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?