November 20, 2008
An Overview of the Authorship Controversy
By John Morton Jones
The actor from Stratford-on-Avon has been for centuries, and is now, revered by most scholars as the greatest playwright of all time, even as the father of the modern tongue, but with little education, and leaving almost no tracks upon which a non-speculative biography can be founded, has been the center of an ages-old running debate over whether he was the true author and poet known as William Shakespeare (The New York Review of Books recently wondered whether a newly published biography of Shakespeare, Will in the World, should be listed under fiction or non-fiction). Here is presented a capsule of the fascinating controversy, a mystery which probably will remain so forever.
Biography of the Author
“Mort” Jones is a native of Illinois and attended the public schools in the downstate city of Danville. At 17, in the spring of 1944 he joined the Navy and, after the war, took on the almost full time job of commander of one of the largest American Legion posts in the state. Following his father and grandfather, he earned a degree at the University of Michigan Law School where he met and married his wife, Betty. Returning to Danville, where he carried on a general practice for 20 years, Jones also served as an Assistant U.S. District Attorney during the Eisenhower administration. In 1976 Betty and Mort moved with their 4 children to California where he had been appointed an Administrative Law Judge. He is now retired, but continues hearing cases on a part time basis primarily in San Bernardino. He is admitted to the Bar in both Illinois and California. Including the Fortnightly Club, Jones is also a member of Redlands Conservancy, the Torch and Forum Clubs, and is a board member of the Redlands Foundation.
This paper, entitled Shakespeare, Who? is warmly dedicated to the memory of Fritz Bromberger, wartime pilot, university professor, Shakespeare scholar, classical violinist, music historian, horticulturist, master of arts, and, to each of his fellow Fortnightlymen, a brother in spirit and learning. Fritz was an inspiration to anyone he met and particularly to me as I struggled through the maze of books and reams of information to gird this essay; when I beseeched, even cried out to him for sage advice, Fritz would hear me out with an understanding and reassuring smile and, in the manner of Socrates, set me thoughtfully back on course without even once expressing his personal view of the Bard’s identity.
Oh, that he could be here in the audience! But maybe he is.
Twenty four years before the Spanish Armada sailed against England and with the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth on the throne, in the town of Stratford, a day’s journey from London, the infant, recorded as William Shaksper, was duly baptized, according to the rights of the Anglican Church. The year was 1564.
The baby’s father was named John. He was an artisan, a local glovesmith, and was prominent in town affairs. He eventually was appointed High Bailiff of Stratford, a position equal in modern times to that of Mayor. Little Will’s mother came from a well known Catholic family in a nearby town. But Queen Elizabeth, having just succeeded “Bloody Mary”, saw to it that Catholicism was banned. To practice as a Catholic priest was made a capital crime. The heads of violators were sometimes impaled on pikes to greet visitors at the gates of London.
Both John and Mary, little William’s parents, were illiterate. Most of England was. For those with means, Stratford boasted a public grammar school for boys. Given the social status of William’s parents, it is presumed that he received his education there. If he did, he would have learned some Latin and a smattering of classical Greek. And he certainly would have been exposed to one of the most precious of commodities in that day, books. Now tourists by the thousands every year trek through the Stratford school building where they are shown the “very desk” William Shakespeare occupied, despite the fact that no record exists showing he was ever a student there (or anywhere else, for that matter).
William was the oldest survivor of eight siblings. Only one girl, his sister Joan, lived beyond his years (he died at age 52). Joan married and had children. Her descendants survive to this day. William’s direct descendants had all died by the time Napoleon threatened the British Empire.
Echoes of the yet to be written A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream perhaps filled young Will’s life in Stratford during his early teens, a life of carefree play in the dark green woods and on flowered fields, of carousing and of young love (“I know of a bank whereon the wild thyme blows/where oxlips and the nodding violet grows”). But with such play the trap of a hasty marriage snapped on Will, then only 18. The bride? ‘Twas Ann Hathaway of Shottery, who gave birth to their daughter Susanna 5 months later. The marriage lasted until Will’s death. Anne also bore twins, a boy, Hamnet, and a girl, Judith. Hamnet died at age 11, possibly of the Plague which intermittently cursed the whole populace in those years.
So, married in his teens and with a family to support, Will had acquired some major obligations. At the same time his father’s business and political career turned downhill. Maybe it was discovered that John Shaksper was a closet Catholic. Or maybe it was drink. We don’t know what the trouble was. But young William, one can guess, abandoned any thoughts of a higher education and set out to find work. Thus began what biographers have called “the lost years”. It is speculated by some scholars that he secured a position as tutor for the children of two wealthy families in Lancashire. This guess is buttressed by the fact that those families did employ a tutor in 1580 with the name of Shakeshafte. But that was when William Shaksper of Stratford was only 16. Possibly he, not the Lancashire children, was in most need of a tutor. However that might be, the position as tutor in Lancashire would have been a job surrounded by a copious collection of books and perfect for a budding actor and playwright. The Lancashire people were sponsors of a small company of players and were neighbors of the sponsors of another troupe the Lord Strange’s Men, which was made up of some of the same actors Will Shaksper would soon befriend in London.
The “lost years” ended by the time Will reached his late 20’s. We find him then in London, perhaps occasionally returning to Stratford for short visits with his family (or perhaps not). Why London? It surely was the big city, with a population then of 200,000. About the combined size of Redlands, Yucaipa and half of San Bernardino, London was where one found “the smell of the greasepaint and the roar of the crowds”. Or maybe Will sneaked off to London to hide in the crowded streets with the law at his heels. Or maybe he rode proudly out of Stratford on a white horse, the strapping steed given to him by the adoring citizens of Stratford who saw in him the genius who would some day put their town on the map. Or maybe he simply abandoned a wife who had proved to be an insufferable nag. We simply don’t know.
But we do know William Shaksper became an actor. His troupe could draw three thousand to a single performance. He secured an interest in the Globe Theatre. And performed before the Queen. Whereupon our story gets dicey, to say the least.
Fast forward 18 generations. It is 1947. A new Elizabeth is heiress to the throne of England. And your narrator, thanks to the G.I. Bill, is on a fast track to law school in Ann Arbor, Michigan. But there’s a catch. He’s got to “ace” a course in Advanced English Literature. And the professor quickly exudes trouble. On the first day of class the professor warns, “We’re going to go deep into Shakespeare; his words, his craft, his genius. But if anyone here expects me to waste two minutes speculating on the absurd proposition that someone else wrote his lines, he’d better leave the room right now and sign up for a course in Looney Tunes.”
I don’t remember the plays we studied that hectic semester. Or the sonnets. But I felt my grade in the course so threatened by the professor’s obvious and militant bias, that I never forgot his message. Moreover, that was my introduction to the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity. Ever since, the authorship controversy has been a fascination of mine. And, in the intellectual world the doubts about who was Shakespeare, the mortal, have actually increased as time has passed.
Those doubts are posed and founded on a single question: How could a 21 year old rustic trudge (or run away or march off) to London, hit the stage, and, within seven years become the rage of the city as a published poet, an actor and possibly as a playwright too, beyond artistic compare throughout the ages, learned in the classics, the law, psychology, history, travel, politics, linguistics, art and architecture; master of the pun, of poetic technique, of honeyed rhyme and musical rhythm; and yet, and yet, die without notice, without a book to his name, and despite countless searches over centuries for evidence of his life path, remains almost a ghost, shadowed, yes, by time, but nevertheless elusive in a life lived?
To reply that only a snob would ask such a question is not an answer.
The controversy began in the 19th century, more than 200 years after the now-celebrated Bard of Avon was buried at Stratford. A Delia Bacon, no doubt enamored by the thought that her namesake, Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan philosopher, author, poet and legal scholar, was the real author of the timeless plays and sonnets attributed to Shakespeare. Delia published a popular book on the subject and in the hope to prove her assertions achieved infamy for her attempt to dig up Shakespeare’s bones.
Supposedly, according to Delia Bacon’s disciples, the accomplished Bacon, who at one time was Lord Chancellor under James I, planted cryptograms and anagrams in the Shakespeare plays identifying himself as the author. Eventually the cipher craze died out (and Delia Bacon was declared insane). The end of the Bacon campaign was perhaps sealed by the publication of a thousand page tome by a fiery American congressman named Ignatius Donnelly entitled The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays and the credit Donnelly gave Bacon for writing not only the Shakespeare canon of 37 plays but many many more, some 780 in all.
Then came from the anti-Stratfordians (as they are sometimes called) other candidates for the mantel of the Bard: Christopher Marlowe, and a number of earls, Derby, Rutland, Essex and Southhampton. Among the unlikely names advanced as the ghost writer are none other than King James I (successor of Queen Elizabeth and sponsor of the magnificent translation of the Bible which we revere today), the virgin Queen herself, and Anne Hathaway (the Bard’s widow who signed her name with an ‘X’) and even Daniel Defoe (who was not yet born by the time all of Shakespeare’s works had been published). Eventually, one Percy Allen, a self-proclaimed Shakespeare “heretic” wrote a book entitled Talks With Elizabethans. Allen, the author, asserted he had conducted interviews at séances with the long-dead Edward DeVere, 17th Earl of Oxford and Sir Francis Bacon and with Shakespeare himself. The successfully channeled three worthies “told” Allen they had actually collaborated in the writing of the plays.
Given these pathetic attempts to “prove” the authorship was that of someone other than the actor from Stratford, orthodox scholars found it easy to laugh off the doubters as a mere collection of kooks and crazies. Shakespeare was Shakespeare and that was that! “Go sign up for a class in Looney Tunes!” my professor had so firmly dictated.
Those who championed Christopher Marlowe as the true author at least had a candidate who could write beautifully and who was, early on, probably an acquaintance of the celebrated actor from Stratford. Marlow also had the background in education and contacts with the nobility which a reasonable person would seek to find in the author of such sweet and telling words found in Shakespeare’s plays and poems. But Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl in 1593, some 15 years before (it is thought) Shakespeare stopped writing. Those few who “stick” with Marlowe now speculate that Marlowe, a religious spy, faked his own death and secretly departed England for (perhaps) India, from whence the later plays were composed and exported back to England.
No one can prove otherwise. For none has found a single original manuscript of any play of Shakespeare. Not a page or paragraph, not a sentence. In anyone’s handwriting. And speaking of handwriting, over centuries of searching by literally thousands of scholars, biographers, researchers, critics, cranks and crazies, just 5 possible signatures of the Bard of Avon have been discovered. And each of these has arguably been scrolled by a different hand. Moreover, the signatures (all on legal documents) appear to spell the playwright’s name differently: Shaksper, Shakespere, Shaxper, Shagspear, and Shaks (illegible).
Though I will dwell in a moment on those who have coalesced around the 17th Earl of Oxford as the “true” Shakespeare, I must mention another candidate recently named: Sir Henry Neville. Two professors in England, Brenda James and William Rubinstein, after five years of research, published, only last year, The Truth Will Out, an exhaustive study of this 16th century aristocratic politician. Read with an open mind, he, Neville, just may be the “one”. Those two academics are far far from being nut cases or mere dilettantes.
And neither are many others who have come to seriously doubt the Stratford actor as the enduring author of Shakespeare’s works. Some of those doubters are universally known: Henry James, Albert Einstein, Orson Wells, Mark Twain, John Galsworthy, Sigmund Freud, Vladimir Nobakov, David McCullough, Sir John Geilgud, Kenneth Branagh, Charlie Chaplin, Walt Whitman, Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, Justices Lewis Powell and John Paul Stevens, Clare Booth Luce, James Joyce, Leslie Howard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Degaulle. And outspoken among these worthies is none other than Steven Sabel, the Artistic Director of our Redlands Shakespeare Festival.
In our time, the doubters, on the whole, have settled upon Edward DeVere, the 17th Earl of Oxford as the true Bard. Among all Shakespeare scholars the “Oxfordians”, as they are usually called, remain a minority, a cult, one might say, but, in all, they make up an international force of reason and dedication. Their annual conferences and symposia are popular, well attended, and filled with more enthusiasm than even the docents in Stratford today show to the throngs of tourists who make the pilgrimage to that city.
Mark Anderson, journalist, scholar, and PBS personality devoted 10 years of personal research and extended travel to the Shakespeare authorship mystery and capped his journey into the heart of Elizabethan England with a 597 page biography and deep analysis entitled Shakespeare By Another Name, The Life of Edward DeVere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare. The book is a definitive study of the issue at hand. It examines the talents, character, scandals, public accomplishments, political connections, personal highs and lows, motives, travels, and all the highly varied experiences of DeVere, who once was Queen Elizabeth’s Chamberlain and a member of her Privy Council. All elements of DeVere’s life and those of nobility he knew well are blended – or one should say – blend smoothly into all of the plays and poetry that make up the Shakespere canon.
Oxford inherited great wealth: 300 mansions and castles across England. His coat of arms depicted a lion shaking a spear. He was precocious, multilingual, high spirited, an athlete, a bi-sexual Don Juan, a spendthrift and a rumored lover of the Queen. He spent years in Italy wherein are set almost a third of the Bard’s plays (there is no evidence the actor Shaksper ever set a foot outside of England). Oxford’s “name”, however, was officially banished when it was discovered that he had impregnated the ravishing Anne Vavasor, one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting, whereupon DeVere took on the pen name Academia Ignoto (The Learned, Unknown One). In that name he wrote an elegy in memory of Queen Elizabeth when she died in 1603. Similar poems written in her honor and publicly read in dedication to her memory were compared by all the well known English poets of the day, but not by anyone named Shakespeare. Even though the name of Shakespeare was famous at the time, famous for having published two best selling long narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. These two popular poems were not dedicated to anyone in the theatre, however, but to the young Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothersley. And what was that young nobleman’s connection with Oxford? Well, Oxford had targeted Wriothersley as the man to marry Oxford’s oldest daughter (though Wriothersley eventually chose her sister). Thus it is supposed that before the Queen’s death, and when he chose the name “Ignoto” Oxford was writing as someone named “Shakespeare”, “putting” high-ranking living noblemen into his plays as the principal characters.
The sonnets were published five years after the Earl Of Oxford died, at a time when his sister was trying to recoup some of the money her brother had squandered away. In those sonnets the young, handsome Henry Wriothersey again appears as the “Fair Youth”, the beautiful boy by whom the poet was so enamored. The sonnets, 154 in number, were never acknowledged by the actor from Stratford nor did he benefit from their publication (there were no copyright laws in that age) even though they were published as “Shake-Spear’s.”
Those 154 carefully crafted poems read as though they are songs from an intimate diary never composed for open publication, from an old nobleman to a boy of equal birth, not from a common actor, however talented, to one of noble lineage. They pose, therefore, a huge problem for the orthodox biographers of the actor from Stratford. Those scholars, well more than a thousand in number, must generally treat the poetic collection as mere musings of a gifted free Englishman dreaming of love. And they disregard the image of a humble, reticent man otherwise pictured as the Stratford genius.
The orthodox scholars have one major source upon which their assumption of authorship rests. That source is the first accumulation of nearly every one of the 37 plays attributed to the pen of Shakespeare. Not from the original manuscripts, for not one has ever been found, not even a scrap, but from secondary publications and stage notes and the assumed memories of two actor acquaintances named Heminge and Condell. The masterful collection is called the First Folio.
The First Folio was published in 1623, nine years after the death of Will Shaksper of Stratford. It represents a massive, enormously expensive effort. Probably 750 copies were printed, each separately type-set in that first edition: After nearly 400 years 230 copies still exist. Each originally sold for 1 pound, the equivalent of about $170 in today’s money. In 2004 a copy sold at auction for 5.2 million dollars. Dedicated antiquarians are engaged in a perennial search for lost copies of the Folio; one of the most recent finds was in a little library in Skipton, an out-of-the-way coal mining town in England. It was stored away for years, having been mis-catalogued and forgotten.
The First Folio contained the big “clue”, actually the first, connecting the authorship of the plays to the actor buried in Stratford. Buried, it should be added without a name on his gravestone. Instead, on the marker was carved his epitaph:
“Good friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear to dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be ye man that spares these stones,
And cursed be he that moves my bones.”
(Critics seem to agree that this epitaph is closer to mock-Gothic doggerel than it is Shakespearean.)
So back to the big clue. What was it? It is found in the preface to the First Folio written by the poet, playwright and critic who might have been a friend of the actor himself, one Ben Jonson (who belittled the actor’s grasp of both Latin and Greek).
Be that as it may, Jonson wrote in that eulogy:
“Sweet swan of Avon, soul of the age!
The applause, delight, the wonder of our stage!
And art alive still while thy booke doth live
And we have wits to read, and praise to give.”
So there it was. The well-known Ben Jonson thus disclosed just who the man was whose vocabulary was twice that of John Milton’s, who gave us three thousand two hundred new words to enrich our language; who wrote with erudition far beyond compare!
Yet in his four year “retirement” at Stratford, the actor signed only his Last Will and Testament, a one thousand word document almost certainly coldly composed and penned by a lawyer, giving land and many specified
goods, trinkets and money to a number of family members and actors, but only his “second best bed” (and nothing more) to his long suffering and faithful wife of 32 years. And not a single book or diary or collection of letters is mentioned. Nor is even one literary personage.
Nevertheless, the orthodox scholars today dismiss the clamor of those who attribute the poems and plays to anyone of learning and nobility. And particularly the orthodox dismiss assertions that the author was the Earl of Oxford. Why, they point out, Oxford died in 1604, years before some of the greatest of the plays were written! Keep in mind (they remind us), Shakespeare was actively writing until (probably) 1612.
But what evidence is there that any of the plays were written after Oxford died? Why, they were first performed in later years! Yet production on the stage (or on TV or film) does not prove when a manuscript is written.
Each of Shakespeare’s plays has been traced to a story-source which predated the production of the play. Some of these sources are from antiquity; some were published during the Bard’s life, but none were first printed after the Earl of Oxford died.
Yes, but the orthodox worshipers of the Bard (who are often called Stratfordians) find references to current events in at least three of the later plays, events which had not even occurred during Oxford’s life. These references, however, are purely cryptic. In The Tempest, for example, the author refers to a shipwreck upon the “still-vex’d Bermoothes.” That, the Stratfordians claim, is a clear reference to the shipwreck of the vessel Sea Venture on the shore of Bermuda. That happened five years after Oxford died. But that claim doesn’t hold water, for the story of the Sea Venture’s foundering did not appear until 1629, long after the man from Stratford was lowered to his grave.
Bottom line: the playwright, whoever he was, was exceedingly careful not to mix references of current events into his plots. Hence the dating of their actual penmanship is practically a lost cause.
So we are left with Ben Jonson singing in his eulogy “Thou art still lives .. ye (the Bard) are not of an age, but for all time.” And two and a half centuries later Charles Dickens pondered aloud “The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should turn up (to dash the romance).”
Supporting Bibliography and References
Greenblatt, Stephen, Will in the World, Norton, N.Y., 2004
Sobran, Joseph, Alias Shakespeare, The Free Press (Simon and
Schuster), N.Y., 1997
Ogburn, Charlton, The Mysterious William Shakespeare,
Dodd Meade & Co., N.Y., 1984
Gopnik, Adam, Will Power, The New Yorker (magazine)
September 13, 2004
James, Brenda and Rubinstein, William, Unmasking the Real
Shakespeare, Pearson Ed., Ltd. U.K., 2005
Sabel, Steven, On the Trail of the Real Shakespeare, Redlands
Daily Facts, December 15, 2005
Ware, Janet and Davis, Al, 101 Things You Don’t Know About
Shakespeare, Adams Media, Avon, MA, 2005
Stewart, Doug, To Be or Not To Be Shakespeare, Smithsonian
(magazine), September, 2006
Anderson, Mark, Shakespeare By Another Name (The Life of
Edward de Vere), Gotham Books (Penquin), N.Y. 2005
And my thanks to Bill Gates: the Internet, countless sites, essays,
papers, theses, speculations and blogs; paeons, libels,
dissertations and desecrations.