Shaking spears at each other

Posted on 03/11/11 | in ideas, people

To question, or not to question. That is to be…

A recent conversation at LiveJournal prompted me to revisit the whole ‘authorship of Shakespeare’s works’ malarkey. As I commented there, I had always been firmly convinced that the Man from Stratford wrote the plays, and found things such as Baconian ciphers preposterous (in fact, I even found one of the typical ones worked just as well with bits of Waiting for Godot...) – but seeing Mark Rylance’s play ‘The BIG Secret Live—I am Shakespeare’ made me much more doubtful. Such is the power of drama, eh?

Anyway, I’ve spent some time reading the (often venemous) claims of the Stratfordians vs the Anti-Stratfordians, if only to get my head round the actual evidence and what seems to make most sense. I find it hard to find unbiased summaries of the arguments, so I’ll at least attempt something like that here, albeit very briefly. I recommend this page at shakespeareauthorship.com for the Stratfordian arguments (HT to Colonel Maxim) and this free, new PDF ebook from bloggingshakespeare.com (despite it’s occasionally ad hominem approach – “Anti-Shakespearians … hardly smile, perhaps a characteristic of an obsessive mind.”). For the other camp, the only major work that isn’t trying to advocate for a specific alternative author is Diane Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthox Biography – a useful page listing her 10 key criteria for what makes Shakespeare a biographical oddity also contains responses and counter-responses, which begin to sound like Woody Allen’s Gossage and Vardebedian. Another Anti-Stratfordian has posted a very useful chronology listing documents which reference ‘both’ the Man from Stratford and the Writer of the Works.

Aaaanyway. As far as I can see the main anti-Stratfordian points are:

  1. There is no  evidence of WS’s education (but of course absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, and at most one can simply say this supports neither camp’s argument)
  2. There is no direct literary correspondence with WS during his lifetime
  3. There is no direct evidence that WS was ever paid to write or that he received patronage (despite his requests of the Earl of Southampton)
  4. There are no extant manuscripts in WS’s hand (other than six shakey – hurr – instances of his signature, three on his will; and a much-argued-about Thomas More manuscript)
  5. There is no direct proof of his authorship during his lifetime.

The Anti-Stratfordians also like making a big deal over most legal (non-literary) documents spelling his name Shaxper, or Shackspeare, or various others without the middle ‘e’, while almost all of his works are attributed to ‘Shakespeare’ or ‘Shake-speare’ and similar variants. I don’t find this compelling either way as there are always counter-examples. I’m also ignoring the fact that WS’s will makes no mention of books or other literary matters, as this doesn’t prove anything one way or the other.

Back in the folds of academe, the Stratfordian case is supported thus:

  1. There was an actor called WS in the company that also performed the plays of ‘William Shakespeare’.
  2. The actor was also the WS from Stratford-upon-Avon. The chap from Stratford also had shares in the Globe Theatre.
  3. There is an abundance of evidence in the First Folio (from 1623, seven years after the death of the Stratford chap) that the playwright was the same man as the chap from the Midlands.

These three points are problems if you hold that:

  1. There could have been a conspiracy by actors and writers in the company to pretend the Stratford actor was also a gifted writer
  2. An interlineation in the Stratford man’s will giving money to two fellow actors was added later by someone else
  3. The only evidence during WS’s actual lifetime is circumstantial (true enough) and that a conspiracy (see 1) saw to it that the First Folio was a cover-up.

Mark Rylance, Derek Jacobi and others are behind a ‘Declaration of Reasonable Doubt’ about the author’s identity. I think in a very pedantic sense it is possible to say that it is possible to doubt that the man from Stratford wrote the plays, based on the admittedly unusually patchy documentary record. So they’re right there is ‘room for doubt’. But ‘how much room?’ is maybe the real issue.

Ultimately it all seems to boil down to two alternatives, and which one you find more palatable or least strange:

  1. A lack of direct evidence during the Stratford man’s lifetime for his authorship of the works
  2. A conspiracy of numerous writers and actors to maintain the cipher of ‘William Shakespeare’ as a cover for a person or persons unknown.

But as Charlie Brooker brilliantly expounded, all conspiracy theories rely on a triumph of paperwork over human reliability.

I’ve tried to be fair to both sides here, but I have to say I’m now back in the Midlands, as although (1) is at times troubling, and makes Shakespeare forever a man of mystery to some degree at least, (2) is just silly. I think. Probably.

4 Comments on “Shaking spears at each other”

  1. Jon Marsh Says:

    A,
    Great post. Not sure if you’ve seen it but, for the less academically-inclined (such as myself!), I think the case for the Stratfordian is well-argued in Bill Bryson’s ‘Shakespeare – The World as Stage’. He also examines whether or not any of the various portraits/statues are actually of the man himself.
    J

  2. hatmandu Says:

    Thanks Jon. Funnily enough you’re the 2nd person to recommend BB’s book to me lately – I suppose I should take a look!

  3. Matthew Says:

    Well, I’ve read a lot of the books about this (on both sides) and actually signed the declaration. As an aside, it’s always interesting that the only original plot in the Shakespeare canon is “The Tempest”. Oh, and Cardenio!

  4. Gareth Says:

    What I would say that while, perhaps, the lack of any great evidence either way might lead one to suggest that someone other than WS of Stratford *might* have written them, I think then to go nailing your colours to the mast of an author with even less evidence supporting is counter to the original argument that it couldn’t have been WS because of lack of evidence.

    One thing I would say, having now seen Anonymous, is that I now believe in the conspiracy theory that the film was funded by a cabal of Stratfordians intent on making the Oxford theory look like a nonsensical barrel of hogwash.

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