The Authorship Question is a lot bigger than just who wrote the Shakespeare canon. Bigger, wider, broader, and deeper. The problem isn’t just who wrote the works of Shakespeare, it’s more like who wrote everything that qualifies as fiction during the English Literary Renaissance? We have half a dozen genuine candidates for the role of Shakespeare, what about them? They can’t all have been Shakespeare.
Forget about the group theory, that is, any idea that a group of writers worked together on the plays the way they do today on screenplays. That’s nonsense. No great and unique work of literature every got written that way. That’s just as idiotic as the idea that Marlowe came back from the dead or that a 16th-century woman wrote Shakespeare. Let’s be serious.
And what about the other writers who have biographies just as weak as William’s? What about Robert Greene, whose later works sound so much like early Shakespeare, yet who has almost nothing in the way of a biography? Why should we know so much about Ben Jonson and nothing about Greene, whose career was only a little shorter than Jonson’s? What about Edmund Spenser who somehow managed to escape Marlowe’s fate despite his transparently anti-establishment beast fables? Or Thomas Nashe, who simply vanished after the Isle of Dogs disaster, unlike his co-authors who both wound up in jail?
What about John Lyly, who despite the popularity of his plays and Euphues novels, never published or produced another thing for the last 18 years of his life? Or Francis Bacon, who published nothing for the first 36 years of his life? What about the playwright John Webster, who has absolutely nothing in his documented biography to suggest that he was anything but the son of a coachmaker? What about George Gascoigne, Thomas Lodge, Barnabe Riche, George Pettie, Thomas Kyd, and all the other authors with dodgy or nonexistent writer’s bios? And this is only the merest glance at the true size and scope of a question in which Shakespeare’s role is only one small factor, however large it’s loomed over time.
Since it seems the English Lit folks won’t, or can’t, make sense of this, it’s time to have a go at it from the History side. Fitting together personalities, biographies, dates and locations, I’ve pieced together a broad overview that explains this mess, one that fills in the gaping anomalies and creates a scenario that accounts for almost all the problems that the authorship scholars denote, be they Oxfordians, Stratfordians, Baconians, or Marlovians.
But first it’s necessary to understand why it happened the way it did.
The nature of the Reformation
It always boils down to terminology, to words. Much as they avoided the truth about the 20 years of war that tore the English society apart in the 17th century by calling it, or part of it, The Interregum, English historians have sugar-coated what should be called the English Revolution by calling it the Reformation. Yes, it was the English version of the Reform movement that was sweeping northern Europe at that time, but it was also, perhaps even more so, a political revolution. And although it didn’t reach the chaotic depths of the French or Russian Revolutions in later centuries, for those who were most at risk, it was just as devastating.
Hundreds of English families were torn apart, sons fled to the continent, parents imprisoned, their properties confiscated. Hundreds were burnt at the stake, or hanged, drawn and quartered, for the crime of wishing to pursue the religion of their fathers, or of attempting to create a new one with only minor differences from that chosen by the State, or for assisting friends and family members who were in trouble.
Church properties were given away, churches and other religious buildings were torn down, their stone used to build houses for the reformers and their friends. Law were passed, taking away the rights and prerogatives of those who refused to join the revolution, penalizing them with heavy fines, rewarding those who turned them in to authorities, thus opening the way for blackguards to destroy their neighbors and take their properties through false accusations. Where is there a difference here between what happened during the Elizabethan era and what happened in France and Russia and is still happening in places like Somalia, Burma, and East Timor?
What happens to important writers during times like these? Consider the atmosphere in 1775 when the members of the Continental Congress gathered in Philadelphia to sign the Declaration of Independence, the witticisms that accompanied the signing of what many believed would be their death warrant. Others who believed in the new nation refused to sign out of fear of British vengeance, of what it would do to their families were they to fail. Consider the fates of writer Alexander Solzenitzen and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov during the Stalin years, of playwright Vaclav Hamel during the Russian attack on the Czech Republic, of Chinese writers under Chairman Mao. Consider the fates of Rousseau, Ovid, Cicero, the list goes on. Why would England during its great revolution be any different?
Revolutions make changes in many other arenas than politics or religion. Consider how the French called each other “Citizen” during the Revolution, how the Russians called each other “Comrade”; how Stalin banned all art but the monumental worker style, or the Nazis burned the paintings of the “decadent” German expressionists, allowing only a cheap calendar style based on German folk sentiment; how they allowed only works by “Aryan” composers to be played at concerts.
When Oxford began writing, the atmosphere wasn’t all that different from the attitudes of the German “reformers” of the 1930s and ’40s towards anything but sentimental folk art. Fear of self-expression is evident in the works of Reformation pedagogues like Sir Thomas Elyot and Roger Ascham. The standards during Oxford’s youth were different, but they were equally low––C.S. Lewis calls it the “drab era.” That Oxford used his status to create an opening for Renaissance ideals and ideas, not only for himself, but for other younger writers in whom he saw talent, is demonstrated in the prefaces he wrote for Clerke’s Latin translation of The Courtier and Bedingfield’s translation of Jerome Cardan. He knew from early on that he would have to dissociate himself and his name from the works he published. He simply had no choice. And thank God he did, or the English we speak today would be a different language.
Oxford used an age-old trick, publishing his and others’ works (chiefly Bacon’s though perhaps others as well) as though by someone who was not in any position to know the persons they were satirizing or the issues they were addressing. Those in a similar position who came after him used the same tactic, Bacon until the late 1590s and Mary Sidney until 1621. There may have been others as well. This continued for a relatively brief period, beginning with the earliest publications in the 1560s, and ending at about the time the First Folio was published.
Which is not to say that no one ever used this ruse again, or that no one during the period ever published under their own names. However, once the pattern is revealed, it becomes clear that those writers who wrote creative, original fiction, poetry, plays, pamphlets, novellas, and who stood to suffer if their identities were known, used pseudonyms or the names of persons they paid to act as proxies. Those who refused to conform, either to a style that the government would accept or to the use of phony names, were doomed to suffer, as witness Christopher Marlowe and to a lesser extent, Ben Jonson.
This, then, is the reason for the mares nest that is the literary history of the English Literary Renaissance, and nothing that the adherents of the Stratford story have to say will make a particle of sense until they begin to accept this as the background to the creation and publication of the works of Shakespeare, Robert Greene, John Lyly, Edmund Spenser, Thomas Nashe, and a dozen others with similar problems.