The Authorship argument in a nutshell

First there’s the name

Yes, Shakespeare was a real name; yes it belonged to a real man who had ties of some sort to the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company that produced the plays and had them published.  But what must strike someone first who knows nothing about the myth is that the name is a pun, a classical play on words.  Not only is it a pun, it was often spelled with a hyphen on the title pages of plays, a standard way of spelling pun-names for comic characters like that female of easy virtue, Doll Tear-sheet.  In fact, the first time it was used on the title page of a play, it was spelled with a hyphen (the 2nd edition of Richard III, published in 1598, was the first play to bear the name William Shake-speare).

Not only is Shake-spear a pun, but, also like Doll Tear-sheet, it describes his vocation.  This author used the drama, as have so many before and after, to shake a spear at stupidity and evil.  Whether you see spear as metaphor for stage prop or pen, it works as a symbol for what he was doing.  How he, or more to the point, how those who published his plays managed to find a real person with a name that works as a pun and who was also willing to let them use it, is a separate issue.  What’s important at first glance is that the name that first became known as the author of the plays that were so popular in London in the early 1590s were ascribed to a man with what appeared to be a pun-name, a clear indication to those who could read that the publishers were not using the author’s real name.

There’s the content of the plays

At least half are based in Italy, many derived from Italian stories.  There’s no evidence that William of Stratford was ever in or could have been in Italy.  At the same time it’s clear that some of the Italian stories whose plots he adapted were not available then in English, which means that whoever wrote them was able to read Italian.  Academics attempt to bypass this by disdaining his knowledge of Italy, yet over time it’s been gradually proven, most recently and effectively by Richard Roe of Pasadena California, that Shakespeare knew Italy better than they did.   He knew it so well that he could place his characters with total accuracy in particular places in particular cities, while using Italian terms that only someone with personal experience could possibly have known.  He had to have been to Italy.

The plays are all about Court life and the lives of courtiers, kings and the nobility, written from the perspective of one who knew that life and those people intimately.  There’s his knowledge of games and sports, demonstrated partly by including them in his plays, partly by his use of their terms, partly by their use as metaphors, games and sports that were limited by law and expense to members of the Court community.  So knowledgable was Shakespeare about the intricacies and details of Court life that German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck, Duke of Lautenberg and creator of the German Empire inherited by Kaiser Wilhelm, commented upon it.  Bismarck’s biographer notes that he wondered how someone,

however gifted with the intuitions of genius, could have written what was attributed to Shakespeare unless he had been in touch with the great affairs of state, behind the scenes of political life, and also intimate with all the social courtesies and refinements of thought which in Shakespeare’s time were only to be met with in the highest circles. (Whitman 135)

Yet no trace of a William Shakespeare has ever appeared in any record that shows that he was ever at Court for so much as a single moment.  Why, when earlier playwrights like John Hayward, later playwrights like Ben Jonson, composers like William Byrd, musicians like the Bassano brothers, actors like Richard Tarleton, all leave paper trails of Court involvement; why when individuals with names he used for his characters like Spinola or Petruccio, appear in Court records, why is Shakespeare himself absent?

There’s his knowledge of the Law, of Medicine, of Astrology, of Pharmacology, all displayed throughout his works, sometimes by direct description, many times by uses of their particular terms or by metaphorically comparing them to a host of otherwise unrelated situations.

There’s his obvious knowledge of languages other than English

Even if the Stratford grammar school did provide sufficient Latin, which, though likely, is still an assumption; and even if William did attend, which is not proven, nor provable, since so far the only writing in his hand that has turned up in 400 years of research are wobbly signatures on six legal documents, none of them related in any direct way to the London Stage, it doesn’t explain his knowledge of French, Italian and Greek.  Reseach into the sources of his plays, their plots and characters, shows knowledge of works in these languages, French and Italian stories, ancient Greek tragedies, that were not yet translated into either Latin or English in his time, and if translated, could not be found anywhere but in the libraries of educated noblemen.

There’s the lack of evidence of important patrons

In Shakespeare’s time, no writer from Shakespeare’s background ever got established without support from a wealthy patron, yet apart from his homage to the Earl of Southampton in the dedications of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, there’s no third party evidence that Southampton, or any other noble patron, ever did anything to help someone named William Shakespeare with his career as a writer or an actor.

The major share of evidence that he was an actor comes from five documents spawned by the Company that published works under that name: 1) 1595: when his name is listed once, and only once, as one of three payees for a production at Court; 2) 1603: in the official warrant for the establishment of the King’s Men; 3) 1604: in several yards of cloth given to all who marched in the coronation procession of King James; 4) 1605: in the will of one of the sharers of receipts from the Globe theater; 5) 1616: in a list of actors in two plays published by Ben Jonson; and 6) in a line that same year added to his own will bequeathing money for rings for the Company managers .  This is all there is; it’s limited to this one small group of men dependent on the fortunes of the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men; and it isn’t enough to take for granted that William of Stratford was, in fact as well as official fiction, a playwright and an actor.

There’s the lack of evidence of a training period in the theater

Four hundred years of research has failed to turn up any indication that William of Stratford worked with a theater company as either an actor or a writer before he suddenly began turning out hits with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men in the 1590s.   Scott McMillin and Mary Beth Maclean note that the Queen’s Men performed early versions of Richard III, King John, and Henry V, which suggests to them that Shakespeare must have been a member of their company, but though they have many of the actors from that Company, no trace of his name has ever appeared as working in any theatrical capacity in the 1580s.

There’s the lack of evidence of a life lived in London

No great playwright ever spent much time away from the center of his creative life, the Stage, yet there’s no evidence that William Shakespeare spent more than a few weeks away from Stratford.  As Ramon Jiménez has detailed at length, no one who should have known him as a writer and an actor ever mentioned him.  What great artist ever left no record of his relationships with the other great artists and patrons of his time?  The record of his life in London consists of measly accounts of tax evasion and a period of residence of an indeterminate length with a family of theatrical costumers.  No evidence of friendships with other writers and artists; nothing that comes close to what we know about Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, or even Shakespeare’s own (supposed) illegitimate playwright son, William Davenant.

There’s the lack of evidence that he owned theater shares

Along with the strange lack of any books in William’s will, the fact that neither he nor his wife, nor either of his daughters could write anything more than a legal signature, is the fact that he left no theater shares in his will.  The basis for believing that his financial success in Stratford was due to his shares in the receipts of two theaters where the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men performed, derives from his name on warrants for the second, and references to him as a sharer in documents generated by the Company.  Despite these, the fact that he left no shares in his will, and that in the litigation that attended the success of the King’s Men in the seventeenth century, where the fate of shares was the subject of lawsuits, no mention is made of what happened to his shares, suggests that he was recompensed for whatever it was that he did for the Company in some other way.

Finally, there’s the way his biography skews the dates

Most problematic may be the way the biography of William of Stratford, with its late placement in the story of the English Literary Renaissance, forces on scholars too narrow a window of time into which to fit his career.  It forces them to hunt for clues to his development where they simply cannot be found.  To limit the start of his career to the early 1590s, or the late 1580s at the earliest, forces them to see him beginning to produce works at or close to genius level with no apparent period of training.  It forces them to interpret the early quartos of his plays as the work of earlier unnamed playwrights and others to a strange habit on the part of such an innovative genius to imitate later, lesser writers.  It forces them to see the plays as written immediately before publication, putting them way out of sync with their natural placements in time, for instance, placing Henry V with its clear connection to the effort to prepare for the Spanish invasion to sometime after the Armada, when there would be no point in the stirring call to arms of the King’s  St. Crispian’s Day speech.

One or two of these issues might be accounted for by the attempts of academics to arrrange the facts to fit the biography, but not all.  From the pun-name used to publish his plays, his obvious knowledge of the Court, Italy, foreign languages, the Law, Medicine, Astrology and Pharmacology, all things that he could not possibly have learned from casual reading; his lack of patrons, of any evidence of a life lived in London, of an early training period, of any real evidence of acting or earning a living through the Stage, of any books, theater shares, or relationships with other artists.  And finally there’s the way his dates have forced unnatural and strained interpretations of the plays and their place in the timetable of Elizabethan history.

Taken together, these loudly proclaim the obvious, that William Shakespeare of Stratford was hired by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men for the use of his punnable name so that they could profit by the publication of his plays while allowing the educated and sophisticated courtier who wrote them to maintain his image as nothing more dangerous to the status quo than a genial and harmless patron of the arts and sciences.

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2 responses to “The Authorship argument in a nutshell

  1. A winning entry, and the links from this article are, in turn, extremely useful to follow up on!

  2. Thanks, Tom.

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