Theater Symposium: Who Wrote Shakespeare?
By Caldwell Titcomb
Starting in 1769 serious questions have been raised as to whether William Shakespeare (1564–1616) of Stratford-upon-Avon actually wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. For some years the true author was claimed to be Sir Francis Bacon (1561–1626). So far, at least 60 persons have been put forward as the rightful writer. Notable among them are Christopher Marlowe (1564–93); Edward de Vere (1550-1604), 17th Earl of Oxford; William Stanley (1561–1642), 6th Earl of Derby; and Roger Manners (1576-1612), 5th Earl of Rutland. The roster has not been restricted to men: it includes Queen Elizabeth I herself (1533-1603), and—a recent addition—the Jewish poet Aemelia Bassano Lanier (1569-1645).
The Marlovians must deal with their writer’s widely witnessed mortal brawl at 29; they have to posit a faked death. With many plays in the canon generally assigned to the 1605-1612 period, the Oxfordians have to confront de Vere’s death on June 24, 1604.
A local group, mostly Oxfordians, recently gathered for a two-day event in Watertown, MA (May 29-30). The first day saw a one-man show entitled “Shake-Speare’s Treason,” written and performed by actor-turned-writer Hank Whittemore in collaboration with director Ted Story. This 90-minute dramatized lecture—a work-in-progress given in several cities—is distilled from Whittemore’s huge, 918-page tome The Monument, devoted to the Bard’s 154 sonnets.
It is Whittemore’s theory that Her Majesty was not the “virgin queen” she claimed to be. He maintains that Elizabeth began an affair with Edward de Vere in the late 1560s and, after staying out of public view for six months, bore a son, Henry Wriothesley [pronounced Risly], 3rd Earl of Southampton (1573-1624). Henry would join Robert Devereux (1566-1601), 2nd Earl of Essex, in the so-called Essex Rebellion against the government in 1601. This failed, and Essex was beheaded as a traitor, while Henry was reprieved and imprisoned in the Tower until Elizabeth’s death (the “three winters cold” in Sonnet 104). Henry, as royal issue, could have claimed the throne as King Henry IX, last of the Tudors. The Sonnets are viewed as written by de Vere to his son, the dedication to “Mr. W. H.” reversing the initials to conceal the identity of the addressee.
The second day was devoted to a series of illustrated talks, kicking off with an engrossing consideration of the Stratfordian’s will by Bonner Miller Cutting, president of the Lone Star Shakespeare Roundtable in Houston, Texas. The will, which was discovered in 1747, is, Cutting claims, “not an enigma, but a disaster.” She has examined some 2,000 wills, and is amazed at what is not present in this one: nothing about books, manuscripts, musical instruments, maps, bequests to servants, or forgiveness of debts. She regards the celebrated bequest of “the second best bed and the furniture” to the testator’s wife (who is not named) as intentionally disparaging, whereas his sister Joan (named three times) is well provided for. The text is heavily revised, and two different inks were used, with the redrafted first page written later than pages two and three.
Journalist Mark Anderson addressed two topics in his remarks. He first spoke about the recent excitement in the media around the world concerning the Cobbe family’s portrait asserted by some, including well-known scholars, as a depiction of Shakespeare. Anderson mentioned a Times Literary Supplement article by Katherine Duncan-Jones, co-editor of the “Arden Shakespeare’s Poems” and author of a biography of the Bard. I tracked down the article (March 18 issue), and she persuasively proves that the Cobbe painting is one of several copies of a portrait (ca. 1610) known to be of Sir Thomas Overbury (1581-1613). Much ado about nothing.
Anderson then put on his other hat as the author of “Shakespeare” by Another Name, his 2005 biography of Edward de Vere as “the man who was Shakespeare.” He stated that the plays characterized people from de Vere’s life—which is plausible. Not so convincing was his statement that the author “stopped creating new work in 1604, stopped reading in 1604, stopped reporting in 1604.” He proposed that the standard chronology of the writings is “a polite fiction.”
We were then shown the beginning of Cheryl Eagan-Donovan’s film documentary about de Vere entitled Nothing is Truer Than Truth (an English translation of the de Vere family motto, “Vero Nihil Verius”). This film-in-progress, based on Anderson’s book, will eventually run 60 or 70 minutes and will emphasize de Vere’s visit to Venice in his mid-20s. From the opening 15 minutes, one recognized two interviewees familiar to Boston audiences: Diego Arciniegas, award-winning actor and artistic director of the Publick Theatre; and Robert J. Orchard, executive director of the American Repertory Theater.
After a half-hour Twenty Questions game about Shakespeare and de Vere, we got back to serious business with a presentation by poet Marie Merkel, author of a book on Titus Andronicus. She was struck by a statement in the influential critic Harold Bloom’s essay on The Tempest (“Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human,” p. 673), “Mysteriously, it seems an inaugural work, a different mode of comedy, one that Beckett attempted to rival in ‘Endgame.’” And she cited the 2002 edition of the play by David Lindley, who spoke of the work’s “uniquely experimental nature.”
So Merkel decided to explore fully the specialness of this play. Among the features she found were staccato cadences, heavy enjambment, rhetorical austerity, neoclassic structure, the classical unities, and strong echoes of the masque and commedia dell’arte. She also compiled several dozen words that occur in The Tempest and in Ben Jonson (1572-1637) but nowhere else in the Bard’s plays.
Her conclusion is that The Tempest was written by Jonson, who, she says, was still obsessed by this play in 1631. She doesn’t explain how Jonson came to provide his lengthy prefatory encomium to “my beloved, The AUTHOR Mr. William Shakespeare” in the 1623 First Folio of the plays, in which The Tempest was printed first. She is preparing a book on Jonson and the play and will doubtless address this question.
The final symposium talk, “Shakespeare and the Succession Crisis of the 1590s,” was given by librarian and longtime Oxfordian Bill Boyle. His remarks were complex and resistant to easy summary. But he spoke of historian Sir John Hayward (ca. 1564-1627), who in 1599 wrote about the deposing of Richard II, the subject of the 1597 First Quarto of the Bard’s wonderful play. Boyle considers the play “a real legal treatise,” and it was by request performed on the eve of the Essex Rebellion. Boyle also talked about the long epic poem “Willobie his Avisa” (1594), which contains the first mention of Shakespeare and in which Avisa might have been a reference to Queen Elizabeth. And he spoke about Francis Meres’ “Palladis Tamia” (1598), which listed a lot of plays and poems and saluted the “mellifluous and hon[e]y-tongued Shakespeare.”
Members of the U.S. Supreme Court have occasionally been corralled to judge moot trials about the authorship controversy—one took place in 1987, with Justice John Paul Stevens participating. Jess Bravin in a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal (April 18) updated the subject in an article distributed to symposium attendees. Justice Stevens now says of the Stratford man, “I think the evidence that he was not the author is beyond a reasonable doubt,” and he sides with the Oxfordians, as does Justice Antonin Scalia. Justices Kennedy and Breyer stick with the Stratfordians. Justices Souter and Ginsburg are unsure, and Justices Roberts, Thomas, and Alito declined to comment.
Those who are new to the controversy or desire further argument should turn to the website DoubtAboutWill.org, which provides a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt and a debate by scholar Stanley Wells with Shakespearean actors Mark Rylance and Sir Derek Jacobi.
Full disclosure obliges me to state that in my youth I was an ardent Oxfordian. [The founder of the Oxford theory (1918) was the somewhat unfortunately surnamed J. Thomas Looney—pronounced, however, to rhyme with Tony.] In the last half century, however, I have—for better or worse—rejoined the orthodox Stratfordian mainstream. But there remain a host of questions that have not been satisfactorily answered by anyone. So the battle will certainly continue for a long time.