Friday, October 19, 2007

The Shakespeare Authorship "Question."

It is all over the news.


"Shakespeare Didn't Write Shakespeare!" A Declaration supporting academic research into the Shakespeare Authorship Question has been signed by nearly three hundred people (I have more friends on my party invite list than that). The Declaration cites such luminaries as Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Sigmund Freud, and Walt Whitman as fellow "doubters" of the proposition that the man from Stratford (as they call their putative illiterate country hick), the common
son of a lowly tradesman, could possibly have written the lofty Works of the Bard. The organization behind the Declaration is spearheaded by longtime doubters Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, who are also mounting a play dramatizing [yawn] the authorship debate."

Several of my friends have asked my opinion of this "new" turn of Shakespearian events.

*sigh* The list of signees and past doubters sports some impressive names. I would like to say that they are impressive names who, on this issue at least, have their collective head up their ass. But the Declaration, in its text, demands that we orthodox Stratfordians -- those who believe that the eldest son of the wealthy Chief Bailiff (Mayor) of Stratford could and did learn his letters, move to London, and become the greatest writer in the English language -- not engage in ad hominem attacks. They demand, rather, that we base arguments on "the evidence." They further demand that we not call it mere "snobbery" when they say things like:

"Much of the knowledge displayed in the works was the exclusive province of the upper classes, yet no
record places Mr. Shakspere among them for any length of time... How Mr. Shakspere could have acquired knowledge of these sources is a mystery."

Very well, I shall not call it "snobbery" that  these people believe that some knowledge "is the exclusive province of the upper classes," unattainable by someone "from an illiterate household in the remote agricultural town of Stratford-upon-Avon." I shall not call it snobbery to assert that writers from poor backgrounds are incapable of writing about matters above their social station. But I shall call it both illogical and unproven by literary history... in fact, quite the opposite. Where is it proven that writers who write about aristocrats must be of the aristocracy? By this logic, the writers of The Sopranos must be mobsters; the writers of Grey's Anatomy must surely be doctors; the writers of Rome must have spent time in the Roman senate; and Homer, Sophocles, and Virgil all must have had direct contact with and knowledge of not only the camps of the Achaians outside the gates of Troy, but of the "court intrigues" among the gods on Mount Olympus as well. As myfriend Louis Fantasia says, "you don't need to be a Klingon to write an episode of Star Trek.

Give a quick read to the anti-Stratfordian declaration. The most striking thing about its rhetoric is its repeatedinsistence that there is "no evidence" or "no record" of certain things, including:
  • No record of Shakespeare claiming to have written the Works. (Oh, except for the byline on the title pages of his published plays and the dedications of his sonnets to the Earl of Southampton)
  • No definitive evidence of his authorship from his lifetime. (There are dozens, from bylines to dedications to references to Shakespeare and his works by other contemporary authors. I guess it depends how you define "definitive.")
  • No personal reference by Ben Jonson, nor Leonard Digges to Mr. Shakspere while he lived.
  • No outpouring of eulogies until seven years after Shakespeare's death.
  • No depiction of pen and paper in early sketches of the Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity church.
  • No statement on the monument description that Shakespeare WAS the author. (It merely compares him to Virgil.)
  • No mention of poetry, plays, acting, or the theater in the inscription (um, except the reference to the poet Virgil.)
  • No manuscripts of the Works found in Shakespeare's own hand.
  • No books, plays, poems, or musical instruments mentioned in Shakespeare's (extant and signed) will.
  • No record that he traveled in his formative years.
  • No evidence that his sisters or daughter could write (girls didn't get to go to school back in Good Queen Bess's day, and Will was in London, working.)
  • No records to confirm that Shakespeare attended Stratford Grammar School.
  • No mention of Shakespeare's publisher and Stratford local Richard Field in the will.
  • No evidence of where Shakespeare got books needed for his learning (how about his London publisher, Stratford local Richard Field?)
  • No record of Southampton and Shakespeare ever having met.
  • No record that Shakespeare addressed the public directly.
  • No record of the Queen mentioning Shakespeare.
  • No record of him returning from Stratford to London to perform plays for King James.
  • No record of him assisting in preparing the King James version of the Bible.
  • No mention of his death in 1616.
  • Only "dubious" references to Shakespeare's life in the works; no mention of his 11 year old son's death in The Sonnets. (The Sonnets were likely written before his son's death, but note that his son's name was "Hamnet," or as it was often written in Stratford, "Hamlet.")
This is only a sampling, but you get the idea. Doubters use this purported "lack of evidence" about a zillion things to invoke "reasonable doubt." Well, if it's that easy, allow me add to their "case." I can safely say that there is no evidence whatsoever that the Man from Stratford:
  • Ever bought pens, paper, or ink from the local store in Stratford, or any store in London.
  • Ever paid a laundrywoman to remove ink stains from his shirt.
  • Ever met anyone named John Falstaff.
  • Owned or knew a dog named Crab, or for that matter, Spot.
  • Enjoyed cross-dressing, as so many of his characters do.
  • Drank himself to death partying with Ben Jonson.
  • Got arrested for trespassing with an unruly gang of youths.
  • Left fellow London actors gold rings in his will.
  • Played "Hamlet's Father" in his troupe's production of the play.
Well, actually, there is evidence for those last four, and the last two are documentary.  But at least two are merely hearsay, based on interviews with Stratford old-timers in the century following Shakespeare's death, so we'll leave them aside for now.

My point is that the anti-Stratfordian presentation of "evidence" is laughable. It's simply (where it isn't actually untrue) the non-presentation of non-evidence: an arbitrary list of imagined documentation that doesn't exist. It's like a defense attorney who says, never mind the knife, the 911 tapes, the history of threats, the forensic analysis, the means, the motive, the opportunity, the DNA evidence, and the blood all over the car... that's all "problematic" because there's no written confession. Oh, and this glove (unh.. unh) doesn't fit. Therefore you must acquit. It's smoke and mirrors.

The final imprecation from the anti-Stratfordians is that we must not call the Oxfordians and their ilk
"conspiracy theorists" because that is also an ad hominem attack. But there remains the uncomfortable fact that for DeVere or whoever else to have written the plays, there must have been a sizeable coverup going on, in the London theater scene, in Queen Elizabeth's court, and in Stratford. Without calling anyone names, I will simply posit that for, say, the Earl of Oxford to have written Shakespeare's works on the sly, it would require the continuous, 20-year complicity of at the very least the following individuals: The Earl himself, his household, advisors, and friends in Queen Elizabeth's court; Richard Burbage, John Heminges, Henry Condell, and the rest of the principals of the Lord Chamberlain's (later the King's) Men, along with all of their spouses, household, and friends; Ben Jonson, Richard Field, numerous other publishers and clerks, as well as that of the "Actor" Will Shaksper -- who would be leaving himself open to the charges of sedition that Oxford was supposedly avoiding by using Shakespeare's name as a nom de plume. The proponents of this case may not wish to be called be conspiracy theorists, but it is unquestionably a conspiracy theory.

What do we really know about Shakespeare? A lot. The facts (documented facts, all -- you can see much of the contemporary documentary evidence here) are that a William Shakspeare was born in Stratford to a prominent, ambitious, nouveau-riche father who was the Bailiff (approximate equivalent of Mayor) of the bustling market town, who could certainly afford his oldest son's education -- at least until the family business went sour. Shakspeare married an older woman at age 18. Some years later, a William Shakespeare (with the "e" added) turns up in London as an actor in various prominent troupes. He (or if not him, then someone actually named "Shake-scene," as Robert Greene satirized the young whippersnapper, and of whom there is no other mention) at some point turns from player to playwright, and makes a bit of a stir among the local writers as an "upstart crow." Frances Meres, in his contemporary diary, mentions "Shakespeare" as being known and lauded for both his comedies and his tragedies, as well as his "sugared sonnets among his private friends," and lists many of the plays attributed to him, Love's Labor's Lost, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, etc.. A"William Shakespeare" dedicates two long poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, to the fair young Earl of Southampton. William Shakespeare has many plays published with his byline in his lifetime, gets in trouble once for not paying taxes, partners up as an owner of the Globe Theater, attains the rank of gentleman by applying for and obtaining the coat of arms his family has long sought, and finally returns to Stratford at the youngish, even for the day, age of 44, only to die eight years later. A prominent memorial, comparing him to Socrates and Virgil, is mounted in a place of honor in Stratford's Trinity Church. In his will he leaves money to buy memorial rings to three actor friends, two of whom -- Heminges and Condell -- will, seven years later, publish the First Folio of his collected Works.

THIS is all hard documentary evidence, not merely a compendium of the lack of it. The burden of proof is this case is, it seems to me, clearly on the "anti-Stratfordian" side, to somehow refute or explain away all of this, and the logical ab initio assumption that the man named on the title page wrote the Works. Yet the Declaration invokes "reasonable doubt" as if it is the orthodoxy that must prosecute the case!!!

But an ever greater irony is that nearly every single "there is no record of..." item listed above can also be stated about ANY proposed alternate author, be it Bacon or DeVere or whomever:
  • No contemporary of Shakespeare claims to have written any of the plays or poems attributed to Shakespeare.
  • No manuscript of a Shakespeare play written in the hand of DeVere, Bacon, or anyone else has ever been found.
  • No statements by anyone acquainted either with Shakespeare or with Bacon, DeVere, or any other contemporary ever claimed or suggested that Shakespeare did not write the works of Shakespeare.
  • The wills of neither Bacon nor DeVere nor anyone else make any mention of the disposition of the Shakespeare ouvre.
And so on and on. The only items which cannot be turned around in this fashion are those regarding Shakespeare's alleged lack of familiarity with the "aristocratic" lifestyle of falconry and Italian vacations.  Again, I will not invoke "snobbery," but even if the wealthy mayor's son and, later, the young actor in a traveling theatrical troupe and even later, literary luminary, didn't have the opportunity to experience the aristocratic high life or a trip to Verona, any writer knows that creating credible fiction simply does not require autobiographical experience of the events portrayed. Just because I write about Elizabethan England in a novel doesn't mean I must have lived there!

In fact, my own personal biography suggests that it's entirely possible for a hick to write some good stuff.
  • I was born to a middle class family, and was the first in my family to go to college.
  • Although I am not the owner of an extensive library, I can nevertheless read Latin, am reasonably conversant in Spanish, and with the help of a book or two can fake my way through some French and Italian.
  • I was arrested for protesting at an anti-Ronald Reagan demonstration.
  • I spent several "lost" years doing odd jobs ranging from taxi driver to administrative assistant in an accounting office, during which time I picked up lots of characters and bits of knowledge about arcane subjects.
  • I became an actor in several Bay Area troupes. I broke through as an actor in my own theater company, first adapting others' plays and then writing and performing my own material.
  • I became a part owner in the troupe before selling my interest and moving back home to L.A. to pursue another career. 
  • I have signed my first name variously throughout my life, "Jesse," Jess," "J" and "JM." When I made a career change I also changed my last name entirely from "Borgeson" to "Winfield."
  • In addition to writing about Elizabethan playwrights without having met them, I have written extensively about a little blue alien from outer space, despite never having met one, and about Capitol Hill lobbyists, despite never having entered the Capitol building.
Hey, wait a minute. I have a credible candidate to add to the Authorship Controversy. Maybe _I_ wrote Shakespeare's works! There is certainly not enough not-evidence not to not not prove otherwise!

For more in-depth information on why there's no question that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, visit the excellent Shakespeare Authorship Page.

If you want a good laugh, and a lesson in flawed argumentation, check out the DeVere Society's site.