A talk prepared for the Shakespeare cruise to Mexico in February 2006...
Isn’t it amazing that in all of world history - in the entire anthology of literature on our planet - we can find no other controversey such as the big hullabaloo to do with the authorship of the plays and poems published under the name of William Shakespeare. There are no polemics around Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, or Aristophanes. No one questions whether they wrote their plays. With Homer and Lao Tze there is some uncertainty. But the work attributed to these two stem from ages so long ago that authorship is virtually lost in the mists of time. However, with Omar Khayyam and Virgil there is no question of authorship. None with Ovid or Horace, none with Dante or Boccaccio, Cervantes or Chaucer... – only with Shakespeare! Isn’t that a fascinating fact? Why with Willaim Shakespeare and only with Willaim Shakespeare does such a terrible war rage – a paper war in which authors - in countless books and articles - sling ink to and fro over that colossal question: Who really wrote those immortal poems and plays?
“Immortal” is precisely the point and the answer to our question. The body of work is so astonishing, so beyond belief, so, so... - miraculous we might say, that we cannot believe a human being created it. The work is superhuman; it must be the work of a god, an immortal. Certainly a glover’s son from Stratford - perhaps even a butcher boy but in any case one who did not attend university - could never have created such divine poetry and drama. And so with ultimate irony those who most vehemently deny the Stratford man are most passionately paying the supreme compliment to the Stratford man - if it turns out the “country bumpkin” is indeed the author!
Yes, it’s funny: when the doubters say the poems and plays are divine, do they - like our creationists today - literally mean the work could not have come about by ordinary means but are so complex that only a supernatural intelligent designer could be responsible? No, let’s say the sceptics speak figuratively when they declare the work to be immortal. But if it was not a heavenly god then at least it was an earthly lord who created the poems and plays. Only an aristocrat could have the experience, the intelligence to produce such a brilliant body of work. The Earl of Essex, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Oxford... Perhaps the aristocratic author was Queen Elizabeth herself!
Yes, in the pages of Scientific American recently a Lillian Schwartz suggested the astonishing idea that the face we see on the title page of the First Folio is not that of William Shakespeare but of Queen Elizabeth! This hypothesis Schwartz demonstrates by way of computer modeling and by this we are meant to recognize that Good Queen Bess was the true author of Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor, of King Lear and The Comedy of Errors. And for every claimant we shall find such ‘proofs’; for every pretender from Raleigh to Rutland we shall learn of such ‘evidence.’ It is all extremely laughable and we will have lots of fun with this far-reaching assortment of claims and proofs.
Behind ALL of them, however, is one universal claim: that the man from Stratford was, in the words of Delia Bacon, a “stupid, ignorant, third-rate player,” and a “vulgar, illiterate deer poacher” who could never have written the plays. So here is the colossal contradiction: the sublime work we regard so highly is in no way consistent with that backwoods creature born so lowly. The Stratford man lacks the background and breeding – that is the starting point of all the dissenters. They then proceed to cook up an author more proper.
Defenders of truth can resist this line of attack immediately with two simple observations. First, many other playwrights contemporary with Shakespeare - John Webster, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker among others - came from origins even more humble than those of our Stratford man. Why, Christopher Marlowe’s father was a shoemaker. Ben Jonson, who became the greatest classical scholar among the playwrights, was for years a bricklayer. All these chaps - despite their low birth - wrote about the nobility as much or more than did William Shakespeare.
Second, Shakespeare attended King Edward IV Grammar School in Stratford-upon-Avon the curriculum of which would confound those of us who majored in the classics at the most prestigious universities! Shakespeare as a boy read in Latin Ovid, Virgil and Horace. He studied Plautus, Seneca and Cicero as well as the histories of Livy, Sallust and Caesar. “The boys, including William Shakespeare,” we read on a Web site, “were expected to converse in Latin at all times in order to improve their spoken fluency in the language and any boy caught speaking English at school was punished. Punishments were fierce and fifty strokes of the cane was not an uncommon occurrence.” But no, the kid from Stratford was too stupid and someone smarter had to be found.
Second – and this is most important – that someone smarter had to be a secret. The world could not know who was the ‘true author.’ A select few did know, of course, because they were in on the conspiracy. And let us make no mistake: every single one of the ‘true author’ claims requires a conspiracy. Thus, Christopher Marlowe was not killed on May 30, 1593 in a tavern brawl. What though the Queen’s coroner, presiding over the inquest, certified Marlowe’s death? What though the assailant, Ingram Frazer, was acquitted, on the grounds of self defense, by sixteen local jurors? The inquest, the jury judgment, the ‘homicide’ itself were all an intricate plot concocted by Thomas Walsingham, Marlowe’s homosexual lover and Queen Elizabeth’s master spy. The body buried in St Nicholas’s Churchyard - in an unmarked grave - was not that of Kit Marlowe (according to the Marlovians) but that of John Perry, a recently executed religious rebel. Marlowe was secretly transported to Scotland (or Italy or even Russia – it’s not crystal clear, but then conspiracies are nothing if not cloudy!). In any case - or place - Marlowe after his 1593 ‘death’ at the age of twenty-nine wrote all the plays we attribute to Shakespeare. An association entitled “Marlowe Lives!” propagates the message that Marlowe was the true author and a prize of $15,000 is waiting for the literary sleuth who can definitively prove that Marlowe wrote Shakespeare. One piece of evidence put forward is that in As You Like It we encounter a character named Oliver Martext. This is proof positive that the play is Marlowe’s! Martext, Marlowe’s text – get it? What better proof could you want? And yet one hopes that the proofs presented to win the Hoffman prize of $15,000 are less laughable than this.
But this pathetic Martext business does illustrate another important element common to all the anti-Stratfordians: they all imagine they find secret meanings in the plays – clandestine clues – placed there by their man to hint at the real personality behind the pen. We’ll have loads of fun with this trick later when we get to Sir Francis Bacon. But first let’s look at Oxford, today’s favorite candidate, and observe still another element that all our oddballs have in common: they all imagine they find parallels between the characters in the plays and the life of their ‘true author.’ And so the eccentrics tell us that when we peruse the plays we are actually reading the life story of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. And this is particularly true in Hamlet where the correlations are unmistakable! Like Hamlet, Oxford supported a theater company and was a lover of music. Both Hamlet and Oxford were moody and disobedient, both saw through outward shows of other people, both distrusted women. Oxford, like Hamlet, was captured by pirates in the English Channel! Both Hamlet and Oxford lost their dearly loved fathers; both lost their inheritance as a result of their mothers’ hasty remarriage. Both had to endure the despotism of father-figures: in Hamlet’s case his uncle Claudius, in Oxford’s Lord Burghley. Like Hamlet, Oxford fought a duel, and just as Hamlet killed a man (Polonius) in Claudius’ castle, Oxford killed a man (a servant) in the Burghley household. There are many more parallels in The Tempest, in Romeo and Juliet, in Love's Labour’s Lost, in A Midsummer Night's Dream... But All’s Well That Ends Well is so much like Oxford’s life that it clinches the case! In All's Well the main character, Bertram, suffers the death of his aristocratic father and is brought up as a royal ward. Helena too has lost her father and is also a ward but she is only the lowly daughter of a poor physician. Though Helena loves Bertram he disdains her for her low birth. Oxford was a ward in the home of William Cecil who ran the country for Queen Elizabeth as secretary of state and treasurer. Cecil’s daughter Anne and Oxford (like Helena and Bertram in the play) were brought up in the same household, practically as brother and sister. A match between Oxford and Anne Cecil was considered, but Anne was ‘too low’ to be the wife of the 17th Earl of Oxford. No problem: Queen Elizabeth granted the Cecil family nobility. William Cecil was new-created Lord Burghley. But the wedding was put off for some months. Did Oxford, like Bertram, disparage his proposed wife for her low birth? Oxford (like Bertram) ran away to the wars on the Continent but was called home by Queen Elizabeth. Nevertheless, the marriage was childless. Unconsummated? Not for long, for they say that Anne played a bed trick on her husband whereupon she became pregnant! But Edward de Vere refused to believe the child was his. The Earl of Oxford deserted his wife Anne for five years. He did have a child by Anne Vavasour, one of the maids-of-honor to Queen Elizabeth. However, he speedily abandoned her.
Yes, many parallels to Oxford in the plays. But we must include Aaron, Iago, Iachimo, Edmond, and Richard III. For we should know that Edward de Vere has been called an egotist, thug, sodomite, atheist, vulture, traitor, murderer, rapist, pederast, adulterer, libeler, fop, playboy, truant, tax evader, drunkard, snob, spendthrift, deadbeat, cheat, blackmailer, malcontent, hypocrite, conspirator, and ingrate. And what’s more, even members of the Oxford Society and the De Vere Society – dedicated to prove that the Earl wrote the plays – even they acknowledge much of this to be true ! But is this what we perceive to be the character of the man who wrote the glorious plays? Is this our “gentle Shakespeare?”
Let’s not forget our first element, conspiracy. It too is central to the Oxford account and it had to be a colossal, mind-blowing conspiracy that defies all reason. Why, Roswell, New Mexico, Marilyn Monroe, JFK, Martin Luther King, jr., and 9/11 would all be open-eyed as the high noon sun compared to the conspiracy required for Oxford to secretly write the plays and poems. The secret meaning element is very much in play here too. In the 1609 quarto of Shakespeare’s Sonnets “OUR EVER-LIVING” spells out, by way of anagram, the de Vere motto, “NIL VERO VERIUS” “Nothing true r than truth,” (or, “Nothing true r than a Vere”). It works if we change one letter (the “G” must become an “S”). Well, we had to cheat just a little but isn’t it proof that Shakespeare was really Oxford?
But for this kind of fun and nonsense we really must get to Sir Francis Bacon, courtier, diplomat, essayist, historian, law lecturer, major scientist, Solicitor General, Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England. Some say he was President or Imperator of the Rosicrucians. He was proficient in the Kabbalah and the foremost freemason in England. And, we are asked to believe, Bacon was also author of the 37 ‘Shakespeare’ plays and 154 Sonnets! Nay, more! Bacon wrote the Authorized Version of the Bible, Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, the plays of Marlowe plus those of more than seven additional dramatists of the time, Montaigne’s Essays in the original French, the works of Milton, Swift, and even Thomas Carlyle of the 19th century! The primary method of proof they teach at the Bacon school is cryptography or “secret writing: the enciphering and deciphering of messages in secret code or cipher.” The Baconians are like children who cannot go without their game of anagram. Here’s how it works: in Love’s Labours Lost there is a so-called nonsense’ word “honorificabilitudinitatibus.” Baconians will swear that Sir Francis himself inserted this word, for it forms an anagram revealing that he is the true author. The letters shuffled around give us in Latin “hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi” or “these plays born of F. Bacon are preserved for the world.” The idea is that Bacon invented this nonsense word so we would decode it and uncover his identity. How foolish and ignorant are the Baconians! The word honorificabilitudinitatibus is a real word, a medieval Latin word, going back to 1055 AD. Dante used that long, long word more than once, and so did other authors of the time. It means “the state of being able to achieve honors,” a state in which the Baconians are decidedly not to be found.
Here’s another hilarious Baconian ‘proof:’ Look at the Title Page of the First Folio. You see the numbers 1623 (the year of publication). Now assign numbers to letters of the alphabet - A equals 1, B equals 2, C equals 3, and so forth. Then the 1 in 1623 becomes A, the 6 becomes F, the 2 becomes B, and the 3 becomes C, yielding AFBC. Now to AFBC we must add the two letters ‘ON’ from the word LONDON (which also appears on the Title Page). Now we have AFBCON and this gives the cryptic secret signature of Francis Bacon. For don’t you see, if you shift around the letters AFBCON you get F. BACON! Stunning proof! By the way, with a method such as this we can easily ‘prove’ that Shakespeare wrote the King James Bible. When in 1611 the King James Bible appeared Shakespeare was 46 years of age. The number 46 is crucial. If we take Psalm 46, the 46th word from the beginning is “shake” and the 46th word from the end is “spear”!
With such wretched and pitiful tricks and games as these the Baconians ‘prove’ their case. And they write books 1,000 pages thick (the New York Public Library has 134 books on Baconian cryptography) – books full of obscure and esoteric letters and numbers. Nay, they go beyond that: some use ouija boards and make contact with Bacon’s spirit at séances. Derby and Rutland are the other two major contenders but I will pass over them quickly. For William Stanley, the Earl of Derby, the ‘proof’ amounts to not much more than that his first name was William, that his last name began with an “S” like Shakespeare, and that – of course – he was an aristocrat. But the Derbyites are pinning the tail on the wrong donkey, claim the Rutland militants. Roger Manners, the Earl of Rutland knew a great deal about Denmark and its court at Elsinore, for the Earl was Elizabeth’s ambassador to Denmark. Furthermore, Rutland in 1596 attended the University at Padua where two of his fellow students were named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It follows that only Rutland could have written Hamlet. I’ve discussed the five foremost pretenders to the throne of world’s greatest writer.
But would you believe that eighty contenders have been put forward in thousands of books and articles? King James, Ben Jonson, Sir Walter Raleigh, Anne Whateley...? Her name was on a marriage license along with William Shakespeare’s. But the next day on a bond the name was changed to Anne Hathaway. Did William love and intend to marry Anne Whateley but was he forced by allies of Anne Hathaway to marry their pregnant friend? Did Anne Whateley write, out of unrequited love, all the poems and plays for William? Books have been written to prove that this was so, though most likely Whateley was only a clerical error and such a person did not even exist. But that’s okay. Anything goes. Once you set your mind against the Stratford man - absolutely refuse to believe that “a boy from a dirty market town in central England could have produced the mightiest literature of mankind” - then anything goes and anyone could have written the plays. Daniel Defoe (the son of a butcher!) was born in 1660, but he wrote the Shakespeare plays.
Deny the Stratford man? Why then deny the Holocaust! Deny our world is a great globe and go form your flat earth society! The mentality is the same. The anti-Stratford people, in spite of their 4,000 books, are not scholars. Theirs is an obsession, a faith, a fanaticism. They believe because they want to believe. In this, they are no different than those who worship some bizarre god.
A god? But wait a minute! Have not we made a god of our Shakespeare? Yes, we have deified him. After he fell asleep drunk one day under a crabapple tree, we took that tree - some years after he died - and cut it up in little slivers which we sold just as once we bought and sold relics from the holy cross of Jesus. We are of the same mind as that greatest of Bardolators Harold Bloom when he writes “If any author has become a mortal god, it must be Shakespeare. He has become the first universal author, replacing the Bible in the secularized consciousness.” We cry amen when Herman Melville declares “If ever the Messiah comes again ‘twill be in Shakespeare’s person.” We nod in agreement with Robert Ingersoll who shouts from the rooftops “William Shakespeare was the greatest genius of our world - the highest mountain, the greatest river, the most perfect gem.”
Shakespeare was too great for his own good. He was universal and took all of knowledge for his province. He became everything to everyone and in becoming everything he became nothing. The man from Stratford is denied because he is so unbelievable, and so from everything comes nothing. Shakespeare would love it, for he drowned himself in such deep ironies. That 250-year old severe skepticism is merely the flip side of excessive idolatry. Would that the authorship nonsense were over and done with once and for all! We are promised just this in the title of a new work by Scott McCrea. But in his book The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question McCrea admits there can never be an end to the authorship question. “No appeal to evidence can ever convince true believers, because nothing can disprove their fixed idea.”
No, the controversy will never end, for cranks and amateurs, snobs and loonies will keep it going forever. Then why don’t we just ignore it as most reputable and sensible scholars do? Well, I guarantee you that on this ship, when we tell people that forty of us are on a Shakespeare cruise, someone will reply with “Shakespeare? Did he really write all that stuff? I heard that so-and-so...” If that happens please look for me aboard ship or even on shore and I will gladly lend you all my notes. Thank you very much...