Over the years, the Shakespeare authorship argument has moved from one candidate to another, starting with Bacon in the late 19th century, then to Marlowe (1895), then to Oxford (1920). Perhaps due to a gradual weakening of the Stratford scenario, today almost anyone in the 16th century who left evidence of travels to France or Italy, or published something, or was ever mentioned in some connection with the London Stage has a book, or at least a website, where he or she is touted as the real Shakespeare. Hopefully this is simply a phase in the long slow turn away from the Stratford myth, first conjured up by Ben Jonson for the King’s Men in 1623.
As it stands at the moment, there are six candidates who have inspired at least one book, some several (William hundreds, Bacon and Oxford dozens), and whose credentials are currently being furiously hashed over online and in print. Just going by what I get from google alerts, blogs and comments, book reviews, etc., I’d say that Oxford remains in the lead with Bacon second, Marlowe third, and trailing but still with some interest, Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, Emilia Bassano Lanier, and William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby.
Of all the advocates for these six candidates, I know of none but myself who’s advocating for all of them, not as Shakespeare, but as co-founders of the English Literary Renaissiance (the ELR). It’s been my view for some time now that all of them (minus Derby and plus Philip Sidney) belong in this pantheon of heroes . All (but Derby) wrote their own stuff in their own particular styles. What’s caused so much confusion and misunderstanding is that three of them, Oxford, Bacon, and Mary Sidney, published some or most of what they wrote under other names.
As for the group theory, i.e., that all of these gifted writers had a hand in some or all of Shakespeare’s plays, what genius level creator would, or even could, share the agonies and ecstasies of creation, particularly at the subliminal level at which these masterpieces operate? Elizabethans were fond of the metaphor that compared the creation of a work of literature to a mother bearing a child. Like all mothers, literary mothers need support (editors, publishers, and agents today; in Shakespeare’s time: secretaries, printers, and patrons), but as with the mothers of human offspring, the creation and polishing of a great writer’s mental offspring always was and always will be a solitary experience, inseminated by a muse perhaps, but developed in secret collaboration with no one but the writer’s own soul.
Nevertheless, it’s true that other hands are evident in some of Shakespeare’s plays, particularly the weaker ones. For instance, I tend to accept Brian Vickers’s argument in his Shakespeare Co-author that George Peele was responsible for some of Titus Andronicus. That is, I agree with his view of the fact of composition, not with his scenario (the two working together as contemporaries, brilliant young William dividing up the acts with the by then quite mature Peele, which begs the question of who at that point was in charge? It’s just as easy to see Oxford in the mid-80s, bored with providing the Court with material, giving Peele one of his old plays to rewrite.
Vickers’s use of the term “co-author” suggests the kind of collaboration shared by Gilbert and Sullivan or Rogers and Hammerstein. Although I respect his ear and his conclusion that there are two hands at work on these lesser plays, since he refuses to acknowledge the anti-Stratfordian thesis that covers were used on title pages, he doesn’t deal with the possibility that Wilkins, a leading member of the no biography group, was a name used by an upmarket Jacobean who felt it necessary to hide his (or her) identity. (I am equally suspicious of John Fletcher.) And because Vickers refuses to consider the Oxfordian thesis, with its corollary of weak early versions rewritten during Oxford’s mature “Shakespeare” period, he can’t deal with the likelihood that the “other hand,” the one that doesn’t “sound like” Shakespeare, was was in fact Shakespeare’s own juvenile effort, later turned over to Peele, Oxford having lost interest in it.
Finally, once Oxford was dead, the acting companies , eager to capitalize as much as possible on anything he ever wrote, had some of his earliest plays revised by Jacobeans. The King’s Men had Two Noble Kinsmen revised, possibly by Fletcher (as claimed), while Philip Henslowe had The Spanish Tragedy revised by Ben Jonson. And, as trained scholars have shown, editors did make changes of various sorts to the plays before the First Folio was published in 1623. But while those who were most likely to have had a hand in editing Oxford’s plays were themselves members of this group of artists (I propose Mary Sidney and Francis Bacon), the sum total of their editing could never have approached a level that could be considered co-authoring.
What I am advocating is a group theory, not for the creation of Shakespeare, but for the creation of the English Fourth Estate, including the London Stage and the English periodical press, and the start to the long tradition of English literature, the outpouring of poetry and novels for which the English have been lauded ever since. Each of these six writers created their own canons, some under their own names, some under the names of proxies. Of these six, four are now the leading candidates for authorship of the Shakespeare canon. The fifth, Philip Sidney, would certainly be on that list had he not died too early (and too publicly) to be included. (Derby was not a writer; had he been, we’d have evidence of it.) There is a seventh, Sir Walter Raleigh, who’s got to be considered for his great literary gifts, but the fog that surrounds so many of the works of this period is still too thick around him to see clearly where he fits in.
Putting the pieces together, what I see is a group of artists, much like the the 19th-century group that created the first important style in painting that can be considered modern art, the French Impressionists, a group of painters of very differing styles, more or less forced to band together to show their work when they were rejected by the Royal Academy. Much like our ELR crew, the basic group consisted of five men and one woman (Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, Sisley, Degas and Berthe Morisot).
No revolution, whether cultural or political, can succeed without a handful of energetic (reckless?) individuals in positions to make things happen, and it seems that six is often the magic number. Sometimes they work together, sometimes they just arrive at the same place at the same time. Think of the six original members of the Austin High gang in the twenties, the early six in the Bebop of the forties (Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown, Milt Jackson, Kenny Clarke, John Lewis), the Beatles in the sixties (four plus the ghosts of Brian Epstein and Pete Best), the six members of Monte Python in the seventies. At other times they arrive one after the other, with periods of overlap, like the big three of the Italian Literary Renaissance: Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, or the big three of 17th-century French drama: Corneille, Moliere, and Racine.
There are other such groups, usually with a large fringe of lesser doers (makers, as they were known then, from the Greek poirein) and their fans, linked not only by the styles they adopted, but also by their relationships with each other. Artists, scientists, engineers, cooks––all creators make the best critics and most stimulating rivals for each other. Gifted writers not only make the most discriminating audiences for each other, they are good at reevaluating their predecessors, as did Alexander Pope in his time and Coleridge in his, for Shakespeare.
The leader of this particular group of makers, and the oldest, was the Earl of Oxford. The two who had the most influence on his style during his pre-Shakespeare years, and he on theirs, were Philip Sidney, his junior by four years, and Christopher Marlowe, his junior by fourteen years. Oxford had a huge influence on Francis Bacon’s style, as we see from Bacon’s notebook Promus, but his style was not similarly influenced by Bacon, who was of a very different mind. Mary and Emilia were both too young to influence his style, though they certainly influenced his later female characters, most notably Mary as Olivia and Portia; Emilia as Emilia (in Othello), Kate in Shrew, and most completely, Cleopatra.