In light of the birthday of the Bard (April 23 - close to the time I wrote this essay), I've been contemplating the momentous role William Shakespeare had on our culture and society. He defined so many archetypes of plot, drama and relationships that, at least according to Harold Bloom, he invented our current notions of personality and relationships (Shakespeare: Invention of the Human).
Shakespeare's influence on our language alone is tremendous. The list of popular phrases that continue in use today is worth a book alone. Did you know that there are between 25,000 and 29,000 different words in Shakespeare's works - many in print for the first time? Compare that to the average person's vocabulary of 5,000 words. The King James Bible only has 6,000 different words in it.
Im sometimes convinced most people today have vocabularies of less than 1,000 words especially marketing types and sales managers. That's the result of growing up with TV as your major source of education and culture, coupled with a dogged persistence in not learning anything new when you reach adulthood. How often I hear people say "I seen" and "yous guys"... and don't even get me started on the number of people online who can't tell the difference between its and it's, they're, there and their... But I digress...
In my meditations on the Bard and his influence, I've been reading and re-reading Shakespeares plays and poems.
Or have I?
Not everyone agrees that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. The challenge to his authorship isn't new: for the last three centuries it's been the most popular whodunit of literature: trying to uncover the true identity of the author of the world's greatest dramas and comedies. I can't think of another author of note in the world who is considered not to have written the works under which his or her name is penned. Even Shakespeare's many contemporaries are considered the author of the works under their names - Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher, for example. But not Bill the Bard.
Many candidates have been proposed to fill the perceived gap, including Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), Francis Bacon (1561-1626), the Earl of Rutland, even Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603). Most of them have been discounted and fallen from favour (except for a few diehard Baconites who still maintain Web pages espousing his candidacy, a bit like the Flat Earth Society of literature) - not least because most died before Shakespeare's works stopped being written. Explanations as to how dead people continued to write stretch credulity.
Some 4,000 books have been written about the authorship question since it was first raised around 1780, and the controversy has drawn in many famous names: Mark Twain, Walt Whitman and Sigmund Freud are among those who doubt Shakespeare actually wrote Shakespeare. Many doubters base their stand on emotional, rather than historical, arguments.
The latest contender (proposed in this century) is Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). His defenders - called Oxfordians - are from what I can tell, an eccentric but determined lot. Few of them seem to have the academic backgrounds of their adversaries, known as the Stratfordians. But they're eager, active and intrepid in advancing De Vere's role as the real author behind the works attributed to Shakespeare... so much so that they spell the "Stratford Man's" name Shakspear to differentiate him from the author, Shakespeare. (Shakspeare is one of the variant spellings of the name that appear on one of the few discovered documents that bear his signature.)
The emergence of De Vere as the prime candidate in the stable of wannabe-bards started in 1920 when his first researcher, with the unfortunate name of Thomas Looney (pronounced, we're told by rather defensive Oxfordians, as "Low-ney") advanced the case for Oxford. Support has more recently been given by prestigious actors like John Gielgud, Michael York and Derek Jackobi - and also Keanu Reeves, whose alliance to the cause may not lend it a lot of extra credibility, except to the three people who thought Speed was a credit to the film industry or that his perpetual condition of stunned belligerence in The Matrix is somehow related to acting. Sorry, I digress again...
The controversy over Oxfords authorship broke out of its normally scholarly boundaries when PBS aired a TV show on the debate in 1993, which ignited interest in the argument (and provided one of those rare moments that showed TV is not entirely beyond redemption, at least in the case of public broadcasting). In the past few years it has resurfaced in popular media, with articles in many newspapers and magazines, bolstered by a whole new raft of books espousing one side or the other. Unfortunately many of the books wade through the mire of picayune scholarship, endlessly treading over minuscule points and conjecture, counterattacking the opposition's latest challenge with more erudite salvos. Hardly stirring stuff for the mass market.
Maybe if someone came out with a "Who Wrote Shakespeare?" colouring book it could capture the attention of the masses... or if we saw an episode of the Simpsons about the issue...
Not all of the authors have significant credibility, however. John Mitchell, a New Age author, threw himself into the fray in 1996 with his book, Who Wrote Shakespeare? Mitchell is known for his work The View Over Atlantis (revised in 1988 as The New View Over Atlantis), which ties the pyramids, Stonehenge and stone circles with the legendary Atlantis, plus tossing in a handful of now debunked charlatans including William Reich, Edgar Cayce, Ignatius Donnelly and Immanuel Velikovsky. A book by a man who believes in self-levitation, numerology, Atlantis and communication with the dead is not likely to be taken terribly seriously by more scholarly Shakespearean aficionados on any side. But perhaps to the crowd that believes astrology is a science and crystals are healing devices, his voice is not lost.
Mitchell's solution, by the way, is very much in Agatha Christie's style: everyone. Yes, he makes Shakespeare into a group author, the works penned by everyone who's ever been suspected. Including the Bard himself. Sorry if I spoiled it for you (P.S, Rosebud was the name of Kane's sleigh...)
My research into the debate took me into the deepest realms of the Internet, that abyss of academe where the Net is at its best: presenting scholarly arguments, research and erudition with nary a pop-up ad in sight. The fight has spread across the Net, with each side sprouting Web sites like dandelions on my lawn, to defend its cause, taking the arguments daily into forums where the contestants battle digitally against one another in sometimes aggressive cross-posts. Over a period of a few sessions, I downloaded several hundred pages of often vituperative thrust and parry in the argument over authorship. Wonderful stuff and highly entertaining! It reads like the editorials in late 19th century newspapers.
If the arguments sound so much like kids squabbling over who owns the ball in a school yard soccer game, it's deadly serious for the academics involved and reputations are made and broken in the world of print. Their arguments, as I see them, can be summarized thus:
This list doesn't even get into the more arcane issues of chronology, manuscript publication and Elizabethan copyright, contemporary records, missing documents, and the politics of Elizabeth's court etc. Youll have to read (and surf) somewhat deeper to flesh the points out, but you should get the general drift from what Ive included.
You might recognize by now my sympathies lie mostly with the Stratfordians. I'm skeptical about the Oxfordian side because it's based on a lot of conjecture, circumstance, sleight-of-hand, and missing documentation. But absence of proof isn't proof of absence. For me, their argument has the same sort of fatuous "faith-not-facts" approach that creationists use to present their wobbly arguments.
And there's an over-riding scent of conspiracy theory here, like the UFO buffs who sense secrecy in government claims of innocence about an alleged Area 51 location. Perhaps we need to find mystery in such areas as Shakespeare's works or UFOs simply because we have no real mystery left in the world. The romance went out of travel and exploration when TV cameras went to the top of Everest and down to the Titanic. Technological wizardry may be entertaining, but it's not romantic or exciting. To fulfill our need for something occult and mysterious, we dip deep into other realms, plunging into the murky waters of history to surface with a new treasure we can admire.
However contrived they may appear, the arguments for Oxford-as-Shakespeare do make some interesting points that can't be overlooked. And their efforts are good for scholarship because they've forced their opponents into the field to do hard research to counter their contentions, a boon for historians and critics alike. Elizabethan England has never been so well-researched, so well-documented before.
Truth or fiction, the debate is amusing, entertaining and enlightening. I've learned much about Shakespeare, his works and his times from reading the discussions in this heated debate. It's also a lot of fun to watch academics get into the mud pit and wrestle each other. It's worth the effort to surf the Net for their home pages, or at least ask at the library for some of the books central to this argument. These include:
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you want to add your two cents' worth or to just comment. Check back again. Last update: March 26, 2005.
Post your comments, opinions, and ask questions on the Mumpsimous FORUM.