The Authorship Controversy
As early as 1709, with the publication of Nicholas Rowe's edition of Shakespeare's works, the dearth of information about the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford was becoming apparent. Apart from several early minor accounts, the preface of Rowe's edition contained the first biography of Shakespeare. Rowe put forth eleven known "facts" about Shakespeare's life. By 1821, however, Edmond Malone in his edition of Shakespeare's works charged that eight of Rowe's facts were incorrect and one was doubtful. By the early twentieth century, a few more questionable "discoveries" had been made about Shakespeare's life and biographies that contained much conjecture were published. Given the paucity of biographical facts, speculation arose as to whether or not it was possible that a man with Shakespeare's background—since what is known regarding Shakespeare's life reveals little regarding his education or literary or courtly experience—could have authored the plays and poems ascribed to Shakespeare. This is the heart of the authorship controversy.
Orthodox teaching is centered on what John Micheli (1996) has referred to as the "twin pillars of evidence": the First Folio (1623), which lists Shakespeare as the author, and the inscription on the bust at Trinity Church, which states that "Shakspere" was the greatest writer of his age. Micheli explains that everyone connected with the First Folio—including printers, the actors who edited the manuscript, the two earls to whom it was dedicated, the four poets (including Ben Jonson) who wrote verses for it—all "openly or tacitly accepted the declared authorship." Essentially, despite the fact that much of Shakespeare's life remains a mystery, Stratfordians argue that there is no evidence against Shakespeare's claim of authorship.
Anti-Stratfordians focus on the discrepancies between the life of Shakespeare and the literary mind that created the plays and poems. These critics point to absences in public records and to the writings of literary figures, claiming that some reference to Shakespeare in a literary context ought to have been made at some point in his life. Anti-Stratfordian explanations of such silences urge that another person wrote the plays, a person with some motive concealing his or her own identity and using the Stratford actor, William Shakespeare, as a "frontman." Francis Bacon was the first of such candidates. In 1781, the Reverend James Wilmont noted some similarities between the ideas of Bacon and Shakespeare. By the mid-1800s, the idea was being advanced in America by Delia Bacon. The claim of Bacon has largely been dismissed, due in part, according to H. N. Gibson (1962), to the complicated cryptograms which some Baconians attribute to their candidate. (The validity of the cryptograms, which reportedly reveal Bacon as the true author of the plays, has since been disproved.) Other individuals who have been thought to be the true author have included Christopher Marlowe, Sir Walter Raleigh, and even Queen Elizabeth. The leading twentieth-century candidate remains Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
The parallels between characters and events in Shakespeare's plays and the people and experiences connected with Oxford were discovered by J. Thomas Looney and published in his "Shakespeare " Identified in Edward de Vere (1920). Tom Bethell (1991) has reviewed such parallels, occurring most prominently, he argues, in Hamlet. Bethell and other Oxfordians, including Charlton Ogburn (1984), agree that Oxford's motive for keeping his identity as author a secret was because it was not socially acceptable for a person of Oxford's elevated social stature to be associated with the theater. Furthermore, Oxfordians point out that based on the tone and content of the plays, the author appears to be disdainful of the lower classes and seems to possess knowledge of foreign lands, especially Italy, and of foreign languages. Shakespeare was born in a small town into the working class, the son of a glover; there is no evidence that he was educated beyond grammar school. Oxford, however, was well educated and possessed an intimate knowledge of the court and a familiarity with Italy, having traveled there. Although Oxford's death predates Shakespeare's death by twelve years, Oxfordians argue that the dates of many of the plays are uncertain and that they could indeed have been written during Oxford's lifetime.
Many Stratfordians question the re-dating of the plays proposed by anti-Stratfordians, and on dating alone disqualify the case of many claimants, including Oxford and Marlowe, among others. Louis Marder (1963) and S. Schoenbaum (1991) have both attacked the claims of anti-Stratfordians on the grounds of the dating of the plays and on the implausibility of other anti-Stratfordian arguments. Irvin Matus (1991) has addressed some of the issues raised by Bethell and other Oxfordians. On the issue of Shakespeare's education, Matus notes that many schools, including Stratford's grammar school, did not begin keeping admissions records until well after Shakespeare's death; Shakespeare is not the only person who cannot be tied to an educational institute due to lack of records. Matus also argues that there is little reason to believe that Elizabethans shared the modern elevated view of Shakespeare, which helps explain the absence of contemporary references to Shakespeare. Furthermore, Matus and Marder agree that there is little in the content of the plays that would have been beyond the access of a typical Elizabethan.
In addition to the controversy surrounding the authorship of the known plays and poems, two newly discovered poems have been attributed by some scholars to Shakespeare. "Shall I Die?" was presented by Gary Taylor in 1985 as being written by Shakespeare, and "A Funeral Elegy" was introduced to Shakespearean studies in 1989 by Donald Foster. "Shall I Die?" was attributed by an early anonymous scribe to Shakespeare, and "A Funeral Elegy" was signed with the initials "W.S." Taylor asserts that "Shall I Die?" must be accepted as Shakespeare's until evidence can prove otherwise. However, Foster (1987) argues that both internal and external evidence indicate that the poem is not Shakespeare's work. Richard Abrams (1996) has found in "A Funeral Elegy" signs of Shakespeare's authorship, including allusions to both the theatrical profession and to Shakespeare's works. Katherine Duncan-Jones (1997), conversely, has argued that "A Funeral Elegy" suggests that its author is a Puritan, perhaps a clergy man; she proposes William Sclater as the elegist.
Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians continue to attempt to prove the claim of their candidate and disprove that of the other party's candidate. While some Oxfordians may assert that they have shown beyond "a reasonable doubt" that Edward de Vere is the true author of the Shakespearean canon, it is likely that in the absence of any new evidence, the debate will rage on.
John Micheli (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Doubts and Questions," in Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Thames and Hudson, 1996, pp. 67-112.
[In the following overview, Micheli outlines the authorship controversy, noting that while Shakespeare 's life is for the most part a mystery, there is no evidence against his claim as author. Micheli also illustrates the primary thrust of the anti-Stratfordian argument, that there exists a tremendous disparity between the life of Shakespeare and "the mind of the person" who authored the plays and poems.]
Shakspere as Candidate: The Pros, Cons and the Silences
The case for William Shakspere of Stratford has classical simplicity, giving it an initial advantage over the more complicated cases for all rival candidates. The name, with adapted spelling, appeared on the title-pages of plays and poems and, even though neither he nor anyone else in his lifetime clearly identified the actor with the author, no one openly challenged the attribution. Two of his poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton who never acknowledged the honour, but neither did he repudiate it. Shakspere's family and neighbours neither acclaimed nor disclaimed the great poet in their midst. His fellow actors and impresarios must have known whether or not he was the real author of the plays they were staging. They never expressed doubts about Shakspere's claim,...
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Louis Marder (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "The Man and the Myth," in His Exits and His Entrances: The Story of Shakespeare 's Reputation, J. B. Lippincott Company, 1963, pp. 156-88.
[In the following essay, Marder reviews the arguments against Shakespeare and—after disputing the cases of Bacon, Marlowe, and Oxford as authors—argues that "there is nothing in the plays that was beyond the powers of an alert Elizabethan intimately connected with the stage, a reader of books, a friend to gentleman and travelers. . . . "]
It is one of the ironies attendant on the growth of Shakespeare's reputation that even the most diligent scholarship has been able to uncover very little of the background of the poet's personal or public life. However, the poverty of detail has merely spurred his biographers to increased scholarly, inferential, and imaginative activity.
Although some minor biographical accounts were published in the seventeenth century, the first regular life of Shakespeare was written by Nicholas Rowe as a preface to his 1709 edition. Edmond Malone in his edition of 1821 disparaged the work of Rowe, claiming that of the eleven "facts" the earlier editor had set forth, eight were incorrect, one doubtful, and only the remaining two satisfactory because taken from the Stratford parish register. Yet despite its inaccuracies, Rowe's "Life" gave the basic...
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Charlton Ogburn (essay date 1984)
SOURCE: "Such a Deadly Life," in The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, Dodd, Mead & Company, 1984, pp. 23-37.
[In this essay, Ogburn reviews the public documents connected with "Shakspere of Stratford, " suggesting that among the baptismal records, marriage licenses, legal proceedings and wills, there is a lack of evidence demonstrating that the man from Stratford was the literary genius behind the works attributed to Shakespeare.]
Orthodox writers assert that much is known about the man they conceive to be Shakespeare, more, indeed, than about all but one of his fellow playwrights. In two centuries, legions of scholar-sleuths (one of whom alone combed a collection of three million uncatalogued documents) have in fact, in a literary dragnet of unparalleled scope, come up with an extensive assortment of facts about the Stratfordian. We find it enlightening to review these to see what activities are indicated for the purported master poet and playwright and what kinds are notably missing, and to see what items are listed and what kinds not listed in the inventory of his life's effects recorded in his will.
In April 1973, the curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library discovered that on 12 June 1593, Richard Stonley, a London businessman, had recorded in his diary his purchasing a copy of...
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Tom Bethell (essay date 1991)
SOURCE: "Looking for Shakespeare: Two Partisans Explain and Debate the Authorship Question," in The Atlantic Monthly, Vol. 268, No. 4, October, 1991, pp. 43-61.
[In the following essay, Bethell discusses the parallels between Hamlet and the life of Edward de Vere, and insists that the experiences of de Vere—most notably his courtly life and familiarity with Italy—show that he is more likely to have written the plays than Stratford's Shakespeare.]
Hamlet is derived from a story in François de Belleforest's Histories Tragiques (1576), not yet translated into English when Shakespeare adapted it. Shakespeare introduced new characters and greatly enlarged the roles assigned to various characters by Belieferest. One of these magnified characters is Polonius, the Lord Chamberlain to the King of Denmark, who is not even named in the original story. As long ago as 1869 the scholar George Russell French noted the similarities between Queen Elizabeth's principal minister, Lord Burghley, and Polonius in Hamlet. French added that Burghley's son and daughter Robert and Anne Cecil seemed to correspond to Laertes and Ophelia.
Taking this scenario one step further, Hamlet himself becomes Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Ophelia was unhappily involved with Hamlet; De Vere, who grew up as a...
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H. N. Gibson (essay date 1962)
SOURCE: "The Case For Francis Bacon," in The Shakespeare Claimants: A Critical Survey of the Four Principal Theories Concerning the Authorship of the Shakespearean Plays, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1962, pp. 48-71.
[In the following essay, Gibson examines the basis of the case for Francis Bacon as the author of the plays and poems and then proceeds to highlight the weaknesses of Baconian theories.]
The Baconians were not only the originators of the great Shakespearean controversy; they also devised the pattern for it that all the other schools of thought have followed.1 This pattern consists of four sections—(1) arguments for the rejection of William Shakspere as author; (2) arguments for the recognition of some other candidate as author; (3) reasons for the long concealment of the identity of the new claimant; and (4) reasons for the former ascription of the authorship to William Shakspere. Apart from the fact that Calvin Hoffman, the advocate of Marlowe's authorship, differs from the others in the third item of this pattern, the arguments put forward by all schools for the first, third, and fourth items are very nearly identical. It is in the second item that the greatest differences occur, though even here there is considerable overlapping where the same factor, or series of factors, is merely given a slight twist to make it apply to a...
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THE "NEW" POEMS: "SHALL I DIE?"
Gary Taylor (essay date 1985)
SOURCE: "Shakespeare's New Poem: A Scholar's Clues and Conclusions," in The New York Times Book Review, December 15, 1985, pp. 11-14.
[In the following essay, Taylor urges that the poem "Shall I Die? " must be accepted as Shakespeare's until evidence can be brought forth against this claim. The author cites verbal parallels between the poem and Shakespearean canon as supportive of the claim for Shakespeare's authorship.]
On the evening of Nov. 14, while I was routinely checking references in the Bodleian Library at Oxford, I came across an item I did not recognize, a poem attributed to William Shakespeare, with the first line "Shall I die? Shall I fly?" I asked for the manuscript to be fetched and late the next morning I went back to check it. I found the literary equivalent of Sleeping Beauty, a nameless poem awakening from the ancient sheets in which it had lain undisturbed for centuries, a poem without a critical history.
This sleeping beauty had a rude awakening. By Nov. 22 (with the help and advice of my senior colleague on the Oxford project to publish a "Complete Works" of Shakespeare, Stanley Wells), I had subjected the poem to every accepted test of authenticity; the results were all positive and we could think of nothing else to check. Within hours of my trying to find a...
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Richard Abrams (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "W[illiam] S[hakespeare]'s 'Funeral Elegy' and the Turn from the Theatrical," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 36, No. 2, Spring, 1996, pp. 435-60.
[In the following essay, Abrams argues that signs of Shakespeare's authorship of the poem "The Funeral Elegy " are evident in the poem's allusions to the theatrical profession and to Shakespeare's works. Abrams also maintains that the poem's narrator reveals "biographical coincidences" which point to Shakespeare, as the elegist.]
On 25 January 1612 in Exeter, after a day's drinking with two friends, a thirty-year-old Devonshire country gentleman, William Peter, was murdered. Nineteen days later in London, Thomas Thorpe, the publisher of Shakespeare's Sonnets, registered as ready for publication a 578-line poem entitled A Funeral Elegy in Memory of the Late Virtuous Master William Peter. This poem, signed W. S. on the title page and in the dedication, was introduced to Shakespeare studies by Donald Foster who, in Elegy by W. S.: A Study in Attribution, noted the possibility of Shakespeare's authorship but did not then, in 1989, feel he could press his arguments with confidence. More recently Foster and I have presented a greatly augmented case for Shakespeare's authorship at professional conferences and in the pages of the Times Literary...
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Abrams, Richard. "Breaching the Canon; Elegy by W.S.: The State of the Argument." The Shakespeare Newsletter XLV, No. 226 (Fall 1995): 51-4.
Discusses the discovery of the poem and offers an overview of the criticism surrounding the poem and its authorship, concluding that "the Elegy has a strong claim to be Shakespeare's own."
Dantanus, Ulf. "Shakespeare: In Search of a Solid Life." Moderna Språk LXXXVII, No. 1 (1993): 6-13.
Provides a brief analysis of Charles Ogburn's contention that the Earl of Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays.
Foster, Donald W. "A Funeral Elegy: W[illiam] S[hakespeare] 's 'Best-Speaking Witnesses'." PMLA 111, No. 5 (October 1996): 1080-105.
Argues that "A Funeral Elegy" is indeed Shakespeare's work, "not because there is incontrovertible proof that the man Shakespeare wrote it (there is not) nor even because it is an aesthetically satisfying poem (it is not), but rather because it is formed from textual and linguistic fabric indistinguisable from that of canonical Shakespeare."
Harbage, Alfred. "Shakespeare as Culture Hero." In Conceptions of Shakespeare, pp. 101-19. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1966.
Explains the attacks on Shakespeare's authorship as having arisen from a compination of social and psychological tendencies to make a myth out of a...
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