Shakes Who?

Aug 29 18:29 2010 Nick DAlleva Print This Article

What if William Shakespeare was not the author of his plays? Several historical figures such as Edward de Vere and Sir Frances Bacon question his authorship and claim to have evidence to back it up.

William Shakespeare is globally famous for his captivating stories and enchanting sonnets. His unique plays are read today in classrooms,Guest Posting made into movies, and are used as story lines by other authors and film writers. This playwright is famous now and is sure to remain known countless years into the future. Behind the admiration and study of Shakespeare, there is a question of authorship. What if William Shakespeare is not the author of his own plays? Could this widely accepted playwright not be the man behind the works? There are numerous theories pertaining to Shakespeare’s authorship. Historical figures such as Edward de Vere and Sir Frances Bacon have countless supporters who believe their candidate is the true author of the renowned plays and sonnets. Along with some extravagant theories, like Shakespeare was a woman, there are several speculations that have legitimate evidence behind them. Whether one believes William Shakespeare of Stratford or one of the other options is the playwright behind the distinguished works, a remarkable amount of evidence, including the plays and sonnets themselves, exists to argue the conflicting theories.

Those who doubt the traditionally accepted authorship of the plays believe evidence supporting Shakespeare, the actor of Stratford, is lacking in quality and quantity. They believe that because biographical information about this man is sparsely found, he cannot be the true writer. However, mainstream scholars deem the deficiency of information normal because in his time, people of his status were typically not well documented compared to those of nobility. These scholars believe that even if such documentation had existed, it is unlikely that it would have been preserved to this day. This authorship debate, beginning in the 1920s, continues to gain interest, especially among independent scholars and theater professions.

The common belief is that Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, a small town in southern England, in 1564. This man is known as Shakespeare of Stratford. He moved to London and became an actor and joint owner of an acting company. Seven years after dying in 1616, his plays were published in the First Folio. Shakespeare of Stratford is identified as the author of the works for several reasons. He and the author of the works have the same name: “William Shakespeare,” his will left possessions and gifts to fellow actors from the London acting company, and poems in the first publication of works refer to his “Stratford monument” and the “Swan of Avon” (Schoenbaum). Another piece of evidence leading to Shakespeare of Stratford as the true author is found in a 1592 pamphlet by the playwright Robert Greene. In this pamphlet, Greene’s Groatsworth of Wit, Green speaks of a playwright whom he calls “Shakes-scene.” This mention of the playwright indicates that people were aware of the writer Shakespeare (Anderson).

To counter the many who believe William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays and sonnets, there are critics of the mainstream view known as ani-Stratfordians.  By claiming that no direct evidence exists to identify Shakespeare of Stratford as the true author, they challenge all evidence pointing to Shakespeare of Stratford as the authentic playwright. Along with their general disbeliefs, anti-Stratfordians do not believe Shakespeare of Stratford and the author had the same name. They notice that according to a Stratfordian scholar, Sir Edmund K. Chambers, none of Shakespeare of Stratford’s recognized signatures were spelled “Shakespeare.” The signatures included these variations: Shaks, Shaksper, Shakespere, Shakspere, Shakspe, Shake-speare, and Shakspeare (Ogburn 119). Another argument against William Shakespeare of Stratford is the belief that “Shake-speare” was a pseudonym. Literary historians Taylor and Mosher support the claim of alter-authorship by saying, “In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Golden Age of pseudonyms, almost every writer used a pseudonym at some time in his career (Taylor and Mosher 85). Anti-Stratfordians use this historical knowledge to claim that the hyphen in “Shake-speare” indicates its use as a pseudonym (Ogburn 87-88).

To challenge the gifts to actors in Shakespeare of Stratford’s will, the critics note that this part of the will was inserted between previously written lines, and this leads to doubt in authenticity. Even if there were gifts left to his friends from the theatre, Shakespeare of Stratford’s will does not include any letter, papers, books, poems, plays, or works (Steele). At the time of Shakespeare of Stratford’s death, eighteen plays were unpublished; and none of these are in his will. This leads many anti-Stratfordians to claim this man was not involved in writing, at least not enough to have written Shakespeare’s noted plays. Speaking about the deficiency of evidence supporting Shakespeare of Stratford, Professor Trevor-Roper stated, “[d]uring his lifetime nobody claimed to know him. Not a single tribute was paid to him at his death. As far as the records go, he was uneducated, had no literary friends, possessed at his death no books, and could to write. It is true, six of his signatures have been found, all spelt differently; but they are so ill-formed that some graphologists suppose the hand to have been guided” (Ogburn 70).

Many researchers believe, with supporting evidence, that the actual playwright, whoever that may be, died in or before 1604. This is the year that the somewhat steady publication of new Shakespeare plays “mysteriously stopped.” Shake-speares Sonnets that was published in 1609 included “our ever-living Poet” on the title page (Anderson 400-405). Typically indicating that a person is deceased and to be remembered, this reference causes for major belief that the true author was dead by this time. Because Shakespeare of Stratford’s death occurred in 1616, anti-Stratfordians believe the “ever-living” reference in 1609 dismisses his authorship completely.

The 1604 problem promotes the authorship of one candidate in particular. Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford died in 1604, while other primary candidates died at a later date. However, the primary evidence used against the Oxfordian theory exists in Shakespeare’s The Temptest. Many mainstream scholars believe this piece was inspired by a description of a 1609 Bermuda shipwreck. This inspiration is debatable, so most Oxfordians disprove and dismiss the idea (Muir 280).

Another point anti-Stratfordians make is William Shakespeare of Stratford never attained a high level of education. There are no existing records of his attendance or admission to a grammar school, university or college. Mainstream scholars assume Shakespeare of Stratford to be primarily self-educated, after attending a grammar school until age fourteen; however the records of this school, The King’s School, have not survived to this day (Caldecott 10). Anti-Stratfordians battle this self-education idea with reference to his book-less will. Shakespeare’s works use a large vocabulary of about 30,000 different words and require knowledge of foreign languages, modern sciences, warfare, aristocratic sports such as tennis, statesmanship, hunting, philosophy, history, and law (Anderson). What Shakespeare called his “first heire of…invention”, the poem Venus and Adonis, is known to have been inspired by Giambattista Marino’s Adone, which was not translated to English at his time. The plays are so complex that according to Henry Stratford Caldecott, an author, editor and literary critic, says, “people have come to ask themselves not only, ‘Is it humanly possible for William Shakespeare, the country lad from Stratford-on-Avon, to have written them?’, but whether it was possible for any one man, whoever he may have been, to do so” (Caldecott 10).

Along with a possible lacking education, Shakespeare of Stratford was a part of the low class in society. Anti-Stratfordians claim that no one of his status is likely to have written plays that speak so personally of activities, travel and general life of the upper class. Orthodox, or mainstream, scholars respond with the fact that numerous English Renaissance playwrights wrote about the nobility regardless of their own unassuming place in society. Also, pointed out by Jonathan Bate in The Genius of Shakespeare, the plays contain details of lower-class life that many aristocrats may not be familiar with. Some known character in the plays, who offer comedic relief, are Falstaff, Nick Bottom, and Sir Toby Belch are of low social class (Bate).

The First Folio, published in 1623 as the first collection of Shakespeare’s plays, provides basis for significant debate among those interested in the true authorship. The engraving of Shakespere’s face that appears on the cover of this assortment of plays is generally credited to Martini Droeshout, who was only 10 years old when Shakespeare of Stratford retired and 14 when he died. The First Folio was still not published for an additional seven years after his death. These circumstances permit the debaters to believe Droeshout did not actually know Shakespeare of Stratford, and therefore, had not done the engraving (Ogburn).

Along with the plays, poems have been used as evidence for the anti-Stratfordian position. In Sonnet 76, the author in question writes, “Why write I still all one, ever the same,/ And keep invention in a noted weed,/ That every word doth almost tell my name,/ Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?” The third line in this part of the sonnet, and other lines in other sonnets hint at alternate authorship.

If Williams Shakespeare of Stratford is not the true author, who is? In 1595 the poet Thomas Edwards publishes two plays that hint at Shakespeare as an aristocrat. When he refers to the poet of Venus and Adonis, he says the one “in purple robes”, which is symbolic of nobility (Price 225). The initial direct proclamations of uncertainty in Shakespeare of Stratford’s authorship were made in the 18th century. At this time, papers and stories began to appear claiming Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author. The most popular candidates for alternate authorship are Edward de Vere and Francis Bacon.

Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford remains the most popular current-day candidate. The Oxfordian theory, claiming de Vere is the true author, was first proposed by author J. Thomas Looney in 1920, and was again researched and examined by author Charlton Ogburn in 1984. After the publication of Ogburn’s The Mysterious William Shakespeare, the Earl of Oxford became the new favored alternate. Oxfordians base their belief on comparisons between de Vere’s biography and the events in Shakespeare’s works. They also claim that de Vere’s talent as a poet, which can be analyzed in works he wrote under his own name, better reflects the complexity of the plays and sonnets (Ogburn 172-174).

Prior to Edward de Vere’s popular candidacy, Sir Francis Bacon, nominated in 1856, was the primary alternate choice of authorship of the great works. Bacon was a scientist, philosopher, diplomat, writer, historian and politician, who served as many important roles in society. Some Baconions, those who believe the Baconion theory, claim Bacon was one of three writers who collaborated to write the plays. These supporters of the theory note similarities between Shakespeare’s plays and Bacon’s notes and phrases written in his “wastebook”, the Promus. Many accounts in this book are reproduced in Shakespeare’s plays. A final piece of evidence lies in a letter written by Bacon calling himself a “concealed poet” (Michell 259-259).

Some other known candidates that aren’t as popular as de Vere and Bacon are Christopher Marlowe, a gifted playwright and poet who is said to have similar vocabulary and style to Shakespeare, and Fulke Greville, a well educated aristocrat and writer who was first proposed as a candidate in 2007. Other theories include a group of writers as the author, a woman poet, Aemelia Bassano Lanier, and some other Elizabethan English diplomats and writers. Each of these theories has less quality or quantity in their evidence.

Shakespeare, whoever that truly is, in The Rape of Lucrece said himself, “Time's glory is to calm contending kings,/ To unmask falsehood and bring truth to light.” The differing opinions on the issue interpret the same historical evidence to support their contrasting theories. While scholars debate the Stratfordian, Oxfordian, Baconian, and other theories, one ultimate fact is known: Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are famous today and will forever be known for their complexity and beauty.

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Nick DAlleva
Nick DAlleva

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