The Authorship: the Big Picture

What are we to think about Shakespeare?  Is he who he said he was, who Ben Jonson and the academics say he was, or was he someone else?  Have we been diddled by Jonson all these centuries, and if so, why?  And does it really matter?

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but then what does?  Does it matter who won Olympic gold this year, or who gets appointed to the Supreme Court?  How many people care about these things?  What percentage of the population gives a damn about almost any question you can think of, including who killed Jack Kennedy?

It’s said that when George Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Mt. Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there”––actually another authorship question since some think that a journalist made it up, but no matter who actually said it, it’s a good answer and it works for Shakespeare too.  For Shakespeare looms as large in the history of English letters as Everest looms on the Himalayan horizon.  Why do we want to know  the answer to the question of who actually created the language we speak?   Because it’s there.

Why “the big picture”?

If we knew who wrote the works we wouldn’t need anything but a little background along the edges, but not knowing, not knowing for sure, we must go to the background, for the truth leaves clues wherever it occurs.  As I got deeper into the story it began to expand, from the works themselves to the life of the supposed author to the lives of other English authors and their works, both those with writer’s biographies and those without, to the lives of the patrons and of the Queen they served, their politics, alliances, relationships and beliefs.

It spread to the story of the Continental poets and playwrights, to the history of the Reformation and beyond that of the European Renaissance.  From the works it spread to their sources (which, it turned out, were often in languages other than English), to the kind of education available to the writers, to the ancient and Continental works that inspired them,  and on to the realities of literature itself, how it gets created and by what kind of artist.  And finally to questions of freedom of speech and freedom of enterprise.  A big picture indeed.

Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary.  Not only will the big picture bring illumination to the history of the period, it may help to bring understanding to something that’s in danger of being lost, the important and true purposes of Art, the nature of artists––as different from other human creatures as are butterflies from bees.

To put it as simply as possible, Shakespeare’s identity got hidden because he was so closely involved with the history of his time and with its movers and shakers, those in a position to hide the things they wanted hidden, that his identity became one of those things.

3 thoughts on “The Authorship: the Big Picture

  1. I agree with the sentiment expressed above. If it turns out that a good grammar school and apprenticeships are enough to make a Shakespeare, then hooray for the human race!

    On the other hand, Oxford even without poetry and plays seems a good historical figure on his own. He seems equally at home with the queen, foreigners, diplomats, spies, queenmakers, soldiers, sailors, scholars, moneylenders, mystics, speculators, miners, minors (just kidding), women-of-the evening, and his own droogs.

    I am curious to learn if Oxford can be more closely tied to publisher, press screw, and paper. As far as I can tell, his interfaces with the press are at high level; no printing hardware or shop can be ascribed to him.

    Returning to the theme of your essay, it is a cruel trick to make the Stratfordians work so hard to dig up dirt on the Earl. The more dirt that is uncovered, the more interesting the man becomes, whether he ever wrote a sentence!

  2. The author wrote:
    “Ultimately we’ll never be able to tell Shakespeare’s story in a convincing way without telling the whole story, if only in bits and pieces, from the historical and psychological angles as well as the literary.”
    And therein lies the rub. If you can only tell the story, as you admit, in “bits and pieces”, you can never present a complete narrative that will convince the uncommitted, and certainly not convince a determined opponent. It may be coherent in a fragmentary way, with its bits and pieces, but it will be grievously lacking in body. Some of us, myself included, are interested in the authorship question because of the intriguing intersection of literature and contemporary political figures, and the intersection of those two elements in the plays. But I don’t believe for a minute that such investigations, either in isolation or combined with other areas of research, will supply a narrative complete enough to achieve what some have prematurely called “paradigm change”. Nor am I interested in righting an historic wrong, which seemed to be one of the motives of J. T. Looney. It just happens to be a very interesting area of study. If treated in that way, instead of as a quasi-religion with its attendant zeal to convert non-believers, the tendency to over-reach can be avoided, something that certainly bedeviled some earlier Oxfordians. The incontinent desire to attribute to Vere almost everything (or so it sometimes appears) written between 1580 and 1604, the focus on imagined extra-marital relationships and resultant offspring — those are exactly the kinds of thing that show the Oxfordian movement in a poor light.

  3. Mike, I agree with everything you’ve said, and I would certainly have given up the effort to find the big picture long ago if I wasn’t having so darn much fun! It’s just been too much fun to see the way significant dates fit together, and to connect the events in Oxford’s life with the tone and plots of Shakespeare’s plays and the titles of Smith’s library with Shakespeare’s sources.

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