Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

You might see a movie trailer in which a dark and brooding nobleman thunders down to some conniving peasant, "You have no voice!" This nauseates me. As an archetype, an image, and a theory -- it literally nauseates me. Why? Because that artless peasant is William Shakespeare and the heroic, high-minded noble is the Earl of Oxford, the true genius behind the commoner's humble facade. To me, it's like saying the Beatles' hits were written not by some working-class kids from Liverpool, but by a wealthy Hollywood record producer. I just don't understand why anyone would go out of their way to believe the world is so ordinary.

To be fair, this isn't a post about the movie. I haven't seen it, and know very little about it. This post is about this curiously stubborn urge to somehow debunk the existence of William Shakespeare. The basic logic is that a man born to a middle-class family in rural Stratford lacks the worldliness or intellectual heft to produce Shakespeare's body of work, and that the true author must've been some educated aristocrat. But let's just put aside how mind-numbingly patronizing that sounds.

William Shakespeare was no aristocrat, but he wasn't born into poverty. He was an alderman's son. An introductory education was not beyond his middle-class reach. And most of what is crystal clear from the plays that bear his name is that the author was someone with a bead on popular tastes, an obsession with stories, a rich imagination, a healthy sense of humor, an uncommon grasp on the human condition, and a singular way with words -- absolutely none of which requires an expensive Oxford education.

Some say that the plays demonstrate a suspicious familiarity with noble lifestyle, but do they? How? Which bits? Yes, his stories feature characters of noble-birth, but surely we can postulate that commoners knew that such people existed. And it's not as if his dialogue or plots were otherwise preoccupied with the ephemeral details of the aristocratic life. Often, it was quite the opposite. What might not be obvious to the contemporary American reader is that the plays are full of period country affectations, so much so that his dialogue was actually attacked by some of his fellow playwrights (such as Cambridge-educated Robert Greene) for sounding too provincial.

This is the problem, we've gotten much too used to thinking of Shakespeare's plays as lofty, high-class theatre. Centuries ago, it was anything but. We are outside of the context. We shouldn't assume we get what they are right away. Because the truth is that these plays weren't remote, courtly meditations; they were raucously popular entertainments. As alien as it sounds to us, the Shakespearean cadence wasn't something the groundlings had any trouble following. It's not that everyone spoke like Hamlet. The plays didn't reflect the way Elizabethan people spoke any more than a contemporary box office blockbuster reflects the way we speak (we're never so fluid or coherent). The plays, like most drama, reflected the way the audience imagined they spoke.

The only reason we assume these works are the stuff of academia is because we only know them from academia. We don't immediately notice any of the humble flaws and brushstrokes. In A Winter's Tale, the author makes reference to the "coast of Bohemia," but Bohemia was a landlocked country. A curious mistake for a university-educated aristocrat to make. It's been said that these plays contain many references to the sea, indicating an aristocrat's tastes for travel. And yes, the sea is a fixture of the plays, but let's remember that it's portrayed as a wide and forbidding dominion of shipwrecks, gods, and magical storms. It's not the voice of someone who's spent much (if any) time at sea. It's the voice of someone who fears the sea. It's the voice of someone who's overheard inflated sailor stories in pubs. There's no real evidence that the plays' author was well-traveled. Again, Shakespeare was perfectly aware that Venice and Rome existed, but merely setting a story in Italy doesn't by itself scream that he must have been to Italy.

But he at least had to speak fluent Italian to adapt the Italian folktale of Romeo and Giuliette, right? Not really. Trashy Italian love stories were all the rage on the streets of London, and there were at least four versions of the Romeo and Juliet story in print before Shakespeare's play. Two of which were indeed in English. Likewise, stories of grand historical figures like Julius Caesar and Cleopatra were already pretty firmly rooted in the popular culture.

For me, the most important question is why. Why would anyone need to invent this cover? The usual answer involves some ambiguous claims about the dangerously subversive subtext in some of his plays. And yeah, there were poetic allusions to events of his time, but nothing that ever got Shakes in trouble. We have no record of the man ever being arrested. No one made an example of him. He wasn't exiled or executed. He had a full and respected career. His supposedly dangerous works were performed for the courts of Queen Elizabeth and King James, the most powerful offices in the land, without evidently raising any eyebrows. So what on earth was "the real author" so relentlessly wary of? What was he supposedly hiding from, for all of four decades?

I don't know why we have no letters in Shakespeare's own handwriting, but is it really so strange to suggest he simply didn't write home much? Are handwritten 16th century documents so bloody common in modern day flea markets? Either way, people obviously knew this man. He had fans. He had a family. He had a hometown. He has birth records. He has a grave. He had a professional reputation. He had rivals and critics. He was a busy man. The life of a working playwright wasn't some cloistered existence. He worked in the theatre. He revised scenes. He gave the performers their lines. Actors John Heminges and Henry Condell worked with Shakespeare for two decades, and published his first folio with this dedication: "to keepe the memory of so worthy a Friend, & Fellow aliue, as was our Shakespeare, by humble offer of his playes." Ben Jonson (another playwright with no university education) calls Shakespeare a personal friend in his private journals. Who was he lying to, in his own journal? And why?

So let's review what we know. We know that a "William Shakespeare" was at least credited as being the author of several plays. We have no evidence this was seen as an implausible feat by anyone who saw the plays or knew the man. We have no evidence his social background and education stirred any suspicions whatsoever. We have no evidence his plays were conspicuously difficult for uneducated audiences to follow. In his own lifetime, in the white hot epicenter of this supposed conspiracy, not one soul in all the world ever thought to ask who wrote Shakespeare's plays. Not one single soul in forty years. By all accounts, they all fully believed they knew.

So, when I hear this theory that a person (or persons), for some unspecified reason, contrived a massive conspiracy to write over a hundred poems and dozens of well-admired plays under the name of a man who was more or less perfectly capable of doing it himself, I have trouble grasping the point. You see, to my admittedly biased thinking, you do not just shred a writer's credit on a lark.

- Travis

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Mark Julian said...

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Nick said...

A fabulous, persuasive and thorough piece of writing, Travis.

Exactly what I wanted to say about the movie, and in all the words I couldn't quite come up with.