In a world where Johns Hopkins employs shamans with magic crystals, an obscure college questioning who wrote Othello is cause for comparatively tame concern. But there’s only so many times I can go after quack medicine, so we’ll focus on William Shakespeare’s works today.
While Concordia University in Portland hosts the Shakespeare Author Research Centre, the idea that someone other than Shakespeare penned Macbeth and Much Ado About Nothing remains a fringe idea. The arguments rest mostly on the appeals to personal incredulity and negative evidence, as well as some creative non sequiturs.
Proponents argue Shakespeare lacked the background and education to be familiar with multiple languages, legal vernacular, medical terms, maritime parlance, and even lawn bowling. This shows a lack of appreciation for the creative mind. H.G. Wells didn’t have to travel to the future or make himself invisible to write his books.
The idea of an alternative author first arose in the 19th Century as an elitist objection over the idea of a man from a working class family in a piffling rural town becoming the most revered figure in English literature. In this appeal to personal incredulity, doubters say Shakespeare lacked the aristocratic sensibility or familiarity with the royal court to pen King Lear or Richard II. But biographical information is a poor route to establish authorship. Steven King was never chased by a possessed automobile or captured by a crazed fan. Besides, revealing one’s self autobiographically only became common in the 19th Century literature.
While elitism started the movement, it gained traction in the 20th Century for the opposite reason. Shakespeare was so much part of the establishment that attributing his work to someone else was the rebellion. Whatever the incentive, the idea has been largely rejected by literary experts and academia. This is sometimes offered as further evidence of the cover-up. Concordia’s authorship centre, for instance, maintains a tab labeled, “Exposing an industry in denial.”
One name commonly suggested by believers is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. He was a talented writer who had the aristocratic resume proponents feel was necessary to write the plays. The most sizable obstacle is that he died in 1604, whereas Shakespearean plays continued to be churned out until 1612. This leaves Oxfordians feebly arguing that the plays had been written before he died, but Shakespeare’s latter plays referenced events that occurred after 1604.
Then we have the Shake ‘n Bake theory, the notion that Shakespeare’s works were written by Francis Bacon. The latter was an extremely accomplished man, at once a scientist, philosopher, diplomat, and writer. It’s a shame many know him primarily as one of the contrarian author candidates. The Baconian wing may have produced the field’s most amusing moment when Orville Owen devised a cipher wheel that tried to detect clues he suspected Bacon had left in the plays.
Christopher Marlowe is another of the regular nominees, quite bizarre since he was murdered in 1593. This theory posits that Marlowe faked his death by convincing his attackers to cover for him while he high-tailed it to Italy and stealthily cranked out literature’s most magnificent canon. That’s a better plot than anything Shakespeare came up with. I tell you, Occam’s Razor is just so boring.
Another idea is that the plays were written by a woman who had to keep it secret owing to sexism. Joanne Rowling was forced to adopt the moniker JK in order to sound masculine, and females fared 100 times worse in Shakespeare’s time. It was so bad that female characters were played onstage by males. This created an especially absurd spectacle when the storyline included those characters disguising themselves as the other sex. Hence, there was a man pretending to be a woman pretending to be a man. However, establishing that early 17th Century England was a lousy time and place to be female is much different than offering that as conclusive scholarship Hamlet was written by a downtrodden damsel.
The evidence proffered for these various ideas lies in part on similarities between the characters and events of the supposed clandestine author. Or in alleged similarities between Shakespeare’s works and the chosen candidate’s. There are also secret codes and cryptographic hints the true author sprinkled throughout the tragedies and comedies. Coming up with or embracing these ideas depend on one’s level of mental agility and desire to believe.
Evidence for Shakespearean authorship is much more mundane, but much stronger. Despite assertions he was merely a literary agent or transcriber, his contemporaries described him as a playwright. A monument at his village church identifies him as a writer and compares him to Virgil and Socrates. Also, an unpublished collaborative play, “Sir Thomas More,” was discovered in the 20th Century, with 20 percent of the script in Shakespeare’s handwriting. This included lined-out passages and inserted words, showing Shakespeare was revising the work, not just transcribing it.
Besides the quill and pen evidence, there are also modern-day proofs. Ward Elliott and Robert Valenza conducted a stylometric study that used computer programs to compare Shakespeare’s writing style to dozens of alternate candidates. They determined Shakespeare’s work to be consistent, suggesting one author, and found he used fewer relative clauses and more hyphens, feminine endings, and run-on lines than the others. Elliott and Valenza determined that none of the tested claimants could have written Romeo and Juliet or the 37 other plays.
Proponents resort to negative evidence, such as Shakespeare’s will not mentioning his shares of the Globe Theatre. They also point out that the Bard wasn’t much-traveled, but Shakespeare’s works show little interest in geography. He had nautical journeys that would be impossible and armies completing their march in an unrealistically rapid time. For Shakespeare, it was important what was happening and to whom, not where it was taking place.
Doubters also point out the plays’ deference to royalty and suggest the commoner Shakespeare would have been more sympathetic to the simple man. Yet Shakespeare’s themes, like his times, stressed the inevitability of providence and fate. Kings were designed to rule, subjects to follow. Typical was Hamlet noting that, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends.”
Shakespeare’s genius sprouted not from pedagogical or didactic roots, but in his understanding of people. Or as Samuel Johnson more ostentatiously put it, he had the “vigilance of observation and accuracy of distinction, which books and precepts cannot confer.”
Evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays includes his name on the title pages, testimony from contemporaries, official records, and computer analysis. These proofs exist for no other candidate. Depending on one’s viewpoint, this is overwhelming evidence for either Shakespearean authorship or a conspiracy.