WHO REALLY WROTE SHAKESPEARE’S PLAYS?

Here are some of the Shakespeare theories to which you may have already been exposed:

 1. Shakespeare didn't write the plays; they were written by Sir Francis Bacon.

This was a popular theory in the nineteenth century. It's a real shock to read a scholarly paper by a "Baconian" who spends half his time talking about the play in a serious way, and half his time trying to find the words "Francis Bacon" in cipher in the text.
2. Shakespeare didn't write the plays; they were written by Edward Lord Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
Vere is currently the most popular not-Shakespeare candidate. His adherents condescendingly refer to William S. as "the Stratford man." Like the Baconians, they find Vere's name cryptographically hidden in the plays. They persuaded several Supreme Court Justices to hear them argue that Vere was the author. The justices' verdict was that the Oxfordians had not proved their case. I myself have spent (that is, "lost") many hours discussing the authorship question with an Oxfordian and I may say that she was damnably annoying.
3. Queen Elizabeth wrote the plays.
 This is a variant of 1. above.
4. Christopher Marlowe wrote the plays.
Another variant of 1.
5. The plays were written by an illegitimate son of Queen Elizabeth who was secretly raised in the household of Sir Walter Raleigh.
This double-barreled theory was expounded to me over a vegetarian lunch by a young woman of heart-stopping charm who told me that she had read it in a book. I may not have all the details straight.
There are various different corollaries to these theories: that the true author hid behind Shakespeare's name to escape vulgar fame, or that Shakespeare got the credit by accident.  Note that often these theories propose that the plays were written by a Noble Lord or at the very least a knight, which makes one think there's some sort of anti-democratic sentiment at work. And none of the proponents seem to have heard of the philosophical principle called "Occam's Razor." (My favorite expression of Occam's Razor is that of John Punch: "Non sunt multiplicanda entia sine necessitate," which translates approximately as "Entities must not be multiplied without necessity," or "Why chase around looking for other Shakespeares when you've got a perfectly good one staring you in the face?")

Russ McDonald, in his excellent book, The Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, deals patiently with many of these theories and hardly ever lets his exasperation show. On the other hand the editors of the previous Folger series, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, lose their tempers completely and burst out with "Most anti-Shakespeareans are naïve and betray an obvious snobbery!" --with some other caustic remarks about the antis' ignorance of scholarship.

Shakespeare's achievements were so great that many people cannot stand the idea that he was an ordinary middle-class schoolboy, like themselves, only more clever.

I myself have basked, if that's the right word, in some of Shakespeare's reflected glory. My own interpretations of Shakespeare's plays, in which I use nothing but the text, in some circles have aroused terrible rage, scorn and contempt, sometimes to my complete amazement.

But let us return to our topic.

6. Shakespeare didn't write the plays!  They are the composite result of historical influences of his time, the errors of the typographers in the printing house, and the accretions of his editors. Thus Queen Elizabeth, by this theory, is one of the authors of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

This theory, which I am sure I have badly misrepresented, is a part of the critical school known as new historicist analysis, and it goes a long way to explaining why there are three hundred and fifty playwrights just as good as Shakespeare, all born at about the same time.
7. Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays. They show far too great a depth and breadth of knowledge to have been written by one man. They were written by a committee.
This theory was explained to me in a bar by a very charming student, who said that it was taught in an academic course she had taken. I doubt if the proponents of this theory had ever been involved in a collaboration. The student declined to give me her phone number.
Anyway we have an example of Shakespeare's collaboration with another living playwright: The Two Noble Kinsmen. For some reason it's not as popular as, say, Hamlet.
8. Shakespeare didn't really write the plays. He plagiarized them from Arab folktales. In fact, Shakespeare himself was an Arab.
This breathtaking assertion appeared one summer in Le Monde. Its advocate was subsequently assassinated.
9. FLASH! NEW THEORY JUST OUT! Shakespeare's plays were written by Sir Henry Neville! A recent book reduces Shakespeare to "little more than an avaricious money lender" (Manchester Evening News). (This theory is covered by the discussion at 5. above.)

Why does Shakespeare inspire such interesting and unusual theories? Why don't people write books proving that Stalin wrote Bulgakov's plays, or that Boniface VIII wrote Dante's poem?--but then I don't read Italian or Russian, and maybe people do write such treatises. In 1919 Pierre Louÿs proposed that Molière's plays were actually written by Pierre Corneille, so Shakespeare is not the only rascally playwright who took credit for somebody else's work. (Much of the discussion of Molière's literary thievery is in French; see Wikipedia's Paternité des œuvres de Molière.)

Dorothy Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey) rightly described all such pointless critical disputations as "trundling in the dismal joust." But I cannot resist offering a few final exhibits.
 
A. Shakespeare's sonnet 135 begins:
Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy Will,
And Will to boot, and Will in overplus.
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus . . .
--and the word "will" appears nine more times in the sonnet.

B. The first reference we have to Shakespeare as a playwright was made by the dying Robert Greene in 1592, who accused Shakespeare of ingratitude, calling him an "upstart crow," and paraphrased a line from Henry VI Part 3 in his attack. The actors in his company thought that Shakespeare was the author of the plays. Heminges and Condell, actors with Shakespeare in The King's Men, when they published the Folio edition of the plays, put Shakespeare's name on it, and Ben Jonson contributed a poem in the preface dedicated to Shakespeare. In his Timber, or Discoveries, a book of notes Jonson may not have intended to publish, and which in fact was not published until 1641, four years after Jonson's death, Jonson discusses Shakespeare's shortcomings as a craftsman and strengths as a person.

C. Norman Holland, who taught Shakespeare at M.I.T., began his course by announcing that we would study "the plays by Will Shakespeare, or some other playwright of that name."

Ultimately, why bother with this nonsense at all? Shakespeare, being dead, is oblivious to deconstruction and historical revision. But if we the living begin to accept conclusions that ignore a huge body of historical and scientific evidence, we rapidly approach a pernicious area. We might allow people to say with impunity that there was never a Holocaust, that Japanese-American citizens weren’t locked up in camps during World War II, that Thomas Jefferson didn’t believe in the separation of church and state, that global warming is a Liberal scam or that the United States never had slavery. George Orwell gave the problem its most precise expression in his novel 1984. He wrote in 1948, when Hitler and Fascism had only recently been vanquished, and Stalin's Communism was at full strength:

Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.
If that is granted, all else follows.

©  Deloss Brown 1999, 2005, 2010, 2013, 2014
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