William Shakespeare The Authorship Controversy - Essay


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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, and two of them, Heminge and Condell, certified his authorship of the plays in the First Folio.

The Folio of 1623 is one of the twin pillars of Stratfordian orthodoxy. The other is the poem inscribed below Shakspere's bust in Stratford's Holy Trinity church which was put there soon after his death, and records that Shakspere was the greatest writer of his age. No matter that the bust may have been changed or tampered with; the inscription beneath it is early and unequivocal.

Everyone concerned with the First Shakespeare Folio—the printers who saw the original texts, the two players who edited it, the two earls who received its dedication and the four poets, including Ben Jonson, who wrote verses for it—openly or tacitly accepted the declared authorship. Jonson addressed his poem. 'To the memory of my beloved, the Author. Mr William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us', and he was specific with his pun on the author's name ('shake a lance') and his 'Swan of Avon' epithet. Leonard Digges with his reference to Shakspere's Stratford monument plainly acknowledged his authorship of the Folio's contents.

The most powerful and compelling defence of William Shakspere is that none of the actors and theatre people who must have known him in London ever openly disputed his authorship of plays. This is a serious problem for the anti-Stratfordians, and their responses to it reveal a serious discrepancy in their argument. The true identity of Shakespeare, they say, was a close secret, known to very few people and thus easily maintained. Yet the conspiratorial group inevitably widens. Many cryptic references to the Authorship mystery by many contemporary writers are detected by the Heretics. If they are right, it would seem that almost every writer of the time was in on the secret, and in that case, if the secret was so widely known, it was really no secret at all. The idea of a concealed Shakespeare, someone other than the man from Stratford, is thus made ridiculous.

The orthodox teaching is that, although Shakspere's life is largely a mystery, there is no evidence worth looking at against his traditional claim to the Authorship. Shakspere's twin pillars stand intact. The Heretics may make mysteries, raise doubts and quibble as they please, but unless they can find proof for some other candidate, Shakespeare is respectably identified as Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon.

It is only when Stratfordians descend into the arena and argue the matter on the Heretics' grounds that perplexities arise. These are inevitably caused by the central paradox of the Authorship question, the discrepancy between the life of Shakspere and the mind of the person who wrote Shakespeare. On the one hand a bookless provincial trader, on the other a universal genius of refined education. How can the two possibly be matched?

This question splits the Stratfordians into two opposite camps, one of which includes the romantics and mystics. These make light of Shakspere's educational deficiencies. They follow Jonson's line, that though Shakspere was far from being a classical scholar, he could defeat the Romans at their own game and outdo all the ancient poets and philosophers. He was a born genius, a child of nature, and such people need no great stock of book learning to be capable of inspired writing, far exceeding anything that a mere pedant or scholar could produce. Shakspere's knowledge came to him directly through mystical channels.

The other, more modern approach to reconciling Shakspere with Shakespeare is by taking a high view of the education provided at the Stratford grammar school, while playing down the classical, legal and other types of rarefied knowledge found in the plays. The Stratford school syllabus has not survived, so if Shakspere went to that school, there is no telling what he might have learnt there. Nor is there any indication of where or what he might have studied during his the 'lost years' of his early manhood. This gap allows room for any amount of speculation, and Stratfordians can take advantage of it to explain any special knowledge attributed to the writer of Shakespeare. Aubrey claimed that Shakspere was once a country schoolmaster, and so he might have been; that would explain his familiarity with the classics. Then again, he could have worked in a lawyer's office, or served in a nobleman's household, studied medicine or theology, enlisted in the army, served in the navy, travelled in Italy. . . . Shakspere could hardly have done all those things, but it is not impossible that he did one or two of them in his early twenties, and with a certain amount of specialized knowledge combined with a quick ear for the characteristic speech of other social and professional types, he could perhaps have qualified himself as a versatile dramatist.

To most of the points raised by the Heretics the Stratfordians have managed to provide more or less reasonable answers. On other points they confess to being mystified. The status quo perpetuates their advantage. Unless their opponents can produce new, conclusive evidence, discrediting Shakspere or proving the claim of one or other rival candidate, Stratford has nothing to fear. Even in the barely imaginable event of such evidence coming to light, the Stratford cult is so gainfully established that Shakspere's home town would probably adapt itself to remaining the shrine of whoever was acclaimed as our National Poet.

The life of William Shakspere himself is the main reason why there is a Shakespeare authorship problem. A review of all the known, documented facts about his career gives a picture of a fairly successful local business man who dealt in land, property and rural commodities and...

(The entire section is 2957 words.)

The Case For Shakespeare

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 authorsargues 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...

(The entire section is 23946 words.)

The Case Against Shakespeare: Anti-Stratfordian Arguments

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 13526 words.)

William Shakespeare Vs. Edward De Vere, Earl Of Oxford

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 Veremost notably his courtly life and familiarity with Italyshow 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...

(The entire section is 15745 words.)

Other Claimants: Bacon And Marlowe

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12601 words.)

The "New" Poems: "Shall I Die?"

(Shakespearean Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 14072 words.)

The "New" Poems: "The Funeral Elegy

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 18756 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 474 words.)