Saturday 24 March 2018

Desperately Seeking Shakespeare

For centuries, a debate has been raging with regards to the true identity of the works of Shakespeare
For centuries, a debate has been raging with regards to the true identity of the works of Shakespeare

Susan Griffin

A controversial new film questions whether William Shakespeare really wrote all those plays and sonnets.

The image of William Shakespeare, the bearded Bard from Stratford-Upon-Avon, is etched in our conscience from such an early age that most of us can't contemplate the notion he may not be the author of the most renowned works of English literature.

But for centuries, a debate has been raging with regards to the true identity of the genius behind the literary masterpieces.

"The Shakespeare authorship question is this: a growing number of people don't believe that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works attributed to William Shakespeare," says Lisa Wilson, a trustee of the Shakespeare Authorship Trust who acted as a consultant on Anonymous, a new film that's set to shine a spotlight on the controversy.

"Some people believe that someone else wrote the works that have come down to us under the name of Shakespeare and that the Stratford man was not the poet and playwright we all thought he was."

The question of who created the 37 plays and 154 poems credited to William Shakespeare has sparked extensive debates and analytical tomes, while scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding their authorship.

As a result, two distinct camps have sprung up; the first is the Stratfordians, who support William Shakespeare of Stratford as the man responsible for the plays and sonnets, and the second is the Anti-or Non Stratfordians, who hold the view that the works were written by someone else, and that the name 'William Shakespeare' is a simply a pseudonym.

Stratfordians believe the question over authorship stems from snobbery. Not much is known about the man from Stratford but what we do know is he was born on April 23, 1564 to illiterate parents. After marrying and having children with Anne Hathaway, he headed to London and worked as an actor and manager, then returned to Stratford to earn a living as a money lender and land trader before his death in 1616.

At most, it could be said he possibly went to grammar school, but he definitely didn't attend university, and there's no proof he travelled to foreign lands. So would he have had vocabulary extensive enough to write the most talked about literature in the world?

Stratfordians argue he was a genius and therefore capable of creating such work, but this is rejected by doubters.

The author of plays including Hamlet and Romeo & Juliet had a working knowledge of five languages and the Non-Stratfordians argue that being a genius doesn't mean you automatically have the ability to speak French, you have to have access to learn it in the first place.

For this reason, some believe only an aristocrat could have written such complex works.

"Sir Francis Bacon was the leading candidate of the 19th century, but others have been put forth since including Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Mary Sydney and even Queen Elizabeth herself," says Wilson.

In the 20th century, some sixty candidates were narrowed to one particular challenger, Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who is played by Rhys Ifans in Anonymous.

"He was a cultured yet controversial nobleman at the heart of the Elizabethan court and his interest in literature and the theatre was well documented," explains Laura Matthias, a fellow trustee of the Shakespeare Authorship Trust.

And it's not so strange that de Vere would have wanted to conceal his identity as it was considered vulgar for aristocrats to publish work at that time.

Is it possible de Vere used Shakespeare as a front man in order that his plays could be performed?

Dr William Leahy, head of the School of Arts at Brunel University believes in an alternative theory, that no one author wrote all the plays and poems attributed to Shakespeare.

"My view is equally controversial and not many people hold it, but I believe Shakespeare is an amalgamation of authors," says Leahy, who also heads up a masters programme in Shakespeare Authorship study, the only academic programme in the world that looks at the Shakespeare authorship question.

"If you put all of Shakespeare's work together, they are so varied, deep and philosophical, and demonstrate such a broad knowledge of languages, of renaissance hobbies, pastimes, classical mythology and classical text in Roman and Greek, could it really be the work of just one man?" he asks.

He believes all plays at that time were passed on to the theatre, which means a play could have been given to another writer "in order to pep up a fight scene, or the actors would have suggested doing a love scene differently", says Leahy.

To him, that explains the richness of the First Folio [collective works] of 1623.

"William Shakespeare was a theatre broker and the plays would have come into his possession. It's controversial but he could have, in time, allowed the plays to be published under his name," he argues.

And Leahy, more than most, understands how contentious the issue is.

"The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is pretty wound up and have created a campaign called 60 Minutes With Shakespeare to pre-empt the film Anonymous.

"One of the things they're calling into question is my course, and I've had a deluge of hate mail," he says. "I'm half-expecting a death threat, it's really that extreme."

But Leahy believes that's exactly why it's worth studying the phenomenon.

"What is it about Shakespeare that makes people act in this way? It's like I'm questioning the existence of Jesus," he says.

Given that there are gaps and inconsistencies in all theories, the debate can undoubtedly rage on indefinitely.

But really, as long as these literary masterpieces live on in our cultural conscience, does it really matter who Shakespeare was?


Read these facts presented by both sides of the argument to draw your own conclusion...


:: In the First Folio of 1623, 18 of the plays appear for the first time in print and this is seven years after Shakespeare has died. Where were those plays all that time?

:: Aside from the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, there are no manuscripts, letters, journals or poems accredited to him.

:: His death in 1616 was met with silence, unlike other celebrated writers of his time.

:: His illiterate wife and children were bequeathed only his 'second best bed', no money and his will mentions no books or manuscripts of any kind.

:: The Stratford monument clearly depicts a writer but a sketch from 1634 shows a man holding a sack of grain; no pen, no paper, no writing surface.


:: William Shakespeare's name exists on about 13 of the plays.

:: In the First Folio of 1623, fellow playwrights point to him as the author, with Ben Johnson referring to him as 'the sweet swan of Avon'.

:: The actors John Heminges and Henry Condell (mentioned in his will) also point to him as the author.

:: There's evidence to support the fact William was an actor and shareholder in The Lord Chamberlain's Men, the company that owned the Globe Theatre, the Blackfriars' Theatre and held exclusive rights to produce Shakespeare's plays.

:: And then there's his effigy and inscription on his Stratford monument that suggests that he had been a writer.

:: Anonymous is released in cinemas on Friday, October 28

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