The Shakespeare Problem
by Robert Brazil copyright © 1998-2007
You may ask: what Shakespeare problem? He was one of the most successful screenwriters of the 1990’s and he never has to be paid. He gets away with crude jokes that would be called tasteless anywhere else. Shakespeare’s just fine the way he is! Shakespeare is high and low. Shakespeare is gay and straight. The Bard, whose personal story is unknown and unquestioned, has been reduced to an icon or symbol of rarefied intelligence, of impenetrable, unreachable genius.
All things to all readers, the author has conveniently disappeared in favor of his words.
The problem has emerged because the few biographical facts that exist about Mr. Shaksper of Stratford-on-Avon don’t tally with what we would expect from the brilliant author of the plays and poems. The content, attitude, life experience, interests, and deep classical education evident in the plays surpass what is on record for William Shaksper of Stratford-on-Avon. Nothing in his life suggests that he was the author of the Shakespeare Canon, or had a reputation in his own lifetime to that effect.
The man commonly accepted to be the author Shakespeare was born in the village of Stratford-on-Avon in April of 1564. There is no record of his actual birthday, but the boy was christened on April 26, 1564, and his name, as given, was Gulielmus Shaksper. No, he wasn’t Italian, … “Gulielmus” was the scribe’s Latin spelling of William. The Shaksper family’s name is spelled dozens of different ways, but the most frequent, in his own time, was Shaxper, or Shaksper. The boy’s father, John Shaksper, was a glove maker. William Shaksper himself was essentially a grocer, grain trader and landlord by profession. No one in the village of Stratford thought of him as learned, bookish, poetical or theatrical, nor are there any legends, let alone records, of him producing any local entertainment.
The local records only confirm that William Shaksper was a merchant, not a lyricist or genius of letters. Shaksper’s will mentions no books or manuscripts. There is no remnant of any evidence that he was even literate himself. His parents and his children could not read. (What writer would not teach his own children to read ?) Nor did his children benefit, or show they had any knowledge of his alleged celebrity as a playwright. The few historical connections which would place Shaksper as an actor or investor in the Globe Theater, or any other theatrical enterprise were all created after the “fact”. There is no contemporaneous evidence that Shaksper, the grain dealer of Stratford, was the author of the Shakespeare Plays and Poems. In short, there is a rather big Shakespeare Problem, and it is one of the greatest historical and literary mysteries of all time. The modern image of Shakespeare the Author, in his quaint country cottage, writing for a living while suing his neighbors in small claims court, is a myth. The facts concerning William Shaksper of Stratford-on-Avon tell a different story.
The case against Shaksper-of-Stratford in brief:
or 33 Reasons to Doubt that Mr. Shaksper wrote Shakespeare
- There has never been found any authentic writing of any sort by William Shaksper of Stratford beyond 6 shaky signatures found affixed to legal documents. Each of these differs from the others and they are all from the end phase of his life: 1612-1616. Three of these signatures are on his will, one is on a deposition in a breach-of-promise case, and two are on real-estate documents. None are related to plays, poetry, or publishing.
- In his Last Will, no books, papers, or unpublished MSS are mentioned. He did not have a private library of any sort. No books have emerged that bear his signature, bookplate, or any other such identifier. His children inherited no books, not even a family Bible.
- Shaksper’s parents were illiterate. His daughters remained illiterate and uneducated. Judith Shaksper affixed a mark instead of a signature. The Shakespeare plays abound with female characters who read, who discuss philosophy, who are in every way literate. In a household in which erudition and wit would have erupted daily, how could Shakespeare’s daughters not have been influenced?
- There is no record of education for William Shaksper, either elementary or higher. His name does not appear in any College matriculation rolls. How he educated himself, if he did, is a mystery. The profound learning, and familiarity with French, Italian, Latin, and even Greek that emerges in the Shakespeare plays had to come from somewhere.
- There is nothing in the contemporary Stratford-on-Avon history to suggest he was a writer. The men of Stratford knew William Shaksper only as a grain dealer and property owner.
- The link in Shaksper’s will, to Hemynge, Burbage, and Condell of the King’s Men, is a visible interpolation, an after the fact addition.
- This Shaksper’s will contains nothing about shares in the Globe or Blackfriars theaters, and his heirs never received any payments, nor sought any.
- All of the contemporary allusions to Shakespeare the writer are enigmatic and in no way refer to the man from Stratford. The only things that suggest that this Stratford man was the dramatist are the posthumous vague assertions in the First Folio introductions and the peculiar inscriptions on the Stratford Monument.
- There is nothing contemporary to the relevant time period that show that this Shaksper was connected with London theaters. There are but three or four references to a Will Shakespeare as an actor, and they are only in the period of 1598 to 1603. And several key instances have been misstated. Stratford defenders say that the Cast lists for Ben Jonson’s Every man in his Humour 1598, show that Shakespeare acted in that play. But the cast list doesn’t appear in the 1598 quarto, only in the 1616 Collected Workes of Jonson. The same is true for the Sejanus 1603 references; they date from 1616. There are two recorded transactions on record, one that names a Shakespeare as involved financially in the King’s men, and one in which a Shakespeare was listed among recipients of red cloth for the cornonation of King James. In any case, there is no evidence that Shaksper of Stratford was an actor, or had a reputation as an actor on the London stages, or anywhere else. The few mentions of a Shakespeare involved with the theater are in no way linked, until decades later, to the man from Stratford.
- There were no eulogies to Shakespeare published in 1616 when Shaksper died. His passing was a non-event, while Philip Sidney had been given a funeral of near-Royal proportions. Eulogies to the author “Shakespeare” appeared in the First Folio of 1623.
- Shaksper of Stratford was involved in numerous petty lawsuits and small claims court proceedings that indicate an attachment to money, however small, which is antithetical to the point of view of the author of the Shakespeare plays and poems.
- When Shaksper died in 1616, there were at least 16 masterpiece plays that had never been published. These plays appeared in print for the first time in the Folio of 1623. Many of these plays were not even performed in the era in which they were allegedly written. If Shaksper “wrote for money”, why would Shaksper not exploit the potential market value of his “back catalog” ? If the rights to Shaksper’s assets passed to his daughter Susanna, as residuary legatee, why did she never claim any books or manuscripts as a portion of the residuary estate ?
- When the Sonnets were published in 1609, Shaksper was alive. He took no action, he received no compensation. The introduction implies that the author is dead. The naughty eroticism and personal revelations do not match Shaksper’s lifestyle, and it is unlikely that a living author would permit his private diary of secret thoughts to be issued publicly.
- Shaksper’s rustic Warwickshire lifestyle is ridiculed in the plays. There are only scant references to small farm animals, but numerous references to horses, cattle, hawks, and animals familiar to the nobility.
- There is no indication that Shaksper left Stratford for London prior to 1585. His wife gave birth to twins that year, and while he may have left in a hurry, all evidence is that he had been “down on the farm” from 1564 to 1585. His sojourn in London after 1585 is mostly conjectural. But allusions and topical references in many of the Shakespeare plays clearly refer to Court intrigues in the 1576 to 1585 time period. There is no way Shaksper could have known about these matters first hand.
- There are a number of Shakespeare-like “Apocryphal and Anonymous Plays”, that are ruled out of the Shakespeare Canon, because they had a stage history or publication record that doesn’t match the dates for Shaksper of Stratford. Some of the apocryphal plays are now being seen to be remarkably Shakespearean in language and plotting, but emerged too early for Shaksper to have written them.
- There is nothing in Shaksper’s biography to indicate sea voyages, knowledge of Italian manners, hawking, jousting, military service, legal training, foreign languages, or familiarity with the Classics.
- The Monument to Shakespeare in the Church at Stratford-on-Avon is most likely not the original monument, which was sketched in the 17th century and shows a man holding a sack, not a man writing on a pillow. The wording on the monument is extraordinarily peculiar, and can be shown to reveal that Shaksper was a front man for someone else.
- “The retirement” of Shaksper, from London back to Stratford, is roughly coincidental with the name “William Shake-speare” appearing on plays, and the first literary notices that Shakespeare was the name of a writer of note. The standard story is that Shaksper “commuted” from Warwickshire to London to act in plays, but this is unfeasible and unsupported by any evidence.
- All attempts at finding relevant material by tracing the Shaksper family have come up empty.
- There is nothing to link Shaksper-of-Stratford to the Earl of Southampton, his alleged Patron. The dedications to Southampton in Venus & Adonis and Lucrece suggest that the author knew him well, and was on close familiar terms. Scholars have turned England upside down to find even a scrap of paper connecting Southampton to the man from Stratford. No such documents have been found.
- Although there are plenty of pay-records for other actors of his day, there is no such data for Shaksper. The Folio of 1623, in part edited by Jonson, lists “Shakespeare” as an actor in his own plays. But the alleged links between the Folio Shakespeare and Shaksper of Stratford, are thin and frayed to the breaking point.
- There is court testimony from 1615 (the Ostler suit) which includes the statement that the Shakespeare associated with the Globe Theater was dead, and could not testify. Shaksper of Stratford was still alive in 1615.
- It remains unknown where and how Shaksper got the money to buy his large house in Stratford. He certainly did not earn it through the standard small payments one might earn through the theater or publishing.
- There is no known link between Shaksper and any of the known writers of his day, except perhaps Ben Jonson who tells both sides of the story, by praising Shakes-speare (in the Folio) while slamming Shaksper, as “Sogliardo”, the country bumpkin who tries to buy a coat of arms, in Every Man Out of His Humor.
- Edward Alleyn, a famous Elizabethan actor and theater owner, noted in his diaries the names of all the actors and hired dramatists of his time, and the names of all persons who received money in connection with the production of plays at the Fortune, Blackfriars, and other theaters. Alleyn never even once mentions Shaksper.
- Henslowe’s theatrical diary never mentions Shaksper or Shakespeare, even though he names all of the other famous writers who worked for him at one time including Chapman, Day, Dekker, Drayton, Heywood, Jonson, Marston, Middleton, Munday, Webster and others. He does mention the names of some of the Plays we call Shakespeare’s, but they are left anonymous. The conclusion is that Henslowe never paid a penny to anyone named Shaksper or Shakespeare, and that the source of the Shakespeare plays was rather different than Henslowe’s standard stable of paid providers of entertainment.
- Shaksper allegedly lived in London for more than twenty years. But there are no remembrances of him or anecdotes of encounters with him by the contemporary writers and diarists of the time. How could Shakespeare, the person, be unknown to the intelligentsia of his era? Shakespeare the author seems to have known the most intimate details of the private lives of England’s aristocracy. If “Shake-speare” knew them, they must have known him; perhaps he was even one of them. Could the ruling class of London have known the Bard by another name?
- William Camden’s Britannia, 1610, contains several references to Stratford-on-Avon. But he makes no mention of Shakespeare or Shaksper. Camden certainly knew about the Shakespeare plays, and had praised “Shakespeare” the writer, but in no way connects them or their author with Stratford-on-Avon. Camden’s list of “Worthies” for Stratford in 1605 does not mention Shaksper, nor does his “Annals” for the year 1616 mention Shaksper’ death. William Camden, a prodigious historian and antiquary, who knew everything and everyone in England, and had even signed off on Shaksper’s application for a coat of arms, clearly didn’t think that Shaksper was notable, and certainly did not connect him in any way with the writer named Shakespeare.
- Michael Drayton’s Poly-Olbion, 1613, contains detailed maps and an epic poem of all the interesting places in England. His map of Warwickshire does not even include Stratford-on-Avon. Drayton, who hailed from Warwickshire himself, would have known and remembered Shaksper, if the man had been Drayton’s inspiration, Shakespeare.
- During the English Civil War, an Army surgeon named James Cooke, who found himself stationed at Stratford-on-Avon in 1642, sought out Shakspere’s daughter Susanna, who was at that time a widow and known as Mrs. Susanna Hall. He asked her to show him any manuscripts or books that might have belonged to her father. He noted with surprise and disappointment that she had no knowledge of any books or documents relating to William Shaksper or Shakespeare. The only written material was that of Dr. Hall. Susanna herself never learned to read or write. This hardly sounds like the daughter of the greatest reader and writer in history.
- The Globe Theater burned to the ground on June 28, 1613. In a published account of the disastrous fire, reference is made to Richard Burbage, Henry Condell and other Globe officials but nothing is said about Shaksper or Shakespeare.
- Dr. John Hall was a prominent physician who married Susanna Shaksper in 1607. He was thus “Shakespeare’s son-in-law”. Dr. Hall logged every volume in his library, but there was no mention of Shakespeare books, manuscripts or memorabilia. As Susanna and Dr. Hall were the residuary legatees and executives of the estate of William Shaksper, it is incredible that there was not a scrap of material related to the alleged literary career of her father. Dr. Hall kept a detailed log of patient histories, and anecdotes but he never mentions William Shakespeare. Hall does note that he treated Michael Drayton, the other notable poet of the era from Warwickshire. “Mr. Drayton, an excellent poet, I cured him of a certain fever with syrup of violets’.
The Authorship Investigation and Debate
Because of the peculiar facts stated above and more, critical doubt about the prevailing myth of the Shakespeare phenomenon has been raised over the past several centuries by some of the greatest minds in Literature, Philosophy, and Science:
Charles Dickens (1812-1870)
“It is a great comfort, to my way of thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.”
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
“Conceived out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism, personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) one of the wolfish earls so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendent and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works… I am firm against Shaksper. I mean the Avon man, the actor.”
Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens, 1835-1910)
“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 … Am I trying to convince anybody that Shaksper did not write Shakespeare’s Works? Ah now, what do you take me for ?
Henry James (1843-1916)
“I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
“I no longer believe that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford was the author of the works which have so long been attributed to him. Since the publication of … Shakespeare Identified, I am almost convinced that in fact Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford is concealed behind this pseudonym ”
Footnote, by Freud, in the 1930 edition of The Interpretation of Dreams
“We will have a lot to discuss about Shakespeare. I do not know what still attracts you to the man of Stratford. He seems to have nothing at all to justify his claim, whereas Oxford has almost everything. It is quite inconceivable to me that Shakespeare should have got everything secondhand: Hamlet’s neurosis, Lear’s madness, Macbeth’s defiance and the character of Lady Macbeth, Othello’s jealousy etc. It almost irritates me that you should support the notion ”
The Search for the hidden Author
The earliest speculation about a hidden hand behind the Shakespeare plays was in 1785, when the Reverend James Wilmot, D.D. attributed the authorship to Sir Francis Bacon. In 1848, an American consulate named Joseph C. Hart speculated in his book, The Romance of Yachting, that the Stratford man could not have written the plays. Hart proposed Ben Jonson as the author.
The issue became popular knowledge in 1857 with the appearance of The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, by Delia Bacon. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote the preface, and helped with both the publication and promotion. This can be considered to be the first Anti-Stratfordian book. Although this work is ponderous, pretentious, and thin on facts, the author launched a whole genre of thought and criticism with her idea that the Shakespeare plays were a vehicle for a new philosophy, that looked beyond religious minutiae, and was based on a higher love and reason. Because of her name, (though she was not related to Francis Bacon), people have assumed that Delia Bacon was the first Baconian. She was not. Delia believed in a group theory of authorship, though she offered that Francis Bacon supplied the philosophy that infuses the plays. In her book, she named Sir Walter Raleigh as the mastermind who created the Shakespeare Plays, using the talents of a circle of men. In Delia’s view this is how it went with Raleigh and Company:
“He became at once the centre of that little circle of high born wits and poets, the elder wits and poets of the Elizabethan age, that were then in their meridian there. Sir Philip Sidney, Thomas Lord Buckhurst, Henry Lord Paget, Edward Earl of Oxford,
and some other, are included in the contemporary list of this courtly company,
whose doings are somewhat mysteriously adverted to by a critic,
who refers to the condition of the Art of Poesy at that time .”
Though most of Delia Bacon’s “insights” were misguided, she did open the field to investigation, and she did name the man (Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford) who has emerged, 140 plus years after her lucky guess, as the strongest candidate for the Authorship of the Shakespeare Canon. Problems with the Bacon Theory After Delia Bacon’s book, the floodgates of speculation opened and a torrent of research and nonsense was focused on the Shakespeare problem. A cult soon developed around a legend of a near-superhuman Francis Bacon, who was allegedly the brain behind everything renaissance and revolutionary in the 16th and 17th centuries. The reach was too far, the methodology was laughable faux-cryptography, and the result was universal ridicule. In knocking down the case for Bacon, the biggest culprit is Francis himself. Bacon’s voluminous other writings show none of the poetry, playfulness, or street level vulgarity associated with Shakespeare. Matching passages of aphorisms and the like are easily explained by the fact that Bacon was reading Shakespeare, and that sometimes both authors had read and made use of the same sources. The many references to the “Boar” symbol in Shakespeare were latched onto by Baconians as referring to Bacon. In this instance they are close to the truth. They are right that the boar is symbolic of a person, but it is the Blue Boar, the badge of the Earls of Oxford.
In the World War I era, research into the authorship problem took a different turn. Robert Fraser’s The Silent Shakespeare, 1915, offered William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby as the W.S. behind the Shakespeare name. In 1919 Abel Lefranc published Sous le Masque de “William Shakespeare”. LeFranc also zeroed in on William Stanley, who was the son-in-law of the 17th Earl of Oxford. The watershed year in this field was 1920, when John Thomas Looney, a British schoolteacher proposed the theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, a Courtier to Queen Elizabeth I, was the author of the Shakespeare plays and poems. He outlined his hypothesis and discoveries in his book, “Shakespeare” Identified. This book had a wide reaching impact among intellectuals. It was reviewed favorably in the London press by John Galsworthy. Both Sigmund Freud and James Joyce read “Shakespeare” Identified and wrote about their impressions. Freud actually revised his interpretation of Hamlet in the light of his new understanding.
The “Status Quo” opinion seems to be that “Shakespeare is just fine the way he is.” This is essentially the Stratfordian Paradigm. Shakespeare is seen as a miraculous freak of nature: a self educated country merchant who somehow learned the theater inside and out and wrote the plays for money, and nothing more. Within the Stratfordian position there are a thousand mythical biographies of Shakespeare, based on each modern author’s deconstruction of the plays and poems, with the few flimsy facts about Shaksper thrown in for color.
The next paradigm or world-view is based on the variation: “Shakespeare had a little secret.” This we may term the Radical Stratfordian position. Within this umbrella are theories based on the idea that Shaksper-of-Stratford was indeed the author, but he had a secret life that shamed him, or was dangerous, and has thus never been verified. The most popular is the “Shakespeare was Gay” theory. Runners up are: “Shakespeare was a secret Catholic”, “Shakespeare was a Spy”, or “Shakespeare was a member of a Secret Society”. Venturing into un-orthodoxy completely we encounter the idea that “Shakespeare was really somebody else, but who knows who?” This is the classic Anti-Stratfordian paradigm. The 33 arguments against Shaksper’s authorship of Shakespeare that I listed above have all been fleshed out into full explanations in countless books published in the last 100 years. There are many Anti-Stratfordians, and a good number of them are content to have the whole thing be a fine mystery, without yearning for a definitive answer.
The final stage is called Heresy or Truth, depending on your opinion. It is when one begins to make the claim, that “Shakespeare was __________ ” (fill in the blank). If you fill in the blank with Francis Bacon, you are a termed a Baconian; if you complete the equation with the Earl of Oxford, you are an Oxfordian.