Essay Non-Fiction posted October 17, 2016


Exceptional
This work has reached the exceptional level
the man was the writer

Yes,Virginia,There was a Shakespeare

by Stacia Ann


I recently had a run-in with a group of mad Oxfordians. They bullied me on Facebook for about a week, and it all ended with me unfriending people and changing writer’s groups.

 So what’s an Oxfordian, you may ask? (If you don’t have to, you’re probably as big or bigger literary nerd than I am.) An Oxfordian, as the term is used in literary circles, is not a person from Oxford or who went to Oxford University. An Oxfordian, in a literary sense,  is a person who holds the belief that William Shakespeare the writer was not William Shakespeare the man (1564-1616). Rather they believe the Lord of Oxford wrote under the name "William Shakespeare." (Perhaps the literary "Oxfordians" are deliberately misrepresenting themselves as having connections with Oxford University, which is usually not the case.)  The Facebook issue was incited by my ignorant claim that William Shakespeare, "the man from Stratford," as Oxfordians call him, was also William Shakespeare the writer. Oxfordians believe Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, (1550-1604), Shakespeare’s contemporary, wrote Shakespeare’s work.

The basis of this claim seems to be manifold, based on facts, half-truths, evidence by lack of evidence, and downright misrepresentations. Among them are Shakespeare was not of the noble class, and therefore could not write about it. Shakespeare the man was not well-travelled, and therefore could not have written about all of the places, such as Italy and Egypt, that Shakespeare the writer did. Shakespeare of Stratford was not educated, perhaps not even literate, and therefore could not write at all. Shakespeare was, in addition, by some accounts boorish, given to quarreling over a few pence. Finally, Shakespeare was not mentioned by contemporaries nor did he leave much behind. Perhaps William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon never existed.

In this paper, I’ll explore why I hold the position Shakespeare the man was Shakespeare the writer—in fact, the default hypothesis for almost half a millennium.

 I’d like to start by refuting the Oxfordian claims.
  1. William Shakespeare the man didn’t exist. This is the most radical of claims held by a fraction of Oxfordians. We do have Shakespeare’s baptismal records. However, some of Shakespeare’s life, between his early years in Stratford and then when he emerged in London as a member of a theater company, are unaccounted for, leading some to speculate on whether Shakespeare existed at all. However, most people’s lives, before computers, were unaccounted for. Actually, as a prominent member of the theater, Shakespeare’s life is probably more documented than most of his time. We know where he worked, whom he worked with, and what dates his plays were produced and printed. We also have his marriage records and birth records of children. We have bills of purchase of his house. His contemporaries referred to him as a writer. There was simply no reason to document his early adulthood before his involvement in the theater. (There is a seven-year gap, to be precise, unaccounted for, between the birth of his twins in Stratford in 1585 and when he emerged in London as a playwright in 1592.) I came of age before the computer, and most of my early adulthood is undocumented (of which I am thankful). Shakespeare’s life is as documented, or more, as anyone’s of his time.
  2. Shakespeare was not of the noble class, and he wrote convincingly of the noble classes. This is actually true. According to church records, Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, the son of a prosperous businessman and public official, his mother’s family a leading one in Stratford. Solid citizens, but not noble. However, most writers are not of the noble class. In Elizabethan London, theaters were often rowdy, the language and behavior crude, and much of the audience and its performers of lower-class stations in life.  Many, or most, writers even today are in it for the money; they are not aristocrats writing for the pure joy of it. You do not have to experience a particular lifestyle to write about it convincingly. Oscar Wilde and Noel Coward, to name later writers, were also of more modest origins than the aristocracy yet wrote convincingly of that class. The operative word is “convincingly.” The writer need know only enough to convince the audience. The term for this in writing is “suspension of disbelief.” Coward’s, Wilde’s, and Shakespeare’s audiences were not of the upper class, mostly, but appreciated stories about that class. Writers write about people of all stations in life—criminals, kings, individuals of the opposite gender—without experiencing that lifestyle directly.
  3. Shakespeare was not well-travelled. I’ll make a variation of the argument above—you do not have to experience something directly to write about it. Even wealthy, well-travelled Elizabethans would not have experienced the ancient Rome and Egypt that Shakespeare wrote about at times. In addition, there are well-known errors in Shakespeare's work regarding geography. For example, landlocked Bohemia has a seacoast in "The Winter's Tale," and there is a sea route between landlocked Verona and Milan in "The Two Gentlemen of Verona." These errors suggest that indeed the author of Shakespeare's work, like Shakespeare himself, presumably, had not travelled much in continental Europe. 
  4. Shakespeare was not educated. Shakespeare was likely, as the son of leading citizens of Stratford, to have attended Stratford’s grammar school, where its curriculum focused on Latin and Greek, including classic Latin and Greek plays. He was probably as well-educated as any Elizabethan. True, there is no record of him attending this school, but in the years before computers, this isn’t surprising. I wouldn’t like to have to produce my school records from forty years ago. In addition, there were in Stratford at the time a couple of extensive personal libraries, which Shakespeare probably had access to. In his years around London, Shakespeare could also have acquired the knowledge demonstrated in the plays. In that seven-year gap in the record of his young adulthood mentioned above, it's entirely possible he was apprenticing and learning his trade before the production of his first play, Henry VI, Part 1.  People who believe that Shakespeare should have gone to college or at least high school are guilty of "presentism": that is, judging the past in terms of the present. Access to university was extremely limited, only to the wealthy class, before the twentieth century, and high schools as we know today did not exist in Shakespeare’s time. A few years of grammar school or study with a private tutor were all that even well-off people had in terms of education, for the most part,  before entering a trade or profession.  
  5. Shakespeare was illiterate. This seems to be based on some poorly-executed signatures. But many literate people have poor handwriting. Poor handwriting is not evidence of illiteracy. If so, both my husband and I, with post-graduate degrees, are illiterate. Also, according to some accounts, Shakespeare’s daughters were illiterate. This last is not at all well-supported, as there are references to his eldest daughter Susanna's wit and literariness. Even if the illiteracy were so, Shakespeare did not raise those daughters, it appears, and even today people sometimes don’t bother to educate their female children. In addition, there were outbreaks of the bubonic plague around Stratford at the time of the children’s youth that may have precluded them attending school. Actually, no one’s illiteracy is evidence of another person’s. Again, the value of ensuring  high school and college education for daughters as well as sons well into adulthood is a contemporary, middle-class Western value.
  6. No reference to Shakespeare by contemporaries. No, none, except for—among others, Ben Johnson, fellow writer; historian John Stow, who listed Shakespeare among contemporary great poets; and numerous others in eulogies after his death who specifically refer to Shakespeare as a writer. Shakespeare also mentioned in his will, with monetary gifts, a number of his London theater colleagues, tying Shakespeare of Stratford to Shakespeare the playwright.  This is not a bad record for a fraud, one would have to admit.
  7. Shakespeare was poorly-mannered. By some accounts, Shakespeare was uncouth, given to getting drunk and arguing over a few pence.  He wasn’t a gentleman, apparently. His wife was already pregnant with their first child when they married. He seems to have abandoned his family for a large part of his life to pursue a life in the theater. He left his wife in his will his “second-best bed.” However, I would almost take this as evidence Shakespeare was a writer. Being of artistic leanings does not preclude poor personal behavior and in fact often is comorbid.
The Case for Shakespeare the Man as Shakespeare the Writer
  1. Attribution and Signatures. The plays have been attributed to Shakespeare for over four centuries. There was never a suggestion "William Shakespeare" was a pseudonym. Most of the plays were signed "William Shakespeare." The First Folio, the first printed collection of Shakespeare's plays in 1623, bears Shakespeare's likeness in an engraving. Both Shakespeare and  Edward de Vere were dead by then. Who would then have benefitted from keeping any alternate authorship secret at that point?
  2. Shareholder. William Shakespeare the man was a shareholder in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the King’s Men, and the Globe Theaters in London, where the plays signed William Shakespeare were performed.
  3. Connection Back to Stratford. William Shakespeare of the London theater purchased real estate at Stratford-upon-Avon with the money earned as a stockholder, writer, and performer, therefore again tying Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, the man, to William Shakespeare, the theater professional of London. He also purchased a coat of arms for his family. A memorial bust of Shakespeare stands in Stratford Trinity Church, depicting Shakespeare with a quilled pen, the likeness approved by friends.
  4. Further Connection Back to Stratford: Another Oxfordian claim is that Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon would certainly have written about his hometown, and he didn't. To begin with, Shakespeare, as was conventional at the time, based a lot of his work on history, such as "Henry V," and traditional stories, such as "Romeo and Juliet." Furthermore, it's simply false that Shakespeare did not write about Stratford and its surrounding areas. The Forest of Arden, for example, is featured in several Shakespeare works, most notably "As You Like It," in which the main characters hide and engage in romance in the Forest of Arden. And the Forest of Aden is just outside of Stratford. In fact, Shakespeare's mother was Mary Arden, her family having long ties to the area. 
  5. Bad Conspiracy Theory. Shakespeare was recognized as a writer and actor during his time. He collaborated regularly with other professionals, such as playwright John Fletcher. If there was a conspiracy to conceal the real writer’s identity behind Shakespeare’s, this was a massive conspiracy involving actors, writers, and audiences. How do you keep actors quiet? They are not the most discreet individuals on the planet. One of them would have gotten drunk and talked.
  6. Bad Conspiracy Theory of Global Proportions Spanning Centuries. Shakespeare’s work was written almost half a millennium ago. It has since been published and performed all over the planet. Any conspiracy to hide an alternate identity of Shakespeare would have then gone on for half a millennium, taking in actors, writers, audiences, and scholars, certainly one of the most extensive conspiracies in history.
Why Edward de Vere, the Lord of Oxford, Was Unlikely to Have Been Shakespeare
I have to say “unlikely” because almost anything is possible, unless it violates the laws of physics. (Actually, the Oxfordian claim does in a way violate the laws of physics, and I’ll get to that in a moment.)  There are a number of alternate candidates posited as the true William Shakespeare, but I’ll pick on the Oxfordians, as they are the most persistent in this claim.
  1. Motive. One of the biggest questions in this theory of Oxford as Shakespeare is “why?”  Having painted Shakespeare as this illiterate, lower-class boob, Oxfordians then would have to address, it seems, why anyone, especially an aristocrat, would hide behind his name. They do not address this point, to my knowledge.
  2. Lack of evidence. There is no hard evidence tying de Vere to Shakespeare’s work, as with William Shakespeare himself. The evidence is solely conjecture and speculation about what Shakespeare should have been like rather than who he was—for example, de Vere as a travelled gentleman would have gone to the places Shakespeare wrote about (such as ancient Rome?) Also, the Shakespeare plays are picked apart for possible allusions to de Vere’s life. My personal favorite is that de Vere’s life “reads like the script of ‘Hamlet.’” Well, I thought the same of myself when I first read “Hamlet” as a teenager—how much in common I had with Hamlet: moping around the house, unable to act, staging bad dramas, fighting with my mother. In all seriousness, there are universals in Shakespeare’s plays. That is why they continue to resonate so many years after their first production.
  3. Timeline. The timeline is off. Edward de Vere was born in 1550. He died in 1604. Shakespeare continued writing plays for another nine years after de Vere’s death, regularly released to the public on an annual basis, before he retired back to Stratford. Even if de Vere had for some reason written and stockpiled these plays, the regular timed release is highly unlikely.
  4. My fourth point—actually I have no fourth point. I think I made my case with the third. Dead people don’t write plays.
Occam’s Razor
Oxfordians do have an explanation for many of the reasons that make Oxford an unlikely or impossible candidate to have written Shakespeare’s plays. I'll discuss them below. 

However, let’s first address Occam’s Razor.

Occam’s Razor is the principle that the simplest explanation should be considered before going to a more complex one. “If you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras,” is the way some medical professionals put it. When someone presents with a fever, think influenza before Ebola.  If my student tells me that she doesn’t have her homework because a crack team of homework thieves invaded her house and stole the homework and then went on her computer and erased the hard drive, it is possible. However, the most likely explanation, and the one I’m putting my money on, is simply that she didn’t do the homework. The simplest explanation with fewer “holes” to fill in is most likely to be the correct one.

Occam’s Razor Applied to Oxfordian Claims:

1. “Hamlet” was autobiographical of de Vere. Hamlet was actually based on an earlier drama, as with many of Shakespeare’s plays—much like people today retell traditional fairytales such as “Cinderella.” Most scholars see “Hamlet” as based on a 13th century Norse legend, the tale of Amleth, collected in History of the Danes. In this story, Amleth’s uncle kills Amleth’s father, marries his widow, and takes control of the kingdom. Amleth feigns madness and then kills his uncle to avenge his father. Does this sound familiar? The plotline of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” clearly mirrors that of this earlier, traditional story, down to the similar names of the protagonists, and any resemblance to de Vere’s life is coincidental.

2. The “conventional” dating of Shakespeare’s plays is off. Oxfordians claim that most of the dates on Shakespeare’s plays are unreliable, and Shakespeare is unlikely to have written complex works in his twenties and thirties, and therefore the timeline of the plays should be moved back—just enough so that de Vere’s death is after the completion of the canon, in fact. However, if the dates we do have on Shakespeare’s plays are unreliable, this new revised timeline even more so and actually completely unsubstantiated. And many writers and artists complete fine work in their twenties and thirties. As an example, F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of The Great Gatsby, widely regarded as the best American novel of the twentieth century, completed this work before he was thirty. And on another note, the author was of middle-class Irish-American origins--in Fitzgerald's day, people of Irish heritage were often looked down upon and by definition "lower-class" and "not white." Fitzgerald also dropped out of college and had issues with alcohol. He is often quoted as saying "The rich are different from you and me." He clearly was not of the elite himself nor regarded himself as such--but as with "lower-class" Shakespeare, wrote convincingly about the upper class of his society, enough so that his writing was enormously popular for this reason. 

3. Oxford’s name does not appear on any of the plays as gentlemen did not write for the theater. There actually was no such taboo. Gentlemen did write for the theater, such as Shakespeare contemporary Francis Beaumont, son of a court justice and Oxford-educated. Aristocrats were just unlikely to take on such a job and were probably looked at with disapproval. But there was no absolute prohibition. And Oxford was actually recognized as a poet and playwright, one piece of evidence used as to his Shakespeare identity. The Oxfordians actually have tied themselves in a knot here, it seems, with the conflicting claims that the author of Shakespeare’s work must have been of the noble class, and de Vere was a nobleman who wrote plays, and yet the noble class did not associate with the theater and therefore a pseudonym was needed. 

4. Oxford was using the name “Shakespeare” before William Shakespeare, the man, arrived in London. How likely is this? It is not a common name, and we do know that it was the name of William Shakespeare of Stratford. In fact, Shakespeares lived throughout Warwickshire, the county where Stratford is located, for centuries  (the name has several acceptable spellings as spelling was just being conventionalized in Shakespeare’s day.) There is no evidence de Vere ever called himself Shakespeare, and why would he?

5. “Shakespeare” was Oxford’s nickname because of his ability to fence or to “shake his spear.”  This seems highly unlikely and too coincidental. Shakespeare the author’s name was in all probability simply Shakespeare the man’s surname, not de Vere’s nickname.

So there it is, the case for why Shakespeare was Shakespeare. The Oxfordians simply have to tie themselves into too many knots in making their case, with too many complex explanations required, and others concerns left unexplained.

Again, applying Occams's Razor, it is possible that William Shakespeare of Stratford did not exist, or was illiterate, and for reasons of his own, the Lord of Oxford chose the name as his pen name. Or maybe it was his nickname, "William Who Shakes His Spear," although his given name was Edward, not William. Maybe he did stockpile his plays and planned with a colleague to have them released after his death on a regular basis, for whatever reason. Maybe he faked his own death and continued to write as William Shakespeare for another nine years. Maybe the editors of the First Folio were massively dishonest in putting the collection together, monkeying with the authorship and timeline, for reasons of their own. Maybe all of these factors were at play in some complex conspiracy. 

However, the case is so convoluted that Oxfordians have refused to talk to me about it, referring me to source works instead because the case is just too hard for them to make and won’t stand up to even elementary scrutiny. If the case is that complicated, just as in my student’s tale of the crack team homework-stealers, it is probably a lie.

The simple facts are that the name “Shakespeare” is all over the plays; Shakespeare was known, celebrated, made money, and was eulogized for the plays, and de Vere’s name is nowhere mentioned in connection with the plays. And the posthumous de Vere “authorship” is another concern. Any one of these problems might be dealt with on its own, but the bulk of the evidence suggests Shakespeare of Stratford was Shakespeare the writer. Applying the scientific method, I would suggest that if the Oxfordians present some new evidence that strongly connects de Vere to the plays, then the authorship question can be reconsidered. As it stands now, however, the evidence is just not there that de Vere wrote the plays.

Genius is unaccountable, occurring in unlikely places. Probably this is what Oxfordians most grapple with. Genius is unfair, often, bestowed on those undeserving. This the basis of the classic conflict in the legend of Mozart and his arch enemy and professional rival Salieri, who may have killed him—the hardworking and skilled Salieri’s fury that such genius would be bestowed on such an idiot in his personal life as Mozart.  Genius is a mystery, leading to such conspiracy theories as Shakespeare was not Shakespeare.

 But yes, Virginia, there was a Shakespeare. 


Non-Fiction Writing Contest contest entry

Recognized


To Oxfordians and all other Shakespeare conspiracy theorists. Thank you meg119 for sharing your artwork.
The title is a reference to a column published in the New York Sun in 1897, written by editor Francis Pharcellus Church. He wrote in response to a letter from eight-year-old Virginia O'Hanlon, who inquired as to the existence of Santa Claus. I debated on the use of the title, as Santa Claus is a myth, and my point has been Shakespeare and his writing are not, but decided to use the title anyway. Both Church and I write about the obviousness of the existence of our subjects although the nature of the existence differs.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by meg119 at FanArtReview.com

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