William Shakespeare The Authorship Controversy

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(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...

(The entire section is 103,154 words.)