Alas, Poor Will. Or Edward. Or Amelia… The Shakespeare Authorship Question
Have we ever known him? The Will of Rosalind and Kate, Puck, Hal, Macbeth and Beatrice? And, if not really knowing Will, are these people who came mewling, laughing, raging or loving to the stage also strangers to us? Do we have to learn to know them once again if we believe they are not Will’s creation but are the offspring of a Bacon, an Oxford, a Bassano or a Sidney? For some do argue that it is only by knowing the parent that we can fully understand the child. And so the debate, commonly known as the Authorship Question, as to who really wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare, continues to plague us.
Yet, does that parentage matter? For, with all the incarnations of Shakespeare’s characters and interpretations of the plays within which they fret and strut it is unlikely that we have not already endured every possible meaning. There are, indeed, more interpretations in the Folio than Will could possibly have dreamt of. What further meanings could we discover simply because they were written by someone other than Mr William Shakepeare of Stratford.
Mark Rylance, on the Shakespear Authorship Trust web site, offers another reason:
‘The plays have been my living and I would dearly love to know how such wonders of nature were created, especially as we know for certain they are the invention of an inspired human being working alone and with others. An understanding of the creation could reveal a creative process most beneficial to modern drama and society as a whole.’
Now, this seems a much more reasonable cause for which to set the hounds after the fox. But there’s a rub; this objective is only valid if the author is not William Shakespeare of Stratford. There is scarcely any subject in creative studies which has had the attention that scholars have given Will and his works. Compared to his contemporaries, we know a good deal about Shakespeare. Compared to later writers, we know a good deal less. The chance of uncovering more, however, is definitely drifting towards remote. So, we can only reveal a new understanding of the creative process if we are looking at someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of Shakespeare. The question, then, is useless unless the answer is … not Shakespeare.
Even that, though, is beset with some problems. The current front-runner of choice is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The problem that rears its head is that the contention that it was Oxford depends on a very complicated conspiracy theory at the heart of which is the concealment of his authorship. We know quite a lot about Oxford – far more than we know about Shakespeare – and as the creative process lies behind that very same veil of conspiracy upon which the theory of his authorship rests – we are not going to further our understanding on that score.
Rylance goes on to say that, regardless of what we can or cannot decide, at least the pursuit unveils more of Renaissance society and theatrical writing. In this perhaps he is right; perhaps the course and the pursuit are more important that catching the fox. But it strikes me that Rylance is in the minority among the anti-Stratfordians, most of whom seem obsessed with the fox’s colour. In fact, on either side there seem to be few genuine agnostics.
Nor would I count myself among them. Although I concede that there are some oddities and unknowns if we accept William Shakespeare of Stratford as the author of the stupendous body of work (the lack of books in his will, the apparent discrepancy between William the creative soul and William the businessman are the two that most strike a chord with me) they are hardly sufficient to cry fraud, given the volume of evidence that William Shakespeare did write the works now attributed to him. What I do conceded is that we have no absolute proof that the William Shakespeare of London theatre and William Shakespeare of Stratford are one and the same person. Nonetheless, the weight of evidence that they are one and the same is sufficient to accept it as so, especially in the absence of any candidate with any tangible evidence of authorship.
And that is the nub of my objection: that there is no direct evidence for any of the candidates linking them to the plays, whereas we do have evidence which links William Shakespeare to them. Every argument for anyone else is based upon conjecture, supported either by biographical extrapolation, or textual decoding. It is as if the Doubting Thomases looked at the contradictions and unknowns, declared them to be of greater significance than the knowns, and cried, ‘Well, that’s done for Will” and then cast around for someone whose body might possibly match the cloth that had already been cut and sewn.
It cannot be denied that some of the textual decoding is very clever, though a great deal is rather obscure and some is just remarkably silly, stretching credulity way beyond the elasticity of even The Da Vinci Code. Such textual decoding will not get us anywhere; it is akin to Pentacostalists trading scripture with Calvinists and baffling the Baptists in the gallery.
Does it matter that the hounds still have not got close enough to the fox to even see if it is fox or vixen? Well, to me is does, and for a reason probably less noble and scholarly than Mr Rylance’s.
Gifts to humankind on the scale of Shakepeare’s works are few and precious. And it seems ungrateful of us to pull the rug of praise and thanks out from under someone who, for more than 200 years, was generally acknowledged without question (though not without criticism) as the creator of the greatest set of literary works ever produced by one person (even with occasional help). There were a few questions raised before Delia Bacon's Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them in 1856, but it was Ms Bacon's intense dedication and conjecture which kicked off the question in earnest. Nor should we be surprised; the staggering genius of Shakespeare's work was bound to cause us to wonder as much about the man as the work. How one person drew forth all that from their imagination astounds us. Now, we readily admit that we don’t understand the force that drives such a creative imagination, and yet some are prepared to judge actions of that creative soul by comparison to us ordinary mortals. They look at the quirks of genius and try to understand them by comparison to the ordinary behaviour of the ordinary people in the ordinary life around them. But in response I have to ask: Why does it surprise us when gold neither looks nor behaves like lead?
I, for instance, can concoct a quite plausible scenario for the absence of books in Mr Shakespeare’s will, one that is far less convoluted than the theories required to explain, for example, how Oxford came to author plays written after his death. I can put forward a perfectly reasonable case on why neither of Shakespeare's daughters, Susanna and Judith could, apparently, write. Perhaps for the anti-Stratfordians it is just simply more fun to concentrate on the improbable at the expense of the likely.
Mr Rylance is not alone in questioning whether a simple young man, not versed, they claim, in the intricacies of law, the machinations of the court and the geography of a great part of the European continent , could write such plays. It would have taken someone far more educated and sophisticated. The anti-Stratfordians can produce a long list of very intelligent, learned and respected figures who doubt that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. That list, though, is neither proof nor argument, and for every one on the nay side, the Stratfordians can produce another equally esteemed on the aye side.
So, I am not ready to strip Will of his due. I am sure Edward de Vere was a nice man and a dab hand at doggerel. And it is only my opinion, and thus no proof at all, but the man who wrote ...
“If women could be fair and yet not fond,
Or that their love were firm, not fickle still,
I would not marvel that they make men bond
By service long to purchase their good will ;
But when I see how frail those creatures are,
I laugh that men forget themselves so far.” (Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford)
... could not have written ...
A woman's face with Nature's own hand painted
Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion;
A woman's gentle heart, but not acquainted
With shifting change, as is false women's fashion;
An eye more bright than theirs, less false in rolling,
Gilding the object whereupon it gazeth;
A man in hue, all hues in his controlling,
Much steals men's eyes and women's souls amazeth. (William Shakespeare, Sonnet 20)
In the absence of proof to the contrary, I shall honour William Shakespeare of Stratford for his plays, his poems, and for this rather pretty compliment to us all:
“What a piece of work is a man,
how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties,
in form and moving how express and admirable,
in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals.”
And he might have left us a clue in those words. Maybe within the infinite variety of the human faculties there was a spark so restless, so curious, so observant - so unique - that it's mere existence confounds us still.
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