Is This the Bard We See Before Us? Or Someone Else?

By Roger Stritmatter
Sunday, March 18, 2007

"Who's there?" That's not just the opening line of "Hamlet." When it comes to Shakespeare, that, as the melancholy Dane would say, is the question. Who's there, really, behind all those extraordinary plays and brilliant characters?

It's the authorship question, and half a millennium after the Bard wrote his works, it won't go away. But don't expect any discussion of it during Washington's Shakespeare Festival. It's missing amid all the celebrations -- just as it's always missing from official considerations of Shakespeare.

The authorship question is the elephant in the living room of modern Shakespearean criticism. According to today's Shakespeare scholars, the greatest poet of the English language was a possibly Catholic businessman and sometime actor from Stratford-upon-Avon who did well by writing. Unlike every other writer in history, he didn't put himself or his experience into his work. If he had a motive for writing, it was to earn six pounds per play. Or perhaps, after his son Hamnet died at 11, he memorialized him in "Hamlet."

These are the views promoted in a seemingly endless procession of books that roll off the presses every year -- all grounded in little tangible fact. Mark Twain quipped that every relevant fact known about the Stratford author would fit on a postcard, and another century of literary biography hasn't changed that. Shakespearean professionals begin by noting that there is a Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford and go on from there to imagine almost everything else. They have to. They have a monument without a man.

Outside the university, though, populist resistance to the author from Stratford has persisted for two centuries. Skeptics have been divided on their support for one candidate or another -- Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I or Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford -- but we all believe that the real author was forced to conceal his identity and allow his works to be published under another man's name.

We are not just unrepentant conspiracy theorists who lie awake at night concocting unverifiable historical scenarios and contriving pseudoscientific cryptograms while ignoring the undeniable facts of Shakespeare's career. We're struck by the fact that all the speculation the biographers engage in to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare reveals a man who contradicted the literary thumbprint of his creation in every way. Their author was a huge commercial success -- but "Hamlet" satirically inveighs against buyers and sellers of land. Their author never left England -- but 16 of the plays are set in Italy or the Mediterranean. There is no evidence that their author owned any books -- but the man who wrote Shakespeare clearly devoured all the most important books of his generation.

"Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute [Shakespeare's] giant Biography?" Twain wrote in 1909. "It would strain the unabridged Dictionary to hold them." In 1984, Richmond Crinkley, the late director of educational programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, acknowledged that "doubts about Shakespeare arose early. They have a simple and direct plausibility." Henry James was blunt: "I am 'sort of' haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world."

The list of skeptics reads like a Who's Who of the English-speaking world: Washington Irving, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helen Keller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Malcolm X, Leslie Howard, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and many more. And the ranks keep growing.

But modern Shakespearean studies are founded on the undeviating principle that rational authorities -- i.e. "Shakespeareans" -- do not discuss the authorship question. Beyond this, we seem to be deeply invested in a view of the Bard as a creator in our own image. Born to a comfortable middle-class existence, he evades the stark class realities of Elizabethan society and conquers the literary world through Will-power, re-creating the lives of kings, queens and courtiers simply by deploying his superabundant imagination.

The beguiling notion that our author could write "King Lear" without ever suffering the ostracism of Kent, the madness of a hunted Edgar, the dilemma of Cordelia or the alienation of Lear allows us to reduce the play to mere entertainment, without ever contemplating its ring of terrible authenticity. A papier-mache author who accomplishes everything through sheer genius fortifies the American myth that anything is possible if you just click your heels three times and wish hard enough.

But if a real conversation about the "A" word could take place in America's classrooms, it would be eye-opening.

First, one of the best-kept secrets of English 101 is that concealed authorship was a common practice historically, especially in 15th- to 17th-century Europe, a period known to scholars as the golden age of authorship ruses. Such colorful propagandists -- some still poorly identified -- as "Martin Marprelate," "Pasquil Cavaliero of England" and "Cuthbert Curry-Knave" punctuated the Elizabethan literary scene. At the least, this makes it plausible that even "Shakespeare" could have been a name contrived to conceal another man.

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