Jul 23rd 2015

Alas, Poor Will. Or Edward. Or Amelia… The Shakespeare Authorship Question

by Alan Skinner

After a career that has spanned threecontinents and has included television, theatre, freelance writing, corporate consultancy and even a decade as a senior executive in one of the world’sleading banks, Alan Skinner has now dedicated his efforts to writing full-time. Todate, he has three novels, a children’s picture-storybook and a play, Daisy Chain (which premiered in Melbourne in 2010) to his credit. As if he didn’t have enough to do, he was also co-inventor, designer and producer of Cinematique,a film-based board game launched in 2006.

Have we ever known him? The Will of Rosalind and Kate, Puck, Hal, Macbeth and Beatrice? And, if not really knowing Will, are these people who came mewling, laughing, raging or loving to the stage also strangers to us? Do we have to learn to know them once again if we believe they are not Will’s creation but are the offspring of a Bacon, an Oxford, a Bassano or a Sidney? For some do argue that it is only by knowing the parent that we can fully understand the child. And so the debate, commonly known as the Authorship Question, as to who really wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare, continues to plague us.

Yet, does that parentage matter? For, with all the incarnations of Shakespeare’s characters and interpretations of the plays within which they fret and strut it is unlikely that we have not already endured every possible meaning.  There are, indeed, more interpretations in the Folio than Will could possibly have dreamt of. What further meanings could we discover simply because they were written by someone other than Mr William Shakepeare of Stratford.

Mark Rylance, on the Shakespear Authorship Trust web site, offers another reason:

‘The plays have been my living and I would dearly love to know how such wonders of nature were created, especially as we know for certain they are the invention of an inspired human being working alone and with others. An understanding of the creation could reveal a creative process most beneficial to modern drama and society as a whole.’

Now, this seems a much more reasonable cause for which to set the hounds after the fox. But there’s a rub; this objective is only valid if the author is not William Shakespeare of Stratford. There is scarcely any subject in creative studies which has had the attention that scholars have given Will and his works. Compared to his contemporaries, we know a good deal about Shakespeare. Compared to later writers, we know a good deal less. The chance of uncovering more, however, is definitely drifting towards remote. So, we can only reveal a new understanding of the creative process if we are looking at someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of Shakespeare. The question, then, is useless unless the answer is … not Shakespeare.

Even that, though, is beset with some problems. The current front-runner of choice is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The problem that rears its head is that the contention that it was Oxford depends on a very complicated conspiracy theory at the heart of which is the concealment of his authorship. We know quite a lot about Oxford – far more than we know about Shakespeare – and as the creative process lies behind that very same veil of conspiracy upon which the theory of his authorship rests – we are not going to further our understanding on that score.

Rylance goes on to say that, regardless of what we can or cannot decide, at least the pursuit unveils more of Renaissance society and theatrical writing. In this perhaps he is right; perhaps the course and the pursuit are more important that catching the fox. But it strikes me that Rylance is in the minority among the anti-Stratfordians, most of whom seem obsessed with the fox’s colour. In fact, on either side there seem to be few genuine agnostics.

Nor would I count myself among them. Although I concede that there are some oddities and unknowns if we accept William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of the stupendous body of work (the lack of books in his will, the apparent discrepancy between William the creative soul and William the businessman are the two that most strike a chord with me) they are hardly sufficient to cry fraud, given the volume of evidence that William Shakespeare did write the works now attributed to him. What I do conceded is that we have no absolute proof that the William Shakespeare of London theatre and William Shakespeare of Stratford are one and the same person. Nonetheless, the weight of evidence that they are one and the same is sufficient to accept it as so, especially in the absence of any candidate with any tangible evidence of authorship.

And that is the nub of my objection: that there is no direct evidence for any of the candidates linking them to the plays, whereas we do have evidence which links William Shakespeare to them. Every argument for anyone else is based upon conjecture, supported either by biographical extrapolation, or textual decoding. It is as if the Doubting Thomases looked at the contradictions and unknowns, declared them to be of greater significance than the knowns, and cried, ‘Well, that’s done for Will” and then cast around for someone whose body might possibly match the cloth that had already been cut and sewn.

It cannot be denied that some of the textual decoding is very clever, though a great deal is rather obscure and some is just remarkably silly, stretching credulity way beyond the elasticity of even The Da Vinci Code. Such textual decoding will not get us anywhere; it is akin to Pentacostalists trading scripture with Calvinists and baffling the Baptists in the gallery.

Does it matter that the hounds still have not got close enough to the fox to even see if it is fox or vixen? Well, to me is does, and for a reason probably less noble and scholarly than Mr Rylance’s.

Gifts to humankind on the scale of Shakepeare’s works are few and precious. And it seems ungrateful of us to pull the rug of praise and thanks out from under someone who, for more than 200 years, was generally acknowledged without question (though not without criticism) as the creator of the greatest set of literary works ever produced by one person (even with occasional help). There were a few questions raised before Delia Bacon's Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them in 1856, but it was Ms Bacon's intense dedication and conjecture which kicked off the question in earnest. Nor should we be surprised; the staggering genius of Shakespeare's work was bound to cause us to wonder as much about the man as the work. How one person drew forth all that from their imagination astounds us. Now, we readily admit that we don’t understand the force that drives such a creative imagination, and yet some are prepared to judge actions of that creative soul by comparison to us ordinary mortals. They look at the quirks of genius and try to understand them by comparison to the ordinary behaviour of the ordinary people in the ordinary life around them. But in response I have to ask: Why does it surprise us when gold neither looks nor behaves like lead?

I, for instance, can concoct a quite plausible scenario for the absence of books in Mr Shakespeare’s will, one that is far less convoluted than the theories required to explain, for example, how Oxford came to author plays written after his death. I can put forward a perfectly reasonable case on why neither of Shakespeare's daughters, Susanna and Judith could, apparently, write. Perhaps for the anti-Stratfordians it is just simply more fun to concentrate on the improbable at the expense of the likely.

Mr Rylance is not alone in questioning whether a simple young man, not versed, they claim, in the intricacies of law, the machinations of the court and the geography of a great part of the European continent , could write such plays. It would have taken someone far more educated and sophisticated. The anti-Stratfordians can produce a long list of very intelligent, learned and respected figures who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. That list, though, is neither proof nor argument, and for every one on the nay side, the Stratfordians can produce another equally esteemed on the aye side.

So, I am not ready to strip Will of his due. I am sure Edward de Vere was a nice man and a dab hand at doggerel. And it is only my opinion, and thus no proof at all, but the man who wrote ...

“If women could be fair and yet not fond,

Or that their love were firm, not fickle still,

I would not marvel that they make men bond

By service long to purchase their good will ;

But when I see how frail those creatures are,

I laugh that men forget themselves so far.” (Edward de Vere,  Earl of Oxford)

... could not have written ...

A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted

Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;

A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted

With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;

An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,

Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;

A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,

Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth. (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 20)

In the absence of proof to the contrary, I shall honour William Shakespeare of Stratford for his plays, his poems, and for this rather pretty compliment to us all:

“What a piece of work is a man,

how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,

in form and moving how express and admirable,

in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!

The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”

And he might have left us a clue in those words. Maybe within the infinite variety of the human faculties there was a spark so restless, so curious, so observant - so unique - that it's mere existence confounds us still.




For Alan Skinner's twitter account, please click here.



     

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Literary Essays

Jan 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The harmful impact of air pollution caused by diesel exhaust fumes on our health is well known. It’s responsible for causing everything from respiratory problems to dementia and even certain types of cancers. But what most people don’t realise is that exhaust fumes aren’t the only cause of air pollution. In fact, up to 55% of roadside traffic pollution is made of non-exhaust particles, with around 20% of that pollution coming from brake dust. And as our latest research reveals, these particles may be just as damaging to our lungs as exhaust fumes."
Oct 26th 2019
EXTRACT: "We didn’t have emails or social media back then, so I’d usually call once a year and check in. Though I was careful not to ask, my ex-wife would graciously give me updates on “The Baby.” She told him about me early on and he just shrugged and said, “Okay.” The title of ‘father’ belongs to the man who raised him. She did once tell me there are times when she’s washing dishes or preoccupied, and he’ll come up behind her saying something, and she’ll turn around expecting to see me. "
Sep 10th 2019
Extract: "Khodasevich’s prose is as crystalline as his poetry, and this rendition by veteran translator and academic Sarah Vitali reads with such punch and verve that some of the personality sketches might have been written today for a mainstream magazine. Her endnotes add background and fascinating detail that put the forgotten era in context. "
Jul 17th 2019
Blurring the line between fiction and real life is one of the intrigues of good writing. Much of Saul Bellow’s wild antics in “Humboldt’s Gift” actually happened to him, but how much? Did Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” originate in his personal life?  Intriguing, perhaps, but none of this really matters if the story is credible and the writing holds up. Any reader with an analytical bent will wonder, however, where the truth is located in a good story. I certainly did, reading Mary L. Tabor’s new collection of twelve short stories, "The Woman Who Never Cooked."
May 31st 2018
Postcolonial scholarship has overwhelmingly focused on the legacy of Western empires – but despite a long history of foreign expansionism and domination, Russia, in its various incarnations, has never received the same amount of critical scrutiny. The Tsarist empire’s position outside the West proper, the Soviet Union’s stated opposition to imperialism, and the fact that Russia’s empire was a contiguous land empire rather than an overseas one all helped shield it from postcolonial critique. The result is a strange oversight – especially considering the fact that the heir to the largest continental empire in modern history clearly remains uncomfortable with the independence of many of its former subordinates.
May 24th 2018

At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story “The Middle Years.” Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years.

Apr 26th 2018
I would like to share a love story – framed by two solitary moments (separated by fourteen years, two months, three days, and sixteen hours) before the same telephone in the same hotel room in Boston, Massachusetts. But, to begin with, let me go back to the first meeting I had with the young woman. I met Julie in a museum, in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, in Concord, Massachusetts, on May 22, 2003, a few minutes after 10:30 AM – just three days before the bicentennial of Mr. Emerson’s birth, and three days after my own thirty-third birthday. But I hope no one will think that I believe I can parallel Mr. Emerson on any greater terms than that small coincidence.
Apr 25th 2018
Ever since I first began listening to popular music on a transistor radio, I have been fascinated by one-hit wonders. Today, oldies stations can devote entire weekends to singers and groups who had one hit and were never heard from again, including such classics as the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles.” When I began studying creativity, I discovered that one-hit wonders were not unique to pop. Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial are celebrated instances in which the name of an artist instantly calls to mind a single work, and vice versa....
Apr 3rd 2018

Serious readers like to see a review or two about big, complicated novels before deciding whether to devote their life to them.  The thousand-page Russian classics all seem to carry this warning flag. 

Feb 23rd 2018
For two years I was president of a member group of the Road Runners Club of America. I enjoyed my service, but I did not seek a second term.
Sep 23rd 2017

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K.

Jun 9th 2017

As a pianist, I have spent a lifetime reading interviews with other pianists. But I would know, above all, what it is precisely that others think about when they play. People often ask me that question.

Feb 6th 2017

During all of my adult life as an author and pianist, Ralph Waldo Emerson has been for me the supreme and unremitting guide to the Western canon.

Feb 1st 2017

Rarely does a musician with a Juilliard background and a Ph.D. in piano performance find the energy, much less the time, to conceive, plot, write and publish a series of well-constructed novels.

Jan 24th 2017

The Wall Street Journal has made an egregious error. I'm not talking about their coverage of Donald Trump, Russian hacking, or any other such ephemera. This concerns something much more serious: classic literature.

Jan 7th 2017

A Talmudic question has much intrigued me: Two men are stranded in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man has the right to drink it.

Oct 14th 2016

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.

Sep 13th 2016

It is 100 years since the birth of Roald Dahl – considered by many to be the world’s number one storyteller. His books have received enthusiastic responses from millions of children all around the world.