Musing on the Authorship Question Again


Droeshout engravingThe “authorship question” — who wrote Shakespeare’s works, aside that is, from Shakespeare himself — is a conspiracy that seems a metaphor for modern society.  It contains the seeds of many popular conspiracies within it: pseudoscience, suspicions about authority, declarations of revelation, blind faith, angry defences, opinions and interpretations, Youtube quacks, amateurs posing as researchers, wild claims, and the paranoia we find on social media. You can find its counterparts in alien abductions, chemtrails, Pizzagate, Trump’s election victory, pro-disease/anti-vaccination protests, astrology, creationism,  Bigfoot, Atlantis, and Elvis is still alive: a whole passel of piffle seems born from it. And it doesn’t seem to die away.*

Professor James Shapiro, writing in Contested Will (an excellent rebuttal to authorship claims), said,

More than any subject I’ve ever studied, the history of the authorship question is rife with forgeries and deception. 

And it’s certainly been around longer than most other conspiracies: the original authorship conspiracy was supposedly birthed in the late 18th century when scholar James Wilmot started searching for remnants of Shakespeare’s household goods that suggested the latter had been an author. Wilmot came up emptyhanded, and so decided that absence of proof meant someone else was responsible for the works. Besides, he argued, there was nothing in Shakespeare’s life that showed him to have any of the education, travel experience, court experience, or qualities that he believed the writer of these works would have had. 

Wilmot passed the torch to his colleague James Cowell, who took Wilmot’s and his own ideas on the lecture circuit in the early 19th century. Both believed the plays and poems had to be autobiographical, so they searched for an author whose life reflected what they read in them (Francis Bacon was their candidate). Their notion that you could read Shakespeare’s work autobiographically and interpret his words as his own thoughts and situations opened the door for interpretation and opinion instead of empirical fact as the deciding factors in one side of the debate over authorship.

The lack of surviving documentation from much of Shakespeare’s life (the pre-London years in particular) compounded the matter: lacking a paper trail, readers went hunting for a verbal trail scattered like breadcrumbs in his writings. But absence of proof is not proof of absence.

Shakespeare’s will, for example, has survived without the page containing the inventory of household goods that it was registered with. That has led some to believe Shakespeare could not have been an author because they cannot see if he bequeathed any books. (And yes, I have held that will in my hands).

Similarly, the lack of surviving grammar school records that show when and where he attended, or what he studied has led others to believe Shakespeare was not formally educated. That’s fallacious reasoning. Ben Johnson wrote of Shakespeare that he had “little Latin and less Greek,” which suggests he had a respectable, if unspectacular, education in these languages and the classics. One of the unsubstantiated rumours about Shakespeare’s earlier years is that he worked as a schoolmaster in the country. If so, he would have taught both languages to students.

The conspiracy exploded in popularity mid-century and by the start of the 20th century, more than 250 books and articles had been published pushing other candidates than Shakespeare as the author. Within the next 50 years, that number exceeded 4,500. Today it’s impossible to count them, what with all the internet content. And like many conspiracies, the tale has spun wildly in the telling.

More than 50 candidates have been proposed over the years, most being easily dismissed by such inconveniences as their having died too soon. Seven candidates currently top the list of favourites: Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and Sir Francis Bacon are still the top contenders, but there are ardent supporters for Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Most of the candidates, Marlowe being an exception, are royalty or nobles, or at the very least highly placed, well-educated, courtiers like Bacon.

There’s a certain snobbishness at work here: conspirators can’t believe that anyone who wasn’t raised to be at court could have the imagination or education to write about court life. The fact that many of Shakespeare’s plays revolve around court figures and court life seems to prove to them he was writing his autobiography. But let’s squash that one now.

The notion that only the right people from the right families who attended the right school, and served the royal court could possibly have written about life and history is ideological rubbish. Tom Clancy was never a submarine captain although he wrote The Hunt for Red October. Edgar Rice Burroughs never served in the Confederate army, never visited Mars, African jungles, or the interior of the earth. Jules Verne never piloted a hot air balloon around the world. Conan Doyle was never a detective. Goethe never raised the devil. Dante never walked through Hell. Charles Dickens never lived in a poorhouse with thieves. But they all shared one characteristic: they used their imaginations. As did Shakespeare.

History is mostly told through the stories of kings, queens, and generals. Even the Bible is replete with their stories. Our oldest literature, the Gilgamesh epic, is about a king. The ancient Chinese Book of History is about the acts of the nobles. That’s not surprising since theirs are the stories written and passed down, in part because they have long been assumed blessed by some divinity so their acts have a special significance. And the books available to Shakespeare would have recounted history through the eyes and acts of the leaders: he read Plutarch, Hollinshead, Ovid, Pliny, Montaigne, and others. Plus he borrowed from other, earlier plays, and had collaborators in several plays who could have contributed.**

When we think about, for example, the battle of Waterloo, we think about what Napoleon, Blucher, and Wellington did or said. We rarely think about it from the point of view of the musket-wielding soldier pressed into service from some small town (Bernard Cornwell notwithstanding). When we think of the Roman Empire, we see it through the stories of Augustus, Julius Caesar, Pompey, Cicero, Nero, Constantine, not the legionnaires, farmers, or servants. The Battle of Agincourt conjures up Henry V, Bosworth Field Richard III and Henry Tudor. Nobody recalled a stirring speech given on the eve of battle by an archer or a foot soldier.

The leaders are synecdoches for their times, not their followers. But Shakespeare’s stories are full of commoners. There are guards, archers, poets, buffoons, clowns, merchants, bankers, scribes, priests, nurses, mothers, peasants, thieves, prostitutes, drunkards, politicians, messengers, judges, sailors… it’s only snobbishness that assumes the author had to be among the upper crust and not the common folk he also wrote so well about. 

Charles Beauclerk’s book, Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom (subtitled The True History of Shakespeare and Elizabeth) begins with his eight-year-old son interpreting the famous Droeshout engraving that was used to illustrate the First Folio in 1623. Beauclerk and his child go on to interpret the image into its own conspiracy. They find a hidden figure lurking in the background and consider it full of symbolism and mystery. Personally, I don’t put much faith in the opinions about art given by children.

But the engraving wasn’t made from life: it was likely copied from an earlier portrait now lost. Engraving was a new art in England then, and had few if any masters: Droeshout, at 21 or 22 when he did the work, was at best adequate, but did well enough that Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright and friend,  Ben Jonson called it “a good likeness of the poet.” To seek hidden meanings in a piece of mediocre art is risibly thin, especially when you base it on a child’s impression.

Beauclerk (who traces his ancestry back to the de Vere he claims is the real author, so seems to have a vested interest in promoting him) makes many unsupported assertions as if they were fact, when they are in reality guesses or even fantasies. For example:

The educated elite who bought the plays from the London booksellers would have recognized them as court plays, written by an insider, who was deeply versed in English history and European culture as well as the customs and manners of royal courts, both at home and on the Continent. For those at court, his identity was an open secret, which remained concealed from the public at large… The people at court also knew that this was an author who did not scruple to speak of state affairs in his works; hence it was in their interest to protect the secret… Exposing the author would have meant exposing his satires of them and their queen. (p. XV)

There is no documentary evidence for any such secrecy or that any “educated elite” recognized anything of the sort. It’s simply a fantasy, one of many in his book. These build together like a house of cards towards his flimsy “Prince Tudor” conspiracy: that Edward de Vere was the illegitimate son of Elizabeth I with whom he subsequently had a son who became the Earl of Southampton. Got that? Double incest. To paraphrase Wikipedia:

The “Prince Tudor theory” holds that Oxford, the bastard child of Queen Elizabeth I, was also her lover (she allegedly seduced her 20-year-old son in 1568), and that Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton was in fact their son. Beauclerk claims that Oxford was thus the father of his own half-brother, having fathered him with his own mother. Oxford’s father, he claims, was Lord Admiral Thomas Seymour. Elizabeth allegedly gave birth to Oxford in 1548 when she was 15 (although the historical date of record is two years later: 1550). Apparently, everyone at the time concealed his birth.

And yet this tangled conspiracy, that must have involved dozens of people from Elizabeth’s youth to her court to her death, including her spymaster, attendants, councillors, noble families, friends, guards, ambassadors, courtiers, and servants who were at her side all day, seems never to have been made public, or even written about in secret. This is a mere generation after Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, whose similar court found evidence of all sorts of misbehaviour that resulted in several beheadings for quite minor lapses or unguarded words.

At the same time as these alleged shenanigans, Walsingham’s spies were able to ferret out heretics, traitors, and rogue priests quite regularly from hiding holes across the country. Yet they seemingly couldn’t see what was happening in large scale at court in front of them. Beauclerk also claims  mary Queen of Scots “suspected Elizabeth was the child of Anne Boleyn’s alleged lover Mark Smeaton, and not the daughter of Henry VIII.” Whew: it gets laid on thick.

You might recognize this madcap conspiracy as the central theme in the movie Anonymous, which I thought rather poorly, but sometimes humorously satirized the whole Oxford-incest-authorship conspiracy, although often painfully inaccurate, historically speaking. It wasn’t a great movie, but the sets were nicely done. And you couldn’t possibly take it seriously.

Beauclerk also says “Few realize that William of Stratford’s authorship is an eighteenth-century phenomenon.'” Well, except for the plays and poems and the big fat First Folio all published with his name on it. His name was even used on numerous works he didn’t write because his fame was such that it helped sell the publications of others. But he is correct that interest in Shakespeare’s biography began almost a century later, during the revival of theatre after the English Civil War, when Shakespeare was elevated to near deification. But by then, a lot of the Elizabethan-era records had been lost or destroyed. But not all. There are many extant records dating from the 1590s through to his death, including legal matters, house purchases, and records of his presence in the acting companies.***

True, there are few records of Shakespeare’s presence prior to 1593 (when the poem Venus and Adonis was published, credited to “William Shakespeare” on the cover), but again: absence of proof is not proof of absence. There are plenty of records after that to indicate he was a writer, and involved in the theatre, a landowner, and his name used on printed poems and plays (often published without his permission).

And gratuitously name-dropping believers in the conspiracy is ineffective: it really doesn’t matter how many of the glitterati believe in a conspiracy: belief does not make it factual.

Nothing in the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford illuminates the works he is supposed to have written. Thus the plays are reduced to works of fantasy rather than masterpieces of the imagination. (p. XVII)

Piffle. What in the works of Tom Clancy tells you he was an insurance salesman? Or tells you Jules Verne was a cabin boy on an ocean liner? Or that Edgar Allen Poe was expelled from West Point? Or that Edgar Rice Burroughs was a railway cop and a gold miner? Or that Emily Dickinson was a recluse who studied botany and produced a vast herbarium? Or that Leonard Cohen was a chauffeur for a Buddhist monk? Or that JRR Tolkein was a teacher who lectured on Beowulf? Or that Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare’s contemporary, was studying to be a Roman Catholic priest in defiance of English law? Or that Oscar Wilde lectured in Canada?

And are any of their works lesser because they did not write their autobiographies in their stories? Of course not. There are plenty of autobiographical writers out there (Henry David Thoreau, Marcel Proust, Moe Howard), or writers who use their own life experiences and relations as framework for their fiction (Jack Kerouac, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Edward St. Aubyn, for example). There is no evidence Shakespeare did so, and it’s mere wishful thinking to believe so.

The authorship conspiracy can be amusing to read, but wearisome and often annoying. There are too many holes in it, too many assumptions, suppositions, speculations and wild assertions backed by little more than innuendo or hypothesis. Beauclerk’s book is no exception: he amuses me for a time, but I become annoyed at the fallacies within it. It tempts me to throw it against the wall.

Perhaps I read it wrongly and it is, like the film Anonymous, an attempt to satirize the conspiracy. If so, it fails me in its attempted wit. It seems too likely to be serious. Wall-ward bound it flies.

It’s too bad, because Beauclerk also includes some well-written history about the times and court of Elizabeth. It’s a fascinating period, and remarkably well documented, full of politics, machinations, skulduggery, and always enjoyable to read about. But weaving through his facts and historical descriptions Beauclerk peppers his wild assertions of his conspiracy. That lessens my appreciation of his other content.****

As you might gather, I remain unconvinced that anyone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote those works that today bear his name. But I will continue to amuse myself by reading those conspiracies with the same curious enjoyment I get from reading about alien abductions, apocalyptic “prophecies,” Nessie, and creationism. I suppose I get a bizarre pleasure disputing them in my head as I read their nonsense.

But Beauclerk’s book is still headed for the downsizing pile, while more factual books on the Bard remain in my library. It will just take a little longer to get there while I read my other books to contradict him.


* I have written about the authorship conspiracy in the past (the earliest piece still online dates from 2005). I hesitate to call it either a controversy or even a debate because it seems too much like a shouting match between scholars and angry cranks a lot of the time. The non-Shakespeare side all too often depends on individual interpretations and opinions rather than evidence for their claims, much like the creationism or the anti-vaccine “debates.”

My interest in the authorship conspiracy was recently rekindled while I was downsizing my books and agonizing over which, if any, Shakespeare titles to remove. Among the books was Shakespeare’s Lost Kingdom, by Charles Beauclerk, a somewhat turgid, unconvincing tome promoting Edward de Vere as the author. I had read part of it a few years back and re-opened it to make sure it was a downsizing candidate. Even reading the introduction annoyed me sufficiently to start re-reading James Shapiro’s much more elegant Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare. The latter convincingly shreds the arguments for anyone else but William Shakespeare of Stratford. But Shapiro’s well-argued book was published in 2010, the same year as Beauclerk’s, so Shapiro was not able to deconstruct and demolish Beauclerk’s later (and more fantastic) arguments. I hope for a new edition that brings Shapiro up to date with later books.

** See, for example. Shakespeare’s Plutarch, ed. by T. Spencer, Penguin Books, 1968;  The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays by Kenneth Muir, Methuen & Co., 1977; Shakespeare’s Shakespeare: How the Plays Were Made, by John Meagher, Continuum, 2000; and Shakespeare’s Kings, by John Julius Norwich, Scriber, 1999. Most annotated plays today list the sources in their introductions.

*** See, for example, Shakespeare in Fact, by Irvin Matus, Continuum, 1999. Chapter 3 is dedicated to documenting the paper trail that identifies Shakespeare’s existence.

**** An example is the colour plate showing “Portrait of an Unknown Woman.” The Royal Collection says “the identification of the sitter remains unknown” and the “sitter may be wearing a costume designed for a court masque.” It was previously thought to be a portrait of Queen Elizabeth, and Beauclerk insists it still is, but Beauclerk adds that she is pregnant as well, although the image does not show a woman full with child. Beauclerk dates it at 1594, but the Royal Collection says it was likely painted for “the entertainment given by Sir Henry Lee, the Queen’s Master of the Armouries and Champion of the Tilt, on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to Ditchley in 1592.” A very different painting of that same non-title ascribed to  Marcus Gheeraerts II from 1595 is in the Tate Gallery, and clearly shows a pregnant woman. Did he confuse the two?

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