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Saturday, November 10, 2012

(William Shakespeare)

We are using this quote of Shakespeare’s to revisit the 150 year-old controversy about who really wrote “Shakespeare’s plays,” if it wasn’t himself. The controversy is based on two major arguments.

First, that Shakespeare was unable to write the works attributed to him due to his lack of education (some even claimed he was illiterate), his minimal grasp of aristocratic society, and his unfamiliarity with the way of life in the Royal court.

Second, other contemporary authors were more likely to be the real bards because of their writing styles and abilities. But due to legal problems, they were unable or unwilling to take the acknowledgement. Conspiracy theorists have, at various times, proposed that as many as several dozen others could have been the authors of Shakespeare’s 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and his other works.

Since the mid 1800’s, people interested in this controversy have divided themselves into “Shakespeareans” (supporting Shakespeare as the author) or “Anti-Stratfordians” (supporting another author, or authors, as writing these classics). Those convinced that Shakespeare was not the author primarily use circumstantial evidence to support their case. Shakespeareans lean on documentary evidence.

“Anti-Stratfordians” point to Shakespeare’s rural upbringing and lack of formal education as proof that he was not suited to write creatively. It is true that there is a lack of biographical information about Shakespeare, and no records of his attendance at school. There is even some evidence that his parents and children were illiterate. No hand written letters by Shakespeare exist, and among his signatures his surname is not spelled consistently. Yet supporters point out that other contemporary playwrights, like Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe, came from the same unremarkable background. Marlowe specifically was the same age as Shakespeare and came from a working class family in a rural area as well.

Some say his background did not include any exposure to court politics or the aristocratic culture that was so evident in his plays. Others contend that he was not even a writer, but a businessman and real estate investor. Yet the same method of attributing works to authors of the past (historical records and stylistic evaluation), have been used to substantiate Shakespeare’s writings. “Shakespeareans” note that his name appears on the title page of dozens of his plays and sonnets, and many of his literary colleagues confirmed his identity as a playwright.

Some Anti-Stratfordians argue that Shakespeare’s contemporaries had little regard for him. There was no public ceremony at his death and no eulogies or poems were published until seven years later. This is not true. Ben Jonson praised him in a published eulogy “To the Memory of My Beloved Author, Mr. William Shakespeare” in 1623. He wrote, “I loved the man, and do honor his memory as much as any.” Other eulogies and testimonies from poets and playwrights who worked with Shakespeare have been recorded - all identifying him as a gentleman and an author.

Others say Shakespeare was a front man for others; that his literary career was part of a conspiracy to hide the identity of another author. A number of well known literary people of the 19th Century believed this, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Mark Twain. Although he died a wealthy man, Shakespeare’s will directed the distribution of his estate but never mentions the financial rights to his 18 plays that were yet unpublished at the time of his death.

During the century following Shakespeare’s death, historian Sir George Buc was the “Master of the Revels” and his duty was to censor plays for the public, arrange court performances of plays, and to license plays for publication. He was meticulous in attributing books and plays to the correct author. He personally licensed William Shakespeare as the author of several of his plays.

Others say that Shakespeare’s writing included unusually strong similarities to the characters and events used in the writings of other authors. During the Elizabethan period, many authors wrote about similar historical themes, each using their own unique perspective. Shakespeare, not being classically trained, frequently made errors by mixing up Greek, Roman, and Trojan characters and events. This alone made his writing unique.

Beginning in 1987, studies were done using computer programs to compare Shakespeare’s stylistic habits with the works of 37 other authors of his time. The results showed that his writings were consistent, but different, from all the others. This eliminated those authors who the Anti-Stratfordians proposed as the real authors of the Shakespearean plays, including Edward de Vere (Earl of Oxford), Francis Bacon, and Christopher Marlowe.

In 2007 a survey was taken among 2,300 Shakespeare professors about the authorship question. Did they think there was a good reason to doubt that Shakespeare wrote his own plays? Six percent said “yes,” 11% said “possibly,” 61% said there was “no convincing evidence,” and 22% said “it was a waste of time and a classroom distraction.”

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