Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Staff and students from Shakespeare's old school in a birthday parade through the town to put flowers on his grave
Staff and students from Shakespeare's old school in a birthday parade through the town to put flowers on his grave

by Ray Setterfield

April 23, 1564 — By common consent William Shakespeare was born on this day in history. There is no formal record of his birth but church records in Stratford-upon-Avon show he was baptised there on 26 April that year. Traditionally, infants were baptised three days after being born.

His death in 1616 came on his birth date of 23 April which, coincidentally, is St. George's Day, the national day of England.

The bare facts that we know of his life can be summed up quickly, because they are sparse. He was born at a house in Henley Street, Stratford, in 1564. His father, John, was a glove-maker and an alderman of the town. In 1582 William married the pregnant 26-year-old Anne Hathaway. He was 18.

Ten years later, by then a father of three children, he was being mentioned in London as a playwright and poet. After several years in London he returned to Stratford and died in 1616. He is buried in the town's Holy Trinity Church where he was baptised.

The late Hugh Trevor-Roper, former Oxford University history professor, was among the many scholars dismayed by the few facts available. He wrote that he found Shakespeare's elusiveness “exasperating and almost incredible."

"After all," Trevor-Roper wrote, "he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance in the well documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I and since his death has been subjected to the greatest battery of organised research that has ever been directed upon a single person.

"And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, still remains so close to a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted.”

What we do know is that Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, 154 sonnets, two long narrative poems and other verse. Collectively, his works are known as the ultimate expression of humanity in the English language. His plays have been translated into every major living language and continue to be performed – and enthusiastically received – throughout the world.

But the sheer scale of this achievement fostered doubts that took hold in the nineteenth century. The works brim with knowledge of the law, court life, military affairs, medicine, statesmanship, antiquity, life abroad and so on.

The anti-Stratfordians, as they have become known, believe it is not possible that the son of a glove-maker in a provincial town, with questionable education, could be responsible for all this.

What is much more likely, they believe, is that the plays and poems were written by a well-connected aristocrat who did not wish to be associated publicly with the "vulgar" trade of playwrighting.

Various names have been put forward over the years, including Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Derby and even Queen Elizabeth I. With their claims – and those of many others – failing to stand up to close scrutiny, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, became the outstanding favourite.

The major stumbling block over Oxford's candidacy – supported by, among others, actors Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi – is that he died in 1604, before plays such as Macbeth, King Lear and The Tempest were even written.

Anti-Stratfordians, whose number have included scholars with such celebrated names as Thomas Looney, Sherwood E. Silliman and George M. Battey, counter this by saying that Oxford wrote the plays, then he died and they were gradually released over a period of time to the waiting world.

The argument goes on. In 2007 Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi launched their "declaration of reasonable doubt" on the internet. Rylance said in interviews: "We make no claim to know exactly what happened, who wrote the works. There is a genius at work in there somewhere, but it's not William Shakespeare. Other reasonable scenarios are possible."

In the film Anonymous, released in 2011, Oxford is portrayed as the secret author of the plays. A jobbing actor named William Shakespeare is but a drunken buffoon who staggers onstage and takes the writing credit simply because nobody else will.

Adrian Noble, who ran the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1991 to 2002, says the idea that Bacon or some cabal wrote the plays is, on the basis of his experience, "utter nonsense."

Acclaimed Shakespearean directors such as Peter Hall and Trevor Nunn agree. "This speculation is just a terrible waste of time," says Hall.

In a newspaper interview Nunn asks: "Who is Ben Jonson? He is Shakespeare's great rival and a real talent. Garrulous, argumentative, jealous, proud, and deeply committed to exposing hypocrisy and corruption. Not a man to kowtow to nobility or privilege.

"What does he do? It's Jonson who coins "the Swan of Avon" (ie the declaration that the author of the plays is from Stratford), and it's Jonson who declares that he is "for all time" and then claims him as "MY Shakespeare".

"Why on earth," Nunn continues, "would Jonson, who owes nothing to anyone, and who had competed with Shakespeare throughout his professional life, take part in a cover-up to help the Earl of Oxford deny that he had anything to do with the theatre?" This, says Nunn, is "game, set and match to Shakespeare".

Professor Stanley Wells, chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, describing Rylance's declaration as "pompous," retorted: "No one doubted Shakespeare's authorship until the late eighteenth-century, and the first serious investigator was Delia Bacon. She spent a night in Holy Trinity Church in 1856 intending to open the grave, presumably thinking it might contain a slip of paper saying “It wasn't me, try Christopher [Marlowe], or Francis [Bacon], or de Vere [Oxford].

"Poor thing, she lost her nerve, came to believe she was the Holy Ghost surrounded by devils, and died in a lunatic asylum."

Wells added: "The proper reaction to the fact that Shakespeare of Stratford portrayed a great gallery of people of all kinds and ranks, that he wrote vividly about countries he probably didn't visit, and that he had a supreme understanding of the human heart is not “How could he have done it?” but “How wonderful that he did!”

* The house where Shakespeare was born still stands and is now both a tourist attraction and headquarters of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Also still standing and fully functioning in the town is the grammar school, founded in 1295, where it is believed Shakespeare was educated and learned Latin, Greek and the classics.

Published: March 17, 2018

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