The controversy surrounding the Shakespearean authorship question has been rumbling along for many years, centuries even. Indeed, doubts as to whether William Shakespeare of Stratford really penned the great sonnets and plays attributed to him first surfaced around 1795. Since then, contrarians (or anti-Stratfordians, as they have come to be known) have been on an unrelenting quest to prove that Shakespeare’s work was written pseudonymously. Like all good conspiracy theories, the path to discover the truth has been strewn with deception, intrigue, falsifications and a handful of less-than-savoury characters. There have even been ciphers and code-breakers thrown into the mix. A number of high-profile skeptics (Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Henry James, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud to name but a few) have given credence to the debate.
The root of the controversy lies in the fact that we actually know very little about Shakespeare. We have scant details around which we have built a skeletal biography, but there are large gaps in our knowledge, wherein lies the temptation to embellish. So, what facts do we have to play with? We know William Shakespeare was born circa April 1564, the son of a glover from Stratford-upon-Avon in rural Oxfordshire. We know, at the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, who bore him three children; a daughter Susanna and twins Hamnet and Judith. Soon after the twins birth, he left his family and went to work in London. He found success as an actor, writer and part-owner of a theatre company called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later to become The Kings Men, after James I succeeded Elizabeth to the throne). He would go on to spend the majority of his working life in London, until he retired to Stratford in 1613 (where he would die three years later). We know he was a businessman as well as an actor; a few surviving receipts and ledger entries indicate that he was a malt-trader and money-lender. We also know he was concerned about his social standing, because there is a record of him applying for “gentleman’s status” later in life when he had become wealthy from his various endeavours.
Aside from the above, there is very little that can be proven about Shakespeare’s life. The paucity of documental evidence has led to much speculation, as we try to fill in the blanks; these suppositions have filtered down through time until we come to believe them to be “fact”. For example, given we know Shakespeare spent so much time in London, it has been assumed that his marriage to Anne Hathaway was unhappy. This hypothesis has become so pervasive, it is now taken as a universal truth. However, whether or not the marriage was an unhappy one can never be proven.
In his book “Contested Will – Who Wrote Shakespeare?”, James Shapiro examines how the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and history have given rise to many controversies and fuelled the ensuing authorship debate. Shapiro focuses on two main factions of the anti-Stratfordian brigade – the Baconians (who supported the hypothesis that Francis Bacon was the real author) and the Oxfordians (who believed that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford was the true bard). He not only discusses what each group believed, but also why each side believed what they did. He also comes to his own conclusions regarding the authorship debate. The book makes for very interesting reading.
All Shakespeare doubters, Baconians and Oxfordians alike, seem to fundamentally agree on one thing. The crux of the dissent rests on the belief that a glovers son from rural Oxfordshire could not have possibly been the real author, because he would have lacked the necessary education and life experience to produce such accomplished work. They argue that a man of limited means and education could never have gained the knowledge of politics, law, royal courts and foreign countries which are evident in the plays. It follows then, that the real author must surely have been an aristocrat, someone much higher up the social ladder than a poor boy from the country. This theory, advocated by Twain, James, Freud et al., smacks of intellectual snobbery and a fundamental lack of imagination. Indeed, Charlie Chaplin (who, it should be noted, was not known for his own intellectual prowess) declared that “… I hardly think it was the boy from Stratford - whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude”.
Mark Twain (a Baconian) was adamant in his belief that all writers compose from their own experiences; that is, they cannot write with authority about “what they know from hearsay”. He steadfastly asserted that everything written is in some way autobiographical. This belief that the writer’s life makes its way onto the page (either consciously or sub-consciously) formed the foundations of his contrarian stance. How could a man of such limited life experience write so convincingly of love, jealously and loss? Shapiro shrewdly points out that, given the large blanks in our knowledge of Shakespeare’s early years, how can we know whether or not he received a good education? How can we arbitrarily decide whether he travelled extensively or not? In effect, we cannot fill in the blanks with guesswork. In addition, the author also deftly defuses Twain's central argument by showing that an autobiographical approach to writing is a relatively new development, gaining prominence in the nineteenth century. Self-revelation, that is exposing the authors true feelings and thoughts through his characters, was not a method employed in Shakespeare’s time. The writer’s imagination was deployed to much greater effect then than now.
Henry James (also of the Baconian school of thought) took exception to what he regarded as Shakespeare of Stratford's unsavoury business dealings. The American author revealed his true pretentious self when he declared Shakespeare's business dealings as "extremely vulgar". He believed the true author of the plays and sonnets would have been far too high-minded to engage in anything so common as malt-trading and money-lending. This patronizing and condescending attitude was another example of intellectual snobbery and can hardly be taken as conclusive proof that Shakespeare did not write the plays.
Both sects went to extreme measures to prove their man was the rightful author of Shakespeare’s works. With a lack of any real evidence, both Baconians and Oxfordians employed strange and sometimes ridiculous tactics to try to reveal the “truth”. Proponents of the Francis Bacon theory fervently believed that the entire body of work attributed to Shakespeare were actually ciphers, that the plays and sonnets contained hidden messages which would not only confirm Bacon as the bard, but would also reveal explosive political secrets of the Elizabethan period that could not have been disclosed at the time of writing. Code-breaking machines were duly constructed in an attempt to de-cipher the hidden messages. Needless to say, no substantive messages were ever found.
Similarly, Oxfordians put great weight on the fact that anagrams of the name “Vere” were commonplace throughout the plays (as in words like “very” and “every). Coupled with the line “Every word doth almost tell my name” from Sonnet 76, supporters of the Earl of Oxford were convinced they had backed the right man.
Shapiro, who has always believed Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, affords all these outlandish theories a large degree of respect. He dutifully discusses all hypotheses at length, while admirably steering clear of the temptation to denounce all detractors as lunatics (notwithstanding the fact that one Baconian, a certain Delia Bacon, no relation, did end up living out her days in an asylum while others died penniless and disillusioned as a result of their vain quest). Instead of engaging in hyperbolic condemnations and vehement denials, Shapiro quietly and elegantly disproves the majority of the Baconian and Oxfordian conjectures. Indeed, the author doesn’t waste time disproving the more outrageous claims (for example: that both Bacon and Oxford were Elizabeth I’s illegitimate children, and that Oxford went on to become her incestuous lover) – he allows these theories to speak for themselves. In doing so, he gracefully builds his own case in favour of Shakespeare being the true mastermind behind the works. And it must be said, his reasoning is distinctly more balanced, scholarly and believable than some of the high-profile detractors who have gone before him.