Last Post on Shakespeare (for now)

I don’t harbor any illusions that any post or comment I make will quell dissent from the Oxfordians. Nor do I believe that I will be able to answer every question or point raised. As I said in my first post on the topic, fringe theorists in general nitpick: they present a barrage of questions, counterarguments and niggles (and repeat ones already made). I look forward to hearing from them a coherent explanation of how the Oxford-as-Shakespeare conspiracy actually worked, why it was put into place and who was involved in it. I also eagerly await evidence for the conspiracy and Oxford’s authorship.

Until then, I will attempt to explain why William Shakespeare (with help from John Fletcher, George Peele, Thomas Middleton and George Wilkins) is likely to be the author of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. In the first place, the simplest answer to the question, “Who wrote the plays and poems of ‘William Shakespeare’?” is William Shakespeare, son of a Stratford glover, actor and shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men. We know such a person existed. Plenty of official records survive that refer to him. He is named as the author on the title pages of Venus and Adonis, The Rape of Lucrece, many quartos of plays published during his lifetime and the First Folio of his plays, published seven years after his death by colleagues in his company. There were also many references to him and his works in his lifetime and within a decade after his death. Occam’s Razor would suggest that this man was exactly who the evidence says he was: a middle class man who wrote a bunch of really impressive stuff. If someone wishes to argue otherwise, that person must present very compelling evidence that explains not only “who,” but also “how” and “why.”

Oxfordians such as Charlton Ogburn often say that there is no documentary evidence to tie Shakespeare to his works. The proper response to this contention is a befuddled look and the words, “Yes there is—lots of it.” The Oxfordians then explain that somehow that evidence doesn’t count: those are merely references to a name on a title page. Even assuming this were true, so what? References on title pages are very strong evidence indeed. Again, where is the compelling evidence that someone else was using the name “William Shakespeare,” a name that belonged to an actual living human, as a pseudonym? In addition, this argument is simply not true. There are a number of contemporary references to plays that had not been published yet. The best, but not only, example of this is Francis Meres’s Palladis Tamia, which mentions, among other works, Shakespeare’s sonnets and the (probably) lost play Love’s Labor’s Won.

There is also Robert Greene’s indictment of Shakespeare as an “upstart Crow,” who thinks himself “the only Shake-scene in a country.” It is hard to imagine how this could refer to anyone but the actor Shakespeare, who was also the author of 3 Henry VI, which is parodied. Yet Stratfordians maintain that this statement is ambiguous. In his comments on an earlier post, Howard Schumann has quoted a “skeptic’s [presumably Diana Price’s] paraphrase of the ‘Upstart Crow’ diatribe:”

Beware of one untrustworthy actor, the “Upstart Crow”. We make him look good in the roles we write, but this player is callous, duplicitous, and arrogant. ; he fancies himself able to extemporize lines in blank verse that are as good as any of yours (the three playwrights Peele, Marlowe, and Nashe). He even passes off some of your material as his own. And this know-it-all thinks he’s the most important actor around…So while you still have a chance to escape my fate, find some playmasters with more compassion and integrity. Stay away from actor-paymasters and usurers (like Johannes Factotum) because you three are too talented to be exploited by such contemptible knaves.

This is not a paraphrase: it’s a wildly speculative interpretation. It does not represent what the passage actually says. Mr. Schumann also cites Stephanie Hopkins Hughes who argues that the Upstart Crow passage refers to Edward Alleyn, the lead actor of the rival Lord Admiral’s Men. There is absolutely no evidence for this and no reason to think it might be true.

Oxfordians also make a great deal of fuss about the six Shakespeare signatures. These signatures prove, say the Oxfordians, that Shakespeare was barely literate: he spelled his name several different ways, and the writing is almost illegible. This argument is frankly ludicrous. Spelling is irrelevant. Since spelling was not standardized, people spelled according to preference or whim or space requirements. Bob noted in the comments that Sir Walter Ralegh at one time spelled his name “Rawley.” In Christopher Marlowe’s only known signature, he spelled his name “Marley,” though his baptismal record reads “Marlow.” Contemporaries sometimes spelled his name “Morley.”

As to handwriting, Shakespeare, like many of his contemporaries, wrote in secretary hand, which is very difficult to read because we no longer use it. It is also possible that Shakespeare was ill at the time he signed his will (which contains 3 of the 6 signatures). This is speculative, but he died within a month of signing it, and there is evidence that it was revised hastily. More importantly, however, since when has handwriting, especially in signatures, been an indicator of literacy or intelligence? I know squirrels with neurological impairments that would be ashamed of my handwriting.

A major premise of all anti-Shakespearean theories is that the author of the plays must have had great knowledge of/first-hand experience in [fill in the blank], and semi-literate, business-obsessed, middle class Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have had that knowledge/experience. This premise is based in part on our friend the argument from ignorance: the author of the plays must have traveled widely, especially in Italy; we have no record of Shakespeare traveling abroad; therefore, Shakespeare never traveled abroad and couldn’t have written the plays. Well, we actually don’t know if Shakespeare ever traveled outside England–maybe he did; maybe he didn’t–we just don’t know, so we can’t really say that he didn’t travel abroad. On top of that, sometimes he was wrong. In The Taming of the Shrew, he gave Padua a harbor, and Ben Jonson complained that “Shakespeare in a play [The Winter’s Tale] brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea by some 100 miles” (qtd. in Stanley Wells, Shakespeare & Co., p. 159). The thing is, Shakespeare didn’t need to be a world traveler to avoid these mistakes: they had these things…they were kind of like Google Earth but without the Google part. Granted, there were bits of these maps that were a bit sketchy, but Italy and Bohemia had been fairly thoroughly explored by then. Did he not realize his mistake? I don’t know, but it’s possible that he just didn’t care that much. If it served his dramatic purpose for Padua to have a harbor, then Padua got a harbor.

It is, of course, a mistake to assume that the author must have had personal experience of all the things he wrote about. Shakespeare presumably used the tools modern authors use: personal experience and observation, study, reading and discussions with people who did have personal experience. Shakespeare did not have to be an expert in falconry to be able to write accurately about falconry. Also, rumor has it that many creative writers are known for their imaginations.

Anti-Shakespeareans also point out that some of Shakespeare’s sources were not available in English translation and assume that he was not sufficiently fluent in Latin, French and Italian to read those sources. Again, this is an argument from ignorance. We can’t assume Shakespeare couldn’t read Italian just because we don’t have a receipt from an Italian tutor. As we’ve said previously, it is very likely that Shakespeare attended a grammar school and got a good Latin education. If you know Latin, figuring out Italian and French isn’t that hard. I have personally wrestled with languages that I have not studied formally, and, while I won’t claim that I won every bout, I at least managed a draw.

Oxfordians–and others, frankly–just aren’t very happy with what we know about Shakespeare. We have a fair amount of information about him, but most of it comes from legal and business documents. This is hardly surprising: those are the sorts of official documents that one would expect to survive, while more personal items may be lost or destroyed. Would it be nice if there were a treasure-trove of personal letters? Well, heck yeah. Such a discovery would make Shakespeare scholars absolutely giddy. Sadly, we have to deal with what we do have. The odd thing is that anti-Shakespeareans sometimes assume that business and money were all Shakespeare was interested in. Again this strikes me as patently ridiculous. Who among us is defined by the contracts we’ve signed? Most people care about finances and business, and most people care about other things as well. Why should we assume Shakespeare was so different from the rest of us?


3 Responses to Last Post on Shakespeare (for now)

  1. Pacal says:

    Well since no one else has left a comment on this and the Oxfordian with his beside the point polemical tricks hasn’t bothered to display his “learning”. I will say I found this piece of interest. Oh and perhaps a future post concerning Shakespeare’s authorship could concentrate on reral literary problems concerning authorship of the plays.

    For example it is generally accepted that some of plays attributed to Shakespeare were the products of joint authorship. I’m thinking in particular of the three Henry VI’s plays. It is also my understanding that some of the plays published under Shakespeare’s name in the second and third folio but eventually removed from the canon of Shakespeare plays may actually contain bits and pieces written by Shakespeare. I’m no Shakespeare scholar but I would be interested in reading an informed exploration of issues like that regarding Shakespeare and his plays rather than more Oxford, Marlowe, and Bacon shit.

  2. Eve says:

    You’re right, we should do a post on real questions about authorship. Briefly, the following plays are widely considered to include material by an author other than Shakespeare: 1 Henry VI, Titus Andronicus (probably George Peele), Macbeth (revisions/additions by Thomas Middleton), Pericles (collaboration with George Wilkins), Henry VIII or All Is True (probable collaboration with John Fletcher), Two Noble Kinsmen (collaboration with John Fletcher), and Cardenio, a lost play that has recently been reconstructed (collaboration with Fletcher). There may be others that I’m forgetting.

    Pericles, Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio are not included in the First or Second Folios, possibly because they were collaborations. The Second Folio contained the same plays as the First (if I recall correctly) but had new introductory material–commendatory poems and such. The Third Folio includes Pericles, but not Two Noble Kinsmen or Cardenio but does include several plays that everyone agrees are not by Shakespeare.

  3. knitwitted says:

    So why don’t the Oxfordians claim these anonymous plays for de Vere:

    “Agamemnon and Ulysses” – performed by Oxford’s Boys in 1584

    “The weakest goeth to the wall” (1600) – performed by Earl of Oxenford his servants

    “the true historye of GEORGE SCANDERBARGE” – performed by Earl of Oxenford his servants 1601

    ***BIG QUESTION*** Why do the Oxfordians ignore what de Vere really did with his life?

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