Tuesday, 3 December 2013

Who wrote Shakespeare?

I've been busy reading about Shakespeare at the moment, for a project at the Bodleian (discussion about which, incidentally, inspired my recent short story 'Jane Austen wrote the works of William Shakespeare') and have grown irresistibly attracted to the anti-Stratfordian theories.  That is, the theories that someone other than William-Shakespeare-from-Stratford wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

Now, when I say that I have grown irresistibly attracted to them, I do not mean that I believe any of them.  Far from it.  I simply love reading about them - from Francis Bacon to the Earl of Oxford to (yes) Queen Elizabeth I - and the curious bendings of logic and likelihood which are necessary for their promulgation.  I've only been reading online so far (let me say, comments on Amazon reviews on Contested Will are hilarious, albeit admirably polite for the most part).  Here is a wonderful excerpt from Bill Bryson's concise, amusing, and brilliant book Shakespeare, which I've just re-read (and reviewed many a year ago here):
In short 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.  These people must have been incredibly gifted - to create, in their spare time, the greatest literature ever produced in English, in a voice patently not their own, in a manner so cunning that they fooled virtually everyone during their own lifetimes and for four hundred years afterwards.  The Earl of Oxford, better still, additionally anticipated his own death and left a stock of work sufficient to keep the supply of new plays flowing at the same rate until Shakespeare himself was ready to die a decade or so later.  Now that is genius.
Enough said, one would have thought - but apparently not.  My favourite thing I've seen online (and refuted in Bryson's book) is the idea that none of the surviving documents link the playwright with the Stratfordian... I'm far from an expert, but I'd have thought that the compilers of the First Folio appearing in the Stratfordian's will was something of a link.

Anyway, I intend to seek out Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro, not least because the title is so amazing.  But if you know of any others which might amuse me, do let me know...

21 comments:

  1. I love reading these theories too. The Marlowe theory is almost as good as the Oxford theory. Contested Will is actually a good read. From what I remember, he's just setting out the theories, not championing any of them. It always surprises me that actors like Mark Rylance & Derek Jacobi believe that someone else wrote Shakespeare. Why does no one doubt that Mozart wrote Mozart? I'm happy to believe in genius!

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    1. Amen to that! Why are people more ready to believe in mediocrity than genius?? It's such a depressing attitude to adopt! I'd much rather believe that mankind can occasionally transcend itself and give us a Shakespeare or a Mozart, rather than resign myself to the sad idea that it's not possible and that the men we thought were so great are in fact cheats and frauds!

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    2. It is very bizarre that he should get such treatment, and almost no other creative artist has had it. Especially when people who should know better are somehow taken in by it. SOMEONE had to be a genius, there's no escaping that, so let it be the most obvious person!

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    3. I think that in the past it was also often a case of scholars not being able to accept that a seemingly ordinary man without a noble background could possibly write so well. Poets were meant to be men like the Earl of Surrey or Sir Thomas Wyatt not a glover's son from Warwickshire. Literary snobbery has a long history. Just imagine if Virginia Woolf was right & Shakespeare was really Judith, not William... Not that I'm proposing that theory, attractive though it is!

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    4. There is thorough documentation for the life of Mozart. There is none for Shakespeare. The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name.

      There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Nobody claims to having ever met the man.

      When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else. Obviously whoever wrote the works under the name "William Shakespeare" was a genius. That is not in dispute. The only question is who the genius in fact was.

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  2. That excerpt is really funny!

    I don't have much patience with the anti-Stratfordian clique, I'm afraid. I tend to view them merely as yet more proof of Shakespeare's greatness. It is no mean feat, four hundred years on, to have so many people still getting all worked up about whether or not one really wrote a bunch of plays!

    Florence
    aka Miss Darcy (Blogger keeps insisting I'm anonymous, which I most emphatically am NOT!)

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    1. I don't have any patience with the theories as theories, but I love them as entertainment!

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  3. You might enjoy the fictional "Chasing Shakespeares," which stars a graduate student who ends up investigating a number of these theories!

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    1. Thanks Samantha, that does sound like fun - I'll have a hunt...

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  4. I *so* agree with your post and all the comments! Whatever is the problem with Shakespeare writing his own plays?? I've read books about Marlowe and his own story is intriguing enough in its own right without trying to tack it onto the Bard. Conspiracy theories are funny and fun to read, as long as we don't forget that's just what they are!

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    1. Don't worry, I think I'll keep sane on the topic! ;) But everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, don't they? And the internet is just the right place to find them...

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  5. My colleague Dr Bill Leahy has written several interesting papers and books on this topic. Some of them you might find of considerable interest.

    http://www.brunel.ac.uk/arts/english/staff/bill-leahy (look under publications ...)

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    1. Thanks Peter, I've located the Bodleian copy and will have a look - I'm impressed by how much that one book has bulked out your colleague's publications list ;)

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  6. Marlowe is often mention I think he was maybe like the patterson of his day had ideas and wrote a lot but had others help him out ,all the best stu

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  7. I enjoy how the the Marlowe theorists claim that he must have written Shakespeare's plays on the basis of how many are set in Italy, and Shakespeare never went there. But Marlowe also wrote Tamburlaine about a famous Central Asian ruler, and Marlowe never went to Central Asia. So perhaps someone else wrote Marlowe's plays.

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  9. Not to spoil your fun, but I should like to point out that thus far you all have offered one point of alleged proof for the claim that Shakspere of Stratford wrote the Shakespeare canon, that "his colleagues" published the First Folio and they were mentioned in his will. Sorry twice, the mention in the will was a suspicious interlineation, and Condell and Heminge have been discredited as writers of any text since George Steevens, a critic in the 1700's. It was Jonson who used their names. He was the employee of the Herbert brothers, the dedicatees. The Herberts were intermarried with one of Oxford's daughters, Susan. Philip was her husband. Derby, a contributor to the enormous expense of publication, was married to another, Elizabeth. William Herbert, Lord Chamberlain in charge of Revels and in control of play publications, almost married Oxford's middle daughter, Bridget. Thus it was a family operation.

    This alone would put you one-up hee-hawing how ridiculous is the claim that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Correction. There was no "Shakespeare" person. It was a pseudonym and after both Shakspere and Oxford had died, Shakspere's name was co-opted by Oxford's followers and in-laws to put some separation between him, Oxford--the noble who had some very damaging history with the Elizabethan and Jacobean regimes--and the canon that critiqued the effects of tyranny upon man and posterity, written in allegory by the brief chronicler of his time.

    As far as the canard that Oxford stored up plays never staged until after his death, think on it that there is no topical or astronomical reference in the plays beyond 1604, the year of Oxford's death. New plays stopped cold in 1604. The "grand possessors" did release Troilus and Cressida along with the Sonnets in 1609. Lear, a re-write of Oxford's Leir, came out in 1608, and Othello came out, dedicated to the Derby family, Elizabeth Vere remember, in 1622. Then the First Folio and sixteen unpublished plays with the twenty previously published. Facts are not jokes and laughter seems to fade.

    For further information about the chestnuts peddled unawares through the centuries as truth of the origins of the Shakespeare canon, I humbly offer "The Factual Desert of Stanley Wells" in the wjray.net Shakespeare Papers. At least there you can look at the Droeshout etching, which Sir George Greenwood called "a leering hydrocephalic idiot" and decipher the oddities on it as a message of the true identity of the author.

    Tradition does not require of us that we remain fools forever in respect of our forebears. Respect the author and yourself instead and look for the truth of the matter. He would want that.

    best wishes,

    William Ray

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  10. Mr. Stuck in a Book. May I suggest that you've been stuck in the wrong book. Once you investigate the evidence for Edward de Vere, it is not so easy to laugh it off as another conspiracy theory, (the newest way to stifle dissent).

    May I suggest as a start, you read, "Shakespeare's Unauthorized Biography" by Diana Price. Others I'd suggest are "Shakespeare by Another Name" by Mark Anderson. If you get a sense that you want even more proof, read "The Mysterious William Shakespeare" by Charlton Ogburn.

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  11. Stuck-in-a-book-

    Prepare for the horde of well meaning informants who will set you straight on their candidate. I have read 100's of William's posts (and many of Howard's) on websites for many years now and find him to be among the most passionate and diligent investigators out there. I am usually not convinced by his arguments but I respect the incredible energy he has put forth.

    In fact, it is because of his and many other anti-Stratfordian posts that I often find myself immersed more in their literature than that of the Orthodox scholars. Doing so requires rolling up your sleeves and locating images of original documents including the will, title pages, facsimile additions, etc. Always try to see the actual document and not rely on anyones interpretation (except mine, of course.)

    Before reading a lot of either camp's Great Works I would recommend starting with David Ellis, "The Truth About William Shakespeare - Fact Fiction and Modern Biography". To be sure, in this book he takes the Orthodox to the woodshed for their many excesses, but the methodological approach he advocates also applies to the anti-Stratfordians. Must read for any who would tread these paths.

    As Howard suggests Diana Price has plowed the anti-Stratfordian field - although I would still recommend back tracking her key points - particularly the many conjectural arguments she makes. She also has a habit of rewriting quotes in her own words (i.e Jonson's FF and Timber). We are all smart enough to read his actual words and form our own conclusions.

    If you find you must read Ogburn I suggest the "Readers Digest" version - his book is 800 pages... (joke alert)

    On the interlineations in Shakespeare's will I would recommend looking at a high resolution image of the will and decide for yourself if the MANY additions and cross outs are reasonable.

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  12. In response to the above commenter, though the discussion seems to be over, the Stratford will's interlineation about Burbage, Hemings, and Condell is in a different hand from the surrounding document. It is completely ad hoc in relation to the area where it is jammed in. A supporter of so shabby an addition's being no biggie has a lot to explain if he or she holds that these were "Shakespeare's" life-long companions in art, commerce, and glory as mutually they made his art nationally famous.

    Making light of so unaccountable and suspicious a line under these circumstances will not do. Covering one's eyes is not scholarship.

    That the will is sloppy and hurried, made over from one written in 1612, on different sizes and qualities of paper, following a manual of the time, and making no mention whatever of the works, are further reasons to wonder if this person were the author of great art. --Not, rather, to blithely dismiss the question as one of MANY un-Shakespearean aspects of a wretched businessman's document. Shakspere even included a penalty if his elder daughter did not turn over money to her sister. Does this sound like the poet who derided misers and their families in the Rape of Lucrece?

    Such inconsistencies as the unexplained interlineation, and they are rife in the Shakspere biography, must be dealt with by more than a shrug and a quip.

    The back-handed compliment that my remarks are more interesting than the conventional critical literature is something of an apology for the writer and his fellows not being able to face the reasoning and information I rely upon in my own efforts to re-investigate a work taken for granted as to its origins and author.

    That this re-investigation is the necessary case for the highest exemplar of English literary art should be the concern of every member of the English speaking culture. A lie peddled will never be true. Carrying it on even this long is an astounding example of group-think in place of thought.

    At this moment, professional scholars do not have the time, freedom, or courage to throw over an entire body of customary "truth" that is now institutionally fossilized, enormous contradictions and all. And God help any scholar who calls its bluff, based on loose thinking and weak excuses rather than the kind of analysis we apply to any other subject or field.

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