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.