Did William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, write Shakespeare’s plays? The answer seems obvious, much like the answer to the question, “Who is buried in Grant’s tomb?” Yet, many people question whether William Shakespeare, the man who grew up in a country village, could have written such complex plays like Hamlet and King Lear. Roland Emmerich’s soon-to-be-released film Anonymous endorses the notion that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author. Others have named Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, or William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby as the true author. Academic consensus is that William Shakespeare is the true author of his own plays.
When and how did the doubt over authorship begin? It started after Shakespeare’s reputation grew to its current state, sometime in the nineteenth century. Before that, Shakespeare was regarded as an excellent playwright and poet, but the idea that he was the greatest poet and playwright did not gain widespread popularity until the Romantic authors and the Victorians proclaimed Shakespeare the greatest writer of all time. Victorians resurrected Shakespeare by performing his plays frequently and a great deal was written giving Shakespeare high praise. Then, interest in the man’s personal life grew, and, I believe, what they discovered did not match what they expected to find. Documentation of Shakespeare the man exists in records of his baptism, some tax records, and his will. The resulting image of Shakespeare the man is someone who comes from humble origins, someone who did not have the opportunity for university education, and someone who had an upwardly mobile attitude. Both of Shakespeare’s parents were illiterate, and many of the details of William’s life have been lost. People expected that the author of Hamlet must have been a university graduate, and must have been noble from birth. The man from Stratford did not fit.
One of the earliest doubters was Delia Bacon, who, in 1856, was the first to write a detailed theory of a conspiracy to hide the identity of the true author. Bacon wrote that Francis Bacon oversaw a group of people who wrote the plays, the primary one being Sir Walter Raleigh. Those who favor Francis Bacon as the author cite the fact that many of Bacon’s writings have a similar philosophy as that of Shakespeare. They also remark that William Shakespeare primarily signed his name as “Shakspere,” while Bacon and his group likely used “Shake-speare.” A problem with this theory is that in those times, spellings were not standardized, and many people used variations of spellings of their own names. Later, Edward de Vere, one of the names mentioned as being part of Bacon’s group, moved to the forefront as the likely author.
Those who doubt Shakespeare’s authorship believe that the author of the plays must have had knowledge of British court life and politics. They also point out that only mundane facts of Shakespeare’s life exist, and no manuscripts in the author’s handwriting survived. Among those who have identified themselves as doubters of Shakespeare’s authorship include Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles. Sir Derek Jacobi is a current, prominent actor who endorses the Edward de Vere theory of authorship. In the case of de Vere, theorists look for parallels between de Vere’s life and Shakespeare’s plays, the most notable being Hamlet. Edward de Vere was said to have been a wonderful playwright, though none of his works survive. Theorists say that his works do survive, under the name of William Shakespeare, who was often called “The Swan of Avon.” Edward de Vere had property at one time on the Avon river, so they conclude that de Vere could be the author.
I believe that, during the nineteenth century, a kind of “bardolatry” took place. Victorians made William Shakespeare into a god figure, promoting him as the greatest poet and playwright of all time. No man, especially not an ordinary man of humble beginnings, could live up to that image. Surely the man who wrote the greatest lines ever written must be of noble birth, with the finest education money can buy, and must have been sensitive beyond belief. The records of William Shakespeare’s life show a man descended from farmers in rural Warwickshire, with a father who was a common glover and wool dealer. Some records show that John Shakespeare, William’s father, made some shady deals in wool and money lending. Tax records and his will show William’s concern over his property, revealing a man who was struggling to rise in society. William’s parents could not afford to send him to university, though it is likely they sent him to the local grammar school. In Tudor England, a grammar school education included learning Greek and Latin, and being well read in the ancient classics. Though there is no evidence remaining that William attended grammar school, as the records from that time were lost, we can be sure that he did, given the influence of his grammar school education on his writing.
We must not forget that Shakespeare was a man, not a god. A very talented man with ambition. Michael Wood, a historian, makes a solid argument for Shakespeare as the true author of his own plays in his televised program, In Search of Shakespeare. Wood says that the plays are loaded with rural Warwickshire references, dialect, and spellings. The names of many local families find their way into the plays, including settings that are strikingly similar to the Warwickshire landscape. The plays also reflect a man who was familiar with leatherwork, mentioning the stretching properties of chevron, that his father would have used to make gloves in his shop. Shakespeare also mentions wool prices, which were accurate for the times. I find it highly unlikely that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, would have been familiar with glove-making, wool dealing, and rural Warwickshire farming dialect.
The question of authorship also begs us to believe in an elaborate conspiracy that so many important people of Elizabethan society would have been part of. The public’s interest in conspiracy theories never ceases to amaze me. It seems like people want to believe in elaborate cover-ups on the part of the government, upper crust society, etc. Such theories are often far-fetched, such as the multiple gunman theory in the assassination of JFK, the Roswell Alien cover-up, and the idea that our own president has a fake birth certificate. Outlandish cover-ups just do not happen on that kind of scale. People have even questioned whether Shakespeare, Lincoln, and Hitler may have been homosexual. Do we not have more important things to focus on? Can we not just enjoy Shakespeare’s plays for their brilliance? Do we have to always circumvent the truth with elaborate theories just because we find the truth unsatisfactory?
As for Roland Emmerich’s soon-to-be-released film Anonymous, I am tempted to see it just because, based on the preview I saw, I found the portrayal of the period to be interesting. Though, I’m sure I would walk out of the theater unsatisfied and a bit steamed.