Friday, April 30, 2010

Which Shakespeare was Shakespeare?

The very silly film director Roland Emmerich is currently making a film called "Anonymous," based on the even sillier theory that Shakespeare couldn't have written his own plays, and that they must have been done by a sophisticated London nobleman or some such person, such as Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford.

Actually, the theory I prefer is that Shakespeare's plays were written, not by Shakespeare, but by another man who had the same name and also was born in Stratford in 1564. But I digress.

To find any credence in an Edward de Vere-style theory, you must be, not only prone to accepting implausible conspiracies, but entirely clueless about art, artists, and creativity. If Shakespeare's plays had no known author and the question were what sort of person must have written them, the historically known William Shakespeare would exactly fit the prototype that I'd expect. Ambitious outlander, self-educated with a few rough edges, prone to innovate because he hadn't been in the center early enough to imbibe orthodoxy instead of making it up for himself, and so forth. A well-educated, well-connected London nobleman is absolutely the last sort of person one could imagine ever having written Shakespeare's plays.

Same reason, by the way, that the Beatles were more creative, original, and inspired than the Rolling Stones.


Howard Schumann said...

There is such a staggering amount of ignorance on this subject and unfortunately your post does nothing to dispel this. Rather than telling us how silly you think the theory of an alternative author is, I wonder why you don't discuss the evidence. It is so easy to make fun of something which you seem to know little about but much harder to do actual research, find out what the evidence is and try to refute it.

The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Huckleberry Finn was published under the name of Mark Twain but there is nothing to identify him as Samuel Clemens. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.

The few facts we know about Shakespeare from Stratford are stretched, pulled, and twisted to make it plausible that he was the author. There is nothing in his biography to connect him with the works. Indeed the opposite is true. Robert Bearman sums up Shakespeare's life as follows in "Shakespeare in the Stratford Records" (1994), published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: "Certainly, there is little, if anything, to remind us that we are studying the life of one who in his writings emerges as perhaps the most gifted of all time in describing the human condition. He seems merely to have been a man of the world, buying up property, laying in ample stocks of barley and malt, when others were starving, selling off his surpluses and pursuing debtors in court…."

Daniel Shaviro said...

OK, your post is polite so I won't delete it like the last one. I'll admit it was a throwaway comment on my part, and clearly is outside my area of expertise. (Then again, everyone in the world seems to feel qualified to make what often strike me as very ignorant comments about subjects I know well, such as tax and budget policy.)

But I remain extremely skeptical that Shakespeare (who I gather was known in the London theater community) didn't write those plays, and a lot of the doubts seems to me to be founded on a misguided sense of what sort of person must have written them - e.g., it had to be an educated nobleman. To the contrary, I do believe that what we know of Shakespeare sounds about right for the sort of person one ought to expect as the author - admittedly, that is not proof of anything.

Howard Schumann said...

No one says that only a nobleman could have written the poems and plays attributed to Shakespeare. It is simply that the evidence seems to point in that direction.

The Shakespeare plays and poems show that the author had specific knowledge of certain works of literature, certain prominent persons in Elizabeth's court, and events connected with them. In the sonnets and the plays there are frequent references to events that are paralleled in Oxford's life.

We know specifically that Oxford was fluent in four foreign languages, Latin, Greek, Italian, and French.

Of the 37 plays, 36 are laid in royal courts and the world of the nobility. The principal characters are almost all aristocrats with the exception perhaps of Shylock and Falstaff. From all we can tell, Shakespeare fully shared the outlook of his characters, identifying fully with the courtesies, chivalries, and generosity of aristocratic life. Lower class characters in Shakespeare are almost all introduced for comic effect and given little development. Their names are indicative of their worth: Snug, Stout, Starveling, Dogberry, Simple, Mouldy, Wart, Feeble, etc.

Ryegate said...

Of all of the facts about Stratford's ineligibility, my favorite are these:

1) Name any playwright or actor of the Elizabethan period, and when they died, there was mourning and poems written about them for months. In 1616 when Shakspere of Stratford died, nothing was written. Not one word. Nothing.

2) In 1605, William Camden, the top historian of Queen Elizabeth's reign, in his "Remaines" named William Shakespeare the "most pregnant wit of these our times". Obviously Camden was aware of works authored by someone named "William Shakespeare". Two years later in Camden's "Britainia" where he documented English towns and their notable citizens, when summarizing Stratford Camden named two people, none of which were Shakspere - and Camden was personally familiar with William Shakspere of Stratford.

Daniel Shaviro said...

OK, fine, but if anyone starts saying the Beatles didn't do their own songs, we have a problem.

Ryegate said...

Lennon and McCartney. The most influential writing act in entertainment history, second only to Edward de Vere.

The Beatles rule!

Daniel Shaviro said...

Ryegate, I'm glad we got this onto a better vibe. I realize my original post was snarky in tone.