I’m going to start this article off with a bit of a rant and confess something right off the bat: I cannot— cannot— with all that is in me, stand William Shakespeare. As a lover of literature and the arts, I just don’t get the hype. To begin with, I have never found his stories to be as breathtakingly brilliant as so many claim. In fact, Shakespeare seems to have a habit of creating protagonists that are impossible for the reader to identify with or see themselves in. I was annoyed by Romeo and Juliet, who I felt were vapid teenagers given to whim and easily duped, and annoyed with the story overall for its very twisted, very mistaken portrayal of what love actually is; and I also detested Hamlet, because I thought he was a creep who had an obvious incestuous attachment to his mother, and who further was paralyzed by his own neurosis. These are not main characters a normal reader would want anything good to happen to, and the stories themselves don’t draw a person in. That’s an entirely subjective opinion, I know, but can we all at least stop pretending that Shakespeare was a literary genius?
And perhaps my rebellion against the bard is due, also, to the pretentious assholes who claim to enjoy reading him today. Enough with the act! Unless you’re reading a modern translation of his work (which I certainly did), you simply do not understand what William Shakespeare is saying. You don’t. Nobody does. The language and the themes are so antiquated, that you can no more read the original Shakespeare and understand it than you could read a 1611 edition of the King James Bible and understand it.
But without a doubt it is Shakespeare being called “the greatest writer in English literature” that really chaps my khakis. 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. The idea that Shakespeare’s writing is unique in its “beauty”, distinct from the aforementioned writers and many others, is an idea I have yet to see backed up with any sort of strong argument. To clarify, I don't mean to say that Shakespeare was a terrible writer (that award is shared by James Joyce and F. Scott Fitzgerald), but he also shouldn’t be the hallowed jewel of the English-speaking world.
In short, Shakespeare may in fact be the most overrated writer in human history to date. Much ado about nothing.
But now that you know of my feelings toward the writings of William Shakespeare, let me tell you now why I wish to deprive the man even of his gross mediocrity. You see, as much as I don’t care for the stories themselves, I also don’t believe William Shakespeare ever actually wrote them to begin with. To be sure, a man named William Shakespeare did exist, and there is more than enough evidence to prove that. But it is likely that the man served as a “public face” for an anonymous author who enjoyed anonymity for unknown reasons. We’ll get to candidates for who the real Shakespearean author possibly was in a moment, but for now, let me show you the reasons why Shakespeare’s authorship should be doubted in the first place.
I Don't Believe William Shakespeare Wrote The Stories Attributed To Him, Because The Stories Contain A Knowledge Of Royal Life Inconsistent With Shakespeare's Background.
Shakespeare grew up in Stratford-upon-Avon, 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 bearing their signatures). This would seem to strangely imply— if the conventional view of Shakespeare authorship is to be believed— that the generation before William couldn’t write, then William could, then the generation after him could not again. It has been proposed that William Shakespeare learned how to write by attending King’s New School, but no records or evidence have been found to support this claim.
More than merely his literacy being under question, however, there is also the subject matter he allegedly wrote about. During the 16th and early 17th century, sports such as hunting, falconry, tennis, and lawn-bowling were considered aristocratic activities that the common person simply would not have known very much 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”, for instance, despite me never having been to the White House, is not a problem. I have libraries, the internet, and documentaries that could tell me what living in the White House is like. 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) extremely 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 two different ways in his plays: either as comical fools or dangerous mobs. Characters a part of the elite— good or evil— by contrast were cunning, quick-witted, and intelligent. The famous American poet Walt Whitman took notice of this in his November Boughs (1888) when he said, “Shakespeare’s comedies 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 unacceptable to America and Democracy.”
But it isn’t just the unflattering way Shakespeare portrayed commoners that is inconsistent with his being 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 Shakespeare know what “high birth” was like in order to make the comparison? This seems a likely slip-up on the part of the true writer of the personal sonnets. A writer, say, who would have been an elite of some sort and not someone of common birth.
Why Would The Anonymous Author Choose Shakespeare To Be The "Front" For His Works?
So far, if you’re following me, what I have claimed is that another— more learned— individual of noble birth wrote the Shakespeare plays and sonnets, and that this individual (whoever he is) arranged for the commoner William Shakespeare to take the credit while they enjoyed anonymity. The question that follows, then, would be why a member of the elite class would choose Shakespeare to be the face for his writings, and how a member of the elite class would have even known William Shakespeare at all.
As to the question, first, of why William Shakespeare would have been chosen by a nobleman or member of royalty, quite frankly it was because he was the perfect choice. While William did indeed grow up in Stratford-upon-Avon, he 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.
As to the question of how a nobleman would have even known about the existence of William Shakespeare in order to approach him in the first place, it’s important to recognize that Shakespeare was a successful businessman when it came to real estate, and being an actor, he used his funds to build a theater company that put on plays. This would certainly have earned him enough of a reputation for an ambitious member of the nobility to take notice. In sum, William Shakespeare became an appealing choice for being the “face” of the writings, because Shakespeare had the means to purchase more property and build more theaters throughout London to make productions of the real writer’s plays, and to do so more rapidly than anyone else. A member of nobility who wanted to write dangerous commentaries on society and culture, then, had the perfect opportunity to do so through Mr. Shakespeare.
But then… Who Did Write The Plays?
Given the writer’s knowledge of 16th century English “upper class” life and the writer’s attitude and portrayal of commoners, it seems obvious that whoever wrote the Shakespearean plays belonged to nobility.
There are theories suggesting that 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. You’ll notice of course 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, the theater company that Shakespeare owned. It is also entirely possible that William Stanley and Edward de Vere could have collaborated in some way.
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 can be 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, a Mrs. Henry Pott, who edited Bacon’s Promus, found as many as 4400 parallels between his work and the work of William Shakespeare.
Lest you think that this is just some wild kooky historical conspiracy theory that some no-name writer with a blog has attached himself to, think again. 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 cannot 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.”
***Update February 12th, 2016*** I’ve returned to this essay to post a speech at the bottom that was made by Tom Regnier LL.M. Tom Regnier was a Harlan F. Stone Scholar at Columbia Law School and was made President of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship in 2015. His talk is definitely one of the better lectures I’ve seen on the Shakespeare authorship question.
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).