Bringing Truth to Light – Why it Matters Who Wrote William’s Words
by Jacob Karlsson Lagerros
According to the legend, Richard Burbage, the most famous actor of Shakespeare’s day, was once asked to visit a lady at home, dressed as Richard III. When Burbage arrived at the Lady’s door, he loudly exclaimed that “King Richard III is come.” However, he did not receive the expected response. From within the apartment resounded a surprising – but all too familiar – voice, proclaiming “Please inform the gentleman that William the Conqueror came before Richard III” (Chambers, 212). But it was not the voice of a conqueror. It was the voice of another William, of even greater reputation.
There exist few – if any – literary figures of such magnitude as William Shakespeare. His writing has had an enormous impact on the ideological development of the modern western civilization. Linguistics, ethics, literature and philosophy would not have been the same if he had not decided to put pen to paper in Elizabethan England. Yet, as in the case with Burbage, it has not always been clear exactly who it is that hides in that house of literary masterpieces. In the last centuries literary scholars have begun doubting the traditional view on the authorship of the Shakespeare canon, even denying that it really was William himself who wrote it. This meticulous scrutiny has prompted some to claim that “it doesn’t matter who wrote Shakespeare.” However, that supposition is completely unfounded. Shakespeare’s identity is highly relevant, and that is due to three main reasons: Firstly, it is intrinsically tied to how we perceive and understand his work. Secondly, due to the size of his legacy his life story has long-reaching social, cultural and ethical implications. And thirdly, attributing Shakespeare’s work to the wrong author would cause radical changes to those societal structures that are built upon his legacy. Shakespeare matters because the impact he has had on western civilization is too vital to be constructed on a lie.
1. Understanding Shakespeare’s Work Through his Person
Is it possible to understand Shakespeare without knowing who he was? One might surely understand him in the sense of knowing what is happening on the stage, who is who and what he intends with his often peculiar language (doubling adjectives when one would suffice, inventing words etc.). But can one really perceive what, so to speak, made the plays what they are? What wretched anger or soothing love was it that he channeled and shackled within iambic pentameter? From what steaming abyss of emotion did Lear and Iago burst into being? The answers to these questions vary depending on who is the claimed author.
Different attributions also alter the response to another significant problem: Why did Lear and Iago burst into being at all? Shakespeare’s message and ideological agenda undoubtedly rely on what person he was. Just as irony and sarcasm may be undetectable if done by a certain person in a certain context, and completely obvious in another; the private life of Shakespeare says a great deal about what his characters tell us when they are not directly speaking. The authorship question is undeniably meaningful since our entire perception, view and understanding of the raison d’être for the Shakespeare canon transform when we attribute it to different writers.
The topic of understanding furthermore provides additional evidence for the need of an authorship debate. Comprehending the work is not merely to perform an elaborate exegesis on a given text. Instead, the process has often been helped and advanced through a method of intertextual interpretation: the act of reading the plays not as separate entities, but as components of a whole; merging different worlds and stories together to form a Shakespearean universe of lives and ideas. This process is extremely useful, as it illuminates nuances and themes that are too subtle to perceive in a single text. However, it is also dependent on the life of the writer. He assumes the role of god over this newborn universe; every move and action has meaning not only in its worldly direct context, but also as the result of a divine motive and will. Your reason, endeavor and ideas – as is easily perceived throughout history – changes drastically depending on your god.
2. The Social, Cultural and Ethical Impact of Shakespeare’s identity
Why doubt that William Shaksper (who also spelled it Shaksper, Shakspe, Shakspere and Shakspeare) of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the Shakespeare canon? What skepticism made Mark Twain reflect on the Stratfordian arguments in his merciless 1909 satire Is Shakespeare dead?, finally stating that “an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rise sky-high from a very flat and very thin foundation of inconsequential facts” (Twain, Chapter III), few enough that “you could set them all down on a visiting-card” (Twain, Chapter II). Both Shaksper and his authorship rivals are long dead, and neither has any distant relatives looking to regain their honor or rightful place in history. But the debate is persisting and growing, indicating how it is a subject cared about and revered by many. The main untraditional contestant for the authorship is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who lived between 1550 and 1604. In every part of the canon where Shaksper’s life fails to explain the text, De Vere’s elucidates it perfectly. The meticulous knowledge of Italian customs and locations, advanced legal terms and processes, royal intrigues and falconry present is absolutely remote to Shaksper’s life, yet corresponds perfectly to de Vere’s. (Shakespeare Fellowship, Chapter 7)
There is, however, an unyielding reluctance to support the Oxford theory, even in the midst of a rampant maelstrom of evidence. It seems that a great many adherents to the orthodox tradition have erected romantic ideals as massive bulwarks against the Oxfordian floods. The bard from Avon gains support from the most unforeseen direction – Americanism. When the former editor of the Shakespeare Quarterly, Dr. Gail Kern Paster, argued the traditional view at a Smithsonian seminar in 2001, she summed up her final statement by appealing that “We as Americans have no reason” to doubt the authorship (Niederkorn). The alleged story of William Shaksper of Stratford-upon-Avon is in fact intimately tied to the American dream. It is the story of a man who lacked education, world experience and noble background, but instead was blessed with an unparalleled imagination and the pen of a god; who labored day and night to bring his dreams to life, and ended up buying the largest estate of his hometown – settling down as the hero of both his nation and generation (Twain, Chapter III). When Paul Edmonson of The Guardian writes a fierce defense of the Stratfordian viewpoint, he – just like Dr. Paster – cannot close without offering a comparison of Oxford (“notorious for his violent aggressiveness, rich at birth but impoverished at death, an aristocrat who ruined his estate through nothing else than his own carelessness”) and Shaksper (“He didn’t go to university. He wasn’t an aristocrat. He was from fairly humble origins and worked hard at what he was good at”).
This Americanism provides social reasons to why it actually matters who wrote “Shakespeare”. For many people living today, the reading of Macbeth or King Lear is a mere act of wading and plowing, through endless archaism and unintelligible soliloquys. The man behind the works appears as such a foreign figure, hiding in his linguistic swamps, that it seems impossible to find any satisfaction in his alien work. If then, however, that man is capable of identification: if the reader can perceive someone like himself – sharing his struggles, joys and fears – behind the pen, those forbidding opuses immediately turn more appealing. It is a harsh truth that a majority of people simply will not read the manuscripts of a 400-year-old playwright for the sole sake of their poetry. Thus the story of Shakespeare’s life matters, as it might spread (or hinder the spread of) his work to those who otherwise never would have discovered it.
Today Shakespeare is a brand; a trademark. In the modern culture of mainstream theater, one does not merely watch a play, one watches Shakespeare. A giant cultural industry has been built around that mysterious, distinct English, intellectually ringing: [ʃeɪkˌspɪr]. Ponder the amount of tickets sold if a theater were to stage two “different” plays the same night: Hamlet by William Shakespeare and The Tragedy of the Danish Prince by Edward de Vere. Poor Edward would have his masterpiece acted out in front of a vanishingly small gathering of brave avant-gardists and subtly giggling professors. Attributing Shakespeare’s work to de Vere would (at least beyond dogmatic academia) turn out a seamless transition; however, reprinting it and replacing every mention of the traditional author would possibly ignite a commercial crisis. This issue is cultural, economic and pragmatic, pertaining in no way to artistic and esthetic subject matter, yet it cannot be overlooked.
The authorship dilemma is also an ethical one. Orthodox scholars like to claim that questioning the traditional attribution is an act of jealousy, an inability to cope with how one man could possess such talent and produce such a vast array of brilliance. As the
aforementioned Paul Edmonson puts it, “it denies the power of the human imagination.” Because if Proust could and Tolstoy could, why could not Shakespeare? Taking a stance on the authorship dilemma suddenly means choosing a position in questions far exceeding its apparent realms. If you choose your author based on the text, you also commit to a certain view of human beings. What can a single man do? What possibilities does he have? How wide stretches the human imagination? To what extent do the birthplace conditions of a man determine his limits? One does not have to be a Stratfordian or Oxfordian to see that if we want to explain the author from his texts or vice versa, we commit to a grand ethical decision. To choose Shakespeare’s identity means, in a sense, to choose your view of mankind.
3. The Consequences of Misattributing Shakespeare
To demonstrate the possible impact a change of author might have on societies, look at the probably most influential text of all time – the Bible. Whenever a community withholds its holiness and claims it to be the word and will of God, its themes and notions spread like wildfire. Laws are constructed according to the teachings of Jesus, the style of psalms becomes the ideal way of writing poetry and the events of Noah’s Ark and the Garden of Eden determine how history is constructed. Yet, at the advent of secularization – in other words, when the idea of the authorship changes from divine to dilettante – those societal structures are radically transformed. A change that is minimal within its direct context spawns a butterfly effect razing the systems that had been built upon it. Even though the Stratford vs. Oxford debate does not concern divinity, a huge part of Western civilization does rest on Shakespeare’s work. He gave us our language and our literature. He gave us a view of the history of his own age and had an impact on the history of his future. He taught practical ethics to millions of men and women. It would have devastating consequences for our entire conception of history if the traditional attribution of his work was wrong. In that case not only the direct Shakespearean institutions but also every idea and system built around him would crumble.
4. Why Shakespeare is supposed not to matter – and why such an idea is absurd
When Mark Rylance, multiple Tony Award winner and longtime Shakespeare interpreter, was faced with the dreaded question of the Shakespeare authorship he responded that “One of the fortunate things about this Shakespearian thing [authorship] is that it’s totally unimportant.” He refers to the “enormous personal pain and suffering” that had to be endured in order to craft those timeless masterpieces, and how the question deprives them of the attention they deserve. Those tales – playing out from the raging seas of Illyria to the haunted hallways of the castle Elsinore – are too vibrant and tragic, too magnificent and “full of sound and fury,” to fade behind a pile of scholarly quibble. Shakespeare’s poetry, not his identity, is what matters. Then why is not Rylance justified in his outburst? Is it not an axiom of esthetics that a true work of art must be able to persist apart of its creator? When a spectator is agonized by the grief of Othello, riveted by the madness of Hamlet or immersed in the “infinite jest” of Twelfth Night – how can anything make a difference but the very magic of the moment? There are, however, “more things in heaven and earth than are contained in Rylance’s philosophy.” In that exalted moment of experiencing the essence of drama there might not be much else that matters, yet plays of such magnitude as Shakespeare’s have relevance far beyond the stage of the Globe Theatre. The act of viewing the plays is only a part of a larger process. To claim that nothing matters but the text is to be ignorant of what literature is capable of. As noted in sections 2 and 3, Shakespeare extends far beyond his words.
The Bard of Avon is not the only author with universally celebrated writing but a life shrouded in mystery. There are pivotal figures in Western literature whose lives historians know close to nothing about. Homer, for example, who might be the single most important figure of ancient literature, has a biography veritably unknown beyond myth and legend. Yet his work is widely read, cherished and meticulously analyzed. There is an epitaph on the tomb of the great English architect Sit Christopher Wren that reads “Si momentum requires circumspice.” Located in the heart of his magnum opus, St Paul’s Cathedral, the inscription tells nothing about his life or virtues. It simply urges the observer to turn away: “Reader, if you seek his monument, look about you.” Those words greatly elucidate the supposed relation between an artist and his art that would deny the importance of our question. Even if an author’s life might change the way we understand his writings, what insight does it provide that we cannot do without? No one ever claimed The Odyssey to be incomprehensible because we lack concrete facts about Homer. Yet there is certain knowledge every scholar claims is crucial for that understanding – the knowledge of Antique culture and religion. If we then apply the same standards to Elizabethan era England, we find that what we need to comprehend its poets is its philosophy; its beliefs, rituals and customs. And when it comes to Elizabethan culture, we do know a lot. If there ever were texts with the ability to stand alone, resting only on their greatness and the zeitgeist that spawned them, would they not be Shakespeare’s? However, this argument fails as the problem is not the mysterious circumstances of the poet’s life, but rather the act of accidentally attributing his work to another poet, someone who may not even be a poet at all. Transferring the attribution of a work does not necessarily give us new insight into it, but it undoubtedly changes the view we already have. As noted in section 1, the intrigues of Shakespeare’s universe may not depend on who he was, but the meaning and message of it does.
It definitely does matter who wrote “Shakespeare.” His work has had an undeniable importance in the creation of the modern society. An impact so large, in fact, that we cannot risk it to be based on a lie. Yet, in the end, the hunt for that elusive man may not even be about him. When asked if it matters who wrote Shakespeare, one might respond that “Yes, it does indeed – the same way it matters who wrote the gospels and who signed the Declaration of Independence.” Every false prophet ultimately faces his iconoclasm. The fundamental principle of all academia, and even knowledge itself, has been, since the foundation of the Academy of Plato, to search for truth and pursue history solely for its own sake and value. In order to understand the postmodern ocean currently whirling us away, we first have to comprehend the movements of the earth that enraged the sea in the first place. As that enigmatic English bard – who at the present moment shall go unnamed – wrote in The Rape of Lucrece:
“Time’s glory is to calm contending kings,
To unmask falsehood
And bring truth to light” (lines 939-940).
“A Beginner’s Guide to the Shakespeare Authorship Problem,” Shakespeare Fellowship, Mar 2002. Web. 16 December 2012. Chapters 6 and 7.
Edmonson, Paul. “Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays – and does it matter?” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 5 Sep 2011. Web. 16 December 2012.
May, Steven W. “The Poems of Edward DeVere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford and of Robert Devereux, Second Earl of Essex” Studies in Philology. University of North Carolina Press 77, winter 1980. pp. 5-7.
Niederkorn, William S. “A Historical Whodunit: If Shakespeare didn’t, who did?” New York Times, 10 February 2001.
Twain, Mark. Is Shakespeare Dead? From My Autobiography. New York and London: Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1909. Print. Chapters II and III.
Stritmatter, Roger. “Is This the Bard We See Before Us? Or Someone Else?” The Washington Post. Katharine Weymouth, 18 March 2007.
Shakespeare, William. The Rape of Lucrece. 1594. Line 939.
Chambers, E.K. William Shakespeare. A Study of Facts and Problems. USA: Oxford University Press. 1989 (original 1930). pp. 212.
Rylance, Mark. Interview from Anonymous press conference, 2011. Web. 16 December 2012.