The Authorship Question has always been about the authorship of the Shakespeare canon, not surprising, considering his importance. But there’s a lot more to it than just who wrote Shakespeare. Several other authorships from that period are equally suspect. This is indeed a very large and problematic can of worms, one the academy has done its best to shun for over a century, (just as they shunned Shakespeare himself for three). In any case, here we are, the very “politic worms,” digging away below the surface, churning up the overgrown garden of English Renaissance Literary criticism to make room for a range of fresh new views.
Before getting into particulars, a few generalities must be put in place:
First: We must keep in mind how small the community was that gave rise to Shakespeare, Bacon, Philip Sidney, Mary Sidney, Marlowe, Raleigh, Jonson, and Donne, to name the earliest great names in English Renaissance Literature. Although historians can’t connect them except through a few mentions of each other in their published works, there’s no way these writers didn’t know each other up close and personal, not just through their works. If you see a photograph of a man standing sideways so that his left arm is out of view, do you assume that he has no left arm? Of course they knew each other!
Second: This period, the second half of the 16th century, was a time of great and rapid change. Much like our own, where suddenly, after almost a century of telephones, from one year to the next we’ve had wireless phones, then mobile phones, then blackberries; from radios we’ve had stereos, then boom boxes, then Walkmans, then ipods; so from decade to decade, even from year to year, more and more people were able to read, which meant that more and more books got published, which meant that more and more printers opened shop. The commercial Stage and Press were born, creating the Fourth Estate which over a decade became an industry. The language changed and grew. The language of literature went from excreble to perhaps the highest level it has ever reached. Even more changes would occur in the decades following, but here we’re talking about the beginning––“before the begats.”
Third: Yet no matter how rapid these changes may seem in comparison with the centuries that preceded them, all great changes take time. They don’t happen overnight. A twenty-five year old from an illiterate family does not come to London and begin writing in a brand new modern style without any schooling or help from patrons. Such a thing might happen today, but then it was just plain impossible. To raise the literary style from that of the “drab era” of the 1560s and ’70s to that of Shakespeare’s mature plays took more than a single quantum leap in the early 1590s. Indeed there was a huge upward leap at that time, but from a running, not a standing, start.
Fourth: At the beginning the reading public was a fraction of the total population, 20 percent or less has been suggested, which, in London, with a (guessed) population of 120,000 at the outset, gives us about 2400 readers. This tiny early readership is reflected in the known size of a normal print run, rarely more than 500 copies per edition. These early publications may have reached several more than one set of eyes, or rather ears, since the pattern then was for the reader of the family to read aloud to the dozen or so non-readers (including servants), but we’re still talking hundreds, not tens of thousands.
Fifth: By the time England had its literary Renaissance, most nations inEurope had already had theirs, where, in every case, the cultural revolution began at Court, or among the upper levels of the Court community, for, as common sense should tell us, these were the only people who had the kind of time and education necessary for this kind of evolution. As we will show, this was true in England as well. There’s nothing “snobbish” about facts.
Sixth: The 16th century was a time of great political and religious upheaval all throughout the West. Although Elizabeth and her leading ministers managed for years to keep the war with the Catholic Spanish from crossing the Channel, it couldn’t help but affect a nation that was still very far from being Protestant in anything but name. Times of war create an atmosphere of tension that leads to stringent policies of repression. The English literary Renaissance was finally bursting into bloom, but against a backdrop of severe political and social repression.
Seventh: There is no such thing as a revolution created by a single individual. All revolutions, whether cultural or political (and all cultural revolutions are political at some level) are created by groups acting both together and individually. Think of the gang who started the French Revolution in the 1790s, or the six artists who initiated French impressionism in the 1890s, or the group who launched the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917, or the handful of jazz musicians who created Bebop in the 1950s. Not Robespierre or Lenin or Georges Manet or Charlie Parker could have done it alone. Movements are always led by such people, but they are always supported or challenged by others of an almost equal ability.
Eighth: On the other hand, masterpieces are never created by groups. A genius may take inspiration from the works of others, but he does not collaborate or plagiarize. A theater manager like Philip Henslowe, under pressure to produce a new play every week or two and lacking a company playwright on the level of a Shakespeare or Marlowe (dead by 1594), may keep a group of four or five second-rate stringers handy to collaborate on a particular idea. But this is not how a Shakespeare or a Marlowe or an Ibsen, Shaw, or O’Neill operates. Great plays, like all great works of art, are born from the hearts, minds, and life experiences of the artist who conceived them and then bore them, often after many years of percolation. The writers that inspired, applauded, and challenged Shakespeare wrote their own works, not his.
So to understand the phenomenon of Shakespeare, we are looking, not just for a single individual, but for a group of writers and patrons based within the Court community, one that took decades, not years, to develop their styles, and when they did reach the level of public consciousness, gave it the forms they did largely because of the prevailing climate of intense authoritarian control.
There’s a very good reason why Shakespeare was not this artist’s real name, and also why he was so secretive about his beliefs.