In my previous post I entered the ongoing discussion popularly known as the “Shakespeare Authorship Debate.” Several scholarly observations call into question whether or not the man known as William Shakespeare actually wrote all that is attributed to him. Was he an unlikely, uncanny genius of language and art … or a “frontman”, standing in as playwright for someone else who wished to create drama onstage while avoiding it in real life?
Presented here are a couple of related arguments that it is highly unlikely Shakespeare wrote those plays and sonnets. Because there is no smoking gun, all evidence in the debate is considered circumstantial (especially by those who think Shakespeare was the author). After each broad-stroke argument, I’ll offer my thoughts: merits, strengths, weaknesses, etc.
The first topic is Shakespeare’s education. It can be assumed that he attended grammar school in his hometown of Stratford at Avon, but apparently there are no class records for the years during which he would have been there. It is widely accepted, however, that his formal schooling went no further. Neither Cambridge nor Oxford University has any record of his attendance. (And unlike the grammar school, they most certainly do have complete records.) If this is the case, how could Shakespeare have so much knowledge about so many different disciplines. English language mastery aside, his writings include more than a grammar-school grasp of history (English, Roman, Greek and European), politics, art, music, military organization and terminology, and aristocratic hobbies such as falconry, sword duels and archery.
There are countless examples in the Works. (Not true – I’m sure someone has counted them. Just not me. ) But I’ll give you one that is indicative of many in its reasoning. The argument goes like this: what many consider Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, is strongly influenced by Spanish and Italian stories not translated to English until around 4 years after the publication of Verona. Either Shakespeare got an “advanced copy” (note: no such thing existed back then) or read the originals in a language he couldn’t possibly have learned as a commoner with so little education. (The source material stories were translated/published in French before English.)
But what about oral tradition? And by that I don’t mean a minstrel strolling through town. I’m taking about the OSN (Original Social Network). In this case, theater folk who knew someone who knew someone who heard about an Italian story. Is it so far-fetched that Shakespeare was a keen listener and knew how to draw stories out of others? That he may have made connections with those more worldly than he and listened while they told tales (in English!) about characters and dramas they had seen, read or heard about from others?
Look at it this way: I could give you the Hollywood pitch for Field of Dreams in about two minutes. Never having seen the movie or read the script, you could write a story that future scholars would say was inspired by Field of Dreams. Depending on how closely you mirrored my pitch, they would call that film your source material. Done. Did that happen in Shakespeare’s case? I have no idea. Is it so outrageous a possibility that it doesn’t warrant mention in the debate? I don’t think so. But here’s the rub. (Get it?) It’s easier to buy into the oral tradition argument with regards to a single play. But virtually everything Shakespeare ever wrote? Not so easy.
But wait, it gets worse. It’s not just academic knowledge that he would have had to acquire at the pub over pints of ale. (Sorry, that was me trying to relay the fact that such chats would have taken place in Great Britain.) It’s aristocracy in general. Shakespeare was a commoner, son of an illiterate glover, and yet so many of his most highly regarded dramas center around a royal court and the highest of upper class. Common folk and servants are uniformly presented as insignificant buffoons. It is beyond odd that Shakespeare would not once create a story or setting that was based on his own life experience in any way. So much for “write what you know.” And his in-depth knowledge of unfamiliar characters and their settings is hard to justify. It’s not as if Shakespeare could have faked his knowledge and worldliness via wikipedia . . .
. . . like I do.
In Part 3, I’ll identify some highly coincidental parallels that connect Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, to the Works attributed to Shakespeare.