Monday, June 10, 2013

Bardolatry or Brouhaha: Shakespeare's Identity Problem

Karen L. Mulder, guest blogger
This week in 1540, Henry VIII had Thomas Cromwell arrested at Westminster Palace and subsequently separated him from his head—a decision that Henry rued most deeply, amongst all the heads he sent rolling. Because the initials “W.S.” appeared on the manuscript for The Life and Death of the Lord Cromwell, written in 1582, or '83, or '99, or any year between those, the work is considered a Shakespeare play. Literary critics judge the first half a savvy but lusterless stab at insider political commentary, and deride the second half as discontinuous and shoddy—possibly thrown together by a second writer who was not equal to the First Half Man, aka Shakespeare.
This kind of dithering underscores the stubbornly irresolvable “Shakespeare Identity Problem.” Anti-Stratfordians insist that Shakespeare was merely a back country actor who lacked the education, the precocious language ability (up to five, fluently written), access to the royal courts, and any evidence of the foreign travels that the author of Shakespearean plays and sonnets necessarily possessed. Thus arises the speculation that "W.S." was a syndicate of erudite Oxfordians, or a playwrights’ collaborative stocked with nobles. He certainly remains the prize pig for Stratford-upon-Avon’s tourism industry since the late 16th century—just ask the 3 million or so tourists who visit each year. Stratfordians have labored steadfastly to maintain the illusion of the Bard’s reality, as it means their livelihood, to the extent that Will’s grammar school records were lost (possibly to hide those “D’s” in comparrytif litte and penmanshippe; his signature is oft critiqued as the spidery scrawl of a semi-illiterate.)
Anti-Stratfordians argue that Shakespeare was actually the 17th Earl of Oxford or the 6th Earl of Derby or the 3rd Earl of Southhampton, or Francis Bacon, Walter Raleigh, Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe—even Queen Elizabeth herself! Verily, something like 80 possible candidates have been suggested and defended for the job, so no need to ramble onto thee anon. Thing is, Shakespeare is mentioned 23 times as a great living playwright by his contemporaries, but left not a scrap of correspondence behind, nor a reliable portrait.
Possibly the only man who has NOT been identified as Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes...hubba hubba, in Shakespeare in Love)
First Folio flyleaf, 1623...eeech!

Some even cavil on about the cardboard-flat portrait on the First Folio of 1623, complaining that his collar style simply doesn’t exist in 17th- century couture, or that his head is out of proportion to his body, or that he is obviously wearing a mask …but really, do we prize engravings of the early 17th century for their veracity? Screwy depictions of lions, natives with Caucasian features, and potatoes, among other New World vittles, would scarcely support this notion.
If you want to duke it out with the known facts, you can always pick up a wealth of Will for a steal with the Shakespeare Encyclopedia (2009), compiled by A.D. Cousins. This compendium attempts to present Shakespeare sans the academic froth of competing scholars who have, for centuries, tried to ferret out the man’s identity. Or, you can delve into the latest plausible theory with British lit lecturer Brenda James and Welsh professor William Rubinstein’s The Truth Will Out: Unmasking the Real Shakespeare (2005)—a title that really throws down the gauntlet if ever a gauntlet was. James defends Sir Henry Neville as Shakespeare’s ghostwriter, based on her recent discoveries of a string of linked manuscripts, some comparative handwriting samples, and parallels between Neville’s life events with the issuance of certain plays. For example, Neville (1564-1615) was imprisoned in the Tower in 1601 for his part in the surly Earl of Essex’s plans for rebellion against the aging Queen Elizabeth (1533-1603), which coincides with a distinct change in Shakespearean style towards the ‘darker’ tragedies like Hamlet.

Sir Henry also served as ambassador to France near the time when it seems the script for Henry V was composed, and said script includes great detail about France as well as perfect French diction, in places. Neville’s timeline complements Will’s more accurately than, say, that of dashing Christopher Marlowe (above right), who was fatally knifed in a pub in 1593—leaving the authorship of 33 Shakespeare plays after this time wanting for an author until Shakespeare’s physical departure in 1616.
Around the same time that James’ book issued forth, the stellar Hollywood mega-entertainment lawyer Bertram Fields (clients have included Michael Jackson; need more be said?) extended his legal analysis of the matter in Players: The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare. Fields, a Harvard-educated Anglophile married to a Guggenheim, underscores his contention that the tremendous output attributed to Shakespeare was not only the product of a collaboration, but probably the most successful conspiracy in human history, barring the Apollo moon landings (kidding!). Fields provides a helpful description of the era’s cultural context and collates some of the fun facts, like, the issue with the 82 variations on Shakespeare’s name: e.g., was it a corruption of the French Jacques or Jakes Pierre or a mutilation of the Jewish [I]Saac’s spere? He then launches into a lawyerly analysis that pits the shortcomings of “The Stratford Man” against various Anti-Stratfordian scholarship, making a final thrust and parry with his closing argument for the syndicate theory, as impassioned as Alan Shore in Boston Legal. Fields should not be confused with Steve Sohmer, a writer of Hollywood fodder since 1966, who earned an Oxford doctorate for his Shakespeare dissertation in 1995. You see? The world is Shakespeare’s stage and everyone’s a player full of lots of sound and fury signifying…what?
As the bard or possibly one or more of the 80 candidates comprising him once wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness… some have greatness thrust upon them…and some launch themselves off someone else’s greatness, namely Mine, spewing forth endless texts.” Still, it’s all very interesting because Shakespeare’s such an anchor in the Western canon, yet also such an unresolved conundrum.
Architectural historian and groundling Karen L. Mulder possesses a certificate stating her ownership of one wooden dowel purchased for the 1997 reconstruction of Shakespeare’s “great wooden O,” the Globe Theatre on the Thames.Well Lah-Di-All's-Well-That-Ends-Swells.
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  1. I am curious about your citation of five fluent languages displayed in Shakespeare's works. Somewhere I read that he owned up to "small Latin and no Greek"--a capacity that so reflects my own that I have used the phrase till its provenance has been forgotten. But in his plays, I recall only French and some Latin (in the mouths of Fools mostly), so I'm wondering what else I've forgotten.
    As to the identity problem, I was e-mailing Nicholas Hagger at the time he had finished a study which determined that Shakespeare's works were (except for known collaborations) done by--drumroll--Shakespeare! And I must agree. adding the negligible weight of my meager scholarship. Though the quality of the writing may vary (I was particularly unhappy with parts of Henry VI), there's nothing that can't be explained by those unwanted collaborators, Fatigue and Time Pressure, who accompany anyone who ventures to write at length.

    1. I would like to see a play where those two characters, Fatigue and Time Pressure, hang out with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    2. If that's what it takes to get them out of my house, please write that play now!

  2. Huh I have always suspected Christopher Marlowe to be the author of a few of Shakespeare's works

  3. I like your math: Shakespeare = "prize pig." Bill Bryson's well-done Shakespeare: The World as Stage (2007) briefly sums up, in a Jack Webb-like “Just the facts, ma’am" manner, exactly what we know and don't know about this most mysterious of literary geniuses. (As it turns out, the answer is “Not much.”)

    1. True, objects viewed at such a distance are so very hard to see. We say, Shakespeare would do such-and-such, but not this-or-that, when I cannot really know if my neighbor would laugh at my knock-knock jokes!

    2. We do know, however, that Shakespeare wrote (of all things) what might have been the original knock-knock joke! In Macbeth, act 2 scene 3.

  4. Shakespearean lore abounds with mysteries,unsolvable and eternal.
    However, let me add something here that I found about the iconic portrait
    in the first folio of 1623.I went along with the clue that the head was added
    on at a later period and assumed that the body itself was authentic.Then I
    looked for any numerical indication on the costume.Using a copy of the portrait
    that appears in the British Museum I immediately noticed that there were thirteen
    buttons on the front of the jacket.There could be numerous connections in the plays
    but found an interesting message in Sonnet thirteen."O that you were yourself! But, love, you are No longer yours than you yourself here live", which I interpreted as "Oh, how I wish you were yourself! But, my love, your identity will only last as long as you’re alive."
    I admit that these are tenuous suppositions.Please comment.

  5. The reasoning and rationale behind this blogs makes it a brilliant read.
    Joseph Hayon

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