Shakespeare Authorship Debate Essay Example

The position advocated by the Oxfordians is that "Shakespeare" was a state secret, not a conspiracy. De Vere's intimate and conflicted relations with powerful persons such as William Cecil or even Queen Elizabeth I, often dramatized or even lampooned in the plays, meant that the plays were a political tinderbox.

But Elizabeth and Cecil also needed de Vere's dramatic talent to forge a sense of national consciousness through the history plays. At a critical turning point in the development of modern, Protestant England, "Shakespeare" loyally rewrote English history, but spiced it with his own blend of topical innuendo--innuendo which was sometimes regarded as offensive to public morality.

To avoid public scandal, the real name of the author could not be associated with the work. Loyal Elizabethan writers complied --at least nominally --with the ban on public mention of de Vere's identity, only hinting at what they knew through word-play.

Unfortunately, some persons committed to the orthodox view of authorship evade the huge accumulation of evidence supporting these conclusions with emotional red-herrings like the ad hominem use of the word "conspiracy."

John Micheli (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Doubts and Questions," in Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Thames and Hudson, 1996, pp. 67-112.

[In the following overview, Micheli outlines the authorship controversy, noting that while Shakespeare 's life is for the most part a mystery, there is no evidence against his claim as author. Micheli also illustrates the primary thrust of the anti-Stratfordian argument, that there exists a tremendous disparity between the life of Shakespeare and "the mind of the person" who authored the plays and poems.]

Shakspere as Candidate: The Pros, Cons and the Silences

The case for William Shakspere of Stratford has classical simplicity, giving it an initial advantage over the more complicated cases for all rival candidates. The name, with adapted spelling, appeared on the title-pages of plays and poems and, even though neither he nor anyone else in his lifetime clearly identified the actor with the author, no one openly challenged the attribution. Two of his poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton who never acknowledged the honour, but neither did he repudiate it. Shakspere's family and neighbours neither acclaimed nor disclaimed the great poet in their midst. His fellow actors and impresarios must have known whether or not he was the real author of the plays they were staging. They never expressed doubts about Shakspere's claim, and two of them, Heminge and Condell, certified his authorship of the plays in the First Folio.

The Folio of 1623 is one of the twin pillars of Stratfordian orthodoxy. The other is the poem inscribed below Shakspere's bust in Stratford's Holy Trinity church which was put there soon after his death, and records that Shakspere was the greatest writer of his age. No matter that the bust may have been changed or tampered with; the inscription beneath it is early and unequivocal.

Everyone concerned with the First Shakespeare Folio—the printers who saw the original texts, the two players who edited it, the two earls who received its dedication and the four poets, including Ben Jonson, who wrote verses for it—openly or tacitly accepted the declared authorship. Jonson addressed his poem. 'To the memory of my beloved, the Author. Mr William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us', and he was specific with his pun on the author's name ('shake a lance') and his 'Swan of Avon' epithet. Leonard Digges with his reference to Shakspere's Stratford monument plainly acknowledged his authorship of the Folio's contents.

The most powerful and compelling defence of William Shakspere is that none of the actors and theatre people who must have known him in London ever openly disputed his authorship of plays. This is a serious problem for the anti-Stratfordians, and their responses to it reveal a serious discrepancy in their argument. The true identity of Shakespeare, they say, was a close secret, known to very few people and thus easily maintained. Yet the conspiratorial group inevitably widens. Many cryptic references to the Authorship mystery by many contemporary writers are detected by the Heretics. If they are right, it would seem that almost every writer of the time was in on the secret, and in that case, if the secret was so widely known, it was really no secret at all. The idea of a concealed Shakespeare, someone other than the man from Stratford, is thus made ridiculous.

The orthodox teaching is that, although Shakspere's life is largely a mystery, there is no evidence worth looking at against his traditional claim to the Authorship. Shakspere's twin pillars stand intact. The Heretics may make mysteries, raise doubts and quibble as they please, but unless they can find proof for some other candidate, Shakespeare is respectably identified as Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon.

It is only when Stratfordians descend into the arena and argue the matter on the Heretics' grounds that perplexities arise. These are inevitably caused by the central paradox of the Authorship question, the discrepancy between the life of Shakspere and the mind of the person who wrote Shakespeare. On the one hand a bookless provincial trader, on the other a universal genius of refined education. How can the two possibly be matched?

This question splits the Stratfordians into two opposite camps, one of which includes the romantics and mystics. These make light of Shakspere's educational deficiencies. They follow Jonson's line, that though Shakspere was far from being a classical scholar, he could defeat the Romans at their own game and outdo all the ancient poets and philosophers. He was a born genius, a child of nature, and such people need no great stock of book learning to be capable of inspired writing, far exceeding anything that a mere pedant or scholar could produce. Shakspere's knowledge came to him directly through mystical channels.

The other, more modern approach to reconciling Shakspere with Shakespeare is by taking a high view of the education provided at the Stratford grammar school, while playing down the classical, legal and other types of rarefied knowledge found in the plays. The Stratford school syllabus has not survived, so if Shakspere went to that school, there is no telling what he might have learnt there. Nor is there any indication of where or what he might have studied during his the 'lost years' of his early manhood. This gap allows room for any amount of speculation, and Stratfordians can take advantage of it to explain any special knowledge attributed to the writer of Shakespeare. Aubrey claimed that Shakspere was once a country schoolmaster, and so he might have been; that would explain his familiarity with the classics. Then again, he could have worked in a lawyer's office, or served in a nobleman's household, studied medicine or theology, enlisted in the army, served in the navy, travelled in Italy. . . . Shakspere could hardly have done all those things, but it is not impossible that he did one or two of them in his early twenties, and with a certain amount of specialized knowledge combined with a quick ear for the characteristic speech of other social and professional types, he could perhaps have qualified himself as a versatile dramatist.

To most of the points raised by the Heretics the Stratfordians have managed to provide more or less reasonable answers. On other points they confess to being mystified. The status quo perpetuates their advantage. Unless their opponents can produce new, conclusive evidence, discrediting Shakspere or proving the claim of one or other rival candidate, Stratford has nothing to fear. Even in the barely imaginable event of such evidence coming to light, the Stratford cult is so gainfully established that Shakspere's home town would probably adapt itself to remaining the shrine of whoever was acclaimed as our National Poet.

The life of William Shakspere himself is the main reason why there is a Shakespeare authorship problem. A review of all the known, documented facts about his career gives a picture of a fairly successful local business man who dealt in land, property and rural commodities and...

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