Wiliam Shakespeare: the poet, the actor, the playwright; possibly the greatest writer in the history of the English language. Once during a lecture about language and communication, a professor at the Erasmus University talked about the many different ways Shakespeare’s name has been spelled, even by the man himself. From Shackspeare to Shaksper, consistency has been far off when it came to his name (mainly due to a lack of official spelling rules in the time). His name is only one of the many interesting facts that surround the figure of the man “William Shakespeare”.
While reading the incredibly witty and interesting book “Shakespeare for grown-ups: Everything you need to know about the bard”, I came across the chapter “Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?”. Apparantly, there is and has been a group of people that do not believe Shakespeare was the person that wrote all the famous plays, that he existed at all or some even think that his name was a pseudonym of Queen Elizabeth I. I personally never heard of these theories and just had to share them with you. Doesn’t everyone love a mystery?
Anti-Stratfordians versus Pro-Stratfordians
Basically, there are two types of people. Anti-Stratfordians can’t believe that Shakespeare could have been an ordinary man, and link his name to secrets and codes. Pro-Stratfordians consider Shakespeare as a historical figure, born in Stratford-upon-Avon and a mastermind when it came to the English language.
Foley and Coates, the authors of “Shakespeare for grown-ups”, elaborate on the most popular Anti-Stratfordian theories. First of all, the two most popular reasons why Shakespeare “couldn’t have been the man history makes him out to be”:
- Too poorly educated
In this theory, Anti-Stratfordians indicate that Shakespeare wasn’t educated enough to write such educated and cultured works. He hardly had any experience in travel and wasn’t a noble – he could therefore never have written about these topics with such accuracy.
- He was greedy
Most of the documents that have survived about Shakespeare are about business and money. The Anti-Stratfordians reason that Shakespeare must have only been interested in money, leaving no evidence that his main occupation was being a writer.
- He never even existed
Some are convinced that someone used Shakespeare’s name as a pseudonym.
One might wonder, when following these arguments, who actually wrote the pieces that are now inextricably linked to William Shakespeare. There are several people that are believed to have been the “real Shakespeare”:
- Francis Bacon (Baconian Theory): The adviser of Queen Elizabeth I and a philosopher and scientist. His published philosophy matches that of Shakespeare’s plays.
- Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (Oxfordian Theory): He was an adventurous courtier and a poet, and supposedly wrote Shakespeare’s plays based on his own life.
- Queen Elizabeth I (Elizabethan Theory): She was well educated, had relevant experience and supposedly wrote the plays as a way to support the Tudor rule.
Counter-arguments by the Pro-Stratfordians
Naturally I wouldn’t finish this article without providing you with the counter-arguments of the Pro-Stratfordians, so in the end you can make up your own mind. As far as the first two arguments go:
“Too poorly educated“: The ordinary grammar-school education and his “evident wide reading” (as Foley and Coates state) would have provided him with enough learning to produce every work that is linked back to him. He also had a marvellous imagination, and as he lived in London he would have had access to many travellers books from far abroad. He did visit the court regularly as part of his work for the theatre.
“He was greedy”: Indeed, most of the documents left about Shakespeare are about business but that doesn’t make him a money-obsessed vulture. Surely man can’t live on art alone; investments were important in 17th century life. Moreover, his will does prove to have left various amounts of money to colleagues in his theatre company.
As for the various “Shakespeares”:
– Baconian Theory: there is no evidence Bacon was a great poet; he was mostly occupied with writing many philosophical and scientific works under his name. Computer analysis of verbal habits showed very little similarities between Shakespeare’s and Bacon’s writing. As discussed before, the plays did not require so much intellectual abilities as Bacon had in order to be written.
– Oxfordian Theory: the date of Edward de Vere’s death (1604) doesn’t match with Shakespeare’s work: twelve (!) plays had their first performance after 1604. The argument of the Anti-Stratfordians that the lack of evidence linking Oxford with the plays is related to the conspiracy to cover it up, is regarded by the Pro-Stratfordians as merely the absence of a link at all.
– Elizabethan Theory: as stated by Foley and Coates: “are you kidding? Don’t you think she had enough to do?” Plays were generally patron-sponsored and censored, and therefore automatically pro-regime. Moreover; Elizabeth’s date of death doesn’t match up with the plays produced thereafter.
So, the question now remains: what do you believe? Are you a Pro- or Anti-Stratfordian?
Source: this post was based on the book “Shakespeare for grown-ups” by Foley and Coates. I highly recommend you to read it if you found this an interesting story – there’s a lot more to England’s favourite author..