There isn’t a Shakespeare authorship controversy. No such controversy exists. Shakespeare’s plays were written by William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford-on-Avon and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s men. They were not written by the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon or Queen Elizabeth, or Christopher Marlowe, or anyone else. There does not exist any evidence whatsoever to support any other conclusion. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. Period.
I hate doing this. First, I hate just stating something dogmatically like that; it goes against my deepest instincts. I’m not that guy. And I hate debunking conspiracy theories. It doesn’t do any good. People who believe that the CIA/Cubans/Mafiosi killed Kennedy, or that Obama was born in Kenya, or that George W. Bush blew up the Twin Towers, will NOT be persuaded otherwise; they are, in my experience, completely impervious to evidence.
And the Shakespeare authorship conspiracists are, in my experience, an agreeable bunch of people. First one I ever met was many years ago, when I was acting in a summer stock company in southern Indiana. One of my co-actors was a committed Oxfordian, and he challenged me to read The Mysterious William Shakespeare: the Man and the Myth, by Charlton Ogburn Jr. I thought, why not? I read it, and had two reactions–a violent dislike for the writing style of Charlton Ogburn Jr., and an utter conviction that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays. But I stayed friends with my co-actor. He was a nice guy, and a good actor.
Jim Bennett is a Facebook friend of mine, and another agreeable guy. Also an Oxfordian. He recently published an an article in the Deseret News, arguing that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were actually written by Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Now, I think there are lots of very good reasons to summarily reject this theory. First, there exists absolutely no evidence to support it. We know Oxford wrote and published poems, and he was praised for his plays, though none have survived. And he liked the theatre, sponsoring a boy’s company. But none of that constitutes evidence.
Jim Bennett’s article says that a guy in Oxford’s position couldn’t write plays openly, and so used a pen name. But that’s silly. Oxford wrote plays publicly, was known to do so, and was praised for it. His plays haven’t survived, but that’s not remotely unusual; most plays that were produced in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period, at least 90%, weren’t published. Plays were owned by acting companies, in the sense that the manuscripts were physically owned and controlled by someone, in that pre-copyright era. Publishing them worked to the company’s disadvantage. You might sell a play that wasn’t in your performance repertoire anymore to a publisher for a little extra cash, and publishers were known to steal manuscripts, or hire folks to sit in the theater and write down as many lines as they could and publish that–it was an unscrupulous and deeply competitive publishing environment. But mostly plays weren’t published.
There were two kinds of publications in the Elizabethan/Jacobean period; quartos and folios. Think of them as ‘paperbacks’ and ‘hardbacks.’ Quartos were smaller and cheaper, folios larger and more expensive. The reason we have the Shakespeare canon today is because after his death, two actor friends, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published them in the First Folio. Only one other playwright from that period had his plays published in a Folio edition–Ben Jonson, who self-published a Folio, basically a vanity project. Anyway, the First Folio has thirty-six plays, and is the only reliable source for twenty of them. It’s missing two: Pericles, and Two Noble Kinsmen: we have those plays in quarto form. But without the Folio, well, our world would be terribly impoverished. We owe Heminges and Condell a great debt.
So, okay, Heminges and Condell had profited their entire lives from those plays. Literally profited–they were shareholders in the most popular theatre company in England, their popularity derived mostly from the plays for which they held more or less exclusive performance access. They published the plays, partly, because they weren’t as popular anymore, but also, as an act of friendship, as their preface makes clear. They wanted to correct old errors: previous publications were, in their words, “maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious imposters.” The First Folio came out in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, and nearly twenty after Oxford’s death. If Shakespeare, the actor, didn’t write them, wouldn’t his claimed authorship be a perfect example of a ‘fraud’ by an ‘injurious imposter?’ Perfect opportunity for two guys in the know to set the record straight. If in fact Oxford used Shakespeare as a pen name because it was politically dangerous of him to claim authorship while he lived, well what possible harm could come from coming clean twenty years after his death?
But Heminges and Condell continued to assert that their old actor friend, William Shakespeare, had written them. Why would they do that? Well, best answer is because he did write them.
Now, you can say that ‘William Shakespeare’ was simply a pen name for a different author, who for reasons of his/her own chose to remain Anonymous. So who was the real author? Well, presumably a female writer might have wanted to use a pseudonym. We don’t know how many ladies-in-waiting Elizabeth had–we have names for twelve. Could have been any of them. What about Elizabeth’s Privy Council? Cecil, Bacon, Walsingham, Raleigh, Dudley, Essex, Devereaux? Coulda been any of them too. I mean, Oxford’s not a terrible choice, but he’s by no means the only possible choice. His girlfriend, Anne Vavasour–also a lady-in-waiting, and boy did Oxford get in trouble when he knocked her up–is every bit as likely. In the sense that there’s no evidence for her either.
Jim makes a big deal of the Sonnets, arguing that they have a biographical component that works for Oxford and doesn’t work for Shakespeare. Sorry to say, but parsing the Sonnets for biographical info is a pretty fruitless exercise; there’s just nothing in the Sonnets that rises to the level of evidence for authorship. It can be legitimately ‘proved’ that whoever wrote the Sonnets was straight, gay, male, female, old, young, ugly and gorgeous. They’re poems. They’re works of fiction. They’re also really good. A few of Oxford’s poems have survived, and they’re not half bad. They’re also not Shakespeare.
And there is a biographical problem that eliminates Oxford entirely. We know when he died, in 1604. Macbeth was first performed in 1606, and makes specific repeated reference to the Gunpowder plot of 1605. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth, and Oxford couldn’t have. So there’s that.
You’ll hear stuff like “the plays are full of politics–they had to have been written by a politician.” Piffle. The Inns of Court was where government types hung out, and it was across the river from Southwark. How much could an enterprising playwright learn just hanging out in pubs? Plus, most of the politics he just got from Holinshed’s Chronicles. The first big book of British history, and a huge bestseller–it was Shakespeare’s favorite source.
Ultimately, though, I find the notion that Oxford had to have written the plays because a half-educated hick from Stratford couldn’t have repugnant. There’s a class thing going on there, an assumption that of course the author of those magnificent plays had to have been an aristocrat. To me, though, if we read the plays and have to conclude any single thing about their authorship, it would have to be this: they were written by an actor. They were, first and foremost, written by a man who spent his life working professionally in the theatre. They were not the product of an amateur, a dabbler, a dilettante playboy like our pal Eddie de Vere. They were constructed by a master craftsman, a man who knew how to build a character and sustain dramatic action, how to keep a story moving on-stage. They were written, in short, by William Shakespeare, professional actor, and also a glover’s son from Stratford.
Conspiracy theorists are ultimately unpersuadable. If you’re on the fence, though, remember this. Nobody, absolutely nobody has been studied more thoroughly than Shakespeare. The numbers of scholars who earned tenure by writing about Shakespeare has to number in the thousands. And the percentage of people who have spent their life studying Shakespeare and who believe Oxford wrote the plays is effectively zero. This isn’t just professional jealousy and prejudice. They believe the Stratford Shakespeare wrote the plays because that’s what all the evidence says. All of it.