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Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides… 

—Cordelia (King Lear, I.1.282)

The quest for the real William Shakespeare is akin to a detective story in which the Shakespearian biographer is cast in the role of a literary sleuth, pursuing his quarry like a latter-day Sherlock Holmes. One of the problems is the presence of red herrings which lead us off the scent in pursuit of non-existence phantoms.

Those pursuing red-herrings include those who claim that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare but that he was really someone else. Nobody denies that the real William Shakespeare existed but many have claimed that the plays ascribed to him are not really his. These “anti-Stratfordians” have erected fabulously imaginative theories to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. Some have claimed that Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays, others that they were written by the Earl of Oxford, and some even believe that Queen Elizabeth was William Shakespeare! It is difficult to take any of these rival claims very seriously. Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, died in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of Shakespeare’s plays was written and performed! Needless to say, the Oxfordians, as they are known, have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed until after their “Shakespeare’s” death.

The claims of the Oxfordians might be bizarre but they are positively pedestrian compared to some of the wackier “Shakespeare” theorists. Other aristocratic candidates who are alleged by some to have been the real Shakespeare include King James I, and the earls of Derby, Rutland, Essex and Southampton. Others have claimed that Mr Shakespeare was really Mrs Shakespeare, in the sense that the plays were really written by Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, using her husband’s name as a nom de plume.

The difficulties that the Oxfordians face in trying to explain (or explain away) why many of Shakespeare’s finest plays were not performed until after the Earl of Oxford’s death are as nothing compared to the difficulties faced by another group of “Shakespeare” theorists. The “Marlovians”, as the members of this particular anti-Stratfordian sect are known, are convinced that all of Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe. The fact that Marlowe was murdered in 1593, when most of Shakespeare’s plays had still not been written, does not trouble the ingenious Marlovians. They claim that Marlowe’s “murder” was a sham, and that Marlowe had been spirited away to France and Italy by his powerful patron, Thomas Walsingham, returning secretly to England where, in hiding, he wrote plays under the pseudonym, “William Shakespeare”.

Ultimately, all the rival theories can be disproved through the application of solid historical evidence, combined with common sense. Take, for example, the central premise of the Oxfordian or Baconian case that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat or, at least, by one with a university education, on the assumption that Shakespeare, as a commoner without a university education, must have been illiterate, or, at any rate, incapable of writing literature of such sublime quality.

Let’s look at the facts.[1] Shakespeare’s father was not poor but, on the contrary, was relatively wealthy. He was, furthermore, a highly respected and influential member of the Stratford-upon-Avon community. With regard to Shakespeare’s education, the historian, Michael Wood, has shown that the sort of education that Shakespeare would have received at the Stratford Grammar School would have been of exceptionally good quality. On the other hand, the plays and sonnets do not display the great knowledge of classical languages which one might have expected if Shakespeare had been an aristocrat or if, like Bacon, he had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Francis Bacon did much of his writing in Latin, whereas Shakespeare, to quote his good friend, Ben Jonson, had “little Latin and less Greek”, and wrote entirely in the vernacular. The evidence illustrates, therefore, that William Shakespeare would have had a good education but that he might not have been as comfortable with classical languages as he would have been had he been to Oxford or Cambridge. This excellent but non-classical education is reflected in the content of his plays.

As for the presumption of the Oxfordians and Baconians that Shakespeare’s “humble origins” would have precluded him from being able to write the plays, one need only remind these proponents of supercilious elitism that great literature is not the preserve of the rich or the privileged. Christopher Marlowe was a shoemaker’s son and Ben Jonson’s stepfather was a bricklayer. Poverty prevented Jonson from pursuing a university education. Since Marlowe and Jonson, along with Shakespeare, are the most important dramatists of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, it is clear that having “humble origins” did not disqualify a writer from producing great literature; on the contrary, it could be argued from the evidence that such origins were an important ingredient of literary greatness in Shakespeare’s day. Furthermore, the importance of “humble origins” to the pursuit of literary greatness is not confined to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Later generations have also produced an abundance of “humble” greats. Daniel Defoe was the son of a butcher, and Samuel Johnson, arguably the greatest wit and literary figure of the eighteenth century, was also born of poor parents. Poverty would force Johnson to abandon his university education. Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, experienced grinding poverty as a child and, when his father was sent to prison for debt, the ten-year-old Dickens was forced to work in a factory. Moving into the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton, the “Dr Johnson of his age”, was born of middle-class parents and never received a university education. And these are but some of the brightest lights in the “humble” firmament of literary greatness. Many others could be added to the illustrious list. Perhaps the most applicable parallel to Shakespeare’s situation is, however, the appropriately named Alexander Pope, the son of a draper, who was denied a formal education because his parents were Catholic. Pope’s “humble origins” helped him become perhaps the finest poet of the eighteenth century.

So much for the weakness of the Oxfordian argument about Shakespeare’s “humble origins”. The other argument often employed by the Oxfordians is that Shakespeare was too young to have written the sonnets and the early plays. Shakespeare was only in his mid-twenties when the earliest of the plays was written and was in his late twenties when he wrote the sonnets. There is no way that such a young man could have written such work, whereas the Earl of Oxford, being born in 1550 and therefore fourteen years Shakespeare’s senior, would have been sufficiently mature to have written these masterpieces. So the argument runs. Whether the Earl of Oxford, a most violent and volatile individual, was ever “sufficiently mature” to have written the works of Shakespeare is itself highly questionable. Nonetheless, let’s look at the crux of the matter, namely whether a young man is able to write great literature.

Christopher Marlowe, who was born in the same year as Shakespeare, wrote the first of his produced plays in around 1587, when he was only twenty-three, two or three years younger than Shakespeare is thought to have been when the first of his plays was produced. The first of Marlowe’s plays, Tamburlaine the Great, is generally considered to be the first of the great Elizabethan tragedies. Since Marlowe was murdered when he was still in his late twenties, the whole of his considerable literary legacy rests on his formidably young shoulders. Ben Jonson’s first play, Every Man in his Humour, was performed in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast, when the young playwright was only twenty-six years old. Thomas Dekker published the first of his comedies in 1600, when he is thought to have been around thirty years old. Thomas Middleton’s first printed plays were published in 1602, when the playwright was about thirty-two, but they were probably first performed a year or two earlier. John Webster published his first plays in 1607, when he was twenty-seven years old, but is known to have made additions to John Marston’s The Malcontent three years earlier. As for Marston himself he wrote all his plays between 1602 and 1607, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-one. Looking at his contemporaries, Shakespeare was at exactly the age one would expect him to be when he first started writing plays. The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, would have been around forty when the first of the plays was performed, making him a positive geriatric by comparison.

So much for the youthfulness of Shakespeare the playwright, but what about the Oxfordian argument that he would have been too young to write the sonnets? Again, let’s begin with Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Michael Drayton published his first volume of poetry, The Harmony of the Church, in 1591, when he was twenty-eight years old, exactly the same age as Shakespeare is thought to have been when he wrote the sonnets. Many of John Donne’s finest sonnets were written in the early 1600s when the poet was in his late twenties or early thirties. Many other great Elizabethan poets died at a young age, having already bequeathed a considerable body of work to posterity. Sir Philip Sidney was thirty-two when he died; Robert Southwell was thirty-three; Marlowe, as already noted, was twenty-nine; and Thomas Nashe was thirty-four.

Moving forward in time to the eighteenth century it is worth noting that Samuel Johnson was twenty-eight when he finished his play, Irene, and was only a year older when his poem, London, was published, the latter of which, according to Boswell, was greeted with adulation and the judgment of his contemporaries that “here is an unknown poet, greater even than Pope”.[2] And as for Pope, he published his first poems at the tender age of twenty-one.

Should these examples fail to convince us that the art of the sonnet is not beyond the reach of the young, we need look no further than the example of Byron, Shelley and Keats. Byron had reached the ripe old age of thirty-six when he died, Shelley was thirty, and Keats a mere twenty-six years old. As for the precocious talent of the youngest of this youthful trio, Keats is said to have written some of his finest sonnets in as little as fifteen minutes! And Keats never even lived to the age at which Shakespeare is thought to have written his own sonnets.

Let’s now address the few remaining remnants of the Oxfordian arguments against “the Stratford man”. The fact that Shakespeare’s signature is described as being shaky or untidy is used as evidence of his “illiteracy”. Although some Oxfordians admit grudgingly that most of the surviving signatures date from the period of Shakespeare’s retirement when the infirmity that would eventually lead to his relatively early death might account for the infirmity of the signature, there is still the implicit suggestion that the untidy signature is evidence that Shakespeare could not have written the plays. Perhaps it is necessary to remind these “scholars” that there is absolutely no connection between literature and calligraphy. Beautiful writing and beautiful handwriting do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many of the greatest writers had bad handwriting, and, no doubt, many of the greatest calligraphers were incapable of putting two literary sentences together. The temptation to produce a further list of great writers, this time itemizing those who had illegible handwriting, will be resisted. Let it suffice to say that any scholar who has pored over the mercilessly illegible handwriting of great writers will know that there is absolutely no connection between legibility and literacy.

In similar vein, anti-Stratfordians point a scornful finger at the lack of literary flourish in Shakespeare’s will or the questionable literary merit of the poetic epitaph on his grave. Why, one wonders, should Shakespeare feel inspired to turn his will into a work of literary art? Why, one wonders, should he bother to write his will at all? Why shouldn’t he get his lawyer to do it? And why, one wonders, would Shakespeare be the least concerned with writing verse for his own gravestone? How common is it for self-penned epitaphs to adorn the tombs of the dead? Isn’t it far more likely that someone else wrote the lines? At any rate, these pieces of “evidence” hardly warrant any serious doubt as to the authorship of the plays.

In the final analysis, there is no convincing argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and, in consequence, no convincing evidence that someone else wrote them. If the very foundations upon which the anti-Stratfordian edifice is built are shown to be fallacious, the rest of the ingenious, if far-fetched, historical arguments for other “Shakespeares” fall to the ground ignominiously. After the dust has settled on the fallen edifices of false scholarship, what is left standing among the ruins? There is no Earl of Oxford, no Francis Bacon, no Queen Elizabeth or King James, no Christopher Marlowe, no Mrs Shakespeare. We are left with the reliable, if mundane, reality that William Shakespeare was, in fact, William Shakespeare. We are also left with the equally reliable, if paradoxical, observation of G.K. Chesterton that “Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.”[3]

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The featured image, uploaded by Sicinius, is a photograph of the Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

[1] Full details of the sources for the assertions made in this brief summary are given in my book The Quest for Shakespeare in which these summarized facts are treated more fully.

[2] James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson, London, Macmillan & Co, 1912, p. 83

[3] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, London, Sheed and Ward, 1939 edn., p. 15

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