Recent developments in the Shakespeare Authorship Question
If William Shakespeare wrote the works ascribed to him, why does each year bring fresh doubts over his authorship? Surveying recent developments in the controversy over the true identity of literature’s most celebrated figure about whom so little is known.
A revised and expanded version of an article first published in Fortean Times, no. 331. All images at Stratford-Upon-Avon and St. Albans by the author.
Scratch the surface of the life of William Shakespeare, an actor of supporting roles who became the world’s most revered writer long after his lifetime, and you will soon find a peculiarly fortean conflict. Known as the Shakespeare Authorship Question (SAQ), the origins of this two hundred year-old conflict lie in the great voids between what is known about Shakespeare and the swirl of ambiguities and coincidences which, the iconoclastic commanders in this war maintain, give their claimants the right to his mantle. Fought between the covers of books and online where it quietly rages with an artillery of documents, curious images, and scraps of folklore, each week brings a further escalation of the conflict as fresh recruits join the ranks of Anti-Stratfordians, an army divided into a multitude of factions rallying behind suspects of wildly varying circumstantial plausibility.
John Michell rued how serious study into alternative claimants to Shakespeare’s authorship was being suppressed by orthodox Stratfordians maintaining there is no question to answer, in what is now the classic overview of the authorship question.[1.] Yet only a decade or so after Michell’s study, Brunel University is offering a Masters degree in Shakespeare Authorship Studies; a clear indication of how far the ground has shifted since Michell’s lament towards the credo most stringently upheld by the Stratfordians and their central bastion, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, whose chairman, Stanley Wells is, in the words of course architect Dr. William Leahy, “very much anti the whole idea” of the world’s first academic course on the authorship question.[2.] Leahy himself was a confirmed Stratfordian[3.]: “[I] was fairly dismissive, quite sarcastic, the usual kind of thing from Shakespearean academics when talking about the authorship question.”[4.] But further research realigned him to a position that recognised the cultural phenomenon of the SAQ’s existence, and the manifold ambiguities, coincidences (and controversy) lurking under its surface. A more fortean position, in other words.
After months of indoctrinating myself with Anti-Stratfordian theories, a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon was due, even though it felt akin to an infidel infiltrating Mecca.
The Chandos portrait ascribed as an image of Wiliam Shakespeare
William Shakespeare's effigy at Holy Trinity church, Stratford-Upon-Avon
The church of Holy Trinity, where ‘Gulielmus Shakspere’ was christened in 1564 and whose body traditionally rests in the chancel under an unnamed, doggerel-inscribed slab next to members of his family, is a central battleground in the SAQ. Apart from the portrait in the First Folio (see below), the only other possibly authentic likeness of Shakespeare is his effigy which overlooks his tomb. Correspondences in The Times Literary Supplement on a Shakespeare exhibition and conference at the National Portrait Gallery in 2006 quickly turned to skeptical matters regarding this effigy out of the discrepancies between the present restored monument and the first drawing of it made by Sir William Dugdale in 1653. The issue turned on a woolsack and the resemblance, or lack of – between Dugdale’s Shakespeare, a gaunt and dour man with one, maybe two, empty hands, and the present portly “self satisfied pork butcher” with the “subtle expression of a bladder” (in Mark Twain’s view) holding a quill pen and paper. Even allowing for Dugdale as a poor caricaturist working in bad light (as Stratfordian scholar Jonathan Bate maintains), could the empty hands of his Shakespeare rest on a woolsack because the monument originally represented his father who was a dealer in wool, as Richard Kennedy argues?[5.] For Jonathan Bate (who also suggests the pen was filched by souvenir hunters prior to Dugdale) allowance for the “woolsack myth” is a dangerous bonus for Anti-Stratfordians. Peter Beal [6.] entered the fray in tacit support of the ‘Woolsack Man’ theory, warning against accepting the word of old antiquarians as to the accuracy of their works, and having the final word by concluding “This and other questions raised by the Dugdale drawing can only be answered if it is taken seriously by scholars and not consigned indignantly to the waste bin because it does not tally with cherished conceptions.” A fascinating skirmish that did nothing to extinguish sceptical questions. Was the monument altered to bolster the myth of Shakespeare the writer, or was Dugdale simply a slipshod portraitist?
The lines on the tablet below the bust (image below) have long been a source of interest for cryptologists with its apparent challenge to the reader to discover the name of the person whom “envious death” has placed within the monument.[8.] Peter Dawkins is one of the latest researchers to find in these lines a simple cypher for ‘Fra Bacon’, ie. Sir Francis Bacon, the Rosicrucian head (along with his brother Anthony) of a group dedicated to “some great aim” along Hermetic/Cabbalistic lines, an immense project of knowledge classification known as The Great Instauration.[9.] Fellow Baconist, Barry Clarke, has also developed the theory of Shakespeare’s canon as a subset of Bacon’s masterplan along a slightly different tack.[10.] “Bacon’s sole aim,” he told me, “was to revise the entire teaching of Aristotle in his Great Instauration project, which included scientific, moral and political philosophy. It was a vast intellectual project. He stated ‘so after my death I may yet perhaps, through the kindling of this new light in the darkness of philosophy, be the means of making this age famous to posterity’, which suggests to me that he worked alone.” My worries that Bacon had enough on his plate as a philosopher, statesman, lawyer and scientist to have dashed off the works of Shakespeare as well is no problem for Clarke: “It is a myth that Bacon had little free time... In fact, he was so under-employed that at one point he was arrested for debt. His leisure time diminished in 1607 with his appointment as Solicitor General and vanished in 1613 when he became Attorney General which is when the Shakespeare output ceased. [Like Mozart, Einstein, Newton] the creative process was one of self-actualization – it was intensely personal.”[11.] Clarke agrees with my suggestion that the cryptographic efforts of the early Baconians, with their cryptographic machinery and concealed texts, the sublime poetry reduced to a mere by-product of mind-bogglingly artful concealment, “undoubtedly undermined” the case for Bacon. This denotes how Baconian claims have moved on since, in surveying the history of Baconism to his time, John Michell observed how “The Baconian cult as its most luxuriant is an awesome and awful thing... It is a grand vision, and Bacon’s perspective was also grand. It is easy to become immersed in Baconism.”[12.] The luxuriance of Bacon’s candidacy is now defined, not just by cryptography, but also by esoterica and how far deep into these matters any prospective champion of his authorship will dare to look.
The memorial plaque on Shakespeare's funerary monument at Holy Trinity church.
The first published image of the monument in Dugdale's Antiquities of Warwickshire (1656)
Dugdale's sketch, c.1649, used for the engraving by Wenceslaus Hollar (left)
Sir William Dugdale (1605-1686)
One who has dared is Petter Amundsen who began to assemble his Baconian theory,[13.] eight years ago, culminating in a documentary series for Norwegian television in 2009. While not yet available in English, Amundsen was kind enough to distill it for me: “I believe I can prove there are Rosicrucian signatures in the First Folio, and that this book and the 1609 Sonnets describe a road map leading to the Rosicrucian vault,” (located on Oak Island, Nova Scotia, the ‘Money Pit’ notorious for the numerous attempts to excavate its supposed secrets.) “This vault has the lamp of the Temple (similar description as the Menorah in Zohar) and manuscripts, including the Shakespearean. Of course this is hard to believe, but many do when they see what I can produce of [sic] evidence. I believe Shakespearean drama and poetry is basically a product created by two persons: Sir Francis Bacon and Sir Henry Neville, hence their names on the Northumberland manuscript. There are of course other reasons why I believe this.”[14.]
The manuscript in question has long been a talisman for many a Stratfordian sceptic. Unearthed in the library of Northumberland House in 1867, this collection of Bacon’s writings has a contents sheet that includes the scribbled names of Shakespeare (in various spellings), Bacon and Sir Henry Neville’s names, titles of Shakespeare plays, and a shortened version of the longest word in Shakespeare’s immense vocabulary: Honorificabiletunine, 'the state of being able to achieve honours'. This genuine Elizabethan document precedes the first appearance of Shakespeare’s name in print, and indicates that Bacon (or Neville) owned copies of Shakespeare’s history plays, apparently in manuscript.[15.] What was he doing with them? Consider also the more recent enigma of the Elizabethan mural discovered in a St. Albans coach house that shows a scene from the allegory of Venus and Adonis.[16.] This mural has symbolic links with Rosicrucianism, newly arrived from the continent via France or Germany, and apparently even includes a sketch of Sir Francis Bacon’s nearby house, Old Gorhambury (see detail image in the slideshow). Is it coincidence that this is also the subject of Shakespeare’s first printed poem? It is just one of many curious anomalies Stratfordians would prefer not to address.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Sir Henry Neville (1564-1615)
Onto literature’s most sacred site, Shakespeare’s birthplace, where visitors are first led on a darkened walkthrough of projections and spotlit relics. After being shown a splendid Elizabethan gold signet ring bearing the initials ‘W.S.’ found in Holy Trinity churchyard (nice coincidence), we shuffle into a room where a veiled glimpse of a school desk at which the young Shakespeare might have learned his "small Latine and lesse Greeke" is caught. The theatricality invokes sacredness and reverence, reassuring and stirring. When cued spotlights light a copy of the First Folio, the first collection of Shakespeare’s works, several people, myself included, surge towards it to view up close the iconic engraving by Martin Droeshout.[17.] In 2010 John M. Rollett subjected the peculiarities of Shakespeare’s dress in this image to a forensic scrutiny, rejecting orthodox assertions that Droeshout was incompetent, arguing that the errors of symmetry in the depiction of the doublet and collar “make it difficult to resist the interpretation that the person being depicted is being subtly and surreptitiously mocked”, indications of “a deliberate agenda of some kind.”[18.] Quite what, he does not say.
And this is to say nothing of the facial anomalies: two left eyes, lopsided hair, and an outsize head. Why are there no allegorical figures surrounding the author, in accordance with tradition? How could this bizarre portrait have passed muster for publishers of one of the most expensive books ever produced to that time in England when books where costlier than furniture? Mike Webb, who recently achieved the rare distinction of having directed every one of Shakespeare’s plays[19.] gave me the explanation of a steadfast Stratfordian: “To me, it is simply the work of a very inexperienced engraver, probably “cheap” (as in they didn't have much money to pay an experienced or more famous engraver. And I believe it plausible that the folks that knew Shakespeare probably didn’t like the first engraved image because it didn’t look like Shakespeare to them, so they insisted on some changes and since we are not dealing with a digital ‘Photoshop-able’ image, that those changes are in the engraving that was published.”[20.]
The Venus and Adonis mural at the White Hart public house in St. Albans, Hertfordshire
For Charles Beauclerk, Earl of Burford, these anomalies are not errors, they are allegorical symbolism, setting the stage for an actor who became the front man for the true author: "Looked at as a whole, the sitter is indeed presented in the guise of a Harlequin... a masked servant in patched costume, celebrated for his gluttony and slow-wittedness. Yet the collar and rich-looking doublet bespeak a man of social standing, reinforcing the impression that this is a dual figure. Far from bemoaning the artist’s “error,” one is inclined to praise the skill of his carefully elaborated design."[21.] Thus begins Beauclark’s account of the secret life of Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, a candidate who inspires more crypto-biographies than any other claimant. Beauclark is the latest (though not the first) to divulge that Oxford was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Thomas Seymour (1508-1549), and the subsequent father of her secret son raised as Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624), the ‘fair youth’ of the Sonnets. And if you recognise any of the potential issues raised by all this with themes in, say, the plays Hamlet or King Lear – dispossessed kingship, incest, alienation, concealment, playacting – this is because they are indeed autobiographical messages direct from the author’s own experience. It is a history of Elizabethan high intrigue as seen through the eyes of a veritable Aaron Spelling. Small wonder, then, that the forthcoming Hollywood movie, Anonymous (2011), written by John Orloff and directed by Roland Emmerich unfolds this same storyline.[22.]
These latest champions of the ‘Prince Tudor theory’ (which splits Oxfordians into two main camps) are dismissed by Mark Anderson who treads a more moderate line in his 2005 biography of Edward de Vere’s secret identity as Shakespeare,[23.] When I suggest to him that Anonymous might hinder the Oxfordian case, Anderson agrees this may be so, qualifying “In the sense that Anonymous will be bringing the name and identity of Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford, into public consciousness, that’s a good thing to an extent. I think Anonymous will be testing the proposition that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.(LAUGHS) It used to be the theory that the Earl of Southampton was the Earl of Oxford’s son who was not Queen Elizabeth’s son. But now it’s like, people are always wanting more or something. So now people are saying that both the Earl of Oxford AND Southampton are Queen Elizabeth’s sons. Whatever.”[24.]
The cryptic affair of Shakespeare's First Folio continues with Ben Jonson’s celebratory elegy in which Daryl Pinksen reads hints of a charade to get a blacklisted author published. When Jonson calls the author “A Moniment without a tomb” he clearly seems to be talking about a living person; odd when William Shakespeare had already been under the floor of Holy Trinity church for seven years. So who is Jonson referring to? In contrast to Oxfordian authors who amass heaps of circumstantial autobiographical evidence, Pinksen draws on his scientific training to take a more reductionist approach to the problem. Using the marked similarities between the work of Christopher Marlowe (who started his writing career first), and the earliest works of Shakespeare, Pinksen argues how orthodoxy’s acknowledgment of Marlowe’s influence on Shakespeare stops short of the full truth that the resemblance exists because the works were written by the same author. But since Marlowe is supposed to have been killed in an argument in 1593 at the age of twenty-nine, how was this possible? Pinksen’s leap of faith comes from the shady intelligence community Marlowe was spying for (making him powerful friends), and his activities as a freethinking atheist (making him powerful enemies), a combination resulting in forced exile and blacklisting, rather than the assassination many historians are willing to entertain. The discovery in 1925 of the coroner’s report of the ‘Deptford incident’, with its fishy account of the row that led to Marlowe’s fatal ‘accident’, has fuelled conspiracy readings. But Pinksen does not buy the murder explanation, finding it “unnecessarily complicated” when seen in context of the day’s events.[25.] Just a few days after Marlowe exits from the world stage Shakespeare’s first printed work, the poem Venus and Adonis, was published. Its relationship to Marlowe’s unpublished Hero and Leander forces scholars to conjecture that Shakespeare had access to Marlowe’s unpublished works. But what if the author was Marlowe?
Pinksen finds common ground with the Oxfordian tendency to highlight the theme of exile that runs through the canon. But the resemblance ends there. For him, the Oxfordian method of “strip-mining the plays for biographical linkages” is “futile”,[26.] preferring to point up the mirroring word-lengths used by Marlowe and Shakespeare (work started by another physicist, T.C. Mendhall, in 1897), while highlighting curiously disparaging references to Shakespeare in dramas.[27.] “The case for Marlowe is the only alternative which is based on scholarship,” he told me. “I've read hundreds of books on Shakespeare; Oxford, Bacon, and the rest of them hardly warrant a mention. Marlowe, on the other hand, is present as a "ghost" in every book one reads about Shakespeare's development as a writer. If there is a problem with the Shakespeare theory, then Marlowe (I would argue) is the only rational alternative for someone who values research and scholarship.”[28.]
The way forward for Pinksen lies in the ‘disconcerting’ influence of the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC - 17/18 AD) on Shakespeare, which for him means two things: “an intense belief in the power of poetry to provide literary immortality, and an awareness that the printed book is the vehicle to achieve that immortality." Yet the biographical Shakespeare, we are told, showed no interest in the printing and publication of his work. I find this disconnect between professed belief and lack of practice difficult to reconcile, not to mention the fact that this disconnect does not seem to bother scholars in the slightest.”[29.] A small window in Westminster Abbey commemorates the dates of Marlowe’s life as “1564-1593?”, the question mark acknowledging how others believe in the possibility of him surviving that strange night in Deptford.
Martin Drousehout's engraving of Shakespeare for Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies (the First Folio) of 1623.
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, (1550-1604)
Ben Jonson (1572-1637)
Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593)
The discovery in 1925 of the coroner’s report of the ‘Deptford incident’, with its fishy account of the row that led to Marlowe’s fatal ‘accident’, has fuelled conspiracy readings.
After months of indoctrinating myself with Anti-Stratfordian theories, a pilgrimage to Stratford-upon-Avon was due, though it felt akin to an infidel infiltrating Mecca.
The luxuriance of Bacon’s candidacy is now defined, not just by cryptography, but also by esoterica and how far deep into these matters any prospective champion of his authorship will dare to look.
Now that the questions are being given serious academic scrutiny under the guidance of Professor William Leahy there is the prospect of one day seeing some of the candidates unite under a single banner, since for Leahy the case for any one single author is too simplistic. Shakespeare’s articulacy, at least four times the average vocabulary, suggests to him ‘five or six’ highly educated writers, working with Shakespeare, buyer and broker of plays for the Globe theatre.
“My feeling is that he would write bits of those plays,” Leahy says. “He would build a skeleton and others would contribute, and over time it would be a kind of collaboration. But not in the sense where four people would sit around a table and work out a script. What I’m describing is a kind of untidy way of approaching this and this is not what people want. They want a – and I don’t mean this in a negative or a pejorative sense – they want a simple solution: one author who we can say is a genius who was can attribute all the plays and poems to. What I’m saying is, I think it’s a very complex and ambiguous reality and that is fine, we just have to accept that.”[34.]
This view chimed with my research, but also from having worked with actors and writers on developing material in backstage situations where, fired by excitement and pressure, egos dissolve and bleed together in the common goal of ‘nailing’ a line or a scene, giving rise to instances of collaboration that belie the clean distinctions of final credits. This is the crucible of dramatic creation, of badinage and up-against-it white heat that escapes a good many researchers on both sides of the argument, happy for their candidates to work in relative isolation. When two minds meet a third is created, and somewhere within the many conjunctions highlighted by Anti-Stratfordians, links perhaps too subtle, too layered to ever fully disentangle, is perhaps where the popular identity of ‘our ever-living poet’, lives. A figure simultaneously fictional and real, born of a company of voices, some of whose contributions are known to us, others forever lost.
The list of claimants is still growing. Robin Williams has revived the candidacy of Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke.[30.] Emilia Lanier (1569-1645), the first Englishwoman to become a published poet, has been promoted from the ‘Dark Lady’ attribution of several authors to the Bard himself by John Hudson.[31.] The occurrence of the name and motto on the curious Northumberland Manuscript of Sir Henry Neville (1562-1615) is the springboard for Brenda James’ cryptographically-paved journey into the secret literary life of this Falstaffian courtier and diplomat.[32.] In an echo of Calvin Hoffman’s excavation of Sir Thomas Walsingham’s tomb in 1956, Alan Saunders’ advocation of the 1st Baron Brooke, Fulke Greville’s (1554-1628) candidacy led to an endoscopic investigation of his tomb in 2010 in the anticipation of finding the Bard’s manuscripts. It didn’t.[33.]
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)
Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke (1554-1628)
Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke (1561-1621)
Fulke Greville, 1st Baron Brooke (1554-1628)
"They want a simple solution: one author who we can say is a genius who was can attribute all the plays and poems to. What I’m saying is, I think it’s a very complex and ambiguous reality and that is fine, we just have to accept that.”
1. John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Thames and Hudson, 1996. Highly recommended.
2. Interview with author, 1.12.10
3. One who believes Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works.
4. Interview 1.12.10
6. Of the Institute of English Studies.
8. STAY PASSENGER, WHY GOEST THOU BY SO FAST, / READ IF THOU CANST, WHOM ENVIOUS DEATH HATH PLAST, / WITHIN IN THIS MONUMENT SHAKSPEARE: WITH WHOME, / QUICK NATURE DIDE:WHOSE NAME DOTH DECK Y TOMBE, / FAR MORE, TEN COST: SIETH ALL Y HE HATH WRITT, / LEAVES LIVING ART, BUT PAGE, TO SERVE HIS WITT.
9. Peter Dawkins, The Shakespeare Enigma, Polair Publishing, 2004, pp.378-80
10. Barry R. Clarke, The Shakespeare Puzzle, Lulu.com, 2007. Available as a download from
11. Email correspondence, 27.11.2010
12. Michell, p.129. In the closing pages Michell appears to reveal a soft spot for Baconism.
13. Erlend Loe & Petter Amundsen, The Organ Player, Cappelen, 2006
14. Email correspondence 13.12.10. The theory of Oak island holding Shakespeare’s manuscripts goes back to Dr. Burrell F. Ruth in 1939. See William S. Crooker, Oak Island Gold, Nimbus, 1993, p.149
17. This was one of two widely-accepted life portraits of Shakespeare (along with the monument bust) until Stanley Wells of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust announced the ‘Cobbe portrait’ as a life-painting of Shakespeare in March 2009. See (guardian.co.uk).
18. John Rollet, 'Shakespeare’s Impossible Doublet' in Brief Chronicles Volume Ii (2010) 9. The National Portrait Gallery holds that Droeshout copied a lost image of Shakespeare’s head and shoulders, adding the doublet.
20. Email correspondence 21.10.2010. Since there were two Martin Droeshouts, a younger and an elder, the First Folio engraver’s identity is uncertain, but evidence found by June Schlueter in 2007 points to the younger.
21. Charles Beauclark, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, Grove Press, 2010, pxii
23. Mark Anderson, “Shakespeare” By Another Name, Gotham Books, 2005, and
24. Interview with author, 8.12.2010
25. Daryl Pinksen, Marlowe’s Ghost, iUniverse, 2008, pp.30-35
26. Leaving this approach to another Marlovian, Samuel Blumenfeld, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection, MacFarland, 2008
27. The strange appearance of William of Arden in As You Like It, and Sogliardo in Ben Jonson’s Every Man out of His Humour see Pinksen, pp.116-125, 182-189
28. Email correspondence 27.11.10
29. Email correspondence 27.11.10
30. Robin Williams, Sweet Swan of Avon, Peachpit Press, 2006
31. John Hudson, 'Amelia Bassano Lanier, A New Paradigm' in The Oxfordian Volume XI, 2008
32. Brenda James & William Rubinstein, The Truth Will Out, Pearson, 2005, and Henry Neville and the Shakespeare Code, Music for Strings, 2008
33. “Nothing of real interest was found, other than rubble, and some suggestion that the monument may have been opened on a previous occasion.” Email correspondence with Terry Babbage, Parish Administrator, 16.12.2010
34. Interview with author, 1.12.10
35. Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare, Picador, 1997, p.96
36. Michell, p.257
Jonathan Bate holds that Anti-Stratfordians are in thrall to a Romantic idea of authorship, “attempting to write an identity for themselves” vicariously through their candidates.[35.] Yet as John Michell also observed, “The Stratfordians are no less victims of their own beliefs than the Baconians or other dogmatists. They too are ‘theorists’.”[36.] In the face of such an immense task, the Anti-Stratfordian tradition of unmasking the ‘real’ Shakespeare by re-mythologizing his identity, placing one name above and to the exclusion of others in line with the Great Man theory of history, diminishes the undercurrents that a wider look at the question is apt to highlight, so much worth there is to found (as John Michell first pointed out.) Having done so we might wonder if Gulielmus Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon was the one who most easily moved between and drew together a combination of talents, concealed and exiled poets included, cannily drawing on and honing their contributions while evolving a role for himself as the guiding entrepreneur and ‘frontman’ of a canon, the full origins and purpose of which even he did not know. Indeed, did not care to know provided his chief ambition of becoming a wealthy gentleman stayed on course. Those seeking the writer's life and origins away from Stratford-Upon-Avon are often highly-intelligent people, yet is that quality precisely their flaw, seeking another kind of intellectual nourishment, a genre of narrative that Shakespeare did not produce: the detective story. One thinks of George's Orwell's observation that, "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them."
The vision of the Bard most undermined by any Anti-Stratfordian effort is surely the one that is doggedly upheld by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, where solitary Will scratches away in his humble lodging with nothing besides a few books, copious industry, and of course his godlike genius. The curriculum-approved tourist version created by Victorian entrepreneurs. A wider look at the controversy, however, may just yet reaffirm the Stratford man’s key role in the creation of this everlasting work, albeit in a reappraised sense that – barring some fantastic discovery – is never likely to prevail in the mythology of ‘William Shakespeare’.
The back garden at Shakespeare's birthplace
Most Stratfordians are happy to accept the attribution of the plays and poems to the name on the title pages of the first printed editions,[1.] while ignoring plays attributed to him by publishers that studies show he did not write, and leaving it at that. They have little choice. Apart from a couple of pages of a play tentatively thought to be in Shakespeare’s handwriting,[2.] no play manuscripts or drafts have ever been found, no poems, no diaries. Not even juvenilia. Just mature, sublime printed works from the word go. And this is just the beginning for dissenters, who use the issue of the yawning disconnect between the printed works bearing Shakespeare’s name and the historical facts of his life as an empty stage on which to strut their alternate claimants.
The paucity of evidence for Shakespeare having penned anything apart from his name is decidedly strange. No correspondence from him has emerged, and the only letter to him that has turned up was never sent. Of the sixty-odd documents listing him as an actor or for matters concerning tax, business, or legalities, none of them confirm him as a writer.[3.] In contrast, every other noted writer of his time has evidence of their writing activity in various forms.[4.] Noone in Stratford seems to have known he was a writer, and none of his relatives recouped on his theatre investments or tried to exploit his unpublished plays after his death.[5.] Apart from a couple of books of poetry at the Shakespeare Birthplace that are carefully framed as possibly belonging to the young William, none of his books have been found, nor even any trace of him having borrowed any. As for the missing manuscripts, eighty percent of the plays performed in London between 1564-1642 are lost, which puts their present absence into perspective. But why did Shakespeare omit them in his last will and testament along with any books?[6.] Despite being pirated by publishers in his lifetime, he never sought recompense for the loss this represented to his income, and yet he pursued borrowers of relatively small sums through the courts, and spent handsomely. It is as if Shakespeare cared nothing for his life’s work. Prospero breaking his staff?
The rest is silence
The case against Shakespeare issues from a lack of documentary evidence linking him to writing.
1. Akin to accepting from printed works alone that George Eliot was a man.
2. ’HAND D’ in the playscript of Sir Thomas More, c.1591-3.
4. Robin Williams, Sweet Swan of Avon, Peachpit Press, 2006, p10
5. Diana Price, Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of An Authorship Problem, Greenwood, 2001. pp.130-131.
6. Stratfordians contend they fell under “goodes, chattel”.
7. GOOD FREND FOR IESVS SAKE FORBEARE, / TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE. / BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES, / AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.
8. Cited in Williams, Sweet Swan of Avon, p.10
9. (The Times newspaper, behind paywall). It was already known that dramatist and anti-Catholic informer, Anthony Munday (1560?-1633), enrolled at the college too, possibly to spy. Interestingly, he subsequently collaborated with Shakespeare on Sir Thomas More.
Shakespeare’s silence extends to events normally eulogized by writers of the time. He wrote nothing to mark the deaths of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, the ascension of James I in 1604, the death of Henry, Prince of Wales in 1612. Nothing to celebrate the marriage of Princess Elizabeth in 1612, or the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales, in 1613. Not a word about them, nor directly about himself (unless you count the awful verse on his graveslab.)[7.]
Conversely, when Shakespeare died in 1616, there were no eulogies, no tributes, no record of his funeral. The author of The New Metamorphosis named over thirty poets and playwrights of the years 1600-1615, but not Shakespeare. Twenty four years after his death, Ben Jonson published a work in which he recommended the best English writers, omitting mention of Shakespeare. How could the “Soul of the Age” and the “Star of Poets”, as Jonson termed his old friend in the First Folio eulogies, have slipped his mind? Perhaps it was a final bitter slighting of the unlettered provincial whose talent had outshone all the university wits. Maybe there were other reasons. Diana Price noted that “If Shakespeare personally interacted with any of the opinion-setters, decision-makers, or influential historical personages of the time, the historical record is inexplicably and uncharacteristically silent.”[8.] Even the guide I spoke to at the Birthplace house finally admitted that there is “no copper-bottomed answer” to the mystery of the SAQ. The affair becomes like a theme out of a Shakespeare problem play, one where we are tasked with judging how far the absence of evidence infers the evidence of absence.
New evidence that might plug a sizable gap in Shakespeare’s life has recently come to light. A seminary for English catholic priests in Rome touted several cryptic signatures in its guestbooks as Shakespeare’s on the opening of an exhibition in December 2009. The most suggestive of these figures, “Gulielmus Clerkue Stratfordiensis” (William the Clerk of Stratford), arrived in 1589, slap bang in Shakespeare’s ‘lost years’ between 1585 when he left Stratford, and 1592 when he appeared in London.[9.] This placing of Shakespeare in Rome at the end of a pilgrimage during the height of anti-Catholic paranoia in England impinges on several issues relating to Shakespeare’s life and the authorship question. One Anti-Stratfordian bulwark is founded the overseas exploits of various claimants to explain a third of the plays’ foreign settings, contrasting with the (hitherto assumed) untraveled life of Shakspere of Stratford. It should be interesting to see how this new information will be dealt with by the various sides in the authorship controversy. 2016 UPDATE: Since this announcement was made, no other information has been forthcoming. Once again, silence prevails.
'Hand D' from Sir Thomas More, attributed as Shakespeare's handwriting
Hamlet and Claudius