The Simple Case for Shakespeare

by J. M. Pressley, SRC Editor

The mysterious author known to some as William Shakespeare. (Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London)

Shakespeare Fun Fact

Scholars believe that approximately 1,000 copies of Shakespeare's First Folio were printed. There are 228 confirmed surviving copies today; approximately 40 of them are complete.

One of the biggest debates with which I'm involved is the authorship debate over Shakespeare's works. Many different people have engaged me with their theories on why Shakespeare couldn't have written his works and who they believe was the actual author behind them. I try to listen with an open mind, but I have always been a member of the Stratford camp. This is not out of blind loyalty to my own pet theories; I have no real stake in whether or not Shakespeare wrote the plays bearing his name.

Given this, I've felt no need to defend my opinions on the authorship debate, especially when there are scholars who have dedicated their professional lives to the subject and are in a better position to debate the evidence (or lack thereof). I treat other opinions with respect, I wait for the incontrovertible evidence that will put this argument to bed once and for all, and I wonder sometimes if any one writer could have been responsible for the ensuing effect on literature, language, and history. Besides, the burden of proof falls on the other claimants to the throne.

For those that ask me, ultimately, why I believe in Shakespeare as the author, I have a simple (if often frustrating to those who fervidly believe in another author) answer: it's the simplest explanation. The issue is complex, fraught with logic pitfalls even for those who defend the orthodoxy, but Shakespeare remains the easiest of any authorship candidate to defend. For elaboration, let me first introduce my friend, William of Occam, and his proposition that forms the basis of my stance.

Occam's Razor
"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate"
—William of Occam, 1285-1349

Translated from the Latin: "Plurality should not be posited without necessity." Occam based this statement on the Aristotelian principle of logic that one should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything.

All things being equal, the simplest solution is usually the correct one.

In this case, we have propositions that four different men (Shakespeare, Bacon, Marlowe, and Oxford) can all lay claim to the authorship of nearly forty plays produced in Elizabethan England. The plays had to have some sort of author; they didn't just write themselves. Hence, we have four competing theories for who could have authored the works. Assuming all claims are equal and valid, we can then apply Occam's Razor to their arguments.

Four Hypotheses in a Nutshell

  • William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote or predominantly authored works that bear his name.
  • Francis Bacon, Elizabethan philosopher and writer, wrote the works under a pseudonym for reasons not readily apparent, but scattered ciphers throughout the work that pointed to himself as the author.
  • Christopher Marlowe, Elizabethan playwright who died in 1593, was a spy in the service of the crown whose death was faked, and he went on writing plays under a pseudonym to conceal his real identity.
  • Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who is acknowledged as a poet and playwright, wrote the works under a pseudonym because courtiers were barred from publishing poetry.

The Supporting Evidence for the Candidates

William Shakespeare

Tom Reedy and David Kathman do an excellent job of summing up the case for Shakespeare in their essay, How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts. To begin with, it's hard to argue with the fact that for 400-plus years, the works have been attributed to a William Shakespeare. We know that a man by that name was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, and that Shakespeare also died in the town of his birth. The documentary evidence of the time suggests strongly that William Shakespeare left Stratford sometime after 1585 and appeared in London in approximately 1592. After 1594, William Shakespeare is noted as a member of the Lord Chamberlain's Men, an acting company that performed the plays attributed to William Shakespeare, and was also a shareholder in the Globe Theatre, the artistic home of the Lord Chamberlain's Men. At the end of William Shakespeare's career in London, he retired to Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died in 1616. Seven years later, John Heminges and Henry Condell, actors from Shakespeare's company who are also mentioned in Shakespeare's last will and testament, made arrangements for the First Folio of published works attributed to William Shakespeare, including the sonnets.

Francis Bacon

Francis Bacon was the definition of the Elizabethan Renaissance man. Philosopher, scientist, statesman, and sometimes poet, Bacon was arguably one of the most well educated men in England during his lifetime. His first major work, his Essays, appear circa 1597, at which point Bacon would have been about 36 years old. He entered college at Cambridge at 12, passed the bar at 21, and was a member of the House of Commons at 23. His career as a politician would not necessarily preclude him from having enough spare time to write, even though his greatest works came only after he had effectively left his political career. Supporters also point to potential clues within Bacon's memoirs and correspondence, and specifically point to Bacon's notebook, Promus, which contains nearly 2,000 sayings, phrases, and other such material that Bacon seems to have deemed useful. Bacon did not make much use of the Promus material in the works he published after 1605. Some similarities do, however, exist between passages in Promus and several of the works attributed to William Shakespeare. In addition, Bacon supporters have occasionally pointed to Bacon's fascination with ciphers and demonstrated what they believe to be ciphers contained within the works that attribute the work to Bacon.

Christopher Marlowe

Christopher Marlowe was an acknowledged playwright at the time of his alleged death, penning popular works such as The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Tamburlaine, and The Jew of Malta. He was also a spy in the employ of the crown. Allegedly stabbed to death in a bar brawl circa 1593, Marlowe's death was faked, and the playwright fled England to Italy. The theory, most prominently championed by Calvin Hoffman, says that Marlowe's work flourished in Italy, at which point it was passed through contacts back to England, where the actor William Shakespeare served as a front man for the plays. Supporters of Marlowe point to similarities of phrasing in some of Marlowe's work and that of Shakespeare. And certainly, Marlowe was university educated, which most supporters of alternate candidates maintain must be a prerequisite for anyone to have written the plays. If, in fact, Marlowe lived beyond 1593, it also seems plausible that he would have written later works, being only about 29 years old at the time of the alleged death.

Edward de Vere

Edward de Vere was, in fact, an acknowledged poet during his lifetime. Supporters point to evidence such as the Oxford Bible, which contains a number of highlighted passages that correspond to various passages in the works attributed to Shakespeare. They also draw a remarkable number of parallels between the play Hamlet and people of de Vere's circle. Finally, much is made of de Vere's coat of arms, that of a lion brandishing (or "shaking") a spear. Certainly, de Vere appears to have been a well-educated man of his time that had published poetry and, ostensibly, plays (although no stage plays bearing the earl's name exist). Logic would dictate that his status as a well-educated, well-traveled member of Queen Elizabeth's court would qualify him as a potential candidate for authorship.

Motive, Plausibility, and Occam's Razor

Motive, in the case of alternative candidates, is often glossed over (or, in Bacon's case, ignored altogether). Instead, the majority of alternate authorship hypotheses start by invalidating Shakespeare entirely, searching for a candidate whose credentials please them, and then attempting to reconcile the candidate with the requisite history that proves their candidate was the true author of the works. The problem with this approach is that they often fail to show appropriate motive, means, and how the proposed candidate could have gained by publishing under the pseudonym of William Shakespeare.

Bacon was indeed a learned man, whose expression found markedly different outlets than drama. He seemed to have little enough time to concentrate on his acknowledged writing while in public office, publishing voluminously once he was free of official responsibilities. It is hard to imagine that the work of Shakespeare, both in prolificacy and in quality, could have been produced in what amounted to Bacon's "spare time." And the writing that we know of Bacon shows such stylistic difference from that of the works, sonnets, and poetry, that it all but rules out Bacon as a candidate on that basis alone. Bacon has traditionally been proposed only because his proponents say he was the only (or one of the few) men capable of such expression; I have yet to see an adequate expression of why Bacon would have chosen to write the works, how he could have actually done so, and what profit Bacon may have seen in it.

Marlowe can only be considered if one ignores his untimely death. Irregularities in the coroner's inquest only point to possible disputes in the cause of Marlowe's death; there is nothing to dispute that Marlowe was, in fact, dead. Even if the Marlowe supporters claim that Marlowe died and that the plays were posthumously parceled out, it makes little sense. All of the works attributed to Marlowe were done posthumously; and if Marlowe had actually found the time to write another 36-38 plays by the time he was merely twenty-nine years old, why not release them all and attribute them to him as well? Of course, stylistic variance between Marlowe's works and the works of Shakespeare all but rule out Marlowe as the author of the later plays, even if there are limited, coincidental similarities of expression. Ultimately, a dead man can have neither means nor motive.

De Vere is the current favorite among alternate author enthusiasts, but stylistic analysis of de Vere's poetry compared with that of Shakespeare finds the earl lacking as well. In addition, the majority of evidence presented by Oxford supporters is circumstantial at best, coincidental in some instances, and pure conjecture in other examples. In addition, there is an incongruity in the rationale posited by Oxfordians. Oxford, it is said, needed to publish under a pseudonym because courtiers were discouraged or forbidden from publishing poetry and drama. Yet, as part of their supporting evidence, Oxford supporters point out that Oxford was not only an acknowledged patron of the arts, but that he was a recognized poet and playwright (for whom no play titles are mentioned). If, in fact, Oxford was recognized and even praised by his contemporaries for his qualities as a poet and dramatist, what need then did Oxford have for publishing his work anonymously? In the bid to establish credibility for de Vere, Oxford supporters undermine de Vere's motive for maintaining anonymity.

William Shakespeare, on the other hand, has the requisite connections to the company that produced the works and to the men who acted the roles. Ironically, we know more about Shakespeare than we know about any other Elizabethan playwright; hence, there is more to question. No one ever seriously disputes Marlowe, Jonson, or Kyd in the authorship of the works that bear their names, in part because we have to trust that the attribution of their work is genuine. But where William Shakespeare is concerned, it has become fashionable to seize upon every discrepancy and mold them into a conglomeration of conspiracy that masks another hand at work. The more convoluted the alternate hypotheses must be made to fit, the less likely it is that the posited other candidates can remain viable. Is it simpler to believe that a man named William Shakespeare wrote the works that bear his name, or is it simpler to believe that:

  1. Francis Bacon had enough time and developed an entirely different writing style to write 36 or more plays, 154 sonnets, and two major poems while maintaining an active political career during the time in which these works were written?
  2. Christopher Marlowe did not die and continued writing plays in Italy that were credited to another man to protect Marlowe's identity?
  3. Edward de Vere had to maintain anonymity despite being acknowledged as a poet and playwright in his lifetime and despite other nobles being published under their own names when supposedly such activity was discouraged?

Occam's Razor, based on the above criteria, seems to favor Shakespeare. Ultimately, it is as simple as it is plausible to accept, without being introduced to hard evidence to the contrary, that William Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. And the plausibility, just as it has been argued for the other candidates, exists within the dramatic works themselves.

The Plausibility of Shakespeare

First, the works exhibit stylistic characteristics that demonstrate—with the exception of some of the latest works, ostensibly done in collaboration with Fletcher—the presence of one man's hand at work. Certainly, there is a growth of that style that one can definitely trace; the progression of ability from The Comedy of Errors to The Tempest is indisputable. Someone had to write the plays, as they don't appear to be a collective of differing styles. It has been implied that only the most educated level of society in Elizabethan times could produce such a talent. In defense of a man that definitely did not attend a university, I say that it is entirely plausible that such a man wrote the plays, developing in style and talent as he wrote them.

The plays of Shakespeare, first and foremost, were not in their day considered works of literary genius; they were considered public entertainment (in a society that also considered executions as public entertainment). And even by today's standards, the works still exhibit aspects that do not entirely reconcile with the idea of inspired genius. The plays are overwhelmingly influenced and based upon other material: the Bible, published histories, popular lore, Roman and Greek Classics, contemporary novellas, and even other Elizabethan plays. The basis of the plays, in every instance, is someone else's story, and many of the works, if today's copyright laws were to be applied, would be in serious danger of copyright infringement. That is as much the work of an opportunist as it is a genius.

If that weren't enough, the plays are rife with lowbrow humor, vulgar characters, and some very pointed anachronisms and outright mistakes (Milan is not a seaport, for instance, for those who think the author was intimately familiar with Italy). The author is as apt to make fun of authority as he is to affirm it, and takes delight in more than one instance in ridiculing learning. In short, it is just as easy to impose a commoner's point of view on the author of Shakespeare's works as it is to impose the view of a university man or a courtier. And doesn't such a man more easily fit the profile of an "upstart crow?"

So, we have William Shakespeare, son of a glover, who received no more than a public grammar school education of his time. This same William Shakespeare made enough of a living in a theatrical troupe to retire in Stratford having purchased multiple properties in the village (including the second-largest house in town). He has documented connections with the London theatre, he has earned money that is hard to explain any other way, he has contemporaries praise him both during his life and after his death, he has a folio of works posthumously published in his name. It doesn't seem that much of a stretch in contrast to other hypotheses.

Conclusion

Despite the legitimate (and understandable) questions that can be raised regarding gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare the man, William Shakespeare remains the most viable candidate as the author of his works. The case for Shakespeare is defensible both on its own merit and relative to the merit of others posited as authorship candidates. It is at least as plausible as any other case that has been presented, and in the decades of questioning that have followed, there has been no hard, empirical evidence either to disprove William Shakespeare's claim or prove any other's claim to authorship. Until such definitive proof exists, Shakespeare is, in my opinion, the most plausible author we have.

Reference/Further Reading

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