Updated: Jun 14
My 2¢ on the Shakespeare Authorship Debate
.................... We live in a time where the truth has somehow become up for grabs and open to interpretation and debate. It's become common practice to find and accept whichever "version" of the truth suits you, like ordering in a restaurant or buying a car. The line between opinion and fact was blurred so long ago that now we have to remind ourselves "Yes, there used to be a line. I remember!" Who knew that line was drawn in pencil, making it so susceptible to smudging and erasing?
But opinion as fact is junior varsity play these days. Let's be honest. The real problem is accepting as fact things that are demonstrably false. This is where I'd insert all the examples from our current political landscape, but I'd rather not infuriate myself and make this post an angry rant that no one would want to read.
Instead, I offer this: Why do people continue to think that a man named William Shaksper, (not a typo) from Stratford on Avon wrote the plays, sonnets, and narrative poems attributed to him as William Shakespeare, the greatest, most celebrated writer in the English language? I'm sure most of you are aware that there is some "debate" on authorship, and to be honest, I only fell into the issue's rabbit hole because I was adapting one of the plays.
Years ago I wrote a novel titled Simon, which is a modern-day retelling of Hamlet. At the time, I called it YA (Young Adult) but that was just one of several rookie mistakes I was making left and right. When I took on the project, the pitch was pretty timely. After all, what is Hamlet if not a suspenseful, psychological revenge thriller with a paranormal twist?
Part of my "immersion" (i.e. procrastination regarding actually writing the novel) was watching the 2011 movie Anonymous. Some of you may recognize the cover image of this post as being from that. I recently rewatched the engaging, well-produced “what if?” drama and would recommend it. Seeing it back then prompted reading and YouTube videos about the authorship question. I went into it with an open mind, assuming both sides of the debate would be compelling.
I was wrong. Well, half wrong. One side of the debate is compelling. I seriously cannot believe this is a thing. But it is. Not only is it obvious that there is no way Shaksper (I'll stop spelling it that way for clarity's sake.) from Stratford wrote the works, it's equally clear who did. I'll lay out the fundamental takes from both sides and then go a little deeper with regards to Hamlet, one of the 8 things I'm admittedly geeky about.
To start, here are some undisputed facts with comments about William Shakespeare from Stratford upon Avon.
His parents, wife, and children were all illiterate.
His father was a glove maker. Although William certainly could have learned to read and write, isn't it odd that the spouse and children of the most celebrated poet of all time never got around to it?
He had no education beyond grammar school, if he attended at all.
There is no record of his attendance, and the content of his plays show mastery on quite a few topics, including: law, royal courts, philosophy, military strategy and terminology, history (English, Roman, Greek, and European), politics, art, music, and aristocratic hobbies such as falconry, sword duels, and archery.
The late Louis Wright, who served as Director of the Folger Shakespeare Library from 1948 to 1968, once said: “The plays show no evidence of profound book learning.” Someone might want to tell the guy who teaches this class at Harvard Law School or any of the countless college courses in various disciplines based on Shakespearean texts.
One Stratfordian (That's the term for those who think Shakespeare from Stratford wrote the works) argument is – and I’m not making this up – “Shakespeare attained an expertise in royalty and court life because his theater troupe performed for courts all the time.” What??? That’s like saying I’ve acquired an impressive level of expertise in neurosurgery because I wait tables at a restaurant where such surgeons eat.
No document of any kind (manuscript, personal letter, etc) in his handwriting exists.
Mind boggling. The playwright would have had to travel (10 of the plays are set in Italy). There is no record of Shakespeare ever going anywhere, and a professional writer would make international trips and not write letters back home?
There is no evidence he ever owned a book.
This seems like an odd one, but keep in mind he allegedly lived his life as part of the elite literary circle of his day. Books were an essential, treasured commodity that were almost always marked for beneficiaries in a writer's will. Shakespeare's will? Not a mention.
His death was a non event.
One would assume the most celebrated author of his time would have a funeral fitting of his place in society. Both Queen Elizabeth and King James were fans. But there was nothing. Not one elegy written anywhere. More so than the other odd facts, this one suggests that the people of his day knew that the Stratford man was not the real author. If you look, some whistleblower writers left clues in their work in a Sgt. Pepper/Paul is Dead kind of way. Fun, but far too much to get into here.
So it's getting strange, right?
The main Stratfordian argument has two tenets. The first is that Shakespeare was an imaginative genius and just wrote what came into his head. He made it all up, education be damned. A writer with such gifts might come up with Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter but precisely accurate portrayals of all the disciplines mentioned above? How is that imaginative? A weak argument, but the other one is worse. It claims that anyone who thinks Shakespeare didn't write the works is a snob, unable to accept that the man could have risen above his humble beginnings. Sorry, what? Any seventh grader on the debate team can tell you attacking your opponent instead of presenting evidence is not the best tactic. That aside, I'm not kidding when I say Stratfordians argue that Shakespeare could have attained all that education on his own. Forget the fact that this claim negates their first argument. It's simply impossible. Attaining that level of education on one's own would be difficult in 2022 with the internet. But at the turn of the 17th century?
It is true that most the evidence against Shakespeare as author could be considered circumstantial, but if you are virtually drowning in such evidence with pretty much nothing to oppose it, then conclusions can be reached.
A couple of interesting sidenotes before we continue:
There is evidence that "Shakespeare" spelled the way we are familiar with was a pen name. One of the popular habits of the day was to hyphenate pen names, and the famous name does sometimes appear like that.
Athena, the goddess of wisdom, philosophy, arts, poetry and music is known as the spear shaker. Just saying.
This image shows the six known and authenticated signatures of William Shakespeare, collected over his lifetime, the last being on his will. Not exactly the poetic, quill-on-parchment, calligraphic genius we have glorified in our mind’s eye, is it? Scholars say these signatures show a certain level of illiteracy in Shakespeare himself. You need only count the letters to see he always referred to himself as "Shaksper." That alone is odd given his alleged status.
Meet Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
You sort of already know him in that he wrote a lot of plays and sonnets you're familiar with. Highly educated and a respected member of the royal court, de Vere (or "Oxford") was praised in aristocratic circles as a gifted writer, yet only a handful of short poems bear his name. Much is made of accounts by scholars such as Gabriel Harvey, William Webbe and Henry Peacham. The latter published a discourse in 1622 titled The Compleat [sic] Gentleman, in which he names Oxford first in a list of the greatest Elizabethan poets. William Shakespeare is not mentioned on the list. Again, the Sgt. Pepper thing.
There are many details of Oxford's education that directly link to content in the plays and sonnets. For example, he made 1,028 marginal notations in his bible. 250 of these can be directly linked to lines in Shakespearean plays. If that seems an unimpressive coincidence, then why is that bible now in the possession of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.?
Now on to Hamlet, beginning with a little family history on Oxford. Edward de Vere's father died unexpectedly in 1562. About a year later his mother married not his uncle but a lieutenant of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, who was the main beneficiary in the will of the deceased. Dudley’s first wife died under suspicious circumstances, and he was suspected of poisoning several other people during his lifetime. Tragic, no?
Oxford's brother-in-law was sent to Elsinore Castle in Denmark (the setting of Hamlet) in 1582 as an envoy to the Queen. During his five-month stay, he met several Danish court companions and advisors, one of whom was named Rosenkranz and another Guildenstern. Could these names have traveled from the highest Danish court to the London commoner/theater crowd in a way that inspired Shakespeare? Not likely, but likelihood is not the point. If Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he used those names in a painstakingly, impossibly meticulous exercise in authenticity which would serve no purpose, dramatic or otherwise. If Oxford wrote Hamlet, he simply lifted the names from an anecdote told to him by a family member.
That’s nothing. Time to talk about the character of Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, who acts as advisor to the king and is portrayed as a pompous know-it-all. It is widely accepted among scholars that Polonius was modeled after Queen Elizabeth’s leading counselor, Lord Treasurer, and Principal Secretary William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
Stop right there. If Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he based Polonius on a complete stranger who outranked him in society by light years. If Oxford wrote the play, he based Polonius on the man who was in charge of his education throughout his childhood.
There are several inside jokes that connect Polonius’ lines in the play to Oxford’s personal life, but I’ll just focus on one example. In the self-important character’s most famous speech (“neither a borrower nor a lender be … to thine own self be true.") he gives his son life advice as the young man prepares to leave for France. In the play, Polonius refers to his collective advice as “precepts.”
Ok, ready? Many years before Hamlet, Burghley wrote a pamphlet, a collection of life advice for his sons titled Certain Precepts or Directions. The pamphlet wasn’t published until 1618, two years after Shakespeare’s death. There is no way Shakespeare could have known about this personal piece of writing by one of the most powerful men in England. Conversely, there is no way Oxford could not have known about it.
Two more points on Polonius: Oxford was forced to wed Burghley’s daughter. No, her name wasn’t Ophelia, but you get the point. And much is made over Burghley being sometimes called “Polus.” Stratfordians are quick to point out the lack of evidence for this nickname theory. What they seem to neglect, however, is that Burghley had an oft-spoken motto for himself: “Cor unam, via una.” (“One heart. One way.”) What does that have to do with anything? Well ... Polonius’ original name in the play was “Corambis,” meaning “Two Hearts” or “Double-Hearted.” A not-so-subtle jab at the duplicitous, hypocritical Burghley.
Want more? Oxford’s cousins Horace (Horatio) and Francis (Francisco) were soldiers and confidants. And once while traveling, Oxford declined an offer to review German troops (a task Hamlet does perform for the troops of Fortinbras). On that trip Oxford was spied on by men sent by Burghley. (Polonius sends spies to watch over his son.) And on that same trip, Oxford’s ship was attacked by pirates and he was left on the shores of England. The same thing happens to Hamlet, only he is left on the shores of Denmark.
There are many, many more connections in Hamlet, and it's not just this one play. Virtually all the works have such ties to Edward de Vere throughout. A couple of quick examples: he had to put his family estate in trust to his three daughters (King Lear) and once had to borrow 3,000 pounds from a man named not Shylock, but Lock (The Merchant of Venice).
I could go on and on. There's a whole other theory that Shakespeare's plays are really the lost work of a man named Sir Thomas North, but I find the Oxford theory more compelling because I focus on Hamlet. If the topic interests you, you can learn more here, here, here, here, here, and here to get started. While I wouldn't call myself a conspiracy theorist, I'll admit to an affinity for the alternative, unconventional point of view if presented in a compelling way. While it’s obvious what I believe to be true on this topic, I welcome comments from anyone who can present the Stratfordian argument more convincingly than what I've read and seen.