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Much Ado About Nothing? Examining the Shakespeare Authorship Debate

Eric Altschuler, a physicist and medical student, believes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote all the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. Part of his reasoning? In Hamlet, a character sees a “bright star” over the skies of Denmark on a November evening. According to Altschuler, this refers to a supernova that appeared in November 1572. The Shakespeare from Stratford was just eight years old. Oxford was 22. So, unless Shakespeare remembered this childhood event, which Altschuler thinks unlikely, it’s obvious that Oxford was the author.

If this seems a bit, well, trite – must an author witness a supernova to write about a bright star? – such is the stuff of which the Shakespeare authorship debate is made.

The Players

Broadly speaking, the debate is split between two camps: the Stratfordians and the anti-Stratfordians. Stratfordians believe that the William Shakespeare born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564 wrote all the plays and poems normally attributed to William Shakespeare. Anti-Stratfordians believe that someone else wrote the plays and used Shakespeare’s name as a pseudonym or front. In 1785, Reverend James Wilmot, rector of Barton-on-the-Heath, was the first to formally doubt the Stratford man’s authorship, and the debate has raged ever since. Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Charlie Chaplin, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry James, Malcolm X, Orson Welles, Walt Whitman, former Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and current Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens are some of the more notable anti-Stratfordians.

A total of fifty-seven candidates have been nominated for this envious role, including Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and even Queen Elizabeth herself. The most popular alternative now, though, appears to be Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. His supporters, called Oxfordians, are a vocal and persistent bunch; Thomas Looney first nominated Oxford in a 1920 book called Shakespeare. For the sake of simplicity and brevity, this paper will deal with the Oxfordian arguments.

The Theme

The Shakespeare authorship debate follows a fairly reliable pattern: Oxfordians make a claim and the Stratfordians dispute it. Functionally speaking, it has to be this way, since Oxfordians are challenging the dominant, established position (more on this in the conclusion) held by the Stratfordians.

As the debate continues, a recurring theme emerges. Oxfordians propose theories that sound very reasonable and persuasive to modern ears. Stratfordians, in response to these arguments, place them in the proper historical context to determine their validity. This will becomes clear as the arguments are examined.

Illiterate Country Bumpkin?

Oxfordians make much of the fact that there is no evidence that Shakespeare attended the Stratford Grammar School. Furthermore, it is an established fact that Shakespeare never attended a university. How could an uneducated man, they ask, produce such brilliant work? Not only that, but Shakespeare’s father was illiterate, as were two of Shakespeare’s own daughters. Would a genius of the English language come from a family of illiterates? Finally, the six documented Shakespeare signatures are a scrawled, nearly illegible mess. Add it all up, say the Oxfordians, and William Shakespeare was an uneducated, illiterate boob.

These arguments make sense, and are quite compelling, especially to people who are unfamiliar with Elizabethan society. Stratfordians realize this and frame their answers accordingly.

First, the schooling. Stratfordians readily concede the lack of evidence for Shakespeare’s attendance at the Stratford Grammar School. However, they gleefully point out that there are no records of any student at the Stratford school before 1700 – the records don’t exist. In fact, there is no evidence of schooling for many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson, John Webster, Thomas Decker, Michael Drayton (who translated Homer), Cyril Tourneur, and so on (Stratfordians slyly point out that Oxfordians do not question the education bona fides of these individuals). It turns out that the lack of documented education is quite common.

Stratfordians then examine the education of those who grew up with Shakespeare in Stratford. Many of them went on to university or became members of the clergy. These childhood contemporaries came from similar social surroundings as Shakespeare, yet obviously received a good education. There is no reason to think that Shakespeare should be different. His father, though he was indeed illiterate, was elected mayor of Stratford, so he certainly was in a position to send his son to a fine school.

Secondly, the signatures. To modern eyes, and even modern forensic experts, they indeed appear forced, or labored, indicating an uneducated hand. However, during Shakespeare’s time, handwriting was shifting from the older style, or Secretary, to the precursor of the modern style, Italic. Modern students can easily read Italic, but not Secretary. Shakespeare wrote in the Secretary style, which explains why it appears illegible. Besides, say Stratfordians, do we assume that doctors are illiterate because we cannot read their signatures on our prescriptions?

Finally, Stratfordians admit that Shakespeare’s daughters probably could not read and write. Unfortunately, though, illiteracy among women was not uncommon at the time.

Actor and Playwright?

Oxfordians charge that there is no evidence that the William Shakespeare from Stratford physically penned the plays. They even refute that he was an actor in the royal court. For example, Charlton Ogburn, a prominent Oxfordian, cited the diary of Philip Henslowe, a theater manager and builder of several playhouses. His diary lists several playwrights and actors, but not Shakespeare.

The Oxfordian case rests on especially shaky ground here. First of all, there is ample evidence that Shakespeare performed in an acting company variously called Lord Chamberlain’s Man, Lord Hundson’s Men, and the King’s Men:

  • A receipt of payment from the Royal Treasury paid "William Kempe William Shakespeare & Richard Burbage servants to the Lord Chamberleyne" for court performances.
  • A document licensing the King's Men lists Shakespeare as an actor.
  • Ben Jonson's folio Works names Shakespeare as a performer in Jonson's 1598 play Every Man in his Humor.
  • Shakespeare's name appears in the cast list of another Jonson play, Sejanus, which was performed in 1603.

Henslowe’s diary isn’t quite as comprehensive a list of playwrights as Ogburn asserts. For example, prominent actors Richard Burbage, Henry Condell, and John Heminge do not appear. Nor do playwrights Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, Robert Greene or George Peele. Indeed, as Irwin Matus writes in the Atlantic Monthly (1991), “no player or playwright is named in the Diary before 1596, which certainly explains the absence of Shakespeare: by then Shakespeare was a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s company, which had no association with Henslowe or his playhouse. No wonder we don’t find him in the Diary.”

But did Shakespeare write the plays? Just because he is listed as the author, say Oxfordians, doesn’t mean he was the author.

In response, Stratfordians turn to contemporary documents of the times, and even some poetry:

  • In 1598, Francis Meres published Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury, in which he identifies Shakespeare as the author of twelve plays, including King John, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry IV. He describes Oxford as a writer of comedies in the same paragraph with Shakespeare, which he would unlikely do if the two were one and the same.
  • In a 1610 poem, John Davies calls Shakespeare “our English Terence.” Terence was a Roman playwright “who came from humble origins, just like Shakespeare.” Davies also refers to Shakespeare in the present tense. Since Oxford died in 1604, Davis, presumably, would have used the past tense if Oxford were really Shakespeare.
  • In a list of “our moderne, and present excellent Poets” published in John Stow’s Annales, Edmund Howes lists “M. Willi. Shakespeare gentleman.” Shakespeare had earned the title of gentleman when his father was granted a coat of arms in 1596.
  • William Basse argues that Shakespeare should have been buried in Westminster Abbey in a poem called “On Mr. William Shakespeare, he died in April 1616.” Again, Oxford died in 1604.
  • In a poem called “To the memory of my beloved, The Author Mr. William Shakespeare,” Ben Jonson writes:
Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James!

Jonson here connects Shakespeare with Stratford-on-Avon. Oxfordians claim that he also could be referring to their man, since Oxford inherited an estate on the Avon River. However, Oxford sold the estate in 1580, 43 years before Jonson wrote his poem, and there’s no indication that he ever went there.

Oxfordians commit a serious error when they state there is no evidence that the Stratford man wrote the plays, since it enables Stratfordians to unleash a slew of documentary evidence showing the exact opposite. But what case do Oxfordians make for their own candidate?

The Case for Oxford

Oxford was born into the nobility and enrolled at Cambridge University at the young age of eight. Both his father and grandfather managed acting companies, and one of his uncles, Henry Howard, was the first Englishman to write in the Shakespearean sonnet form. Another uncle, Arthur Golding, was Oxford’s tutor, and translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which many have described as Shakespeare’s favorite book.

Oxford became a royal ward of the court at age 12 when his father died. William Cecil, Lord Burghley, became his guardian and later father-in-law, and Oxford spent the rest of his life in the inner circle of the Queen’s court. He traveled extensively, journeying to Italy, France, and Germany, and wrote poetry and comedies. He studied law for three years.

These facts are important to Oxfordians because they claim that Shakespeare lacked the education necessary to write the plays, while Oxford had the education. The plays describe the inner life of royal courts, geographical details of Italy and Venice (in The Merchant of Venice) and intricacies of the law. The uneducated Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have known this information. It wasn’t a problem for Oxford.

But why pick the name Shakespeare? Oxfordians don’t agree on the answer. Some claim that Oxford and Shakespeare met in London after Shakespeare tried and failed as an actor. Oxford offered to pay him to pose as the real author of his plays, and the broke, desperate Stratford boob agreed. Others contend that Pallas Athena, who was the patron goddess of Athens (which happened to be the birthplace of the theater), was also known as Hasti-Vibrans, or the spear-shaker, and this inspired Oxford to conjure up the name Shakespeare. In this scenario, Oxford doesn’t even know a real Shakespeare exists. Another theory: The Bulbeck crest of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, shows a lion shaking a broken spear.

But this begs the question: Why did Oxford feel the need to keep silent? What was the big deal?

At the time, playwrights were considered middle class and writing plays was simply not a proper pursuit for a prominent nobleman like Oxford. Furthermore, the plays were such vicious satires of royalty that publishing them under his own name could lead to charges of treason.

The main thrust of the Oxfordian case, though, is one of biography. Oxfordians believe that the plays, particularly Hamlet, and the sonnets are an autobiography of Oxford, a mirror image of his life and a vehicle to express his frustration at forced anonymity. For example, it was proposed as far back as 1869 that Polonius, the adviser to the king in Hamlet, is based on Lord Burghley. In his 1991 Atlantic Monthly article, Tom Bethell outlines additional similarities between Hamlet (the character) and Oxford’s life:

  • Oxford felt that his wife was unfaithful to him while he was in Europe, and even doubted that he was the father of their first child. Hamlet tells Polonius: “Conception is a blessing, but not as your daughter may conceive.”
  • Oxford and Hamlet were scholars, athletes, poets, and patrons of play-acting companies.
  • Polonius sends out Reynaldo to spy on Laertes in Paris, to catch him “drinking, fencing, swearing, quarelling,” or “falling out at tennis.” Lord Burghley once sent Thomas Cecil, his son, to Paris, and mysteriously received information about Thomas’ gambling, raising suspicions of a Burghley-employed spy. Additionally, Oxford had a “falling out at tennis” with Sir Philip Sidney.
  • Oxford stabbed a servant of Burghley’s (possibly another of Burghley’s spies) and “Polonius is stabbed by Hamlet while spying on him.”
  • Horatio is Hamlet’s “trusted” friend. Horace Vere, called “Horatio” in some documents, was Oxford’s “most trusted relative.”

Oxfordians next turn to the sonnets, and while space does not permit a full examination here, one line from Sonnet 76 serves as a representative example of the Oxfordian argument:

“That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed.”

How do Stratfordians respond to all this? Quite predictably, they note that it is all speculation and conjecture, nothing more than a futile attempt to dredge up any information about Oxford and manipulate it until it fits with Shakespeare. In fact, the “case for Oxford demonstrates once again that in the thousands of works on Shakespeare and his plays, something can be found to support any notion.”

Stratfordians are amazed when Oxfordians claim that Shakespeare didn’t have the knowledge to write about court life, especially because he was an actor in the royal court. Besides, surely he had sources of information, as all writers do.

Stratfordians concede that it wasn’t proper for noblemen to write plays, but that doesn’t prove that Oxford wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Great writers have used pseudonyms, but very few, if any, have used the name of an actual, living person.

As for Hamlet, Stratfordians reject the parallels with Oxford and instead cite Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy as the likely source. Kyd’s work includes “a ghost, a play-within-a-play used for an ulterior motive at court, a hero who reproaches himself for delay and considers suicide, a woman whose love is opposed by her father and brother, a woman who goes mad and kills herself, and an avenger and his intended victim who have a public reconciliation before an ultimately tragic end,” all critical elements of Hamlet.

Finally, Stratfordians counter Sonnet 76 (which requires an “Oxfordian decoder to find a secret message”) with Sonnet 135:

“Whoever hath her wish, thou has thy will,
And will to boot, and will in over-plus.”

And the last two lines:

“Let no unkind no fair beseechers kill;
Think all but one, and me in that one will.

Conclusion

In examining the Shakespeare authorship debate, one thing becomes clear: Oxfordians seemingly do not realize that they are up against 300 years of established, entrenched opinion (or fact, as Stratfordians would claim). Like the prosecution in a criminal trial, the burden of proof falls squarely on them to overturn the widely held belief that Shakespeare indeed wrote Shakespeare. They must do better than spear-shaking goddesses.

That is not to say that the Oxfordian case lacks merit. It is a legitimate challenge, or Stratfordians wouldn’t expend so much energy refuting it. And although the debate has its moments of silliness, it has produced a fair amount of valuable scholarship. Oxfordian charges force Stratfordians to respond (which they always seem to do) with well-reasoned, well-documented arguments. This may turn out to be the greatest irony of all, since this ultimately reinforces the Stratfordian position.

So, is the Shakespeare authorship debate much ado about nothing? Not for now, perhaps, but sometime in the future, the weight of history will prove too heavy to bear, and will come to rest beside the “Sweet Swan of Avon.”

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