Who penned Shakespeare?

Last Updated: Friday, April 23, 2010 - 12:58

Akrita Reyar

The literary world is firmly divided into two blocks: the Stratfordians and the anti- Stratfordians, such is the vigour of the authorship debate surrounding William Shakespeare.

Undoubtedly the greatest playwright of English, his sonnets and plays are at the core of literature and his famous quotes are such common parlance that one scarcely realises that he is citing Shakespeare, thinking rather the lines to be a part of the general language.

Master of the craft that he was, his quill had the power to mould the usage of the tongue; it follows that his oeuvre would come under microscopic scrutiny. Perhaps, no other author has been so consistently challenged, through the four hundred years after his death, as the famous Bard.

The Debate

The reasons for the debate are self explanatory. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was a man of humble background and modest education. Could he then produce the quality of writing that is yet to be paralleled and upon subjects that concerned a class much above his own? Could a middle class man, belonging to the countryside, write descriptively of the transactions in the palaces of London or of the nobility in Italy?

Why was it that Shakespeare did not itemize any of his volumes in his will? It may be disputed that the will’s inventory part was lost; but then again, how was it that none of his contemporary writers paid him a tribute on his death? The record of Stratford Parish Registrar shows that a gentleman was interred on April 25, 1616, but even the epitaph was placed only many days later. Could a man of Shakespeare’s repute be sent off unsung?

These questions are calcified because of insufficient evidence to establish that the Stratford man was indeed ‘the Shakespeare’. Besides the basic logic that is innate in the questions, hubris has had a role to play in raising doubts about the origin of the writings. One could ask – is it that the privileged and the well-heeled, of the class-conscious England, were not able to swallow the eminence and superiority of a man much below their rank?

Shakespeare was not spared from the magnifying lens even in his lifetime. A rival dramatist, Robert Greene had, on his deathbed in 1592, decried the “upstart crow”, who was not an original but an impostor “beautified with our feathers”.

Later, there were many famous names from across the globe who threw down the gauntlet like Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin, Sigmund Freud and Orson Welles.

What did the contestants feel could have been the alternatives?

One, the Shakespeare of Stratford and the Shakespeare of London were two different people. Two, someone called William Shakespeare did work at The Globe; but rather than being the mainstay dramatist, he may have put his name to the plays being given to him. Or third, someone else was using the pseudonym Shakespeare.

Then again, why would a person not want to take credit for such sparkling prose?

Well, because a lot of the commentary in his plays was not necessarily politically correct. With the concept of ‘freedom of expression’ still unknown to the world, and particularly to the royalty, it may have been the obvious thing to do, if one didn’t want to befriend the guillotine. Using Shakespeare as a nom de plume may have been the ideal garb for a well known and upper class personality.

The Contenders and the Arguments

There are several names that have been recommended, time and again, as people who may have penned Shakespeare. The most prominent among them are Edward de Vere, Sir Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. There are a slew of others, but not such serious contenders like English aristocrat, writer, soldier and explorer Sir Walter Raleigh, Jacobean preacher and poet John Donne and even Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen.

The theory that Shakespeare was written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has probably the most believers. In-depth research into his life shows that many narratives and characters of the plays have a strong resemblance to this highly educated Earl, who was well positioned to create such illustrious canon. Not only does his style of writing resemble that of the Bard, he also had a moniker at court `Spear-shaker`.
Matthew Cossolotto, who was president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society in 2005-2009, feels the “jury is still out” on the authorship debate, which needs to be looked at with an “open mind”.

He said in an interview on the subject, “Hamlet is often cited by Oxfordians as being particularly autobiographical. The character of Polonius is widely regarded as a parody of Lord Burghley, Queen Elizabeth`s Lord Treasurer and most powerful adviser – and de Vere’s father-in-law. In the play, Hamlet and Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, have a stormy relationship. In reality, de Vere married Burghley’s daughter, Anne Cecil, and the couple had a very stormy relationship.”

“Also, a detail is revealed in Hamlet that has no bearing on the plot: Hamlet is captured by pirates on his return to Denmark. Interestingly, the very same thing happened to de Vere upon his return to England after his extended sojourn to the continent,” he added

A recently published book, ‘The Man Who Invented Shakespeare’, by Kurt Kreiler claims to have sufficient circumstantial proof to conclude the case in de Vere’s favour. In his 595-page tome, Kreiler says that the Earl graduated from Cambridge at the young age of 14, indicating a brilliant mind. He also mastered law and Italian, providing him fermented material to essay the Shakespearean plots.

“Edward De Vere also lived in the same area as Shakespeare and scrutiny of specific stanzas of poetry he wrote show their style was not copied anywhere else at the time, except in what we call Shakespearean poems,” Kreiler points out in an interview to a website dedicated to Shakespeare.

Another author, Jonathan Bond, who has written ‘The De Vere Code’, has devoted his time exploring the cryptic dedication to ‘WH’ at the beginning of the dramatist’s sonnets.

In an interview to a website he said, “The ciphers in the dedication reveal that Edward de Vere wrote the sonnets…The personal nature of the poems would no doubt discourage de Vere from trumpeting his authorship, especially as he knew they would probably end up in wider circulation at a later date. The dedication therefore operates as a thin veil, masking de Vere`s authorship from the incurious, but revealing all to anyone with the curiosity to apply some very elementary cryptological techniques.”

About whom the Earl may be alluding to as WH, Bond said in an interview, “It is probable that Mr. WH is William Herbert, later the 3rd Earl of Pembroke. However, although the final print version of the dedication was addressed to Herbert, I believe that the ciphers reveal that the original poems were presented to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, as a gift.”

Despite piles of evidence in de Vere’s favour, critics feel that it is still not a sealed case. For one, de Vere’s own writing was far inferior to Shakespeare’s; and two, he died in 1604, so could have had no possibility of knowing about 1605’s Gunpowder plot and 1609’s Sea Venture in Bermuda, which may have inspired Macbeth and The Tempest.

The people arguing Sir Francis Bacon’s case also feel that the world has been honouring the wrong man for centuries. Bacon is not just considered the only man with talent enough to have been Shakespeare, but also that he left sufficient codes or ciphers in texts and letters to establish him.

In a missive to Lord Bishop of Lincoln, he hints that he would not like to claim his pieces in his lifetime: “I find that the ancients (as Cicero, Demosthenes, Plinius Secundus, and others), have preserved both their orations and their epistles. In imitation of whom I have done the like to my own; which nevertheless I will not publish while I live. But I have been bold to bequeath them to your Lordship, and Mr. Chancellor of the Duchy. My speeches (perhaps) you will think fit to publish.”

In yet another epistle to English poet and lawyer, Sir John Davies, he refers himself indirectly as a concealed poet: “Briefly, I commend myself to your love and to the well using of my name, as well in repressing and answering for me, if there be any biting or nibbling at it in that place, as in impressing a good conceit and opinion of me, chiefly in the King (of whose favour I make myself comfortable assurance), as otherwise in that court. And not only so, but generally to perform to me all the good offices which the vivacity of your wit can suggest to your mind to be performed to one, in whose affection you have so great sympathy, and in whose fortune you have so great interest. So desiring you to be good to concealed poets, I continue ….”

Meanwhile, contender Christopher Marlowe not only shares his birth year with Shakespeare but is known to have had a positive flair for writing. However, he is supposed to have died around the time that the Bard started writing plays, making his case weak. However, anti-Stratfordians argue that Marlowe, being a government spy, may have actually disappeared to the Continent rather than have died, and posted dispatches from there.
Given the volume of investigation and data collected to discover the real author of Shakespearean works, it is unlikely that the deliberations that had begun during the playwright’s own lifetime will end any time soon.

If anything, speculations will only fuel curiosity even further and urge people to explore the identity of the man, who has had such a spectacular, extraordinary and lasting impact on English literature and language.

In his own words, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Which case exactly applies to Shakespeare…the answer lies buried deep in the entrails of the Holy Trinity Church, Stratford!

(William Shakespeare is believed to have been born and died on April 23, though there are no official accounts of the same. Records show he was baptized on April 26, 1564 and buried on April 25, 1616)



First Published: Friday, April 23, 2010 - 12:58

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