Almost five hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare remains one of the most important figures in human history. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Homer and Dante, he is part of the triumvirate of literary giants who straddle the centuries as permanent witnesses of the permanent things. It is, therefore, gratifying that modern scholarship is showing that this great genius was a believing Catholic in very anti-Catholic times. In this light, Anonymous, the latest Hollywood film purporting to depict Shakespeare and his times, is not only a travesty of history but an act of defamation against the Bard himself.
Anonymous is based upon the discredited “Oxfordian” hypothesis that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
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Although the Oxfordians have erected fabulously imaginative theories to prove that Edward de Vere wrote the plays, it takes a great deal of naiveté and gullibility to take their claims seriously. Edward de Vere died in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of Shakespeare’s plays was written and performed. Needless to say, the Oxfordians have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed until after their “Shakespeare’s” death.
The claims of the Oxfordians might be bizarre but they are positively pedestrian compared to some of the wackier “Shakespeare” theorists. Other aristocratic candidates who are alleged by some to have been the real Shakespeare include King James I, and the earls of Derby, Rutland, Essex and Southampton. Others have claimed that Mr Shakespeare was really Mrs Shakespeare, in the sense that the plays were really written by Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, using her husband’s name as a nom de plume.
It would, perhaps, be a little unfair to suggest that the relatively sober claims of the Oxfordians are as ridiculous as the wackier theories. Ultimately, however, the Oxfordian case can be disproved through the application of solid historical evidence, combined with common sense. Take, for example, the central premise of the Oxfordian case that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat or, at least, by one with a university education, on the assumption that Shakespeare, as a commoner without a university education, must have been illiterate, or, at any rate, incapable of writing literature of such sublime quality.
Contrary to such elitist presumption, the historian Michael Wood, has shown that the education that Shakespeare would have received at the Stratford Grammar School would have been of exceptionally good quality. As for the presumption of the Oxfordians that Shakespeare’s “humble origins” would have precluded him from being able to write the plays, one need only be reminded that great literature is not the preserve of the rich or the privileged. Christopher Marlowe was a shoemaker’s son and Ben Jonson’s stepfather was a bricklayer. Poverty prevented Jonson from pursuing a university education. Since Marlowe and Jonson, along with Shakespeare, are the most important dramatists of the Elizabethan and Jacobean period, it is clear that having “humble origins” did not disqualify a writer from producing great literature; on the contrary, it could be argued from the evidence that such origins were an important ingredient of literary greatness in Shakespeare’s day.
Nor is the importance of “humble origins” to the pursuit of literary greatness confined to Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Later generations have also produced an abundance of “humble” greats. Daniel Defoe was the son of a butcher, and Samuel Johnson, arguably the greatest wit and literary figure of the eighteenth century, was also born of poor parents. Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, experienced grinding poverty as a child and, when his father was sent to prison for debt, the ten-year-old Dickens was forced to work in a factory. Moving into the twentieth century, G.K. Chesterton, the “Dr Johnson of his age”, was born of middle-class parents and never received a university education. And these are but some of the brightest lights in the “humble” firmament of literary greatness. Many others could be added to the illustrious list. Perhaps the most applicable parallel to Shakespeare’s situation is, however, the appropriately named Alexander Pope, the son of a draper, who was denied a formal education because, as with Shakespeare, his parents were Catholic. Pope’s “humble origins” and forbidden faith helped him become perhaps the finest poet of the eighteenth century.
So much for the weakness of the Oxfordian argument about Shakespeare’s “humble origins”. Another argument is that Shakespeare was too young to have written the sonnets and the early plays. Shakespeare was only in his mid-twenties when the earliest of the plays was written, and was in his late-twenties when he wrote the sonnets. There is no way that such a young man could have written such work, whereas the Earl of Oxford, being born in 1550 and therefore fourteen years Shakespeare’s senior, would have been sufficiently mature to have written these masterpieces. So the argument runs. Whether the Earl of Oxford, a most violent and volatile individual, was ever “sufficiently mature” to have written the works of Shakespeare is itself highly questionable. Nonetheless, let’s look at the crux of the matter, namely whether a young man is able to write great literature.
Christopher Marlowe, who was born in the same year as Shakespeare, wrote the first of his produced plays in around 1587, when he was only twenty-three, two or three years younger than Shakespeare is thought to have been when the first of his plays was produced. The first of Marlowe’s plays, Tamburlaine the Great, is generally considered to be the first of the great Elizabethan tragedies. Since Marlowe was murdered when he was still in his late-twenties, the whole of his considerable literary legacy rests on his formidably young shoulders. Ben Jonson’s first play, Every Man in his Humour, was performed in 1598, with Shakespeare in the cast, when the young playwright was only twenty-six years old. Thomas Dekker published the first of his comedies in 1600, when he is thought to have been around thirty years old. Thomas Middleton’s first printed plays were published in 1602, when the playwright was about thirty-two, but they were probably first performed a year or two earlier. John Webster published his first plays in 1607, when he was twenty-seven years old, but is known to have made additions to John Marston’s The Malcontent three years earlier. As for Marston himself he wrote all his plays between 1602 and 1607, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-one. Looking at his contemporaries, Shakespeare was at exactly the age one would expect him to be when he first started writing plays. The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, would have been around forty when the first of the plays was performed, making him a positive geriatric by comparison.
So much for the youthfulness of Shakespeare the playwright, but what about the Oxfordian argument that he would have been too young to write the sonnets? Again, let’s look at Shakespeare’s contemporaries. Michael Drayton published his first volume of poetry, The Harmony of the Church, in 1591, when he was twenty-eight years old, exactly the same age as Shakespeare is thought to have been when he wrote the sonnets. Some of John Donne’s finest sonnets were written in the early 1600s when the poet was in his late twenties or early thirties. Many other great Elizabethan poets died at a young age, having already bequeathed a considerable body of work to posterity. Sir Philip Sidney was thirty-two when he died; Robert Southwell was thirty-three; Marlowe, as already noted, was twenty-nine; and Thomas Nashe was thirty-four.
Moving forward in time to the eighteenth century, it is worth noting that Samuel Johnson was twenty-eight when he finished his play, Irene, and was only a year older when his poem “London” was published, the latter of which, according to Boswell, was greeted with adulation and the judgment of his contemporaries that “here is an unknown poet, greater even than Pope”.i And as for Pope, he published his first poems at the tender age of twenty-one.
Should these examples fail to convince us that the art of the sonnet is not beyond the reach of the young, we need look no further than the example of Byron, Shelley and Keats. Byron had reached the ripe old age of thirty-six when he died, Shelley was thirty, and Keats a mere twenty-six years old. As for the precocious talent of the youngest of this youthful trio, Keats is said to have written some of his finest sonnets in as little as fifteen minutes! And Keats never even lived to the age at which Shakespeare is thought to have written his own sonnets.
Although the foregoing is sufficient to thoroughly discredit the Oxfordian thesis, we should at least address the few remaining remnants of their arguments against “the Stratford man”, as they disparagingly refer to Shakespeare. The fact that Shakespeare’s signature is described as being shaky or untidy is used as evidence of his “illiteracy”. Although some Oxfordians admit grudgingly that most of the surviving signatures date from the period of Shakespeare’s retirement when the infirmity that would eventually lead to his relatively early death might account for the infirmity of the signature, there is still the implicit suggestion that the untidy signature is evidence that Shakespeare could not have written the plays. Perhaps it is necessary to remind these “scholars” that there is absolutely no connection between calligraphy and literature, or that beautiful writing and beautiful handwriting do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many of the greatest writers had bad handwriting, and, no doubt, many of the greatest calligraphers were incapable of putting two literary sentences together. The temptation to produce a further list of great writers, this time itemizing those who had illegible handwriting, will be resisted. Let it suffice to say that any scholar who has pored over the mercilessly illegible handwriting of great writers will know that there is absolutely no connection between legibility and literacy.
In similar vein, Oxfordians point a scornful finger at the lack of literary flourish in Shakespeare’s will or the questionable literary merit of the poetic epitaph on his grave. Why, one wonders, should Shakespeare feel inspired to turn his will into a work of literary art? Why, one wonders, should he bother to write his will at all? Why shouldn’t he get his lawyer to write it? And why, one wonders, would Shakespeare be the least concerned with writing verse for his own gravestone? How common is it for self-penned epitaphs to adorn the tombs of the dead? Isn’t it far more likely that someone else wrote the lines? At any rate, these pieces of “evidence” hardly warrant any serious doubt as to the authorship of the plays.
In spite of the dubious “scholarship” of Oxfordians or the febrile fantasies of the latest Hollywood farce, there is no convincing argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and, in consequence, no convincing evidence that someone else wrote them. After the dust has settled on the fallen edifices of false scholarship, what is left standing among the ruins? We are left with the reliable, if mundane, reality that William Shakespeare was, in fact, William Shakespeare. We are also left with the equally reliable, if paradoxical, observation of G.K. Chesterton that “Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.”