Friday, September 28, 2018
To be or not to be Shakespeare
A review of "Tha Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question"
This is a good introduction to the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question, the claim that the 17th century British playwright William Shakespeare from Stratford on Avon didn´t write the plays attributed to him. This conspiracy theory is surprisingly popular and exists in several different versions, the original one claiming that Francis Bacon (perhaps with the help of others) wrote the Shakespearean corpus. Today, the most popular “Anti-Stratfordian” candidate is Edward the Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. A more recent proposal (not discussed in this book) is Sir Henry Neville.
Scott McCrea takes the “Stratfordian” position, i.e. the standard official position that of course William Shakespeare wrote “Hamlet”, “Romeo and Juliet” and all the other famous plays bearing his name. McCrea´s case is convincing. Somewhat ironically, he has to cut Shakespeare down to size in order to demonstrate the plausibility of a man from the small town of Stratford writing the plays. The Anti-Stratfordian position is often based on the idea that Shakespeare must have been a towering, aristocratic genius. Since the real life William Shakespeare seems to have been anything but, “he can´t have written the plays”. McCrea points out that although Shakespeare wrote excellent plays, he certainly wasn´t a genius. There is evidence of borrowing, plagiarism, and co-authors in his plays. He misquotes/mistranslates Greek proverbs (since his sources do the same), misunderstands aristocratic genealogies and uses words which doesn´t exist (i.e. coins neologisms – although I suppose an Anti-Stratfordian might consider this genial). With the exception of two plays, Shakespeare´s vocabulary is comparable to that of contemporary playwrights. His knowledge of foreign languages has been exaggerated by many admirers. The supposedly “aristocratic” imagery in the plays has also been exaggerated, and is often more “middle class” in character. Thus, Shakespeare´s plays virtually never mention university life, but contain frequent references to grammar school!
That being said, Shakespeare (i.e. the man from Stratford) wasn´t an unlettered country bumpkin either. His family was middle class by Elizabethan standards, and his father served in positions comparable to mayor and judge in Stratford. Shakespeare would have gone to grammar school in Stratford, and we know that such schools taught the students Latin. He could have picked up French in London, where there was a sizable expatriate community from France. Shakespeare actually lodged with a French family for a time. Other people from Stratford also knew French. Knowledge of Italy, including the Italian language – often used as an argument against Shakespeare´s authorship, since he never visited the country – could have come from published books in English (including a teach-yourself-Italian guide) or from Italian expatriates in London. Shakespeare certainly moved in aristocratic circles in London, but even the middle class had picked up “aristocratic” pastimes, such as falconry and bowls. (A detail not mentioned in this book is that Shakespeare supposedly was a next cousin to Henry Neville, proposed as the real author of the plays. But if so, surely the Swan of Avon could have gotten information about matters aristocratic from Neville?)
As already mentioned, the Earl of Oxford is the most popular Real Shakespeare candidate today. Unfortunately, he died already in 1604, while Shakespeare lived on until 1616. The “Oxfordians” must therefore claim that all Shakespearean plays were written before that date, apparently a Herculean task. Thus, “The Tempest” is inspired by the 1609 shipwreck of “Sea Venture” at Bermuda, as described in a book published in 1610. “Macbeth” must have been written in 1606 at the earliest, since it contains hidden references to Henry Garnett, the Jesuit executed for de facto aiding the infamous Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The play also contains allusions to King James I´s peculiar pamphlet against tobacco-smoking!
The author also points out that a “lowly” background (including lack of university education) was quite common among famous Elizabethan playwrights. That relatively few documents about Shakespeare have survived isn´t strange either – other contemporary playwrights haven´t left much of a paper trail either. Nobody during Shakespeare´s lifetime questioned his authorship, and the so-called First Folio, published in 1623 by his friends, clearly mentions him as the author of the plays. His funerary monument in Stratford implies that he was an author of some sort. Of course, Anti-Stratfordians claim that this was all part of the cover up…
I admit that I don´t really care about William Shakespeare either way (I can´t stand reading poetry in 16th/17th century English) and it´s always fun with a good mystery, but it seems Scott McCrea is right after all. This really is the end of the authorship question.