Shakespeare and the Question of Authorship


The question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays and poems has always greatly appealed to me.  The mystery and discrepancies make the playwright satisfyingly legendary.  There is very little known about the man William Shakespeare.  He was an actor, and in his will he left his wife, Anne Hathaway his “second best bed.”  He had several children, including a son who died at the age of twelve. There are several copies of his signature, yet there are several different spellings and it cannot be determined whether they were actually signed by the same person. After a famous incident when William-Henry Ireland was found to have forged several Shakespeare signatures and documents.  Officials were duped by these documents because they fitted the description of Shakespeare they wanted to believe: a good subject, a loyal husband, a devout protestant, and a man of literary genius.  The only part we can claim for certain is that he/she/they was/were literary genius(es).

Many scholars believe that the man named William Shakespeare was actually illiterate, meaning he could not have written the plays he is known for. This idea surfaced because Shakespeare did not leave any books in his will.  In the Renaissance, it was not common to list all of ones possessions in your will, but to put them in a separate inventory.  This speculation of Shakespeare’s illiteracy cannot be proved true or false because this inventory has not been located.

There is actually an overwhelming amount of evidence that many, if not all, of Shakespeare’s plays were collaborative.  The diary of Philip Henslowe, the owner of the Rose Theater reveals that several plays attributed to Shakespeare were co-written by three or four other playwrights. The modern idea of Shakespeare as a divine and singular genius makes accepting this finding difficult.  Some scholars have delved so far into this perception that they no longer consider plays that have proven to be a collaborative effort to have anything to do with Shakespeare at all. They acknowledge that he possibly edited the plays, however they no longer include them in their canon of Shakespeare plays.

Several other unfortunate facts about Shakespeare have been discovered, including his Shylock-money dealings.  Shakespeare was a frequent and unforgiving moneylender.  He had his neighbor, John Addenbrooke arrested after failing to pay back six pounds.  This cutthroat behavior is also at odds with the persona of the writer Shakespeare.  For some, it is impossible to match the man Shakespeare’s financial behavior with the brilliant writer. There are theories that he hired a poet to write the plays with his name.  Others have less trouble connecting the two realizing that Shakespeare could have simply been writing for profit rather than the love of his art.  At this point the divide of Shakespeare the man and Shakespeare the poet and playwright is created.  Yes the man Shakespeare existed, but is he also the poet?

One of the more popular Shakespeare Authorship theories is that Francis Bacon wrote all of the works attributed to Shakespeare.  Bacon was a highly influential politician, philosopher, scientist, and author.  Unlike William Shakespeare who seemed likely to sue over mere trifles, Bacon’s philosophical writings seem consistent with the romantic and moralistic tones seen in Shakespeare’s plays.  Bacon was active in court life, and therefore had an intimate knowledge of the proceedings.  This served as an answer for those who questioned how Shakespeare could have possibly known anything about court life as a playwright and an actor.  Unfortunately, there is no physical evidence linking Bacon to the plays, however this theory has a wide following.  Bacon matches the image a Shakespeare reader would like to imagine: a true Renaissance man, politically involved, and moral.

Bacon supporters have searched tirelessly for some hard evidence, a clue that Bacon had left revealing himself as author. John Macy, the husband of Helen Keller’s teacher, believed he had found such proof. By underlining key words in the final scene of The Tempest, and taking the first letter of each word, he found the hidden signature: Francisco Bacono.  Whether this is merely a coincidence, or a real secret code it is impossible to tell. However this piece of so-called evidence has Bacon supporters confident they are right. The theory eventually collapsed.

Sigmund Freud had another theory.  He believed that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford was the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. There was certain biographical evidence that aligned the plays of Shakespeare with de Vere’s life: he stabbed an unarmed man as Hamlet stabs Polonius, his father died when he was young, and watched his mother remarry like Hamlet; He thought his wife was being unfaithful, like Othello.  He was also an aristocrat, so the sympathies toward royalty in the plays could be understood.

Unfortunately, evidence came to light that suggested some of Shakespeare’s plays were written after de Vere had died.  Some of de Vere’s most ardent supporters refused to accept defeat, declaring that the plays had been distributed posthumously. This enthusiasm could not save the theory and it was for the most part abandoned in the 1940s.  However this theory did not remain repressed. It has seen a great resurgence in recent years, greatly popularized by the Prince Tudor theory.  This hypothesis suggests that de Vere was actually Queen Elizabeth’s secret lover.  He supposedly impregnated her, making the virgin queen not so virginal.  The drama of this idea has popularized the Oxfordian theory, however it has also made it lose credibility in academia.

In 2001 Oxfordians celebrated discoveries of “hard evidence” that “proved” de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays. The discovery of an annotated Geneva Bible that belonged to Oxford highlights many biblical passages that are present in Shakespeare’s plays. A graphologist later stated that the annotations were not all written by the same person. Only 10% of Shakespeare’s biblical allusions are noted in the annotated bible. Books that Shakespeare eluded to frequently (Genesis, Job, and Revelation) are also unmarked.

Personally, I like to think someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays.  The idea of a Shylock like scrooge writing some of the most romantic plays of all time is frankly repugnant. The idea of de Vere or Bacon writing secretly is certainly more appealing, however there isn’t enough evidence to throw the scales against the man Shakespeare. Perhaps one day (hopefully in my lifetime) some definitive evidence will be unearthed.  Until then, we will have to read and wonder.

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