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Did Shakespeare Really Write Shakespeare?


There is an academic minority view (held by perhaps a handful of serious scholars at any time) that somebody besides Shakespeare wrote the plays, but I don't see much evidence to support this "Renaissance conspiracy theory." Those scholars who disagree would argue that the academy has a large stake in "Will Shaxbear" and thus can't properly assess their beliefs, but I'll do my best to summarize the main arguments and offer a quick rebutal.

Though many of these arguments date back to the turn of the century, this controversy continues despite the dismissive reaction of anyone who actually studies Shakespeare professionally. The gist of the arguments is that Shakespeare was himself too low-born, too uneducated, or too unlikely a source for the play. Instead, some educated noble or Renaissance scholar wrote the plays himself (or herself), and then paid Shakespeare to claim they were his works, or invented Shakespeare as an imaginary character. Playwriting, after all, is not a suitable job for a nobleman or for a lady, so if this person wanted to write drama and have his works performed, it would be necessary to ghost-write them, according to this argument.

Argument 1: A commoner from Stratford would be unable to write good plays.

All anti-Stratfordians base their argument on the impossibility of "the man from Stratford" writing the plays due to his lack of education, his anonymity and his supposed limited knowledge of the law, the battlefield and the court. How could a mere commoner (feel the condescension dripping in the air?) ever write such works, or know about politics, or French and Italian vocabulary, or allude to Greek and Latin sources? Many point to educated Renaissance men like Sir Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford) as more likely authors. De Vere did have a degree from Oxford University and a solid grounding in the law that would explain the number of Tudor legal phrases in Shakespeare's plays. He also lived in Italy for a few months--the setting of many Shakespearean plays such as Othello and Romeo and Juliet. He served as a soldier, and he was the nephew of a literary pioneer who helped popularize the sonnet in English. Another of de Vere's uncles translated Ovid's Metamorphoses, the source of many allusions in the Shakespearean plays.

Again, this line of thinking ignores the fact that we know Shakespeare attended the Stratford Free School, where the curriculum was heavy on Greek and Latin and foreign languages. The textbooks used there covered much of the same material Shakespeare refers to. The Taming of the Shrew even contains a reference to the standard Latin grammar textbook used at the Stratford Free School. The anti-Stratfordian camp also ignores the way French and Italian grammar books were mass-printed at comparably cheap prices, and assumes that a person who has never been on a boat, or a battlefield, or in a court-room is incapable of asking other people who had been in these places for realistic details. Jonathan Bate, the author of The Genius of Shakespeare, retorts: "What is much harder to imagine is an aristocrat like Oxford reproducing the slang of the common tavern or the technicalities of glovemaking," both of which are found in Shakespeare's plays such as Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry VIII.

Other have argued from incidentals about de Vere. Edward de Vere's crest has a lion holding out a paw and shaking a spear (thus a pun on "Shakespeare"). His copy of the Geneva Bible has passages underlined in it that also appear in the Sonnets, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a Falstaffian speech. Again, these are suggestive bits of circumstantial evidence, but the evidence here is no stronger than that for Shakespeare's own punning crest (a rooster shaking a spear). For the dozen or so scriptural examples like the ones mentioned, many more biblical passages appear in Shakespeare's plays without any special annotation in de Vere's Bible.

The hardest part to swallow is that de Vere died in 1604. Shakespeare's later plays, such as The Winter's Tale, were only licensed for performance in 1610, and The Tempest was almost certainly inspired by a shipwreck off Bermuda in 1609. Shakespeare was still turning out plays in conjunction with other writers (such as The Two Noble Kinsman) as late as 1613. The Oxfordian camp argues that all these plays are misdated, meaning that about 70 or so historical documents relating to these plays have been forged, or that the Earl somehow managed to write the plays earlier, and hide them, and then give Shakespeare instructions to publish them after de Vere's death on a staggered schedule. Likewise, the Oxfordian camp must go through extraordinary--and entertaining--contortions to explain why Shakespeare's good friend and literary rival Ben Jonson eulogizes Shakespeare in an encomium in the 1623 version of the First Folio. (Again, "part of the conspiracy" is the response the Oxfordians give to any of the historical documents that link Shakespeare to his own work.)

Argument 2: A nobleman would have the education and experience to write these plays, but he would have to hide his hobby to avoid social stigma.

If nobles produced their works under their own names, they would face a certain social stigma from their peers. It's unseemly for a gentleman to dabble in entertainment for the rabble. At least that's how the argument goes. So, some aristocrat who wrote the plays must have done a cover-up, hiring this nobody from Stratford to pretend to be the author.

This line of thinking ignores the fact that King James, Queen Elizabeth, and Edward de Vere also wrote quite a bit of poetry publically, under their own names. Many Renaissance noblemen have written literature without any discernable fear of "improper" behavior. Unless anti-Stratfordian scholars can show me any historical document indicating a strong stigma against noblemen writing literature, and explain to me why so many other noblemen published works under their own names, I'm not sure this so-called stigma exists.

Most of the alternative candidates for the title "author of Shakespeare's plays" are nobles of one feather or another. Historically, Sir Francis Bacon has been the name most often mentioned in past centuries, but in recent years, anti-Stratfordians have favored Edward de Vere. This viewpoint has been particularly popular, especially since the current Earl of Oxford is a fervent supporter of the movement, and he has supplied funding to scholars who can provide evidence it was his ancestor who wrote the plays rather than Shakespeare. De Vere's popularity as a candidate may also be due to the newer crop of scholars wanting to disassociate themselves from earlier crackpot "scholars" like Ignatius Donnelly (see below).

Another problem is that we have surviving copies of de Vere's poetry. It is, as Helen Gibson describes it, "competent yet uninspired," and resembles "juvenelia" (quoted page 75 in Time, February 15, 1999). Alan H. Nelson at the University of California notes, "The Earl of Oxford was perhaps the most egotistical and self-serving person of his day in England. It would have been out of character for him to write the plays and then keep authorship a secret. Many Elizabethan noblemen wrote and published" (ibid).

Other proposed authors include Queen Elizabeth herself and Sir Walter Raleigh. In the case of Queen Elizabeth, the argument is that it is improper for a woman to write poetry, and therefore she served as a patron for Shakespeare in order to ghostwrite his works. (Again, Queen Elizabeth wrote some of her own poetry under her own name--so it seems doubtful that she was shy about her writing.)

Argument 3: Anagrams in the plays suggest someone else wrote these works.

Some arguments are based on anagrams or hidden messages in the plays. Cryptography and anagrams are especially popular with the Baconian school. Dr. Isaac Platt, by extracting certain letters from a famous line from Hamlet, "The funerall baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables," comes up with an anagram of "FR. BACONI NATI," which according to his unusual Latin means that Francis Bacon wrote the plays. Again, I don't buy it for two reasons. First, Platt's phrase would literally be translated as "Of the birth of Fr. Bacon." The more proper phrase we would expect to find as educated Latin speakers would be "FR. BACONUS ME FECIT," ("Fr. Bacon made me"), which is the conventional way of expressing creatorship of a work. The second reason I don't buy the argument is the anagram doesn't even match the words very well. And a third reason would be that, if we read enough of Shakespeare's lines from his forty or so plays, we will almost certainly stumble across an anagram by sheer statistical chance, as evidenced by the Gertrude Stein anecdote below.

Another anagrammatical argument was proposed by Ignatius Donnelly, one of the most famous of the Baconians. He used a complicated cipher to drag "More ... low ... or ... Shak'st ... spur ... never ... writ ... a ... word ... of ... them" and other similar messages out of the text of the First Folio. Most modern scholars try to distance themselves from Ignatius Donnelly--given that he relied upon techniques of uncertain scholarship to gather evidence, including mediums at seances and liberal use of ouija boards.

Maria Bauer uses an "anagramatic code" in her book Francis Bacon's Great Virginia Vault to find amazingly prescient messages scattered through the text of the plays. She writes, "In the Shakespeare works there is frequent mention of the date June 9, 1938, which marks the beginning of the collapse of the Shakespeare myth." As it turns out, this date is exactly when Bauer herself first came across evidence of the Great Virginia Vault, a mausoleum located in Virginia (not in Britain!) which she claims houses the manuscripts of all the plays and many other neat things as well dating from the 1500s. Unfortunately, these fascinating archeological relics have never been seen by anyone other than Bauer, who refused to disclose the exact location of this particular grave vault. Much excavation in graveyards in Jamestown and Williamsburg unfortunately turned up nothing to support her unusual claims.

Two other Baconian scholars, Hoffman and Delia Bacon (the greatest of the Baconians) also ended up digging in crypts and graveyards, with similarly unreproducable results.

A certain Victorian dabbler in literature, Mrs. Windle, in 1881 sent to the British museum an unsolicited manuscript called Report to the Trustees of the British Museum. She used a rather different cipher pattern to reveal the "under-reading" of Othello, which begins, (I quote): "A tale, oh! I tell, oh! / Oh dell, oh! What wail, oh! / Oh hill, oh! What willow! / What hell, oh! What will, oh! / At will, oh! At well, oh! /I dwell, oh!" She claims this is "suggestive of the spirit presence of the [true] author." The "To the Reader" poem which fronts the First Folio is a favorite target of such investigations; one critic discovered that by highlighting and rearranging the so-called significant letters in the poem one gets "Franciscus St. Albanus."

Unfortunately, another more recent observer has found that by pulling out different "significant" letters you can get "Gertrude Stein writ this Great Work of Literature." (Which again, goes to show you that if you look at enough lines and try to "decode" them, you can find almost any result you want.)

Argument 4: Political Coverup?

Another argument is that a nobleman wrote the plays, but for a different reason from shame at dabbling in common art. According to this argument, the plays were meant to be read as political commentary, with each character corresponding on a one-to-one basis with real political figures. The nobleman-playwright (be it Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Walter Raleigh, or whoever) had to hide his identity so that the writer could denounce the current regime or certain political enemies without direct backlash. Thus, Hamlet's dying order to Horatio, "tell my story," takes on incredible significance if you know that Horatio is the false Shakespeare and Hamlet is the true one--be he Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth, Marlowe, or whoever. Thomas Looney's main argument in 1920 for Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, is that Oxford was the closest approximation to a royal prince at the time; he is therefore Hamlet, and thus Shakespeare as well. Similarly, Henry Pemberton argues that Shakespeare is really Walter Raleigh, as Hamlet's line describing Claudius as "Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!" could only be spoken by someone who hated the current king as much as Raleigh did.

Such identification of the main character of a play with Shakespeare himself is normally considered unwise in modern literary theory, but it was a very popular practice in the nineteenth century. The problem is these interpretations are often based on a single line in one play or another. It's as if Faulkner made a passing comment on life in New York, and suddenly a gaggle of scholars spring forth claiming Faulkner must not have truly written his own works--it must be a New York writer pretending to be a southerner because no southerner would ever mention events in New York City.

Argument 5: Other arguments that are just plain strange--practical jokes and homosexual liasons.

If Shakespeare did not write his plays, and someone else did secretly, that deception must have a motive behind it. The intricate stories devised to explain why the imposture took place are bizarre. Wallace Cunningham, author of The Tragedy of Francis Bacon, Prince of England (1940), demonstrates that Shakespeare's plays were written by a group of about twenty famous writers (all Freemasons, incidentally), including Ben Jonson, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and Edmund Spenser. They called themselves "The Wild Goose Club" and would meet for dinner once a month at a particular inn where William Shakespeare was their usual waiter. Shakespeare's plays were thus all an elaborate practical joke designed by the nefarious secret society on some unfathomable lark requiring over twenty years of collective labor (labor which continued somehow to produce plays long after the deaths of the purported perpetrators of the hoax, apparently).

Calvin Hoffman, in The Murder of the Man who was "Shakespeare," argues that Christopher Marlowe did not die in a knife fight in 1593 (as listed in historical records). The whole affair was a hoax created by Marlowe's alleged homosexual lover, Thomas Walsingham (who is somehow equivalent to the "Mr. W. H." to whom the sonnets are dedicated), who thought that Marlowe was likely to be executed for atheism. Once believed dead, Marlowe could assume the nom de plume of "Shakespeare" and keep writing while he was hidden away on Walsingham's estate in a secret love-shack. Hoffman based his argument in part on a study that determined the average word length used by Bacon, Shakespeare, Marlowe and a bunch of other people. This was accomplished by counting the letters in over two million words in their writings. His shocking discovery? Both Shakespeare and Marlowe averaged exactly four letters per word, which he suggests is an extraordinary result. (Incidentally, the average length of words generally in common English writing is about 4.2 letters--you and I probably average about four letters per word in our writings, much like Shakespeare, which is why I have hard time taking this argument seriously.)

More recently, Joseph Sobran in his 1997 book, Alias Shakespeare, argued that de Vere wrote all the sonnets as part of a homosexual wooing of the Earl of Southampton, all hidden within the guise of courting her daughter. How this explains the plays, however, is not accounted for satisfactorily.

The popular film Anonymous, set for release on October 28th and which revolves around a conspiracy in Shakespearean authorship, will no doubt stir up discussion again, even though no new evidence in the last ten years has appeared to bolster the claims of anti-Stratfordians.

Argument 6: The academy is covering up the truth!

The anti-Stratfordians argue that those who mock their beliefs are largely motivated by professional investments. The academy refuses to listen to arguments because traditional scholars have a huge financial stake in printing Shakespeare books, holding tenured positions, and maintaining intellectual prestige, which would all be lost if someone proved Shakespeare was not the author. Thus, Shakespearean scholars in orthodox institutions become narrow-minded and protective of their territory. This coverup has been dubbed "bardgate" by Peter Dickson, a CIA official turned amateur revisionist Elizabethan scholar. Let me assure you, if I or any other young ambitious scholar had convincing evidence that Shakespeare didn't write his own works, you can bet we would have a financial motivation to publish it! It would make our academic careers! The one who revealed the hidden truth would be as revolutionary in literary studies as Einstein was in physics! The problem is this evidence just doesn't exist as far as I can tell, and those who claim Shakespeare wasn't the author haven't produced any particularly convincing evidence--merely conjectures of conspiracies and occasional circumstantial connections that look forced or coincidental to my eyes. Such weak evidence logically must fall before Occam's Razor.

I agree with Peter Dickson that much of Shakespeare's plays and poems contains passages that are mysterious and inexplicable. But that seems to me to be insufficient evidence that he didn't write the plays himself.

For more information from folks who disagree with me, you can look at Shakespeare - Earl of Oxford? This site explores the two-centuries old Shakespeare authorship debate. The purpose of the Society is to document and establish Edward de Vere as the universally recognized author of the works of William Shakespeare, so their website is diametrically opposed to my own argument. Read it, and weigh the evidence yourself.


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