Shakespeare Authorship and Our Expectations of Greatness

This is not a scholarly post. Let me make that clear. However, it is a response to a certain scholarship. The Shakespeare Authorship “question”. Mainly, in how it relates to the way we perceive greatness, accomplishment, and creativity.

I am not guilty of the so called “Bardolatry”. The author of the plays contributed by Shakespeare was a human being. He was not perfect, and neither was his work. (Neither the entire canon nor individual pieces.) That being said, I love much of the work of  “William Shakespeare”, and have no problem concluding that he is one of, if not the most influential poets/playwrights in the entire history of the English language, and certainly in the top ten for any recorded language on this planet.

And for any number of reasons, that really fries the asses of a lot of people.

To get a better idea of the authorship controversy, (one that I don’t actually spend a lot of time on in my life) I encourage you to read books and articles about same. Lord knows there are plenty of them. That body of research has to date presented about 56 alternate candidates for authorship of the “Shakespeare” works. Some have gained modest but consistent traction, while others are mostly fringe theories by rogue scholars. Either way, some of the candidates mentioned by more than one source are:

-Sir Francis Bacon.
-Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
-Mary Sidney Countess of Pembroke
-William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby
-Queen Elizabeth I
-King James I
-Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke

Are you sensing the patten yet?

To be fair, there are several candidates that are not noble or royal who have gathered followers over the years. Christopher Marlowe comes to mind. But the fact is, a great deal of the doubt seems to stem from the notion that a mere gentleman and son of an glove maker from Stratford-Upon-Avon simply didn’t have the education, literacy, exposure, and depth to have penned all of the works attributed to him. No, the author must have been a noble. Must have had royal blood. Must have been “important”. Must have traveled all over the world, and what glove maker’s son could or would even aspire to do that?

Again, I am not presenting a theory here in support of the “Stratfordian” as author of the works. That would be scholarly, and I told you I was not writing a scholarly piece. Suffice to say that not only have both scholarly arguments (the sloppiness of the man’s writing, his lack of a funeral, few surviving papers that prove he existed, his lack of attempt to make money off of his work…etc.) and not so scholarly arguments, (secret codes and embedded messages) have been made against this man. Suffice it also to say that proponents of  “The Stratfordian” have reasonable counter-arguments to each of these.

Yet the argument that still slaps me across the face is the “he couldn’t have been bright enough” declaration.

One 19th century academic, Henry Caldecott, sums up this condescending view quite well.

“The plays of Shakespeare are so stupendous a monument of learning and genius that…people have come to ask themselves not only, ‘Is it humanly possible for William Shakespeare, the country lad from Stratford-Upon-Avon, to have written them?‘, but whether it was possible for any one man, whoever he may have been, to have done so.”

Ty Unglebower, a 21st century actor and writer and non-academic has responded to Caldecott’s question with;

“Yes. It’s very possible.”

Setting aside dates, and scribblings, papers, and secret codes and historical likelihoods, why do people find it so damned difficult, or even impossible to believe that a man of humble beginnings, could have gone on to become the most important of all English writers? The most influential playwright the world has ever known? Creator of works that have, like it or not, touched tens of millions of people for centuries even while contemporaries like John Fletcher and Francis Beaumont have vanished into near obscurity outside of the universities?

Part of it may be that some have elevated William Shakespeare far higher than even he deserves to be. Attributing every word, every error, every comma to a perfectly predetermined plan on the part of a supernatural genius who woke up every morning and just scribbled out timeless perfection while sipping tea. That Shakespeare is absurd even to me, and no serious fan of his works, or of writing in general can long accept such a romanticized version of him. The desire to bring The Bard back down to earth no doubt is at least part of the reason so many have worked double-time to attribute his works to someone else.

Yet I have to wonder if any of the ruckus would have been kicked up about the “true author” if all along the plays had been attributed to someone like Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. I theorize that if it had been someone with a name and title like that to whom the “Best writer in the history of English” mantel had been given, fewer people would have questioned it. Some would of course, because people are always out there that want to rip something up, but by and large it seems that there is a subconscious acceptance of the “higher ups” deserving lavish praise outright, while somehow those “down there” must have some how cheated when they accomplish something of merit.

We know almost nothing of Shakespeare’s life. So we can’t say he didn’t go to university simply because we can’t find the paper work. But even if he didn’t, so what? Where is it written that a man cannot have a potential for stunning intellect and mind bending imagination bestowed upon him by virtue of his natural abilities? Such a person would still have to learn facts, of course, as they do not just appear, but why would William Shakespeare have to have been a member of court to understand the nature of court life? Who says university is the only way he could have learned? He couldn’t have envisioned from his own emotions and projections that there is “a Divinity that shapes our ends?”

We need to stop looking for genius in certain places and under certain conditions. Even when we look back at bygone eras. For while I concede that there are many unusual facts and omissions in the life of William Shakespeare, I don’t conclude that those oddities make his authorship impossible. After all, someone who writes the stuff that changes the world is bound to stand out in some ways besides the words themselves. The extra something which made him stand out as a playwright in all likelihood did not stop at his pen. His uniqueness was almost certainly in evidence in every day life as well. How could it not be? Those who have the greatest impact usually are a bit weird.

Few examples of his handwriting? Maybe he had a tremor and dictated most of his stuff. No letters to or from him? Maybe he wrote none, or had them burned as a matter of privacy.  No funeral of note? Maybe he didn’t want one. Few records? They might have burned. 400 years is a long time.

And again, we know so little about the real man, whoever he was. Maybe anonymity and ambiguity in his later years is what he wanted. Maybe he tried to erase his own tracks. Maybe a man gets to a point after his 11 year old son dies when he says, “That’s it. I’m done. I don’t want to be William Shakespeare anymore. I’m tired of being the Miracle from Stratford. I just want to go home.” Maybe the Stratfordian was Too XYZ for all the notoriety, in the end, and tried to rid himself of it. Maybe he wanted his works to be what was remembered, and not his life.

Do I know he said this? Can I cite sources and cross reference? For the millionth time, no. I’m not about conducting research on this topic. I am about cutting the man, and people like him a break. People who show no logical reason why they be able to do what they do, but there they are. Those who contribute vast amounts to our collective social wealth, but who say and do the strangest things. Those who quite literally come from nowhere, and change us all, before returning back to nowhere.

I’d like to see people doubt such things less. Because if even if the Stratfordian didn’t write Hamlet, there will always be another example of someone coming from the obscure to do something great, and there will always be an army of people there to explain why it couldn’t possibly be true. Perhaps they are jealous more than anything.

But they shouldn’t be. We each can contribute. And we can each do something great if we are willing to accept that our greatness is not always, or even usually defined by where we are, but who we are, and what we want. Your individual greatness may not be as obvious as Shakespeare’s or Einstein’s. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

If you accept that your contributions are yours, and what is inside of you is inside of you regardless, it shouldn’t be too hard to believe that a glove maker’s son who sued people sat down and without knowing it, began to alter everything that humanity would ever be.

“I have touch’d the highest point of all my greatness;
And, from that full meridian of my glory,
I haste now to my setting: I shall fall
Like a bright exhalation in the evening,
And no man see me more.” —
Cardinal Wolsey, Henry VIII Act 3 Scene 2

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13 Comments

  1. Howard Schumann

    The few facts we know about Shakespeare from Stratford are stretched, pulled, and twisted to make it plausible that he was the author. There is nothing in his biography to connect him with the works. Indeed the opposite is true. Robert Bearman sums up Shakespeare's life as follows in “Shakespeare in the Stratford Records” (1994), published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: “Certainly, there is little, if anything, to remind us that we are studying the life of one who in his writings emerges as perhaps the most gifted of all time in describing the human condition. He seems merely to have been a man of the world, buying up property, laying in ample stocks of barley and malt, when others were starving, selling off his surpluses and pursuing debtors in court….”

    The Sonnets are written by a man who is clearly much older. Conventional chronology dates the sonnets to between 1592 and 1596. At this time, William of Stratford would have been in his late twenties and early thirties (Oxford was 14 years older). Even if we up the date to 1599, William of Stratford was still in his thirties. The sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was “Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity,” “With Time's injurious hand crushed and o'er worn”, in the “twilight of life”. He is lamenting “all those friends” who have died, “my lovers gone”. His is “That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold.”

    The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford's life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare's biographers have nothing to go on. In addition he refers to having “born the canopy” (Sonnet 125), a reference to carrying the canopy over the head of the monarch during a wedding procession. There is no evidence that the man from Stratford ever came within a thousand yards of the Queen or ever carried any canopy. It would have been forbidden to a commoner.

    Many books that were used as source material for the plays were not translated into English in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare's reliance on books in foreign languages puzzles the experts, so we can suppose all sorts of things rather than conclude the obvious. If the man who was Shakespeare regularly relied on books not yet translated from Italian, French, and Spanish, then he must have been able to read in Italian, French, and Spanish.

    The assumption behind the support for William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author has to be that he was no ordinary mortal because otherwise there is no accounting for the detailed knowledge of the law, foreign languages, Italy, the court and aristocratic society, and sports such as falconry, tennis, jousting, fencing, and coursing that appears in the plays. I do not have any doubt that genius can spring from the most unlikely of circumstances. The only problem here is that there is in this case no evidence to support it. Would the greatest writer in the English language have allowed his daughters to remain illiterate?

  2. This is the best article I have read in a long time, and I do read some (not all) of the 'theories' that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare.

    Maybe the targeting of him, specifically, in this time has to do with the commercial popularity of cinema, the most accessible form of drama in the 20th/21st so far centuries. Shakespeare is unique in that he represents a dramatist who appeared to have only become better with the increased demand of his work. I think the modern day artist/writer/film maker believes that the opposite is true: the more popular the work, the more hands go in the pot to fund projects, the less effective the artist becomes. Interestingly, this is not true for actors. In acting and only acting, increased demand equals increased quality of their work.

    If no one invented TV, we may have a whole army of scholars trying to pick apart DaVinci. I think the phenomenon of tearing down great people is universal, but the person chosen speaks volumes about the specific culture toppling the pedestal.

  3. I think part of the gripe some have is that it would have been hard for one person to have learned all the historical, literary, mythological, linguistic etc. facts that Shakespeare's plays evidence in the time Shakespeare had to do all of this. He died at 52, and most of his work was written between the time he was 27-48, during which time he also had all the duties attendant to helping run a company. Because it was extremely uncommon for non-nobles to have anything approximating higher education, and also given that he would have had to also make a living, this would suggest that in order to gain all of that knowledge, Shakespeare would have had to have been a self-taught man with a genius unlike anything seen in the history of human kind. Which could very well have been the case, but it would be unprecedented. I have some sympathy with the “Shakespeare may not have written all of the works attributed to him” view, but more because of the practical difficulties involved, as mentioned above. A noble would not have had the same practical difficulties. Higher education would have been readily available. as would have long periods of leisure during which one could read classics and write. This is why so many of the literati in various cultures through history have tended to be nobles–not because of greater intellectual capacity per se, but because they've got more free time and more access to education.

  4. As I said, I can't deny that there are arguments. But at the same time, ambiguity allows for both sides of the argument, if only due to the fact that scholars do have argument opposing each of the problems brought up by Howard, and they do so with plenty of evidence.

    But again, my purpose here is not so much to debate the claims. I consider myself an agnostic on the authorship question; we don't know for certain, nor can we know for certain, based on everything we have now. It is the nature of the debate, or at least some camps within the debate, on which I comment today.

  5. Howard Schumann

    Yes, Ty, there is an answer for everything. I'm sure the “scholars” had plenty of answers when people said the earth revolves around the sun instead of the other way around.

    What is important is to view the issue through the prism of logic and common sense rather than our wishes or ideals. I'm not interested in who could have written the canon but who did and I will take that wherever the evidence leads me and it is not to William of Stratford.

  6. Which is why, Howard you remain in a very small minority. The evidence suggested points just as clearly to Shakespeare as it does to anyone else, and that is no more a matter of my wishful thinking than your wholesale dismissing an entire body of counter-evidence of which there are multiple interpretation is true academia. Or for that matter even open minded preponderance.

    Both sides have an argument, some weaker than other, but neither is without merit. But further dismissive commentary on your part would be, and no more of it along that line will be published.

  7. Although I suspect (based on my reasoning above) that it could very well have been numerous people who were responsible for the Shakespearean corpus, I've never really been very interested in this question, mainly because regardless of who wrote such great works like Hamlet, Lear, Caesar, etc., they're *still* great works. The question of authorship seems to be an obsession of western society beginning after Shakespeare's own time that many other cultures and times didn't share. No one knows who wrote Homer's epics, the Bhagavad Gita, the Analects, etc, etc. and really no one cares, except in cases of interpretation in which it might help us to figure out what's being said in a text to know facts about the author's other views and life. I'm not sure all the ink spilled on the subject among academics in literature is worth it. Our understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare's great works shouldn't change whether they were written by him or by a noble. I simply take 'Shakespeare' to refer to whoever wrote those plays and poems, just like we commonly use 'Homer' to refer to whoever (whether individual or group) wrote the epics, and 'Laozi' to whatever group of people (and in this case it probably was a group) who wrote the Daodejing.

  8. Also–even if someone else was responsible for some (or all) of the works attributed to Shakespeare, Francis Bacon and Queen Elizabeth sound a bit far fetched to me. Elizabeth (at least for the plays) because most of Shakespeare's females seem to me definitely the work of a man, often crudely or simplistically drawn and shallow. Bacon because he wrote so much other stuff, and the Shakespeare works aren't his style. King James is slightly more plausible, but still I doubt it.

  9. With minimal knowledge of this “Shakespearean was not really Shakespeare” conspiracy theory, based on what I have read above; the notion that someone from humble beginnings would not be educated enough to write this is ludicrous. Shakespearean plays, prose, and poetry is not about education; it's about life, love, loss, and how they all tie together in different settings. One does not need to be noble nor educated to know about life. On the contrary, I would argue that it would be the 'plebeian' or common folk who would have a true view of these subjects; a view that is not jaded by education or nobility. Noble life was 'fake' life – it wasn't lived like the masses. Shakespeare had the ability to touch and draw in masses and masses of people. In order to connect to the masses, I believe one must be a part of the masses.

  10. Once more into the breach, dear friends…

    He wouldn't have known he was SHAKE-SPEARE. The guy who wrote the plays could not have known what he would become.

    The plays aren't 100% genius. Eighteen of them had a genesis and birth and life of their own during the Poet's lifetime.

    These 18 weren't the best he had to offer but they still went thru several editions.

    These 18 plays had been played, heard and seen in Public theatre and read by whoever bought them. To this some fame and profit is attached.

    No one questioned their authorship. And many would have known the playwright pretending to be a playwright who's only an average actor with the Lord Chamberlain's Men.

    All his fellow playwrights, the Principal actors and sharers were then liars and duplicitous in perverting History (his story).

    To what extent has a conspiracy like this ever been perpetrated in the History of the arts. Name one other example!

    Foreign languages can and were learned by others in Elizabethan times. As now when I have my own authority for doing so.

    The example that slave to authority scholars ignore it now (when God and the author are dead) just like their pre-copernican counterparts is vacuous. The impact on humankind of knowing the earth revolves around the sun is in no way comparable with finding out these plays were written by someone else.

    Because as you point out: the case is not closed because of what you may consider to be biographical inconsistencies. Nothing prevents the Stratford man from being the author, except not wanting him to be.

    And more importantly the status quo is not disturbed by finding out someone else did. There is no effect on your enjoyment of the plays and poems by knowing it was someone else.

    In medicine Gabriel Harvey had the idea that blood is pumped around the body by the heart. Considered a ridiculous idea by scholars at first then accepted as scientific fact.

    Medical authority was debated by the lay practioners, the Barber-Surgeons Company who were licensed to practice medical procedures with tools; and the learned College of Physicians who studied and held degress and (presumably) superior intelligence.

    Now we will never know who saved the more lives, but the essence of the authorship debate lives in this split.

    Do we trust the man with the degree? Or that bloody man who will remove the shard of glass from your eye?

    Shakespeare then is either a Natural Historian, or a University trained Intellect.

    My vote goes to the man steeped in the dye of what he worked in. In fact that complete understanding of the Natural world and human behaviour within it, is what his first commentators focused on. Not his learning.

    Numeracy was far more valued in his time by the 'common' man than literacy. But both were available to those that wanted it.

    Besides illiteracy does not mean you are stupid. Many second and third sons of Nobility were as illiterate as the people they lorded it over.

    The authorship problem comes down to the split in Society Coriolanus worried about: the Noble mind versus the common mind.

    Either of which can be found in either segment of society.

    A common man is able to develop a noble mind. It's far more difficult for privilige to descend to the level of the common man.

    Oxfordians et al should spend more time on gathering real evidentiary proof than knocking down the man who rightfully sits on the throne of SHakespeare.

    ramble over.
    out.
    WS

    PS the sonnets were composed anywhere from 1593-1608 during which time Shakespeare aged.

  11. I think this debate frequently gets hung up on a miscommunication. The Stratfordians say, “Those who propose a noble author have a pro-aristocratic bias! They refused to acknowledge that a great artist could have humble beginnings!”

    But from what I know of Oxfordians (probably the largest alternate-authorship contingent these days), that isn't their position at all.

    They don't champion the Earl of Oxford because “only a nobleman could have been such a genius”, or because they snobbishly look down upon the middle classes. They favor Oxford because of evidence in the texts.

    Specifically, the plays and poems are littered with references to law, history, mythology, court protocol, foreign languages and customs, Italian cities, aristocratic pursuits (e.g. falconry), and other things, which a commoner would have been unlikely to know much about.

    It's certainly possible that a commoner could learn something about some of those subjects. But to know so much about all of them? Improbable at best.

    I suggest that Stratfordians actually tend to have a kind of “anti-snobbery” — a pro-middle-class bias — that causes them to preemptively reject the possibility of Oxford's authorship.

    Look, I'm a born and bred member of the middle class myself, with no pretensions to anything greater. I believe that genius can flower in all sorts of places. But knowledge is different from genius.

    And what we often forget is that Elizabethan society was vastly more class-stratified than our own. Class mobility was extremely rare, very difficult, and widely frowned upon. You were born into your place in life, and generally stayed there.

    Maybe Shakespeare of Stratford miraculously acquired all that learning by getting a university-level education at the Stratford grammar school, and then somehow becoming a member of the aristocratic social scene and hearing the latest gossip about the court and Europe. Does this seem likely to you? It doesn't to me.

  12. The issue has never been what is “likely”. So I don't comment on that. It has been the embrace of the unlikley. Even the miraculous.

  13. OK Miraculous would be for the Oxfordian candidate to be the illegitimate son of Elizabeth 1st who then fathers with his mother the earl of southampton and for nobody to comment upon this. Next March when Anonymous comes out this will be the debate.

    My comment on class holds true if you examine the Oxfodian claims as well as you examine the Stratford claims. As an English working class boy I palpably felt the difference. Privilige is always ready to look down, as the the others are taught to look up to their betters.

    SO knowledge and genius are different. But what exactly is the nature of this knowledge and genius?

    Which aristocratic pursuits are you referring to?

    Fencing? All Elizabethan actors had to be good swordsman to make their pathetic duels etc look convincing. Jousting barely occurs in the plays except for Richard 2nd and then only as a location.

    Poetry was the big one and in that Sh had a patron for his best selling poems in the aforementioned Earl of Southampton, coincidentally a distant relative of SH's mother's family the Ardens.

    Tennis maybe? You can know of a sport and not practice it.

    Falconry is easily explained as Sh is a country boy. The Earls didn't look after their own falcons. They had gamekeepers and falconers i.e. commoners, who knew as much if not more than the Earls might. Does Tiger Woods' caddy know more or less about golf even though he doesn't play to the level Tiger does?

    Besides the priest who ran the church in the village where Sh's wife came from, was known as the local falcon doctor.

    Just where is this knowledge of Italian cities in the plays? For that matter just what knowledge do the plays and poems show that is beyond the Stratford man's grasp?

    John Dee, a commoner, had the largest library in Elizabethan England. It was used like a Platonic Academy with many students of knowledge taking advantage of its resources. The Oxfordians never mention this fact. I have their books.

    Sh's troupe played at Court. The Court needed commoners to run smoothly. At the lowest level, commoners who would have been steeped in protocol. Holinshed's chronicles give examples of how Courtiers Kings and Nobles spoke. In the History plays they were sometimes put verbatim into the plays.

    Mythology was covered in seven or eight years of Latin instruction at Grammar school. Every middle class boy had a grounding in it.

    Rhetoric the main subject at schools and obsession of the time is a system teaching you to write in the 3 levels: plain, middle, and high. Nobles and commoners learned these differences. Besides nobody speaks in verse, common or noble.

    Noblemen and their servants mingled with the hoi polloi far more than they do now. At bear baiting and theatre. Besides 2nd, 3rd and 4th sons of Noble families were often impoverished and out of privilige. And in London looking to further themselves.

    Foreign languages are spoken by commoners as well as Nobles. There is no exclusivity to language learning. You just have to want to. And know people of that nationality and language. London was filled with Italians and French. Sh's French in Henry V is ok but by no means fluent.

    Sh's genius and knowledge are knowing how to make a good play for people that he worked with for some 30 years. His biography is ultimately irrelevant.

    I agree the biography as fed to us by the luvvies of the world is sickeningly sweet and convenient. That doesn't make it untrue.

    nuff said,

    Will

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