SHAKESPEARE AND THE AUTHORSHIP 'QUESTION'
Conspiracy theorists have for many years maintained that the plays of Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare at all, but by someone else. The most touted candidates are Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Christopher Marlowe.
Though none of these myths are taken seriously by any genuine Shakespeare scholar today, they remain in the pipeline and are regularly trotted out by zealots in support of one or other of the contenders. Why? Because a conspiracy theory is always more fun than the actual truth? Because snobbery insists that a great artist must also be a person of social standing? Or because of a vast ignorance of the life and times of Shakespeare, his theatre, his linguistic style and working method? All of the above; but also a reverence for 'Shakespeare the man', an obsession with knowing as much as we can about the life and personality of the world's greatest creative genius. This obsession is disappointed by the evidence that Shakespeare lived an unremarkable private life, relatively free of the sort of incident, scandal or adventure we like to associate with genius. How could someone so middle-class, successful and "normal" produce the passionate fury of King Lear or Othello?
This hunger for celebrity overlooks the fact that most of the world's greatest artists and writers have been middle-class professionals who lived somewhat humdrum lives while turning out works of searing passion and beauty. Whose life could have been more humdrum than the greatest of all musical geniuses, J.S. Bach?
The same could be said of Joseph Haydn and scores of other eighteenth century composers, or the great painters of the Renaissance or for that matter, most authors living today. Great writers do not live lives of romance and adventure: they sit down at their desks in the morning and they write. They write about other peoples' romances and adventures and what they can't make up they research and borrow. So it was with William Shakespeare.
We have an enormous amount of information about his life and career. Those who claim we don't simply have not done their homework.
We shall not enter into a full biography of Shakespeare on this website at this time, but refer readers to the dozens of competent Shakespeare biographies already in existence. Among comparatively recent and interesting ones are Ian Wilson's Shakespeare, The Evidence (St Martin's Griffin, New York 1999), Garry O'Connor's Shakespeare, a Life (sceptre 1991), Shakespeare's Life and Art (1939), and Shakespeare (1964) by Peter Alexander, The Genius of Shakespeare by Jonathan Bate (Picador 1997), Ivor Brown's Shakespeare (1949), Anthony Burgess' Shakespeare (1970), The Stranger in Shakespeare by Leslie A. Fiedler (1973) and Shakespeare by Germaine Greer (1986). Particularly recommended is Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare, published by BBC as a companion to the excellent TV series of the same name and available on video and DVD through ABC shops.
Other heavyweights who repay study are Harold Bloom (Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human), Stanley Wells' Shakespeare (1978) and Shakespeare for All Time (Macmillan, 2002); and Frank Kermode's The Age of Shakespeare (Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2004, and Shakespeare's Language (Penguin).
Among many books that disprove the claims of other contenders are Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman (The Shakespeare Conspiracy, Arrow 1995) and Shakespeare's Face by Stephanie Nolen (Text, 2002).
A number of popular myths may be dispensed with relatively briefly:- Some conspiracy theorists claim that Shakespeare came from too humble a background (with an illiterate father) to be a great writer. They could not be more wrong. Shakespeare came of well-to-do stock and had a relatively comfortable upbringing. His mother, Mary Arden, came of wealthy "gentlefolk" whose farm may be visited at Wilmcote, outside Stratford, today. His father John was a prosperous and successful merchant who dealt in a variety of goods including fine gloves and wool. (The nearby Cotswolds was the centre of England's wool trade). So successful and popular was John Shakespeare that he was made Bailiff (or Mayor) of Stratford in 1586. To think such a successful businessman and administrator of an important town like Stratford-upon-Avon was illiterate is a joke. He had a good library of books including a number of Catholic tracts and this was part of his undoing. For John Shakespeare was a staunch Catholic and resisted the laws of the Protestant regime. As Bailiff and chief Alderman he refused to obliterate the medieval murals on the walls of the Guild Chapel next door to the Grammar school. This rebellion was compounded by repeated fines for not attending Protestant church services and for lending money to fellow Catholics who were also suffering from heavy fines. He lost his office and his business was severely damaged in 1586.
But while in office he had enjoyed the privilege of sending his four sons, William, Richard, Gilbert and Edmund to the nearby Edward VI Grammar school free of charge. A Grammar school education in 16th century England far surpassed a similar education today in terms of the standards it set in a more limited, but specialist curriculum. Students worked six days a week from early morning until evening. Discipline was strict and relentless. Shakespeare studied some science, maths and history, but his education was focused on Greek and Latin classics, the books he would quote and return to again and again throughout his career, especially Ovid.
He married Anne Hathaway when he was eighteen and we know that he departed shortly after for London to begin a career in the theatre, first as an actor, little by little helping to patch up old plays and collaborate on new ones until he struck out on his own as a playwright.
The so-called 'lost years' of his career are no such thing. They were the formative years of his professional life and we know he worked for a number of companies including Lord Strange's Men and the Lord Chamberlaine's Men as well as the Burbage Theatre in Shoreditch.
It was as an actor that Shakespeare began his lifetime friendship with fellow playwright Ben Jonson (who had a far less privileged upbringing, being the son of a bricklayer). A First Edition of Johnson's plays in the State Library of NSW contains lists of the Principal Tragedians and Principal Comedians of the plays and Shakespeare's name tops the list in both categories, above that of Richard Burbage who was to become Shakespeare's own leading player and original performer of Hamlet, Richard III, and Othello.
Anecdotal evidence also records that Shakespeare performed in some of his own plays (the Ghost in Hamlet, Adam in As You Like It), but by this time he was busy writing new works, directing their performances and running his own Company at the Globe.
Ian Wilson in Shakespeare, The Evidence provides a most intriguing account of Shakespeare's first big break as a dramatist, being commissioned by Lord Strange, the Earl of Stanley to write the great Henry VI/Richard III tetralogy - a blockbuster event which established him as the hottest talent in town and earned the spite of fellow playwright, Robert Greene whose own career was on the skids. Wilson also provides figures that show how heavily Shakespeare was outselling his rival Christopher Marlowe at the box office.
That Shakespeare was a well-known theatrical identity is attested by an entry in the diary of John Manningham on March 13, 1602, repeating a salacious and hilarious anecdote concerning the sexual rivalry between Shakespeare and Burbage. It is testimony of the prominence of both men that they were subjects of such gossip. Other gossip about Shakespeare was less flattering - for instance that his godson Sir William Davenart was in fact a lovechild by the hostess of the inn Shakespeare frequented on his regular trips between London and Stratford. Shakespeare's prominence in his home town is without question. In May 1597 he bought a number of properties including New Place, the biggest house in town, right opposite the Guild Chapel where his father had fallen from grace. As if in defiance of this disgrace, Shakespeare procured himself not only New Place but a coat-of-arms and the title of Gentleman.
When he died in 1616 he was buried in pride of place right in front of the altar of Holy Trinity Church. His wife and daughter Susanna were likewise honoured by being interred alongside him. That he was better known as a gentleman of property than a famous playwright to the country folk of Stratford who had never set foot in far-away London, is totally understandable.
Some people query why no books are mentioned in Shakespeare's will. Books were such a precious commodity and of such personal significance to Shakespeare that it is not surprising he did not leave them to his family who had little interest in theatrical or literary pursuits. No doubt he sold the greater quantity or divided them between the actor friends he mentions in his will. To his favourite daughter Susanna he did leave shares in the London theatre as well as his Blackfriars house. Susanna, a smart and educated young woman was married to the town's leading physician John Hall. Their house is one of the many pilgrim stops today in Stratford.
The greatest argument against any of the rival contenders to the works of Shakespeare is the total disparity of literary styles.
Bacon was a dry-as-dust moral essayist who could never have imagined the feverish passion of Romeo and Juliet or Twelfth Night. He was a wowser who petitioned against the construction of the Globe theatre. Oxford was a third-rate rhymer too, who as an aristocrat would have no need of a patron. Shakespeare's poems are dedicated to aristocratic patrons who provided his livelihood until he established himself as a man of means in the theatre, sharing with the Burbage brothers both the risks and profits of the Globe.
Christopher Marlowe's writing is a far remove from Shakespeare's, both in form and content. A proud and self-proclaimed homosexual, Marlowe wrote a series of plays celebrating male bonding (Edward II and Gaveston, Barabas and Ithamoor, Faust and Mephistopheles or the gay super-icon Tamburlaine). He never wrote a decent female role. But Shakespeare's female characters are the greatest in dramatic literature (Portia, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Lady Macbeth to name a few). The best Marlowe could do was bring on Helen of Troy (in Dr Faustus) and have her walk across the stage mute! Nor did Marlowe's dramatic writing ever change or develop. From first play to last he churned out relentless and mighty pentameters, whereas Shakespeare was a constant experimenter and innovator - breaking the iambic pentameter, throwing in passages of prose, constantly inventing new forms and conventions. Ben Jonson was the first to proclaim of Shakespeare:
…how far thou did'st our Lily outshine,
or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe's mighty rhyme.
Some people are puzzled by the variants in the spelling of Shakespeare's name; they need not be. Spelling was erratic in the sixteenth century and depended very much on the dialect of the scribe. Marlowe's name, for instance, is spelt Morley in various documents. Even today we have discrepancies between English and American spelling of certain words while pronunciation has never been stabilised, despite all the best efforts of the BBC. English has countless variations in pronunciation with English, American, Scots, Irish and Australian accents for starters. As for spelling, no attempt was made to standardise it until Dr Johnson's eighteenth century Dictionary.
The most abiding proof of Shakespeare's authorship is the testimony of his fellow playwrights and actors, the men he worked with day-to-day. No one as competitive and shrewd as Ben Jonson would have been deceived by an impostor, yet in the opening pages of the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, Jonson pays handsome tribute 'to the memory of my beloved, the author, Mr William Shakespeare: I loved the man, This side idolatry, as much as any'.
to Shakespeare the actor:
…to hear thy Buskin tread
And shake a stage!
and to Shakespeare the playwright:
While I confess thy writings to be such,
As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much.
…Soul of the Age!
The applause! Delight! The wonder of our stage!
…even so, the race of Shakespeare's mind, and manners brightly shines
In his well-turned and true-filed lines…
Sweet swan of Avon!…
…I see thee in the Hemisphere
Advanced and made a Constellation there!
As if Jonson's praise was not sufficient, the greatest proof of devotion among Shakespeare's colleagues is the mighty effort of John Heminge and Henry Condell, two actors from his Company, in collecting and publishing all his works in one great volume. To their labour of love we owe our inheritance of Shakespeare's plays:
…only to keep the memory of so worthy a Friend, and Fellow alive, as was our Shakespeare… Who, as he was a happy imitator of Nature, was a most gentle expressor of it. His mind and hand went together; And what he thought he uttered with that easiness, that we have scarce received from him a blot in his papers.
Many other contemporary poets joined in the tributes, including Hugh Holland:
'The most Famous scenic Poet, Master William Shakespeare'.
… done are Shakespeare's days. His days are done, that made the dainty Plays Which made The Globe of heaven and earth to ring:
L. Digges (1623):
'Shakespeare, at length thy pious fellows give the World thy Works: thy Works, by which out-live thy tomb, thy name must: when that stone is rent, and Time dissolves thy Stratford Monument, Here we alive shall view thee still. This Book, When Brass and Marble fade, shall make thee look Fresh to All Ages…'
In 1594, the leading poets of the Age, Spenser and Drayton praised Shakespeare by name; Francis Meres in 1598 wrote that Shakespeare was the leading dramatist for both comedy and tragedy; and in the same year Gabriel Harvey wrote how Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis delighted young folk (because of its sexiness), but his Rape of Lucrece and Hamlet 'pleased the wiser folk'.
Marston, a fellow dramatist, wrote of the success and applause that attended the performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Curtain Theatre.
In 1602 the famous comedian Will Kempe wrote 'Here's our Shakespeare puts them all down, aye, and Ben Jonson too'.
In 1603 William Camden named Shakespeare as one of the 'most pregnant wits of these our times, whom succeeding ages may justly admire.'
In 1604 Anthony Scoloker commented that an epistle should resemble one of 'friendly Shakespeare's tragedies… it should please all, like Prince Hamlet.'
And so the tributes go on, from authors like Drummond, Davies and Forman and the actor Edward Alleyn who had acted in Marlowe's plays.
It is ludicrous to suggest that all the above, plus many, many more should have been taken in by an impostor. They acted with Shakespeare or knew him personally and most were rivals in a hot-house, competitive theatre industry. But Shakespeare was accepted, liked and admired.
Some conspiracy theorists suggest that a man from a country town like Stratford could have known nothing of life at Court…Wrong! From his earliest years as a writer Shakespeare sought out and enjoyed aristocratic patronage.
In 1593 and 1594 he dedicated his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece to Henry Wroithesley, the Earl of Southampton. They were published by his friend Richard Field, also from Stratford-on-Avon.
Southampton was the most generous of all Shakespeare's patrons and the prime recipient of his Sonnets. In 1599 he gave Shakespeare a handsome sum of money with which to purchase a share in the new Globe Theatre. This gave Shakespeare independent means and set him on the road to fortune.
In 1603 his Company was named the King's Men and Shakespeare was obliged to attend Court as a Groom of the Chamber. This meant a lot of hanging around Court circles, which was tedious apart from the opportunity to observe courtiers and their manners. These are mercilessly satirized in characters like Osric (Hamlet) Le Beau (As You Like It) and Boyet (Love's Labour's Lost). All this hanging around the Court, dancing attendance on his noble patrons could prove tedious, as expressed in Sonnet 57:
Being your slave, what should I do but tend
Upon the hours and times of your desire?
I have no precious time at all to spend,
Nor services to do, till you require.
Nor dare I chide the world-without-end hour
Whilst I, my sovereign, watch the clock for you,
Nor think the bitterness of absence sour,
When you have bid your servant once adieu.
As mentioned above, neither Bacon nor Oxford had need of patrons and
Marlowe was long since dead.
But Shakespeare's Courtiers, Dukes and Lords are not his most original creations. Almost any other dramatist could have invented these conventional figures. It is Shakespeare's country-folk and so called 'low-life' characters who show his greatest inventiveness: Bardolph, Pistol, Costard, Bottom and Quince, Justice Shallow, Mistress Quickly and Falstaff - No aristocrat could have dreamed up such creatures. But Shakespeare lived amongst them. From his lodgings at the Mountjoys' house in Silver Street, Cripplegate, he walked along the Thames and Cheapside to The Globe in the Bear Gardens on the South Bank. This was the disreputable part of town- one of the "Liberties", outside the city limits, crammed with pubs, theatres and brothels.
And the most rudimentary study of Shakespeare's poems and plays reveals a man of rustic origins, so familiar with the seasons, with farming, with country folklore and the day-to-day life of simple folk like 'Marion Hacket, the fat ale-wife of Wincot' in The Taming of The Shrew.
None of Shakespeare's rustic or small-town characters, his familiarity with life-on-the-land were within the scope of experience of men like Bacon, Oxford or Marlowe. Shakespeare was a country-man all his life, making regular trips home to Stratford and retiring there, once he had made his pile, round about 1609.
Apart from the remarkable differences in writing style, vocabulary and philosophy between Shakespeare and any of the other contenders, one has to dismiss out-of-hand the laughable notion that statesmen like Bacon or Oxford wrote dramatic masterpieces in their 'spare time'!
You don't become a Beethoven by playing piano on weekends. You don't become a Monet by dabbling with paints on your day off.
The most distinguishing feature of Shakespeare's works is their tireless professionalism, constantly improving, experimenting, developing and expanding. Each new play shows breathtaking audacity and courage in its creation. The author of these plays was clearly a man of the theatre, who worked hard at his craft, who knew it from the inside because he was an actor himself. He knows what to leave unsaid, how much liberty to give an actor's interpretation. Neither Bacon nor Oxford had first hand experience of the theatre and Marlowe never acted. His plays certainly impressed and inspired the young Shakespeare, but Marlowe was murdered in 1593, long before the bulk of Shakespeare's plays were written. His murder was one of the best-documented crimes of the century, the coroner's report conclusive.
His death left the way clear for Shakespeare to assume pride of place as the foremost dramatist, not only of his age, but as Ben Jonson said 'for all Time'.
John Bell AM
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But Ben Jonson was in cahoots with Bacon, Marlowe and John Davies, so whatever Jonson wrote should be judged accordingly.
Best wishes John
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First of all the authorship controversy is not a conspiracy theory. In fact it is not a theory at all but a conclusion based on where the evidence is leading. I believe that the evidence points to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.
This is a controversy that has been going on in one form or another for over 200 years and the fact that it will not go away is an indication to me that there is an abiding mystery that has not been solved.
Following are the main reasons I question the Stratfordian orthodoxy:
1. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him - it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.
2. There is no record of Shakespeare attending school. Even assuming he attended the local school until age 13, his plays reveal a knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.
3. He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.
4. His parents, siblings, and daughters were all illiterate except that one daughter could sign her own name. Would the greatest writer in English history have allowed this?
5. At the height of Shakespeare's alleged fame, tax collectors could not discover where he lived.
6. At his death, there were no eulogies, no testimonials, or tributes, not even from fellow actors, playwrights, or his esteemed friend, Ben Jonson. His only alleged connection to the plays came seven years after his death in the tribute by Ben Jonson in the First Folio.
7. Scholars agree that his later plays were collaborations with other authors. Why would the great playwright at the height of his powers turn over his incomplete works to be finished by lesser authors?
8. Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England, yet the plays reveal an extensive knowledge of Italy and France.
9. The plays reveal an intimate familiarity with court life and manners that Shakespeare, as a commoner, could not have obtained simply by conversations at the Mermaid Tavern.
10. Shakespeare's point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.
The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Huckleberry Finn was published under the name of Mark Twain but there is nothing to identify him as Samuel Clemens. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.
The few facts we know about Shakespeare from Stratford are stretched, pulled, and twisted to make it plausible that he was the author. There is nothing in his biography to connect him with the works. Indeed the opposite is true. Robert Bearman sums up Shakespeare's life as follows in "Shakespeare in the Stratford Records" (1994), published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: "Certainly, there is little, if anything, to remind us that we are studying the life of one who in his writings emerges as perhaps the most gifted of all time in describing the human condition. He seems merely to have been a man of the world, buying up property, laying in ample stocks of barley and malt, when others were starving, selling off his surpluses and pursuing debtors in court…."
The sonnets are written by a man who is clearly much older. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties (Oxford was 14 years older). Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was "Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity," "With Time's injurious hand crushed and o'er worn", in the "twilight of life". He is lamenting "all those friends" who have died, "my lovers gone". His is "That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold."
The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford's life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare's biographers have nothing to go on. In addition he refers to having "born the canopy" (Sonnet 125), a reference to carrying the canopy over the head of the monarch during a wedding procession. There is no evidence that the man from Stratford ever came within a thousand yards of the Queen or ever carried any canopy. It would have been forbidden to a commoner.
Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare's reliance on books in foreign languages puzzles the experts, so we can suppose all sorts of things rather than conclude the obvious. If the man who was Shakespeare regularly relied on books not yet translated from Italian, French, and Spanish, then he must have been able to read in Italian, French, and Spanish.
The assumption behind the support for William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to be that he was no ordinary mortal because otherwise there is no accounting for the detailed knowledge of the law, foreign languages, Italy, the court and aristocratic society, and sports such as falconry, tennis, jousting, fencing, and coursing that appears in the plays. I do not have any doubt that genius can spring from the most unlikely of circumstances. The only problem here is that there is in this case no evidence to support it. Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate?
Edward De Vere, on the other hand, was a recognized poet and playwright of great talent, and although no play under Oxford's name has come down to us, his acknowledged early verse and his surviving letters contain forms, words, and phrases resembling those of Shakespeare. The Shakespeare plays and poems show that the author had specific knowledge of certain works of literature, certain prominent persons in Elizabeth's court, and events connected with them. In the sonnets and the plays there are frequent references to events that are paralleled in Oxford's life.
We know specifically that Oxford was fluent in four foreign languages, Latin, Greek, Italian, and French.
Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc.
The history plays are concerned mostly with the consolidation and maintenance of royal power and are concerned with righting the wrongs that fall on people of high blood. His comedies are far removed from the practicalities of everyday life or the realistic need to make a living. Shakespeare's vision is a deeply conservative, feudalistic and aristocratic one. When he does show sympathy for the commoners as in Henry V speech to the troops, however, Henry is also shown to be a moralist and a hypocrite. He pretends to be a commoner and mingles with the troops in a disguise and claims that those commoners who fought with the nobility would be treated as brothers.
But we know there was no chance of that ever happening in feudal England. What can scarcely be overlooked is a compassionate understanding of the burdens of kingship combined with envy of the carefree lot of the peasant, who free of the "peril" of the "envious court", "sweetly…enjoys his thin cold drink" and his "sleep under a fresh tree's shade" with "no enemy but winter and rough weather". This would come naturally to a privileged nobleman.
In the Renaissance period in England no courtiers were allowed to publish poetry --this was an unwritten code of the court. The need for a pseudonym by an author-courtier such as Oxford would have been essential. Personally, I feel that the use of the Shakespeare pen name had more to do with Oxford's hidden relationship with the Queen, the possibility of their giving birth to an illegitimate child (Henry Wriothesley, the 2nd Earl of Southampton) and possibly his homosexual activities rather than any taboos against aristocrats.
This is just the tip of the iceberg.
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