Did William Shakespeare write Hamlet, Macbeth and Twelfth Night – or is that the most famous nom de plume in history? With Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous making the case for Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the question of the authorship of these enduring plays is once again in the spotlight.
In this debate, Globe and Mail writer Michael Posner makes the case for the skeptics, theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck rails against the Shakespeare deniers – and Stratford Shakespeare Festival general director Antoni Cimolino argues that a rose by any other name would write as sweetly.
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Posner: The 'most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world'
"All great truths begin as blasphemies" – George Bernard Shaw
It is, of course, the literary mystery of all time: Who wrote the 37 transcendent histories, comedies and tragedies, and the 154 sonnets commonly attributed to William Shakespeare, son of an illiterate glove-maker from Stratford-upon-Avon? The evidence in his favour is anorexic, while the problems that beset his alleged authorship are profound.
The certifiable facts of Shakespeare's life – thought to be the original spelling of the family name – could be stencilled on a small sack of flour. That, it happens, is precisely the image depicted on the monument that first overlooked his grave; the iconic pen and quill were added 130 years later.
To his mourners, the "soul of the age," as Ben Jonson called him, was neither playwright nor actor. He was a prosperous grain merchant. His death entry in the parish register recorded him simply as "Gent."
While he lived, not one painter committed his likeness to canvas. More tellingly, when he died, no one thought to draft a single eulogy or to issue a commemorative edition of his work.
For every other Elizabethan writer, we have written evidence in their own hand. For Shakespeare, we have exactly nothing – not a play, not a sonnet, not a note scribbled on a taproom napkin. And nothing, as we know, can come of nothing.
The plays reveal an author who read exhaustively in several languages – Latin, Greek, French, Italian, even Hebrew. Yet Shakespeare bequeathed no library, not one book that bears his signature, nor (despite two decades of travel between Stratford and London) any correspondence. Not a single letter.
Indeed, of the 70 extant documents linked indisputably to the so-called Bard, not one connects him to the world of the theatre. What they describe, instead, is a mercenary landlord who relished suing men for petty sums. This from the dramatist who ostensibly wrote: "What a piece of work is man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties."
Many of Shakespeare's female characters – Rosalind, Viola, Beatrice, Katherine, Lady Macbeth and Portia – are strong, free-thinking, proto-feminists. Why, then, was he content to let his own daughters be raised as functional illiterates?
It is not simply a matter of the impoverished education (though it is hard to reconcile the plays' scholarship with the six grades young Will is thought to have completed). It is that nothing in Shakespeare's life as we know it accords with the encyclopedic scope of the plays – the displayed mastery of law, science, math, heraldry, astronomy, the court, the military, music and falconry.
I therefore vote with Henry James, who feared that "the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world."
Patient, we remain, alas, and still credulous.
Michael Posner is a Globe and Mail reporter
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Nestruck: An ardent defender of the Bard – and rational thought
One evening during my first year at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival as The Globe and Mail's theatre critic, I shared a bottle of wine with an actor in the company, and eventually the conversation fell – plummeted really – into the so-called authorship controversy.
My drinking companion professed that Shakespeare did not write the plays attributed to Shakespeare, to which I sarcastically replied, "Oh, yes, I agree. And the Twin Towers went down by controlled demolition, too!"
Disconcertingly, this very talented actor's response was, "I know!" He then went over to my laptop and pulled me down a rabbit hole of "9/11 Truth" videos on YouTube. This was the moment I made the leap from ambivalence about the authorship of William Shakespeare's plays to ardent defender of the Bard of Avon.
It has become clear to me that contemporary Shakespeare denial is part and parcel of a dangerous, anti-rational mode of thinking that is on the rise in our society. Such thinking is a gateway drug for Truthers, Birthers (who deny that Barack Obama was born on U.S. soil) and believing in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
Those of us who are in the rational majority – for there is no sensible reason to suspect anyone other than a guy named Shakespeare wrote his plays – must stop politely shrugging when faced with half-baked conspiracy theories. When someone brings up noted denier Mark Twain, we must reply, "Yes, but he also thought Elizabeth I was a man." All celebrity testimony must be ruled out of order. Trained historians and literary scholars overwhelmingly reject alternative-authorship theories.
The very idea of expertise, alas, is under attack at the moment. There are those in positions of power who are manipulating anti-elitist sentiment for their own political purposes. It's hard not to look at the kooky candidates running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency and not feel a bit queasy. Ditto our own Conservative government's scrapping of the long-form census, in the face of opposition by pretty much every genuine researcher in the country.
To quote a satirist even greater than Twain, "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into." That's Jonathan Swift – and he's 100-per-cent right. And so, we must insult and belittle the Shakespeare deniers until they get embarrassed and shut the hell up.
J. Kelly Nestruck is The Globe and Mail's theatre critic.
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Cimolino: Does who wrote them matter?
Does it matter if "Shakespeare's plays" were really written by Shakespeare or by some other dead white guy? Or an Italian Jewess? Or any of the scores of other candidates who have been proposed over the years?
Those plays have captured our imaginations and our hearts, yet we know tantalizingly little about their author. And while we know even less about many other playwrights of the era, Shakespeare's sheer stature makes him a tempting target for speculation.
Roland Emmerich's movie Anonymous promotes the theory that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the real "Shakespeare." There is in fact no evidence to connect Oxford with the plays, and no reason to suppose that anyone other than Shakespeare wrote them. To which Oxfordians retort, "Of course not: Oxford deliberately hid his authorship!"
Never mind the Elizabethan publishers who put Shakespeare's name on the plays, or the other playwrights who collaborated with him, or Ben Jonson's encomium to the "sweet swan of Avon." And never mind Oxford's death in 1604, with a dozen or so Shakespeare plays still to come. You can't argue with conspiracy theorists.
Oxford's authorship was originally proposed in 1920 by J. Thomas Looney. (As they say, you can't make this stuff up.) Looney's objection to Shakespeare was rooted in the upper-class attitudes he read into the plays: How could they have been written by a mere glover's son who didn't attend university? Looney's vision of the work demanded an aristocratic author, and Oxford was the candidate he came up with.
But the converse is also true: Our vision of the author must, however subtly, affect our attitude to his work. To declare these plays necessarily of the elite inevitably implies that they must be for the elite – and that's why I find Looney's notion so pernicious.
Personally, I like it that Shakespeare's life is a mystery; mystery lies at the heart of his plays. And I'm not unwilling to entertain conjecture: I'd be delighted if the author of As You Like It and Twelfth Night turned out to be a woman in disguise. But the inherent snobbery of the Oxfordian thesis is an insult to the only Shakespeare we can be sure of, the only Shakespeare who really matters: the Shakespeare who dominated the popular-entertainment industry of his time and who has continued making millions of theatregoers laugh and cry for the past 400 years.
Antoni Cimolino is general director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.