The following is a message from Matthew Cossolotto, past president of the formerly known Shakespeare Oxford Society (its successor being Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship). We have posted it here to inform our readers about the mission and viewpoints of the society.
If you’re new to the Shakespeare authorship question, fasten your seat belt! You’re in for a wild and entertaining ride.
If you’ve been following this intriguing and important topic for some time, we hope you’ll find our updated website both informative and enjoyable. If you’re not already a member of the Society, we invite you to join.
The Society’s Board of Trustees recently adopted the following mission statement:
The Shakespeare Oxford Society is a non-profit, educational organization dedicated to exploring the Shakespeare authorship question and researching the evidence that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 – 1604) is the true author of the poems and plays of “William Shakespeare.”
That statement lays it out pretty clearly. We believe there is a Shakespeare authorship question and we think it deserves to be explored.
The Name Game
The fundamental point of disagreement between our Society and the traditional Shakespeare scholarly community concerns the name “William Shakespeare” itself. We believe the name was a pseudonym, a pen name, and not the real name of the living author. Traditional scholars hold to the view that “William Shakespeare” was the actual name of the author, a commoner from the Warwickshire village of Stratford-upon-Avon.
If “William Shakespeare” was, in fact, a pseudonym (just as “Mark Twain” was a pseudonym adopted by Samuel Clemens) then all attempts to graft the “Shakespeare” works onto the biography of the commoner from Stratford will be, by definition, way off the mark. It may be an appealing story on some levels – underprivileged and largely unschooled glover’s son from rural village, blessed with an abundance of natural genius, becomes the greatest writer in the English language – but if this is the wrong guy then we have nothing more here than an appealing myth.
Fiction or Non-Fiction?
In fact, in light of the Oprah Winfrey/James Frey controversy surrounding the latter’s “fictionalized” memoir (entitled A Million Little Pieces), we issued a press release calling on traditional Shakespeare scholars to produce a “non-fiction” biography of “William Shakespeare.”
Until that happens, we argue, traditional “biographies” of Shakespeare — typically based as they are on a series of conjectures built upon suppositions wrapped together by imaginative speculation – should be classified as “fiction.”
As a case in point, we point to the recent Shakespeare biography entitled Will In The World by Stephen Greenblatt, published by W. W. Norton & Company (2004). This is what Professor Greenblatt himself says about the difficulty of writing a truly fact-based biography of Shakespeare:
“Apart from the poems and plays themselves, the surviving traces of Shakespeare’s life are abundant but thin.”
Professor Greenblatt then goes on to describe the “abundant but thin” traces – among other things records of property transactions, christening records, a marriage license bond, tax bills, and what the biographer calls an “interesting last will and testament.” But even with these “abundant but thin” traces of Shakespeare’s life, Greenblatt admits there are no “immediately obvious clues to unravel the great mystery of such immensely creative power.”
Again … using Greenblatt’s own words: “Even with this relative abundance of information, there are huge gaps in knowledge that make any biographical study of Shakespeare an exercise in speculation.” [My emphasis]
That last part bears repeating: “… there are huge gaps in knowledge that make any biographical study of Shakespeare an exercise in speculation.”
That’s quite an admission. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Professor Greenblatt’s well-received “biography” purports to answer a fundamental question, which is in fact the subtitle of the book: “How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.”
One would think such a book, setting out to illuminate readers about the process of an artist’s development, would rely on the usual forms of documentary evidence. But Greenblatt also makes the following rather startling admission (see page 13).
After referring to what he calls “well-documented biographies” over the centuries, Greenblatt says:
“After examining even the best of them and patiently sifting through most of the available traces, readers rarely feel closer to understanding how the playwright’s achievement came about.”
So what does Professor Greenblatt propose to do? What new facts about Shakespeare’s life or his creative development does he plan to present to the reading public? Well, apparently not much because as he then writes:
“ … if biographers could draw upon letters and diaries, contemporary memoirs and interviews, books with revealing marginalia, notes and first drafts … Nothing of the kind survives, [my emphasis] nothing that provides a clear link between the timeless work with its universal appeal and a particular life that left its many scratches in the hum-drum bureaucratic records of the age. The work is so astonishing, so luminous, that it seems to have come from a god and not a mortal, let alone a mortal of provincial origins and modest education.”
So where does this leave us? Here we have the “astonishing, luminous” work that appears to have come from “a god” not a “mortal” of “provincial origins and modest education.” How can we bridge the gaps in knowledge that Greenblatt readily admits exist for any biography of Shakespeare. Greenblatt again spells out his solution with unguarded honesty. We could all wish that James Frey was this forthcoming.
Professor Greenblatt writes the following sentence at the end of his preface:
“[T]o understand how Shakespeare used his imagination to transform his life into his art, it is important to use our own imagination.” [My emphasis]
Another noted Shakespeare biographer, Professor Stanley Wells, praises the Greenblatt biography on the back cover for being “deeply imaginative.”
That’s the problem in a nutshell. For too long we’ve been subjected to Shakespeare “Bardographies” that cross the line, untethered from the usual contraints of documentary evidence, into imaginative accounts of the poet’s supposed life experiences and motivations.
There’s another word for using imagination in literature. It’s called fiction.
While most traditional scholars lament the absence of normal documentary evidence in constructing a fact-based biography of “Shakespeare,” they seem unable to ask the logical question: Why doesn’t this evidence exist? Why can’t we find any letters in “Shakespeare’s” handwriting? Why are there no surviving “Shakespeare” manuscripts? Why didn’t the Stratford Candidate own any books or leave behind any diaries, handwritten notes, drafts or marginalia? Why don’t we have any explicit references to this Stratford man as a poet or playwright in the letters or diaries of his contemporaries?
The absence of solid evidence – readily admitted in virtually every traditional “Bardography” – begs these obvious questions … and many, many more. But these questions go unanswered because, by and large, they simply go unasked by traditional scholars.
Two Major Disconnects
Hence the first of two major disconnects that are part and parcel of the traditional Stratford theory. I’ll state it here as plainly as I can.
Despite the widespread assertion by traditional scholars that the Stratford Candidate occupied a central place in the life of literary London for roughly two-decades (approximately from 1590 to 1610), the expected literary paper trail simply supporting his authorship simply does not exist.
Traditional scholars claim that the Stratford Candidate was the leading dramatist for the Chamberlain’s Men and later the King’s Men (both patronized by the ruling monarch of the time), that he was a frequent if not famous actor, and that he was a prominent shareholder in these theater companies.
But the more elevated and influential his roles are made to appear, the more incongruent is the absence of solid, documentary evidence supporting his authorship. Many lesser-known poets and playwrights of the era have well-documented claims to authoring works attributed to them. Apart from the “Shakespeare” name on the plays and poems, the Stratford Candidate is unique in having no solid documentary evidence that he was a writer. This disconnect between elevated reputation and absence of a literary paper trail (please see Diana Price’s book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography – http://www.shakespeare-authorship.com – for more details) is simply too pronounced to believe.
A Bard by Any Other Name?
Our Society is also committed to researching the evidence that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is the true author of the plays and poems of “William Shakespeare.”
A mountain of circumstantial evidence already exists on behalf of Oxford, but much more research and exploration is needed. And so we call on all lovers of Shakespeare — including the scholarly community, foundations and other funding sources, and the media — to support more research into the both the authorship mystery generally and into the case for Oxford in particular.
Some people argue that it doesn’t matter who wrote the plays and poems of “William Shakespeare.” We have the works, after all. Let’s just be grateful and enjoy them.
There’s no question that we should enjoy the works. But there are at least four compelling reasons to get the authorship right.
The Search for Truth. Accuracy about the author is an important value in and of itself. That’s what real scholarship should be about. Finding the truth for the sake of finding the truth. That should be enough motivation for any scholar worthy of the name.
An Inherently Fascinating Topic. This is a centuries-old literary mystery of the first order. If for no other reason, we should be intrigued enough to get to the bottom of this mystery. How could this misattribution happen? Was it purposeful fraud? If so, why? What’s behind this effort to mislead? What was the nature and the extent of the apparent deception? Who was involved? Inquiring minds should want to know.
Basic Fairness. If the wrong person has been given credit for the immortal works of “Shakespeare,” simple justice demands that we correct this mistake and give credit where credit is due.
Enhance Our Understanding and Appreciation of the Works. This is perhaps the most important reason to do more digging. It stands to reason that knowing the identity and the real-life biography of the true author will enhance our understanding and appreciation of the plays and poems themselves. What was the author really trying to say? What was his underlying motivation for writing what he did? Do the characters and the plots reveal secrets and offer insights into the behavior and policies of powerful people in England and in other countries of Europe? Knowing the identity of the author could help to unlock the mysteries of what “Shakespeare” was trying to communicate.
The Second Major Disconnect: “Barding” Up The Wrong Tree?
On that last point, most traditional scholars have lamented the fact that the standard biography of “William Shakespeare” presents us with a second major disconnect. This time it’s the disconnect between what we know about the life of the presumed author (the Stratford Candidate) and “Shakespeare’s” creative output. It’s almost as if we have a disembodied body of works with little or no relationship to a living author.
This gaping disconnect gives rise to the need for so many “scholars” to resort to speculation, conjecture, supposition … in a word fiction … in trying to construct a plausible biography of William Shakespeare.
Consider this famous observation from a leading “orthodox” scholar named Samuel Schoenbaum:
“Perhaps we should despair of ever bridging the vertiginous expanse between the sublimity of the subject and the mundane inconsequence of the documentary record.” [Emphasis added]
This Society is dedicated to bridging that expanse. We want to resolve Shakespeare’s identity crisis and, at long last, afford the true author the honor and recognition he so richly deserves.
Alas … I’m afraid we’ll never uncover the definitive evidence … and we won’t solve this mystery … if we continue “Barding” up the wrong tree. Like a prosecutor who incarcerates an innocent man for a prolonged period, traditional scholars are understandably reluctant to admit they may be wrong about the traditional authorship attribution.
After all, creationists did not readily embrace Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. Nor did the Copernican theory that the earth rotates around the sun meet with immediate acceptance from the “expert” adherents of the well-established, but wrong, earth-centric view. In fact, those espousing the correct but unpopular Copernican theory were often imprisoned, tortured and executed by the powers that be. They had might on their side, but they turned out to be quite wrong about the facts. The same applies to the pre-Columbus “Flat Earth” proponents.
The natural tendency of traditional scholars is to dig in their heels, shun or denigrate as “heretics” those who disagree, deny there is an authorship question, and make increasingly strident assertions about there being “no doubt” that “Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.” (The latter has as much probative value as insisting that “Twain wrote Twain.”)
This stubborn, almost doctrinaire, refusal to admit even a glimmer of doubt about the Stratford attribution may be an admirable trait in matters of faith or religion. They are not appropriate qualities for those who supposedly embrace what should be the never-ceasing, ever-questioning pursuit of scholarly inquiry.
To Believe or Not To Believe?
We can all stipulate that “Shakespeare” was a great writer. I hope we can all agree that he wasn’t a god or deity. While we should admire and honor his works, we should not treat the authorship question as a quasi-religious dispute. Instead, we should examine the evidence soberly and keep an open mind.
Paraphrasing Hamlet, it should not be a matter of whether to believe or not to believe this theory or that. It should be a matter of what we can prove or not prove. And so we issue this challenge to the traditional scholars: Show us the evidence! Where exactly is this conclusive, overwhelming evidence on behalf of the Stratford theory? Until conclusive evidence is produced, we should regard the Stratford claim as unproven. Let’s re-open the case and explore the evidence with fresh eyes and an open mind.
Many thanks for visiting our site and for your interest in this fascinating subject. For visitors who are, like us, lovers of Shakespeare but who would like to honor the true Bard, we invite you to join us in this wondrous and exciting journey of discovery.
Shakespeare Oxford Society