Monday, April 27, 2009

A Bard By Any Other Name...

In case you have not heard, Justice John Paul Stevens is making noises about the identity of Shakespeare.


We'll ignore for the moment that the US constitution doesn't present Supreme Court justices with any special powers to decide questions of historical merit and focus on the question at hand. Nor does sitting on the federal bench give one any special insight into matters of history or theater. Neither does being a blogger, for that matter.
"It is a great comfort that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of William Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should turn up." ~ Charles Dickens
So, did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Do we care? Why do we care? Does it make a difference?

I care, but I'm not entirely sure why... mostly just annoyed by the seeming endless nature of this debate and the preposterous nature of many of the claims. So here's my contribution to the perpetual debate... alas.

Get three fairly well-educated people in a room. People cognizant of the lurking darkness behind the greatest works of English Literature and ask them who wrote Shakespeare’s plays. For all intents and purposes, the major camps are split thrice: Bacon, Oxford, and Marlowe (with smaller camps devoted to Elizabeth I, William Stanley and a consortium of playwrights who assumed the name of a waiter at the Mermaid Tavern and wrote highly-successful plays using this pseudonym). Behind the arras we will convey ourselves to listen to what passes within…

Our first contender is convinced that Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, ghostwrote the plays and acquired the identity of an actual provincial actor to conceal his identity.

In my experience, our Oxfordian will spend the first thirty minutes of their spiel telling you the long list of names that appear on the roles of their camp: Mark Twain, Supreme Court Justices, et al… When you persuade them to move on from their guestlist and get down to the reasoning (if you can) it usually has to do with education and knowledge of the court and his (often inaccurate) knowledge of the continent.

The second contender for the Bardic crown is the Elizabethan scholar, Sir Francis Bacon.

He was a pioneer of the Scientific method and his mind was sharp enough, certainly, and his pen was certainly prolific. We have thousands of documents attributed to him under his name. The nut of their argument revolves around complicated word puzzles, anagrams and secret messages hidden in the plays, most of which appear to the unbeliever to be a logical stretch at best.

The third fellow in our little triumvirate is devoted to the dark knight of the Elizabethan stage: Christopher Marlowe.

It becomes clear fairly earluy that he is devoted to Kit's camp basically because it’s the only theory more preposterous than crowd at the Mermaid co-writing the plays and there’s a certain romance to the doomed Marlowe escaping the fate that Shakespeare referred to as “a great reckoning in a little room”. That he rose above the uniformly maudlin and darkly scholarly works of his early career under a new eponym and went on to write history’s greatest comedies, histories and tragedies… it harkens to a certain character trait in people.

Never mind that no one can explain why any of those men would want to conceal their identities for writing plays and poems that were universally popular in their time, successful with the masses and thought-provoking without resorting to true subversion of the dominant paradigm. Why, when other noblemen wrote and published under their own names, when other scholars and poets and playwrights were undercutting the Powers That Be in their own names, why would any of these distinguished members of the intellectual elite disown the acclaim that became attached to the name William Shakespeare during his lifetime?

The bulk of words devoted to this subject, in all three of the major camps and all of the lesser camps as well (the possibilities seem endless) focus rather more on why the Glover of Stratford couldn’t have written them than on presenting evidence as to why their champion did. Geographical knowledge of Europe, knowledge of the law, knowledge of the mores of the Elizabethan (and subsequently Jacobian) courts, are the three main focuses of the anti-Stratfordian arguments.

At this point, allow me to intrude into our little confab because what we really need is a healthy cut from Occam’s Razor.

By sheer dint of my refusal to accept theories in place of evidence, I am branded a "Stratfordian" which means I'm siding with the orthodoxy and saying Billy boy wrote his own plays unless you can prove otherwise. What is the simplest answer? What answer requires the least number of assumptions? That Edward Devere wrote the plays even though the best part of latter half of the First Folio didn't debut until well after his death? That the dispassionate and always-analytical Francis Bacon wrote the most passionate lovescenes in all of English literature just because he once fancied himself in a letter to a friend as a "Hidden Poet"? That Kit Marlowe faked his death and changed his writing style completely and no one in the theatre scene noticed and made comment? Or did Will Shakespeare, son of the disgraced mayor of Stratford write the plays attributed to him?

Do we attribute the plays to the man we know existed or do we discount him becuase he didn't leave a library and a pile of letters lying around? He didn’t attend college, he had no higher education to form the intellect and knowledge of court life and law obviously at work in the plays. So I'm given to wonder why do we so-freely assume that Shakespeare could not have been a prodigy? Mozart wrote symphonies at the age of seven. He didn’t need a college or even a teacher to get him started. He listened, he observed, he made mistakes and didn’t repeat them.

Aguments of the unalloyed prodigy aside, what a man in Elizabethan England would really need to become Shakespeare - aside from mere genius - was a mind that could observe, remember, and distill all that he saw into works of fiction, often in an echo or reaction to other works of the same time period such as Marlowe's Tamburlaine. The knowledge of courtiers, English Law, of the landscape of Europe... could the son of a burgher of Stratford have known these things? Sure, why not? Were they state secrets? Did they not appear in other plays and each playwright feed off the other in much the same way (and with the same accuracy in many cases) as modern detective novels and legal thrillers?

In Elizabethan England, literacy was the only requirement for being a notary, and thereby exposed to all matter of legal dealings from marriages to wills. As for courtiers; his take was just as fanciful as it was accurate. England had become fairly cosmopolitan by the advent of Will Shakespeare and The Book of the Courtier by Castiglione was widely available, peeling back some of the mystique of the court. Much of the noble shenanigans in the Histories are not such a far leap from the pages of Catiglione's books.

It's been noted for centuries that the English People are a legalistic race. A complicated web of personal rights follow a thread back to Magna Carta, telling each villien where he or she stands in direct relation to the person next to them. The legal records still on file at the Old Bailey are full of quite complex legal complaints filed by and against the very meanest of the mean. Knowledge of the law was not isolated in the colleges of Oxford.

Nor was literacy or the reading of the classics in a world with a thriving book trade. Almost all of Shakespeare's histories can - in fact - be traced directly to Holinshed's Chronicles, one of the most influential and widely-read history books of its time.

He spelled his name differently every time he wrote it. So what? So did Sir Walter Raleigh (Ralegh?) and we don't doubt his existence. (Thank God he had his portrait painted, or we'd think some sap from Avon was really the one sailing all over the world looking for El Dorado!) The rules of spelling and syntax were quite malleable at this point in history and making too much of it is pure huxterism.

I hate to throw water on the party, but this much we know is true... We know that a player, theater-owner, land-speculator, and gentleman existed in London at the time of Shakespeare’s glory days in the latter part of the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries. We know all of that from primary documentary evidence. We have his will, we have his receipts from his properties, and there are contemporary allusions to him as an unlettered upstart ("Shakescene"). He was sued, he held a coat of arms by right of his mother and father and much comment was made on it because he essentially bought it and held it by sidewise means.

Why do we doubt he existed? Moreover, why should we doubt that this man wrote the plays attributed to him?

I know the "Snob" argument is frequently refuted by those so branded. Fair enough, you know your own mind and I'm not telling you what to think, I'm telling you what I think and I think that at the core, there's something in some people who cannot accept that a nobody from nowhere set the world on fire with his genius at a time when that sort of thing wasn’t supposed to be allowed. He illuminated his time with the light of his imagination, he brought to the stage everything that could or might be true in his time and cast a shadow over all times to come.

I'm well read on the issues, but I'm not an expert. Nevertheless, I think the sheer Byzantine levels-within-levels-protected-by-lies-within-lies nature of the theory is its Achilles heel. No one can keep a secret that well that long, certainly not the entire theatrical scene of London. People who - in the period - seemed perfectly at-ease with Shakespeare the Glover of Avon being the author of the plays which bore his name.

Considering the entire city of London burned to the ground in 1666 to the detriment of written documents and books caught in the conflagration makes the lack of a library or pile of correspondence a thin argument at best.

Truly this is the original conspiracy theory, well-nigh Area 51 and the Kennedy assassination all rolled up in one big intellectual enchilada in a tortilla made of arguments from silence. Everyone with the chops to make an argument has an opinion. (A lot of people who lack the chops have an opinion too, mostly borrowed from the books written by those who think they have them.) Occam’s razor cuts it all to ribbands... barring something new and concrete, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare until proven otherwise.


For an examination of how the son of a glover could become the "Shakespeare that wrote Shakespeare" I recommend Stephen Greenblatt's book Will In the World. I commend it to you because despite his occasional flight of fancy (such as the legendary sojourn in the Catholic North) the book is extensively footnoted and has a pretty darn sound basis in documentary evidence. If you have reading recommendations for me that sit contrary to my opinions, I'm happy to hear them. Leave them in the comments.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. You've said it all, and well. I'm content with every word, call it a rant or reasoned argument.

  3. The nobility could not have published drama written for the public stage. Diana Price has a well researched essay on this question at

  4. Whether or not royalty wouldn't or couldn't publish plays for the stage isn't the point. The point is that without evidence that anyone other than the guy with his name on the frontis of the First Folio and the earlier quartos wrote them, postulating alternative authors isn't necessary. The original authorship isn't at issue and it should not be.

    The rub of it all is that I love that we hold history up to critical inspection. Put it up there against the sun and find all the worn and torn bits and sew them up! (Always wear clean history, you might get in an accident!) Literary criticism is likewise welcome always. Textual analyses ad nauseum. Bring it on. It's healthy to question these things, to undo the 'damage' done by the fantasist Victorians to our historical record.

    Not a shred of documentary evidence supports the thesis that the plays were not written by the Glover's son from Avon.

  5. Scott, you are the one who brought up the point above, claiming that the nobility published under their own names. And you said you would be happy to hear reading recommendations which "sit contrary to [your] opinions." Apparently not. You made a number of other assertions which I would dispute, but I can see it's a waste of time, so I take my leave.

  6. Anonymous,

    As you wish and I am truly sorry you feel that way. I'm not sure how voicing a counterpoint to your assertion is illustrative of a closed mind rather than a continuation of a healthy debate/discussion. Without knowing who you are or what you think I cannot but answer the points you have put forth.

    I've read Price's article(s) and I am familiar with her site and work. Her picture of WS as a broker, promoter, etcetera who took credit for plays he did not write has not yet convinced me. My mind is not closed, but I would be remiss if I had not underlined my position that the discussion of possible other authors is premature without first establishing that the author of record was not in fact the author, for which I have yet to see anything I would interpret as proof of this.


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