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The Authorship Question

June 10, 2024  |  1,556 words  |  Literature, Politics 

The controversy over who really wrote the plays and poetry attributed to Shakespeare persists, even if it is not at the top of the morning news feed, or never comes up in your house.

Just last month the famed actress Judi Dench was doing some publicity for her new memoir, Shakespeare: The Man Who Pays the Rent, when she was asked if she has any interest in the Shakespeare authorship ‘debate.’  She replied with a simple; “No.  William Shakespeare from Strafford is good enough for me and I’ll settle for that.”

And who would want to argue with Dame Judie Dench?  After all, what difference does it make!

In the movie The Gambler, Mark Wahlberg plays a literature professor who leads a secret double life as a high stakes you-know-what.  In one of the early scenes establishing his brilliant but mercurial nature, Professor Wahlberg demolishes a contrarian student’s passionate argument for Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford,  as the true author of Shakespeare’s work.  Wahlberg ends his rebuttal with a flourish, saying something like “why would a genius capable of creating a masterpiece like Hamlet not put his name on it?”

That very question occurs to me now, as I am reading Stephen Greenblatt’s Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.  This slim volume was published in 2018 after Donald Trump’s improbable first presidential win, and is Mr. Greenblatt’s attempt to place a most unsettling election result in some sort of historical context.  I just found it on a discount table, and I guess I am reading it to help brace myself for the distinct possibility of a second Trump triumph in the upcoming Fall election.

As to why a literary genius with a political bent in 1590s England might want to remain anonymous, we need look no further than page 2 of Tyrant, where Mr. Greenblatt informs us:

“There was no freedom of expression in Shakespeare’s England, on the stage or anywhere else.  The 1597 performance of an allegedly seditious play called “The Isle of Dogsled to the arrest and imprisonment of the playwright Ben Jonson and to a government order – fortunately not enforced – to demolish all the playhouses in London.

“Informants (regularly) attended the theater, eager to claim a reward for denouncing to the authorities anything that could be construed as subversive.  Attempts to reflect critically on contemporary events or on leading figures were particularly risky.”

Then on page 21 we are told: 

“By statues dating back to 1352, it was treasonable ‘to compass or imagine’ the death of a king or queen or of the principal public officials.’”

At the end of page 23 Stephen Greenblatt lets us know: 

“In the wake of the coup attempt (of 1601, which is described earlier), the special staging of Richard II (not Richard III) became a focus of one of the government’s investigations.  One of Shakespeare’s associates was compelled to testify before the Privy Council and explain what the Lord Chamberlain’s Servants thought they were doing (by staging this play, at this time).  His answer – merely making a bit of extra money – was accepted.  

“Sir Gelly Meyrick (one of instigators of the coup attempt, who requested that Richard II be performed in hopes of generating public support for his cause) was not so fortunate.  Convicted on charges of arranging the special performance, along with other actions in support of rebellion, he was hanged, drawn, and quartered.”

To be clear, Mr. Greenblatt is sharing this context to explain why he thinks Shakespeare steered clear of current events, and set his ‘historical’ plays a century or more earlier.  But I find these references to be equally valid for explaining why an author might want to hide behind an alias.

Stephen Greenblatt is a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar, and nothing in his impressive oeuvre seems  intended to fuel the authorship debate in any way.  Judging solely by the titles that have sprung from his pen, specifically Will in the World: How Shakespeare became Shakespeare, one would assume Mr. Greenblatt is firmly in the Judi Dench camp on the subject.

And that is fine with me, since I am not going out of my way to upset anybody’s applecart.  

*

But I do confess to being a tad curious about who wrote what, and why a literary genius might want to remain largely anonymous.  And that curiosity is always reignited whenever the ‘authorship question’ pops up in public discourse.

My curiosity began in 1997 with the publication of Alias Shakespeare: Solving the Greatest Literary Mystery of All Time.  Written by the syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran (1946-2010), an author whose work I had been reading for about a decade by that point, and who I credit as being one of the writers who helped me develop an adult mentality.

Once I started on this low-key literary adventure, I soon tuned into how this line of inquiry marks one “as an eccentric and a crank” in the eyes of what might be called the ‘Shakespeare industry.’  But then I have always considered myself open-minded, with a healthy disregard for conventional wisdom.  So, Mr. Sobran’s “riveting solution to the Shakespeare puzzle” hooked me from the start.

The book jacket for Alias Shakespeare does a good job of summarizing the fine detective work to be found inside:

“An enormous shelf of biographical scholarship has grown up over the past 300 years around the ‘Swan of Avon.’  But what are these histories based on?  Revealing that no more than a handful of fragmentary documents attest to Shakespeare’s existence – and none which link him to the plays themselves – Sobran delightfully debunks this elaborate egalitarian myth concocted in equal parts speculation, wishfulness and fantasy.”

“… Sobran shows how many questions the myth leaves unanswered:  How could a provincial actor from Stratford gain such an intimate knowledge of court life?  How could he know so much of classical authors and not own a single book?  How could he write compromising love sonnets to his social superior, the powerful Lord of Southampton?  How could he know so much of Italy, a place he never visited?  Why was there no notice of the famous writer’s death in 1616?  Why, in short, does Shakespeare remain such an obscure and shadowy figure?”

“Methodically demolishing the case for ‘Mr. Shakspere,’ Sobran shows it is highly implausible he wrote the poems and plays we know as The Works of William Shakespeare.  Other candidates exist, of course, including Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, and Francis Bacon.  Sobran dispenses with these claimants, then sets forth the startingly persuasive case for Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.”

“Oxford was a widely traveled, classically educated member of the Elizabethan court.  A swashbuckling spendthrift, his swung high and low in the eyes of his peers.  Having spent most his fortune on adventures in Italy and elsewhere on the continent – like Hamlet, he was captured by pirates in the English Channel – he fell into disrepute for reasons that included rumors about his homosexuality.”

“Still he topped many lists of the best Elizabethan poets at the time, even ranking above Edmund Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney.  He was an avid book collector, and a love of the literary arts ran in his family.  His uncle not only pioneered the sonnet form that came to be known as Shakespearean, he also translated the English edition of Ovid that indisputably guided Shakespeare’s pen.”

“More strikingly, Oxford was the ward of Lord Burghley – the man widely acknowledged as the model for the character Polonius in Hamlet.  Ultimately, Sobran shows us why a disgraced nobleman such as Oxford would have sought solace in the anonymity of writing pseudonymous plays and poetry.”

*

The conclusion Joseph Sobran reaches in his “genial and entertaining” 1997 book does not lessen my keen interest in what Stephen Greenblatt has to say in Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.  I remain on the edge of my seat as I continue to read Mr. Greenblatt’s book, drinking in snapshots of a superlative poet and playwright such as these:

“From the early 1590s, at the beginning of his career, all the way to its end, Shakespeare grappled again and again with a deeply unsettling question: how is it possible for a whole country to fall into the hands of a tyrant.”

“In depicting the aspiring tyrant’s strategy, Shakespeare carefully noted among the landed classes of his time the strong current of contempt for the masses and for democracy as a viable political possibility.  Populism may look like an embrace of the have-nots, but in reality it is a form of cynical exploitation.  The unscrupulous  leader has no actual interest in bettering the lot of the poor.  

“Surrounded from birth with great wealth, his tastes run to extravagant luxuries, and he finds nothing remotely appealing in the lives of the underclasses.  In fact, he despises them, hates the smell of their breath, fears that they carry diseases, and regards them as fickle, stupid, worthless, and expendable.  But he sees that they can be made to further his ambitions.”

I simply cannot get enough of Stephen Greenblatt’s insights into the Bard’s body of work.  Even if every time he uses the word “Shakespeare” I find myself picturing Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, as the one sitting at the writing desk with a quill in his hand.

Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.

www.robertjcavanaughjr.com

bobcavjr@gmail.com

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