The American author Henry James once said, “I am haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
The William that Henry James is referring to is William Shakespeare, widely regarded the English language’s greatest ever writer. Shakespeare’s influence on our collective culture is incalculable; his characters, his stories and most of all his words are part of the fabric of the modern world.
How then could a respected writer like Henry James make such a startling accusation? James’ doubts, also shared by notable figures like Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud and Sir John Gielgud, are based on a strange mystery at the heart of one of history’s most famous men.
Whilst William Shakespeare’s works have inspired countless other writers, his own life is a blank sheet of paper. Most of what we know of him is in his guise as a minor businessman in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in the English Midlands, where he was generally known as William Shakspere.
As William Shakespeare the famous writer of Elizabethan London, he is an elusive and ghostly figure, a puzzling conundrum whose biography appears wrought with contradictions and frustrating gaps. There is no record, for instance, of anybody claiming to personally know this Shakespeare during his lifetime, despite his fame and renown.
Perhaps odder still, nobody who knows Shakspere the provincial businessman from Stratford seems to have been aware that he was a famous writer. Everywhere in the biography of the author we are confronted with this dichotomy between what appears to be two very different Shakespeares.
The Stratford Shakspere, by all accounts we have, is a small and mean-spirited man. He is constantly in court over minor legal wranglings. He is a moneylender and serial tax-dodger. He hoards grain during a famine. He abandons his own young children and cruelly leaves his wife only his second-best bed in his will.
In contrast, the London Shakespeare is a man of grand ideas and imagination, a man who tackles the big universal themes with a breathtaking insight and empathy, a man with a profound and enduring appreciation for both the best and worst of the human condition. It is difficult to reconcile this great Shakespeare with the petty-minded businessman from Stratford.
Of course, many great artists are deeply flawed people; Carraviagio was a murderer and Wagner an anti-Semite, but there are reasons beyond this schizophrenic character sketch to suspect there is something very wrong with the biography of William Shakespeare.
How do we explain the records from 1597 of the London Shakespeare living in a one room hovel and being pursued for a debt of five shillings, whilst at the same time in Stratford he is a wealthy businessman who lends money and buys the town’s second biggest house? Are these two different men?
Over 70 documents survive that detail the life of the Stratford Shakspere, not a single one makes any mention that he is England’s greatest playwright. Indeed, Shakespeare himself never mentions he is a playwright, and neither does his family or anybody who knows them.
His will reveals nothing that might hint he was one of history’s most erudite and widely read writers, no books, manuscripts or even a bookshelf. How could this wealthy man whose works were based on a huge range of sources in multiple languages own not a single book? Even stranger, Shakespeare wrote close to a million words in his own hand but not a single scrap of any of it survives.
Shakespeare’s vast vocabulary and mastery of a wide range of esoteric subjects are also a difficulty for the official biography. Scholars tell us he probably attended the local grammar school from seven to thirteen. The standard curriculum would have been in latin and consisted of rote learning of the classics, arithmetic, logic, and rhetoric.
However, the Shakespeare of the plays displays an extensive knowledge of the law, philosophy, ancient and modern history, astronomy, art, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, even military and naval terminology and tactics. He also has an apparently insider understanding of English, French and Italian court life, the vicissitudes of Tudor-era politics and the etiquettes and pastimes of the nobility.
Shakespeare’s English vocabulary is huge and he contributes hundreds of new words and phrases to our language – “All our yesterdays”, “brave new world” and “in my heart of hearts” amongst them. And his skill with language was not confined to English, many of his plays are based on Greek, French and Italian sources, often untranslated into English at the time.
How could a provincial grammar school boy have gained this impressive body of knowledge without ever having attended university or even traveled abroad? Historians tell us the disconnect between the biography and the works is an inevitable consequence of Shakespeare living in an era where far less was written down, and much that was is lost. These gaps have to be filled in with intelligent, contextual guesswork, they argue.
But if we strip away these centuries of historical and culture assumptions, it does seem hard to avoid the conclusion that the two Shakespeares are not facets of the same man but, in fact, two entirely different men. Shakespeare’s biography, already heavily padded out with supposition, would become fiction.
Whilst some teasing suggestions that the plays were written by someone else can be found as early as Shakespeares own lifetime, the case for alternative authors really kicked off during the Victorian era. Over 80 possible candidates have been suggested since then, ranging from Sir Francis Drake to Miguel de Cervantes and even Queen Elizebeth.
American writer Samuel Clemens knew something about pseudonyms. Famously working under the pen name Mark Twain, Clemens wrote classic works such as Huckleberry Finn, often described as the ‘Great American Novel’. He came out as a Shakespeare skeptic in typically witty and satirical fashion in Is Shakespeare Dead? published in 1909.
Echoing the many mysteries of Shakespeare’s life, Twain wrote – “Shall I set down the rest of the great Conjecture which constitute the Giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster.”
Twain himself favored Francis Bacon as the true author, but of the many candidates suggested, the most serious study has revolved around fellow Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlow and the aristocratic Sir Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford.
The anti-Stratfordians, as Shakespeare authorship skeptics are collectively known, have produced compelling cases for both men, whereas the traditional Shakespeare scholars have countered with seemingly fatal flaws in their arguments. Who is right?
Marlowe was a brilliant poet and playwright in his own right, predating Shakespeare but greatly influential upon him. His mercurial talent, along with his university education has made him many authors favored alternative candidate. However, his apparent death in a barroom fight in 1593, shortly before Shakespeare the author makes his first appearance, has led most mainstream scholars to dismiss the possibility.
Beginning in the 1920s, Essex peer Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, has emerged as the single most popular alternative candidate to be the true Shakespeare. De Vere was widely recognized as a brilliant, if volatile man, who had a classical education, possessed an intimate knowledge of the royal court and traveled extensively in France and Italy.
Critics of the Oxford theory argue that De Vere died in 1604, before some of Shakespeare’s plays were supposed to be written. He also published some poems under his own name which they say are not as accomplished as the works attributed to Shakespeare.
Whilst the latter point is clearly subjective, nobody could claim De Vere was able to write plays from the grave. Did this rule the Earl out as the man behind the pseudonym? Oxfordians counter that many of Shakespeare’s own plays, like Coriolanus and As You Like it, were unknown until years after his death.
Both sides do agree on one thing, writing plays could be a risky business in the late 16th century. The often bawdy theatres were exiled to the darker corners of London for fear of corrupting decent folk, and censorship for profanity and heresy were rigorously enforced by the authorities. With paranoia about the anti-reformation rife, percieved pro-catholic sentiments were often viciously suppressed. The complex world of Elizabethan royal politics also provided plenty of traps for unwary writers to fall into.
These dangers were very real. Thomas Kyd and Christopher Marlowe were tortured and persecuted for heresy, the latter possibly even murdered. Shakespeare’s contemporaries like Ben Johnson and Thomas Nash were both amongst several playwrights imprisoned for writing material that displeased Queen Elizabeth.
It’s plausible therefore that an aristocrat like De Vere, mindful of his political status within the Royal Court, or a bohemian free thinker like Marlowe wishing to avoid persecution, may have wanted to write their works from the safety of the shadows, using the then common Elizabethan affectation of a pseudonym.