Why is there a Shakespeare Authorship Question?

There is scant record of those ‘sluggish gaping auditors’ who, by the middle of 17th century, may have genuinely believed the playwright ‘Shakespeare’ to have been the Stratford businessman. Among literary and learned circles there must have been very few, if any. It is, however, reported in a manuscript dated to the late 1660s that an anonymous and untraceable soldier from Norwich (possibly called ‘Hammond’) was taken in by the deception on a visit to Stratford church in 1634, but the manuscript source is vague, literary, of a much later date and unreliable. There must have been some Stratfordian believers because Davenant mocked them in 1637 and Jonson appears to have regretted their deception – confessing, in his posthumously published work Timber, that in honouring Shakespeare’s memory he was guilty of the sin of ‘idolatry’ (setting up false idols). ‘Is it a crime in me,’ he asked in the same work, ‘that I know that, which others had not yet knowne, but from me? Or that I am the Author of many things, which never would have come in thy thought but that I taught them?’ Of the ‘sordid multitude’ he wrote ‘they commend Writers, as they do Fencers, or Wrestlers. But in these things the unskilful are deceived.’
Hollar's engraving of shakespeare adding to the Shakespeare authorship question
In 1642 a Commonwealth government, under Puritan influence, closed down the theatres. There followed 18 dark theatre-less years in which constant pressure was applied to the authorities by actors, playwrights, producers, audiences, to lift their ban. It was during this period that the cult of ‘Stratfordianism’ was truly born – that the courtier poet beloved of Queen Elizabeth and King James somehow morphed into the humble Midlands businessman, who, by the light of natural genius succeeded in becoming one of the world’s best travelled, most learned, best spoken, most highly educated, well-read, sporting and courtly authors of his age.
At the Restoration when Charles II reopened the theatres the Stratfordian mythos came fully into motion, but this not yet the age of biography and no one appears to have made any serious investigation into Shakespeare’s life and times, or raised any serious objection to the circulating fairy tale. The 18th century was an age of big editions – multi-volume sets of Shakespeare’s works were issued but still no book-length biography. It was not until the 19th century, when biography at last came into vogue, that the first attempts were made to track the life and times of England’s greatest literary genius. The Great Fire of London, the destruction of Jonson’s library, the burning of Wilton House, seat of the Herbert family, all contributed to the lack of documentary evidence. Shakespearean scholars and enthusiasts, such as John Jordan, J. P. Collier, and William Henry Ireland, began recklessly forging documentary evidence in their frustration at finding so little in the archives. Others meanwhile patiently reconstructed a narrative, from existing evidence, of a hidden court poet who was the driving creative force behind the Shakespeare canon.

In 1920 Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, first emerged as a leading Shakespeare authorship candidate. Since then thousands of papers and hundreds of books have been written establishing him as the most likely author of Shakespeare’s works. The evidence supporting the orthodox story is circumstantial, ambiguous, posthumous, mostly emanating from one ambiguous source – Ben Jonson; inconsistent with what may be deduced about the author from the works themselves, and there is very little of it. By contrast the evidence of Oxford’s authorship, though similarly circumstantial, is nonetheless voluminous, contemporary, drawn from a broad range of different sources, supported by historical facts, and consistent with what may be legitimately deduced about the author from the works themselves.

Tradition, fear of change and intellectual idleness are the wobbly pins that barely hold the Stratford myth from collapsing into the Avon. Everyone is Stratfordian by birth, for the Stratford story is what we were all taught at school, but a single hour on the evidence is enough to show that Stratfordianism is no longer feasible.

Documentary sources, rare books and unique manuscripts that, until recently, were accessible only to the most qualified university professors, may now be inspected by anyone for free on the internet. Those who understand the Shakespeare authorship question debate sufficiently well to argue the Stratfordian cause have dwindled to a tiny defensive brigade, loud of abuse, inaudible of evidence. In December 2013 the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (whose revenues are derived from exhibiting buildings at Stratford with claims to Shakespearean association) turned down the opportunity to collect £40,000 by publicly defending the very tenet upon which its existence was founded! The last Stratfordians standing are a small handful of English Literature professors in the US and UK who hold their juniors to account by threat of censure through the universities’ peer-review system. These are joined by a light squadron of sentimentalists irrecoverably attached to their childhood dreams and ideals, and a motley platoon of those whose salaries are dependent on the survival of the orthodox narrative. That is the state of Stratfordianism today.

Early pictures of the monument to Shakespeare in the church at Stratford-on-Avon show that it once held the bust of a man bearing a wool-pack, which was later changed to one of a man wearing a mid-17th century style of moustache, holding a sheet of writing paper and a quill pen. The same pictures tell us that the monument was originally mounted by two carved statues of cherubs, one on the right holding an hour-glass, the other on the left holding a spade – symbols of Time and Truth. They have since been replaced. ‘Thou must bestow some time for thy diligent search after Truth,’ wrote William Gurnall in 1655, ‘for Truth lies deep and must be digged for, the treasure of knowledge calls for Spade and Mattock.’