There's No Doubt It's Will

By Stanley Wells
Sunday, March 18, 2007

The nonsense started around 1785. That was the year a Warwickshire clergyman fantasized that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the works everyone had until then supposed he had written. In doing so, he laid the foundations of the so-called authorship question, which has grown into an immense monument to human folly.

Shakespeare by then had been dead for 159 years, and was acclaimed as the author of 37 plays, two long narrative poems, 154 sonnets and a handful of other poems. No one up to then had doubted that he wrote them; nor was there any reason to. There were numerous printed references in his lifetime and soon afterward to William Shakespeare as the author of the poems and plays acted and published as his. Most of the references were in books or manuscripts by writers whose names are known nowadays only to scholars, but it doesn't make them any less believable.

For instance, in 1598, when Shakespeare was 34, a poet named Richard Barnfield, who wrote charming gay love poems, published lines called "A Remembrance of Some English Poets." In them he named Shakespeare, praised his "honey-flowing vein," and said that his long poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece," had established his name "in fame's immortal book." The men may have been friends.

That same year, a clergyman named Francis Meres published a book in which he not only praises Shakespeare by name several times, but lists the titles of a dozen of his plays. Then, around 1600, a character in a play by an unknown writer boasts how he woos his girlfriend in speeches full of quotations from "Venus and Adonis" and "Romeo and Juliet," and says he admires "sweet Master Shakespeare" so much that he will have his portrait hung on his study wall. So Shakespeare becomes the first literary pinup.

About the same time, too, a scholar named Gabriel Harvey scribbled in the margin of one of his books a note that young people took "much delight in Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, but his Lucrece, and his tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark, have it in them to please the wiser sort." In accounts from 1604 and 1605 kept by the office of revels, which supervised court entertainment, Shakespeare's name is listed as author of several plays performed before the royal family. That's only a selection from the many references to Shakespeare as writer in his lifetime.

There are also lotsin the years soon after he died. In 1618, for instance, his friend and rival playwright Ben Jonson went on a walking tour of Scotland, perhaps in the hope of losing weight (he turned the scales at 280 pounds). He spent a couple of weeks as the guest of fellow poet William Drummond, and they gossiped late into the night, no doubt sustained and stimulated by much good Scotch whisky. Jonson made indiscreet remarks about many of his fellow writers, and after he had left, Drummond jotted down notes about what his famous visitor had said. They included sharp criticism of Shakespeare -- that he "wanted art," and that in his play "The Winter's Tale" he had "brought in a number of men saying they had suffered shipwreck in Bohemia, where there is no sea by some hundred miles." Jonson said elsewhere that he "loved the man, and did honour his name this side [of] idolatry," but he was not above finding fault with what he wrote.

Then there are Shakespeare's own published works. His full name appears on the dedications of the two long poems, in 1593 and 1594, and on their title pages. It is printed on the title pages of many of his plays from 1598 onward, on reprints of the poems (which were very popular), and on the first edition of the Sonnets, in 1609. In that book, another poem, "A Lover's Complaint," is also printed with a separate statement that William Shakespeare wrote it. And seven years after he died, his collected plays were printed in the great book called "Mr William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies," now usually referred to as the First Folio. It includes an engraved portrait of the author.

So there are many references to William Shakespeare in his lifetime and soon afterward as the man who penned the plays and poems, and there is nothing to suggest that he did not write them. People who question his authorship often say, "Ah, yes, but there's nothing to prove that he was the William Shakespeare of Stratford," and then go on to invent conspiracy theories that somehow Shakespeare (if they admit that he existed) was the pen name of writers who were so modest that they not only concealed the fact that they had written the greatest plays ever, but also were so generous as to allow an obscure actor to take all the credit.

There is evidence that the author was the man of Stratford. The Folio includes verses by Jonson speaking of Shakespeare as "the sweet Swan of Avon" -- the river that flows through Stratford -- and a poem by another writer that speaks of Shakespeare's "Stratford monument." And if you go to the church there now, you can see that monument and the verses inscribed on it, in English and Latin, comparing the man of Stratford to great figures of antiquity, and praising "what he hath writ." As early as 1634, Stratford had its first known Shakespeare pilgrim, a chap called Lieutenant Hammond, who noted that he had seen "the neat monument of that famous English poet Mr William Shakespeare."

No questions were raised until the late 18th century, when James Wilmot set the ball rolling. He was a literary scholar and clergyman who became vicar of a village called Barton-on-the-Heath, which, as it happens, is mentioned in Shakespeare's comedy "The Taming of the Shrew."

Looking for biographical information about Shakespeare, Wilmot wasn't satisfied with what he found, and came up with the idea -- which he confided to a friend and to paper, but did not himself publish -- that Shakespeare was an impostor. More probably, he thought, the true author of the works was Francis Bacon, Lord Verulam, a statesman, philosopher and courtier who was born three years before Shakespeare and died 10 years after him. Bacon was himself the author of a considerable body of published writings, including the famous "Essays," written in English, and learned works in Latin, designed to appeal to the European intellectual community at large, all of a very different cast from the works of Shakespeare.

Wisely, perhaps, Wilmot instructed that his papers be burned when he died, but the friend in whom he had confided eventually made his theory public. The idea that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare lay dormant for more than half a century, but it resurfaced in 1848 in a book by an American lawyer, Col. Joseph C. Hart, called, improbably, "The Romance of Yachting." Hart, who thought that Shakespeare had a "vulgar and impure mind," surmised that he had added all the dirty bits to plays by unknown authors.

The heresy grew in force in the following years, and since then at least 60 candidates, including Queen Elizabeth I, have been proposed as the "real" Shakespeare. In recent times the most popular have been Bacon, playwright Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, but the list increases year by year and has been extended recently with Sir Henry Neville and Lady Mary Sidney. It often seems as though the anti-Stratfordians don't really care who wrote the plays so long as he was a well-educated and well traveled man (or, rarely, woman), preferably of aristocratic birth.

The most common arguments that Shakespeare of Stratford could not have written the works are that he is not known to have traveled overseas, that he was of relatively humble origins and that he came from a small provincial town where he could not have received a good enough education to have written the plays. The facts are that the works show no knowledge of countries that could not have been obtained from books or from conversation, that you don't have to be an aristocrat to be a great writer -- Jonson was the son of a bricklayer, Marlowe's father was a cobbler -- and that Stratford had a good grammar school whose pupils received a far more rigorous education in the classics than most university graduates today.

In any case, before you start saying that Shakespeare could not have written the plays and poems that for the first 150 years or so of their existence everyone knew to be his, you have to disprove the evidence that he did. It's no use saying that "he couldn't have known enough" or "he didn't travel enough" or "he wasn't aristocratic enough" in face of the overwhelming evidence from his own time that a man named William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems for which he is famous.

Stanley Wells is chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. His book "Shakespeare & Co." will be published by Pantheon in April.

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