Friday, April 23, 2010

Five Alleged Authors of Shakespeare's Plays

Greetings from Los Angeles. Sorry for the silence of the last couple of days, but a combination of jet lag, overcommitment, severe attention deficit and limited daytime Internet access has meant that something had to give. If you are anywhere in the area, please come to Westwood tonight for the Mystery Bookstore's traditional kick-off party for the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, happening on the UCLA campus tomorrow and Sunday. I'd offer to buy you a drink, but the drinks are free. (So actually . . .)

Today is St. George's day and the day traditionally celebrated as the birthday of William Shakespeare. It is also the day William Shakespeare died, in 1616 (although the calendars have changed since then, so it's not really an anniversary, but I'm already having enough trouble with Pacific time, so never mind).

I think it is always a mistake to underestimate the creative or destructive capacity of a single human being. I think Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and I think William Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name. But over the past 400 years, quite a few people have insisted that Shakespeare was too poor, too uneducated, too untraveled, and generally too common to have written the plays that stand at the heart of English literature. People have also developed elaborate theories about how the plays themselves are an elaborate system of coded messages, because it couldn't possibly have been enough just to entertain the masses.

Here are five candidates for authorship, if you really don't want to believe in the man from Stratford.

1. Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550–1604). He was a poet, playwright, and sponsor of at least two acting companies. He was among the best-educated men of his day, studying at both Cambridge and Oxford, and despite his marriage to Anne Cecil, was a favorite and possible lover of Queen Elizabeth I. At various points in his extraordinary career he killed an unarmed man in a fencing accident (the man, an undercook, was deemed to have committed suicide by running intoxicated onto the point of de Vere's foil); he was kidnapped by pirates; he fought in the Battle of the Spanish Armada; and he sired at least seven children by three different women (two of whom, to be fair, were his wives). The "Oxfordian" theory of authorship says that de Vere wrote Shakespeare's plays but could not take credit for them because of his social standing. Advocates have included Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, David McCullough, Sir John Gielgud, and Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens. But how, you ask, could the Earl of Oxford have written Shakespeare's plays when he died in 1604, and 13 of those plays (including Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest) were not performed until 1604 or later? Well, keep reading.

2. Sir Francis Bacon, 1561–1626. Francis Bacon is known to schoolchildren as the inventor of the "scientific method," more accurately known as the Baconian method for identifying the form, nature and cause of a phenomenon. He also developed his own theory of an ideal society, which he called "New Atlantis," and argued that the quest for truth required liberation from the four idols: the tribe, the den, the marketplace, and the theater. I have only recently started reading up on Francis Bacon, for a project of my own, and I have to say he's an enchanting figure; it makes sense that I wouldn't have heard much about him in my own predominantly Catholic education, because he and the Church saw things from very different points of view. Despite his encyclopedic knowledge, wit, energy, etc., the idea that might be responsible for Shakespeare's plays didn't come to the public's attention until a brilliant, troubled American woman named Delia Bacon (no relation) published a massive book laying out the theory in 1857. Few people have actually read Delia Bacon's book — it's not for the faint of heart — but the theory has survived, rooted in elaborate code-breaking games and attracting adherents such as Mark Twain and Friedrich Nietzsche.

3. Christopher Marlowe, 1564-1593. Marlowe, a playwright, courtier, and suspected spy, was stabbed to death at the age of 29 — or was he? Hailed as the greatest tragedian of his time, Marlowe is the credited author of seven plays, including The Jew of Malta and Doctor Faustus, as well as a fair amount of poetry and translations of Latin poetry. To believe that Marlowe was the author of Shakespeare's plays, you'd have to believe that he had some reason for not wanting credit for the Richard III, The Comedy of Errors, and the three-play cycle of Henry VI, all produced more or less contemporaneously with Marlowe's own work, and that he faked his own death but could not quit the theater. It's a fun idea, but it's a stretch.

4. William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, 1561-1642. First cousin three times removed to Queen Elizabeth I; his great-grandmother was Henry VII's sister Mary, making Elizabeth I and his grandmother, Eleanor Clifford, first cousins. He was also the son-in-law of Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford. He traveled extensively, fighting tournaments in France and Spain, and was probably Her Majesty's spy during trips to Italy, Eqypt, Palestine and Turkey. The theory of his responsibility for Shakespeare's plays rests primarily on a couple of letters written by a Jesuit spy in 1599, which referred to the Earl of Derby "penning plays for the common players," which might have been the literal truth, might have been a metaphor, or might have been a code; he did finance at least two groups of players, and his initials, like Shakespeare's, were "W.S."

5. All of the above, and then some. The "group theory" explains how "William Shakespeare" could have continued to write plays after the deaths of Oxford and Marlowe by claiming that the plays were produced by a collective over a period of decades. Some theories postulate that this group used the plays to send secret messages among themselves; Delia Bacon liked this idea, and believed that Francis Bacon headed a cabal that included Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser. Having participated in writers' groups, writing workshops and various collaborations, I find this theory the most unlikely of all. An infinite number of monkeys typing for an infinite period of time might well produce Hamlet, but a committee of human beings? Not a chance.

8 comments:

Kevin Wignall said...

I've never really become involved in this discussion - to me, the fact that they were written is far more important - but I saw some convincing arguments a few years ago about the sporadic use of Warwickshire dialect throughout the plays, suggesting not only sole authorship, but something along the lines of, "you can take the boy out of Stratford, but... etc."


Your initial premise, of course, is also completely correct. One only has to consider the output of Dickens or Picasso or, perhaps most extraordinary given his short life, Mozart, to know that some individuals can not help but create.

Ben-Jonson said...

"But how, you ask, could the Earl of Oxford have written Shakespeare's plays when he died in 1604, and 13 of those plays (including Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and The Tempest) were not performed until 1604 or later? Well, keep reading."

Actually, answer girl, I didn't ask that. You did. I will,however, answer it:

http://www.briefchronicles.com.

Please see the lead article for the first issue. By your logic, your hero cannot have written the Shakespearean works either, since he died seven years before 17 of them were published, and before at least four of them were ever mentioned by anyone else.

You also might want to check up on your rather breezy summary of the earl of Oxford's bio and the basis for the longstanding attribution of the plays to him, neither of which are very accurate, even for a short blog.

As for your initial premise, of which Mr. Wignall approves, it mistakes the nature of literary creativity, which is quite different than creativity in fields not involving language. Ironically, it is creative people who have historically recognized the problems with the orthodox view of authorship and often endorsed the case for de Vere's authorship.

I recommend Mark Anderson's *Shakespeare by Another Name* as a good starting point.

http://www.shake-speares-bible.com
http://www.shakespearefellowship.org

Best wishes,

Ben

Kevin Wignall said...

Ben, I'm open-minded about this issue, and as I said, the issue of authorship matters less to me than the existence of the works themselves.

But I have to take issue with a couple of your points. Firstly, you say -

"As for your initial premise, of which Mr. Wignall approves, it mistakes the nature of literary creativity, which is quite different than creativity in fields not involving language."

Well, I think I understand the nature of literary creativity, and whilst I would agree that painting can be quite a primal (and therefore swift) art-form, the composition of orchestral music is, if anything, even more studied than the written form, making the output of Mozart or Haydn all the more remarkable.

You also say -

"Ironically, it is creative people who have historically recognized the problems with the orthodox view of authorship and often endorsed the case for de Vere's authorship."

Well, again, I'm one of those creative people, and I haven't studied this subject in detail but I'm not quite sure why we would doubt Shakespeare's ability to write the plays. The man wrote commercial plays to a hectic schedule, using a mixture of his limited formal education and knowledge acquired afterwards. I suspect there were plenty of hack playwrights doing exactly the same at that time, using the same (often dubious) historical sources. What sets Shakespeare apart is his natural talent, and that's a gift that's blind to education or class.

As I say, you may well be right, but I think some of the reasons people have for questioning Shakespeare's authorship are slight.

AnswerGirl said...

And I'll add this, as someone who spends approximately a third of her life in theatrical endeavors of one kind or another. The big piece of Shakespeare that the anti-Stratfordians forget or ignore is that the plays were written as PLAYS, not as poetry and not even as printed literature. I see no great mystery or surprise in the years of lag between the plays' original performances and their appearance as printed works; in a semi-literate society, you wouldn't have needed to print the plays until the people involved in the original productions started dying off.

In his day, Shakespeare was the Elizabethan version of a television writer. His goal was not to create lasting art but to generate content that would bring people into a theater, thus creating a revenue stream for a troupe of performers and their managers. The need to create that revenue stream has always been a powerful motivator of Art, and should not be discounted.

I know wealthy writers, I know poor writers, and I know authors who started out poor and became wealthy — and my empirical observation is that the writers who started out poor and became rich are the most creative, the most prolific, and the most likely to produce lasting work.

Ben-Jonson said...

Hi Kevin,

Thank you for your moderate and thoughtful reply.

May I suggest that, since you admit that you don't know that much about the topic, you consider reading Mark Anderson's Shakespeare By Another Name, or even Charlton Ogburn's 1984/1991 Mysterious William Shakespeare? Either of these books would give you some idea of the lay of the land from the Oxfordian perspective.

Now to some particulars. You write that “the man wrote commercial plays to a hectic schedule, using a mixture of his limited formal education and knowledge acquired afterwards.”

As someone who does have a solid grounding in the theatrical history of the Elizabethan age, I can assure you that describing Shakespeare's plays as primarily commercial is not an option for anyone aware of the real politics of the age to which the plays are manifestly responding. For example, although Troilus and Cressida was apparently performed at least once, there is no independent performance history of the play for many subsequent decades. It was no commercial hit and cannot have been written primarily for that purpose. Coleridge admits to running away from it because all the characters "seem to have gone to school,” in search of some other Shakespearean topic on which he could digress without fear of making himself a fool.

You say that Shakespeare had a "limited formal education." I beg to differ, nor do I think anyone who had more than a superficial acquaintance (which, regrettably, includes quite a number of people who call themselves experts) with the actual contents of the plays would concur. Troilus and Cressida, which I cite above, is but one example.

To consider law as another -- a topic taught at the Inns of Court and not at the Stratford grammar school -- a long and distinguished tradition of commentary by the best trained legal minds in the history of anglo-American jurisprudence (much of which can now be accessed on the internet, here: http://www.sourcetext.com/lawlibrary/) testifies that Shakespeare's knowledge of the law was that of a legal scholar of considerable insight.

The real question is not how well educated Shakespeare was, but what he *did* with this education. The Shakespearean plays are filled with literary enigmas which the Stratfordian school has preferred to ignore rather than even acknowledge. Take, for example, the 5.1 As You Like It scene between William and Touchstone. No one who understands the nature of interpretative problems can possibly be satisfied by the facile glosses which the orthodox commentators supply to this passage. The Oxfordians, on the other hand, do understand what the passage is about, and have said so on numerous occasions in a whole series of intriguing articles, of which this one (http://www.shakespearefellowship.org/virtualclassroom/comedies/mcneilasyoulikeit.htm) by Alex McNeil is a good example (I don't agree entirely with his approach, but I do agree with his conclusions).
You conclude by saying that but "I think some of the reasons people have for questioning Shakespeare's authorship are slight."

In light of your own admission that you don't know much about the topic, I would respectfully suggest that you are hardly in a position to make generalizations about other people's motivation or knowledge.

I will let Shake-Speare" -- as the name is spelled on the 1609 Sonnets, have the last word:


After my death, dear love, forget me quite,
For you in me can nothing worthy prove;
Unless you would devise some virtuous lie,
To do more for me than mine own desert,
And hang more praise upon deceased I
Than niggard truth would willingly impart:
O, lest your true love may seem false in this,
That you for love speak well of me untrue,
My name be buried where my body is,
And live no more to shame nor me nor you.

Do you really think that was written by a happy-go-lucky commercial playwright?

Best wishes,

Ben

Ben-Jonson said...

Hi Answer Girl:

You say:

"The big piece of Shakespeare that the anti-Stratfordians forget or ignore is that the plays were written as PLAYS, not as poetry and not even as printed literature."

May I ask you how you know that anti-Stratfordians "forget" this? Are you including Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacoby and Michael York in that generalization? Are you including Kristin Linklater, Vannessa Redgrave, and Paul Nicholson -- the executive director of the largest Shakespeare festival in the world -- all of them avowed anti-Stratfordians (and all but Nicholson and, possibly, Redgrave, Oxfordians). Do they "forget" that these are plays?

Speaking for myself, I never forget that they are plays. The Shakespeare class I teach is largely devoted to having students read aloud from the plays and discuss such critical questions as motivation, symbolism,subtext, and character. But like all plays, these also were written by a particular person in a particular time and place, and the notion that because they are plays they can or should be hermetically sealed from their surroundings and treated in vacuo as some kind of completely independent "thing" which is composed of pure fancy is a notion that any practicing playwright knows in her heart of hearts is balderdash.

Your comment does, however, put a finger on the pulse of the real problem in the authorship debate: far too many people on the traditional side feel that they are empowered to debate a position about which they are, to a greater or lesser degree, grossly ignorant. To fill in what they don't know they go about constructing straw men and women with a cavalier disregard for reality. Prove me wrong by learning something. I dare you.

Best Wishes,

Ben

AnswerGirl said...

Ben-Jonson, I can't imagine why you'd expect me to waste any more time on someone who doesn't even use his own name on line. This is clearly your area of specialized research. I am a generalist, who has for the last year been doing a great deal of research on Delia Bacon and her theories. I can say with absolute certainty that Miss Bacon did not see the plays as primarily theatrical entertainments. She had no personal background in or understanding of theater, which is evident in the "play" she wrote herself; it just wasn't her medium, or her background.

You win. You bore me. Please go away now.

AnswerGirl said...

I've just bought this book, and look forward to reading it: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/books/review/McCarter-t.html?src=un&feedurl=http%3A%2F%2Fjson8.nytimes.com%2Fpages%2Fbooks%2Freview%2Findex.jsonp