To Be Or Not To Be? That Is The Mystery

To Be Or Not To Be? That Is The Mystery

Arts writer, Eleanor Smith, discusses the Shakespeare Authorial conspiracy theory and the playwright’s significance in today’s society.

William Shakespeare is often regarded as Britain’s greatest playwright. Four centuries after the composition of his works, he is still celebrated on school curriculums, in television, film and theatre, and in everyday life. You just need to look up some of the phrases he coined to see his continued relevance today. If you’ve ever said you’re ‘as dead as a doornail’, something has ‘vanished into thin air’, or there’s ‘method to your madness’, you’re quoting Shakespeare. So what if the Shakespeare we know so well was not the author of his plays?

Scholar Alexander Waugh has proposed that he has found evidence that proves that the author of Shakespeare’s catalogue was Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. The suggestion that Shakespeare did not write his own works is a historic and lengthy debate, supported by figures such as Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain, and today by Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Mark Rylance. Among other proposed candidates are Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.

Waugh claims that, through the decoding of a series of encryptions on the title and dedication pages of Aspley’s edition of the 1609 sonnets, he can prove where Shakespeare was buried: beneath the 1740 monument dedicated to Shakespeare in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey. The hidden grid patterns, geometrics, and other clues indicate that the monument is the playwright’s final resting place, as well as that it spells ‘Edward de Vere lies here’.

So what if the Shakespeare we know so well was not the author of his plays?

The theory that Oxford was Shakespeare is well established. Scholars – known as Oxfordians – believe that records which prove that Shakespeare authored his plays and sonnets were falsified to protect the true author’s identity. Instead, Oxford, a man of high status, penned the works. He was wealthy, well-travelled, and educated, as you would have expected the author of such a remarkable catalogue of work to be. In contrast, William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon lacked the education, awareness of the courts, and wealth to have written as he supposedly did. There is little evidence surrounding Shakespeare’s personal life. There only exists a few signatures, a will, and the record of his marriage to Anne Hathaway.

The arguments for Oxford to be the author come from instances and events in Oxford’s life that appear in the sonnets, longer poems and plays. For Oxfordian scholars, Shakespeare was an actor or a frontman, publishing the plays under his own name while Oxford wrote them. Arguments against the Oxfordian theory come from the assumed chronology of Shakespeare’s plays; twelve of the plays were supposedly written after Oxford’s death in 1604. However, there is an increased presence of revision and collaboration with other playwrights and writers in these later plays, suggesting they were completed by other playwrights after Oxford’s death.

The theory that Oxford was Shakespeare is well established. Scholars – known as Oxfordians – believe that records which prove that Shakespeare authored his plays and sonnets were falsified to protect the true author’s identity. Instead, Oxford, a man of high status, penned the works.

The Shakespearean authorship debate can never truly be proved because we are over 400 years too late to ask. Waugh’s evidence is persuasive, but it is still based on the assumption that discovered ‘clues’ were intentional. Despite this, the debate is still relevant today because of its implications, both on the works attributed to Shakespeare, and other pieces of Renaissance art. Without knowing the authorship, we do not understand the comprehensive context of their composition.

A clear idea of authorship may help in the questions raised in some works, such as the question of the author’s sexuality, raised most notably in Sonnet 18 and Sonnet 20. Both sonnets suggest a male attraction by the speaker; knowing the poet’s true identity may help in understanding intent. Also, it is nice to think that a glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon may have penned such an extensive, skilful body of work, possessing such an ability and obtaining the platform and means to present his work, after coming from a rather low beginning.

Image: British Library

By questioning that the author of Shakespeare’s works was not the man we believe it to be, questions may also be asked about the authorship of other pieces of Renaissance literature, as well as the creators of art and music. Who else in the period was writing under a pseudonym or using an actor to hide their identity? This is particularly important when considering gender. There is a huge lack of women as creators of art in the Renaissance period because of limitations placed on them. Therefore, it is likely that women were writing under pseudonyms. Perhaps some of the key writers, artists, and musicians we continue to celebrate today were women, hiding their identities in order to be allowed to simply create art and have it appreciated and recognised.

The Oxford theory is noteworthy in the Shakespeare debate, especially in light of this new evidence that Waugh has discovered. Its implications of authorial intent and gender are worth considering, however the true answer to the authorship of Shakespeare’s works will always remain a mystery.

Eleanor Smith

(Image courtesy of The Cinematic Katzenjammer)