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  Who Was ‘Shakespeare’?

Despite much supposition to the contrary, there is no evidence that William Shakspere (as he was known) of Stratford upon Avon wrote the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare.

Evidence - Existing and Lacking

When William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon died in 1616 there was no public mourning in London. There were neither tributes nor eulogies from leading writers. Shakspere’s parents were illiterate. So too were his daughters. There is no evidence that he attended Stratford Grammar School. No evidence suggests that he was a writer. His will mentions no books - not even a Bible.

William Shakspere of Stratford

1.      may not have gone to school and definitely went neither to university nor the Inns of Court;

2.      was not demonstrably able to write more than his own name and (in the few surviving instances) had apparent difficulty doing that;

3.      did not educate his own children;

4.      had no demonstrable source of knowledge about Italy or the remainder of continental Europe;

5.      had no demonstrable association with the Earl of Southampton;

6.     left no surviving evidence that he ever owned or had access to a book;

7.    did not contribute or receive (in his supposed productive literary lifetime) a single line of dedicatory verse;

8.     left no letters or manuscripts in his own hand;

9.   was unmentioned as a writer by his son-in-law Dr. John Hall in his diaries;

10.    had no documented association with John Lyly, Anthony Munday, Christopher Marlowe, Edmund Spenser or any other literary figure of the Elizabethan or Jacobean periods, with the possible exception of Ben Jonson.

The only two extant “Shakespeare” play manuscripts of the 16th century are in the handwriting of Henry Peacham and (mostly) Anthony Munday. No evidence connects these individuals with Shakspere of Stratford. Munday was a servant of the Earl of Oxford and Peacham lists Oxford as first among the writers of the Elizabethan reign (while failing to mention Shakespeare at all) in his 1622 volume The Compleat Gentleman.

The documentary evidence concerning the life of William Shakspere of Stratford consists primarily of property dealings, money lending and squalid legal matters. In 1598 he was legally charged and fined for hoarding malt during a famine. In 1614 he attempted to grab common land through enclosures. Wealthy as he was, in the same year he took money off a visiting preacher in return for the wine that he had served. This man of Stratford, we are asked to believe, was one of the authors with the greatest insight into the human condition, with twice the vocabulary of John Milton.

Scepticism and Snobbery

The conventional, Stratfordian view has been questioned by Charles Dickens, Benjamin Disraeli, Mark Twain, Charles Chaplin, Walt Whitman, Henry James, William James, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Enoch Powell, Joan Robinson, and many others, including the living actors Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons and Michael York.

Anyone who takes evidence seriously should question whether William Shakspere of Stratford wrote the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare. Determining who did write them is much more difficult. Candidates such as Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford have been proposed. No case is proven.

For an article by Joan Robinson, the famous British economist, on the Shakespeare authorship question click HERE. Robinson believed that Oxford was the most likely candidate. J. Thomas Looney was the first to propose that Oxford was Shakespeare. For a letter from J. Thomas Looney to Joan Robinson click HERE.

All but one of the 37 Shakespeare plays are set in courtly or wealthy society, and several of them in Italy. Oxford visited Italy and was a member of the aristocracy.

The idea that Oxford was Shakespeare is often dismissed as mere “snobbery”. It is repeatly alleged that only snobs could question the notion that an intelligent country lad could become the world’s greatest dramatist, and be inclined to favour an aristocrat in his stead.

In response, even if it were motivated by “snobbery” that does not make the idea incorrect. Lots of English snobs revere opera or the English countryside. Does that mean that we must regard the objects of their opinion as unappealing? If we justifiably uphold that Lord Kelvin was a great Victorian scientist, does that make us snobs too? No. Factual propositions must be judged on the evidence, not on the imputed (or actual) motivations or prejudices of their advocates.

The Choice

The Stratford versus Oxford choice is not between a mere aristocrat and a plucky and intelligent Warwickshire son. It is between

(a) the Earl of Oxford (who travelled to Italy and whose literary skills were openly admired at the time) and

(b) a successfully wealth-seeking country capitalist of dubious moral sophistication and unmentioned literary associations.

To repeat: no case has been proved. But one does not have to complete such a proof in order to doubt the Stratfordian presumption. The lack of evidence on the Stratfordian side should put every serious thinker into a state of uncertainty and lead him or her to consider possible alternatives.

Alas, however, the conventional view prevails simply because it is the conventional view. Good teachers train their students to back their arguments with evidence. The same norms should be applied to the Shakespeare authorship problem.


Anonymous

The 2011 fim Anonymous conjectures that Queen Elizabeth I had one or more bastard sons. This "Prince Tudor Theory" has been around for some time. If true, it would explain some curious events before and after the Queen's death and provide a reason for De Vere to fail to claim authorship for the plays. Unfortunately, this racy theory has no clear or direct evidence to support it. But when dramatising the Shakespeare mystery one must adopt one theory or another. Anonymous takes bigger risks by stretching the bastard son conjecture to several male offspring, including De Vere himself. But despite this, I enjoyed the film immensely. The film has a great cast and the portrayals of De Vere, Queen Elizabeth, Ben Jonson and the barely-educated actor William Shaksper are believable and superb.

But don't get drawn into the view that the choice is between believing that Shakspere of Stratford wrote the plays, or believing that it was De Vere and that Elizabeth had bastard sons. The fact is we don't know. The appropriate stance is scepticism and agnosticism, at least until one piece of solid evidence comes along to prove the case one way or another.


Links

Many people have recently signed a "declaration of reasonable doubt" on the question of authorship.

For an overview with links of the ongoing debate on the authorship question click HERE.

I am a member of the De Vere Society in the UK, exploring the possibility that the Edward De Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford was the author. In the USA, the Shakespeare Oxford Society promotes similar ideas.

For my personal account of my encounter with the Oxfordian case click HERE.


Brief Bibliography

Looney, J. Thomas (1920) ‘Shakespeare’ Identified as Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (Cecil Palmer: London). Facsimile reprinted by Kennikat Press, Port Washington, 1975. [No ‘looney’ jokes please - his name was pronounced ‘Loney’]

Mitchell, John (1996) Who Wrote Shakespeare? (London: Thames and Hudson).

Ogburn, Charlton (1988) The Mystery of William Shakespeare (London: Cardinal).

Poynton, A. J. (2011) The Man who was Never Shakespeare (Tunbridge Wells: Parapress). [A good starting point - it centres on the evidence surrounding Shakspere of Stratford]