What is the Shakespeare Authorship Question?
There was a man from Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire – called William Shakspere, to give the customary form of spelling his name. He was baptised on 26 April 1564 and was buried on 25 April 1616. He bought property in both Stratford and in London and he was a sharer in a theatre company.
However, there is no record from his lifetime stating that he was a writer of any sort, no record of education, his children and parents could barely read or write. Of the writer ‘William Shakespeare’, contemporaries write cryptically; many of them appear to allude to Shakespeare as pseudonym. Full-scale biographies of ‘Shakespeare’ only emerged two centuries after Will’s death. These Victorian biographers freely filled in the extensive gaps in line with their view of a national poet with almost divine status; myths that have been strongly doubted ever since.
But surely nobody in Stratford ever doubted that Will wrote the works?
In his last will and testament William of Stratford left no books, whether owned, borrowed or loaned out. He left no journals, no business papers, no letters claiming he was a writer. None of his family ever claimed that he was a poet and playwright. Neither did anybody else from Stratford for almost a century after his death. The reason that there was no expression of doubt is that there was no claim in the first place.
Don’t we know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because his name is on the works?
There are commendations in the First Folio (1623) written by Ben Jonson, but these give no personal information about the author. Jonson was probably encouraged to write these at the behest of the publishers, Edmund Blount and Isaac Jaggard. Elsewhere, he wrote literary puffs for which he was paid. And the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, who had supported the publication, were his benefactors. So, there’s nothing in the commendation to show that Jonson knew the author personally.
Is the Shakespeare Authorship Question just a modern phenomenon?
The first book-length biography of William of Stratford was published by Charles Knight in 1843, while the first book-length treatment of the subject claiming ‘William Shakespeare’ as a pseudonym was completed by Delia Bacon four years later. Interestingly, she was reacting against the way a romanticised life of the Bard was imagined. The fact that these doubts surfaced at intervals over a span of many centuries testifies to what we might call an ‘underground stream’ of doubt.
Why bother with the author when we have the works?
Literary biography can of course provide insight into the meaning and significance of a text. So attaching the wrong author’s name and life to the work leads to a host of false assumptions which in turn spawn further misperceptions of the work. Acknowledging Oxford’s authorship restores, among other things, the political dimensions of his works which the Stratford story obscures. Like Hamlet himself, Shakespeare conceived drama and its players as being the ‘abstract and brief chronicles of the time’. No one seriously questions, for example, that John Lyly’s Endymion (c.1584) depends on parallels between characters in the play and major figures in the Elizabethan court. An awareness of the parallel between Lyly’s main female character Cynthia and the Virgin Queen is a prerequisite to appreciating the play. The great poets of the Elizabethan period, such as Edmund Spenser, routinely disguised their more incendiary comments in metaphors or allegories. Such writers published works commenting, often in cleverly oblique ways, on controversial current events which could not be treated more directly under the Tudor court’s regime of strict censorship.
Acknowledging Oxford’s authorship radically transforms our understanding of politics, propaganda and history. After all, if you take Oxford as the author, then a vast contemporary backdrop falls into place, and one apprehends a whole new dimension to the plays: that of political satire. Hamlet for instance becomes an intriguing exposé of court life under Elizabeth (written by the Hamlet of Elizabeth’s Court) which provides us with innumerable valuable insights into the private Court history of the time. The value of this extra dimension for actors and directors is difficult to overestimate. After all, an actor playing Polonius in Hamlet can gain enormous psychological insight into his character by reading up about the historical original, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
Aren’t Authorship sceptics just anti-Shakespeare?
Aren’t Authorship sceptics just conspiracy theorists?
Aren’t authorship sceptics just snobs?
Can’t everything be explained by genius?
In the case of William of Stratford, there is neither any record of early promise nor any suggestion that he was introduced to a wide range of classical and renaissance literature from an early age. There is no record that he ever attended school either in Stratford or anywhere else or that he was ever noticed when he was young. In the case of ‘Shakespeare’, nobody seemed to notice him until works began to be published under this name from 1593.
If not William of Stratford, then who wrote the plays?
Although many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries left opaque records attesting to Oxford’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works, Oxford’s claim was first made overtly by schoolteacher John Thomas Looney in 1920 in his book Shakespeare Identified. This publication gained support among many intellectuals of the time including Sigmund Freud, the actor/director Leslie Howard, and the novelist John Galsworthy. In 1984, Charlton Ogburn published a monumental study, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which deals with many aspects of the Shakespeare Authorship Question and Oxford’s claim. Today, Shakespeare lovers are increasingly aware of the authorship question while Oxford’s claim has been made compellingly by Mark Anderson in Shakespeare By Another Name (2005). The vast majority of post-Stratfordian scholars support Oxford as Shakespeare.
What evidence is there that Oxford was a poet and a playwright?
Also later, in 1598, Frances Meres lists Oxford as the ‘best for Comedy among us’ in Palladis Tamia. Henry Peacham lists Oxford first among the greatest Elizabethan poets in The Compleat Gentleman. This work was published in 1622 when the First Folio of ‘Shakespeare’ was nearly finished. Yet Peacham does not mention Shakespeare at all.
Why should the author use a pseudonym?
What about the plays written after Oxford’s death in 1604?
The year of Oxford’s death in 1604 is an interesting turning point in the publication of quartos of ‘Shakespeare’. In the preceding six years, twelve plays appeared in print attributed to ‘Shakespeare’ and two others appeared for the first time but without attribution (Romeo and Juliet, Henry V). By contrast, in the following twelve years until the death of William of Stratford, only three new plays appeared in print.
Oxford can’t have written the plays - wasn't he a misogynist who treated his wife badly?
The suggestion that Oxford was a misogynist and was cruel to his wife rests on slender evidence. In fact, Oxford was much maligned during his life, mainly for his wife’s apparent infidelity. He was on his continental tour in 1575 when his wife, Anne (née Cecil) bore a daughter, the Lady Elizabeth Vere. Rumour spread that Oxford had been cuckolded (a familiar Shakespearean theme). Upon his return to England in 1576, Oxford refused to recognise either his wife or her daughter. During this time, he fathered a son by one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Eventually, he was reconciled with his countess by the stratagem of a bed trick (sounds familiar). After Anne died in 1588, he married Elizabeth Trentham. While Oxford may not have been the perfect husband, there is no evidence for the kind of idyllic relationship frequently attributed to William of Stratford. More importantly, Oxford’s treatment of women is no worse than the behaviour of many others and does not invalidate his claim as author of the works. Both Oxford’s first and second wives are on record for their highly favourable view of him.
Will we still use the name ‘Shakespeare’ even after the real author is identified?
How can I keep in touch with developments in the SAQ?
Three easy steps:
1. Join THE DE VERE SOCIETY;
2. Read the quarterly newsletters;
3. Discuss the SAQ with other members at DVS events.
You can find a wealth of useful material on the website of our sister organisation in North America, the SHAKESPEARE OXFORD FELLOWSHIP, at: http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org
Don’t forget the SHAKESPEAREAN AUTHORSHIP TRUST: http://www.shakespeareanauthorshiptrust.org.uk/
And make sure you sign the DECLARATION OF REASONABLE DOUBT at: https://doubtaboutwill.org/declaration