Assessing the evidence — and the lack of it — for the case that the man from Stratford was the author
Originally published 2014
In the next two parts of this article, I will examine some of the more prominent alternative candidates who have been proposed as Shakespearan authors, and suggest a methodology that could be helpful in determining the validity of their claims. In this section, I’ll tackle the easiest of question of all: Was the man from Stratford the author? The answer, of course, is: Hardly! In fact, an even more appropriate response is probably: Are you serious? Is this a joke? After you examine the evidence, I think you’ll agree.
A History of Doubt
The idea that the man from Stratford (Shaksper) was the author of Shakespeare’s works is completely untenable, for a variety of reasons, well documented in the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt (which you can sign online), and in the book published by the organization behind it: Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? – Exposing an Industry in Denial.
According to that book, some 3 dozen scholars spent 4 years writing the Declaration. So a considerable bit of research and scholarship went into it (p. viiii.) They doubt that Stratford was the author. So do Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Sir Derek Jacobi, Jeremy Irons, and Michael York — all of whom have added their signatures to the Declaration, along with 32 other notable figures, 517 academics, and more than 3,000 others as of 2014.
In the early 1900’s, British economist, principal of Ruskin College in Oxford, and author Gilbert Slater wrote Seven Shakespeares, arguing that seven authors were responsible for Shakespeare’s works (Gilbert Slater, The Seven Shakespeares). And noted Shakespearean actor Kenneth Branagh has expressed his doubts.
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) expressed his doubts with his inimicable satirical style in Is Shakespeare Dead?. Other notable figures who have expressed doubt include Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Benjamin Disraeli, Daphne du Maurier, Vladimir Nabakov, Charles Dickens, and Sir John Gielgud (Ogburn, pp. 8-9.) In addition, there were Nathaniel Hawthorne, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sigmund Freud, Henry James, and John Greenleaf Whittier (quoted from The Murder of the Man Who was “Shakespeare”, by Calvin Hoffman along with several others, in this page devoted to the PBS Frontline special.)
British statesman and rector of the University of Glasgow John Bright even went so far as to say, “Any man who believes that William (Shaksper) of Stratford wrote Hamlet or Lear is a fool.” (Ogburn, p. 8.) Ogburn goes on to list several more distinguished lawyers, law professors, and Supreme Court justices who publicly expressed their doubts, along with other writers and actors.
Heck, even Helen Keller was too smart to fall for the idea that the man from Stratford was the author. She may have been deaf, dumb, and blind, but she wasn’t stupid (Famous Shakespeare Authorship Skeptics).
In fact, a book that favors the Stratfordian claim points out that by 1949, more than 4,500 books had been written, questioning Stratfordian authorship (Contested Will, p. 2). (At one point, I found a reference that identified the person who compiled that list. But I have not been able to find it again! When I do, I’ll post it here.) Since then, the number of books has grown by leaps and bounds — not to mention uncounted blogs and online articles.
That is a lot of doubt, to my way of thinking.
Can it be that so many thoughtful, intelligent people are wrong? Possibly. But I’m happy to place my bets with them, and let the chips fall where they may. But don’t take my word for it, or their word for it. Don’t take anyone’s word for it, for that matter. There are plenty of good reasons for doubting the Stratfordian theory of authorship, and it won’t take long to review them. We’ll take a look at them in a second — right after we take a moment to minimize potential confusion over names.
What’s in a Name?
Actually, quite a lot. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, but the name becomes important when you are talking about, say, the difference between the flower and a thorn on the stem. Calling them both a “rose” is an invitation to confusion, to the point that it becomes virtually impossible to carry on an intelligent conversation about the nature of a “rose”. So, whether or not the man from Stratford is the man who wrote Shakespeare’s works, it makes sense to have two names, if only for the sake of discussion.
Now then, given that we need two names, the next question is how to spell them. For the author of the published works, there are exactly two choices: “Shake-speare” and “Shakespeare”. I have chosen the latter as the one that is most familiar to the vast majority of readers.
For the man from Stratford, however, choices abound! No less than 57 varieties of Stratford’s family name have been found (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 14). So the question is: Which is the best one to use?
“Shakspere” appears to be the most frequently used spelling in family records of births, deaths, weddings, and baptisms (Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, pp. 17-21). But “Shaksper” appears fairly often, as well.
On the other hand, Micehell noted that “In and around Stratford-von-Avon, where families of such a name were quite numerous, those who could write spelt it as they heard it — something like Shaxsper or Shagsper” (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 13). So a typical pronunciation would have been “shacks-purr“.
Used in conversation, that pronunciation thoroughly avoids the kind of name-confusion that Stratfordian argument relies on so heavily. Since “Shaksper” is the spelling that will most frequently be pronounced in that manner by the average reader, I have chosen that spelling for use in this article — although the spelling “Shakspere” occurs slightly more often among the wide variety of spellings that have been found.
The Case Against Stratford
Here is summary of the most significant arguments against the Stratfordian theory:
- There is no evidence that Shaksper of Stratford ever went to school, ever went anywhere but London,
or ever studied any subject, at any time, anywhere.
Not that it is impossible. But there is zero evidence. None. The writings display an erudite, experienced, educated, and well-traveled man. But there is no evidence at all for any of it — while considerable historical evidence has been found for much less famous writers and many notable figures, with a great deal less searching.
- There is much evidence that Shaksper was a man of business.
He engaged in contracts, owned property, and sued people. There is much that is known about him. But there is nothing to suggest he was a poet or playwright. (For a quick review of everything we do know about Shaksper, read these excerpts from Is Shakespeare Dead?)
- There are no manuscripts, letters, notes, or writings of any kind that can be attributed to Shaksper.
There are not even first drafts of the publications that are attributed to him. Handwritten samples have been found for known authors of the time, however — including many that are far less notable, for whom the search has not been nearly as intense.
- There is no other historical or biographical evidence that Shaksper wrote anything.
For known writers of the period — nobles and commoners alike, both noted and largely unnoticed during their day, we have receipts of payments for writing, letters written to and from the person, letters written to others about them, and obituary notices saying they were writers — all of which corroborate their authorship.
For Shaksper of Stratford, we have nothing. Nothing.
- There is no other historical or biographical evidence that anyone knew Shaksper as a writer
People write to each other. In those letters, they gossip about others. They talk about what a person wrote, and how well it was received. But of all the correspondence among the educated people of the time period, there is nothing of the kind for Shaksper.
- There is no other historical or biographical evidence that anyone knew Shakespeare at all!
There is nothing of the kind for Shakespeare, either! Of course, for Shaksper, there are other documents that reflect his existence. But for “Shakespeare”, nothing! Which means, of course that Shakespeare was a pseudonym, and any gossiping was done about the person behind the mask. (We’ll look at the issue in more detail, later.)
- The only known samples of Shaksper’s writing are a few crude signatures that are illiterate scrawls, at best.
(Shakespeare Authorship Question, Education and Literacy) In contrast, signatures from 37 writers of the same period display beautiful penmanship (Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, pp. 34-37).
The man from Stratford simply could not write. Period. End of sentence.
- Each of the signatures is spelled in a different way.
The spellings include “Shakp”, “Shaksper”, “Shakspe”, “Shakspere” (twice), and one “Shakspeare”.
If you assume that he wrote those signatures, you have to assume that he wrote them differently every time.
If you assume someone else wrote them, you have to assume he could not write at all.
Either assumption flies in the face of logic, if Stratford was a poet or playwright.
The author’s pen name is always spelled as “Shake-speare” or “Shakespeare’. The Stratford man’s family name has appeared in no less than 57 different ways in official records, as shown in Who Wrote Shakespeare? (p. 14). One of them does happen to have been spelled, “Shakespeare”, for what that’s worth — but it is the sheer number of variations that is compelling.
- “There is no other case, then or since, of a full-time working actor also being a prolific playwright.
It is too exhausting.” –William Rubinstein, Professor of History, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
(quoted in the opening pages of Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?)
- “As a professional actor, we do not know of any role he played in any play, on any date.
Nor does any contemporary record say that anyone ever saw him in act in any of the plays.”
(Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, p. xi)
This is a theme that will come up time again. There is simply no corroborating evidence that the man from Stratford wrote or did any of the things that have been ascribed to him.
- When one of the plays was implicated in fomenting the Essex Rebellion, and everyone connected
with it was brought in for the 3rd degree, the man from Stratford was never even questioned.
No one named “Shakespeare” was brought in either, for that matter — a fact which makes sense only if the name was a pseudonym.
Remember: These are days when princes and princesses — future kings and queens of England found themselves in the Tower of London, at one time or another. No one was immune to the Star Chamber — a body which copious and exact records. And yet, neither the man from Statford nor anyone named Shakespeare was even questioned? That fact alone is enough to completely discredit the Stratfordian theory, and throw anyone who believes it into disrepute.
- Shaksper never claimed credit for any of the works in his lifetime. Neither did his descendants,
or any of his contemporaries in Stratford — none of which ever referred to him as a literary figure.
(Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, p. 8)
- When Shaksper of Stratford died in 1616, there was no public tribute or memorial of any kind.
Ben Jonson was honored within 6 months of his passing, and others, much less notable, were invariably honored in such ways (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 78).
- His will left no mention of books, manuscripts, royalties, and did not provide an education for
his daughters, neither of whom could write.
Such omissions are completely inconsistent with the life of a bona-fide author.
- Seven years later, in 1623, the First Folio was published, honoring Shakespeare’s passing.
The folio contained three poems of praise: Ben Johnson’s, Hugh Holland’s, and Leonard Digges’. But while they are for “Shakespeare” (the author), the timing is a clear indication that it was someone other than the man from Stratford who died. And Ben Johnson’s poem in particular, tells the reader that the picture was cut “for” Shakespeare, (rather than being a picture “of” Shakespeare), and it further enjoins the reader to look, not upon the picture, but upon the works — points that are made later in this article, and in the short video described next.
- The picture on the cover of the First Folio is clearly a caricature, a send-up, a hoax!
This point is made beautifully in a short video called The Impossible Doublet, narrated by Debbie Radcliffe. It shows how the front panel on the person’s left is drastically different from the one on the right, and how the pattern of braids and gaps on the left is “off” from the one on the right — unless the one on the person’s right sleeve is actually the backside of the left sleeve — along with other details that easy to discern, because the picture was made so large (in contrast to every other publication of the day). The video also shows other true-to-life engravings of the day that stand in stark contrast to the cartoon that was published on the cover of the First Folio. The bottom line, of course, is that First Folio is clearly a compilation of works written by a person (or persons) whose identity is being withheld.
Warning: Once you see this video, it is impossible to “un-see” it. You will never look at the picture the same way again.
- The Shakespeare canon displays the largest vocabulary ever recorded.
The combined works of Shakespeare are made up of some 18,000 words. The next largest vocabulary in history belonged to Milton, who displayed a vocabulary in the neighborhood of 10,000 words in works such as Paradise Lost. The third largest recorded vocabulary is on the order of 8,500 words. To believe the Shakespeare myth, you have to believe that Stratford had the largest vocabulary ever recorded at any time in history — nearly twice as large as the next closest competitor — while at the same acknowledging that there is no evidence that he ever received an education of any kind, anywhere; that there no letters, drafts of manuscripts, shopping lists, or any other samples of penmanship — not even signatures; and that no one never recognized him or mentioned him as a writer in any correspondence of the day, or held so much as tea party in his name, much less a funerary memorial. It simply beggars the imagination that anyone could be so gullible.
Arguments For the Stratfordian Theory
So what about arguments in his favor? Most turn out to be thinly disguised conjecture, labeled as fact, with a side order of name-confusion. The general pattern is “Shakespeare knew about falconry, so he must have been a falconer at some point” (so far, so good.) In the next sentence, that statement becomes “Shakespeare was a falconer”. (Obviously true, when “Shakespeare” is read as “the author’s pen name or alias, whoever he may turn out to be”.) But the name confusion comes in when they talk about the man from Stratford, and call him “Shakespeare” instead of “Shaksper”, or use one of the other spellings that were recorded for his name.
For example, each of the following claims is true, when taken in isolation: “Shakespeare was a falconer” and, “We have several of Shakespeare’s signatures on record.” What is not clear is that those statements are about different people! The second statement should actually be “We have several of Shaksper’s signatures on record.” It is then clear when we are talking about the person who was a town burgher in Stratford, and when we are talking about the author (whoever he may have been).
With the confusion eliminated, the question becomes clear: Are Shaksper and Shakespeare the same person? But not to put too bold a face on it, that question raises serious problems for the Stratfordian position, as indicated by the arguments given above. So instead, they assume they are one and the same, and use “Shakespeare” when “Shaksper” (or one of the other variations) would be more accurate.
That kind of conjecture (he must have been a falconer) and name confusion (via inaccurate spelling) is displayed quite nicely in the Wikipedia article on the Authorship Question. For example, it says that there are receipts for plays showing that they were written by “Shakespeare”, and accolades for “Shakespeare” from his contemporaries. It also says that, “no contemporary is known to have expressed doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship”. Those statements are clearly true, regardless of who Shakespeare might have been.
But then it goes on to say things like “Shakespeare’s will, executed in 1616”. The trouble is, the name on that will is not “Shakespeare”, but “Shackspeare” (in two places) and “Shakspeare” (in one). By failing to distinguish the person (Stratford) from the author (Shakespeare), the reader gets the impression that the article is talking about the same person in both cases. The article assumes they are the same person, but it does not prove they are same person. Basically, it relies on name confusion to get you to make the same assumption.
Such specious reasoning is the hallmark of most Shakespearean analysis. It fills up a multitude of pages, all of whom reference each other, with each claiming the other as “proof”, when in actuality all of them are referencing the same few, debatable sources. As Mark Twain wrote: The historians “suppose”….they “infer”…they find themselves “justified in believing”.. they turn “might have happened” into “did happen”, they “conjecture”, they “surmise”– all without evidence (Is Shakespeare Dead?, pp. 29-33). As he summarized the matter:
We set down the five known facts by themselves, on a piece of paper, and numbered it ‘page 1’; then on fifteen hundred other sheets of paper we set down the “conjectures,” and “suppositions,” and “maybes,” and “perhapses,” and “doubtlesses,” and “rumors,” and “guesses,” and “probabilities,” and “liklihoods,” and “we are permitted to thinks,” and “we are warranted in believings,” and “might have beens,” and “could have beens,” and “must have beens,” and “unquestionablys,” and “without a shadow of doubts”–and behold! Materials? Why, we had enough to build a biography of Shakespeare! (Is Shakespeare Dead?, p. 19)
The best defense is still a good offense, but offense requires ammunition. Lacking any evidence of their own, proponents of Stratford have only one option: Attack and ridicule anyone who thinks otherwise. Contested Will is an example of a book that does so, with remarkable skill. It is an extremely well-written book with a great deal of humor. It says right up front that it offers devastating psychological reasons to explain why anyone would question Stratford. However, all the cleverness in the world cannot disguise the fact that after 354 pages, it can provide not one shred of tangible, corroborating evidence for the Stratfordian position.
The Wikipedia article manages to avoid such ad hominem (personal) attacks, for the most part. Although it delights in pointing out that one of the first people to question the Stratfordian position spent the last days of her life in an asylum. It also gleefully points out that she acted as a medium who was “told things by the spirits”. Back in her day, of course, people believed in such things, and her claim was not as ridiculous as it now appears. But the argument is typical: Attack the person, or find fault with part of what they say, and ignore the rest.
That article did provide two citations, however, claiming that they provide “solid evidence” for the Stratfordian theory. Before moving on to better authorship candidates, let’s examine those citations.
Claims of Evidence
That article makes two claims that are worth exploring. In the Historical evidence section, it says that “several contemporaries corroborate the identity of the playwright as the actor” and “explicit contemporary documentary evidence attests that the actor was the Stratford citizen”. In the entire article, those are the only statements that purport to provide solid, reliable evidence (at least as of 31 July 2014).
The support for those statements comes, respectively, from:
- McCrea, Scott (2005). The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question. Greenwood Publishing Group.
ISBN-13: 978-0-275-98527-1. Retrieved 20 December 2010. pp. 3–7.
- Martin, Milward W. (1965). Was Shakespeare Shakespeare? A Lawyer Reviews the Evidence.
New York: Cooper Square Press. OCLC 909641, p. 135.
We’ll examine each of those assertions in detail.
The First Book (McCrea: The Case for Shakespeare)
The initial pages of the first book can be read online at Amazon.com. The first chapter begins at page 3, and ends at page 8. All of it can be read. Pages 3 to 6 are totally and entirely devoted to the laudatory poems written at the front of the first folio, and to the picture it contains. But it again leaps to conclusions saying, for example, “the mouth is not directly below the nose, one eye is larger and lower than the other, and the hair doesn’t balance at the sides, but the image must have been reconizable…” (empasis added. Note the conjecture, which is then taken for fact, sans evidence).
But it is highly likely that the image and a thoughtful interpretation of Ben Jonson’s accolades suggest the opposite — that the whole thing was a charade, a put-on, a hoax, a false front.
According to some, in fact, Ben Jonson was “a master of ambiguity” (Shakespeare Beyond Doubt?, p. 10). Parts of his poem and the inscription he wrote for Shakespere’s tomb will be examined later in this article. Once you begin to see the subtle puns, double-entendre’s, and hidden meanings in his words, it is impossible to “unring the bell”. Instead, you begin to appreciate the wit and the immensity of the “biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced perpetrated on a patient world”, to quote Henry James (“Shakespeare” by Another Name, p. xxv).
For example, there is a short dedicatory poem that appears just before the picture, also written by Ben Jonson. At the start it says, “this picture was created for Shakespeare”–not, this is a picture of Shakespeare, but rather this picture was created for Shakespeare. (Actual wording: “This Figure, that thou here seest put, It was for gentle Shakespeare cut”.) At the end, it says “look not at the picture, but at the book”. (Actual wording: “Reader, looke…Not on his picture, but his Booke.”)
Taken together, these statements display remarkable creative ambiguity. They are easily ascribed the surface meaning that one expects. But on closer examination, Jonson could also be telling the reader to ignore the picture! Taken together with other oddities in the picture (the head appears to be floating above the body, there are two left arms, and the other anomalies previously mentioned), it is quite possible that the picture represents no one in particular! (It might or might not. The point is that this type of interpretation constitutes literary interpretation. That’s what pages 3 to 6 of the cited reference contain. And there is clearly room for doubt.)
There is nothing wrong with literary interpretation, of course. But it’s not evidence. The referenced pages do not contain the kind of hard evidence that biographers and historians need to corroborate the interpretation. That kind of evidence might come in the form of a letter written by a contemporary, for example, praising the man from Stratford for the quality of his work. It could be a letter sent to the author at his Stratford address, or to someone else entirely, perhaps mentioning his Stratford home. Such a find would constitute real, corroborating evidence.
Evidence like that exists for known authors and notable figures of the period. It exists for commoners like Ben Jonson and Christofer Marlowe, who worked their way up to become noted writers of the period. For them, we have evidence of education and travel, evidence of patronage, evidence of writing, and communications with others. Evidence like that even exists for many who aren’t notable. But nothing like that has ever been found for Shakespeare. Ever. Meanwhile, by citing the literary interpretation as though it were actual evidence, the article creates a false impression of certainty in the mind of anyone who fails to dig more deeply.
That takes care of pages 3 to 6. Page 7 of the book provides a list of publications that are attributed to either “Shake-speare”, or “Shakespeare”. That the works are attributed to someone using that name was never the question, however. The question is whether that man was Shaksper of Stratford.
Finally, at the end of page 7 it states that two acting troupes listed Shakespeare as a “member”. But it is not clear whether playwrights might have been listed as company members. (There is no reason why they shouldn’t be, especially for a distinguished author. Dance companies include their choreographers. Why wouldn’t an acting company include their playwright?)
In addition, it is not clear which parts were played by “Shakespeare”, if any, and in which plays — so it is not at all clear that he was actually an actor at all! Again, there is no corroborating evidence. But the article claims that the citation proves “the author and the actor were the same man”. The assertion is possible of course, but the cited material certainly doesn’t prove it.
And of course, the real question is not who was an actor, but who was the author. The article is trying to establish an answer with a tricky two-step argument: First, there was an actor and author of the same name, so they had to be the same person (not necessarily a given). Second, the actor was the man from Stratford. Therefore, the argument goes, the author must have been the man from Stratford.
So far, the first step has been somewhat less than truly convincing. Let’s take a look at the second step.
The Second Book (Martin: Was Shakespeare Shakespeare?)
The second citation references page 135 of Martin’s book, claiming that “explicit contemporary documentary evidence attests that the actor was the Stratford citizen”. Let’s examine that claim.
The book has long been out of print, so it took a while to find a copy. But at last, I did.
The evidence cited is a document that emerged in 1602, in which Ralph Brooke (the Herald from York) accused his fellow heralds of being too easily persuaded to grant a Coat of Arms, “citing as an instance the granting of a coat-of-arms to John (Shakspere), William’s father”. In that document is a drawing that depicts the coat of arms (reproduced at the front of the book). The big “proof”, according to that citation, is that the Coat of Arms contains the words, “Shakespeare ye (the) Player”, which (accordiung to the author) “irrefutably shows that Shakespeare the player was (the man from) Stratford.”
Really? “Irrefutably proves”? There is certainly a Coat of Arms. And it includes the mentioned line. But other interpretations are equally plausible — given that there is no evidence that Stratford ever played a part in any play, on any date. For example: If it was his father John who attempted to get the Coat of Arms, isn’t it more likely that it was John who was the actor, rather than his son William? (If so, it could explain how William came to be associated with the theatre in the first place.)
On page 136, the book goes on to cite the evidence that Shaksper’s will left mourning rings to three known actors of the day. That is suggestive evidence to be sure, and it is certainly in a document of the period — even if the lines were inserted later. But proof? No. It does not prove that Shaksper was an actor. Even if you assume that the citation succeeds in showing some relationship to the company, it completely fails to show that the relationship was that of an actor. (It is suspected that Shaksper may have been a broker for the plays, and that his wealth stemmed from that business relationship — a possibility that is at least as plausible, and one that is more consistent with everything else we actually know about Shaksper.)
Conclusion: Stratford? No way.
So far then, the “evidence” cited in the article turns out to be a two-part argument. The first part contains a questionable interpretation of material at the front of the First Folio, accompanied by a list of play-attributions that have never been questioned, because they name the author. (As Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? points out so nicely, there has never been any question that Mark Twain wrote the stories and novels attributed to him. The real question is, Who was Mark Twain? The answer, of course, is Samuel Clemens. There is a plethora of collaborating evidence to support that assertion, as there is for known authors of the Elizabethen period. But for Shaksper as Shakespeare, there is none.)
That part of the “evidence”, then, purports to show that the author was also an actor. It does not do so in a convincing manner, but it certainly remains a possibility that can be conjectured.
The second part of the “evidence” consists of single page in a single book that attempts to show that the man from Stratford was that actor. But the reputed evidence turns to be something that suggests an inference, when other even more plausible inferences are possible.
Again, where is the corroborating evidence? If Shaksper was a well-known actor, why have no playbills been found showing roles he played? They have been found for known actors of the period. There are playbills from the period that have been searched at length (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, pp. 51-52). And there are people who have contributed greatly to the history of the period by writing at length about plays and the actors who performed them, without ever once mentioning either Shakespeare or Shaksper (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, pp. 111, 250).
We have to assume, then, that if he was an actor at all, he played bit parts. But in that case, why was “Shakespeare” included in the membership lists of no less than two acting troupes? And not just anywhere, mind you. Why was he listed at the top of those lists — when by all known evidence, he never acted in anything?
The only logical conclusion is that “Shakespeare” was either a playright, or the producer of the plays. But we know that “Shaksper” couldn’t write! So, if he’s listed at all, he was listed as a producer. It’s unlikely, but it is at least possible. It’s more likely that the name referred to somone else — someone in high position who may have acted as playwright and producer.
In any case, there is no direct evidence at all that Shaksper was an actor. And certainly none that he was a poet or playwright.
There is one interesting diary entry made by John Ward, sometime between 1661 and 1663, while visiting
Stratford (John Ward’s diary). In that entry, he states that the man from Stratford “died of a fever brought on
by drinking” with a man named Drayton and Ben Jonson. Really? Died from drinking? But Drayton was
temperate, and neither of them ever referred to the incident (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 111). It’s more likely
that Drayton and Ben Jonson were having a drink, and decided to kill off the pseudonym that had been in use for
so many years. Be that as it may, the law would describe this statement as “hearsay”, because it is not direct
evidence, such is available for known writers of the period, but rather a report of what someone heard someone
else to say — evidence the law considers so unreliable that it is summarily dismissed. But the statement is still
significant, given Ben Jonson’s later writings (to be discussed in due course) along with the allusion to drink!
It’s all rather astonishing, when you think about it. There is direct evidence for all known authors of the period. As Tom Woosnam states in his review of McCrea’s book at Amazon, “For Marlowe, Kydd, Dekker, Heywood, Fletcher or Webster – to name just a few….We have evidence, from their lifetimes….evidence of education, evidence of being paid to be a writer, evidence of direct relationship with a patron, handwritten inscriptions or letters touching on literary matters, notice at death as a writer (and more)”.
In Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, meanwhile, Diana Price lists 10 kinds of evidence that have been found for 24 known authors of the period (pp. 309-322). The list includes evidence of eduction, record of correspondence, evidence of having been paid to write, evidence of a patron, original manuscripts, handwritten notes touching on literary matters, verses of any kind written or received, references made to the person as a writer, evidence of books owned, loaned, or borrowed, and obituary notices that describe them as a writer. For Ben Jonson and Thomas Nashe, there are ticks in all 10 categories. For Samuel Daniel, Edmund Spenser, Philip Massinger, George Peele, Gabriel Harvey, Michael Drayton, George Chapman, William Drummond, John Marston, and Anthony Munday, there are ticks in at least 7 of the boxs, 8 for many. (Ever heard of any of them? I didn’t think so.) The next four authors have tick marks in 6 of the boxes. The two authors with the least evidence have ticks in 3 of the 10 categories (John Webster and Christopher Marlowe). Of the remaining six, three have evidence in 4 categories, and the others have evidence in 5 of the 10 categories.
For Shaksper, no such evidence has ever been found. In Price’s table, the column devoted to Stratford is totally blank — despite the massive amount of time and energy expended in the search — far more than for the others, to be sure. The introduction to Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography says it nicely:
“I had always discounted the authorship question as an eccentric theory….I read Samuel Schoenbaum’s William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life, and it changed my mind. I was surprised to find nothing in it to prove that [Shaksper] had written the plays. What emerged…was the weight of probability that the man from Stratford did not write any of the works attributed to him. Ironically, it was a traditional biography that convinced me the Stratford man was no writer.” (p. xiii, emphasis added)
“The documents that literary biographers rely on — academic records, letters, manuscripts, diaries, remnants of the personal library — simply do not exist for Shakespeare” (p. xiv)
Since there is no evidence for Shaksper, it is impossible to prove that he authored anything. But there is also no evidence for anyone named “Shakespeare”, either — which points out that it is a psuedonym. After all, no evidence of that kind exists for Mark Twain, either.
Another example: Michael Drayton was supposedly a contemporary of Shaksper’s in the theatre. And he was from the same county, lodging 10 miles down the road when had occasion to visit. Yet, “Drayton wote many letters to and about literary figures…(but) during the lifetime of his Stratford neighbor, never mentioned his name” (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 110). (He did add 4 lines at the end of a poem in 1627 that mentioned “about “Shakespeare”, but it was 11 years after Shaksper had died.)
Think about it. Mull it over. There is no direct evidence whatever for Shaksper as an author. None! So what fills the many volumes of books that have been written on the subject? In place of actual evidence, there is what there only can be: conjecture, surmise, specious reasoning, rehashed literary analysis, dubious inference, and name confusion. Meanwhile, there is much good evidence for alternative candidates, mentioned in the many books that discuss alternative candidates.
But back to the Wikipedia article…
The only way at all to make the assertion that Shaksper was an author was to first prove that Stratford wans an actor, and then prove that actor was the author, in two separate steps. Each step in the argument is then backed with difficult-to-find and/or implausibly-reasoned citations.
Once examined, neither step of the argument is demonstrated in a very compelling manner. And neither of them produces convicing evidence. But the very fact that the two-step argument contained in the article was the only way to “prove” authorship is noteworthy in itself. Lacking any hard evidence to corroborate the assertion that Shaksper was Shakespeare, the article was forced to resort to an extremely tenuous and generally unconvincing line of reasoning. For a man of Shakespeare’s stature, the need to resort to such subtle inferencing makes no sense whatever.
In law, there is a dictum that one should advance the best available evidence to prove one’s point. It is known as the principle of Best Evidence. Was that really the best evidence that could be found to argue that Stratford was the author? The answer, when you trace each argument back to its source, turns out to be “Yes”.
The bottom line is this:
If those references represent the best evidence the article can cite, then the case for Stratford is poor, indeed.
In fact, it is beyond poor. It is tantamount to abject poverty, destitution, and famine.
As for Shaksper, the claim that he was the author of the works is ridiculous on the face of it. I believe that has been adequately demonstrated. But here, I will add a few personal notes for the arguments that have, for me, been the most persuasive:
- There is no other writing of any kind.
The only evidence of his writing other than the poems and plays falsely attributed to him are a handful of very crude and inconsistent signatures: One is on a marriage certificate. One is on a lawsuit for some paltry sum like 35 shillings. Some are on his will, and a few others on similar documents. There are no letters. No manuscripts or drafts. No notes or essays. No other writing samples of any kind.That’s ridiculous, because writers write. For every word we publish, we write a thousand that never see the light of day. We write letters. We write half-finished essays. We try our hand at different kinds of writing until we find out what we’re good at. All writers share that trait. Whether good writers or bad writers, it makes no difference– writing is like breathing. It’s something you just do.But somehow, the Stratfordians would have us a believe that this singlular genius — alone among all humanity in all of history — wrote nothing but finished, published works. Riiight…
- There is no record of his education, his activities, or his travels.
As mentioned in the Declaration, “The works show extensive knowledge of law, philosophy, classical literature, ancient and modern history, mathematics, astronomy, art, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, military and naval terminology and tactics; etiquette and manners of the nobility; English, French and Italian court life; Italy; and aristocratic pastimes such as falconry, equestrian sports and royal tennis. Nothing that we know about Mr. Shakspere accounts for this. 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. The works are based on myriad ancient and modern sources, including works in French, Italian, Spanish, Latin and Greek not yet translated into English. How Mr. Shakspere could have acquired knowledge of these sources is a mystery.”That is a huge body of knowledge. Yet there is no record of any kind that the man from Stratford did or studied any of it.
- He never educated his daughters.
He didn’t even provide for their education in his will. That is simply not the act of a man who values literacy, and who wants his daughters to move confidently in literary society. It’s the act of a man who places no value at all on literacy.
- There is no other historical or biographical evidence that anyone even knew Shaksper — or Shakespeare!
There are no letters of any kind, where one person writes to another about Shaksper. And there are none for
Shakespeare, either! So no one knew Shakspear — or cared to write about him. And the famed “Shakespeare”
had to be a pseudonym. Otherwise, why the silence?The only way to explain the absence of such evidence is to assume that all such correspondence was destroyed.
It would be possible to argue that all correspondence in Shaksper’s possession was destroyed, if he had any.
But how can one argue with a straight face that all letters from Shaksper were destroyed, and all letters
about Shaksper –and only those letters, in the compilations of correspondence that were preserved for others?Of course, it is possible to argue that correspondence relating to a noble-born Shakespeare was destroyed,
because the archive of correspondence among the nobility was maintained by William Cecil, Lord Burghley–
Elizabeth’s right-hand man. But that very idea raises the question: Why would Cecil care? If the man from
Stratford was Shakespeare, and others wrote to each other about him, what reason would Cecil have to
selectively destroy that correspondence, while preserving everything else?
If “Shakespeare” was an alias for a man (or men) in high places, on the other hand, Cecil might very well care.
In that case, it could have been in his interest to selectively destroy such correspondence. Doing so could
possibly have erased evidence for other authorship candidates — but if you assume he did, you are forced
to acknowledge that Stratford was not the author.
So either there was never any correspondence, or all such correspondence was destroyed because of the
author’s reputation and station in life. Either way, the Stratford man is out of the running.
- When he died, he possessed not one book.
Preposterous. Books are the most valuable things a writer has. Over my lifetime, I’ve collected thousands,
and never willingly parted with any of them. I read voraciously in school (anything but textbooks), and spent
my allowance on books, even though it meant I would be skipping a few meals. This, too, is trait that all writers
share. Writers become writers as a result of their voracious appetite for reading. That’s where they learn the
phrases that come so naturally to them when they’re writing. And after carefully allocating every single one
of his posessions in his will — right down to his “second-best bed”, there is no mention at all of books?
- He never laid claim to any manuscripts or publishing contracts.
This man, who sued other citizens for 30 shillings, never once claimed to be author of the works that had
been published. He never laid claim to the many manuscripts that had not yet been published at the time of
his death. His will allocated everything in his possiession that had any value at all, but it included no contracts,
royalties, or publishing contracts.
- At his death, the world was silent.
When Shaksper died, there was not so much as a peep from anyone. Very unusual, at a time when everyone
wrote effusive paeons of praise for such occasions. For example, when Ben Jonson died, a book of collected
poems was published within 6 months (Who Wrote Shakespeare?, p. 78). But it was seven years after
Shaksper’s demise that the First Folio was published, with dedications appropriate for a recent death — a sure
sign that someone else was being honored.
How did Shaksper Get the Credit?
So how is it that an illiterate town burgher and part-time actor from Stratford wound up getting the credit for some of the greatest works in the English language? Well, it was a matter of greed, mostly. And it came about 100 years after his death.
During Elizabeth’s reign, the works of Shakespeare were popular, yes. But no one regarded them as classics. In fact, they were pretty well ignored for most of the next century. But at some point, someone said, hey, these are pretty good. And they went about searching for the author.
The only person they could find who had any connection to the theater was this fellow Shaksper. So they went to Stratford to get more information. When they got there, they found precisely nothing.
- In his lifetime, Shaksper never claimed to have authored anything.
- His children (all daughters, all illiterate) never claimed that he had written anything.
- No one in the town ever claimed to have known him as an author or as anything close to famous.
But as more people began to show up looking for information, someone figured out that it could be a terrific tourist industry. So the myth was born. The townsfolk cooked up a cottage industry displaying memorabilia — an industry that has continued to this day.
Of course, everything displayed in Stratford that is “related to Shakespeare” is 100% fake. There is not one authentic item to found anywhere in that town. But a heck of a lot of money is being made there. And not only there. The “official guardians” of the Shakespeare legend are responsible for large, prestigious grants to many an academic institution, which has assured them legions of accolytes who are willing to perpetuate the myth.
(For a short, succinct, and highly entertaining illustration of these points, read Shakespeare Authorship Question: A Crackpot’s View, by Keir Cutler, PhD.)
When the remarkable vocabulary, range of skills, beauty of expression, and description of foreign lands recorded in the works are balanced against the complete lack of evidence for any of those attributes in the man from Startford, nor any means for acquiring them, the conclusion is inescapable: It quite simply is not possible that he was the author.
The Stratfordian reply to such observations is invariably the same: It could have happened. Really? By what stretch of the imagination? More to the point: If miracles are to be accepted as the foundation for an argument, then one might as well argue for Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy. The quantity and quality of evidence are virtually the same.
The bottom line is this: Those who believe that the man from Stratford was the author known as Shakespeare have much in common with those who believe the earth is flat. Some have simply taken it as an article of faith, without examining the issue very closely. Their folly is excusable. But those who have looked into the matter are different. Those who continue to hold such beliefs after examination — and worse, to claim that there is no doubt in the matter — demonstrate that they are incapable of critical reasoning, impervious to logic, blind to evidence, oblivious to inherent contradiction, and all but totally lacking in common sense. Such people should not be allowed in the same room as young minds in need of an education, much less be allowed to teach, due to the serious — and already demonstrated — risk of intellectual contamination.
To put it even more bluntly:
- Those who simply believe that Stratford wrote the Shakespeare canon, without examining the matter, are uneducated. They are not particularly at fault, in that regard, since the entire educational system has been feeding them a line of bull from day one. But the fact of the matter is that their capacity for accepting established doctrine on blind faith suggests that they would be better suited to teaching Sunday School, rather than literature.
- Those who refuse to examine the matter, because there is simply no point, are willfully ignorant. Such pig-headed obstinence has no place in Academia, which should be promoting open pursuit of truth, rather than blind obedience to authority.
- Anyone who still believes that Stratford wrote the Shakespeare canon after the examining the matter is, quite a simply, a fool, just as British statesman John Bright said. Such people have demonstrated the intellectual capacity of an imbecile, and should not be allowed to teach our children.
So there you have it. Of all the proposed authors for Shakespeare’s works, William Shaksper of Stratford is without doubt the least qualified candidate that could possibly be imagined. Only an idiot could accept such an absurd hypothesis, after examination.
Of course, the question of who did write Shakespeare’s works is still undecided. Multiple single authors have been proposed, each of which has some stellar arguments in their favor, for some of the works — which also means that none of them is a lock for all of the works. To resolve the dilemma, it has been suggested that some combinations of them acted as a group, which once again can be pretty clearly demonstrated for some of the works, but not for all of them.
In the pages that follow, I offer yet another alternative: That of serial authorship. I propose that the pseudonym, once established, was picked up by multiple times by people who were “in the know”, and that several of them did indeed collaborate on some of the politically-driven “propaganda plays”, which had to be created quickly. For those plays, different people wrote different acts and scenes, possibly revising each others’ work to improve consistency (although without achieving it perfectly).
But while my serial authorship theory is a decent working hypothesis, it still leaves open the question of who wrote what, and when. I will do my best to outline some of the possibilities in the pages that follow, but it will be difficult to be precise, given the veil of antiquity and the shroud of secrecy that was created by the mystery’s original perpetrators — and further obscured by many academics in the centuries that followed. Still, a good hypothesis is a start. It can only be hoped that the Dons of Academia will one day come to their collective senses and begin to address their otherwise-diligent efforts to uncovering the truth.
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