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Who Was Shakespeare? Essay, Research Paper

Who was Shakespeare? Was he a simple illiterate bard? Or was he an earl, born of sophistication and eloquence? It has been an argument that has spanned lifetimes. To some people it doesnt matter at all. He was just some random guy who wrote a bunch of good plays. To others it means everything. They are those who consider Shakespeare’s works to be Western man’s highest achievement in literature. “I am haunted by the conviction that the divine William [Shakespeare] was the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced upon a patient world” (Henry James).

In Shakespeare’s time, no one disputed that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and sonnets credited to him. They were published: “Mr William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies” and “Shake-speare’s Sonnets.” William Shakespeare of Stratford never protested that he didn’t write them. Not one person claimed instead to be their author. All contemporary evidence correlates with William Shakespeare being their author. There is not one bit of evidence of anyone else being their author instead.

Despite this, since the 19th Century there are those who have believed that someone else must have written them instead. Not that there’s any evidence, but that of course the man from Stratford couldn’t have, so therefore someone else must have. The candidates for alternative authorship are many and varied, and most have been disqualified, perhaps indicative of the desire to find someone. The most popular candidate as alternative author is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) whose case is best presented.

If there is someone other than William Shakespeare responsible for these magnificent literary works, then it is only right that they are properly credited. Equally, if William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works attributed to him then he should have that credit rather than it be transferred to someone not worthy of that accrediation. But if you scrutinize the Oxford case objectively, you end up with very serious problems with the claim (that he never claimed for himself).

One view is that the author of Shakespeare’s works was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. That side argues that it is highly unlikely that the person to whom they are traditionally assigned could have composed Shakespeare’s works. Also in that argument, they believe that the qualifications necessarly for the true author of these works are not adequately realized in the person of William Shakespeare, or of any other candidate proposed in the last 200 years. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

Stratfordian scholars (those who believe that William Shakespeare did in fact write his plays), rely on three basic points. One is the “testimony” of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s works published in 1623, seven years after the Stratford citizen’s death. (Ogburn) The second collection of “traditions” later published by several so-called “ancient witnesses” (none of whom, however, boasted of personal acquaintance with the supposed author). And thirdly, the lack of any challenge to this attribution during the century following Shakespeare’s death. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

As to the second proposition — that Edward de Vere is most likely the true author — Stratfordians attempt to rule out his candidacy on two counts. First, that his death in 1604 bars him from writing several plays they believe were written later. (Austin) Second, that the quality of deVere’s published early poetry is inferior to that of Shakespeare. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

It is suspected that the alleged “inferiority” of Edward de Vere’s acknowledged writings is a judgment rendered by those opposed to giving him any credit. Readers can only judge for themselves whether these “early poems” have a Shakespearean sound and tone to them by reading the poems of Edward de Vere. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

Despite 200 years of attempts to establish the Stratford man’s credentials, some doubts of the author’s identity simply won’t go away. The number of candidates proposed in substitution for William Shakespeare of Stratford defines the difficulties a growing number of people find in accepting his authorship. The reason is that, as Henry James said, “The facts of Stratford do not ’square’ with the plays of genius.” (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

There is no reference during the lifetime of William Shakespeare of Stratford (1564-1616) that either speaks of the author of the Shakespearean works as having come from Stratford or as being an author. The first sign that the author of Shakespeare’s plays came from Stratford appears, in the preface of the 1623 First Folio. (Ogburn; Shakespeare Oxford Society) “I am uncertain as to who really wrote the works of Shakespeare, but I do know that the man from Stratford didn’t.” (Mark Twain)

Two assumptions are held by most anti-Stratfordians: the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have been a well-educated aristocrat, and William Shakespeare of Stratford could not possibly have had the education or social connections to have been that author. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Many scholars find the work probably not to have come from a man of William Shakespeare’s background. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Being the son of a glove-maker, the man named Shakespeare is not known to have an enriched knowledge in anything in particular. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) The only evidence that stands for where he could have learned his written skills was at his grammar school. (Shakespeare Oxford Society; Schuessler, 12) A low class school where Shakespeare could have learned language and literature may be the only school he ever attended. (Shakespeare Oxford Society; Schuessler, 12) It is possible that he could learn such brilliant dialogue and imagery, but is it likely? Could a poor society full of different classes teach a genius, or did that genius teach the society? (Schuessler, 12)

Shakespeare may have been an Elizabethan Will Hunting (from the movie Good Will Hunting). In the movie Good Will Hunting, Will had pretty much no education and yet he was still a genius and could solve math problems faster than anyone else. He was able to absorb vast amounts of information simply because he wanted to. It didn’t matter that he didn’t have a formal education, he learned it all from reading books on his own. Who’s to say that William Shakespeare was not the same way?

On that point, since William Shakespeare did not have much formal education, he must have been a reader of many subjects. (Reedy, Kathman) But where could Shakespeare have gotten the books he would have needed to read? Richard Field, who grew up down the street from Shakespeare and was in very similar circumstances, became one of the leading publishers and booksellers in London. (Reedy, Kathman) More importantly, he published many of the works Shakespeare relied on most heavily in composing his plays. (Reedy, Kathman)

There is no mention in the documents of the time of anyone named Shakespeare having an acquaintance with the upper class as has been implied. (Schuessler, 12)Also not completely understood was the author’s dedications to the Earl of Southampton and internal evidence from Shakespeare’s work. (Schuessler, 12; Austin)

The only items containing his handwriting are six signatures. (Ogburn; Reed; Schuessler, 12; Evans, Levin; Shakespeare Oxford Society) Three of these signatures are on his will, one is on a deposition, and two are on property documents. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) None of these has anything to do with literature. Most of these signatures are illegible, and one was written with obvious help. (Ogburn; Schuesssler, 12) In Shakespeare’s will, it doesn’t show that he had any books or literary materials of any kind. It doesn’t even show that he had any relation to acting or actors. (Ogburn)

Some people believe that since Shakespeare’s earlier works did not have his name on them, there was some conspiracy to keep the author secret. (Reedy, Kathman) But contemporary plays at that time were not considered literature, and most people didn’t pay much attention to their authors, at least not until after 1600. (Reedy, Kathman) Only about a third of all the plays printed in the 1590s named the author on the title page, and most of these were the Shakespeare works late in the decade. (Reedy, Kathman) Neither Greene nor Marlowe had ever been mentioned as a playwright, much less on a title page, at all while alive. (Reedy, Kathman)

Some time between 1616 and 1623, William Basse wrote an elegy entitled “On Mr. Wm. Shakespeare,” in which he suggests that Shakespeare should have been buried in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer, Beaumont, and Spenser. (Reedy, Kathman) Several of these elegies have the full title “On Mr. William Shakespeare, he died in April 1616,” which means they were unambiguously referring to the Stratford William Shakespeare. (Reedy, Kathman) In any case, the poem could not be referring to the Earl of Oxford. (Reedy, Kathman)

The sheer number of candidates proposed for the position of “William Shakespeare” is definitely amazing. Acutally, of the more than eighty Elizabethans put forward since the middle of the eighteenth century as the “true Shakespeare,” only four (other than the man William Shakespeare) have deserved serious consideration. (Austin; Schuessler, 16; Shakespeare Oxford Society) They are Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam), Christopher Marlow, William Stanley (Sixth Earl of Derby), and Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford). (Shakespeare Oxford Society; Austin; Schuessler, 16)

Bacon: Though he was learned and highly intelligent, Francis Bacon expressed these traits in a manner different than Shakespeare’s, whose work has great “imagination, passion and idealism.” (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Though both of the authors had great knowledge of the law and the legal system, Shakespeare’s style was different than Bacon’s. (Schuessler, 16) “The known verse that has come down to us of Francis Bacon’s, e.g., the metrical settings of the Psalms, is stilted and as unlike Shakespeare’s as is possible.” (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Those who believe that it was Bacon also rely on the use of cryptograms to prove that Bacon is the true Shakespeare. (Reedy, Kathman) One example comes from the long word ‘honorificabilitudinitatibus’ found in Loves Labour’s Lost. (Reedy, Kathman) The letters of this word can be rearranged to form the sentence ‘hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi’ which is translated as ‘these plays F. Bacon’s offspring are preserved for the world.’ (Reedy, Kathman) But it is still difficult to believe that Bacon would have written these works by the great William Shakespeare. It just doesn’t logically fit into the scheme of his life. (Schuessler, 16)

Marlowe: This man was born in the same year as the real William Shakespeare. (Schuessler, 16) The only problem is, he died at the age of 29, just when Shakespeare’s works were becoming famous. (Schuessler) To get around this, those who believe it was Marlowe insist that he did not actually die at that time, that the coroner lied (because there were irregularities in his report). (Reedy, Kathman; Shakespeare Oxford Society) They believe he was really alive and was able to write these plays. (Reedy, Kathman; Shakespeare Oxford Society) Those who believe that it was Marlowe say that he was in fact a spy for Britain, and that is why he was forced to write them under a false name. (Shakespeare Oxford Society; Reedy Kathman) But the irregularities do not necessarily mean that he was still alive. They could just as well mean that his true cause of death was covered up. (Reedy, Kathman; Shakespeare Oxford Society) There are other objections as well his style was quite different than the great William Shakespeare’s. (Shakespeare Oxford Society; Reedy, Kathman)

Derby: In 1599, two documents were written. They stated that William Stanley wrote comedies and various other literary works. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) That is the entire case for this man. His wife was the daughter of Edward de Vere, so those who say that Shakespeare was in fact de Vere state that Derby may have aided in the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

Oxford: A serious objection to de Vere is that the quality of his work is quite different than that of Shakespeare’s. Though his writing is far superior to Francis Bacon’s, de Vere’s poems hardly reach the quality of Shakespeare’s. But there are resemblances in his writing to that of William Shakespeare. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

Craig Huston has conducted Studies of Oxford’s and Shakespeare’s word similarities in “The Shakespeare Authorship Question”, “Evidence for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford”, and others. (Reedy, Kathman) The Shakespeare poems and plays show that the author had specific knowledge of certain literary works, certain prominent people in Elizabeth’s court and events connected to them. (Reedy, Kathman)

To argue that it was Oxford, many scholars say that Lord Burghley, de Vere’s uncle was satirized as Polonius in Hamlet. (Austin) Some details in Hamlet’s dialogue show that “Shakespeare” had precise knowledge of Burghley’s career. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) A commoner like the real William Shakespeare of Stratford could not have portrayed a figure such as Burghley on the stage. (Ogburn) Also, de Vere wrote a poem and letter to introduce Thomas Bedingfield’s Cardanus Comfort, which was a major source book for Hamlet. (Ogburn, Austin)

In 1573, de Vere, as a young man, was seen with his friends, playing pranks on travelers on the same road “between Rochester and Gravesend” where Prince Hal’s friends from the Boar’s Head Tavern did in Henry IV, Part 1. (Shakespeare Oxford Society;Austin) Also, the de Vere family crest featured a blue boar. (Reed)

de Vere’s poem “Anne Vavasor’s Echo” written to his mistress Anne Vavasor, bears a strong resemblance to the echo verses in Venus and Adonis and some passages in Romeo and Juliet. (Reed)

The details of Hamlet, one of “Shakespeare’s” greatest achievements, are similar to those of Oxford’s life. The play could almost be considered autobiographical. In the Renaissance period in England no courtiers were allowed to publish poetry –this was an unwritten code of the court. (Austin)The need for another name by an author-courtier such as Oxford would have been essential. (Austin)

“Pallas Athena, patron goddess of ancient Athens, home of Greek theatre, was associated with the sobriquet Hasti-vibrans, or ’spear-shaker.’” (Shakespeare Oxford Society; Ogburn) Oxford’s coat of arms has a lion who is shaking a spear. At court Oxford was known as “Spear-shaker” because he was skilled at tournaments and his crest showed a lion with a spear. (Ogburn, Smithsonian)

To exclude any other candidate than William Shakspeare of Stratford, the reference to Shakespeare by Ben Jonson as “Sweet Swan of Avon” in the First Folio has been put forward . Also, the Earl of Oxford had an estate, Bilton Hall, which was partially bounded by the Avon River. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

Upon Oxford’s death in 1604 King James had eight Shakespeare plays produced at court as a final tribute. When Oxford’s widow died nine years later 14 of Shakespeare plays were produced in tribute. (Smithsonian)

Comparing Edward de Vere to “William Shakespeare” is not a simple task. “Some general and special characteristics of the author ‘Shake-speare’ are revealed in the poems and plays, as adduced by J. Thomas Looney in ‘Shakespeare’ Identified in Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford,’ with a comparison of these characteristics to the matching characteristics of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.” (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

“Shakespeare was an enthusiast in the world of drama.” (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Oxford is had written, produced and acted in plays. He was owner of the Blackfriars Theatre, and perated his own theatrical company, Oxford’s Boys. About 1600 the Earl of Oxford’s servants performed two plays. In 1602 the Earls of Oxford and Worcester joined their companies and were licensed to play at the Boar’s Head. (Austin, Ogburn)

Very possibly, Shakespeare had feudal connections, a member of the high aristocracy, and connected with “Lancastrian” supporters. (Shakespeare Oxford Society) Edward de Vere was an heir to one of the oldest earldoms in England’s history, originating in the Norman Conquest. Historically, the de Veres supported the Lancastrian faction in the Wars of the Roses. (Shakespeare Oxford Society)

He was most likely meticulous with money and hated thriftiness. Edward de Vere gave many of his estates to his father-in-law, William Cecil, Lord Burghley, which historians have criticized him for doing. (Ogburn)

Taken at face value, the Sonnets speak of real and oftentimes painful emotions the Youth and the Mistress cause the poet. (Sobran) The Sonnets proved very hard to fit into the accepted life of Shakespeare of Stratford though. (Sobran)

In the mid-nineteenth century some commentators, unhappy with the Realist view, went against it with what might be called the fictional view of the Sonnets. (Sobran) The Sonnets became mere “poetical exercises,” in which Shakespeare wrote under an “assumed character”(Sobran; Shakespeare Oxford Society)

How do we know that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare? We know because the historical record tell us so strongly. The historical evidence shows that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, was William Shakespeare the player, William Shakespeare the Globe-sharer, and William Shakespeare the author of the plays and poems that bear his name — and no person of the Elizabethan era ever doubted it. No Elizabethan ever suggested that Shakespeare’s plays and poems were written by someone else, or that Shakespeare the player was not Shakespeare the author, or that Shakespeare the Globe-sharer was not Shakespeare of Stratford. No contemporary of Shakespeare’s ever suggested that the name used by the player, the Globe-sharer, or the author was a pseudonym; and none of the major alternative candidates — not Francis Bacon, not the Earl of Oxford, not Christopher Marlowe, not William Stanley — had any connection with Shakespeare’s acting company or with his friends and fellow actors.

After all, there really is very little in Shakespeare’s plays that required knowledge beyond materials that were publicly available. What the authorship partisans have failed to demonstrate is how any of their candidates had the intimate knowledge and experience of theater and drama to create plays that remain the standard by which all other stage works are measured. Those qualifications are possessed uniquely by the man who was an active member of an extraordinary theatrical ensemble–William Shakespeare, gentleman of Stratford.

Anti-Stratfordians must rely solely upon speculation about what they think the “real” author should have been like, because they cannot produce one historical fact to bolster their refusal to accept who that author actually was. No matter how they try to ignore it or explain it away, the historical record — all of it — establishes William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon as the author of the works traditionally attributed to him.


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