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.