1. Why are there doubts about the authorship?
Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world’s greatest author. Of course, if it could readily be proved that he had written the plays and poems that would be an end of the matter. But it can’t; and this is what is so extraordinary; there is very little evidence – and what little there is casts even more doubt on his authorship.
There are, in effect, two big problems that have kept this issue simmering away for nearly two centuries:
1) The mismatch between the man and the work;
2) The absence of a proper documentary record showing that the Stratford actor/merchant did write these works; each and every fact that exists presents problems and contradictions.
There should be masses of contemporary documents about the life of the world’s greatest writer. His manuscripts, his letters, the letters sent to him, the letters about him between others, and printed stories and pamphlets about him. But there are none of these things. There are reviews and comments on the plays and poems. There are a few legal documents concerning the man who usually lived in the village of Stratford-upon-Avon (population 1,400); we’ll call him Shaksper, the name he commonly went under. Shaksper got involved in several minor court cases and he was sought for non-payment of taxes. But there are no documents which show that he had any connection with the plays or poems.
It would be acceptable to have some uncertainty; but when you have virtually a blank sheet, you have to conclude that there is something very fishy.
2. Haven’t previous generations been quite happy with the Stratford man?
No – there is a strong and continuous tradition of doubt about him, stretching back to the time when the plays were first published. Much of this is described by Charlton Ogburn ( The Mysterious William Shakespeare ).
During the past two hundred years, many people have decided that the name “Shakespeare” must have been a pseudonym, and have tried to identify the true author. A major candidate was Francis Bacon, and there have theories in favor of Rutland, Derby, Marlowe and a host of others. Stratfordians ridicule the sheer magnitude of alternative authors that have been proposed; but they overlook their unifying element, namely: why have so many found reason to question the identity of Western literature’s greatest creative figure? It is an heretical idea.
There has never been an authorship controversy surrounding other great literary figures: – Swift, Pope, Milton, Joyce, Woolf, Chaucer or Dante. If sensible people can maintain that there is one about Shakespeare, then it is folly to ignore it – as orthodoxy unfortunately has to.
The search for a real person in Stratford has been the greatest manhunt in literary history; but all the biographers admit that it has never come close to bridging “the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject [i.e. the plays] and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record” (to use the words of Samuel Schoenbaum, the predominant post-war Shakespeare biographer).
The question of authorship seems to come up in the plays and poems in all kinds of ways. As Harvard’s Marjorie Garber writes in her 1987 study Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers :
“There are in fact an uncanny number of ways in which the plays can be seen to stage the [authorship] controversy. Such scenes of encoded authorship encompass everything from ghosts that write and writers who function as ghosts, to handwriting analysis, signature controversies, the deciphering of codes, the digging of graves,the silencing of madwomen, the staging of plays that get away from their authors and thematizing of myriad other forms of doubt and discontinuity within authorial identity and control.”
The 19th and 20th Centuries have been rife with doubters, among them Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson. After John Looney’s *Shakespeare Identified* was published in 1920, prominent figures like Sigmund Freud, Sir John Gielgud, Orson Welles, Leslie Howard and Supreme Court Justices John Paul Stevens and Harry Blackmun have counted themselves among the ranks of the Oxfordians.
By the late 18th Century, traditional doubts surfaced openly in works such as The Life and Adventures of Wit and Common Sense (published in 1769, the same year that David Garrick launched the now legendary Stratford Jubilee). Before Wit and Common Sense, the trail leads back into the 17th and even the 16th centuries, with numerous literary allusions, many noted by Ogburn, to the pseudonymous character of the name “Shakespeare” and to Oxford’s acknowledged status as a writer of pseudonymous comedies and other “rare devices of poetry.” When John Davies, for instance, refers to Shakespeare as “Our English Terence,” he is making allusion to the well-known renaissance belief that Terence was actually the amanuensis and “front man” for the aristocratic Roman comedian Scipio. Far from being evidence to support the Shakespeare orthodoxy as it is often presented Davies’ reference actually mocks the presumption of Stratfordian authorship.
Early references to Oxford’s literary activities are also abundant and compelling in their effect. The anonymous author of The Arte of English Poesie (1589), in writing of those “noble Gentlemen in the court that have written commendably well and suppressed it aganye, or else suffered it to be publisht without their own names to it”, and then referring later in the same work to those whose writing would be seen as [excellent] “if their doings could be found out and made publicke with the rest, of which number is first that noble Gentleman, Edward Earle of Oxford”, clearly provides significant evidence of Oxford’s status as one of several anonymous and pseudonymous Court writers of the 1580s. Also in the 1580s, William Webbe ( Discourse of English Poetrie, 1586) referred to Oxford as deserving the “title of most excellent” among Elizabethan court poets. Later, in 1598, Frances Meres lists Oxford as the “best for Comedy among us” in Palladis Tamia.
Note: Lately the significance of the references to Oxford in The Arte of English Poesie has been called into question. There are two articles delving more deeply into this controversy in the spring/summer 1996 Ever Reader, the first by Dr. Roger Stritmatter and the second by Andrew Hannas
Thus, not only is there a Shakespeare authorship controversy which, the more one examines the evidence, recedes back into the 16th century, there is also an Oxford authorship problem for which Shakespearean orthodoxy can supply no intelligent response. If Oxford was such a well-known anonymous or pseudonymous author, where are his works?
3. Does it really matter who the author is?
Firstly, it is a matter of giving honor where honor is due. Whoever Shakespeare was, he gave us the most priceless literary treasures in ourculture. We have a duty to honor him.
Secondly, if we take the attitude that it doesn’t matter who Shakespeare was, then does it matter who anyone was? We must consign all biographical writings to the dustbin. If we take this attitude, we must lose interest in our own selves. Nothing, in fact, matters.
Thirdly, truth is important, not only within the academic world, but in all society and it cannot be impugned. Shakespeare set great store by it and, happily, the very word “Vere” means Truth.
Fourthly, if you get Shakespeare wrong, then you get the whole Elizabethan Age wrong. You are lead into wild errors about the nature of the society. For instance, if William Shaksper of Stratford is the author, then it suddenly becomes acceptable for a man of his status to address one of the leading noblemen of the day, the 3rd Earl of Southampton, in the following terms in sonnet 69:
“But why thy odour matcheth not thy show
The soil is this: that thou dost common grow.”
This would lead one to believe that Elizabeth’s England was a democracy in which freedom of speech was a cherished right: in which a commoner (and a mere scribbler at that) could tell a nobleman in print that he was growing common. No such thing! If Shaksper of Stratford had behaved like that, he would not have have lasted a minute. An enlisted man would not address his officer in this manner today in 1995 over 400 years later! This is not a snob argument: it’s simply the recognition of a social reality of the times.
Finally, and most importantly of all, who the author was makes a great deal of difference to the interpretation of the plays. After all, if you take Oxford as the author, then a vast contemporary backdrop falls into place, and one apprehends a whole new dimension to the plays: that of political satire. Hamlet for instance becomes an intriguing expose of court life under Elizabeth (written by the Hamlet of Elizabeth’s Court) which provides us with innumerable valuable insights into the private Court history of the time. The value of this extra dimension for actors and directors is difficult to overestimate.
After all, an actor playing Polonius in Hamlet can gain enormous psychological insight into his character by reading up about the historical original, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
4. Can’t everything be explained by “genius”?
Genius is a non-explanation. The Stratfordians rely on this empty word as a complete solution to the problems created by Shaksper’s lack of adequate training, education or experience. The more difficulties one points out to them, the more they say that “proves” his genius.
Anti-Stratfordians urge that, whoever he was, he was a real human being – although one with supreme natural talents. They insist that these had to be schooled and developed; that techniques had to be practiced, that knowledge had to be acquired, that skills had to be learned, and that a busy life had to be richly experienced. Nothing could be more absurd than to suggest that Love’s Labor’s Lost, Richard II or Romeo and Juliet were among the first work of any playwright. No writer has ever crawled out from under a hedge, pen in hand, ready to write good literature, let alone the greatest of all time. Once you realise that the orthodox story is hollow at the centre, you will see that it makes far more sense to find the person who had such abilities, identify his early work, see how he developed and try to understand how his plays and poems both reflect and illuminate his life.
5. Aren’t anti-Stratfordians and Oxfordians just “social snobs”?
The short answer is, no, thank you, we aren’t.
The longer answer is that the authorship question asks not who could have written the plays. It is not about whether someone from the middle class any other social class or background could have written King Lear. It asks who did.
Stratfordian college professors like to pose as the champions of the oppressed Mr. Shaksper and paint Oxfordians as snobs. Nothing could be more absurd than to attribute this view to anti-Stratfordians such as the great populist poet Walt Whitman or the comic Charles Chaplin who grew up as an impoverished street urchin and as an adult was repelled by Shakespeare’s fascination with the inner workings of the aristocracy.
Writing about the history plays, Whitman thought that “only one of the wolfish earls so plenteous in the works themselves, or some born knower and descendent, would seem to be the true author of these amazing works.”
The accusation: “You’re just snobs” is, regrettably, an understandable reaction. If you don’t want to think seriously about someone’s arguments, you attack the person. The “snob” argument is about the best shot in the Stratfordian arsenal. It’s what those of us in the cheap seats call an *ad hominem* argument and it reflects only on those who use it. It’s a substitute for reasoned responses to Oxfordian evidence and logic.
6. What is the role of personal experience in writing?
The answer to this question could not be more different between the Stratfordians and anti-Statfordians. The anti-Stratfordians maintain that the author was a real human being who was born with enormous talent but had great advantages from his earliest days; he knew he had these gifts and he did his utmost to develop and exploit them. Like all great artists, he had a deeply felt consciousness of his art and suffered from a sense of overwhelming duty. He expressed this in all manner of ways in his plays and his poetry.
On the other hand, the Stratfordians see almost nothing of a personal nature in his work; they regard him as a kind of craftsman, churning out “pot boilers” on commission from theater managers every few months, one after another, never revising and never putting real thought into them. It is a picture that is completely unlike that of any other author. He is supposed to have made up stories which had no connection with his own life and experience; apparently everything came from books. Then he went into some kind of trance, set to work, and and at the end of the process there was this wonderful play – effectively produced by magic.
Those who oppose the Stratford view emphasize what we all know about the creative process – there’s not much magic in it – it is incredibly hard work; that it involves a dedication and a drive that can only come from sources that are deeply personal. Intensely creative people frequently have large egos; they care little about anything else except their art and they are often cruel and ruthless in their treatment of both themselves and others.
The first requirement of any creative enterprise is that you have a very clear idea of what it is you are undertaking. Oxfordians maintain that the author knew exactly what he was doing; he had a much better idea than we do now – and certainly far better than any professor of literature. We are positive that he knew that he was writing for all time. Stratfordians cannot take this; they say he was just in it for the money. Of course in stating this about the world’s greatest writer, they are necessarily implying the same about all other writers. In fact they are suggesting that Shakespeare (and by extension other writers) could not had any purposes beyond money-making and further: that they could not *imagine* having purposes beyond money-making. This is, of course, a denial of the very point of literature itself. It is demeaning to Shakespeare, demeaning to every writer, and demeaning to every human being.
That Shakespeare was fully conscious that he was writing for all time is very evident from the Sonnets. Orthodoxy does its best to ignore these, claiming that they are merely “literary exercises”. Here are some excerpts. Judge for yourself whether the author was just “in it for the money” or whether he believed that he was writing for all time:
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’er-read,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse
When all the breathers of this world are dead;
You still shall live–such virtue hath my pen–
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
O fearful meditation! where, alack,
Shall Time’s best jewel from Time’s chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back?
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O, none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.
Who will believe my verse in time to come,
If it were fill’d with your most high deserts?
So should my papers yellow’d with their age
Be scorn’d like old men of less truth than tongue,
And your true rights be term’d a poet’s rage
And stretched metre of an antique song:
But were some child of yours alive that time,
You should live twice; in it and in my rhyme.
My love looks fresh, and death to me subscribes,
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent.
Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme;
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die:
Notice the last line. Oxfordians are sure that here the author is lamenting the fact that his name may never be known.
7. How could Oxford be the author since some of the plays were written after 1604, the year he died.
There is no such thing as an unambiguous, standard chronology of Shakespeare’s works.
Consider the chronology published in the Riverside Shakespeare. In it, eleven plays are dated after 1604: Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), Antony & Cleopatra (1606-7), Coriolanus (1607-8), Timon of Athens (1607-8), Pericles (1607-8), Cymbeline (1609-10), Winter’s Tale (1610-11), The Tempest (1611), Henry VIII (1612-13) and Two Noble Kinsmen (1613).
On the other hand, the Pelican Collected Works (1969) lists alternative dates going back to before 1604 for all these plays except two The Tempest (1611) and *Henry VIII (1613).
As this discrepancy illustrates, there is considerable variety of opinion within the ranks of orthodox scholars regarding the actual dates of composition of many plays. Setting such variation aside, let’s consider the four plays which have the strongest claim to be dated after 1604: Lear, Macbeth, The Tempest and Henry VIII.
Stratfordians often argue that Lear cannot be dated before 1603 because it mentions the names of demons apparently derived from Harsnett’s Egregious Popish Postures (1603). This argument makes two assumptions which are both open to serious question. First it assumes that no alternative source could supply the names in question. Second, it assumes that the author could not have seen a copy of Harsnett in manuscript or Harsnett’s source, the Catholic “booke of Miracles.” And as Charlton Ogburn points out ( The Mysterious William Shakespeare, p. 385), Oxford in fact had ample access to the “booke of Miracles” through an acquaintance and neighbor of his throughout the 1580s and 90s.
Additionally, the diarist Phillip Henslowe recorded a performance of a King Leare in Easter of 1594. Would it not be the most straightforward conclusion that in fact an early version of Shakespeare’s Lear was already kicking around during the 1590s?
The comic porter scene (II.3) in Macbeth makes several passing references to the Jesuit doctrine of equivocation and the “equivocator who could not equivocate his way to heaven.” According to scholars like Henry N. Paul ( The Royal Play of Macbeth ), equivocation did not become a significant subject of political controversy until after the spring 1606 trial of the Jesuit martyr Father Henry Garnet, convicted for his role in the Gunpowder Plot. However, Henry Paul is quite mistaken in his conviction.
The doctrine of equivocation was well known in England at least by the mid-1590s (and much earlier on the Continent) when Father Robert Southwell was executed in 1595 for practicing Catholic rite. Indeed, the manuscript Treatise on Equivocation confiscated from Garnet in 1606 most likely dates to the early 1590s, before Southwell’s execution. The Porter’s remarks and with it the main reason for dating Macbeth after 1600 could in fact just as easily refer to Southwell. Once more, the Stratfordian chronology hangs by a spider’s thread of so-called “documentary evidence.”
A secondary argument for a post-1604 date of Macbeth, also advanced prominently by Henry Paul, holds that the play was composed in honor of King James’ ascension to the throne. As Riverside editor Frank Kermode summarizes the argument: “Although J. Dover Wilson in his New Cambridge Edition of the play argues for an Elizabethan version of Macbeth (performed in Scotland), it seems obvious that the play celebrates the establishment of the first Stuart King of England, and that it cannot, therefore, be earlier than 1604.” (p. 1308)
But what is “obvious” to Professor Kermode may perhaps seem less than obvious to others. There is not a scintilla of evidence for any such performance of Macbeth to celebrate James’ coronation. And of the plays in the Shakespeare canon, Macbeth is the darkest and most disturbing, presenting a brutal and purposeful murder of the Lord’s anointed king. It is to this day regarded with such anxiety that theater tradition superstitiously forbids the use of its name – you must refer to it as “the scottish play”. What could be more improbable than staging such a play to celebrate the coronation of the new monarch?
Chronology: The Tempest
The Tempest, like Lear, is dated after 1604 almost exclusively because of a putative “source”, Sylvester Jourdain’s A Discovery of the Bermudas (1611). However, Jourdain’s supposed influence on The Tempest is a phantom of Shakespearean orthodoxy. Not only is the play devoid of any substantive influence from Jourdain (i.e. by borrowing specific phrases or images), but several alternative sources describing shipwrecks in the New World or the Bermudas were extant much earlier. Richard Hakluyt’s 1600 Voyages, Navigations, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation Vol. III records an eyewitness account by a Captain Henry May of the shipwreck of the Edward Bonaventure in Bermuda in 1593. This ship, it turns out, was at one point owned by Edward de Vere himself: a 1582 letter from the explorer Martin Frobisher to the Earl of Leicester states that Oxford “bares me in hand he wolle beye [will buy] the Edwarde Boneaventar” (Miller, Vol. I p. 449).
Considering the hordes of Stratfordians who blindly believe The Tempest to be their trump card, the above bears repeating: not only were there several pre-1604 source texts for the play’s shipwreck imagery, but one of the ships wrecked in the Bermudas was previously owned by the man the Oxfordians suggest was the author.
Chronology: Henry VIII
Shakespeare, it is often claimed, came out of retirement to collaborate with John Fletcher by writing Henry VIII in 1613. The Riverside, among other prominent authorities, pays credence to this story. In the 18th-19th centuries, however, almost every major scholar (among them Johnson, Theobald, Steevens, Malone, Collier and Halliwell and Elzi) dated the play to Elizabeth’s era (i.e. pre-1603). The 1613 date depends on the sole authority of Sir Henry Wotton, who records seeing a performance of a play of Henry VIII presumably Shakespeare’s as a “new” play in a 2 July 1613 letter. In the 20th Century, perhaps in response to the need to shore up a chronology which would *prima facie* exclude the possibility of Oxford’s authorship, the Wotton letter has been accepted as definitively establishing the play’s date of composition. But was Henry Wotton in any position to know whether the play, even if it was staged for the first time in 1613, had not actually been written ten or fifteen years earlier? Stratfordians ask us to assume he was. Yet, of three other accounts of the burning of the Globe theatre during the staging of Henry VIII in June 1613, no one else refers to the play as new. Like with the other “post-1604 plays,” the documentary link Stratfordians claim to put Henry VIII beyond 1604 turns out to be an ever-fraying thread.
8. Why haven’t the academic authorities accepted Oxford as the author?
It would be too great a revolution in everything they believe. It would be unfair and unrealistic to expect such a change from any group of scholars no matter how honest and capable. The hard sciences like Physics, Chemistry and Geology have each seen many great rrevolutions in fundamental aspects of their knowledge. Each time the change was bitterly resisted by the established authorities of the day in spite of overwhelming evidence. The impetus for such revolutions has usually had to come from outside the discipline.
So, it is not a co-incidence that Shakespearean “scholarship” is in a deplorable state. It is dedicated to the study of a subject that has no foundation in the real world. Many high school students detest their Shakespearean studies – and often with good reason. The subject has nothing to do with recognizable human life and feelings and it is difficult not to teach it in a soul-destroying way. Perceptive and honest people have often pointed this out.
9. What difference would it make to my appreciation of the plays?
First, it transforms the way we read, understand and perform the works of Shakespeare. Acknowledging Oxford’s authorship restores the political dimensions of his works which the Stratford story so conveniently obscures.
Like Hamlet himself, Shakespeare conceived drama and its players as being the “abstract and brief chronicles” of the time.” His works achieve universality only through their commentary on the particular. But in this regard, Shakespeare is routinely treated as the great exception among his contemporaries. Just as the myth of the “incomprehensible genius” becomes a fig leaf for dismissing the anomalies of the Shakespeare biographical tradition, the “universal literature” label disguises the satirical texture of many Shakespeare plays.
No one seriously questions, for example, that the artistic fabric of John Lyly’s Endymion (circa. 1584) depends on parallels between characters in the dramatic action and major figures in the Elizabethan court. Naturally, knowledge of Lyly’s life, his associations, and his understanding of the political and personal dimensions of life at Gloriana’s court effects our reading of his drama. An awareness of the implied parallel between Lyly’s main female character Cynthia and the Virgin Queen is an assumed prerequisite to reading or performing the play.
As in stage plays, the great poets of the period such as Edmund Spenser, routinely disguised their more incendiary comments in metaphors or allegories. Such writers published works commenting, often in cleverly oblique ways, on controversial current events which could not be treated more directly under the Tudor court’s regime of strict censorship. Or for modern-day parallels, consider Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou’s To Live, Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses or the plays of Vaclav Havel. Again, the censored artist creates roundabout ways to present their controversial material.
Yet the orthodoxy sees Shakespeare’s brilliant poems Venus and Adonis and Rape of Lucrece as the exception of their age: here the author simply engaged in mythological flattery for his “patron.”
Oxfordians disagree. Like the Fairy Queen, the real action in Shakespeare’s poems takes place not in the never-never land of mythology but in the political hothouse of late Tudor culture. The Ovidian tale of Venus and Adonis, for instance, is not simply a poetic exercise but the vehicle by which the author tells of his own romantic dealings with the Queen of England during the 1570s.
Second, acknowledging Oxford’s authorship radically transforms our understanding of politics, propaganda and history as well as our understanding of the author and three centuries of scholarship about him.
Limiting ourselves just to the history of the scholarship, one can find many reasons why the present debate does very much matter. English literary professionals, for one, stand to be upstaged by what has to date been a movement comprised primarily of outsiders.
In fact, like Elizabethan literary scholars today, many geologists in the first half of the 20th Century based their research careers on what at the time seemed an obvious proposition. They knew that the Earth’s continents have never moved from their present position. Yet, amateur geologists and a few academics relegated to the fringes insisted that a crazy theory called “plate tectonics “explained geological phenomena which could not be written off as coincidence. For more than 50 years, the academic outsiders were mercilessly scorned for proposing such preposterous nonsense. Today, of course, Continental Drift is as widely accepted as Copernicus’ once-ridiculed heliocentric theory of the solar system.
Like other paradigm shifts, the Oxfordian theory activates a host of collateral implications. Questions about the nature of “genius,” the role of art and literature in society, the role of propaganda in statecraft, and the history and historiography of the Elizabethan era are all brought into play by the theory. To argue that the theory is “irrelevant” is to miss the point and indulge in an ideological excuse for not considering a proposition which is, in fact, perhaps all too consequential.
Credits: this FAQ was created in 1995 from existing materials in the Society’s archives, plus original material written by Mark Anderson, Paul Crowley, Charles Boyle, William Boyle, Charles Burford, Darin Stelting, and Roger Stritmatter.