradox.

Meanwhile, moving from the realm of intellect to that of emotions, my response to Helena’s flirtations — or should I say her advances — was that I was deeply flattered though admittedly out of touch with intimacy for some time (I had scarcely a girlfriend since my bitter divorce). Every heart craves the possibility of finding another soul with whom to bond, even if that bond is illogical, so perhaps my time for bonding had come. On the other hand, I had some reservations: I usually preferred bonding with a woman my age or even older. However, I reflected, perhaps I was jumping to conclusions about the motives of this young lady. After all, I have never thought myself physically attractive although, in my defense, I’ve always possessed charm and have preferred to consider myself a man with a chance if not a forlorn hope.

“So finish your scotch,” she said, “and we’ll go up to my place. I’m around the corner.”

I was floored. This was not to be believed — a dream! But then I became nervous — was this flirtation going to end in sex? It was one thing to fantasize about something but quite another to undertake it. Because I hadn’t had sex for a while, I worried about my sad disuse. Could I still perform?

I was suddenly filled with doubt. Of course in my younger days, especially in the 1980s when women took full control of their bodies and their lusts, I was a lion and had the libido to mount women (assuming, of course, that they had desire). For me, passion and lust were always dependent on the willingness and eagerness of my partner: a woman’s sexiness is solely the product of her desire. Now however, in the twilight of my years and hampered by diminished energy, low back pain and the infirmities of deconditioning, I suffered from depleted self-belief, an absolutely essential ingredient for an erection. My damaging divorce hadn’t helped this either. Luckily, however, living in the modern age has benefits — I had sildenafil in my pocket (although I had never had occasion to use it). But my self-confidence was so low that I felt such precaution necessary in order to avert the potential disaster of limp presentation. The idea that I could nibble the corner off that happy, diamond-shaped blue pill to assure robustness and avoid humiliation was a great comfort to me as I knew, from my patients, that it had been a great comfort to them.

Nevertheless, I was still nervous until I realized that I might have a loophole for a hasty escape from this young lioness — a loophole in the realm of ethical considerations.

“What about your boyfriend — the fellow who was just here?”

Him?” she laughed. “He’s not my boyfriend, just a friend. I’m quite free, actually!”

Oh my God! I was terrified, trapped that my failsafe — my loophole — had closed.


Jeff Schnader is the author of the acclaimed novel, The Serpent Papers. Star Chamber is an excerpt from a forthcoming novel. See his author webpage; or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.