The Authorship problem

Who or what do we mean by Shakespeare?

Every Oxfordian has heard the scoffing retort, “I thought Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.”  So the first question must be: When we say Shakespeare, do we mean: 1) William of Stratford; do we mean: 2) the author of the plays; or do we mean: 3) the plays themselves––as when we say we’ve read “all of Shakespeare”?

For 400 years, most academics and readers at large have taken numbers 1 and 2 to be identical.  But read enough material on the subject and it soon becomes apparent that 1 and 2 must be separate entities: #1 providing the name, while #2 provides the writing skills, the erudition, and a biography and personality that dovetails with the plots, themes, and characters of the plays.

My thesis

All Oxfordians agree on one thing (and many on only one thing), that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, was the true author of the Shakespeare canon; too much remains unclear for all of us to agree on everything.  To expand upon this basic agreement, I should make it clear that the following is my own view, if shared with some Oxfordians, certainly not with all:

William of Stratford (#1) was a provincial family man in need of cash who sold his punnable name to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men so that their playwright, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (#2) would have the necessary privacy to write the plays that, when published, bore the name Shakespeare (#3).

As for the name itself, William having sold it, by rights it should belong to the one who made it famous.  Without it the plays might never have been written or published, while the name itself would have remained nothing more than that of an obscure Warwickshire family and a few curiously spelled squiggles in the dusty records of far-off Stratford-upon-Avon, of interest to absolutely no one but a later descendant or two.

For these reasons, when I say Shakespeare here, I mean either the playwright (#2), or his body of work (#3).  For the sake of clarity, I’ll call  #1, the man who sold his name, William of Stratford, a perfectly good name for an English yeoman, even one of French descent.

An argument from silence

Admittedly, much of what we offer here is what’s known as an “argument from silence,” but as in Conan Doyle’s  The Adventure of Silver Blaze, where we would expect to hear a particular sound (the barking of a dog) and instead hear nothing, silence can tell us something that the records can’t. As Ramon Jiménez shows in his brilliant bit of literary forensics, no trace has ever been found in either London or Stratford that the handful of contemporaries who either had, or should have had, direct contact with William ever connected him with theater activities of any sort, whether acting, writing plays, or even holding horses.

Despite the volumes of claims, there is simply no evidence that #1 ever attended any institution of learning, lived in any household with a library or tutor, or had any opportunity whatsoever to acquire the erudition displayed by #2.  As for writing, we find no letters from him to anyone on any subject much less literature, in fact, we have nothing at all in his hand but six shaky signatures (no pun intended), not all spelled alike, on legal documents where, as the dealer in land and other commodities that was the real William, the law required a signature.

During the First World War, a clever British schoolteacher who had been teaching #3 to the sixth form for decades went searching for the missing voice, made a brilliant guess where it was most likely to be found, and Eureka! found it right away in the standard Oxford Book of English Verse.  It’s still to be found––surrounded by poems by Shakespeare––in Palgrave’s Golden Treasury as number XLI “Renunciation.”  With the poem came  a name, one not widely known to modern readers though famous in his own time, “E. Vere, Earl of Oxford.”  This, along with a biography that supplies all that any open-minded researcher could ask for in the way of evidence of his authorship, set the schoolteacher on the path we follow today.

Here’s the argument:

Since #1(William of Stratford)’s biography is so out of sync in every possible way with what we would expect  from #2 (the writer Shakespeare), and since there would be no reason whatsoever for an entrepreneur like #1, struggling to provide for a large needy family, to hide his connection to the most popular and lucrative entertainment of his time, it must be, ipso facto, that the actual authorship of #3 was hidden for a reason.  More, those who worked with him during his life and those who came after him, performing his works and seeing to their publication, must also have had reasons for continuing the coverup.  All this becomes perfectly clear to anyone who manages to get past the confusion of the name.

So that’s where we must look, for the reasons for the silence, the reasons for the coverup, and the reasons for its continuance long after both #1 and #2 were dead.

Oxford’s life in the plays

Let’s begin with something concrete on both sides of the question, one that all agree connects literature with Oxford’s own story.  Even the most Stratford-oriented scholars usually agree that the character of Polonius in Hamlet was modeled after Oxford’s guardian and father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.  This suggests that Polonius’s daughter, Ophelia, was modeled after Burghley’s daughter, Anne Cecil, Oxford’s wife.  Anne’s death has largely been blamed (both by contemporaries and by historians) on Oxford’s coldness towards her and his rudeness towards her father, much as Ophelia’s madness and suicide were blamed on Hamlet’s cold treatment and his murder of her father.

Oxford didn’t murder Burghley, though there must have been occasions when he yearned to do just that.  Instead, he transferred the urge into the onstage killing of Polonius where a proxy for that “wretched, rash, intruding fool” who thought “beauteous” a “vile word,” could be stabbed to death (with a collapsing sword) through the arras, over and over, night after night, for decades––a much more satisfying revenge, as Burghley no doubt was uncomfortably aware.  And so on and so forth, throughout the entire play, every incident recalling one from Oxford’s life.  In fact, something from his own life can be found in almost every play we know as Shakespeare’s.

Those who pursue the many connections between Hamlet and Oxford’s biography are forced to conclude that the author, whoever he was, based the play on Oxford’s life, so that either someone very close to Oxford wrote it, or Oxford wrote it himself.  Oxford had several secretaries whose names were used to publish his works, but it’s unlikely that anyone but the earl himself would have had the nerve to display such personal issues before either the Court or the public (certainly not someone of William’s lowly status).

Since it was stated forthrightly in a book published in 1598 by by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries that Oxford was known as “best for comedy,” (comedy then simply meaning drama) the most likely assumption is that it was Oxford himself who wrote Hamlet and all the other plays that reflect his life story, and that, despite the name on the title page, it was he who wrote all the plays published in the 1623 collection known as the First Folio.

Consider that the great and powerful Burghley-Polonius and the daughters of Oxford-Hamlet, and the great and powerful noblemen to whom, by then, his daughters were married,  most of them with close connections to the Stage and the publishing industry, were all very much alive when the plays first began to be produced and then published and were all still alive, the daughters and husbands anyway, when the First Folio was published.

Consider how you would feel had your father or your son-in-law portrayed you or your family in the way that Oxford portrayed the Cecils in Hamlet, Coriolanus, or Richard III, or his daughters and their husbands in King Lear?  Would you want the truth to come out?  Wouldn’t you do everything you could to stop the publication unless you were satisfied that any connection to you or your family was eliminated from the text?  Sure you would.

Safe within the cocoon of anonymity that his social power enabled him to create, he used his own life and the lives of those he knew, the greats and wannabe greats of his nation, as grist for his story mill, the London Stage.  Nothing of the sort can be said about William of Stratford, whose six shaky signatures tell us how difficult it was for him to write even so much as his own name.

Were it not for the nature of that name, which spelled a particular way forced a pronunciation that meant it could be heard as a pun, William would never have been involved in any way in Oxford’s life or with the London Stage.  In fact, were it not necessary for the writer, and the acting company he made so successful, that the plays be published, which meant that an author’s name had to appear on the title page, the cover-up would never have taken place simply because it would not have been necessary.

That’s it in a nutshell.

Basically this is the argument in its shortest form, and so far––apart from shouts of “nonsense” and “preposterous”––no one so far as I can see has come up with something better.

9 responses to “The Authorship problem

  1. Dear Stephania, I have read your article: ‘The Authorship argument’, with it all it references. Excellently! From all, what have happened to read me in the the subject, I never met so competent, deep the article. So much the facts new to me! After acquaintance of material, it seems to me that ‘Shakespeare Authorship Problem’ it is not so much a problem. It is so many facts speak well Edward de Vere, that only people insufficiently competent of this question can name as possible author the names of other people, less of all on Shakespeare can be apply. Incomparable analysis interweaving factual life of Edward de Vere with the parts of Hamlet, concerning Polonius, Hamlet, Ophelia. Thank you,
    Yours, Igor

  2. hopkinshughes

    Many thanks, Igor. I heartily agree. : >)

    • Hi Stephanie,

      Y0u reviewed my webquest and marveled that it be taught at the secondary ed level, so I thought I should let you know that it’s not. It was an assignment for an EDTECH teaching class. I, too, am a longtime Oxfordian. 12 years. I have written one movie THE GREATEST STORY NEVER TOLD, which I’m trying to sell and I’m writing a book. I think you’ll like my title. AS YOU DON’T LIKE IT.
      In it, I decode the debate, using the play As You Like It.

      Love your site, keep trucking.

      jeff rowe

  3. Dear Stephanie, your blog – it’s not just a collection of articles by the competent person in the field of Shakespeare, this is the essay of scholar, one of the leading scientists in this field as in England, and in the world. Your book (blog), so circumstances, are so deep, that but words of admiration are no other comments are not born.
    Yes, there’s something else, reading your blog requires a lot of attention and concentration; for those for whom English is not their native language.
    Your Igor.

  4. hopkinshughes

    Thanks again, Igor. It’s not my words, but the Authorship Question that requires attention, and by native speakers as well as others. I really appreciate the effort. It’s a great story. Thanks to Jeff too.

  5. Ms. Hughes. I was just wondering what exactly does it mean that he chose William of Stratford to represent the authorship of the plays because he had a punnable name?

    Would it not have been obvious to almost everyone in the know that a man like William of Stratford who had little or no education could not possibly have written those plays?

  6. Pun names were one of the ways that writers hiding their identities could let insiders know that the writer was wearing a mask. Not all readers are attuned to puns. I grew up with them, so to me a pun sticks out like a sore thumb, but that’s not at all the case with the vast majority who don’t hear them and when they’re explained, don’t get the joke.

    Puns can take many forms, some are really stupid while others can be dazzlingly complex and meaningful. Like poems written to a particular beat with alliteration and rhymes, they are a form of wordcraft, so most writers and all poets are sensitive to them. Sometimes, when they occur naturally, they have to be avoided, because a pun almost always functions as a saboteur, throwing a wrench into a smooth running discourse, which is not always desirable. The penchant for pun names for characters in English plays and novels is obvious.

    By using a pen name a writer can be seen as turning his (or her) authorship into a semi-fictional character, though which they can assume a particular authorial identity, different from the one they would show if writing under their real names. This is even more true of pun names, since a pun signifies ludi, Latin for jokes or games (as in ludicrous). It says, don’t take me too seriously; we’re here to have fun.

    The theory that Oxford chose William of Stratford because of the punnable qualities inherent in his name (that is, if spelled so it could be pronounced Shake-spear) is largely based on the theory that he was also the power behind the Robert Greene persona. Robert Greene had “died” in September of 1592, so by April of 1593, when Oxford was anxious to get Venus and Adonis in the bookstalls, he was still without a pen name. Robert Greene was a very ordinary name, but it did convey an allusion to the Green Man, a folk character closely related to holiday mumming and disguising, while the word green in French was/is vere. It was important the the name not be too obviously a pun, so Shakespeare was ideal.

    Though not an ordinary name, Shakespeare was common enough that its punning nature would not be obvious. And that the first name was William was an added plus, since that allowed a more complex reading: Will shake spear. The fact that William was illiterate (and so could not make an attempt to pass his own awful verse off under the same name); that his hometown was so far from London (two days ride by horse, requiring a stopover in Oxford); and that his family was obviously dependent on what stipend the Lord Chamberlain’s Men gave him, were all just so much gravy.

    In 1595, the problem for Oxford and his patrons was less to confront questions about his authorship than to see to it that such questions didn’t spread. The real William Shakespeare was an unknown in London. When he was there he was just another face in the crowd, and as the record suggests, he wasn’t there very often or for very long. Nevertheless, should someone go looking for him, they could find him if they didn’t mind the long trip to Stratford. And William himself, as John Aubrey’s anecdote suggests, was well aware that he had to be prepared to turn aside any challenge to show his writing skills, so it’s clear that somebody, more than one perhaps, did seek him out.

  7. First of all I am heavily interested in Shakespeare #3, which leads me to the authorship question, so far the arguments are not convincing me, I must be missing someething, here are a few remarks of mine on this part of your website.

    Argument from silence:
    “As for writing, we find no letters from him to anyone on any subject much less literature”
    You are aware that the surviving letters of Oxford have NO reference to literature.
    If you discredit Will from Stratford based on the lack of letters so ceratinly none on literature, you SHOULD discredit Oxford even more because there are over 60 letters by him and NONE of them deal with literature…

    And theater may have been ‘not done’ for courtiers, but poems surely since Elizabeth herself wrote and enjoyed them would not object… the style of writing of the poems and the plays is too similar to attribute them to different writers…
    I wonder…

  8. Oxford’s surviving letters are all to his in-laws, who were intensely antagonistic to his literary activities, so of course they don’t mention literature! Would you write to your in-laws on a subject that you knew they loathed and were doing their best to prevent you from doing?

    Renaissance courtiers were all poets to some degree. An original poem beautifully copied was the favored response to any situation, forerunners of our modern greeting cards. It was publishing that was disdained. Until Oxford, Bacon and Mary Sidney (who all published under pseudonyms), Court poets wrote only for internal consumption.

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