The Shakespeare Authorship Question

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"What's in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet".

Here Juliet is suggesting that the names of things are insubstantial and shouldn't affect how we view those things. I (and, I hope, you) love Shakespeare and his works, but whether in fact the Shakespeare of Straford authored them should not really matter - or should it?

Depending on your point-of-view and inclinations, this topic could fall under the category of 'weird things I found on the internet' or be considered a rather fascinating intellectual parlour game. Some academics do dispute that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works attributed to him. Known as 'Anti-Stratfordians', they believe somebody else, or a combination of others, wrote the ballads, plays and sonnets.

Personally, I come down on the side of conventional wisdom in this matter, i.e. the Stratfordian Argument, which is that Shakespeare of Stratford was the author. This is by default: I remain unconvinced by the arguments put forward by the Anti-Stratfordians. It's not a comfortable position for me: I tend to me attitudinally contrarian and do feel a strong pull to the Anti-Stratfordians, but I am unconvinced by the evidence put forward. I admit, though, there may also be an emotional factor in my positon: I love the idea of Shakespeare as provincial playwright, especially in the context of that historical period.

To help you begin to think about the subject for yourself, and maybe make up your own mind, included below is a thorough video series on the topic (the speaker approaches the subject from an Anti-Stratfordian point-of-view, but does so reasonably and thoughtfully).

Some people take all this very seriously. A case in point is a 2014 debate below on the controversy at the Central London Debating Society, 'Does The Authorship Question Matter?'. Only one of the participants argued in the spirit of Juliet, that it does not, which sort of renders redundant the question posed in the debate - but it's an interesting debate anyway.

Why might all this matter?

The Idea of Shakespeare

For me, Shakespeare embodies the hilarious clichè of the author that every educated person claims to admire but hardly anybody has read. Most people fake their way through Shakespeare. His work is very difficult to understand, partly because his plays were designed for performance, not sedentary reading. Shakespeare is not meant to be read in the sense that we understand reading, say, a novel or a modern theatre play. That doesn't, and shouldn't, stop us reading Shakespeare, but it does make it more difficult unless there are also opportunities for performance.

The only statistics I could find on the web relating to people reading Shakespeare suggest that he is one of the most widely-read authors in the English language, but it's difficult to imagine Shakespeare's works as page-turners. He may technically be a best-selling author, but that's because the 'educated' and 'cultured' part of the population like to keep up appearances. They don't read any Shakespeare beyond their school years - and even then it was the teacher reading it - but they pretend to like him, while not understanding his work at all.

There is, concomitantly, a fashionable view now that anyone can understand Shakespearean literature, which I don't think is true and is perhaps a view that serves the purposes of people who don't want to encourage a serious understanding of literature in any form: in other words, people who favour dumbing-down. It is, I would suggest, easier to dumb something down in an organised way when most of the decision-makers do not themselves understand the relevant material - and in the majority of cases, haven't even read it - while persisting with the pretence that they do and have.

I, for one, am happy to admit that, though I have read most of his output, I largely do not understand Shakespeare. I am a mere mortal, though in fairness it's an area that requires time and dedicated study, resources that are in short supply nowadays. But that, in a sense, is why I find Shakespeare so intriguing and exciting. I think it is important to admit a lack of understanding - ignorance can be the key to ultimate true understanding.

My lack of understanding partly explains my interest in the Anti-Stratfordians and my relative open-mindedness on the issue. I think it should be easier for us all to understand Shakespeare. He was a great playwright, but there is no need for us to worship him or treat him akin to a towering literary deity (a phenomenon known as 'Bardolatry'). It occurs to me that the reason Shakespeare is so mystified and obscured is because a lack of understanding serves the purposes of some people. Which is not to suggest that Shakespearean literary obscurantism is a conscious plot, rather that there may be an unconscious and unspoken 'conspiracy' to guard and close-off popular understanding. In that sense, the Anti-Stratfordians could conceivably be cast as the populists in this drama, but they are also close to what I think is the root of the problem: the education system and academia, and possibly a dearth in Shakespeare studies of the type of critical attitudes that might give Shakespeare's work the historical and political context it badly needs if we are to understand.

The misleading conventional idea of a supreme wordsmith as a humble provincial playwright is romantic and appealing, but also perhaps dangerous in that it lends itself to this innocent but unreal image of Shakespeare as a sort of other-wordly Elizabethan hippie shrouded in arcane language and mystification. The impression given is that we don't need to seriously examine the meanings and motives behind what he wrote. The 'Political Shakespeare' is largely non-existent.

So maybe the Anti-Stratfordians have a point: we should look at Shakespeare more critically, both the works and also the person behind them, whoever that may really be. The difficulty in all this of course is the legal one: proof.

Hamlet said:

I'll have grounds
More relative than this - the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King.

Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately, depending on your sense of juridical scruple), we can't organise a dramatic play-trial to 'catch the King'. Without that or similar 'proof', all we're left with is academic shadow boxing of the kind seen in the video above - a kind of dark conspiracy tale worthy of Shakespeare's later plays of the Jacobean period.

Some possible reasons and motivations for Anti-Stratfordianism

What follows is very much summary in nature. I don't pretend to provide an exhaustive treatment of the subject, however I have found that the following five reasons and motivations form a common thread running through most Anti-Strafordian thinking, some of it academic and scholarly in nature, some of it more psychological.

(i). Elitism

As you will see from the table of links below, the Anti-Stratfordians have different allegiances and come in different stripes, but one attribute that seems to unite all of them is elitism. Shakespeare's body of work demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of law and the workings of the Royal court, and there is a pervading belief that someone from an uneducated, rural background in those times could not possibly have been responsible for the ballads, plays, and sonnets attributed to 'Shakespeare'.

I should stress I don't use the term 'elitism' here in any pejorative sense. In fact, I find nothing wrong with being an elitist, especially (appropriately enough) when it comes to elite literature, but when it comes to the authorship question specifically, I don't find generic elitist approaches at all convincing. If we begin from the assumption that Shakespeare was a talented and connected playwright (which is not an unreasonable assumption), then it is likely he would have amassed the necessary knowledge to write his plays. It is also well-known that Shakespeare drew a great amount of inspiration from published sources and pre-existing plays and histories. Shakespeare was a plagiarist [in a nice sort of way!].

The irresistible (though perhaps unfair) conclusion is that academics, being formally educated and qualified people, might have a need to tear down the achievements of an accomplished writer who had the temerity to achieve renown without having attended university and without a qualification to his name. There is a misguided tendency now to think that formal education is the be-all and end-all, which is unfortunate for society, but more pertinently, there is a propensity among academics to adopt a tunnel-vision perspective and believe that literary and scholarly achievement must be accompanied axiomatically by some kind of formal 'education'. The notion that the greatest playwright in history might not have been an especially educated man - even pointedly uneducated - is rather outside the ken of those schooled in our modern halls of learning.

The conspicuous lack of any 'authorship question' concerning other writers of that period from humble origins, such as John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont, also - in my view - lends credence to elitism as a possible under-current in attacks on Shakespeare.

(ii). Historical vacuum

Relatively little is known about Shakespeare the man, which must be frustrating for scholars given his significance. Whereas we do know quite a bit about Anti-Stratfordian candidates for authorship like Edward De Vere and Sir Francis Bacon. The distance of time also affords an opportunity for creative licence and wish-thinking, and there may be a tendency to 'fill in the blanks' and perhaps infer things about Shakespeare's life and that of the other candidates that just cannot be known one way or the other.

History is like a bad detective story, where the detective has to make things up. It's a truism that historical evidence can be twisted and moulded to suit a particular argument, normally with a present-day cause or goal in mind, so that virtually any contention can be supported, however outlandish.

A related point is that for some people, the relative historical anonymity of Shakespeare also lends credence to the belief that he was a rather unlikely individual to have written these famous plays, ballads and sonnets.

(iii). The Thirst For Explication

This is my own hack phrasing, but what I call a 'thirst for explication' is often an unspoken feature of Anti-Stradfordian argument. This is closely-related to point (ii) above. Academics and scholars are people like anybody else and people need to understand and explain things. History must be an intensely frustrating subject because you are trying to understand a completely foreign country: the past. What's worse is that you can't actually travel to this country, you can only look at the evidence that survives: be it forensic, archaeological, documentary or architectural. None of this gives you a true window into the minds of the people who were there, though it can provide strong clues. Unless you are a modern or contemporary historian, you cannot write history experientially. So there's a lot of speculation involved: which, really, is just educated guesswork. This allows a great deal of scope for scholarly interpretation (a posh academic phrase for making things up) and the 'filling in the blanks' tendency, which is often more about introjecting a contemporary agenda into things that happened in the past, something that's often done unconsciously.

It's also important to understand that both conventional wisdom and controversy can be propped-up by scholarly vanity. It's better for a professional or academic historian to either reaffirm conventional guesswork or start a new guessing game rather than simply admit: "We just don't know." People are simple-minded: admitting you don't know or don't understand something might prompt unfair questions about your expertise when, if anything, it should reaffirm your credentials as a scholar. It's also boring to admit you don't know.

(iv). A Liking For Controversy

People just like a good argument - controversy and debate can liven up a dry subject, and Shakespeare can be quite dry in an academic context. Controversy works as a pull even if the supposed controversy is actually ridiculous. The sheen of legitimate, well-founded doubt about Shakespearean provenance has to be thin, but the whole thing has become an academic cottage industry for enthusiasts and has taken on the nature of an ideological battle with different scholars taking definite sides and adopting differing schools of Anti-Stratfordianism.

(v). Relentless Deconstruction

Among contemporary intellectuals especially there does seem to be a wish to deconstruct everything. In the context of the present subject, the starting-point for explaining this tendency towards literary deconstruction might be the lack of any serious analysis of Shakespeare. The perception might have arisen among some academics and scholars that Shakespeare the mythic, unanalysed writer is part of the Establishment. This in turn might have encouraged a tendency to want to deconstruct everything about him and, ultimately, pull down the Mythic Shakespeare to reveal 'the truth'. The desire to seek 'the truth' is of course healthy, even if the belief in the existence of a 'truth' is a touch naive.

A more prosaic explanation for the deconstruction tendency might be that some academics are so devoted to the values and ethics of scholarship that they want to question everything and feel the need to demand evidence for the authenticity of Shakespeare as author of this body of work. Maybe there's also an element of the unfortunate British cultural tendency to belittle and drag-down high achievers, which could be an especially potent motivation if it comes with the possibility for some individual(s) of some personal limelight for discovering any basis for 'doubt' about Shakespeare as author.

In other cases, there might be a social agenda behind the deconstruction. I've noticed that most Anti-Stratfordians seem to be Americans, and indeed Anti-Stratfordian perspectives even have official status in a few American educational institutions, to the extent that students are taught that Shakespeare of Statford is not the author of the relevant works and some other candidate is identified as the author: normally Edward De Vere. This American interest in deconstructing Shakespeare might just be an off-shoot of the well-known, traditional admiration for Shakespeare among literate Americans, but it may also be a mirror of the British tendency to humble and belittle achievers and might reflect a subconscious antipathy towards England and a wish to pull down one of our literary heroes.

It began as a joke

In 1848, Samuel Mosheim Schmucker, a Lutheran from Pennsylvania, wrote a parody entitled Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare: Illustrating Infidel Objections Against the Bible, which argued that just as documentary sources could be used to cast doubt on the existence of Christ, so the same approach could be adopted to prove that Shakespeare never existed.

Schumcker's book included many of the themes discussed above: problems caused by a historical vaccum, distrust of the Establishment, and the unlikelihood of Shakespeare as the playwright.

Links to detailed analysis and commentary from Anti-Stratfordians

The links under each candidate are provided in no particular order of priority or importance. This is by no means exhaustive. Other candidates have been suggested, and some even believe 'Shakespeare' was a group of authors, but the following provides you with a starting point for delving further into the subject.

Edward De Vere (supporters are known as 'Oxfordians') Francis Bacon (supporters are known as 'Baconians') Christopher Marlowe (supporters are known as 'Marlovians')
Shakespeare Authorship Controversy page at Big-Lies.Org
The Shakespeare Oxford Society
The Oxfreudian
Authorship Analysis
Summary of Baconian Evidence
Francis Bacon Society
George Fabyan Collection
Is Shakespeare Dead? [Book by Mark Twain]
The International Marlowe-Shakespeare Society
The Marlowe Studies
It was Marlowe: A story of the secret of three centuries

2011 film on the authorship question

A Roland Emmerich-directed film was released in 2011, Anonymous, which advances the Oxfordian thesis. It's pretty good and I recommend you view it. Here's a trailer:

The academic response

Here's an authoritative academic response to the film from two experts who maintain the Statfordian view, Professor Stanley Wells and Professor Carol Rutter. I still have Wells' Complete Works of Shakespeare, which I bought when very young - a huge, breeze block-sized book which I pored over (but understood very little of) and that was my introduction to Shakespeare. I've also noticed that Wells writes a lot of the introductions and commentaries in single-volume editions of the plays - my point being he's an established 'face' in the field and clearly knows his stuff. This is actually one of the best videos online about the authorship question.

And to conclude.....A nice sonnet I like of Shakespeare's, on love and identity

Sonnet 71

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Then you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world, with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it; for I love you so
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O, if, I say, you look upon this verse
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse.
But let your love even with my life decay,
Lest the wise world should look into your moan
And mock you with me after I am gone.

I think that sonnet (and possibly Sonnet 72 as well) might be fodder for Anti-Stratfordians - but then, they seem to find 'clues' in everything. I prefer to look on it more innocently. I think Shakespeare was right about identity, but wrong about love. We should remember him.

© June 2015 Tom Rogers

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