In the Bronze Age of the Internet – some ten years ago – blogging started to flourish, and I was tempted to start blogging about my music. However, I was always hesitant when it came to explaining music in words. As I feel that music should speak for itself in its own language, I only accompanied my releases with bare-bones comments. Not many years later, but in an era in which blogging as a form had lost all of its novelty, I added some more elaborate texts to my blog and saw it take off. Initially, I thought I would be writing only about music. In my latest post, however, I mentioned Shakespeare, and some readers then had a few questions regarding my stance on a popular subject—the authorship of his work. So, here we are now: not only am I blogging, but also, I do so about a subject that is out of the musical domain.
It seems that almost every great artist must have some weak point in the public consciousness, something that can taint their reputation, or even potentially turn it upside-down. The more time passes, and the greater the power, coherence, and independence of an artist’s work, the darker the shadows falling on the author.
In the case of William Shakespeare, the issues are next to irrational. On one side, for four centuries, his magnificent literary output has been consistently performed and published under the name of William Shakespeare. On the other side, the central question regarding that output nowadays seems to be, how to attribute it to someone else? William Shakespeare is referred to as “the man from Stratford,” a ghostwriter with a profession very different from poetry and drama. Someone else, thoroughly educated—unlike the supposedly semi-literate “man from Stratford”—had apparently written the famous canon.
Some avid readers of German tabloids at the turn of the century—killing time while commuting is always an acceptable excuse—may recall the fame that one of the first German reality show stars achieved. In an infamous display of ignorance about Shakespeare, he stated, “I know Shakespeare but am not sure if he wrote novels, or made films or documentaries.” One can find it funny or not, but is it not strange that the first question emerging out of utter ignorance is the question regarding William Shakespeare’s actual profession? It is like not being sure whether Achilles plays for FC Bayern or Real Madrid, but somehow recalling reading in the newspapers about his recent heel injury. William Shakespeare’s achievement seems to be questioned on a far deeper level – in the public subconscious!
The main question about the authorship of works published under the name of William Shakespeare could be formulated as follows:
Could a poorly educated man have written a magnificent literary work, displaying an in-depth knowledge available exclusively to academically educated people?
I would add here my two cents and wonder:
Would it have been too hard, for a person capable of writing the work of William Shakespeare, to gain all the knowledge needed in an alternative way (e.g., self-education or mingling with supportive, intelligent, and educated people-maybe the very ones whose works he supposedly ghostwrote)?
My answer would be that it was a hard part to write the works of William Shakespeare. Gaining knowledge, in contrast, was a piece of cake.
The society of illustrious men of letters lacking substantial formal education would not be small: Dante, Machaut, and Cervantes are the first that come to my mind. The period in which Shakespeare may have acquired his knowledge would have been adequate: there is almost a decade of unaccounted time before his first known mention as a dramatist in London. Although these years are known as “the lost years,” it is unlikely that a talent of Shakespeare’s proportions would have wasted time.
Among many candidates proposed to be authors of Shakespeare’s works, two are considered to be the most feasible: Christopher Marlowe, and especially Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.
Christopher Marlowe, like Shakespeare, came from a simple background, but he attended Cambridge University to make a career as a poet and playwright. His plays, presented by the theatre company competing with Shakespeare’s, were very popular. He was killed in a tavern brawl at the age of 30. The proponents of the Marlowe authorship theory suggest that his murder was actually staged, and that he went into hiding for the rest of his life. Marlowe would indeed have had enough reasons to go underground. He supposedly continued to produce plays, which had to be attributed to someone else – the “man from Stratford.”
Marlowe was certainly a great talent, and he wrote some very powerful pieces. Echoes from his works are often found in Shakespeare’s; one can interpret these as hidden messages, but I believe such echoes should either be considered an homage from Shakespeare, or simply be attributed to the non-existence of copyright law in the Elizabethan era. And should there have been copyright law then, Shakespeare would have had a lot of legal trouble, but also amassed a greater fortune—but that is a different subject.
Even if one considers possible the theory that Marlowe was not killed and wrote Shakespeare’s works, and also takes into account that the best of Shakespeare’s works were written after Marlowe’s disappearance, there is one thing that cannot be ignored. It is the Shakespearean empathy with his characters, something unique in the literature. Marlowe was different. The distance he holds from his characters cannot be overseen, and one could usually not imagine them walking down from the “wooden O” stage, which he shared with Shakespeare.
The 17th Earl of Oxford is the hottest candidate at the moment. He was well traveled and educated, an aristocrat socially much closer to the profile of many characters that came to us as creations of Shakespeare. He was also a man of letters, writing poetry and supporting theatre. Many of the contemporary playwrights dedicated their plays to him, but – suspiciously enough – not the one in whom we are most interested. Also, many of the biographical details from Oxford ‘s life resemble events in Shakespeare’s works. Pirates captured Oxford on one occasion, which he barely survived, similarly to Hamlet. He had life-long problems with money, and he lost much of his estate to creditors, similar to Timon of Athens. The list of parallels is truly impressive. In addition, in the politically volatile times, dangerous enough for a fellow Earl of Essex to lose his head, or to suggest that Marlowe had to go underground, one can also speculate that there were enough reasons for people to hide things. Hence, the Earl of Oxford preferred to attribute his masterpieces to someone else and enjoy the results from the background.
With Oxford, an interesting man, however, there are some very basic things that don’t fit. First, he died before some of the major Shakespearean works could have been written. Although the chronology of Shakespearean canon leaves a lot of room for interpretation, some works contain allusions to events that clearly happened after Oxford’s death. Secondly, the poetry that Oxford wrote doesn’t resemble anything ever published under the name of Shakespeare. It would truly require a superhuman effort to be able to write so distinctly differently under two different labels, and to keep it a secret during one’s lifetime and beyond.
There are certainly many open questions regarding the circumstances of William Shakespeare’s life and work. Interestingly, however, there are always assumptions and conditions when it comes to questioning his authorship – not a single piece of unequivocal evidence exists. I believe that it is the Shakespearean empathy, one of the author’s foremost qualities, that contributes to the confusion. Shakespeare was able to speak through his characters in so authentic a way, that many of their vivid statements, positions, or maxims are held to be his own points of view. It may be hard to believe that something so profound is not necessarily sincere, but that is one of an artist’s tasks. To make matters even more confusing, some readers interested in the authorship question may find significance in certain statements that characters make, which pass completely unnoticed by the others. Jorge Luis Borges found Iago’s “I am not what I am” to be significant. Whereas I hadn’t noticed it before I read Borges, I found something else significant. I will quote this passage now, because hopefully I have earned the right to this revelation by patiently taking into account all of the available theories, including the one with Marlowe in hiding for over 20 years. It is from Love’s Labour’s Lost and uttered by Berowne, a character of lower rank accompanying the king, who seems to hold him dear for his vigor and wit, rather than for immaculate educational credentials, as Berowne himself states:
Study is like the heaven's glorious sun,
That will not be search'd with sawcy looks;
Small have continual plodders ever won,
Save base authority from others' books.
These earthly godfathers of heaven's lights
That give a name to every fixed star,
Have no more profit of their shining nights,
Than those that walk and wot not what they are.
Too much to know, is to know nought: but fame;
And every godfather can give a name.
One can argue about the significance of this particular quotation, but a certain unacademic stance in Shakespeare’s work is hard to overlook. His friend, playwright Ben Jonson, didn’t fail to mention his “small Latin and less Greek” in his poem dedicated to Shakespeare (in which he also mentioned Marlowe), thus hinting more to the lack of university education, than to the knowledge of dead languages. The presence of the desert and the seacoast of Bohemia (today’s Czech Republic) in The Winter’s Tale is legendary, as are a plethora of anachronisms in Greek and Roman plays. The vast erudition seems to have had some gaps, which may be explained by Shakespeare’s unsystematic process of learning.
Still, there are parallels between the Earl of Oxford’s biography, and plots and characters in Shakespearean canon that are hard to explain by the facts available. It is certain that the two men met, as Oxford was very involved in the theater. It is probable that there was mutual affection between them. It is possible that they were friends, and that Shakespeare sometimes paid tribute to this interesting man by translating the Earl’s character and experiences into characters and events in his works. Oxford may not have been the only friend to whom Shakespeare paid homage in this way. In As You Like It, he directly quoted Marlowe’s line from Hero and Leander: “Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?” In As You Like It, however, the full quote is as follows: "Dead Shepherd, now I find thy saw of might,/ 'Who ever loved that loved not at first sight?'" (III.v.80-81)
Marlowe’s most popular poem was “The Passionate Shepherd To His Love.” The controversy may be reiterated by reminding the reader that this poem was printed under Shakespeare’s name during his lifetime—but just for the length of this couplet. As Shakespeare almost never prepared or authorized the publication of his work, the brochure, The Passionate Pilgrim, in which it was printed, also belongs to the group of contemporary publications containing Shakespeare’s work of whose publication he was unaware before it became available. It purports to contain works by Shakespeare only, but undoubtedly there are also poems by Marlowe and several other authors. This shows one of the ways in which controversies emerge.
In the end, I am sure that no reader is richer after reading this, as I have been elaborating on my stance, well accepted for 400 years, that William Shakespeare wrote works by William Shakespeare. Maybe I could have added two more cents about some other controversies (his will, trip to Italy, aristocratic worldview, etc.,) but I thought that the assertion that the “man from Stratford” wasn’t capable of writing Shakespeare’s work was the most interesting question. When some “controversies” cease to be controversial, I’ll be looking forward to films depicting the sensation: Shakespeare, the self-made provincial man who made a fortune writing classics!