Shakespeare is Shakespeare (revised)

by Jonathan Hobratsch

The following blog was originally published by the Huffington Post on 11/3/2011.  I have decided to update it for HistoryMonocle to include other counter-arguments to the ridiculous Oxfordian theory. The additions will be amended at the end, starting with #11. The original blog led to an hour-long radio interview for me with WPR  and to brief email correspondences with Shakespeare scholars James Shapiro, Harold Bloom and Stanley Wells. Dr. Wells was kind enough to catch an error of mine in the original, which was then fixed. 

Here is the blog updated for you:

I write this blog on the heels of the new “Shakespeare” movie Anonymous, a historically inaccurate film containing at least five conspiracy theories. The protagonist is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, praised by literary “birthers” as the true author of Shakespeare’s work. The Oxfordian theory has continued to be a popular theory, however easily dismissed.

In an effort to do my academic duty to save young minds from going astray, I present to you ten (plus 2 later additions) of the most obvious reasons that William Shakespeare is the author of the works of William Shakespeare.

1. Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford was dead in 1604.

Thirteen of Shakespeare’s plays date from 1604 until 1613, nine years after Oxford’s burial in an unmarked grave. Measure for Measure, Othello, King Lear,Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, the Tempest and Coriolanus are included among the thirteen.

2. The plays fit a post-1604 chronology.

Popular aesthetic tastes can change over time. The miracle plays, revenge tragedies and English history plays, popular to the Elizabethan theatre, eventually gave way to new urban comedies, tragicomedies, and masques of the Jacobean theatre. Additionally, Elizabeth’s Scottish successor inspired British themed plays, whereas under Elizabeth, English history plays would do.

Just as the music of the Beatles changed in the course of their career, following popular tastes and their own personal development, thus Shakespeare evolved to fit his time and his artistic ambitions as well. In short, these post-Oxford plays were written and staged when they would have been marketable for the theatre company.

3. Shakespeare could have written great plays without a college education.

Many anti-Stratfordians point to Shakespeare’s mere grammar school education as a reason to disqualify him as the author of his own plays. Many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson, arguably the more celebrated playwright during the era, did not receive a college education either. In fact, Jonson, a leading classical scholar of his age, became the first poet laureate.

Jonson was the son of a bricklayer and started out in that trade. Shakespeare came from a similar humble beginning. Both men went to local grammar schools as children and dominated the stage as adults.

4. The poems of the Earl of Oxford are buried under a sea of greater poets.

Oxford wrote plays, but no one cared to saved them. However, sixteen of Oxford’s poems remain. Oxford’s poems are nearly universally overshadowed by those of Shakespeare, Spenser, Marlowe, Sidney, Daniel, Ralegh (or Raleigh), Greville, Watson, Drayton, Davies, Barnes, Campion, Donne and others. In fact, I have rarely come upon an Elizabethan anthology with any poem by Oxford. As Harold Bloom states in his Best Poems of the English Language, Oxford’s “pale lyrics show that the great aristocrat could not write his way out of a paper bag.”

5. Francis Meres’ Palladis Tamia.

Meres wrote a discourse in 1598 comparing English poetry and plays to ancient Greek and Latin counterparts. Oxford and Shakespeare are among the many playwrights mentioned. As James Shapiro points out in Contested Will, this should be very convincing in separating their identities, as they are clearly distinguished from one another.

In the section, “best for comedy,” we have Oxford mentioned first, followed by many other authors, including Shakespeare. In “best for tragedy,” we have Shakespeare among the notables, but Oxford does not make the cut. In fact, Shakespeare is the only playwright singled out in both categories, while the rest seem to have their single area of competency. I surmise that the only reason Oxford tops the list on comedy is his noble rank. Perhaps, this might be the only reason Meres includes him at all.

6. Robert Greene dedicates a prose romance to Oxford and attacks Shakespeare in a pamphlet.

I have not seen any scholars bring this up, but I noticed this the other day. College-educated playwright Robert Greene dedicated his Gwydonius to the Earl of Oxford. However, Greene had no qualms in attacking Shakespeare in a deathbed pamphlet, berating Shakespeare as an upstart bumpkin reaching beyond his station.

This fits in well with what we know about Shakespeare. Clearly an ambitious man of humble origins, he receives a coat-of-arms, becomes a part-owner of a player’s company, eventually with King James as company patron, and buys the largest house in Stratford and the prestigious Blackfriar’s gatehouse in London.

Again, Shakespeare and Oxford are separated. This attack by Greene would not be made on a nobleman.

7. Shakespeare had an imperfect knowledge of Latin and royal court life.

Oxfordians believe that Shakespeare’s use of Latin and court life in his plays adds to the probability of a nobleman as the author of the plays.

To begin with, Shakespeare’s Latin and Greek were imperfect. Ben Jonson mentions Shakespeare’s scholastic failings (“and though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek“) in his dedicatory poem to his great peer’s 1623 folio.

Secondly, John Dryden, a later playwright often at court, recognized Shakespeare’s plays as ignorant of court life. Muriel St. Claire Byrne wrote an essay in A Companion to Shakespeare Studies enumerating Shakespeare’s mistakes involving court life.

This would easily eliminate a Cambridge-educated nobleman from being Shakespeare.

8. Shakespeare’s rivals, friends, and peers refer to Shakespeare as the great poet.

Ben Jonson, Francis Meres, Henry Chettle, Robert Greene, Richard Barnfield,Gabriel Harvey, Francis Beaumont (best-friend of John Fletcher, one of Shakespeare’s collaborators) are among the many people known to have written about or alluded to Shakespeare.

9. An earlier Earl of Oxford fights in a battle he did not fight in.

James Shapiro mentions this in his Contested Will. In the third part of Henry VI, an ancestor of the Earl of Oxford fights at the battle of Tewkesbury, is captured and imprisoned as a traitor. If Oxford had written the play, he would have undoubtedly known that his ancestor was not in the battle nor would he have shown him in such an unfavorable situation. Shakespeare is likely to have made such base errors.

10. The Epilogue reveals the author of Henry IV as a social inferior.

Shakespeare wrote an epilogue to the end of the second part of Henry IV when the play was staged for Queen Elizabeth at Whitehall palace. As James Shapiro notes, the author addresses the aristocratic audience from a socially inferior position. An aristocratic peer would never address his equals in this manner. Therefore, the creator of Falstaff could not have been the Earl of Oxford; however, Oxford may have been an awe-struck fan of William Shakespeare at the palace of Whitehall.

*Additions to the original 10 points*

11. A great writer can have illiterate parents. 

A mother’s illiteracy was unfortunately quite common, even into the early 20th century in some societies. The great French writer Albert Camus, born in 1913, was raised by an illiterate single mother. Likewise, the Portuguese author Jose Saramago, born in 1922, also had an illiterate mother.

The omnipresent English grammar schools and Shakespeare were born about the same time. In this way, families from every part of the country could now send their male children to school for a better education. John Shakespeare, a former alderman (mayor) of Stratford, sent his son to grammar school. Similarly, Ben Jonson’s bricklayer stepfather sent his son to grammar school. Had Shakespeare or Jonson been born a generation earlier, it is possible that they would have never learned to read or write. They were born at the right time.

12. We have Shakespeare’s will but not his inventory. 

It is true that Shakespeare’s will does not mention any books or plays as Oxfordians point out. His plays would have belonged to the playing company and not to the author; therefore, not subject to a will or an inventory. This was the case with the other playwrights. His books and most of his belongings would have been listed in his inventory, which is where the mention of items and their value are listed. As is common, the 17th century will survives, but the inventory does not.

For visual people, I recommend taking the objects that are mentioned in the will, and then visualize Shakespeare’s large house filled with these few items of furniture and other objects. So much is missing. That is what the inventory is for.




One Comment Add yours

  1. The real smoking gun was that Willy had shaky-spear syndrome and so his pressing need to incessantly shake his stick would have made it extremely incommodious for Willu to get any legible writing done due to his spastic impediment. –Paul


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