We are to be treated to a movie about the latest nonsense in the “Who wrote Shakespeare?” lunacy that has been percolating particularly in the fevered brains of academics who haven’t any original thoughts to offer but do have a consuming desire to be thought of as geniuses. These Elizabethan Literature doctoral candidates in search of a thesis but without the originality one finds in elevator musac trumpet a discovery now and again and sometimes even convert some who should know better.
I first encountered the Oxfordian theory of “Who wrote Shakespeare?” when I played Prospero as a guest actor in a college production of The Tempest some years ago. The director taught Shakespeare at the college and did so badly and from little knowledge and less learning. Her primary function was to accumulate a group of young women acolytes to feed her ego. To this end she manipulated some of the least secure and most wounded women who crossed her path only to cast them aside without conscience should they have the temerity to question her authority. She had a veneer of education without any depth and thus was the perfect promoter of the Oxfordian literary quackery. I was clear that if Annie believed the theory it was probably dishonest but I did my own investigation in case I was judging her and not the theory.
In Shakespeare’s lifetime there seems to have been no doubt in any minds that William Shakespeare, formerly of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, wrote the plays attributed to him. There were, as any of us have, alliances and rivalries in the London theatre of the late Elizabethan and Jacobean periods one of which was between Shakespeare and his acting company and his nearest rival, Ben Jonson, and the troupe for which he wrote.
The Elizabethan stage had a great plenty of writers who could pen a line in iambic pentameter though none quite as memorable as those from Shakespeare. The giants of the era were Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare and Jonson. Occupying a near second tier were Thomas Middleton, John Fletcher, Francis Beaumont, John Webster, John Ford, Philip Massinger, William Rowley, George Chapman, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Heywood among others. The reason for this list of Elizabethan playwrights will become clear a bit later. None of these writers had any apparent issue with the idea that William Shakespeare was one of their contemporaries and the height of success in their profession. In fact, in the 1590s playwright Robert Greene wrote at some angry length about Shakespeare attacking him for being what we would now call a play doctor, one who improved others’ plays. Greene had no doubt that there was a William Shakespeare whom he despised. I will let the great actor, Sir Henry Irving, say more of Greene later.
One reason that Shakespeare reached the heights in his time was his sensibility. Ultimately in Shakespeare’s plays the great theme is forgiveness and reconciliation. The comedies end in reconciliation of the characters and, often, in a wedding. The tragedies end in a death or a funeral but the deaths result from a failure of reconciliation and forgiveness. To take the most prominent example, Hamlet, the prince whom Laurence Olivier incorrectly thought could not make up his mind, returns from his aborted voyage to England a man, still contemplative, but comfortable in his own skin. I’ll pass on a more detailed analysis of the play as irrelevant to this discussion. Upon his return from the interrupted voyage to England Hamlet would readily be reconciled to Laertes and even to Claudius. The tragedy reaches its bloody end because Claudius in his greed and guilt cannot allow any reconciliation.
One of the reasons that Jonson has not fared quite so well as Shakespeare is that he is unremittingly jealous, angry and unforgiving of human foibles. Jonson was a tough guy who’d been in the military. He had little use for and was often quarrelsome with his contemporaries. He was also famously and vocally proud of his learning. In plays like Volpone, The Alchemist and Bartholomew Fair the fools and villains get their comeuppance but no Jonson character ever reaches the insight that forgiveness and reconciliation is the real answer. No Jonson character ever arrives at the understanding that Prospero achieves in The Tempest when he sees that even the meticulously planned revenge in which Prospero is currently engaged, is fleeting and, ultimately, an illusion, "like this insubstantial pageant faded".
No one has suggested that Jonson wrote Shakespeare but this contrast is relevant in the context of the comment that has been the root cause of all the “Who wrote Shakespeare?” speculation.
When William Shakespeare died in 1616 a selection of his plays existed in print, often in corrupted quarto copies. In 1623 a group of people, probably lovers of the plays, actor-colleagues and the leaders of Shakespeare’s former acting company undertook to publish an “authoritative” version of the plays in a folio. We now call this The First Folio. For the verse introduction to the folio Isaac and William Jaggard acquired the services of the dean of the playwriting community, Shakespeare’s old rival, Ben Jonson. Jonson produced the laudatory poem that the Jaggards and their syndicate paid for but, as was his nature, could no more resist slipping in a few barbs than he could resist breathing. The most obvious of these being the line,
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,….
This comment is more an expression of Jonson’s ego and pride in his own learning than it is a knock on Shakespeare. Their contemporaries seem to have understood as much. William Shakespeare had a solid classical education for the Elizabethan period which included being able to read and write both Latin and Greek. He may not have been as fluent as Jonson but we know from internal evidence in, as examples, A Winter’s Tale and Antony and Cleopatra, that Shakespeare could manage a reading of classical languages. His preference for the premiere translations of his day is not evidence of a lack of learning. Rather it is evidence that Shakespeare was sensitive to the popular knowledge of his time. Even so, most of the mad speculation about other authors can trace its heritage back to Jonson’s insult to a dead contemporary.
The jumping off point for most of the “scholars” who advance the various fancies of alternate authorship is Jonson’s barb. The reasoning runs much as follows:
Shakespeare didn’t have much of an education. Therefore, he was a dunce. He wasn’t even petty nobility. He was the son of a provincial glover. Therefore, he could not have written the greatest poetry in the English language. Someone else wrote using Shakespeare’s name and/or a front man who was a hack actor.
To call that reasoning logic is nonsense. Let me explain why.
We actually don’t know how much education William Shakespeare had or, indeed, didn’t have. Still we have no reason whatever to take Ben Jonson at his word. In fact, we have plenty of evidence of Jonson’s nasty disposition and holding of grudges to discount Jonson’s remark in the introduction to the First Folio entirely.
Even if Shakespeare were not a dedicated and diligent student characterizing him as incapable of writing the works attributed to him for over 400 years is an unwarranted leap of illogic. That argument is the equivalent of saying that Bill Gates could not have created Microsoft because he never finished his degree at Harvard. I should also point out at this juncture that Thomas Alva Edison had three months of formal schooling and was considered “addled”, a 19th Century shorthand for stupid and unteachable with a hint of insanity, by his teacher. The point I’m making is not a defense of a dunce being capable of writing great poetry but rather that average people often mistake genius for something inferior largely because that estimation is more soothing to their egos than any alternative.
William Shakespeare’s father, John, was, indeed a glover in provincial Stratford-upon-Avon. He was also and alderman and successful in a number of businesses. John Shakespeare clearly had both the position and means to provide a solid education for his oldest surviving son.
I am making the ultimate point that the Shakespeare we know from his plays was a genius who largely established the English language that we know today and that denying the existence of extraordinary geniuses who appear from time to time in our midst is nonsense. To insist that William Shakespeare must have been an upper class or noble scholar flies in the face of the irrefutable existence of, to name but a few, Jonathan Swift, Thomas Paine, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin, Edison as already noted, Samuel Clemens, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.
With the scurrilous and patently false arguments of humble origins and inadequate learning out of the way let me now turn to the outrageously false arguments for two of the prime candidates. But first a bit of literary and stage history.
William Shakespeare wrote for the popular entertainment of his time, the stage. Like television today, shows appear. They remain popular for a time. Eventually they become “old hat”, lose their audience and fade from the medium. No one, probably not even Shakespeare himself, thought that his plays would get more than a limited run and an occasional revival. Certainly no one contemplated that they would still be in production more than four hundred years later. We have ample evidence that many early scripts, including those in print, came from, either actors who’d imperfectly memorized their own and others’ lines or, perhaps, pirate scribes, like the people who sneak camcorders into theatres running new movies today, who were paid to transcribe plays during performances. Those bastardizations were one of the problems that the syndicate creating the First Folio sought to correct.
But, though there was a growing sense that these plays contained sublime and extraordinary writing, they still hadn’t the air of holy writ that they have for us today. Many poets, both fine and hack, in later ages put their pens to “improving” the plays. Indeed Laurence Olivier’s famous film of Richard III from 1955 uses Colley Cibber’s 1699 revision. Perhaps most famously King Lear suffered exceptionally. During the Restoration Nahum Tate gutted the play, removed the character of the Fool entirely and cobbled up a happy ending in which both Lear and Cordelia leave the stage looking toward a bright future. It wasn’t until 1823 that Edmund Kean revived the tragic ending and even then he had to revert to Tate’s emasculated version after three performances because of audience objections. Finally, in 1838, George Macready restored the tragedy to the original text which ending has held the stage since.
Kean’s and Macready’s restorations of original text are particularly relevant here because genuine Shakespeare scholarship began in the last half of the 18th Century and began to seep into the popular performances in the second quarter of the 19th. At the same point that restoring Shakespeare’s original texts becomes a popular fashion we get the influx of quack academics and foolish sophistry that becomes the “Who wrote Shakespeare?” farrago.
Also, lest I seem too harsh on Ben Jonson, he did have great respect for William Shakespeare even as he chafed at being only second to him. Jonson tells us that Shakespeare wrote without blotting out a line, high praise even if it may be as hyperbolic as the attack on Shakespeare’s learning. Jonson had an unmitigated mean streak but he also had to acknowledge superior writing when he saw it.
The first choice for most of the Shakespeare deniers was Sir Francis Bacon on the slim evidence that Bacon and Shakespeare shared some verbiage and because of Bacon’s great learning. On its face the primary reason for even looking at Bacon as a possible alternate author is that he wasn’t the glover’s son who had “small Latin and less Greek.” Bacon remained the primary candidate at the turn of the 19th Century when Sir Henry Irving was the premiere Shakespearean actor. I am lucky enough to have a volume of the collected plays that my grandfather owned. The introduction contains Irving’s essay, Shakespeare and Bacon. Let me quote a bit here.
Has any attempt been made to give even the semblance of reason to the assumption that Bacon induced the whole world of players and playwrights, and all his contemporaries who had relations with the theatre – men like Southampton and Herbert, and officials of the Court, who were brought into constant and close contact with the players – to bolster up the fiction that Shakespeare wrote the masterpieces for which he had the credit and the profit, and then keep the secret so close that nobody breathed a word of it, nobody kept any memorandum of it, and everybody carried it to the grave? Shakespeare was a man whose rapid advancement excited bitter jealousies. He was stigmatized by Robert Greene as the “Johannes Factotum” who was monopolizing the playwright’s business. He was “the upstart crow, beautified with our feathers;” that is to say, the jealous Greene saw him handling, rewriting, and vastly improving plays which, according to the theatrical custom of the time, were wholly at the disposal of the manager who had bought them. Young Shakespeare was called in to revise these works, and Greene cried aloud to all the supplanted that such presumption could not be borne; and why was it not proclaimed then, that Shakespeare could not write, that he was virtually illiterate, and that the plays that he presumed to turn from commonplace to genius were conveyed to him by Bacon, who laid the magic spell on them?
It doesn’t matter much which alternate one chooses, Bacon, Oxford or some other, Irving’s point that the promoters of this farrago have to peddle the improbable nonsense that all the playwrights I’ve mentioned earlier conspired together to promote a fiction that Shakespeare wrote what they knew he could not write. The Bacon/Oxford/somebody/anybody but Shakespeare crowd must maintain that fiction in the face of the ample evidence that some worked with Shakespeare, others competed with him and a few hated him though none had any reason to participate in such a fraud. In short, there needs to be a conspiracy so seamless and thorough that even those with a clear interest in exposing the fraud perpetuate it unto their dying breaths. Not only is that improbable, it utterly beggars belief.
Some object that there’s no or little record of William Shakespeare outside of his plays. We do have a few scant documents but nothing like the broad complex of data that we expect for notables. This argument seems to have given one of my heroes, Samuel Clemens, pause and moved him in his day toward the Bacon camp. I have to point out that, as much as I admire Mark Twain, Mr. Clemens was forever getting conned into schemes that impoverished him even late in life. Here I think he got conned once again.
I will admit that there is not a huge record of William Shakespeare but there is some. Legal documents exist as well as the birth and death records we expect. The Shakespeare deniers object that there isn’t more but that objection shows their ignorance of history. Here followeth the history lesson.
Shakespeare lived in a period of religious strife that would not end in England for another 150 years. Elizabeth I’s assent to the throne was not the final victory of Protestantism in England as Guy Fawkes’ Gunpowder Plot in 1604-05 illustrates. Still the primary religious conflict in England had shifted from Roman Catholic versus Protestant to Protestant versus Protestant. The Protestant fundamentalists were on a crusade to “purify” the English church of all “papist” influences. The English Civil Wars were aborning in this period which, to coin a redundant phrase, lead to dunderheaded censorship and the closing of the theatres in 1643. When the theatres were closed there was a significant loss of documentation covering the preceding 50 years.
But there was an older and more violent force working to destroy records that reared its ugly head higher and more often than even religious fundamentalism: fire. The Globe Theatre, Shakespeare’s own burned to the ground in 1613. There were other more localized fires that engulfed theatres, churches and other repositories of public records leading up to the Great Fire of London in 1666 which destroyed a large part of the city along with masses of books and records.
The fact is that we are extremely lucky that the thin record we have has survived at all. We don’t know that great reams of documentation of Shakespeare’s adult life disappeared in various fires but it is hardly unreasonable to assume that some documents disappeared in flames.
In addition there were visitations of plague in London during the 17th Century. In a society that hadn’t yet figured out the relationship between rats, fleas and plague, one way of dealing with infection was leaving an “infected” house and burning it down. Again we don’t know that any such thing happened to places that housed records of William Shakespeare’s life but I offer it as a possible explanation for why so few records survived. The short of it is that because we have a scant record now does not mean that there never was more than a scant record. Plenty of events intervened that may have destroyed a richer record. Again, the Shakespeare deniers offer an argument that takes no account of the facts except when they appear to reinforce their harebrained theory.
In any case, Sir Francis Bacon, worthy of respect in his own right, fell away as a favorite in the 1920s and the Shakespeare deniers flailed about. There was a brief attempt to develop theories that gave authorship to Christopher Marlowe though many topical references in the plays required Marlowe to have known them well after he was dead. Finally the dolts, conspiracy theorists and their dupes hit on Edward deVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford as their candidate for the wholly wrong and superfluous position of the actual writer of Shakespeare’s plays.
Again the Oxford Con starts with the premise that if there ever was a William Shakespeare, he was incapable of writing the great poetry of the plays and sonnets. Next they make the leap that only one of superior education and breeding could have written such works. But they have to start positing a number of things for which there is no or scant evidence. They posit a world in which it is impossible for a nobleman of deVere’s rank to be engaged with the theatre. That is, on its face, nonsense. The Elizabethan and Jacobean Courts were closely allied to the theatres. As but one example we have the unquestioned tradition that Queen Elizabeth herself so loved the character of Sir John Falstaff that she insisted on a new play that included him resulting in The Merry Wives of Windsor. The fact is that the Elizabethan theatres were popular entertainment but always considered high poetry and writing poetry was a noble pastime. It certainly did not adversely affect the careers of Sir Edmund Spenser, Sir Philip Sydney, or John Donne who became canon of St. Paul’s. In short, the argument that the nobility could not engage with the theatre ignores plentiful historical fact.
The Oxfordians also pull out of their…er…”bag of tricks”, a pretense that Shakespeare “knew” Italy well. DeVere traveled to Italy and did know it from personal experience. Both sides are clear that William Shakespeare never traveled widely and certainly not to Italy. The pretense that Shakespeare knew Italy rests largely on specifics of late medieval and Renaissance towns which were very similar between England and Italy. That he gets the neighborhood of Verona correct comes from his source material but when Shakespeare is inventing from whole cloth he makes Milan a seaport not to mention giving Bohemia a coastline. William Shakespeare knew Italy less well than I, who have never been there, do.
They also note that, at the end of the same embassy that brought Edmund deVere to Italy, an incident occurred that echoes in Hamlet. DeVere was embarked on a ship for England when it was taken by pirates. He was later released, without his shirt in England. DeVere’s capture by pirates is historical fact. That the only way a story of a nobleman captured by pirates and later released unharmed might find its way into a popular play is if deVere wrote it himself is prima facie nonsense.
DeVere actually tried his hand at poetry some of which has survived. He received some heady praise from contemporaries who would have been only too happy to receive his patronage. However, the actual deVere poetry is not “deathless” at all. In fact, it’s rather plodding. The praise for it amounts to no more than sucking up to an important noble.
But the hardest problem for the Oxfordians is the historical fact that their deVere died in 1604, some twelve years before William Shakespeare and well before existing records show that William Shakespeare bought property and gave evidence in a law suit. To cover these apparent inconsistencies Oxfordians claim that there was a William Shakespeare but that he was just the front man for deVere. All well and good, you may say. Except that deVere, as I’ve already pointed out, didn’t really need a front man. Yet there is a still more important bit of evidence that excludes deVere as the purported who “Who wrote Shakespeare?”
Audiences have always enjoyed topical references in their plays. The references are usually oblique citations of famous scandals or events that have seized the popular mind. They are, above all, current and "topical". Read the notes to any good academic edition of Shakespeare and you'll find lengthy notes explaining to us today those long-ago obscured references. Because “everyone” knows them “everyone” in the audience is in on the joke and, by extension, the players are bonding directly with the audience. Several references in several plays, unfortunately for the Oxfordians, took place years after deVere was dead. That’s a pretty good trick and one that ought to mean that deVere could see the future making him was legendary in gambling circles for never losing a bet. He was not clairvoyant. He does not appear to have been known as a man who never lost a bet and, in fact, obviously didn’t know the pirates were going to capture his ship.
Committed Oxfordians have combed the literature and worked mightily to find incidents on record before 1604 that might fit the topical references. They have done so regardless of how obscure or old those incidents may have been and even regardless of whether Shakespeare or deVere might have known of them but in this they miss the whole point.
Yes, there may be incidents from earlier in the 16th Century recorded in books and that Shakespeare or deVere might have encountered them but they were clearly not topical. References to the Gabor sisters just puzzle any current audience that knows the Kardashians. The topical reference must be current for it to work with the audience. Thus, once more the Oxfordian remedy for Shakespeare’s ill turns out to be snake oil that, to people with reason intact and unblinded by the hawkers, is inevitably explosive at one end or another.
So on thin, mostly fictional evidence some credulous people with imperfect or no knowledge of the period want to take a scurrilous insult to Shakespeare and the fact that he left a scant surviving record and torture it into alternate authorship. Just the number of contortions into which Oxfordians must twist themselves should indicate that the whole deVere theory is a worthless lie. I respect Derek Jacobi for his wonderful work on stage and screen. I’ve adored him as an actor ever since I saw him as Prince Mishkin in a dramatization of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot at the Old Vic 40 years ago. I also love Vanessa Redgrave’s work and respect her politics even in those few areas where we don’t fully agree. Still, wonderful as they are, neither the adherence of Jacobi nor Redgrave and still less the film from Roland Emmerich, can magically transmute the Oxfordian theory into gold from the stinking pile of crap it is.
Let me bring another Englishman into this argument and suggest, in the spirit of William of Occam, that the simplest explanation is the best. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote at least thirty-seven plays, 154 Sonnets. Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece and other poetry that, more than four centuries later are still the greatest in the English language. Let’s call this movie the high water mark of the “Who wrote Shakespeare?” silliness and end the idiocy here.