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Barding Up The Wrong Tree [SOS Blog]

Celebrating Shakespeare’s Birthday on April 23rd — Or “Barding” Up The Wrong Tree?

Silver Spring, MD 20902 April 23, 2006

Contact: Matthew Cossolotto
Email: matthew@ovations.com

About the Author: A former congressional aide and author of HabitForce!, Matthew Cossolotto is president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society www.shakespeare-oxford.com.

Celebrating Shakespeare’s Birthday on April 23rd
or “Barding” up the Wrong Tree?

With apologies to David Letterman, my admittedly unfunny “Top Ten” list of reasons to doubt the traditional Shakespeare authorship theory

By Matthew Cossolotto

April 23rd is traditionally accepted as the birthday of William Shakespeare, generally regarded as the greatest poet and playwright in the English language.

As Shakespeare lovers around the world raised a glass to the great Bard, let us pause for a moment. What if we’ve been “barding” up the wrong tree all these years? What if we’ve been honoring the wrong man for writing the immortal poems and plays of Shakespeare?

Or, to paraphrase Hamlet … To believe or not to believe the orthodox authorship theory, THAT is the question.

In the spirit of trying to open minds so we can finally get the Shakespeare authorship right, I’d like to offer my personal “Top Ten” list of reasons to doubt the traditional theory that attributes the works of “Shakespeare” to the unlikely William Shakspere (as his name was typically spelled in the official records) from Stratford.

10) There is no reliable, contemporaneous evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford ever wrote anything in his life. Not even so much as a letter exists in his handwriting, let alone any manuscripts of plays and poems. Illiteracy ran in his family – his parents, wife and children all seem to have been illiterate or semi-literate at best.

9) There is no evidence that Shakspere of Stratford ever attended any school. He may have attended a few years of grammar school in Stratford, but we simply don’t know for sure. Nor is there any evidence that he could have otherwise acquired the vast educational, linguistic and cultural background necessary to write the masterpieces of English literature attributed to William Shakespeare.

8) What’s in a name? The few signatures of Shakspere of Stratford that exist – barely legible though they are – show that he did not even spell his own name “Shakespeare.” Spelling was notoriously fluid in those days, but the name of the author was consistently spelled “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” with a hyphen. Shakspere’s family name was almost never spelled “Shakespeare” in the official records. Even in his own signatures on his will, signed and dated one month before his death in 1616, he doesn’t seem to be spelling “Shakespeare,” despite the fact that this name had been famous for more than two decades.

7) Shakspere of Stratford took no legal action against the pirating of the “Shakespeare” plays or the apparently unauthorized publication of Shake-speare’s Sonnets in 1609, even though he was known to frequently initiate lawsuits to recover petty sums of money owed to him.

6) Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, paint a portrait of the artist as a much older man. The scholarly consensus today holds that most of the Sonnets were written in the 1590s, when Shakspere of Stratford was in his late 20s to late 30s, a relatively youthful age even in Elizabethan times. Yet, the author of the Sonnets at times is clearly much older and anticipating his own imminent death. Inexplicably, the publisher’s dedication in the 1609 volume of Sonnets refers to “Shakespeare” as “our ever-living poet” – a term that implies the poet is already dead, but Shakspere of Stratford was still very much alive until 1616.

5) The Sonnets also suggest strongly that “Shakespeare” was a pen name and that the author’s real identity was destined to remain unknown. In Sonnet 72 “Shakespeare” asks that his “name be buried where my body is.” Sonnet 81: “Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.” If Shakspere of Stratford truly was the famous author of the Sonnets, why would he think his name would be buried with his body? The name “Shakespeare” – which appears on the title page of the Sonnets themselves — certainly wasn’t buried with the body of the poet, whoever he was.

4) Unlike many other authors of the period – even those who were far less famous or prolific – not a single manuscript or letter exists in Shakspere’s own handwriting. The Stratford Candidate is unique – nothing survives of a literary nature that connects Shakspere of Stratford (the man) during his lifetime with any of the written works that are supposed to represent his literary output.

3) Although traditional biographers of “Shakespeare” claim that he dashed off a couple of masterpieces a year to earn money, there is no evidence of a single payment to Shakspere of Stratford as an author. Nor is there any evidence of Shakspere of Stratford seeking out or establishing an ongoing literary patron – as was a common practice for writers of the day.

2) Shakspere of Stratford’s minutely detailed 1616 will makes no mention of anything even vaguely literary – no books, unpublished manuscripts, library or diaries. Not even a family bible. Why didn’t this literary giant leave behind a single book or bequeath any literary effects or posthumous literary instructions whatsoever to his widow or children? Half of “Shakespeare’s” plays were published for the first time in the First Folio in 1623. Why didn’t Shakspere make even a passing reference to these invaluable unpublished manuscripts in his 1616 will?

1) Shakspere of Stratford’s death in 1616 was a singular “non-event,” despite the fact that “Shakespeare” the author and poet was widely recognized at the time as one of England’s greatest writers. Why was no notice taken of Shakspere of Stratford’s death if he was such a literary luminary? Perhaps his contemporaries accorded him the recognition that was entirely appropriate for the obscure, small town property owner and grain-merchant he appears to have been.

The traditional “Stratfordian” theory presents us with a major disconnect between the life of the presumed author and his creative output. It’s almost as if we have a disembodied body of works with little or no relationship to the author.

There is a long and distinguished history of doubting the traditional “Stratfordian” attribution of the “Shakespeare” works. Noted doubters over the years include Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, and Sigmund Freud.

In his insightful Shaksper Not Shakespeare, William H. Edwards wrote:

“It is full time that reasonable men should re-examine the evidences on which they have believed that an illiterate butcher, from an ignorant and bookless inland village…sat himself down, and without preparation or knowledge, dashed off Hamlet — and not only Hamlet, but nearly two score of the world’s greatest plays. In the pages to follow, I assert and prove … that no man, during his lifetime, attributed these plays to William Shaksper, or suspected him of any authorship whatever. I show that he died as devoid of accomplishments as when he entered London — unknown to any man of letters or of eminence, unnoticed and unlamented. The English speaking world has been humbugged in this matter long enough.”

William Edwards’ book was published in 1900! We haven’t made very much progress in the past 106 years.

For those with an open mind who want to discover more about the greatest literary mystery of all time, there are many books and websites devoted to the Shakespeare authorship question. An excellent book by Diana Price called Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, documents the paucity of evidence linking Shakspere of Stratford to any literary output.

April 23, 2006, is supposed to be the 442nd anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. My birthday wish for Mr. Shakspere of Stratford is the following: “I wish all Shakespeare-loving scholars around the world would open their minds and begin conducting research into more likely authorship candidates so we can finally get to the bottom of this mystery, stop “barding” up the wrong tree, and at long last let poor Mr. Shakspere of Stratford rest in peace.”

# # #

Matthew Cossolotto
Shakespeare Oxford Society
11101 Georgia Avenue, Suite 324
Silver Spring, 20902
Phone : 914-245-9721

Shakespeare Oxford Society

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