Shakespeares Anonymous

This is the thirty-third in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXXIII: Voyages and Travels

If you are looking to stir up a bit of controversy without recourse to politics or family secrets, casually opine that William Shakespeare was no more than an actor and frontman, and that the plays attributed to him were clearly the work of someone else. The Shakespeare authorship question provides plenty of grounds for argument. More likely than not, you’ll find that your interlocutors are firm believers that Shakespeare actually authored Shakespeare, but even if they are open to the possibility of a non-Stratfordian author, you can still disagree on who, exactly, did write Shakespeare.

The basics of the authorship question are as follows: The actor William Shakespeare’s education is quite suspect. His parents both signed with a mark instead of writing their names, suggesting that they were illiterate. (Keep in mind that literacy was not nearly so universal at the turn of the 17th century.) There is no record of his attending school, including a surprising lack of claims by his teachers or classmates. The 6 surviving authenticated signatures of Shakespeare are exhibit such poor penmanship that they do little to convince that he was a prolific writer.

While Shakespeare’s own background was fairly obscure, his plays dealt with a number of topics that would seemingly be beyond his ken. Many of the plays exhibit a familiarity with royal courts and exotic locales. William Shakespeare, however, would have no firsthand knowledge of either. The plays also contain accurate details of sailing and travel, though Shakespeare himself is not known to have left England. Similarly, he wrote with some familiarity on legal procedure and thought, although there is no evidence that he had any contact with any courts of law until a minor lawsuit late in life.

And if William Shakespeare was merely an actor and a frontman for an author who needed to remain anonymous, who actually wrote the plays? Many, many alternative authors have been proposed throughout the years. A few of them seem plausible.

The Oxfordian Theory:

Seemingly the most popular candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Oxford was a patron of the theater and was known to be a poet and playwright. His time at court and in Italy provided him with the knowledge needed to write plays set in such locales; knowledge William Shakespeare would not have had. Oxford had to publish his plays under a pseudonym because it would be unseemly for somebody of his high birth to write for the common stage. Or, even better, he had an affair with Queen Elizabeth and for some reason that made it even more important that he not publish under his own name.

The Baconian Theory:

Bacon is the classic alternative to Shakespeare. Francis Bacon served as Lord Chancellor, the highest court official in England. He had the legal and political background to write competently and realistically about courts royal and legal. He also was familiar with codes and cyphers, which makes it extremely tempting to search for hidden meanings in everything he wrote.

Adherents of the Baconian theory included Friedrich Nietzsche and Mark Twain. In Ecce Homo, Nietzsche wrote, “to make a confession; I feel instinctively certain and convinced that Lord Bacon is the originator, the self-torturer, of this most sinister kind of literature (Hamlet)… We do not know half enough about Lord Bacon—the first realist in all the highest acceptation of this word—to be sure of everything he did, everything he willed, and everything he experienced in his inmost soul…. Let the critics go to hell! Suppose I had christened my Zarathustra with a name not my own,—let us say with Richard Wagner’s name,—the acumen of two thousand years would not have sufficed to guess that the author of Human, all-too-Human was the visionary of Zarathustra.” Mark Twain was less certain than Nietzsche: “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t.” Percy Shelley, perhaps unintentionally, lends some weight to the conclusion that Bacon was the Bard. In Shelley’s opinion, Bacon was the most sublime writer since Plato. “Lord Bacon was a poet,” Shelley wrote in his Defense of Poetry. “His language has a sweet and majestic rhythm, which satisfies the sense, no less than the almost superhuman wisdom of his philosophy satisfies the intellect; it is a strain which distends, and then bursts the circumference of the reader’s mind, and pours itself forth together with it into the universal element with which it has perpetual sympathy.”

The Marlovian Theory

Christopher “Kit” Marlow was a successful poet and playwright, born only two months before Shakespeare. But he was also allegedly an athiest. At the height of his powers, and soon to face capital charges of heresy, Marlow allegedly died on May 30, 1593. Within a fortnight, Shakespeare’s first publication, Venus and Adonis, went on sale. What if Marlow faked his death and had Shakespeare publish his works under his own name? By faking is death, Marlow was able to avoid the headsman and continue writing.

The Group Theories

One of the problems with most of the theories is timing. For example, the Earl of Oxford died several years before the last Shakespeare plays were published. And although Walter Raleigh was born before and died after William Shakespeare, he spent so much time traveling, fighting, and imprisoned that it is hard to make sense of a timeline where he also wrote all of Shakespeare’s corpus. Enter the group theories. By attributing Shakespeare to a group or cabal, one eliminates the timing problems, accounts for some of the unevenness of quality in Shakespeare’s writing, explains the tremendous vocabulary in the plays, and responds to the objection that no one author could produce so much excellent work.

Nobody knows for sure who wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare. The academic consensus is clearly in favor of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. But that explanation is boring. It is more fun to think of Shakespeare as a centuries-old mystery, and to stay on the lookout for clues and messages hidden in “his” work.

Beer of the week: Corona Familiar – When Homer Simpson visited the Duff brewery he learned that Duff, Duff Lite, and Duff Dry were all bottled from the same line. For a while, it was rumored that that joke was a reality for the makers of Corona. Allegedly, Corona Familiar was simply Corona Extra in a 32 oz. bottle. However, as Constellation Brands has rolled out Corona Familiar in more markets and in new 12 oz. bottles, it is now clear that it is a different beer than Corona Extra. It is clear gold, and plenty carbonated. There is some malt in the aroma and the flavor is a bit fuller in both hops and malt than Corona Extra. Familiar is a serviceable but unremarkable lager.

Reading of the week: The Discovery of Guiana by Sir Walter Raleigh – As mentioned above, Raleigh is one of the proposed authors of some or all of Shakespeare. This prose account of the discovery of the mythical city of El Dorado does little to confirm that claim. It is an interesting story, including an account of natives covering themselves with gold dust “from the foot to the head” and then drinking for a week straight, but it does not have any of the irrepressible beauty that Shelley saw in Bacon.

Question for the week: What is your favorite controversial/heterodox position?


Proofs of Prophesy

It seems that primitive peoples had a god for practically every natural phenomenon. Even the culturally and academically advanced Greeks and Romans had a literal pantheon of gods to explain everything from the daily rising of the sun to the changes of the seasons. (To be sure, there were certainly ancient philosophers who did not believe in the literal existence of the Olympians. But one of the charges against Socrates was refusal to recognize the official gods of the city, so they still took that stuff seriously.) It may well be that the eventual predominance of monotheism in the western world was in part due to advances in natural philosophy.

As we humans came to understand the world better, fewer and fewer gods were needed to explain all of the individual aspects of our reality. The more we learn about the nature of our universe, the less we need myths to explain the world around us. Inevitably, some people take this line of thought to its logical limit: as human understanding increases, we find that there is no need for any theistic explanations at all.

A counter argument that has been advanced is that our growing understanding of the world is itself proof of God’s assistance. The eighth century theologian Abu Hatim al-Razi asserts that all of the great thinkers throughout time were actually prophets. Divine inspiration, he argues, is the only way to explain the genius that created Euclid’s geometry or Ptolemy’s astronomy. Knowing his own intellectual powers, he cannot believe that such tremendously insightful works can be the work of unaided humans. There is some serious appeal to that argument; I don’t see how I could ever produce something as great as Ptolemy’s Almagest.

Still, we are constantly learning more and coming to greater and greater understandings. Consequently, all great geniuses in natural philosophy are doomed to be overtaken. In the face of non-Euclidean geometry and modern astronomy, Euclid and Ptolemy look like poor prophets indeed. What good are is the prophets Newton or Darwin if their systems are sure to be found defective down the line? Can it really be divine inspiration if it invariably comes up short of later human understanding?

The final rejoinder must be that prophets never tell the whole truth or explain everything clearly. Each generation must have its own sages and prophets to build upon the divine revelations of their predecessors.  So who can say that Lobachevsky or Stephen Hawking are not also divinely inspired?


Beer of the Week: Odyssey Imperial IPA – Throughout Homer’s Odyssey, storms, shipwrecks, deaths, and other events are attributed to the wills of the gods. So a beer called Odyssey seems like a good choice for this post. This Imperial IPA from Sly Fox Brewing Company is delicious. The lighting in this photo is a bit off; the beer is actually more amber in color. It has a nice thick head that leaves plenty of lacing on the glass. Odyssey is quite bold, with strong, flavorful hops that totally dominate the flavor. And the hops has to be strong to cover the 8.4% alcohol. Anybody who drinks enough of this beer is surely in for an adventure.

Reading for the Week: The Madman by Friedrich Nietzsche – The famous quote “God is dead” comes from this reading. This parable(?) from The Gay Science hints at the problems of a post-religious society. The atheists in the story do not understand the ramifications of the death of God, hence the messenger of God’s death is called “the madman.”

Question for the week: Is there anything compelling about Abu Hatim al-Razi argument that all of our geniuses are divinely inspired? Or is he just moving the goalposts?

A Pointillist Theology

A high school religion teacher once remarked to me that the only proof of God’s existence that she needed was to look out the window. “How could anybody look upon the wonder of creation,” she wondered incredulously, “and not believe in God?” I was not convinced.

Are not the awe-inspiring beauty and order the universe even more awe-inspiring if they are organic rather than miraculous? That is to say, isn’t nature more impressive than creation? Creation could have been anything that God chose, but nature had to be the way it is. Rather than focusing on the single miracle of creation, why not focus on the ever-accumulating individual discoveries of the world around us? If God created the butterfly instantly and miraculously, that would not make it any more beautiful. But the fact that the butterfly evolved over millions of years and is the distant progeny of the first spark of life, that is beautiful and awe-inspiring.

Nietzsche would say that my teacher had an “old fashioned eye” that preferred “beautiful, decorative, intoxicating and perhaps beatific” myths to “simple truths, ascertained by scientific method.” But reason and scientifically discovered truths are every bit as beautiful as the old world views and aesthetics. In fact, they are even more beautiful. This is because the old views are static and limiting, but the “the richness of inner, rational beauty always spreads and deepens.”
Fiddlehead Kölsch

Beer of the week: Fiddlehead Kölsch – Fiddlehead ferns are a neat example of naturally occurring logarithmic spirals. Their geometric (near) perfection can be viewed as proof of an ordered universe. The quality beers from Fiddlehead Brewing Company are also proof of an ordered universe. This pale, cloudy ale has a soft, round bouquet with hints of pineapple. Although it is not overly hoppy, it is surprisingly bitter for its style and aroma. This is certainly a good beer, but for my taste the hops leave the mouth feeling a bit too dry in the end.

Reading of the week: Human, All Too Human, Appreciation of Simple Truths by Friedrich Nietzsche – Reading leads to reading. Reading Emerson led me to read Greenough and Landor. Reading Mencken led me to read Nietzsche. And reading Nietzsche led me to read more Nietzsche. This paragraph of Human, All Too Human directly follows the reading from two weeks ago.

Question of the week: Are the ideas of creation and evolution truly opposed?

Measure Of All Things

Last week’s question included an uncited quotation from H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy. Mencken mocked “Rousseau’s noble savage, in smock and jerkin, brought out of the tropical wilds to shame the lords and masters of the civilized lands.” How silly it seems to attribute such modern notions to man in a “state of nature.” (To be fair to Rousseau, he did not describe his “noble savage” as wearing anachronistic clothing, but his behavior and very nature were anachronistic.)

It is not likely to be a coincidence that Mencken’s delightfully caustic writing on the subject mirrors some ideas expressed in harsher terms by Friedrich Nietzsche. Mencken was a great admirer and translator of the mustachioed Saxon.

Nietzsche identified the traditional error of philosophers as the tendency to base a complete philosophical system on contemporary man. The problem is that contemporary man is a very small sample of all humanity. Since Rousseau had no way of knowing what primitive man was like, he simply attributed to primitive man the qualities of contemporary man. But man has been evolving for far longer than the few thousands of years of which we have written accounts. And, perhaps more importantly, man continues to evolve, even as we observe him. So what can we learn about constant, universal truths by first misattributing consistency to ever-evolving man?

Protagoras announced that “man is the measure of all things”, but what good is a measurement if the scale keeps changing?

Beer of the week: Ciuc Pils – This Romanian pilsner is very pale and very bubbly. The aroma is of sweet, cheap grain. There is not a whole lot to be said for the flavor. It is inoffensive, but not particularly good. It is always fun to try a beer from different countries, but there is probably a reason why Romanian beer is not more popular.

Reading for the week: Human, All Too Human, The Traditional Error of Philosophers by Friedrich Nietzsche – This paragraph, describing how philosophers err in assuming that there is something eternal about man, is part of the foundation of a book in which (to quote Mencken yet again) Nietzsche “showed that moral ideas were not divine, but human, and that, like all things human, they were subject to change.”

Question for the week: Does Nietzsche go too far? Is there nothing about humanity that is fixed and eternal?