1. What is the Shakespeare Authorship Question?
The Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ) raises the issue of who wrote the works traditionally ascribed to ‘Shakespeare’. There are many reasons to doubt, which collectively indicate that there is a serious problem of attribution.
There was a man from Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire – called William Shakspere, to give the customary form of spelling his name. He was baptised on 26 April 1564 and was buried on 25 April 1616. He bought property in both Stratford and in London and he was a sharer in a theatre company.
However, there is no record from his lifetime stating that he was a writer of any sort, no record of education, his children and parents could barely read or write. Of the writer ‘William Shakespeare’, contemporaries write cryptically; many of them appear to allude to Shakespeare as pseudonym. Full-scale biographies of ‘Shakespeare’ only emerged two centuries after Will’s death. These Victorian biographers freely filled in the extensive gaps in line with their view of a national poet with almost divine status; myths that have been strongly doubted ever since.
2. But surely nobody in Stratford ever doubted that Will wrote the works?
Quite true, in that there is no record that anybody in Stratford ever expressed any doubt that Will wrote the great works of ‘Shakespeare’. But just as nobody ever expressed any doubts that Elvis Presley was the first man on the moon; nobody ever said that he was. There was no chance to express doubt about a proposition that was never made.
In his last will and testament William of Stratford left no books, whether owned, borrowed or loaned out. He left no journals, no business papers, no letters claiming he was a writer. None of his family ever claimed that he was a poet and playwright. Neither did anybody else from Stratford for almost a century after his death. The reason that there was no expression of doubt is that there was no claim in the first place.
3. Don’t we know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare because his name is on the works?
There are commendations in the First Folio (1623) written by Ben Jonson, but these give no personal information about the author. Jonson was probably encouraged to write these at the behest of the publishers, Edmund Blount and Isaac Jaggard. Elsewhere, he wrote literary puffs for which he was paid. And the Earls of Pembroke and Montgomery, who had supported the publication, were his benefactors. So, there’s nothing in the commendation to show that Jonson knew the author personally.
4. Is the Shakespeare Authorship Question just a modern phenomenon?
Not at all. Videos linked to this website show how many contemporaries preserved their awareness of ‘William Shakespeare’ as a pseudonym used by the Earl of Oxford. These range from William Covell in 1595 to the poet Ben Jonson in 1623 and the artist Anthony Van Dyck in 1638, and right through to the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries. Professor Bryan Wildenthal covers many of the allusions to Shakespeare written during his lifetime in his excellent book Early Authorship Doubts (2019).
The first book-length biography of William of Stratford was published by Charles Knight in 1843, while the first book-length treatment of the subject claiming ‘William Shakespeare’ as a pseudonym was completed by Delia Bacon four years later. Interestingly, she was reacting against the way a romanticised life of the Bard was imagined. The fact that these doubts surfaced at intervals over a span of many centuries testifies to what we might call an ‘underground stream’ of doubt.
5. Why bother with the author when we have the works?
The Shakespeare authorship question is one that primarily relates to history, not to literature. Who was Shakespeare? is an historical question, not a literary one. To say we have some beautiful plays so why bother with history? is illogical. History matters, and it is important for all historians to get their facts right.
Literary biography can of course provide insight into the meaning and significance of a text. So attaching the wrong author’s name and life to the work leads to a host of false assumptions which in turn spawn further misperceptions of the work. Acknowledging Oxford’s authorship restores, among other things, the political dimensions of his works which the Stratford story obscures. Like Hamlet himself, Shakespeare conceived drama and its players as being the ‘abstract and brief chronicles of the time’. No one seriously questions, for example, that John Lyly’s Endymion (c.1584) depends on parallels between characters in the play and major figures in the Elizabethan court. An awareness of the parallel between Lyly’s main female character Cynthia and the Virgin Queen is a prerequisite to appreciating the play. The great poets of the Elizabethan period, such as Edmund Spenser, routinely disguised their more incendiary comments in metaphors or allegories. Such writers published works commenting, often in cleverly oblique ways, on controversial current events which could not be treated more directly under the Tudor court’s regime of strict censorship.
Acknowledging Oxford’s authorship radically transforms our understanding of politics, propaganda and history. After all, if you take Oxford as the author, then a vast contemporary backdrop falls into place, and one apprehends a whole new dimension to the plays: that of political satire. Hamlet for instance becomes an intriguing exposé of court life under Elizabeth (written by the Hamlet of Elizabeth’s Court) which provides us with innumerable valuable insights into the private Court history of the time. The value of this extra dimension for actors and directors is difficult to overestimate. After all, an actor playing Polonius in Hamlet can gain enormous psychological insight into his character by reading up about the historical original, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.
6. Aren’t Authorship sceptics just anti-Shakespeare?
7. Aren’t Authorship sceptics just conspiracy theorists?
8. Aren’t authorship sceptics just snobs?
9. Can’t everything be explained by genius?
‘Shakespeare’ was most certainly a genius and authorship sceptics agree that ‘Shakespeare’ had supreme natural talents. However, in explaining how an artist came to produce outstanding works of art, genius alone is not an explanation. We insist that the talents of a genius have to be recognised and advanced from an early age; that knowledge had to be acquired, that skills had to be developed, that dramatic techniques had to be practised. Michelangelo’s talents as a painter and as a sculptor were appreciated at an early age and so he was apprenticed to a master who was working on frescoes at the Sistine Chapel. There Michelangelo studied classical sculpture, a necessary prerequisite for his ‘David’. Mozart’s genius was recognised at an early age: he began performing publicly by the age of five or six and he was taught intensively. He also studied the works of Handel before he could emulate and surpass them.
In the case of William of Stratford, there is neither any record of early promise nor any suggestion that he was introduced to a wide range of classical and renaissance literature from an early age. There is no record that he ever attended school either in Stratford or anywhere else or that he was ever noticed when he was young. In the case of ‘Shakespeare’, nobody seemed to notice him until works began to be published under this name from 1593.
10. If not William of Stratford, then who wrote the plays?
There have been various suggestions as to the true identity of the concealed author: among them Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney and Henry Neville. We respect all of these researchers and clearly share the common idea that ‘Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym. While a reasonable case can be made for these candidates, the case for Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) is outstanding for the depth, variety and quantity of high quality evidence which outstrips all other contenders.
Although many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries left opaque records attesting to Oxford’s authorship of Shakespeare’s works, Oxford’s claim was first made overtly by schoolteacher John Thomas Looney in 1920 in his book Shakespeare Identified. This publication gained support among many intellectuals of the time including Sigmund Freud, the actor/director Leslie Howard, and the novelist John Galsworthy. In 1984, Charlton Ogburn published a monumental study, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, which deals with many aspects of the Shakespeare Authorship Question and Oxford’s claim. Today, Shakespeare lovers are increasingly aware of the authorship question while Oxford’s claim has been made compellingly by Mark Anderson in Shakespeare By Another Name (2005). The vast majority of post-Stratfordian scholars support Oxford as Shakespeare.
11. What evidence is there that Oxford was a poet and a playwright?
Also later, in 1598, Frances Meres lists Oxford as the ‘best for Comedy among us’ in Palladis Tamia. Henry Peacham lists Oxford first among the greatest Elizabethan poets in The Compleat Gentleman. This work was published in 1622 when the First Folio of ‘Shakespeare’ was nearly finished. Yet Peacham does not mention Shakespeare at all.
12. Why should the author use a pseudonym?
13. What about the plays written after Oxford’s death in 1604?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no contemporary document that enables us to date any play of ‘Shakespeare’. Neither are there records of performance or of publication which indicate when any play was actually written (or when or whether it was revised). We can note that by the time of William of Stratford’s death in 1616, eighteen plays in the First Folio had yet to be published. On the assumption that William began writing plays when aged 26, a possible chronology has been accepted stretching from 1590 until 1610 or so. However, some Stratfordian scholars believe that he was an ‘early starter’ and thus date his first plays to 1586 or so. Since there is a wide range of possible dates for the composition (and revision of plays), topical allusions remain conjectural.
The year of Oxford’s death in 1604 is an interesting turning point in the publication of quartos of ‘Shakespeare’. In the preceding six years, twelve plays appeared in print attributed to ‘Shakespeare’ and two others appeared for the first time but without attribution (Romeo and Juliet, Henry V). By contrast, in the following twelve years until the death of William of Stratford, only three new plays appeared in print.
14. Oxford can’t have written the plays - wasn't he a misogynist who treated his wife badly?
The suggestion that Oxford was a misogynist and was cruel to his wife rests on slender evidence. In fact, Oxford was much maligned during his life, mainly for his wife’s apparent infidelity. He was on his continental tour in 1575 when his wife, Anne (née Cecil) bore a daughter, the Lady Elizabeth Vere. Rumour spread that Oxford had been cuckolded (a familiar Shakespearean theme). Upon his return to England in 1576, Oxford refused to recognise either his wife or her daughter. During this time, he fathered a son by one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting. Eventually, he was reconciled with his countess by the stratagem of a bed trick (sounds familiar). After Anne died in 1588, he married Elizabeth Trentham. While Oxford may not have been the perfect husband, there is no evidence for the kind of idyllic relationship frequently attributed to William of Stratford. More importantly, Oxford’s treatment of women is no worse than the behaviour of many others and does not invalidate his claim as author of the works. Both Oxford’s first and second wives are on record for their highly favourable view of him.
15. Will we still use the name ‘Shakespeare’ even after the real author is identified?
How can I keep in touch with developments in the SAQ?
Three easy steps:
1. Join THE DE VERE SOCIETY;
2. Read the quarterly newsletters;
3. Discuss the SAQ with other members at DVS events.
You can find a wealth of useful material on the website of our sister organisation in North America, the SHAKESPEARE OXFORD FELLOWSHIP, at: http://shakespeareoxfordfellowship.org
Don’t forget the SHAKESPEAREAN AUTHORSHIP TRUST: http://www.shakespeareanauthorshiptrust.org.uk/
And make sure you sign the DECLARATION OF REASONABLE DOUBT at: https://doubtaboutwill.org/declaration