Thursday, June 10, 2010

Who Wrote Shakespeare?


William Shakespeare the man may not be one and the same with William Shakespeare the playwright. In other words, someone else may have written those plays and sonnets, using Shakespeare as a cover, and that person is the near-universally acknowledged greatest writer of the English language.

Since I’ve long been a fan of history’s mysteries and conspiracy-oriented stuff ranging from the weirdestly fringey to the commonly-accepted commonplace, I’m a little shocked I never came across this theory before. Well, I heard about it, but never explored it in any depth greater than a minute’s worth of reading. A few days ago I read a coupla pages on the “Will the real Shakespeare please stand up” theory and am intrigued. But be forewarned: I have no idea how legitimate this position is, so if I’m posting here on something truly outta left field, forgive me.

So what’s the main argument that Shakespeare did not write the plays upon which his name graces?

Well, there’s a couple of circumstantial-evidence-type clues that adherents believe, taken all together, point to an anonymous writer of the plays.

According to Shakespearean scholars, it would be tough to argue against the view that the writer of the plays would have to have understood military terms like a soldier would and naval terms like a sailor would. He would have been familiar with courtly etiquette and court mannerisms. Legal language and the machinations of legal courts appear to have come second nature to him, almost as if he was a lawyer or a legal scholar. And as far as the historical plays go, the playwright must have been fluent in Latin and Greek. Why? ’Cause many of the source materials for these works had not been translated into English yet.

Now, what do we know of Will Shakespeare? Not as much as you’d think. We do know that he had a somewhat humble, middle-class birth, the son of a glove-maker. There is no record of him attending any school. In fact, the only real, authenticated record we have of him are a bunch of commercial transactions, some familial sacramental records, and his will. Interestingly, there are no books mentioned in Shakespeare’s will. A bed, yes, but any books, which were rare and valuable and presumably owned and utilized by the Bard, no. Also, no contemporary poets or playwrights ever wrote anything commendable about the presumed greatest writer of the English language.

Why would someone have the need to publish anonymously as Shakespeare, who, by proponents of this theory, is just a moderately successful actor of somewhat average talent? For one, being a playwright was not considered a worthy occupation, at the time, for a nobleman. Nor for a variety of social, political, and even legal reasons would a highly-placed wordsmith want to make his name public. Due to the pretty much nonexistent copyright laws at the time, it would not be too difficult to disseminate works under another author’s name and even get them performed.

If not Shakespeare, then who?

Just about everyone in Elizabethan England at the time, including the Queen herself, has been proposed as a possible candidate. The most common and plausible is Sir Francis Bacon. After him, you have Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford; the poet and playwright, Christopher Marlowe; the author Sir Walter Raleigh; the poet Sir Edward Dyer; and, actually, Queen Elizabeth.

Sir Francis Bacon has the frontrunner credentials: philosopher, scientist, statesman, legal scholar, cryptographer, student of Latin, Greek, and several European languages. However, nothing in Bacon’s acknowledged writings point to anything as epically artistic and … Shakespearean. But the fact that he did create several ciphers make certain proponents foam at the mouth searching the Bard’s works for scrambled clues.

Marlowe makes an interesting candidate, being a renowned playwright and poet himself, save for one thing: he was murdered in 1593, and by 1593 only 7 of the 38 plays had been written. But here’s where the conspiracy theorists come out full-force: What if Marlowe, for reasons political and personal, faked his own death, and continued to write under nom de plume? Heh heh heh … I like that.

Bottom line: While it can’t be conclusively proven that Shakespeare wrote his plays and sonnets, it can’t be conclusively proven that he didn’t. It’s just a mystery for the ages.

And I hereby add the truism regarding any conspiracy from an unknown Shakespeare to the JFK assassination to the alleged Moon landing hoax: the more participants you have, the least likely it’s a real conspiracy. Presumably an unknown Shakespeare would have at least a handful of co-conspirators, such as a publisher, a go-between, and maybe Shakespeare himself. As the adage goes, a secret held by three or more people is a secret no more.

Literature buffs, aficionados, and professionals who wade into this debate and believe that Shakespeare is Shakespeare are called Stratfordians, after Stratford-on-Avon, Will’s place of birth. Those who take an opposing point of view fall under a variety of labels, depending mainly on who they propose as the real Shakespeare. For example, you have the Baconians, Oxfordians, the Rutlanders, the Marlovians, and the Groupies. To name the most prominent.

Until further notice, I consider myself a Stratfordian.


Howard Schumann said...

Your summary of the factors that point to someone other than the man from Stratford is very cogent, though your conclusion makes little sense in that context.

I believe that the evidence strongly points to Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford as the author of Shakespeare's plays and sonnets.

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.

Edward De Vere 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.

Ashley said...

I'm a Stratfordian, too! Check out the chapter in Bill Bryson's biography of Shakespeare -- he does a pretty good job of silencing the conspiracy theorists.

LE said...


Just when I believe all this to-do of Shakespearean authorship is nuttiness, you come along and add some blazing fuel to the fire. Very interesting and convincing. As I hoped I made clear in my post, I'm far from an expert; really just a wide-eyed beginner. You convinced me to look further into this mystery.

Thanks for your input!

LE said...


Bryson's book is actually on my list of library books to pick up this weekend! Perhaps at some point next week I'll post my thoughts on his conclusions.

I did pop over to your blog earlier and was going to ask you your thoughts on the authorship question. Now I know!

Stephanie Hopkins Hughes said...

Can’t resist a few comments.

First, Bacon does have artistic credentials, rather a lot in fact. True, they’re generally overshadowed in his biographies by his didactic works, but they’re there all right, among them the fact that he was the creator of several Court masques (the 16th-century equivalent of a Broadway musical), and the fact that, in a private letter to John Eliot in 1603, he referred to himself as a “hidden poet.” So although Bacon didn’t write the Shakespeare canon, he could easily have been the author of a number of other important works of the time that got published under other names, as has been convincingly explained by several Baconians, who basically were wrong about only one thing.

No one claims that Marlowe “faked his own death.” Marlowe was eliminated by government agents who made it seem like he was killed in a drunken brawl. Either that or he was transported out of the country and another body substituted for his to provide a corpse for the inquest. No doubt his enemies would have preferred killing him outright, but perhaps they were afraid of his friends at Court. The best book on this is Charles Nicholl’s The Reckoning. Terrific stuff for anyone who likes a genuine whodunit, though sadly Nicholl avoids the obvious conclusion.

The problem isn’t that William’s authorship hasn’t been disproven, it most certainly has, by Diana Price in An Unorthodox Biography, by myself on my blog (the six signatures alone should be proof enough), and by any number of books on the subject, which one would think a blogger would read before handing down opinions gleaned only from anti-authorship writers.

The problem is not a lack of proof, there’s tons of it. The problem is a great lack of understanding of the period, and the immense barriers we face from academics and their publishers in getting the story told.

Why not do some reading? You might start with It’s free.

LE said...


Thanks for the input. Very intriguing, I must admit. Did not know there was so much passion on both sides of this issue (I did read Bryson's chapter on the subject last night). I'll check out your link and the books you suggested. This has turned into a topic I think I'll want to revisit periodically as I become more informed.