The shortest answer to the Shakespeare Authorship Question is that the name represents more than one entity. There were, in the 1590s in England, two men who shared the name Shakespeare, the one who was born with it, or something close to it, and the one who used it to get his writing published. This was not what some have called an “open secret,”––it was certainly kept as secret as possible, but so few knew for a certainty who was doing the writing, that it was easy enough, with a few well-placed prevarications, to keep the truth at the level of rumor. The reason why this was felt to be necessary by those involved lies buried in the nature of the times. And as one otherwise unknown English writer once remarked, “the past is a foreign country,” one so different from today’s present that understanding it takes years of study.
Most English-speaking people heard the name Shakespeare early enough to know that it represents a writer from a long time ago who those who follow him say was a genius. Many Americans were forced to read one or two or of his plays in high school, giving them a permanent sense of dread whenever his name comes up. Luckier students learn about him by reading a play aloud in class, passing the roles around, so that everyone gets to read a particular character’s part for an entire scene (which keeps attention focussed on the action, and, with help from the teacher as to rhythm and intonation, to get the music of the language, as just reading to oneself, or hearing it read by someone else, does not). Best of all, for those who have been involved in giving a live performance, particularly one of the comedies, how the story comes to life is something they will probably never forget.
Most of us have a very vague idea of who this playwright actually was. We were taught in school that he came from a particular town where his father was a wool dealer, and where he went to grammar school, and where, while still in his teens, he got a well-to-do neighbor’s daughter pregnant, married her, and, when he got into hot water with local landowners for poaching deer (or rabbits) ran off to London where, though only in his mid-twenties, he immediately became an actor with the leading theater company while demonstrating a dazzling ability to write witty and learned dialogue for characters at his imagined Court.
Except for the part about becoming an actor and a playwright, the story is probably true enough, that is, it’s true about the younger half of the Shakespeare entity. This was William, the oldest living son of Catholic leatherworker and wool dealer John Shakspere. We pronounce his name Shake-spear today, because that’s the way it was pronounced in London, but that it had been pronounced rather differently in Stratford before it began appearing in print is suggested by some of the Stratford spellings, such as Shaxpere, Shagspere, Shackespyeer, and so forth.
In London the pronunciation came, not directly through hearing it spoken, but from reading on the title pages of published plays and in a book known as Wit’s Treasury, where it was spelled so that it would be pronounced with a long a, Shake-spear, which turns it into a pun, particularly with William’s nickname in front: Will Shake-spear, a name that sounds too much like that of a fictional character like Doll Tear-sheet to be an accident.
The other half of the Shakespeare entity was the great artist who had the problematic fate to be born into the aristocracy, which, though it gave him the education he would use to entertain his fellow courtiers, and the credit and leisure to develop his interests, also prevented him from letting the world beyond the tapestried walls of the Court connect him with what he created. This was no problem at first since––for cultural reasons that lie so far beyond our present day understanding that it’s almost pointless to name them––he really didn’t want to be seen as a poet by anyone but members of his own circle. Later, when his work began to create a public audience and publication became an issue, he would need a name for the title page. Over the first two decades of his career he used the names of secretaries, schoolmates, and needy courtiers. For the last 15, he used the name of the wool dealer’s son from Stratford.
Had it not been for the magical name that was common to a sizable population (of descendants of Norman French peasants) in Warwickshire and a pun on the nature and purposes of the playwright who used it––I will shake a spear!––it’s possible that we would not have the works today. It’s also possible, even likely, that William never knew exactly who it was that was using his name. It’s also very unlikely that these two who so depended on each other––William for the stipend from the Lord Chamberlain’s Men that kept his family afloat during hard times and the Earl of Oxford for the name that meant he could continue to publish his works––ever met.
Once Oxford is seen as the writing half of the Shakespeare entity, apart from the 38 works with which it was credited (however obliquely) by Ben Jonson, plus most of the plays now known as the Shakespeare Apocrypha, and immense as is his stature as the individual most responsible for the language we speak today, Shakespeare will be credited with even more immensely important innovations. That the first two full-time yearround successful commercial theaters in London were built within weeks of Oxford’s return from Italy in 1576 and that the great public theater built by James Burbage that year was built to specifications that Oxford was privy to from his years of study with Sir Thomas Smith, suggests that the round theaters that were the first of their kind in England, perhaps in all of northern Europe, were also primarily his creation.
Thus it will be seen that, not only did “Shakespeare” write and probably direct these innovative plays, he was largely responsible for creating the stages on which they would be performed. One thinks of Newton who, when struggling to explain the laws of motion, created the mathematical technique known as calculus; or of Alexander the Great who, when confronted with strategic problems on his military conquest of Asia, solved them by creating new weapons; or of Brunelleschi who, when confronted with the need to finish the dome on the great cathedral of Florence, invented the reversible gear by which sandstone beams weighing two tons each could be raised hundreds of feet in the air by an ox walking in a continuous circle.
Oxford not only created the Shakespeare plays, he created the language that they spoke and the venue where they could be heard, the one founding one of the world’s great literary traditions, the other the industry known as the London Stage.
What a guy!