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