What is the Shakespeare authorship question?
A longstanding tradition of doubt over the official biography, which attributes the works of “Shake-speare” – often spelled with a hyphen in original documents such as this title page of the 1609 publication of the Sonnets – to the businessman and theatre entrepreneur William Shakspere (1564-1616).
Why do people doubt the traditional story about Shakespeare?
The reasons for doubt are many and varied. Primarily the doubts spring from the complete misfit between the life of the alleged author and the character of the literary work which has been attributed to him.
The traditional view, articulated in recent Shakespeare biographies such as those by Park Honan or Katherine Duncan-Jones, requires a suspension of disbelief which a growing number of scholars are unable to accept as rational. As W.H. Furness, the father of the great Shakespeare editor H.H. Furness said many decades ago, “I am one of the many who has never been able to bring the life of William Shakespeare within planetary space of the plays. Are there any two things in the world more incongruous?”
Such doubts have been echoed by numerous perceptive readers, from Sigmund Freud to Walt Whitman, Orson Welles, and Sir John Gielgud. For some expressions of this doubt, please take a brief detour through our Skeptics Hall of Fame.
Is that all there is to it?
No. Other critics of the orthodox view of the bard have pointed to the absence of a paper trail to document a life, a famous case of the dog not barking in the night in Sherlock Holmes: where are the books, the letters, the table talk, of this “great spirit” of the age? As recent attempts to propagate an image of the bard suggest, we don’t even have a reliable representation of “Shakespeare” – so that, like Winnie-the-Pooh, he also might be said to have lived “under the name of Sanders” (as Miyzel says).
Other critics, such as Sir George Greenwood in a series of books written during the first decades of the 20th century, have in the past brought the spotlight to bear on the character of Shakespeare’s intellect. Greenwood cites the distinguished Editor George Wyndham: “Whenever Shakespeare in an age of technical conceit indulges in one ostentatiously, it will always be found that his apparent obscurity arises from our not crediting him with a technical knowledge which he undoubtedly possessed, be it of heraldry, or law, or of philosophic disputation.” Needless to say, this view of the bard as a sophisticated thinker, worthy of study as a thinker as well as entertainment in the drama, is impossible to reconcile with orthodox beliefs.
If William Shakspere wasn’t the author, who was?
During the 19th century, the most popular alternative to the orthodox view was that Francis Bacon, the great inductive philosopher and legal genius (1561-1626), was the “concealed author” of the plays. However, while sophisticated skeptics such as Walt Whitman refused to accept the orthodox view, they also reserved judgement on the question of what should replace it: “I am with you fellows as far as saying ‘no’ to Stratford,” Whitman told his friend and biographer Horace Traubel in his table talk, “as for Bacon, we shall see…”
In 1920 the retiring but brilliant English schoolteacher John Thomas Looney, after laboring for many years in obscurity, published a book which forever transformed intellectual history. Looney’s “Shakespeare” Identified did more than place the name of the Bard under postmodern quotation marks – it articulated for the first time a simple but sophisticated argument advancing the theory that the works were actually authored by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).
Despite his “funny” name, Looney’s book persuaded many prominent intellectuals of his century – Sigmund Freud, Leslie Howard, and John Galsworthy, to name only a few – that Oxford was in fact the true author. Today the book, available in electronic format at the Internet Archive, continues to exert an enduring influence.
Since Charlton Ogburn’s magnum opus The Mysterious William Shakespeare appeared in 1984, a groundswell of curiousity about de Vere’s life has led to a series of events which is inexorably undermining the conventional view of Shakespeare. Today Ogburn’s book, more than fifteen years after its original publication, remains one of the most successful Shakespeare biographies sold on Amazon.
Popular awareness of the authorship question is growing at an exponential rate – directly or indirectly as a consequence of Ogburn’s book. A more recent contribution to the authorship debate is Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare By Another Name (2005).
Just beneath the deceptively placid surface of Shakespeare studies, a huge volume of new research and analysis, much of it featured in our quarterly publication, Shakespeare Oxford Newsletter, is waiting to break forth into public consciousness.
Why should we care about this issue? Isn’t it enough that we have the works?
First, the topic is of interest from the point of view of intellectual history. Does it matter that for more than two hundred years students have been memorizing a point of view which now seems, to an increasing number of informed scholars, to have been false? It would certainly seem so! To say that the subject does not matter is merely to follow the ostrich and bury one’s head in the sand.
Second, the claim that “we have the works” is itself suspect. One implication of the authorship question is that we emphatically do not “have the works.”
A moment’s reflection helps to illustrate why this is so. If literary biography is a tool for providing insight into the significance of a text, then attaching the wrong author’s name to the work leads to a host of false assumptions which in turn spawn further misperceptions of the work.
The authorship question is therefore not just a matter of honoring the true author of the work – itself an important ethical obligation for readers – but also about restoring a sense of authenticity and truth to the work we study and enjoy under the name Shakespeare.
How could Edward de Vere be the true author if he died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s works were written?
First, it is important to emphasize that there is no unambiguous standard chronology of Shakespeare’s works. The distinguished E.K. Chambers, probably the foremost 20th century authority on the chronology of the plays, admits that his own chronology is a construct of inferences based on his premises about the author’s life and career: “There is much of conjecture, even as regards the order, and still more as regards the ascriptions to particular years. These are partly arranged so as to provide a fairly even flow of production when plague and inhibitions did not interrupt it” (Chambers William Shakepeare, I 269). The editors of the Pelican Shakespeare definitively date only two plays, The Tempest and Henry VIII, after 1604. And even the dates of these plays are not beyond dispute. For a more comprehensive discussion, see Dating Shakespeare’s Plays: A Critical Review Of The Evidence, edited by Kevin Gilvary (2010).
Aren’t the Oxfordians just snobs who believe that only an aristocrat would have written great literature?
No. The authorship question asks not who could have written the plays, but who did. Common sense and all literary experience tell us that authors, even imaginative authors, write from real experience; their work reflects a set of life-experiences conditioned by gender, class, and individual biography.
Everything about the Shakespearean canon, as observers like Charlie Chaplin and Walt Whitman have noted, suggests an author of an aristocratic background and bias- one quite different, for example, from the brilliant middle class author who was Shakespeare’s younger contemporary, Benjamin Jonson.
It is not snobbery to recognize this – its realism.
Aren’t the Oxfordians just conspiracy buffs with too much time on their hands?
The position advocated by the Oxfordians is that “Shakespeare” was a state secret, not a conspiracy. De Vere’s intimate and conflicted relations with powerful persons such as William Cecil (pictured, right) or even Queen Elizabeth I, often dramatized or even lampooned in the plays, meant that the plays were a political tinderbox.
But Elizabeth and Cecil also needed de Vere’s dramatic talent to forge a sense of national consciousness through the history plays. At a critical turning point in the development of modern, Protestant England, “Shakespeare” loyally rewrote English history, but spiced it with his own blend of topical innuendo–innuendo which was sometimes regarded as offensive to public morality.
To avoid public scandal, the real name of the author could not be associated with the work. Loyal Elizabethan writers complied –at least nominally –with the ban on public mention of de Vere’s identity, only hinting at what they knew through word-play.
Unfortunately, some persons committed to the orthodox view of authorship evade the huge accumulation of evidence supporting these conclusions with emotional red-herrings like the ad hominem use of the word “conspiracy.”
How can I learn more?
Explore our website to learn more about this fascinating mystery!