Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship members have been distributing flyers questioning the traditional authorship theory at institutions and events connected to the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 2016 national First Folio tour. The flyer was created by the SOF’s First Folio Committee, chaired by Professor Bryan Wildenthal. The Committee has also been sending copies of the special First Folio edition of Brief Chronicles, edited by Professor Roger Stritmatter, to key persons at the institutions hosting the First Folio Tour. If the Folio tour has not yet to come to your area, you can download a generic version of the flyer here and adapt it to your locale. Pass it out to people attending Shakespeare-related events being held in conjunction with the First Folio tour. Following is the text of the flyer:
Shakespeare’s “First Folio”: Learn More! Ask Questions!
This brochure presents some facts and questions about William Shakespeare and the beloved plays and poems published under that name—many, for the first time, in the famous Folio of 1623. Two great websites to explore these questions are https://doubtaboutwill.org and https://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org. We urge our fellow Shakespeare lovers to attend and support the exhibits and events sponsored by the Folger Shakespeare Library and American Library Association in the nationwide 2016 tour: “First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare.” The Folio Tour honors the 400th anniversary of the death (on April 23, 1616) of William Shakspere (spelled here as he was baptized and buried), the man from Stratford-upon-Avon credited by most people as author of the plays and poems published under a name spelled “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare.”
Mysteries of the First Folio
Who really compiled and edited the Folio? — Folio Tour promotional materials say it was prepared by two actors (John Heminges and Henry Condell), whose names appear after a dedication and preface. But did these men, with no other known literary experience, actually write those or edit this monumental work? Many scholars, since the 1700s, have questioned that. Parts of what they supposedly wrote are suspiciously similar to writings by playwright-poet Ben Jonson (known as a master of artful double meanings), who wrote two Folio dedication poems praising his rival Shakespeare. Jonson had earlier edited a massive folio of his own works.
Should we take any of the Folio introductory material at face value? — The Heminges-Condell dedication solemnly avows that the Folio is purely a labor of love, “without ambition either of self-profit, or fame.” Their preface humorously begs readers: “But, whatever you do, Buy.” Some kind of inside joke? Why?
What about that weird portrait? — Why did the editors (whoever they were) include the bizarre engraving above (supposedly of “Shakespeare”)? Criticized by many over the years for its strange appearance and apparently poor quality, studies have shown it to be an elaborate and skillfully executed joke that cannot be taken seriously as a portrait of any real person (Google “Shakespeare impossible doublet” for some informative recent commentaries, especially https://youtu.be/gCQt4pOMUqc).
Why does Ben Jonson tell us to ignore the portrait? — In the poem above, opening the entire Folio, Jonson tells us to “looke not on his Picture, but his Booke.” Was he suggesting, like the Wizard of Oz, that we should not look for the man behind the curtain? That we should focus only on the writings? Why draw attention to the picture with a poem, only to issue this curious instruction?
What is Jonson up to with his eulogy? — Jonson begins his second, longer poem by dedicating it in huge type “To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR,” followed in much smaller type by “Mr. William Shakespeare.” Why belabor the obvious that “Shakespeare” is “The AUTHOR”? Is Jonson slyly protesting too much? (The dedication poems by Hugh Holland and Leonard Digges also subordinate Shakespeare’s name in small type while leading with larger headings; Digges also ostentatiously calls him “the deceased Author.”) There are many other odd features of Jonson’s eulogy. What game is he playing?
Errors in the Folio text — The Folio claims it is based on “the true original copies” of the plays (what, pray tell, are “original copies”?), and to be a definitive (indeed “perfect”) edition, but most scholars agree that is far from true. The text is riddled with apparent mistakes and is often drawn from earlier published versions of some plays (which have many textual problems of their own). Why was one play (Troilus and Cressida) apparently thrown in at the last minute, not even listed in the table of contents?
Ambiguous allusions? — Jonson’s eulogy calls the author “Sweet Swan of Avon,” and Digges’s poem, five pages later, refers to “thy Stratford Moniment” (sic). Since the Folio is playful and deceptive in so many ways, how should we view these passing references that seem (in combination) to connect the author to Stratford-upon-Avon? Why are these two brief, widely separated comments the earliest known evidence (yet still posthumous by more than seven years) said to directly support the Stratfordian authorship theory? Why would Jonson (and whoever else was involved) only drop cryptic hints about who the author was?
Do the Folio allusions support the Stratfordian theory? — Did Jonson use “Avon” to convey a sly double reference, not just to the Avon River but also to Hampton Court Palace on the Thames where Shakespeare plays were sometimes performed for the royal court? Google “Waugh Sweet Swan Avon” for discussions of this theory propounded by acclaimed British writer Alexander Waugh. As for the monument in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church, much has been written about its numerous puzzling oddities (Waugh, again, has written a fine recent overview, https://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org/thy-stratford-moniment-revisited).
Mysteries of the Stratford Man
What do we really know about him? — It is fairly well documented that Shakspere of Stratford was a middle-class businessman who turned up at various times in Stratford and London, traded in goods and real estate, got involved in quite a few lawsuits, and retired quite wealthy. Some evidence from during his lifetime appears to link him to the theatre business, perhaps only as an investor. The first known indication he may have been an actor did not appear until right after his death, in the folio of Ben Jonson’s plays published in 1616.
If he really was the author, why didn’t the Folio just say so? Why didn’t he or any of his family ever say so? Many people assume he at least claimed to have written the works of “Shakespeare.” But there is no evidence he ever did, nor did any known relative or descendant. In fact, at least ten important family members and associates (including his son-in-law, Dr. John Hall) left significant writings, yet they do not even suggest any connection between him and the famous plays and poems.
Why did no one notice when he died? — No known eulogies, accolades, or tributes appeared after he died in 1616. The Folio was not published until November 1623, more than seven and a half years later. The near-total “deafening silence” during those years is one of the great mysteries of literary history. The Folio itself did not break the silence in any clear way. It only created more mysteries (some are mentioned above). The Folio Tour and other 2016 celebrations are a stunningly ironic contrast to this Great Silence of 1616!
Why is there no contemporary evidence at all? — No one in 400 years has ever discovered a single shred of documentary evidence from during his own lifetime, or before the 1623 Folio, connecting him to any work of “Shakespeare” or suggesting he had any literary career at all. We have no letters; no manuscripts; no books or anything else suggesting a writing career in his otherwise detailed will; only six cramped (almost illegible) signatures that some experts say were not all written by the same person.
Why is “Shakespeare” so unusually mysterious compared to other writers of his time? — Stratfordians often argue there is nothing unusual about him, and claim we lack documentation for most writers then. But that has long been disproven. The careers of Christopher Marlowe, and especially Ben Jonson, are well documented. Other, lesser writers were amply honored when they died. We have far more documentation of the literary careers of more than a dozen lesser poets and playwrights of that era, as shown by Diana Price (see the book cited on page 4 of this brochure). “Shakespeare” sticks out like a sore thumb.
Why didn’t he collect and edit his own works? — Shakspere died after several years of retirement in Stratford during which he should have had ample time to prepare his works for publication (if he wrote any). Yet the preface to the Folio supposedly written by Heminges and Condell laments that the author’s death deprived him of the chance “to have set forth, and overseen his own writings.”
How did he gain the knowledge and experiences evident in the plays and poems? — If we follow Ben Jonson’s advice at the very outset of the Folio, and “look” on Shakespeare’s “book,” how do we explain, as shown by a growing tide of scholarly studies, that the author (among many other attributes) had deep and sophisticated knowledge of law? (He seems to instinctively express himself in legal metaphors.) How did the author acquire knowledge, not just of Latin, but foreign languages like French, Italian, and Greek never taught in the Stratford grammar school? Of medicine? Of seafaring? Of highly restricted aristocratic sports? How did he obtain detailed (apparently firsthand) knowledge of the geography, culture, and art of northern Italy? Such questions go on and on. Some orthodox Stratfordians concede the mystery, but none has offered a convincing or even plausible account of how the Stratford man, no matter how much of a genius he may have been, could have obtained these and other kinds of specialized knowledge and life experiences evident in the works.
Does any of it make sense? — Shakespeare plays, as far as we know, were published only anonymously before 1598, even after two book-length poems appeared over the “Shakespeare” byline in 1593-94 and became bestsellers. Half the plays were not published at all until the posthumous Folio—all very odd if the author was an upwardly mobile striver seeking fame and fortune under his own name, like the claimed Stratford author.
People Have Questioned the Authorship Since the Very Beginning
Those who dismiss authorship questions often claim that during Shakespeare’s own time, and for centuries afterward, no one doubted the Stratford man wrote the plays and poems. They say authorship doubts are just a modern fad that started in the 1850s. But that is factually mistaken and very far from the truth.
Doubts did become far more widespread in the 19th and 20th centuries—embraced by numerous great writers, judges, and other highly respected people (Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sigmund Freud, and at least five Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, to name only a few)—as interest in the works of Shakespeare grew. But the questions began during Shakespeare’s own time. In 1592, before anything was even published under the Shakespeare name, someone dubbed “Shake-scene” was attacked in print for allegedly stealing from the literary work of others. More doubts were raised by Thomas Edwards and William Covell in 1595, soon after the first two publications bearing the Shakespeare name. Still more doubts were expressed between 1598 and 1602 by writers including Joseph Hall, John Marston, Gabriel Harvey, and John Weever.
Years before 1616, some references implied that the author Shakespeare was already dead. In 1605, England’s ambassador to Russia, Sir Thomas Smith, lamented the passing of “the late English … Ovid” (a likely reference to Shakespeare, whose works were deeply influenced by the Roman poet Ovid). In 1609, Shakespeare’s Sonnets were published with a dedication referring to “our ever-living poet” (strongly suggesting a deceased author). Several Sonnets (e.g., 72 and 81) indicate that the author is not known by his true name and is disgraced for some reason, and express a desire (or mournful expectation) that his true name will never be known.
In 1611, epigram 159 by John Davies described Shakespeare as “Our English Terence,” a reference to a Roman writer believed to be a frontman for a hidden author. Davies followed this with epigram 160, referring to “his” (Shakespeare’s) “most constant, though most unknown friend: No-body.”
All told, at least a dozen or so documentary sources before 1616 express or raise authorship doubts. Still more documents in the decades immediately after 1616 raise further doubts. None of this makes any sense if the Stratford man was the author. In fact, the first suggestions that he was the author did not emerge—and even then, only ambiguously—until the posthumous 1623 Folio!
Think about it: Doubts and questions about who this author might be started appearing more than thirty years before any known documentary source suggested any linkage to Stratford-upon-Avon!
You may, like Keir Cutler, wonder, “Why Was I Never Told This?” (https://youtu.be/JyVjR9FNo9w)
No, It’s Not a “Conspiracy Theory” — Authorship doubts are often derided as “conspiracy theories” based on the argument that a secret author would have required some impossibly widespread yet tightly controlled plot. But the early doubts that were expressed show that whatever deception or secrecy was attempted was not that well kept. No broad “conspiracy” was required in any event. The truth may have been an open secret, the author’s pseudonym a polite fiction—possibly well-known to some but a matter of indifference to a general public that may neither have known nor cared who was behind the name “Shakespeare” on the printed page. People may have been reluctant for various reasons to put in writing whatever facts (or mere gossip) they heard about the true author (if they even cared). Elizabethan England was a police state in which arbitrary arrest, censorship, torture, and the death penalty were common.
Stratfordian Double Standards? — Stratfordians routinely fall back on the argument that much written evidence may have been lost over the centuries of fires, plagues, and wars that wracked England. They often suggest that excuse for the glaring and total absence of documentary evidence (pre-1623) supporting their own Stratfordian authorship theory. Yet they dismiss even the possibility of any other author unless some undeniable “smoking gun” is found. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. If there was an intentionally hidden author, however well-kept a secret at the time (or not), it stands to reason that far less evidence would have been put to paper in the first place about that, and thus even less would survive today.
Trying to Shut Down the Debate? — People sometimes suggest that all of us as Shakespeare lovers should just be grateful we have the plays and poems. “Isn’t that enough?” Well, it may be enough for some, but learning more about and properly crediting the true author is an intellectual and even moral imperative for many. Some defenders of the Stratfordian theory, even otherwise respected scholars like the Rev. Dr. Paul Edmondson and Professor Emeritus Stanley Wells (Honorary Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust), seek to discredit doubters by attacking us as “anti-Shakespearian.” Nothing could be farther from the truth! We love Shakespeare the author (whoever that was) as much as anyone. Why else would we care so much about who the author really was? That is the very question being debated. Labeling people as “pro-Shakespeare” or “anti-Shakespeare” makes no sense and only confuses the issue.
Support the Tour, But Ask Questions
As taxpayers and patrons of the libraries, museums, and theatres involved in the Folio Tour, we are all entitled to raise these questions and get a respectful hearing. Ask your librarians about the documentary film Last Will. & Testament, and about these books (highlights of a vast and growing literature on authorship doubts):
Diana Price, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (rev. ed. 2012)
see also: http://www.shakespeare-authorship.com
Richard Paul Roe, The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard’s Unknown Travels (2011)
John M. Shahan & Alexander Waugh (editors), Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?: Exposing an Industry in Denial (2013)
see also: https://doubtaboutwill.org This brochure was prepared by members of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship (SOF) (second website above). SOF’s primary mission is to explore the evidence supporting Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), as author of the works of “Shakespeare.” This brochure, however, does not advocate Oxford as the author, but merely discusses authorship questions in general. We encourage you to also read the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” posted by the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (SAC) (first website above).