Did Shakespeare Really Write Anything?

I'm going to start this article off with a bit of a rant and confess something to you right off the bat: I can't stand William Shakespeare.

First of all, his stories aren't as breathtakingly brilliant as they've been hyped to be. They just aren't. Two teenagers who obsess over each other and then commit suicide? A prince who wants to kill a man for sleeping with his mother, and imagines that the man killed his real father in order to do it? A king who is insecure about his hunchback? Come on.

Second, even if his stories were great for their time, people who say they enjoy Shakespeare today are most likely just being pretentious assholes. Enough with the act! Unless you're reading a modern translation, you don't understand what Shakespeare is saying. You don't. Nobody does. 

But third, and most importantly, my dislike of Shakespeare has to do with him being called the "greatest writer in English literature" by blowhards who have either a) never read him, b) read him, didn't understand a word he said, but pretend to understand him, or c) haven't read any other writer of English literature. Charles Dickens trounces Shakespeare in eloquence of language, complexity of plot, and moral depth. As does Voltaire, as does Alexander Dumas, as does P.G. Wodehouse.

In short, Shakespeare is the most overrated writer in human history to date. He's overrated, overrated, overrated! It is not that Shakespeare is a horrible writer (that award is shared by James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald), it's just that Shakespeare isn't great either. Maybe Michael Fassbender can redeem one of his works for me, but until then, this literature-lover will continue to not be a lover of The Bard.

So now that you know I am already somewhat biased in my approach to this alleged English poet, let me make the case for why— I don't think— a man named William Shakespeare actually wrote the lame stories he is credited for. 

I Don't Believe William Shakespeare Wrote The Stories Attributed To Him, Because Those Stories Contain A Knowledge Of Royal Life Inconsistent With What We Know Of Shakespeare's Background.

Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare grew up, was a market town where sheep were distributed and cattle were slaughtered. It was not a place where English elites had a large presence. Neither one of William's parents, John and Mary Shakespeare, could write (they "signed their names" with a mark, as was common with people who were illiterate), and there is no evidence that William Shakespeare's daughters could write (we do not have a single piece of paper with their signatures). So we have, allegedly, a Shakespeare generation that cannot write, one man a generation later who can, and then a generation after him who can't again. It has been proposed that Shakespeare learned how to read and write by attending King's New School, but no records or evidence have been found to support this claim.

But more than merely his literacy being under question, there is the subject matter "he wrote" about. During the 16th and early 17th century, sports such as hunting, falconry, tennis, and lawn-bowling were considered aristocratic activities which the common person knew very little about. Yet Shakespeare writes of all of these sports in intricate detail. Shakespeare also included in his plays details about how court politics and customs worked, despite him not having a way to learn about any of those things given his station in life. 

Remember that this is a time when information was not as easy to come by as it is today. For me to write a book called "Life In The White House", despite me never having been to the White House, is not a problem. I have libraries, the internet, documentaries, etc. But that was not the case in Shakespeare's day. It was rare for someone below the class of elites to have an in-depth knowledge of how the English elites lived. This, in my opinion, makes Shakespeare's authorship of plays involving royalty (which was nearly all of them) questionable.

I Don't Believe William Shakespeare Wrote The Stories Attributed To Him, Because The Elitist Way He Portrays Commoners In His Plays Is Inconsistent With What His Attitude As A Commoner Would Be.

Shakespeare often portrayed commoners in his plays as comical fools or dangerous mobs, whilst characters a part of the elite— good or evil— were cunning, quick-witted, and intelligent. The famous American poet Walt Whitman noticed this in his November Boughs (1888) when he said, "The comedies [Shakespeare's] have the unmistakable hue of plays, portraits, made for the divertissement only of the elite of the castle, and from its point of view. The comedies are altogether non-acceptable to America and Democracy."

But it isn't just about how the way Shakespeare portrayed commoners is inconsistent with how he was one. He also writes like he's part of the English elite in what are alleged to be his personal sonnets. Take for instance a portion of his 91st Sonnet: "Thy love is better than high birth to me." How would he know? This seems a likely slip-up on the part of the true writer of the personal sonnets. 

Why Would The Anonymous Author Choose Shakespeare To Be The "Front" For His Works?

Because Shakespeare was the perfect choice. While he did indeed grow up in Stratford-upon-Avon, Shakespeare was able to make a successful life in London as a real estate merchant and... as an actor. Being a well-known actor in London, Shakespeare would not have had a problem convincing others that he was capable of writing plays, as long as those others didn't know he was illiterate and despite the subject material being outside the realm of knowledge he could have possibly acquired.

In addition, being a successful businessman when it came to real estate gave him an edge over other actors when it came to him being chosen as the true writer's "face": he, Shakespeare, could purchase more property, build more theaters throughout London, and make productions of the writer's plays more rapidly than any other candidate. He was the perfect front. But this leads us to the final question... 

Who Did Write The Plays?

It's obvious to me, given the writer's knowledge of 16th century English "upper class" life and the writer's attitude and portrayal of commoners, that whoever wrote the Shakespearean plays belonged to nobility.

There are theories suggesting Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford and a courtier poet was the true author of the Shakespeare works. The main case for this is the similarity between events of Edward's life as told in his biography and events in Shakespeare's plays. There are Shakespeare-skeptics who believe William Stanley the 6th Earl of Derby was the true author. Stanley was married to Elizabeth de Vere whose maternal grandfather is thought to have been the inspiration for the character Polonius in Hamlet. Notice that there's still a deVere connection with William Stanley as the author. What aspects of "Shakespeare's" characters couldn't be taken by Stanley from Edward's life could have been taken from his wife Elizabeth's grandfather. To top it off, Stanley also had business connections to King's Men... a company Shakespeare owned. 

But another candidate— and my personal favorite— is Sir Francis Bacon. I like Bacon as a candidate because there is (allegedly) a code left in the Shakespearean play Love's Labour's Lost that declares him to be the true author: a Latin mouthful found in Act 5, Scene 1— "Honorificabilitudinitatibus"— which advocates of Bacon authorship say is used as an anagram that yields "Hi ludi F. Baconis nati tuiti orbi" ("These plays, the offspring of F. Bacon, are preserved for the world") Furthermore, I like Bacon as the writer because one doesn't need an anagram to tie him to the Shakespearean plays, there's plenty of connections right on the surface of the texts. There are moments in the plays where "Shakespeare" rephrases sayings found in Bacon's writings: "Poetry is nothing but feigned history" (Bacon, The Advancement Of Learning) becomes "The truest poetry is the most feigning" (Shakespeare, As You Like It); "He wished him not to shut the gate of your Majesty's mercy" (Bacon, The Works Of Lord Bacon) becomes "The gates of mercy shall be all shut up" (Shakespeare, Henry V). In fact in 1883, Mrs. Henry Pott, who edited Bacon's Promus, found as many as 4400 parallels between his work and William Shakespeare's. 

Famous Shakespeare-Skeptics

Is it just a no-name writer with a blog who doubts Shakespeare's authorship? No.

Mark Twain wrote an entire book about his suspicions (Is Shakespeare Dead?, 1909), saying most notably "Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a Brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster of Paris." 

Sigmund Freud stated very matter-of-factly in his Autobiographical Study (1927), "I no longer believe that William Shakespeare the actor from Stratford was the author of the works that have been ascribed to him." 

But perhaps it was Ralph Waldo Emerson who was the most damning critic of Shakespeare's alleged authorship when he wrote in Representative Men (1850), "As long as the question is of talent and mental power, the world of men has not [Shakespeare's] equal to show. But when the question is, to life and its materials and its auxiliaries, 'How does he profit me? What does it signify?'… the Egyptian verdict of the Shakespeare Societies comes to mind; that he was a jovial actor and manager. I can not marry this fact to his verse. Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought; but this man, in wide contrast. Had he been less, had he reached only the common measure of great authors, of Bacon, Milton, Tasso, Cervantes, we might leave the fact in the twilight of human fate: but that this man of men, he who gave to the science of mind a new and larger subject than had ever existed, and planted the standard of humanity some furlongs forward into Chaos—that he should not be wise for himself;—it must even go into the world's history that the best poet led an obscure and profane life, using his genius for the public amusement." 

Sources

My information about Shakespeare's family and environment comes from two books put out by Oxford University Press titled Oxford Companion to Shakespeare by Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (2001) and William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life by S. Schoenbaum (1987). 

Information on the parallels between Bacon's work and Shakespeare's, can be found in two books: Frank W. Wadsworth's work The Poacher From Stratford: A Partial Account Of The Controversy Over The Authorship Of Shakespeare's Plays (University of California Press, 1958), and James Shapiro's Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Simon & Schuster, 2010). 

Information about the anagram found in Love's Labour's Lost can be found in K.K. Ruthven's book Faking Literature (Cambridge University Press, 2001).