Who were the true authors of all the great Elizabethan works of the imagination, not just Shakespeare’s?
It is not the biography of Shakespeare alone nor the authorship of the Shakespeare canon alone that we should be questioning, but the authorship of all the works of the imagination written during that period, and the biographies of all the names on all the title pages.
Everything here is presented either to explain or to support the thesis that the question of who wrote the Shakespeare canon is only one piece of the real Authorship Question. It may be the biggest piece, but it is never going to make any sense until it’s placed in context with all the other pieces of the authorship puzzle. It is not just the authorship of Shakespeare, but of all the important works of the imagination of the Elizabethan and Jacobean perod: plays, poetry, romance tales, joke books, novellas, that must be examined, along with the various works of propaganda that have always been questioned.
Shakespeare was not the only cover name used by authors during this perriod. Who were the others and what were the covers they used? Until we embrace this form of the question by addressing its background politics and history we will continue to misunderstand the Shakespeare authorship.
By no means does this suggest that all works of the imagination created during this period were published under false names, or even that everything so published contains nothing but falsehoods. What it does mean is that all these works, not just those by Shakespeare, must be much more closely examined than heretofore, their “facts” carefully matched with solid facts from outside sources. This means that nothing that affects our view of the authorship of works published between 1562 and 1642 can be taken for granted.
Because the creation and publication of these works was done against a flood tide of disapproval and even danger, there was necessarily a great deal of hiding and shape-shifting on the part of everyone involved in the development of the commercial Stage and the commercial Press. For this reason, the creation of these works must be examined in context with the events surrounding them. This hasn’t been done nearly to the extent that it should have. Why? Because, over time, Literature and History have become separated, in our thinking as well as in departments in schools and universities. As a result, the broad areas where they interact have mostly fallen into oblivion.
Corollary 1: Nothing published on title pages can be taken at face value.
No names of authors, no dates, no references to where and when and by what acting company a work was first produced, no lists of actors names, no “facts” disseminated through introductory text or prefaces, no descriptions or personalizations of the supposed authors of these works can be taken for granted. Where there is one falsehood there can be others.
However, because there is truth in everything, even the falsehoods can contribute something to the construction of a trustworthy scenario.
Corollary 2: An acceptable scenario must account for all of the anomalies.
A hypothetical scenario must support all of the facts (the real ones), not just those related to Shakespeare or to any other single writer. Keeping in mind how small the writing community was then, our present view, which shows these writers having next to no relationship to each other, must be replaced with one that puts all of them in the same picture, and that explains why such talented writers would have wanted, or needed , to hide their authorships and their relationships.
However faulty such a scenario may turn out to be, it is a necessary bridge if we’re to move beyond the present deadlock between fantasy and ignorance. However appealing might be a less complete scenario, if it doesn’t account for all or at least the major anomalies we find throughout the entire period, it if doesn’t account for all the writers and all the works, then it’s simply NG (no good) and it’s got to go.
To create a working scenario where the solid facts are so few, it’s absolutely necessary to work from a broader perspective than previously, one that includes the history of the period, both political and social, the psychology of creativity and what it has to tell us about authors of genius, the biographies of the poets in the other European nations who did for their cultures what Shakespeare and his cohorts did for England, plus now and then a generous dose of simple common sense, sorely lacking in the literary histories to date. This is more than one person can reasonably provide, but hopefully what you find here will be a start in the right direction.
To take advantage of the wonders of the internet, stave off boredom, and allow for the interests and thought processes of different readers, the approach here is to provide a number of takes on these issues by means of links so that readers can follow tangents into particulars if they so choose, returning to the main narrative by a simple tap on the back button. Some essays here are simply an outline of facts as commonly accepted by historians. Others are theory based on facts. A few take wing into the realm of story-telling. Hopefully the reader will be able to tell the differences between these approaches.
Points to keep in mind:
The small size of the literary community and the reading public;
We have gotten much of this story wrong because we continually make the mistake of projecting our own 19th-to-21st-century world view onto a society that was almost as different from ours today as ours is from present-day Botswana. A writing community in 16th-century London that had upwards of 20 different writers producing no more than one or two of all the great works of Early Modern literature is simply a non-starter. That there were five or six who, for whatever reason, used different names at different times, however bizarre it may sound to us today, makes a lot more sense against the background of the 16th century.
Writing is hard. Brilliantly innovative writing is very hard and takes years to perfect. That there were more than five or six brilliantly innovative writers in a literary community as small as that of sixteenth-century London is simply impossible.
That 16th century England was a society of secrets;
It’s particularly difficult for us today, living in an “open society” where freedom of speech allows almost anything to be published, to understand a time and place where secrecy was a necessity. We see such secrecy today as suspicious, suggestive of dangerous conspiracies, but to the Elizabethans it was simply a commonplace found in every arena of life, as much a matter of survival as giving birth to as many children as possible, bleeding as the cure for every illness, and carrying an edged weapon while traveling, none of which we consider necessary today.
That when this story begins the commercial theater and press had not yet been born:
To propose an infinite community of professional writers and actors at a time when the publishing industry and commercial theater were mere infants is another theoretical non-starter. Professionals do not arrive on the scene until there is enough of an industry that making a living in it is at least possible. Since this did not begin to happen until the 1590s, the question becomes, who was doing the writing in the 1570s and 80s? Historians may ask the question, but so far none have provided an answer.
That sometimes no evidence is evidence:
Where there should be evidence of something and there is none, that in itself is evidence that that something has been purposely hidden, that discussions have been held in secret, that paper trails have been destroyed or were never created. The question then becomes why? For instance: Why is there no evidence that William Shakespeare the playwright knew anyone in London or did anything while he was there? Why is there no real evidence that Christopher Marlowe was ever a spy? Why are there no biographies for so many of the poets and playwrights of that time? Why is there so little evidence that Oxford died when history says he did? Why is there no evidence that anyone in the literary community took notice when William of Stratford died? We need a scenario that explains all these anomalies, not just a few.
That theater has always been a vehicle for social change:
That Shakespeare created his works in a vacuum without any connection to the great issues of the day is one more absurdity. As songwriter Alec Wilder put it: “theater has always dared; it has troubled princes and prelates alike. No other art has consistently taken such extravagant chances in provoking authority.” That this is true can be seen in the biographies of the great playwrights throughout time. Think of how Authority treated Molière, George Bernard Shaw, Kurt Weil, Arthur Miller, Vaclav Hamel, even the Greeks who started it all. To attempt to tell the story of a great playwright without reference to his politics and the history of his time is to take shadow for substance.
That someone other than William of Stratford wrote the Shakespeare canon is what is commonly meant by the term Authorship Thesis. That many works published during that period were written by other persons than those to whom they were attributed can be termed the Expanded Authorship Thesis (or if you will, the Hopkins Hughes theory of Elizabethan authorship). No matter what it gets called, what I offer here is less a thesis than a broad-based provisional scenario meant to resolve as many as possible of the questions and anomalies that continue to haunt the history of the English Literary Renaissance.
One thought on “Expanding the Question”
Storyteller indeed – everything I’ve read so far here is wonderfully cogent and engaging on the level that a surprising but well-thought-out (and solidly researched) story should be. Your site should be required reading for veterans and neophytes alike.
Thanks for creating this excellent resource.