The Shakespeare Authorship Question: Why it matters
< ©1995 by Charles Vere
I want to start by asking a question: “Why is the authorship question coming to a resolution now as we approach the beginning of the 21st Century? The answer to the question is essentially a political one. Our society is now preoccupied with many of the central issues that concerned Elizabethan society at the end of the 16th Century, and since that was a society in which Shakespeare loomed large, it is vitally important for us to understand who he was and what it was he was trying to say.
The grand political and philosophical dynamic in Shakespeare’s plays is the conflict between feudalism and capitalism. And the question underpinning this dynamic is: “Should the main form of exchange between human beings be capital rather than spiritual?” Or to put it another way: “Should the spirit of opportunism override society’s commitment to spiritual growth?” This question is made manifest in King Lear through the contrasting mottoes of Edmund and Edgar, namely “Men are as the time is” [opportunism] versus “Ripeness is all” [spiritual growth]. As we have seen to our cost today, the philosophy of political opportunism, which is driven by an all-consuming sense of commercialism, leads to the exploitation both of human beings and the land. It was Oxford’s father-in-law, Lord Burghley, the real life Polonius, who exemplified this latter spirit.
For Oxford himself, on the other hand, it was through the spirit of feudalism that man could live a dignified and fulfilling life without exploiting others and without alienating himself from the land and from the natural hierarchies that underlie all human society. For it is Oxford who is speaking when Ulysses exclaims in Act I, scene iii, of Troilus & Cressida:
O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick.
And later in the same speech:
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows.
Each thing melts In mere oppugnancy
Oxford, then, is prophetic in his plays, because he understands that dog-eats-dog commercialism destroys the structure and cohesiveness of society, and leads to greed, envy, hatred, paranoia and an overwhelming sense of aimlessness.
Now, at the end of the 20th Century, when capitalism and commercialism rage unchecked at the expense of spiritual exchange, Shakespeare’s message is particularly important to us. We seem to be at a turning point; people are reassessing their fundamental political values. The flame of capitalism burns so brightly not because it has found more fuel, but because it sputters. We are turning towards a society which will, I believe, be neo-feudal in its outlook and spirit. It is a society which Shakespeare advocated at the end of the 16th Century; but he was not heeded. Men chose the mercenary route. Now once again we are confronted with the same choice, except this time the consequences of taking the wrong path will be irreparably catastrophic. This is why finally, after all these centuries, we must allow Shakespeare’s true message to be heard and understood. And in order to do that we must first recognize and come to terms with who this man was. For Shakespeare was not, as the academics maintain, all things to all men, a man in fact without opinions or beliefs, a mere cipher for his unimaginable talent. Rather he was one of the great spiritual teachers of mankind, and his individual voice is unmistakable in the plays. Understand the man, and you understand the message.
So the short answer to the question “Why is the authorship question being resolved now?” is: BECAUSE IT DESPERATELY NEEDS TO BE RESOLVED. Because of his universal appeal, Shakespeare can furnish mankind with the key to its future development. This sounds grandiose, but then Shakespeare’s work is grandiose, and, in the case of a play like King Lear, apocalyptic as well. Indeed Shakespeare is in no doubt of the magnitude of his work for mankind when he says through Hamlet:
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right.” [I. v. 196–7]
It’s almost as if the Stratford myth has had the effect of putting the plays in a time-capsule for 400 years, so that Shakespeare’s true message can be revealed to us today, alongside the author’s identity, with the force of a revelation. Perhaps Nostradamus was referring to Shakespeare in The Centuries when he wrote:
For five hundred years no account shall be made
Of him who was the ornament of his time.
Then of a sudden he shall give so great a light,
That for that age he shall make them to be most contented.
Although Shakespeare is emotionally steeped in the feudal age, he is not advocating a simple return to the mediaeval system, but rather looks forward to a new society inspired by the ideals of feudalism. One can, see the recrudescence of the feudal spirit in modern society in, for instance, the various holistic movements. People are registering their desire for a greater sense of wholeness and community as well as a closer kinship with the land. There is a desire for politics to be rooted more in local, tangible issues; and there is a growing mistrust of life in a society in which human beings are merely political statistics or economic units, the playthings in fact of giant centralized governments or, indeed, of multinational corporations. Politics today has become a machine that weaves abstractions, and that dwarfs the people who work among its wheels, and the market place has become our ultimate source of values. We have lost a sense of the sanctity and meaning of all things, and are not entitled to say with Hamlet: “There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.” [V. ii. 215]
If we look at Shakespeare’s attitude towards the land, his political philosophy comes into clear focus. It is a curious and little noted fact that Hamlet himself and many of the other Hamlet-type characters in the plays (who are clearly based on the author himself) express their contempt for people who purchase land as a means of acquiring wealth, or who regard land as an economic entity alone. In the graveyard scene of Act V, scene i, Hamlet tells Horatio that those who believe they own the land because a legal document tells them they do are mere sheep, the ultimate implication being that you can’t own land, you can only act as its steward or guardian, and this guardianship is itself an act of sacred trust. For land, as Shakespeare reminds us, is as much mystical as economic. This idea is combined with that of the indiscriminate nature of political mercantilism in the following scene when Hamlet says of the social- climbing Osric: “He hath much land and fertile. Let a beast be lord of beasts and his crib shall stand at the king’s mess. ‘Tis a chuff, but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt.” [V. ii. 86-9] For Shakespeare, politics should not neglect the sacred.
The Earl of Oxford, like Timon, was compelled to dispose of all his ancestral lands, while the Stratford man, William Shakspere, spent his adult life acquiring land (even if it meant enclosing the village commons in Stratford) and using it solely for financial gain. Further, Oxford mourned the growing alienation from the land of the feudal aristocracy, of which he was a member. The sense of rupture and loss that such alienation engendered was a constant elegy in the lives of the wolfish earls of old. Shakspere, on the other hand, hitched his cart securely to the star of the new capitalist state. This begs a question: would Shakespeare really have portrayed himself as Osric rather than Hamlet in the play that is widely regarded as his most autobiographical?
One other political phenomenon of our times that I should mention because Shakespeare was the first to portray it is none other than political doublespeak (a branch of political correctness). It is a devious form of speech which is utterly opportunistic, in that it continually guards itself from the truth, preferring instead to rely on ambivalence to convey what is eventually a meaningless message. With political doublespeak, the message is not important, but rather the atmosphere created by the words. As such it is an underminer of values and conscience because it robs people of any absolute standards in society, such as truth. Hamlet is a man who believes that his society has been robbed of any meaningful standards of truth. He is surrounded by men who exploit both land and language. (Language and the land are intimately connected, and poetry and farming were sisters in ancient times. A kinship with the land helps us retain the fundamental meaning of words and to appreciate their cultural force. We root ourselves in our culture through land and language. The abuse of land is ultimately the abuse of language.)
Perhaps the greatest exponent of doublespeak in Shakespeare is Polonius, an amoral and opportunistic figure if there ever was one, and one who gives credence to Edmund’s statement that “men are as the time is.” Polonius and his ilk create a political environment in which the only form of service is self-service, and the only philosophy materialism. (Gone is the feudal dictum “it is more noble to serve than be served.”) Polonius despises the land. In Act II scene ii of Hamlet, in staking his reputation on his theory of the cause of Hamlet’s madness, he lets the King and Queen know that the greatest humiliation he could possibly suffer would be to “keep a farm and carters.” And, as “the father of good news”, he is clearly not interested in the truth; he is a propagandist. His young nemesis Hamlet, on the other hand, possesses enormous sensitivity to language and is, like Troilus, “truth’s authentic author.” This battle of truth versus propaganda which Hamlet [Oxford] fights against Polonius [Burghley] is being fought again today by the Earl of Oxford’s supporters in their conflict with the academic establishment.
So, as long as the Edmunds and Poloniuses of this world hold sway, power remains a purely pragmatic rather than a sacred force, and both man’s relationship with language and his relationship with the land cease to be organic, as does his own societal life among his fellow men. Degree, the universal law by which man strives for spiritual evolution, is forgotten and the connectedness and purpose of things obscured. All this deeply affects his feeling life, and the very concept of human society is imperiled. Let’s hope that Albany in King Lear was wrong in his vision of humanity preying on itself, like monsters of the deep.
One of the surest ways to forestall the realization of Albany’s appalling vision is to read Shakespeare’s truth, and understand it.