In search of the real Bard: 
Who actually wrote Shakespeare?

shake2.gif (10328 bytes)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.

I’m 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 Shakespeare’s 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 Oxford’s 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:

  • Both sides depend on a lot of circumstantial evidence or third-party references. There simply was no complete surviving play or poem written in Shakespeare's hand (although there is some suggestion that three pages of Sir Thomas More may be in Shakespeare´┐Żs hand), and all of the attributions of authorship come from others. On the other hand, there is no proof or even contemporary attribution that Oxford wrote them either. And although a few poems of Oxford's survive, none of the plays he's alleged to have written remain.

  • Shakespeare, son of a middle-class townsman, had at best a limited education at an Elizabethan grammar school supplemented by his own reading later in life. De Vere, an aristocrat, studied in Cambridge. The plays suggest a learned author well-versed in the classics and probably able to read Greek and Latin, maybe even French. On the other hand, Tom Clancy was an insurance salesman when he wrote The Hunt For Red October with its insights into then-secret Soviet sub technology. I don’t buy this argument because it rejects the idea that autodidacts can create works of art. Shakespeare could simply have been been like tofu: able to absorb culture from his surroundings. And too, Marlow and Jonson, two of his contemporaries, had similar backgrounds. Despite allegedly superior education, the author made some terrific gaffes in his history and geography that a truly learned author should have avoided (like giving Bohemia a coastline - unless he did this solely to irk Jonson)!

  • Shakespeare's name appears spelled in various ways, including Shaksper. Oxfordians claim this was a different person from Shakespeare, who was actually only a pseudonym anyway (the Oxford coat of arms shows a lion "shaking" a broken spear). Oxford never seemed to misspell his name. Then again, from what I can see of Elizabethan literature, spelling was generally not considered critical for content. Sort of like marketing people today. It's hard to argue for correct spelling as a measure of culture or competence in a world where ez-clean, donut, lite and nite are accepted as valid words in our mass market advertising. Keep in mind, it would be more than a century before Dr. Johnson embarked on his ambitious project to create a comprehensive English dictionary (1755). prior to 1676, the most complete English "dictionary" had only 5,000 words.

  • What constitutes reasonable proof or documentary evidence for one side is denigrated by the other side as arbitrary, circumstantial or irrelevant. The only thing they apparently can agree on is that the works were actually written by someone and published around the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries. No one seems to even actually agree on whether certain apocryphal works should be associated with the rest of the canon - Two Noble Kinsmen, Edward III, A Funeral Elegy and a few others are sometimes collected in the works, sometimes discarded.

  • Oxfordians say Shakespeare was an illiterate, untutored, boorish peasant. Stratfordians say De Vere was a philanderer, gambler, adulterer and wastrel who wasted his family's fortune. As a result, both sides say the other guy wasn't competent to write such magnificent works. I have enjoyed works by people who share many (even all) of these qualities - Malcolm Lowry, Dylan Thomas, D.H. Lawrence, Casanova, James Joyce, and E. R. Burroughs to name a few on my bookshelf - so I doubt these are necessarily good yardsticks to judge a person's creative output. And should I even mention de Sade here? Are manners a valid yardstick to measure talent?

  • De Vere's supporters have a slight problem with the earl's untimely death in 1604, since Stratfordian scholars date many of the plays to as late as 1613. Shakespeare died in 1616, enough time to write everything if you believe the traditional dating. No problem: Oxfordians rally with the counterattack that the dates are arbitrary, and De Vere actually wrote them much earlier and they were simply published later. Time becomes very relative, in the Einsteinian sense, in this part of the debate. However, it condenses the output of the Earl into a very short time, leaving him little time to do much else he is reputed to have done.

  • Oxfordians ask if Shakespeare was so famous, why weren't his praises sung by his contemporaries, unless, of course, they knew the real author behind the dupe. Stratfordians point out that the play was the thing, not the playwright, and many people didn't know or care who wrote the plays, just who played in them. Do you know who wrote the screenplay for Gone With the Wind? Star Trek First Contact? Lost World? Titanic? Do you care?  Neither did the Elizabethans, most likely. Despite our reverence for them today, these plays were mostly written and produced as entertainment then (they're full of bawdy lines, scurrilous political and social commentary, and contemporary jokes, most of which we don't get today). Also, the ownership of the written works was not always credited to the author as it would be today: the company of players was often the more important name (and they didn't have powerful screen guilds o protect them!).

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. You’ll have to read (and surf) somewhat deeper to flesh the points out, but you should get the general drift from what I’ve 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:

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