Thoughts on Shakespeare and Anonymous

Are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian? For a long time I’ve avoided the debate around Shakespeare’s ‘true identity’. Partly because, like many people, I enjoy the romantic idea of the enigmatic genius. And partly because any debate around authorship (I believed) could potentially take away from the focus on, and the enjoyment of, the words themselves.

I never believed Shakespeare was a brand name for a conglomerate of writers (as some do) because there is too much symmetry across the body of work: through literary, rhetorical and dramatic devices; imagery and figurative language (use of analogy, different types of irony, metaphor, puns and symbols, to name a few); types of humour employed; and a certain self-awareness or meta-aspect (in many of the plays). I learnt a lot of this during an undergrad unit called ‘Shakespeare on Film’, one of the best subjects I’ve ever undertaken, and via a great book by Toby Widdicombe called Simply Shakespeare. I’ve always been more interested in the words, the drama and the stories than the idea of the author himself.

Funnily enough, the film Anonymous, which still attributes all the Bard’s works to one man (though not the man from Stratford-upon-Avon), is mainly about the ‘power of words’, and is still, definitely a celebration of the plays. Anonymous dramatises a theory which is held—not just by crackpots, but in many intellectual and academic circles—that the plays were actually written by Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The film fleshes out this theory with the Earl’s desire to be a political influence on the people (for various reasons, I won’t spoil it). The Earl risks being arrested for treason if he exposes himself, and he first approaches Ben Jonson to put his names to the plays. Jonson baulks at the idea, and a boorish, illiterate actor called William Shakespeare steps up to the plate. Once Jonson begins to realise how incredible the plays are, he has a few regrets…

The film plays around with history (as we currently know it; a flexible thing it doth seem to be!). There are several inaccuracies, such as Essex being a threat to King James of Scotland (apparently he actually supported him), and the redating of the release of some of the plays to fit in with the story of the 1601 Essex Rebellion. Christopher Marlowe appears in 1598, when actually he died in 1593. James Shapiro explains a few of these inaccuaracies in his Guardian review (slight spoilers):

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the film is that the author of the great plays is reduced to a political propagandist, his plays to vehicles to advance his faction’s cause. De Vere himself is quite clear about his literary objectives: “All art is political … otherwise it is just decoration.” He delightedly applauds his art’s propagandistic impact at a performance of “his” Henry V that so riles the patriotic mob that actors playing the French are physically assaulted. (No, this never happened.) He then mocks a political foe, William Cecil, as Polonius, in Hamlet. (The film conveniently forgets that when Hamlet was staged Cecil was already dead.) At the film’s climax, on the eve of the half-hearted Essex uprising in 1601, De Vere stages Richard III in order to win the crowd’s support for his faction. Enraged, playgoers swarm out of the theatre in mid-performance, heading to court, before they are brutally gunned down on Robert Cecil’s order. (No, this never happened either. Yes, the Chamberlain’s Men did stage a play before the abortive uprising, but it was Richard II, and it had no direct connection with subsequent events, unforeseen at the time of the performance. Because Anonymous so badly needs to reduce Richard III to a propagandistic attack on a hunchback Robert Cecil, the substitution is made. Yet Orloff told an interviewer last month that Anonymous “is unbelievably historically accurate … stunningly accurate”).

The rest of the review is full of spoilers, so read it only if you’ve seen the film (or won’t see it).

Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere

The film is fairly entertaining as a political thriller, and should be enjoyed as such, not as documentary. Many characters are introduced early on and if you don’t have at least a light grasp of English history (particularly royalty, religion, politics and customs of the time) a bit of extra concentration is required. Director Roland Emmerich has done an amazing job of recreating Elizabethan England. I was very impressed by the sets and effects. The actors are all adequate, and the best performances are Rhys Ifans as Edward de Vere and Vanessa Redgrave as Elizabeth I (I would watch her in anything).

As the film does still attribute all of the works to one author I did find myself intrigued by the theory, as gappy and impossible to prove as it is. But, as I said, the film’s main theme, in the end, is the power of words, and that truly great works will last the test of time (no matter whose name is on them).

Willy taking the credit

If you are interested in the ‘for’ and ‘against’ arguments—as to Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, being the real author—I found these two very convincing arguments commissioned by The Telegraph:

I first read ‘Yes, Shakespeare was a fraud’ by Oxford scholar and author of Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom Charles Beauclerk. He argues, among other things, that Shakespeare was possibly illiterate, that:

Like Hamlet, Oxford was a prince who had been sidelined. He distrusted the court’s Machiavellian machinations. From the age of 21 he adopted a unique signature, with a crown above his name and seven dashes below, indicating he thought of himself as the future King Edward VII. But he knew to keep his mouth shut. Instead he used drama—allegory—to assert his royal right.

Like Prince Hal, he was a bohemian prince ill at ease with his inheritance, who saw the actors and dramatists as his fellow truth-tellers. The themes that marked his life are the very themes that dominate Shakespeare’s work. Hamlet is essentially his autobiography.

Oxford knew the royal court, the milieu of Shakespeare’s plays. He was familiar with political events. The Stratford man’s life was a world away from this.

Then I read ‘No, Shakespeare was not a fraud’ by Professor Stanley Wells, honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and creator of 60 Minutes with Shakespeare. He says there are references to Shakespeare as a writer by at least 14 authors in his lifetime. He says:

Shakespeare’s authorship was not doubted until the 1850s when Delia Bacon, who ended up in an asylum, posited that the plays had been written by a committee of writers, including Francis Bacon (no relation). She wanted to open Shakespeare’s grave, as if there might have been a letter within saying: “It wasn’t me. Try Bacon.”

Since then, at least 77 people have been suggested as possible authors. It is absurd to think someone would write the world’s greatest plays and give someone else the credit.

The Earl of Oxford is the anti-Shakespeareans’ current favourite contender. He died in 1604 whereas the plays went on appearing until 1613. Oxfordians have to construct elaborate scenarios of concealment to explain this away.

What do you think? Does it matter? History and authorship are contentious and malleable concepts. The words and stories live on. You might say they are celebrated, some might argue they are abused, perhaps t’is neither here nor there. To mourn a mischief that is past and gone is the next way to draw new mischief on.

At the end of it all, life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

What I don’t doubt is that whoever the author was, he (or maybe even she) was a phenomenally insightful and entertaining storyteller.

Anonymous has just been released on DVD and blu-ray in Australia

You might also enjoy some posts from my archives: I’ve visited the new Globe theatre twice now, including during my European jaunt last year, where we saw my favourite comedy Much Ado About Nothing (very briefly mentioned). In ‘Two Hamlets‘, in 2008, I looked at Branagh’s and Marsden’s versions of Hamlet. I’ve watched that Branagh version many times since.

Update: on the pro-Shakespeare side, was just sent this link, a #longread: Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous

23 thoughts on “Thoughts on Shakespeare and Anonymous

  1. Fascinating! Really enjoyed Brenda James’s The Truth Will Out, which convincingly posits Sir Henry Neville as the author behind Shakespeare’s plays…since then I’ve always vaguely wished to meet a Shakespeare scholar in the flesh to hear his/her thoughts on that theory!

  2. Hi Angela,

    You and ‘plumeofwords’ might also like to look up the Radio National archive and listen to John Bell talking about Shakespeare to Phillip Adams, from about three weeks ago. Having no specialist knowledge myself, and no way to test what was being claimed, I was nonetheless quite content (nay, relieved) to hear Bell suggest that the author was unlikely to be any of the other ‘likely lads.’ He certainly mentioned that Marlowe died too soon to be a convincing candidate, and he certainly mentioned Jonson and Bacon, and Delia Bacon raising the (fantastic?) question a good 250 years after the fact. I can’t remember if he talked about de Vere, but he might have done, given that he too is at a chronological disadvantage.

    “All art is political…” Sounds very modern for the late 1500’s, doesn’t it? Reminds of me of the Bolsheviks in Doctor Zhivago, actually.

    On the subject of Shakespeare’s illiteracy, Bell made a good case to suggest that Shakespeare was actually highly literate because he was middle class, not a pauper. At the time, the English middle class (such as it was) had access to comparatively excellent education, and they were educating themselves en masse.

    Funnily enough, I was watching Bell on stage as Lear on the evening of the Rudd coup. I didn’t hear about it until the next day. Perhaps I should mention something like this to his daughter Jessica for her next book.

    • OK, so, fair warning: this is a subject I feel strongly about! Apologies if this comes off as a bit of a rant.

      I’ve read widely on the history of Shakespeare, in research for a future writing project, taken a couple of undergrad and grad classes on his literature, taught early British literature and Shakespeare several times in college, and visited Stratford-upon-Avon, and so forth, and I agree with you that the plays *must* have been written by a single author because of their shared vision and style. Additionally, from my reading and studies, what I got was although there are a few prominent scholars arguing on the it-was-somebody-else side, the majority of scholars discount the theory as silly.

      There are many historical documented references to Shagspeare and Shake-spere (and so forth–spelling for proper names not being terribly consistent then) the writer by his contemporaries, and none of these question his authorship though they do call him “upstart” and so forth. As the above poster comments, the education Will would’ve received as a middle class resident of Stratford in his time was quite sophisticated at least as far as literature goes (they used to be forced to memorize every type of figurative language, for example, and they read the classics), and there are several lost years between when he left Stratford and started publishing plays and poems in which he could’ve pursued his studies informally, or taught, or done other things that would’ve furthered his education.

      My husband wanted to see this movie, but the premise annoys me so much I’ve refused to see it thus far! Shakespeare clearly didn’t live in Stratford full time–he was mostly in London. This is historically documented. Why discount him as some rural hick? The whole argument against his authorship seems classist and elitist. (Look who’s arguing for it… a scholar from Oxford, and apparently solely on the basis of biographical criticism?) Sorry, the whole theory really irritates me.

      • Sorry, wasn’t clear–I meant to type in that final parenthetical–apparently solely on the basis of biographical criticism of the plays, noting their parallels to another historical figure’s life? That seems so flimsy to me.

      • Thanks for your comments, Glen and Mary. Yes, I have heard that Shakespeare’s education would definitely have been adequate. I’m definitely with you that he still seems the most likely candidate from the works and that all the theories pointing toward noblemen do come across as rather ‘elitist’!

  3. I sympathize with the hesitancy here to throw over the present understanding about the authorship of so major an oeuvre as the Shakespeare canon. But I read in these comments such lack of familiarity with the historical and biographical facts, that I myself hesitate to take on informing your readership about them. Here I will state as a personal conviction that it does matter to me and to a healthy Western literary tradition to give due recognition to the author of a work. Creation and creator are one. The ‘Shakespeare’ author stated in absolutely certain language in the Sonnets that he was fated not to be recognized. Since Shakspere of Stratford could not write, was not interested in writing or literature, and was not noted by anyone ever as a writer (despite the garble that Wells and others insist upon that he was well-known), nor mourned as a writer, as writers were mourned–copiously–clearly he was not the author who knew he would not be recognized. I would recommend even the most cursory investigation, through books or the Internet, of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. His life, his writing style, his station, experience, values, philosophy, plays at Court, all find specific reflection in the Shakespeare plays and poems, including Shapiro’s mistaken gotcha example William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Shapiro tells us that Burghley was already dead when Hamlet played. That has nothing to do with writing the play, when, or why so high a figure was satirized in it. Burghley was Oxford’s father-in-law, who engineered him into a forced wedding to his own daughter and Oxford lampooned him as a meddling fool in Hamlet. Polonius schemes likewise in the play. Hamlet slayed Polonius/Burghley in the play. He slayed his spy for real when Burghley sent an operative to spy on him. “I took you for your better” has a double meaning, Polonius’s better was the murderer Claudius. The paid spy’s better was Burghley, who should have been killed for his treachery. Oxford wrote the play instead. Learn something and you will appreciate Shakespeare as never before. with best wishes for your education, WJ Ray

    • I respect your opinion, but there is really no ‘evidence’ for or against, it is all supposition. You do draw some very interesting historical parallels, and certainly it is quite possible. But Shakespeare’s plays are about a lot more than politics and revenge.

      Either way, if you want to win someone over to your argument, it’s best not to use a condescending tone, as you do toward the end of your comment. I appreciate Shakespeare greatly, thank you very much.

  4. I don’t think I ‘ll see Anonymous. Still recovering from excruciatingly long doco from years ago. I would encouarage people to focus their energies on the plays themselves.

    • Absolutely. Like I said, this is the first time I’ve gone near this topic! ‘The play’s the thing…’

  5. Hello, Angela

    I was quite pleased to read your article. The joy of RSS feeds! Gems fall into one’s lap quite unexpectedly.

    Like Ms McMyne, I feel rather strongly about this. In fact, it was the topic for my first blog when I launched my author site several weeks ago. Then, recently, I saw Anonymous.

    I’ll not dwell ln the film because it was pretty awful, and not because it was based on the premise that the real author of the Shakespeare canon was De Vere but because it was manipulative in so many ways, and was on a par with Braveheart for its historical accuracy. Though Vaness Redgrave’s performance as the ageing Elizabeth who is descending into senility was just wonderful.

    There are some things about Shakespeare and his life which we may find odd, and I don’t pretend that I have an answer to some of them. Yet for me, the first crucial question if we are going to consider any other author, is what primary evidence do we have that any of them wrote any of the plays? We have evidence, both primary and secondary, that Shakespeare did, but not one jot for any other person, Oxford included.

    For anyone who has studied this question, the arguments that Mr Ray puts forward are very familiar, though I do find it a bit amusing that he accuses the other posters of lacking historical and biographical knowledge and then proceeds on generalisations and conjecture. And I am afraid he rather missed Mr Shapiro’s point about Hamlet. I know it is a convenient excuse that the Oxfordians have concocted to explain why new Shakespeare plays continued to appear after Oxford’s death (he wrote them earlier, a device used in the film in a way that was almost Pythonesque, as Oxford searches for a play to give to Jonson and after discarding several, gives him Romeo and Juliette. I almost expected him to say, ‘And here’s one I prepared earlier…’) It rather does matter, Mr Ray. Very few political writers write a political work and then set it aside for a rainy day. They write them because it is raining. The whole point of political art if that it is immediate and topical. Political art is hardly effective when the political object is deceased. Finally, textual decoding is not primary evidence; it is, in fact, not evidence at all.

    Jonathan Bates’ Soul of the Age is a good starting point if you’re undecided on the question. It’s not free of its own conjecture, but it is remarkably well researched and should put to rest any lingering doubts that Will was our man.

    Thanks again for your post. Anyone is welcome to pop by my author site if they wish to read what I have written about this in a bit more detail.

    Kind regards


    • Alan, thanks so much for your considered, informative comment. I’ll definitely have a look at your blog.

    • Happy to respond to Alan Skinner’s criticisms. First, the supposed crushing fact that new Shakespeare plays appeared after Oxford died. Sixteen plays appeared in the First Folio that had never appeared prior. This does not establish them as written after 1604, as illogically posited. Written and made public are two different acts. Mr. Skinner’s assumption that political writers publish and stage on the spot has no warrant. Logically speaking, he doesn’t have a leg to stand on. But let us consider literary/biographical parallels, since he charges generalizations and conjecture in my comment. Oxford would have revealed too much of his own politically devastating history with his wife and father-in-law, the most powerful figure in Elizabethan England, had he released the final versions of Othello, Macbeth, or All’s Well That Ends Well during his lifetime, or revealed his authorship clues contained in As You Like It.

      Shakspere never lived in Italy and the Mediterranean to gain the precise geography details of Venice and Cyprus in Othello, nor had he seen the medieval Scottish Chronicle from which Macbeth drew its theme of double trust. Oxford knew both sources personally. Earlier versions of Othello (A Moor’s Masque, 1579) and Macbeth (A Tragedie of the Kinge of Scottes, 1568) had played at court, written and presented by Oxford. AWTEW contains exact details of the proposed marriage contract between Oxford’s father-in-law Burghley and Philip Sidney’s father, as well as details of what Anne Cecil thought of the proposed marriages, wherefrom Bertram the higher born (Oxford) won out.

      But the more telling factual check that no Shakespeare play was written after 1604 is that previous Shakespeare plays mentioned extraordinary celestial phenomena, but none whatsoever after 1604. Since the retrograde Mars, the invention of the celestial telescope, moons of Jupiter and Venus, and the heliocentric theory were revolutionary finds, –if there were plays written after 1604, to follow past practice, they would have been noted somehow. That stars were “fire”, Bruno’s theory, and the brief supernova in Casseopaea were noted in Hamlet, for example. Oxford had corresponded with Brahe and he knew Gilbert, who discovered earth magnetism. The latter is reflected in that play as well. (“North by northwest”) The scientific gap occurs after June 1604. Shakspere lived another twelve years after 1604. The missing sixteen plays were not in his house or mentioned in his will, nor referred to by his family, nor offered as evidence that he was a writer at all, ever.

      This should provide biographical parallels and secondary evidence and deduction to counter mand–what were the facts Mr. Skinner presented again?

      Like all great writers ‘Shakespeare’/Oxford drew on his personal experience for authenticity. I did not miss Shapiro’s point about Hamlet, that Burghley died before Hamlet was written, whatever that is supposed to mean. The first version of Hamlet was in the 1580’s, referred to by other writers at that time as Oxford’s. Burghley was alive then. The first printed version in 1603 had Burghley as “Corambis”, or two-hearted, playing on Burghley’s motto, One heart, one way. From political pressure at court, the name was changed in Q2, 1604, to Polonius, Bruno’s epithet for a meddling pedant–an equally unmistakable description of Burghley.

      Mr. Skinner recommends Jonathan Bate as an authority on the authorship issue. It was Bate who wrote, “There is a mystery about the identity of William Shakespeare. The mystery is this: why should anyone doubt that he was William Shakespeare, the author from Stratford-upon-Avon?” That is the sum and essence of what Bate offers towards our knowledge–denial that there is a question. He went on for pages in his rant against any questioner, without a single fact cited. And this is the pity. There is no fact about Gulielmus Shakspere that would establish him as the writer of a word, much less the most respected corpus of work in English literature. So Mr. Skinner may continue to be a bit amused at me. He has missed the core question of English criticism and has believed, which is safe, rather than thought, which is the responsibility of intellectuals. But all faults are redeemable.

    • Excellent point. We know of Mozart’s early talent, his thorough training by his father, his appearances at a young age at several courts to great acclaim, his progressively more complex and mature compositions, his struggles surviving, and his early death. Similarly with Michaelangelo, his apprentice and training, derivative work, independent creations, conflicts, sonnets, embedding himself into his work, and so on. But ‘Shakespeare’ is a special case of the presented “author” being identified with a figure whom no one recognized early, whom no one is known to have educated, whatever our assumptions, whom no one recalled as a phenomenon, of whom there is no record of a college education (for which many of the figures and usages were part of the upperclassmen curricula), whom no one celebrated, knew, described, wrote to, heard from, eulogized at his death, and who was made sui generis by an extremely ambiguous First Folio prefatory matter, an ambiguous Shakespeare Monument, and posthumous attempts at reifying into a real person. All this is contradictory to the extensive known facts about Shakspere of Stratford, who was pruduential rather than artistic in human type, a miser and money-lender, in short the wrong person for the magnitude and magnificence of the works. Once I began to study in this area I saw that there had been a conscious intentional switch of attribution from the actual author–who fits the Shakespeare canon like a biography–to a harmless name-alike to the pseudonym Shakespeare/Shake-speare, a moniker associated with Oxford since 1578. I concur that mysterious genius must be respected and revered. But it is incumbent upon all thinking people to seek the right person to respect and revere, and there is ample evidence Shakspere of Stratford was not that person. As for forgetting the creator and applauding the creation only, the one and the other are inextricably linked. It is a violation upon human creativity to shut one’s eyes instead of searching seriously to the historical riddle’s solution.To divorce work and its human source is to cut the root from the still flourishing tree.

      • It’s perfectly possible that many written records regarding Shakespeare have been lost/burned whatever. It has, after all, been hundreds of years. But he was written about, wasn’t he, as the man from Stratford, an actor and the author of the plays? By contemporaries: actors, playwrights, writers, and in official records.. I’ll quote Love: ‘The problem that confronts all attempts [against Shakespeare] is that they have to dispose of the many testimonies from Will the player’s own time that he was regarded as the author of the plays and the absence of any clear contravening public claims of the same nature for any of the other favoured candidates’.

        While you raise many good points about the correlation of de Vere’s life and the plays, you will never be able to prove your theory. It can only remain a theory. I’m completely open-minded to the idea, but I think you also should be open to the idea that a ‘miser and money-lender’ could write these great plays. There are several ‘lost years’ in his life; who knows where he was and what he was learning? He could have been in Italy. Plus, other playwrights like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe did come from similar backgrounds.

        And I do not agree with you that valuing the work over the long-dead author is ‘a violation upon human creativity’. I’m going to go with the Barthesian idea (though not to his extent) that to focus on the author of the text may impose a limit on the text itself. The context in which a work was written is important to acknowledge, yes, and is very interesting. It gives the text a background. But then we depart from that and let the text speak for itself. If you become too focused on the author, as you seem to be, you might merely scan the text for clues or confirmation. What other wonders might you miss?

      • I can only testify that the plays of Shakespeare, particularly the Histories and Tragedies, have become more meaningful and poignant to me since understanding who actually wrote them and why he was motivated to. Like Joyce, Oxford sought to write the foundation narrative of his race, and considering how the plays have been used in part to define the character of the nation, this was a successful ambition.

        Your supposition that many records have been lost and burned is certainly a reasonable one. But the record for Shakspere is remarkably full. It shows his interests, his daily actions, his drives, his favored values, all in keeping with what he did in life. He was a usurer, property acquirer, commodities trader, and investor, what I described as a prudential human type. It appears to me somewhat unreasonable, given no evidence of artistic talent, skill, or path as would be very plain in any artistic life, that he would write a million highly learned and rhetorically refined words on the sly. He wanted money and property and got them, no matter if he had to sue the local druggist or not. In saying this, I also insist that any person at any station and class of origin, had he talent and commitment, could and could have attained artistic achievement. Robert Burns did, any number of others through history. But we must judge factually and, caught in the trap of a preconceived conclusion, to think up exceptions for a favored figure, whose life on the face of it has no connection whatsoever to the work attributed to him, does not go very far toward truth. I believe this explains why predisposed individuals and almost all professional academics are so prone to restrict examination of their very weak case of authorship in this given exceptional instance. The accepted legend of genius out of no background is one-dimensional, whereas in actuality literary genius is a lifetime occupation, beginning with gifts, progressing through training and learning, transcending and gaining from experience, and persevering to actualization in creative work. To hedge exceptions and narrowly define canons of evidence only betray that something is amiss to begin with in the assertion of Stratfordian authorship.

        In reply to your thought that concentrating too much on the author diminishes the self-contained value of the work, it is because I value and have gained from the work, and discerned the anguish that the author knew he would be foreclosed from connection to it, that I wish to see right done, and the work and person re-connected. A healthy culture cannot be satisfied with less. If the truth requires re-writing Gloriana into a more realistic, less glorious Elizabethan history and literary criticism, then so be it. Elizabeth was not a virgin, just as Shakespeare was not an ordinary dude. Both are constructs employed through time to cover actual events and decisions. And the official history always covers for its own legitimacy. That is why the Jacobean ruse happened at all; Oxford telling the tale on his class and age would not go well for the legitimacy and magnificence of English powers that were. It was expedient to separate author from creative oeuvre. and it has been turned into an unexamined commonplace, perpetuated and folded into a politically-driven ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ mythology ever since.

        As to your quotation of Love, “The problem that confronts all attempts [against Shakespeare] is that they have to dispose of the many testimonies from Will the player’s own time that he was regarded as the author of the plays and the absence of any clear contravening public claims of the same nature for any of the other favoured candidates.” From the extensive study that I and many others have done, there are no testimonies from the Tudor era about Shakspere of Stratford. All the encomia were to the writer Shakespeare, not the person Shakspere, and those knowledgable about the pseudonymity made it plain that Oxford was writing under a “shaded veil”, a “borrowed name”. It is again what I indicated to Mr. Skinner, a mistaken assumption that the two were identical. We have the responsibility of reading and copping to what was there historically. The present professional educating class has failed to do so, resulting in Love’s inaccurate statement quoted above. Space does not permit in this context but I can cite quotations by Harvey, Spenser, Jonson, Brathwait, Marston, Peacham, and Heywood as well as Meres and Camden, who recognized Oxford was the Master writing under a pseudonym. They wrote discreetly, because they valued protecting his secrecy. As for Shakspere’s role in the confusion, I will say only that four Williams are characterized in the Shakespeare canon and all are knaves. Jonson did the same with Sogliardo, Sordido, Mathew and Stephen, and Crispinus–express contempt for Shakspere. But he who used was used as the counterfeit in a much larger game than monetary gain.

      • OK, William Ray. I do think you have a very interesting argument, and I see what you mean about the pseudonymous Shakespeare as opposed to Shakspere the man from S-u-A. And I understand your point to Alan Skinner regarding different types of proof/evidence. Beyond that, we may just have to agree to disagree on some points at the moment, but I promise you that I will keep an open mind about the subject. And I will keep reading and viewing Shakespeare’s works (with a little bit more of all of this in the back of my mind). I wish you all the best.

  6. Dear Mr Ray

    Please do not waste your time hoping for my redemption. I’m afraid my faults are far too practised and far too dear to me to be given up this late in life. Like someone who is deaf, I’ve accentuated other virtues to make up for those faults and I’d be quite lopsided if I was to rectify them now.

    ‘So, Mr Skinner … has missed the core question of English criticism and has believed, which is safe, rather than thought, which is the responsibility of intellectuals.’

    I am a bit surprised that we have come so quickly to the point in the road so familiar to all those who dare debate the anti-Stratfordians: where the champions of Shakespeare are anti-intellectual and stooges of the Shakespearean academic oligarchy. Still, it does rather save time to have arrived so soon. Having cut to the chase, let’s set upon the fox.

    There are, of course, two approaches to the authorship question. The first is to use whatever concrete historical evidence exists, and the second is to rely on textual analysis. Both are valid, though there is a catch: textual analysis can never be proof without some historical evidence to substantiate it. Which is why, though I find your arguments regarding celestial phenomena (Stephanie Hopkins Hughes is just one of the Oxfordians who have written on this), they are not proof. And it is the lack of any historical evidence that concerns me when assessing the claims of any alternative author. In addition, I find the need to re-write so much else (such as the death of Marlowe, or the relationship between De Vere and Elizabeth, as some Oxfordians do) seriously weakens the case for Oxford.

    Let us put aside, for the moment, any textual evidence. You have obviously read quite a bit on the topic, at least on the Oxford side, and must surely have discovered that for every textual proof on one side, there is either an explanation of an opposing view, or another piece of textual analysis which proves the opposite. This is ping-pong scholarship that benefits no one – unless it proceeds from concrete evidence.

    Let us then look (in very brief summary) at what we have for Will as playwright (I will ignore all other documentary evidence regarding the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford):

    1. His name on several of the printed copies of the plays
    2. William Shakespeare is mentioned as playwright at least seven times from 1604-1610 by the Master of Revels
    3, A 1594 entry in the Chamber of Court record mentioning Shakespeare as playwright
    4. Two direct references from Ben Jonson to Shakespeare the playwright
    5. Francis Meres’ mention of Shakespeare in Palldis Tania
    6. John Webster’s mention in the preface to The White Devil

    This does not include the 1592 reference to him by Greene, for the Groatsworth reference doesn’t actually say ‘William Shakespeare’ and is therefore not hard evidence.

    Now, what do we have as concrete evidence that links De Vere (Or any other contender for author) to the plays?


    Not one physical shred of evidence that links Oxford as author of the plays. Which means, that all other arguments are conjecture and supposition. They may be clever, intelligent conjectures, but they remain unsubstantiated conclusions. (Not all are clever; Robert Detobel’s deconstruction of the Shakespeare signatures, for example, doesn’t deserve the name ‘scholarship’.) And I cannot think of one single pro-Oxford argument, from the conflation of Polonious and Cecil, to the dating of the Tempest or the question of Shakespeare’s level of literacy and education, or the level of legal expertise or court familiarity the playwright must have needed, that cannot be argued as logically and plausibly by the Stratfordians.

    You may well call me lacking in the first principles of either academic of historical enquiry, but at least I do prefer to start with some primary evidence.

    I do not deny for one moment there reasonable questions do arise. And these questions should be pursued. I can’t help but wonder, though, why some people find it more rewarding to suggest alternatives than to expound their efforts finding answers within the only framework of the only author for whom there is any proof whatsoever.

    Given that the evidence says that in all likelihood William Shakespeare of Stratford was the author, then I can proceed to what, for me, is the clincher.

    I have read all the available De Vere works. And, without exaggeration, I can say that it astounds me that anyone could believe that the person who wrote that mediocre stuff was the same person who wrote the Shakespeare canon are one and the same. But that’s not proof, is it?

    Oh, and Jonathan Bates’ style can be called many things, and there are times when he infuriates me, but to call it a ‘rant’ is a bit much.



    • Dear Mr. Skinner,

      In grateful receipt of your statement. To take the last point first, Bate’s words from pp. 93-100 in ‘Who Is Shakespeare? What Is He?’ are as vitriolic as let out by any educated writer I have read, except maybe Alan Nelson. No scholarly backing, just rhetoric. No reason to attack except feeling threatened.

      Our differences have to do with what is to be allowed in the discussion as proof. To you, the listing of a playwright name on a record, the posthumous statements of Ben Jonson, and written mentions of “William Shakespeare” by Francis Meres and John Webster are proof. Similarities of plot, characters, and titles in plays associated with Oxford first, and then Shakespeare later, or any iiterary content whatsoever, are considered conjectures. This narrows the probative area away from any question of relationship between written work and lived life and career, the usual standard of authorial authenticity. And your critical assumption, an implausible one in my view, is that the name ‘Shakespeare’ was not a pseudonym, but a real living writing person. These differences separate our positions.

      Oxford’s public plays went under the rubric of Anonymous. He wrote for all companies. Hamlet in the late 1580’s was anonymous. It was also anonymous in 1597. Romeo and Juliet began as a long poem in 1562, Romeus and Juliet. it was published under the name of a deceased classmate Arthur Brooke. Some of the same language found its way into TGofV and the Sonnets. R&J was published anonymously in 1594-5. Taming of the Shrew first appeared at court in 1578, then anonymously in 1593-4. MforM first played at court in 1578, then in 1604-5. MofV first appeared as Portio or the Jew in 1579, then 1596-7 anonymously Another dozen or so likewise. The name Shakespeare as a playwright did not appear on a title page until after September 1598. You are reading backwards to cite Stratford Shakspere as Shakespeare the playwright before then. Burghley, Oxford’s worst censor, died the month before. Meres noted that Oxford was listed one for comedies and ad hoc Shakespeare was listed ninth. But there were SEVENTEEN moderns [17th Earl of Oxford?] listed and sixteen ancients for comparison, meaning (in the puzzle) one modern had two names. Which one? One and nine equals ten, and the numeral 10 resembled IO, or “I”. which in Italian is pronounced EE’OO, Oxford’s initials. Such was the embedded riddle that “announced” the phenomenon of ‘Shakespeare’ the playwright. It was a pseudonym cleverly veiled. Most of us took it on face value. That ‘Shakespeare’ the playwright was listed on quartos or playbills after then of course constitute proof that it was a successful pseudonym. Numerous writers knew differently and said so discreetly. He of the similar name, Shakspere (he didn’t use the Shakespeare spelling until after the name Shakespeare became famous) did not write anything at all. He could not. And this is borne out by the Stratford man’s signatures, all but completely illiterate. He received no acclaim in his lifetime but was astutely alluded to, posthumously, in the First Folio as the Sweet Swan of Avon. The Swan of Avon in the FF was intentionally ambiguous information, since the Sidney’s family insignia was the swan and their Pembroke estate was on the Avon. Oxford’s daughter was married into the Pembrokes. There were no swans we know of at Stratford. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, also wrote under a pseudonym. It was the name John Webster, her coach-maker’s son, who m you quote as proof Shakspere was Shakespeare. Hence the only plays in Elizabethan drama with women as strong protagonists are understandable, since a woman wrote them. Webster was in the Wilton Circle.

      Your evidence for Shakspere tends to disappear under an investigation of Oxford. There are too many similarities and correlations, even when the rules have been written to make them out of bounds. Preponderances will not go to their room. Oxford’s (necessary) literary deceit that began with Romeus and Juliet continued through proxies and pseudonyms until the most famous, William Shakespeare, which you along with the English literary tradition bought as being a real person, not a playwright pseudonym.

      And perhaps here is why you could not relate the Shakespearean style to Oxford–he published only three short poems his entire career, after adolescence, under his own name. You were reading the poems of a talented child. Mundy, Edwards, Lyly, Watson, Kyd, Nashe, Turbervile, and various other “secretaries” were proxies when he returned from Italy, intent on revolutionizing the language and English drama. He inspired the English Renaissance. The same publishers and printers who produced for him produced the Shakespeare quartos, excepting pirated work. If you seek signs of continuity, you may read the Venus and Adonis poems in The Passionate Pilgrim as preparatory to the Venus and Adonis epic, finding in them as in V&A personal references to himself and Queen Elizabeth, using the very same highly learned classical Greek rhetorical devices. All the plays were re-written during the fourteen years with Elizabeth Trentham, (1590-1604), who gave him time and support to consolidate his works.

      Your definitive statement is that there is not one shred of physical evidence linking Oxford to the dramas. Perhaps you have forgotten the twenty plays newly introduced in the First Folio. None can be traced to William Shakspere of Stratford. He didn’t have them, didn’t release them, which would have been the logical act for so rapacious an individual, didn’t mention them in his will, left no provision for them, never sought recognition for them, was never given recognition for them until after the First Folio. But all twenty can be traced to court plays by Oxford or the withheld ones explained in terms of his reluctance to have them seen for personal and political protection. Your brushing off Polonius/Corambis as Burghley’s cartoon defies a long tradition confirming that identification by G.W. Phillips and many others. Oxford could lampoon Burghley and live. A commoner would have had his hand chopped for much less.

      Yes the First Folio (and Shakespeare Monument) were a ruse, the big lie, the bamboozle that works if it is strong enough and comes from high enough authority to silence doubt. Mary Sidney’s son, William Herbert, was Lord Chamberlain of Revels and ushered it into publication, using his own employees, including Jonson, and allies as the chorus of dedicators, to create a fictional ‘Shakespeare’ and play him as though he had been real, a wonder, a monster, not just a penurious money-lender from Stratford.

      Your words on that man’s behalf, that he was the author “in all likelihood”, begin to pale as proof, compared to what actually happened. Direct proof had to be destroyed or the ruse would not work. But the truth will out anyway. As Oxford wrote to Robert Cecil a year before Measure for Measure was staged, “For truth is truth though never so old and time cannot make that false which once was true.” Isabella says something eerily like it: “Truth is truth to the end of reckoning.”

  7. Pingback: Thoughts on Shakespeare and Anonymous | LiteraryMinded « everreader

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