March 18, 2007

The Shakespeare Authorship Question

Today's Washington Post contains two articles taking different sides to the question of whether Shakespeare is the true author of his works.

An article by Roger Stritmatter (vice chairman of the Shakespeare Fellowship and a professor of English at Coppin State University) rehearses the doubts as to Shakespeare's authorship:
Mark Twain quipped that every relevant fact known about the Stratford author would fit on a postcard, and another century of literary biography hasn't changed that. Shakespearean professionals begin by noting that there is a Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford and go on from there to imagine almost everything else. They have to. They have a monument without a man.

Outside the university, though, populist resistance to the author from Stratford has persisted for two centuries. Skeptics have been divided on their support for one candidate or another -- Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I or Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford -- but we all believe that the real author was forced to conceal his identity and allow his works to be published under another man's name.

We are not just unrepentant conspiracy theorists who lie awake at night concocting unverifiable historical scenarios and contriving pseudoscientific cryptograms while ignoring the undeniable facts of Shakespeare's career. We're struck by the fact that all the speculation the biographers engage in to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare reveals a man who contradicted the literary thumbprint of his creation in every way. Their author was a huge commercial success -- but "Hamlet" satirically inveighs against buyers and sellers of land. Their author never left England -- but 16 of the plays are set in Italy or the Mediterranean. There is no evidence that their author owned any books -- but the man who wrote Shakespeare clearly devoured all the most important books of his generation.

"Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute [Shakespeare's] giant Biography?" Twain wrote in 1909. "It would strain the unabridged Dictionary to hold them." In 1984, Richmond Crinkley, the late director of educational programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, acknowledged that "doubts about Shakespeare arose early. They have a simple and direct plausibility." Henry James was blunt: "I am 'sort of' haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world."

The list of skeptics reads like a Who's Who of the English-speaking world: Washington Irving, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helen Keller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Malcolm X, Leslie Howard, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and many more. And the ranks keep growing.

But modern Shakespearean studies are founded on the undeviating principle that rational authorities -- i.e. "Shakespeareans" -- do not discuss the authorship question. Beyond this, we seem to be deeply invested in a view of the Bard as a creator in our own image. Born to a comfortable middle-class existence, he evades the stark class realities of Elizabethan society and conquers the literary world through Will-power, re-creating the lives of kings, queens and courtiers simply by deploying his superabundant imagination.

Stritmatter believes that the true author was Edward de Vere:

Since 1920, when Englishman John Thomas Looney wrote "Shakespeare Identified," a clear solution to this enigma has been staring orthodox Shakespeareans in the face: Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford, a man known for his disregard of class protocols and his passionate devotion to the theater, was Cecil's ward and later his unhappy son-in-law. He was a man with the means, the opportunity and, above all, the motive to write "Hamlet." Frustrated in his political ambitions at court, he spent a lifetime selling off his vast inherited estates to pay his creditors and pursue his literary ambitions. Like the misanthropic Jaques in "As You Like It," he literally sold his own lands to see the lands of other men.

The most "Italianate" Englishman of his generation, he toured the Tuscan cities that are featured so prominently in Shakespearean plays, and built a house for himself in Venice only blocks from the Jewish ghetto. His life, in myriad ways, illumines the Shakespearean oeuvre and becomes the touchstone for grasping the meaning of many obscure passages in the plays.

An article by Stanley Wells (chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and author of Shakespeare & Co.) argues that Shakespeare was indeed the true author:

The nonsense started around 1785. That was the year a Warwickshire clergyman fantasized that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the works everyone had until then supposed he had written. In doing so, he laid the foundations of the so-called authorship question, which has grown into an immense monument to human folly.

Shakespeare by then had been dead for 159 years, and was acclaimed as the author of 37 plays, two long narrative poems, 154 sonnets and a handful of other poems. No one up to then had doubted that he wrote them; nor was there any reason to. There were numerous printed references in his lifetime and soon afterward to William Shakespeare as the author of the poems and plays acted and published as his. Most of the references were in books or manuscripts by writers whose names are known nowadays only to scholars, but it doesn't make them any less believable. . . .

Then there are Shakespeare's own published works. His full name appears on the dedications of the two long poems, in 1593 and 1594, and on their title pages. It is printed on the title pages of many of his plays from 1598 onward, on reprints of the poems (which were very popular), and on the first edition of the Sonnets, in 1609. In that book, another poem, "A Lover's Complaint," is also printed with a separate statement that William Shakespeare wrote it. And seven years after he died, his collected plays were printed in the great book called "Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies," now usually referred to as the First Folio. It includes an engraved portrait of the author.

So there are many references to William Shakespeare in his lifetime and soon afterward as the man who penned the plays and poems, and there is nothing to suggest that he did not write them. People who question his authorship often say, "Ah, yes, but there's nothing to prove that he was the William Shakespeare of Stratford," and then go on to invent conspiracy theories that somehow Shakespeare (if they admit that he existed) was the pen name of writers who were so modest that they not only concealed the fact that they had written the greatest plays ever, but also were so generous as to allow an obscure actor to take all the credit. . . .

The most common arguments that Shakespeare of Stratford could not have written the works are that he is not known to have traveled overseas, that he was of relatively humble origins and that he came from a small provincial town where he could not have received a good enough education to have written the plays. The facts are that the works show no knowledge of countries that could not have been obtained from books or from conversation, that you don't have to be an aristocrat to be a great writer -- Jonson was the son of a bricklayer, Marlowe's father was a cobbler -- and that Stratford had a good grammar school whose pupils received a far more rigorous education in the classics than most university graduates today.

The debate about Shakespeare's authorship has been going on for some time, and the articles don't raise any new arguments, but they are nevertheless an interesting summary of the debate.


codecedre said...

Colin David Reese, actor and artistic director of “La Compagnie du Cèdre” (France) replies to Mark Rylance and Prof. Stanley Wells:

The Shakespeare Authorship debate continues complete with invective and name calling, not to mention light hearted remarks taken out of context and turned around to invoke further accusations of professional slurs.

The “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” raises some very interesting points. However there are several elements missing from it, two of them essential.

Firstly as Gerald Eades Bentley points out in his 1971 book ”The Professions of Dramatist and Player in Shakespeare’s Time” :
“Too often the assumption of the critic – generally tacit – has been that Elizabethan standards and values were those of his own time, and on these assumptions the critic posits the reputation or the response of Shakespeare or Marlowe or Heywood and of the audiences for which they wrote.”

This is a large part of the problem with the “Declaration”. Its writers talk about a ‘literary career’ and the lack of evidence for it. Shakespeare did not have a literary career in the way we would understand it.

Their argument revolves around the lack of visibility of the man from Stratford, particularly concerning the lack of reaction to his death. As somebody who has worked in the entertainment industry for over 40 years, I am acutely aware of the relationship between visibility and status.

With status comes visibility and in the entertainment industry without status you are invisible.
A modern parallel could be the Hollywood screenwriter. The “best” film of the 20th century would be considered by many to be Gone With The Wind. Who can name the screen writer? Who can recall when he died and how? I leave you to do your own research, you will be surprised by what you find in his brief obituary in the New York Times. The man (a clue) in question had no status and therefore no visibility.

The status of professional playwrights in Elizabethan and Jacobean England was equally low, even below that of players (and theirs was that of ‘rogues and vagabonds’) Philip Henslowe, in a letter to an actor referred to Benjamin Jonson as a “bricklayer” even though a number of Jonson’s plays had been performed in Henslowe’s theatres. Jonson did indeed achieve status later, not as a playwright, but for the masques he wrote for the court.

According to Bentley there were about 22 professional playwrights (of which Shakespeare was one) active in the period. For most of them there exists little or no documentation about their lives beyond their contribution to the playhouses’ repertoires.

Playwrights of the time fell into two categories; “amateur” and “professional”. The amateur had a certain status in that he wrote (usually) one play on a particular theme and was often a man of letters. The professionals by contrast were considered hacks and their output unworthy of consideration in poetic or literary terms. In much the same way as the scripts for TV soap operas would be regarded now. Sir Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, referred to plays as “riff-raff” and “baggage books” refusing categorically to accept them in his library. John Donne was of much the same opinion. (It was not until the 18th century that the Bodleian started to collect plays of the period)

That the Stratford man did not boast of his writing successes in his native town is understandable, being that “wool merchant” would carry a great deal more status than “playwright” - a rather shameful way of making money, perhaps best hidden. The fact that the extant documentation concerning William Shakspeare revolves around other activities than writing plays reflects more an attitude to playwrighting as a profession than anything else.

So when the “Declaration” refers to Shakespeare as ‘The Greatest Englishman of all Time’ this is emphatically not an opinion that would have been shared at the time.

The second point missing from the “Declaration” and indeed from all the documents referring to the authorship debate, is the undeniable fact that whoever created these plays was a theatre worker. Very much more important than all the “extensive knowledge of law, philosophy, classical literature etc. etc. etc.” cited by the authors, is the knowledge of Theatre. These plays are perfect in their theatricality and stage craft. Only a true theatre professional could have “wrought” these masterpieces... someone who was intimately familiar with the playmaking process, with the scenic progression that produces tension and drama, with what an actor needed technically to create a character. No other writer comes close and only a man of the theatre could have written like that.

The “Declaration” refers to Shakespeare from Stratford as a “minor actor” - a somewhat speculative assumption given the number of contemporary references to his performances at court and before sundry nobility. This is, in fact, another example of the writers doing exactly what they accuse the ‘orthodox’ scholars of doing; adapting the known facts to support their theory. The two major stars of the era were Richard Burbage and Edward Alleyn, but the company of which Shakespeare was a member stayed together almost unchanged for a period of nearly 30 years and enjoyed a success unparalleled in British theatrical history, either before or since. The actors - all of them - must have been superb; that sort of success can only be achieved with an immense talent pool. Any weak member would be replaced. That is how it has always been in our business.

That there is doubt is true. Is it reasonable? As a working professional, I find it perfectly reasonable that a half educated man from a provincial town could do the research necessary to create these plays, given the talent and the imagination. And that the eternal nature of these creations would be completely ignored due to the intellectual snobbery of the literati of the day.

What is so ironic is that this same intellectual snobbery seems to have come full circle.

Finally, the most disturbing aspect of the “Declaration” is its inherent attack on the fundamentals of art. Its entire argument revolves around the contention that an artist is incapable of creating anything beyond his or her own personal experience.

Colin David Reese plays the head of the SOE, Colonel Maurice Buckmaster, in Female Agents, starring Sophie Marceau and will be appearing in his own play “Gift to the Future” at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this summer. For more details see

Keith Massey said...

Conspiracy Theories abound because they are more entertaining than the world we actually live in. Snarla Husayn parodies the Shakespeare authorship question with a line of "Shaykh Zubayr" collectibles:

A Bard by any other Name