The Shakespeare authorship “question,” answered

[begin parody]

Did Jonathan Swift really write Gulliver’s Travels? Sure, it says “by Jonathan Swift” right there on the spine, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that he lacked the life experience or learnedness we would expect from the creator of such a sophisticated work of fiction. For example, despite the novel’s elaborate descriptions of Japan and other locales far from Swift’s native Ireland, there’s no record of Swift having ever set foot in the Land of the Rising Sun. Moreover, what are we to make of the attribution to “Lemuel Gulliver” on the original title page? Who was this Gulliver and why did he have to keep his authorship hidden behind the allonym “Jonathan Swift”? His letter to his “Cousin Sympson” re: the 1735 edition also raises some troubling questions for proponents of the traditional Dubliner school that attributes the texts to Swift; the Nottinghamian school that recognizes Gulliver himself as the true author has no such issues and also accepts the harsh truth that no mere clergyman and pamphleteer like “Jonathan Swift” could produce these works of genius.

[end parody]

If you’ve made it this far, you’re probably confused. What I just ran through was a variant on the centuries-old “question” about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems, only applied to another major English-language author (Jonathan Swift). The case for doubting that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him is no stronger than the same one for Swift. It is only a “question” insofar as why anyone bothers to keep asking it.

Starting in the 1800s, a quintessential constituency of reactionaries – i.e., amateur historians who hated democracy, National Review columnists, and grad students who faked large portions of their dissertations – has tried in vain to prove that anyone other than Shakespeare himself wrote the literature unambiguously bearing his distinctive name. The original “real Shakespeare” was Sir Francis Bacon, who was followed over the years by Christopher Marlowe and, most prominently, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.

All anti-Shakespearean conspiracy theorists – the Baconians, the Marlovians, and the Oxfordians – have an impossible task in front of them:

  1. Demonstrating that the historical Shakespeare – a writer, actor, and theater shareholder documented in numerous interconnected contemporaneous records – did not write the Shakespearean canon.
  2. Demonstrating that their candidate did write it, despite all these candidates (except Marlowe) having no proven ability as literary writers or even as people interested in the theater.
  3. Explaining why the individual works aren’t explicitly credited by anyone to their favored candidate.

On point 1 alone, there is no reason to dispute the accepted attribution. Shakespeare had access to everything he needed to be a successful Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright, including a grammar school education that would have included background in Latin and history as well as a career as an actor in the troupe that performed his plays. The Shakespearean canon doesn’t exhibit any advanced technical knowledge that would have been inaccessible to Shakespeare, nullifying a persistent claim by anti-Shakespeareans. Like the other playwrights of the era, he was a middle-class striver who relied heavily on sources to write plays for money. His lifespan would have allowed him the opportunity to bridge the divide between the very different Elizabethan and Jacobean theaters and work with a wide variety of collaborators from Marlowe to John Fletcher. The evidence for his authorship is overwhelming. Seriously.  Take a look.

Point 2 is almost moot given the rock-solid point 1. Let’s look at it anyway for humor’s sake in regard to Oxford, the most popular alternative candidate. None of Shakespeare’s work is attributed to the Earl of Oxford. Oxford’s vast correspondence mentions no interest in theater or connection with any plays, let alone Shakespeare’s. His own poetry is in a dialect and in forms rarely – but usually never – used by Shakespeare, plus it’s no good. He died in 1604, before one-third of the canon was written; he would not have lived to see vital events such as the Gunpowder Plot that informed Macbeth, the Atlantic Hurricane that inspired a key source for The Tempest, or the rise of Fletcher, who wrote half of The Two Noble Kinsmen. While conspiracy theorists love to slander Shakespeare as an “unlettered wool and grain merchant,” there’s a strong case that Shakespeare was actually better educated than Oxford himself, who had merely honorary degrees, was dismissed by his tutors, and concerned himself extensively with the tin mining business. Oxfordians love to denigrate this caricature of “Shaksper” based on inconsistent spellings of his name, even though such variant spellings were routine across all classes and were used by their own candidate, who most frequently spelled his name “Oxenforde.” Oxfordianism is full of such projection.

Enough about Mr. Oxenforde. Regarding point 3, why would any of the plays be wrongly attributed to Shakespeare? There was no reason for aristocrats to keep their names hidden; Sir Thomas Sackville and others published under their own names.

The authorship “question” arose from an approach to literary criticism that doesn’t square with the nuances of Renaissance England: assuming that an author’s lived experience can be obviously extracted from his or her work. Writers from T.S. Eliot to John Keats have disputed this notion in one way or another, and it’s a poor fit for an era in which so much material was recycled. For instance: Hamlet, Long pointed to as some sort of autobiographical sketch of the various alternative candidates, is borrowed from many sources, although the nomenclature of “Hamlet” instead of “Amleth” is a distinctly Warwickshire (where Stratford-upon-Avon is located) phenomenon.

Anti-Shakespeareanism is also interconnected with anti-liberalism, and not just because the idea that a middle-class person cannot produce great art (but a rich person can) is odiously conservative. I mean, it’s no coincidence that Joseph Sobran was an Oxfordian conspiracy theorist. Eric Idle connected these dots in his own parody of the authorship “question” by quipping “What are liberals so afraid of?” The right answer is: nothing, since Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.



One response

  1. […] of Oxford, who often signed as “Oxenford(e)”) wrote the works of William Shakespeare (he did not). Grautlationes Valdineses contains insincere orations to noblemen – including Oxenforde and […]

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