Why is there a Shakespeare Authorship Question?

‘But in these things the unskilful are deceived’ – Timber (1641) by Ben Jonson

In 1595 a cleric from Cambridge, called William Covell, wrote a book in which he revealed that the author of two recently published poems, Venus and Adonis and Lucrece (‘Sweet Shak-speare’) was the courtier-poet Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. That same year, Thomas Edwardes, in a work called Narcissus (also published in Cambridge) slyly confirmed this attribution, as did the anonymous author of a play, The Returne from Parnassus, which was performed before the scholars of Cambridge University at Christmas 1599. Also in 1599, John Weever, a pupil of Covell’s at Queens’ College, Cambridge, published a work in which he addressed the author of Venus and Adonis as ‘Spurius – a certain writer’. The Earl of Oxford who jealously guarded his literary anonymity had, along with his secretaries, John Lyly and Thomas Nashe, made enemies in Cambridge circles through a series of libellous mud-slinging pamphlets directed against the university don, Gabriel Harvey, his brother Richard, and various of their associates.

Sketch by William Dugdale (c.1649)
That someone called William Shakspere (1564-1616) was born and died in Stratford-upon-Avon has never been disputed. The copious records show him to have been a man of business, a property dealer, a grain merchant, a money-lender, with commercial interests in the London theatre and a financial stake in a Catholic recusant bolt-hole known as ‘Blackfriars Gatehouse’. Posthumous records suggest he might also have acted on the stage. He never claimed to be a playwright or poet or writer of any kind and nor did any of his friends or family make such a claim on his behalf. He left no record of education, no books, papers or literary memorabilia and no trace of his supposed literary career was passed to any of his descendants.
In 1623, some seven years after the death of William of Stratford, the first veiled suggestions that he had been the poet and playwright known to the public as ‘William Shakespeare’ appeared in the prefatory pages of a formidable book known as the First Folio, a collection of thirty-six ‘Shakespeare’ plays, half of which had never been published before. The Folio was dedicated to Lord Oxford’s son-in-law, Philip Herbert and his older brother, William Herbert, Lord Pembroke, who was Ben Jonson’s patron. Jonson is believed to have edited this volume.
The ‘veiled suggestions’ of spurious authorship that Jonson planted into this book took various forms – a clownish portrait of ‘Shakespeare’ by Martin Droeshout (too young to have known him) with the back of his doublet mysteriously sewn to the front; a poem entreating the reader not to ‘look on this picture’; a long poem of which Jonson devoted the first sixteen lines to explaining why he refused to praise Shakespeare’s name; two comical letters, attributed to Stratford Shakspere’s theatre colleagues John Heminges and Henry Condell, but later discovered to have been written by Jonson himself; the author’s name five times hyphenated as ‘Shake-speare’; – these were among the many hints that the author was a pseudonymous courtier.
On two pages the author is described as ‘gentle’, defined by the Oxford Dictionary as: ‘Of persons: Well-born, belonging to a family of position; originally used synonymously with noble.’ On another page Shakespeare is referred to as ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’ whose plays were enjoyed by Queen Elizabeth and King James on the banks of the Thames ¬– a reference which for years was taken to mean the Warwickshire Avon that flowed through Stratford; until it was discovered that ‘Avon’ was a name for Hampton Court, the Royal palace on the banks of the Thames with its Great Hall, where Queen Elizabeth and King James enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays. A few pages on and another poetic eulogy mentions ‘thy Stratford moniment’ – a reference to the inscription at Stratford-upon-Avon from which the discerning reader may learn that the Bard’s mortal remains were ‘placed by envious Death’ not at Stratford-upon-Avon, as tradition insists, but alongside Beaumont, Chaucer and Spenser at Westminster Abbey.
Jonson was hired (presumably by the Herbert family) to edit the First Folio and to supply its prefatory pages with customary laudations, without revealing the identity of the author. He did so with sublime wit and ingenuity so that those whom Jonson termed ‘sluggish gaping auditors’ and ‘those of silliest ignorance’ – would misinterpret his lines as evidence of Stratford Shakspere’s authorship of Shakespeare’s plays, while his learned readers would equally understand that ‘Shakespeare’ was a pseudonym. The evidence shows that the literary intelligentsia unilaterally understood Jonson’s clever irony as many commented upon it. The Stratford monumental epitaph (believed to have been composed by Jonson) was ridiculed in a book of Moderne Jests, Witty Jeeres, Pleasant Taunts, Merry Tales of 1630.
The Droeshout portrait and its suggestions of spurious authorship were mocked in the Second Folio (1632), in a volume of Shakespeare Poems (1640) and in Five New Playes (1654); in 1637 William Davenant warned poets wishing to extol ‘William Shakespeare’ to stay away from the Warwickshire Avon where their eyes would be ‘mocked’; the next year Jonson’s friend and one-time secretary, Richard Brome, publicly described Shakespeare as ‘that English Earle that lov’d a play and player so well’; in a poem addressed to Shakespeare in 1640 John Warren suggested the playwright was somehow ‘twice lived’ remarking: ‘the labours his, the glorie still thine own’ – a clear statement that whoever wrote Shakespeare’s work was not the same person as he who was, at that time, taking the credit for it.