What makes William Shakespeare’s legacy particularly impressive is the fact that we know so little about his life. His enduring fame derives entirely from his work, rather than salacious biographical titbits. In fact, for such a famous historic figure, we know remarkably little about his life. But perhaps this absence of biographical detail provokes a different sort of fascination.
Mysterious figures from history often become the subjects of speculation and there’s certainly no shortage of conjecture and debate about the life and career of the ‘Bard’. Indeed, one of the most persistent claims about Shakespeare is that he didn’t even write the works attributed to his name. For such a seemingly radical notion, the case against Shakespeare’s authorship has been made repeatedly over the years by a variety of prominent names including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller and Charlie Chaplin.
Ultimately, most Shakespearean scholars are convinced that there’s no reason to doubt the conventionally accepted facts of his life, including the fact that he was the true author of the works attributed to his name. Indeed, it’s possible to detect a hint of snobbery in the central belief that underpins most of these theories – that a provincial man of modest social standing couldn’t possibly be responsible for the greatest body of work in the history of the English language.
The case against Shakespeare’s authorship
Numerous theories have been put forward over the years, but they typically centre on a few key doubts. Firstly, anti-Stratfordians, as sceptics of Shakespeare’s authorial authenticity are sometimes called, tend to question the likelihood that anyone of his social standing would have been capable of writing such an intellectually wide-ranging collection of works. Could a man of common birth in the 16th century really have learned the languages, grammar, vocabulary, history and pollical theory that can be found in the Shakespearean canon?
As with most anti-Stratfordian theories, this position is largely built on an absence of evidence rather than any concrete proof. There are no records of Shakespeare’s education but it is sometimes related that he was removed from school (assumed to be Stratford’s grammar school) at the age of 13 or 14 due to his father’s financial and social difficulties. While he could feasibly have acquired advanced language skills at school, the range of learning on display in his plays must surely be the product of a higher education. At least that’s the anti-Stratfordian contention.
The few surviving examples of Shakespeare’s signature, which have been described as ‘illiterate scrawls’, are sometimes used to bolster the anti-Stratfordian case. Beyond their reputed inelegance, Shakespeare’s signatures don’t spell his name as it appears on most of his play’s title pages. Such inconsistencies are often presented as evidence that William Shakespeare is in fact a pseudonym. In particular, the use of a hyphen – ‘Shake-speare’ or ‘Shak-spear’ – is notable in 15 title pages. This was a device used to denote a pseudonym at the time.
The Oxfordian theory
The Oxfordian theory proposes that Edward de Vere was the true author of the works that bear Shakespeare’s name. While de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is certainly a compelling literary candidate, the small matter of his death in 1604 – before more than a dozen Shakespeare works were published – would seem to complicate such claims.
Edward de Vere’s background is certainly closer to the learned archetype that anti-Stratfordians tend to envisage for a plausible writer of the Shakespearean canon. He was well-educated, having studied at Cambridge University, and a nobleman, which would have given him access to the royal court and all the latest news and gossip from around Europe, which often found its way into Shakespeare’s plays. He was also a patron of the arts with a strong interest in theatre and is known to have written poetry. Some of his work even bears similarities to Shakespeare’s plays.
Advocates of the Oxfordian theory might also contend that de Vere had a clear motive for hiding his authorship: at the time, it was not considered proper for someone of his social status to write plays for the public stage. Of course, the theory also requires a comprehensive reworking of the accepted Shakespearean chronology to accommodate the inconvenient fact of de Vere’s 1604 death.
Over the years, numerous candidates have been proposed as the true author of Shakespeare’s works. One of the earliest nominees was Sir Francis Bacon. Indeed, the so-called Baconian theory dates back to the mid-19th century. A lawyer, philosopher, essayist and scientist, Bacon was one of the most venerated intellectual figures in Jacobean England and a noted authority on ciphers and clues. Adherents to the Baconian theory claim that clues alluding to his authorship can be found throughout the Shakespearean canon.
The celebrated playwright, poet and translator Christopher Marlowe is another candidate. Unlike Edward de Vere and Sir Francis Bacon, Marlowe hailed from a relatively modest background but won a place at Cambridge and became a prominent writer whose literary innovations are often said to have influenced Shakespeare.
These supposed stylistic similarities are central to the Marlovian theory, which contends that Marlowe’s death on 30 May 1593 was faked, allowing him to escape trial and likely execution on charges of subversive atheism. The theory proposes that Marlowe then continued to write using the assumed identity of William Shakespeare. Venus and Adonis, the first work attributed to Shakespeare, went on sale two weeks after Marlowe’s reported death.