Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By Dennis Abrams
Who wrote Shakespeare? On the surface, it seems a silly question. But is it? Check out the trailer, below, for the upcoming film, Anonymous
This is an argument that’s been raging (well, simmering might be more a more accurate description) since 1857, when one Delia Bacon published her 675 page magnum opus, The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. (It’s interesting to note that, as Jonathan Bate noted, until then virtually no one “in Shakespeare’s lifetime or for the first two hundred years after his death expressed the slightest doubt about his authorship.”) Delia Bacon attempted to make the case, albeit without once actually mentioning his name, that Francis Bacon (no relation), the renowned English scientist, philosopher, statesman, lawyer, and pioneer of the scientific method, (among other notable contributors) was the actual author of the plays “supposedly” written by one William Shakespeare; his name kept a secret because of the subversive philosophies she said were hidden within the texts.
Somewhat surprisingly, her theory caught on – even Henry James and Mark Twain were supporters. Other writers took Bacon’s theory and ran with it – most prominently American writer Ignatius Donnelly, best remembered for his magnum opus Atlantis: The Antediluvian World, which detailed his theories regarding the actual existence of the mythical lost island of Atlantis. In The Great Cryptogram, Donnelly claimed to have broken the code hidden within Shakespeare’s plays. One begins by deducing the formula of the cipher, ‘516-167=349-22b&h=327.’ Then, using square roots, you select a number of words from the columns of the First Folio. Using this formula, from Henry IV, Part I, for example, you get the following: “Seas ill [for which read ‘Cecil,’ for William Cecil, Lord Burghley] said that More low [for which read Marlowe as in Christopher Marlowe] or Shak’st Spur never write a word of them.’ (However the formula seemed to have its flaws. Another amateur cryptographer, the Reverend R. Nicholson, using the same method “discovered” by Donnelly, found messages such as ‘Master Will-I-am Shak’st-spurre write the Play and was engaged at the Curtain.’)
Ultimately, Bacon proved to be an unlikely candidate (as Sidney Lee noted in his biography of Shakespeare in his Dictionary of National Biography, “The abundance of the contemporary evidence attesting Shakespeare’s responsibility for the works published under his name gives the Baconian theory no rational right to a hearing; while such authentic examples of Bacon’s efforts to write verse as survive prove beyond all possibility of contradiction that, great as he was a prose writer and philosopher, he was incapable of penning any of the poetry assigned to Shakespeare. Defective knowledge and illogical or caustical argument alone render any other conclusion possible.”), so other candidates quickly found advocates. Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford. William Stanley, sixth Earl of Rutland. Roger Manners, fifth Earl of Rutland. Queen Elizabeth has been mentioned. Even Malcolm X, writing in prison, proposed that King James was the plays’ true author.
What do all these proposed alternate authors have in common? Unlike the upstart commoner William Shakespeare, they are all members of the aristocracy, and therefore more fitting personages to be sitting atop the summit of British literature. I’ll get into this in greater detail as the year goes along, but the bottom-line of the anti-Stratfordians according to Bill Bryson is this: “Shakespeare’s plays, it is held, so brim with expertise – on law, medicine, statesmanship, court life, military affairs, the bounding main, antiquity, life abroad – that they cannot possibly be the work of a single lightly educated provincial. The presumption is that William Shakespeare of Stratford was, at best, an amiable stooge, an actor who lent his name as cover for someone of greater talent, someone who could not, for one reason or another, be publicly identified as a playwright.”
But, as Bate points out, “The argument that Shakespeare must have been an aristocrat because he wrote so knowingly about courts is facile. Every Elizabethan and Jacobean professional dramatist wrote about courts, yet none of them was a courtier. Courts are things you can learn about from books and gossip; besides the dramatists saw the court from the inside when their companies were commissioned to put on special performances there. What is much harder to imagine is an aristocrat like Oxford reproducing the slang of the common tavern and the intonations of the low-born which are as characteristic of Shakespeare’s plays as any polished mimickings of courtly language.
The Anti-Stratfordian aristocratic principle is a matter of prejudice, not argument. The argument behind it is best summed up by a statement of Christmas Humphreys of the Inner Temple, Barrister at Law, on the first page of his introduction to Miss Hilda
Amphlett’s Who was Shakespeare? an Oxfordian work which is absolutely representative in its modes of …argument:
‘It is offensive to scholarship, to our national dignity, and to our sense of fair
play to worship the memory of a petty-minded tradesman while leaving the
actual author of the Shakespeare plays and poems unhonoured and ignored.
Moreover, I have round the plays of far more interest when seen in the work of
a great nobleman and one very close to the fountainhead of Elizabethan England.’
‘Our national dignity’, ‘a petty-minded tradesman’, ‘a great nobleman,’ these three phrases tell the whole story. Like so many English questions, it all boils down to class.”
And that, I suspect, sums it up fairly well. It is, I think, a case of wistful thinking to attempt to argue that anyone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford on Avon, the son of John Shakespeare, wrote the plays attributed to him. As Bryson points out, “…it is possible, with a kind of selective squinting, to endow the alternative claimants with the necessary time, talent, and motive for anonymity to write the plays of William Shakespeare. But what no one has ever produced is the tiniest particle of evidence to suggest that they actually did so.” (I’d like to propose that this is not unlike a similar belief held by many Americans; that Lee Harvey Oswald was too insignificant, too small a man to have been the assassin of the beloved JFK, therefore, larger forces must have been at work.)
I’ll go more into the details of Shakespeare’s life (such as we know them) as we go through his plays, but I’d like to end with this tale from the great Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, Everything and Nothing, which I think gets as close to the essence of Shakespeare as anything.
THERE was no one in him; behind his face (which even through the bad paintings of those times resembles no other) and his words, which were copious, fantastic and stormy, there was only a bit of coldness, a dream dreamt by no one. At first he thought that all people were like him, but the astonishment of a friend to whom he had begun to speak of this emptiness showed him his error and made him feel always that an individual should not differ in outward appearance. Once he thought that in books he would find a cure for his ill and thus he learned the small Latin and less Greek a contemporary would speak of; later he considered that what he sought might well be found in an elemental rite of humanity, and let himself be initiated by Anne Hathaway one long June afternoon. At the age of twenty-odd years he went to London. Instinctively he had already become proficient in the habit of simulating that he was someone, so that others would not discover his condition as no one; in London he found the profession to which he was predestined, that of the actor, who on a stage plays at being another before a gathering of people who play at taking him for that other person. His histrionic tasks brought him a singular satisfaction, perhaps the first he had ever known; but once -the last verse had been acclaimed and the last dead man withdrawn from the stage, the hated flavour of unreality returned to him. He ceased to be Ferrex or Tamerlane and became no one again. Thus hounded, he took to imagining other heroes and other tragic fables. And so, while his flesh fulfilled its destiny as flesh in the taverns and brothels of London, the soul that inhabited him was Caesar, who disregards the augur’s admonition, and Juliet. who abhors the lark, and Macbeth, who converses on the plain with the witches who are also Fates. No one has ever been so many men as this man who like the Egyptian Proteus could exhaust all the guises of reality. At times he would leave a confession hidden away in some corner of his work, certain that it would not be deciphered; Richard affirms that in his person he plays the part of many and Iago claims with curious words ‘I am not what I am’. The fundamental identity of existing, dreaming and acting inspired famous passages of his.
For twenty years he persisted in that controlled hallucination, but one morning he was suddenly gripped by the tedium and the terror of being so many kings who die by the sword and so many suffering lovers who converge, diverge and melodiously expire. That very day he arranged to sell his theatre. Within a week he had returned to his native village, where he recovered the trees and rivers of his childhood and did not relate them to the others his muse had celebrated, illustrious with mythological allusions and Latin terms. He had to be ‘someone: he was a retired impresario who had made his fortune and concerned himself with loans, lawsuits and petty usury. It was in this character that he dictated the arid will and testament known to us, from which he deliberately excluded all traces of pathos or literature. His friends from London would visit his retreat and for them he would take up again his role as poet.
History adds that before or after dying he found himself in the presence of God and told Him: ‘I who have been so many men in vain want to be one and myself.’ The voice of the Lord answered from a whirlwind: ‘Neither am I anyone; I have dreamt the world as you dreamt your work, my Shakespeare, and among the forms in my dream are you, who like myself are many and no one.’
From Jorge Luis Borges Labyrinths (Penguin, 2000) Trans. J. E. Irby.
Note “Are you,” not “is you.” – the form of Shakespeare is plural. Note the title Everything and Nothing.
We’ll begin our reading on the 21st with The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In Wednesday’s post, I’ll look at the publication history of the plays, and give a list of suggested resources.