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Updated: March 2, 2013 19:40 IST

Where there’s a Will

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Who pulled Shakespeare's strings?
Satwik Gade Who pulled Shakespeare's strings?

As Shakespeare turns 449 on April 23, it’s time to put some myths about his work to rest.

Since the 19th Century, readers have wondered how William Shakespeare, with his grammar school education and mercantile roots, could have written so knowledgeably and eloquently on subjects ranging from politics and law to medicine and falconry — and some have come to the drastic explanation that, in fact, he could not have. In the last decade alone, authorship speculation has gained considerable attention, thanks especially to the internet. Aside from the Shakespeare Fellowship, the Shakespeare Oxford Society, and several other smaller groups that dedicate themselves to establishing that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the poems and plays attributed to Shakespeare of Stratford, there also exists a bizarre online collective known as the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition that seeks to get signatures on a petition named “The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt,” which is aimed at establishing the field of Shakespeare’s authorship as an academic discipline by 2016, the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.

In the spirit of sheer democratic inquiry, none of this sounds unreasonable. But the authorship question is problematic in more ways than scholars might care to admit. The elitist notion that the son of a tradesman could not have produced Shakespeare’s canon is reductive and dangerously snobbish. It speaks of epistemic biases and a paranoid need to uncover patterns that validate an existing worldview and accommodate the impulse that skill and talent are somehow connected to birth and education. The candidates repeatedly proposed as the true authors of Shakespeare amply demonstrate these toffee-nosed sentiments, as if to ask: how could the son of a glove-maker lay claim to plays and poems of such extraordinary literary merit? No, it must be an upper-class nobleman and not a Stratford tradesman who wrote them.

The Earl of Oxford is the most popular claimant for obvious reasons — he was highly educated, tremendously aristocratic, upwardly mobile, and well-versed in courtly life. Oxford — who may or not have been Queen Elizabeth’s illegitimate son, illicit lover, or both — also may or may not have fathered the Earl of Southampton through his union with the Queen. The problem is further compounded by the fact that Southampton is most likely the subject of 126 of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets, which are addressed to a mysterious youth for whom, almost unambiguously, the poet has sexual feeling. If these theories are all to be believed, poor Oxford slept with his mother, who was also his sovereign, and fell in love with his son, who was also his half-brother. Oh, and somehow, in the midst of all this, he also managed to write the greatest collection of plays and poetry the English language has ever known.

The most obvious argument against Oxford should be that he died in 1604, before at least a dozen of Shakespeare’s plays were published. The Oxfordian claim is that his work was published posthumously. And yet, a play like Macbeth, which was clearly written in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, stands overwhelmingly as evidence to the contrary — unless Oxford was able to predict the future as well.

Oxford did circulate some of his own poetry during his lifetime, and the difference in literary quality is unmistakable. Oxford is barely even able to master the iambic pentameter in his poetry, whereas Shakespeare has written entire plays in the meter. Oxford’s love poems show, as the author C. S. Lewis notes, “a faint talent,” but are “for the most part undistinguished and verbose”. In fact, computer-based studies that analyse metrical and textual styles of the two authors have shown that the odds of Oxford having written Shakespeare are lower than the odds of getting hit by lightning.

The bigger question that Oxford’s poetry gives rise to is not one of quality, though. Sycophants in the Queen’s court frequently referred to Oxford’s talents as a poet and a playwright, praise which Oxford graciously accepted. What then was his reason for writing far greater poetry under the anonymity of a pseudonym? Oxfordians have claimed that playwriting was a low art form that the nobility could not be seen to have dabbled in but, even if that were true, would Oxford not have wished to put his name to poetry as path-breaking as Venus and Adonis or the sonnets? Yet, almost two centuries of spurious scholarship have argued the Oxfordian cause, receiving support from such intellectuals as Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, and Orson Welles. But then, Mark Twain also believed that Queen Elizabeth was a man in drag.

The second-most popular candidate for authorship is Sir Francis Bacon. The earliest-known Baconian was an American playwright named, as luck would have it, Delia Bacon, who declared that Shakespeare of Stratford was a “stupid, illiterate, third-rate play-actor” who could not possibly have produced work of such “superhuman genius”. Her reasons for believing in Shakespeare’s stupidity, illiteracy, and poor acting skills stem from little more than her knowledge of his birth and breeding. While Francis Bacon was certainly a learned and brilliant writer, he is best-known for his empirical arguments. Nowhere in his writing do Bacon’s words flow with the kaleidoscopic vision of Shakespeare’s sublime imaginings.

More importantly, Bacon was a busy man indeed. He served as both Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England and wrote innumerable essays. At no point during his hectic political and scientific career would he have had the time to write 37 plays, 154 sonnets, and two long poems. In the words of the scholar Richard Garnett, “Baconians talk as if Bacon had nothing to do but to write his play at his chambers and send it to his factotum, Shakespeare, at the other end of the town.”

Christopher Marlowe, another playwright born in the same year as Shakespeare, was murdered in a pub brawl in 1593, around the time when Shakespeare was becoming popular in London. Yet, the Marlovian theory of Shakespeare’s authorship holds that the young playwright, who also happened to work in espionage for the Crown, faked his own death, escaped to Europe, and continued to write under the pseudonym of Shakespeare, an actor whom he barely knew. Oddly enough, the Marlovian theory bears more literary merit than the Oxfordian or the Baconian theories; it is only Marlowe who displays the sort of skill that is comparable to Shakespeare’s. But even here, snobbery persists. The Marlovian theory is generally given less attention than the other two — perhaps because he was the son of a Canterbury shoemaker.

One thing Marlowe, Oxford, and Bacon have in common is that they studied at Cambridge. Oxbridge condescension has persisted since Shakespeare’s days. The playwright Robert Greene wrote a pamphlet called Greene’s Groats: Worth of Wit, which refers to Shakespeare as “an upstart crow”. Greene’s fury at Shakespeare seems to be based on nothing more than the fact that Shakespeare went neither to Oxford nor to Cambridge. At a time when the London intellectual elite were dominated by a group called the University Wits (a group of seven playwrights including Marlowe and Greene, all of whom had attended Oxbridge and were proud of it), Shakespeare took the theatre world by a veritable storm without the qualifications of an upper-class birth or an Oxbridge education. It was the sort of success that confounded his contemporaries — and continues to confound us. To respond to this phenomenon with doubt rather than admiration is both pompous and restrictive.

In Anonymous, a 2011 film that posited the Oxfordian theory with enough conviction for its producers (Sony Pictures) to distribute lesson plans in high schools and universities to broadcast the “truth” about the authorship of Shakespeare’s canon, the snobbery is even greater: young William of Stratford, who takes credit for Oxford’s work, is portrayed as an idiotic, money-grubbing, whoring drunkard, barely capable of stringing sentences together, almost as if to say that anyone without the pedigree of Oxford’s lineage, education, and wealth is not merely incapable of intellectual or artistic expression, but must also be a crass, unrefined boor. The film is a well-made romp through Elizabethan England, but can only be considered alternative history; in fact, any student of history or literature should easily be able to point out factual errors and logistical inconsistencies in almost every scene.

We of the gilded Dan Brown age are lovers of conspiracy theories. But the fact remains that at least two-thirds of Shakespeare’s work carries his name from first publication and almost all of the plays carry the name of his theatre company. The earliest known compilation of his plays (The First Folio) carries his name and a picture of him. Several of his contemporaries refer to Shakespeare of Stratford as one of the greatest writers of the age, including Ben Jonson who was generally reluctant to offer praise of any kind to anyone. Why all the actors, writers, and theatre-lovers of an entire era would go out of their way to hide Oxford’s identity as the true author of Shakespeare even after his death is anybody’s guess. Did the Elizabethans construct this elaborate hoax to simply have a good laugh at future generations? It seems an unlikely scheme.

That the Oxfordian theory has persisted in careless defiance of any semblance of logic or reason is testimony to the feudal conception that the accomplishments of the petite bourgeoisie are to be treated with contempt and suspicion, that any middle-class aspiration to culture is anarchical and, therefore, a case of reactionary populism. But what great losses the world would suffer if we were to ignore the contributions of individuals without formal training or nobility of birth.

Over the years, the list of candidates for authorship has grown to read like a who’s who of Elizabethan England: the Earls of Derby, Essex, Pembroke, Southampton, and Salisbury; playwrights including Cervantes, Middleton, Fletcher, and Greene; and several women, notably Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife) and Queen Elizabeth. The list is laughable. What causes concern is the need to theorise on alternate authorship of the works of a writer who has arguably contributed more to world literature than any other writer ever has or probably ever will.

Then again, you only think I wrote this piece. For all you know, it might have been the Queen of England.

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Sir, The article on Shakespeare: "Where there's a Will" in Literary
Review dated 03/03/2013 by Ms. Manasi Subramaniam is quite
interesting. It is again "that time of year thou mayst in me behold",
to write articles on the Bard. However the issues are widely discussed
already on several platforms- multi-media and academic fora. The
writer has not acknowledged the most recent Book (2010) "Contested
Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare " by James Shapiro (Simon&Schuster) nor
the -review of the same by Stanley Wells("Plotting Against the
Stratford Man ") in New York Review of Books dated 27/05/2010 .The
arguments are discussed in-depth by Mr.Wells in his 4000+ word review
According to Shapiro,authorship claims attributed to Oxford and Bacon
are of only 19 C. origin madly advanced by the namesake Delia Bacon
"who ended up in a lunatic asylum.". The controversy surrounding the
authorship will never die down as long as all the Original plays
(37)and Sonnets (154) are not read by the so called internet-
scholars. A visit to the Shakespeare's Birth place at Stratford upon
Avon, will demystify many disbeliefs.The Birth Place Trust-Society has
already challenged any scholar to give concrete proof either inside
the Works of Shakespeare or any other historical documents to deny the
authorship. Well, nobody dares to spear Shakespeare ("Spearing the
Wild Blue Boar: Shakespeare vs. Oxford: The Authorship Question by
Frederick Keller:") Let controversies rage,yet 'age cannot wither nor
custom stale his infinite variety'.The galaxy of Star characters
continue to shine on the Globe's firmament' forever and a day'.

from:  mynampati raghava rao
Posted on: Mar 4, 2013 at 21:37 IST

Thank you for this thoughtful essay. I have looked into this controversy a bit and I don't think it's so easy to say that doubters WANT an aristocrat to be the author of the Shakespeare cannon. It seems that they are following the evidence. Now, we may disagree with their evidence, but there seems to be some logic to it, at least logic based on persistent detective work. But I think it's dangerous for us believers to dismiss their cause so casually as one of classicism. There are many Shakespeare scholars who also have questioned the evidence leading to the Stratford man. Mind you, they haven't questioned WHO wrote the plays and poems, just the fact that there is very little evidence in William's life to suppport the life so eloquently portrayed in the plays and poems. So, that is the premise. What are we to do with so little evidence? I am not going to resort to simple dismissive verbal assaults when confronted with this. Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.

from:  Chris Kaiser
Posted on: Mar 4, 2013 at 19:00 IST

Even assuming there is some merit, however slight, in the 'It couldn't have been that silly Billy' theories, if a man has managed to convince the bulk of the world for almost 400 years about his literary merit, I think he deserves to rest in peace!

Nice piece, Manasi Subramaniam.

from:  P.G.Bhaskar
Posted on: Mar 4, 2013 at 17:43 IST

Shakespearen writings are like a scripture in literature.The ancient sages and writers had no academic distinction or faculty fellowships.what emanate from a writer is his thoughts,emotions,intuitions ,nature and charecter.Most of the contents in shakespear is scriptural in nature while some of the emotions are so powerfully charged with thoughts and emotions and very modern and eternal.Leave his ancestry and anticedence,aristocray

from:  abraham kandankery
Posted on: Mar 4, 2013 at 11:12 IST

Accept the shakespeare as is.Many of the historical statements are either legends or the myths.Shakespeare is almost like a scripture;murder,villain,soothsaying,witch,prophesy,greed,revenge,hatred,jeaousy,in essence all the scriptural theme and wisdom.There is substantial repetition from one work to another.It is difficult to prove aristocracy or nobility beyond 300 years except in very rare situations even in a country like India which has solid proof Alexander the great invaded India during B.C
Nonethless, there is tremendous political and scriptural wisdom in shakespeare which is true even todays' world and politics.

from:  Abraham kandankery
Posted on: Mar 4, 2013 at 07:58 IST

Now i think of Our Kamban,Valmihi, kalidasan, Alwars and Nayanmars
who lived before 1000 years
Where did they come from and in what school or university they
studied? What background they have?

from:  Venkataraman Narayanan
Posted on: Mar 3, 2013 at 16:49 IST

You ridicule without challenging any of the research undertaken by Authorship Doubters. You need to state the Doubters' answers to the Birthplace Trust's 60 points and explain any perceived errors, scholarly point by scholarly point. It's easy to rubbish other people's arguments but if you would like to behave more academically, instead of apparently being motivated by contempt, you'll have to answer each of the 60 statements with which Doubters answer the Birthplace Trust's 60 points.

You also behave as if the points you make in your article can be proved but they are without evidence. A date of publication is not evidence of date of composition. This is a complex subject and the 60 Minutes document is 75 pages long. You will need to state the documentary evidence for your allegations. How do you know that the portrait in the First Folio 'looked like him'? It's merely what's available. You make constant unprovable emotive statements. Lack of proof for Shaksper's education is a fact.

from:  Malcolm Blackmoor
Posted on: Mar 3, 2013 at 07:21 IST

Thanks very much for getting the word out about the SHakespeare Authorship Coalition
website, where those who are interested may learn why almost everything you say regarding
the Shakespeare authorship inquiry is incorrect.

from:  Linda Theil
Posted on: Mar 3, 2013 at 06:55 IST

Very interesting. Extensive statistical and linguistic techniques now
exist for determination of authorship. They enlighten not only issues of
authorship but also advance the statistical science. A clear example is
the analysis of the disputed authorship of some Federalist Papers. THe
issues in this case are more complex.

from:  Govind Mudholkar
Posted on: Mar 3, 2013 at 06:26 IST

Most poets of today and yesterday in Tamil cannot boast of heritage or education. They come from all walks of life and wrote poems as they continued to struggle to live. It doesn't matter who wrote a particular piece so long as it is enjoyable. Of course the authorship adds to the pep.

from:  ssrajagopalan
Posted on: Mar 3, 2013 at 05:14 IST

For over a decade, I taught a course on the Shakespeare authorship question at a major university in the United States. The students spent an entire semester studying the evidence and making their own determinations about authorship. In the end, 99% of the students concluded that Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, is more likely to have written the plays of Shakespeare than William of Stratford. The students also examined how a new understanding of the author changes the way we interpret the works of Shakespeare in the theatre and in the classroom. As the instructor, I tried to present the information objectively and let the students draw their own conclusions. In the article by Manasi Subramaniam, it is painfully apparent that the journalist has not canvassed the literature or studied the evidence about the Earl of Oxford. Manasi relies on generalizations such as “elitist,” “spurious,” and “careless,” without addressing any of the evidence to support his claims.

from:  James Norwood
Posted on: Mar 3, 2013 at 00:06 IST

As the saying goes, there must be some mistake. You did fine for a few paragraphs before sinking into a seething diatribe against the injustices of the elitist, foolish, and arrogantly ignorant.

Don't know these straw-men in my neighborhood. At the risk of protesting too much by being factual, scholars who propound their conviction that the Earl of Oxford was the frustrated author of what became the Shakespeare canon have never argued along class lines. That is the instant, insulted reaction by you and many another uninformed defender of the tradition.

Please inform yourself/lves by actually reading a representative monograph by an Oxfordian scholar. Shakespeare Suppressed by Katherine Chiljan will do fine. You will never again scorn the effort to identify the true author of these arresting works. You apparently have imbibed myth and called it unimpeachable truth. It is not entirely your fault, but we are grown-ups now.

William Ray

from:  William Ray
Posted on: Mar 2, 2013 at 23:25 IST

There is no evidence that William of Stratford could have acquired the vast educational, linguistic or cultural background necessary to write the masterpieces of English literature ascribed to Shakespeare. His plays reveal knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.

He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.

Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, paint a portrait of the artist as a much older man. The scholarly consensus today holds that most of the Sonnets were written in the 1590s, when Shakspere of Stratford was in his late 20s to late 30s, a relatively youthful age even in Elizabethan times.

His parents, siblings, and daughters were illiterate

from:  Howard Schumann
Posted on: Mar 2, 2013 at 21:08 IST

The issue is not snobbery and never has been. It is about evidence. The traditional Stratfordian theory presents us with a major disconnect between the life of the presumed author and his creative output. It’s almost as if we have a disembodied body of works with little or no relationship to the author.

Several points should be considered.

In twenty years of supposedly living in London, not a single letter exists from or to William Shakespeare. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him — it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.

Shakespeare’s point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.

from:  Howard Schumann
Posted on: Mar 2, 2013 at 21:02 IST

Actually Shakespeare not being an Oxbridge man was an advantage. University education in his time was hidebound and reactionary and steeped in the classics and ignored important subjects like history and the sciences.

His grammar school education was rigorous and taught more than what a modersn classics student is required to know. So by any standards Shakespeare was a highly educated man who escaped the hidebound curriculum of Oxbridge. This allowed him aslo teach himself whatever was useful.

Also, the amount of contemporary material on Shakespeare is surprisingly large for a man of his station in his time which leave no doubt about the author's name. This has led some critics to argue that the uneducated Shakespeare was not the author, and the plays were written by a highly educated man whose name also happened to be William Shakespeare. Like most conspiracy theories it can neither be proved nor disproved.

from:  N.S. Rajaram
Posted on: Mar 2, 2013 at 20:57 IST

Well written. Especially this sentence "... what great losses the world would suffer if we were to ignore the contributions of individuals without formal training or nobility of birth."

In contemporary times Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Dhirubhai Ambani, M.F.Hussain, Sean Parker, Mark Zuckerberg and many many more fit this description.

I hope the youth in India stops buying into the BS peddled by the older generations and do work that they truly love. Discovering that has nothing to do with either who you are born to or where you are formally trained at. When you discover and dedicate yourselves to it, achievements of Shakespearean scale will be the rule rather than the exception.

from:  Krishna Nadella
Posted on: Mar 2, 2013 at 20:48 IST
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