I hope you are all doing your best to stay healthy during these trying times.
It is currently week five of the UK quarantine. The death-toll from the Coronavirus in the UK has surpassed 18,000 people and globally over two million people have been infected. I don’t wish to make light of the situation but it does sound like the start of a dystopian novel.
Last week I was meant to be on a writing retreat in the South Coast but this was cancelled due to obvious reasons. It is a small price to pay in the grand scheme of things. Instead I have been plotting out website posts and while doing so I noticed that noted that today is the anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth. As such I’ve decided to examine the Shakespeare Authorship Question. I hope you enjoy!
Today, four hundred and fifty six years ago, William Shakespeare was born. Or was he?
I’ll admit that I never used to be a fan of the bard. I think the problem was I had been forced to study Shakespeare at school but when I choose which texts to read I found them more enjoyable. In particular I found Hamlet, Othello and Macbeth deliciously complicated. When you consider that the man we call Shakespeare wrote thirty seven plays and over one hundred and fifty sonnets that we know about, plus co-writing and contributing with various other writers, in an age where most of the population were illiterate, it is remarkable. To capture such a wide range of human emotions perfectly, emotions that still resinate with the audience hundreds of years later. If the man existed, the man was a genius.
If. I’ll admit that I do believe that there once lived a man called William Shakespeare and that he did write all of his own work but I do find the Shakespeare Authorship Question fascinating. In this Rant and Rambles post I’ll be examining the question, who was the real William Shakespeare?
Let us start with what we do about the man we call Shakespeare. We know he was born in Stratford on 23 April, 1564. We know his parents names and we know he had brothers and sisters but none of them survived passed childhood. We know he attended Stratford’s grammar school and we know that he married Anne Hathaway in 1582. In 1585 the couple had twins and Shakespeare had moved to London to work.
The years between 1587 and 1593 are referred to as The Dark Years by historians as we have to record of Shakespeare’s activities. All we are certain of is that during this time frame he established himself as a writer in London. We know this because in 1593 Robert Greene described Shakespeare as an Upstart Crow in his Groats-Worth of Witte. It is suspected Greene did not like the fact that Shakespeare both wrote his own plays and performed in them. Ironically it was this comment by Greene dismissing Shakespeare that cemented him as one of histories must famous writers.
By 1592 Shakespeare was well known in London and around this time he joined the acting troop called The Lord Chamberlain’s Men. In 1599 he had starting working in the original Globe Theatre and performed for Queen Elizabeth the First several times during this decade. In 1608 the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, now known as The King’s Men, started performing in a theatre in Blackfriars and in 1613 the Globe Theatre burnt down during a performance of Henry VIII. In the same year Shakespeare retired. The Globe was rebuilt in 1614 but Shakespeare died in 1616. In 1623 his first Folio was published by John Heminge and Henry Condell, two actors who had worked with him.
These are what we know as facts but there are still many aspects of Shakespeare’s life we don’t know. What happened during the dark years? How did Shakespeare establish himself as a writer? What did he look like, as his portrait on the First Folio was completed after his death by an artist who had never met him. What was Shakespeare like, as a man? There are also many questions over how exactly Shakespeare was able to write his works. Would a son of a farmer really have knowledge of Greek myths and distant countries? Where did Shakespeare find his extensive vocabulary, could he really have learnt it all in Stratford Grammar School.
One suspect as to the real Shakespeare was William Stanley the 6th Earl of Derby. William certainly had the education for an author. He was brought up in Oxford and travelled across France, Egypt, Spain and Anatolia. His Mother was named heir to Queen Elizabeth the First and although the family never rose in power their lives were constantly in danger from rivals. William was a known face at the English court, he married Elizabeth De Vere (more on the De Vere’s later) and he was known to have his own theatre company. Although he seems like a prime candidate the only evidence we have of William Stanley’s adventures overseas were written after his death and greatly exaggerated. The only scrap of evidence we have for Stanley being Shakespeare is a signature. William Stanley signed himself off as Will, which would be mistaken for Will Shakespeare and both Stanley and the bard share the same initials, WS. For what it’s worth we have six signatures of William Shakespeare’s each of which contains a different spelling of his name.
Edward De Vere was the Father to Elizabeth De Vere whom William Stanley married. Edward De Vere was already an established poet and playwright in Elizabethan England when Shakespeare was at the zenith. He was known at court and sponsored several acting troops and theatres across London. He was well educated and some historians have suggested there are subtle clues in both Hamlet and many of Shakespeare’s sonnets, such as the use of Iambs and Iambic pentameter, that indicate Edward De Vere was really Shakespeare. Aside from these, which could be coincidence, similar to Stanley we have no hard evidence.
Sir Walter Raleigh is another potential Shakespeare. He was well traveled having explored the new world and wrote poetry for Queen Elizabeth the First. His birth and death closely resemble Shakespeare and like Edward De Vere there are clues within the texts, similar writing styles and motifs that link him to the Bard. Raleigh was executed in the Tower of London by King James the First, around the same time Shakespeare died. The biggest point against Sir Walter Raleigh being Shakespeare is Raleigh had a busy life and didn’t have the time to write Shakespeare’s works or turn them into productions in London.
The fourth contender for the Shakespeare Crown is perhaps the most well known among the general public, (Thank you David Mitchell and Upstart Crow) Christopher Marlow. William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlow are certainly similar, some would argue the same person. They both had similar upbringings, the only difference being Marlow was brought up at Cambridge and Shakespeare in Stratford. If both of them existed they may have known each other, both working in the theatrical world at the same time. Marlow had a second job, aside from being a play writer. He was a spy catcher for Queen Elizabeth the First and this, understandably, made him a few enemies. Officially, Marlow was killed by Ingram Frizer after being stabbed in the right eye at a dinner party but some suggest that this was a cover up so that Marlow could fake his own death in order to avoid assassination. After faking his death, Marlow continued his writing, this time under the name William Shakespeare and backdated his work.
Although I love conspiracy theories such as Marlow faking his death, if I had to choose one answer I would like to think that the name William Shakespeare was a name anyone could adopt. Similar to Spartacus or Robin Hood, it was a name many people shared. I’m not sure why anyone in Elizabethan England would like to publish their work anonymously but if they wished to do so, they could under Shakespeare’s name.
The problem with all of these contenders is that 1) There is no solid evidence as to them being William Shakespeare and 2) There is no reason historians are aware of for William Shakespeare not to have existed. Although we don’t know a great deal about the bard, we know more about him than we do any other Elizabethan citizen. Historians have used a process called Stylometry to compare Shakespeare’s style of work to other Elizabethan play writes. They concluded that although no-one wrote like Shakespeare, he really was one of a kind, Shakespeare may have co-wrote other plays. In particular he seems to have written Henry VI part one and Henry VI part two with Christopher Marlow and Titus Andronicus with George Peele.
Regardless on who you think Shakespeare was, I think that the argument is moot. To quote Shakespeare – “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet.” That is to say it doesn’t matter if William Shakespeare was his William Shakespeare or if it was actually John Smith, his works are still enjoyed by millions across the world.