Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? It’s a debate that’s been raging for well over a century, and a recent film has stoked it higher. Was it Sir Francis Bacon? Christopher Marlowe? The Earl of Oxford?
Well, I should lay my cards on the table straight off and say that I’ve never had the slightest doubt that the plays were written by a certain gentleman from Stratford-upon-Avon named William Shakespeare. Not only do I find none of the other claims remotely convincing – I don’t even find the need to propose alternatives remotely convincing.
So where did these conspiracy theories come from? In spite of (or perhaps because of) Shakespeare’s immense popularity with London’s theatregoers in the 1590s and 1600s, he was the subject of scorn and hostility from many other writers at the time. Robert Greene, for instance, in the early 1590s attacked the upstart player who presumed to write plays, ironically giving us the clearest proof we have that Shakespeare was well known at the time as a dramatist.
The hostility was for two reasons: Shakespeare was an actor, a trade seen at the time as one step up from the criminal world, and he hadn’t been to university. These were both heinous faults, and have given rise over the centuries to the myth that he was some kind of barely literate peasant, who couldn’t possibly have written some of the world’s greatest works of literature.
In fact, Shakespeare was middle class, and tending more to upper than lower middle class, at that. His father was, until a financial crisis when William was in his teens, a prosperous Stratford businessman and a prominent figure in the town’s politics, while his mother’s family, the Ardens, were minor landed gentry related to many of the similar families in the midlands. In fact, Shakespeare was related to several of the key figures in the Gunpowder Plot.
Nor was he uneducated. His father’s status makes it almost certain that he’d have attended Stratford Grammar School, which had a high reputation for the quality and rigour of its teaching. While there’s no proof of how proficient a student Shakespeare was, there’s no mystery about where the classical learning shown in the plays and poems came from.
Under normal circumstances, he’d have gone to university in his mid teens, but that coincided with his father’s bankruptcy, and there’s no reason to suppose the omission had any reflection on his educational standard. Even Ben Jonson’s slight bitchy comment (uncharacteristic, as he generally admired Shakespeare) that he had “little Latin and less Greek” actually shows that he was far from uneducated.
This particular myth has been fuelled by misunderstanding about the state of literacy at the time. Much has been made of the fact that he used several spellings of his own name, but this was true of most educated people in his day. Elizabeth’s chief minister, William Cecil, was fairly indifferently Lord Burleigh, Lord Burghley, or Lord Burley. Standard spelling didn’t become the rule until the 18th century.
What of the main pretenders? On the face of it, Christopher Marlowe seems the most likely, since he was a great dramatist himself. The theory is that Marlowe’s death in a tavern brawl was a cover for his activities as a government agent, and that he continued writing in secret, using Shakespeare’s name as a front.
There are a few problems about this. It’s certainly true that the tavern brawl robbed us of a mature writer who might have given Shakespeare a run for his money, but there’s very little similarity between their styles. Shakespeare had written a number of his early plays by that time, which already show his embryonic qualities – subtle characterisation, a common touch and a strong sense of humour, even in more serious plays. Marlowe, by contrast, favoured vivid, larger-than-life characters like Faustus and Tamburlaine and high-powered language. And there was no sign of any ability or inclination to write comedy.
In addition, there would have been practical problems. Unless Marlowe was hiding in the middle of London for nearly twenty years – unlikely – he couldn’t have responded as instantly to moods and demands as Shakespeare seems to have. Twelfth Night, for instance, seems to have been commissioned for court with very precise requirements, and written, produced and performed within little more than a week.
Bacon, too, shows no similarity to Shakespeare’s style in his own writing. He was a major figure in his own right in philosophy and science, in addition to his career as a statesman, but he displayed none of Shakespeare’s inspired use of language.
Nor was there any reason for either Bacon or Oxford to undertake such an elaborate charade. It’s true that, if either had written for the theatre, they would have to hide the fact, but that would have been easy enough. Many plays were produced anonymously. The cult of the theatrical writer started with Marlowe, but without Shakespeare’s personal success no-one would have thought it strange not to have known the author’s name.
If deception over the plays was unnecessary, it would be mind-boggling where the poetry was concerned. Writing poetry, and especially sonnets, was part of a gentleman’s expected talents in Elizabeth’s court – men like Raleigh and Sidney gained credit, not lost it, from their poems. There wasn’t a man in court who wouldn’t have sold his soul to have been able to claim Shakespeare’s sonnets as his own.
It’s been suggested that Shakespeare wouldn’t have had the political understanding to write some of his work, but that underestimates both the role of politics at the time and Shakespeare’s character and opportunities. We’re accustomed to thinking of politics as something we really should take an interest in, but it’s a bit boring. That wasn’t true in Shakespeare’s day, and it’s not difficult to see why. There are consequences for us if we end up with the “wrong” government, but not huge consequences. We might be more zealous about the process if, for example, the “wrong” choice meant we could end up burnt at the stake.
Ordinary people in 16th century England were passionately interested in the political history that had led them to their present day. Much of Shakespeare’s history is based on the work of Holinshed, and a copy of his history exists with annotations that have been identified as Shakespeare’s handwriting.
The company Shakespeare wrote and acted with, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, whose patron was responsible for court entertainment, were virtually the house theatre company at court. He’d have been used to being at court – in the role of litle more than a servant, to be sure, but servants have always seen a good deal of what’s going on. Especially if, as the author of the plays clearly was, they are obsessive observers of human behaviour. Shakespeare would have known exactly who was who at court, and how everyone interacted.
Most of all, though, it’s quite clear that the plays were written by an actor, someone who knew inside-out what the people on stage needed from him. He wrote perfectly for leads, for character actors, for bit-players, giving every one of them the opportunity to make the most of their time on stage, however long or short. It’s been said that, too, that if an actor follows Shakespeare’s punctuation he or she never has to take an extra breath. Marlowe might conceivably have had sufficient experience for this, but certainly not Bacon or Oxford.
All these three had their own achievements, especially Bacon in the development of modern science and Marlowe as a great writer. It’s not their fault people centuries later have tried to ascribe someone else’s genius to them, but it’s certainly long past time to give up the snobbishness of the past and acknowledge that a middle-class, provincial boy grew up to be perhaps the greatest writer the world has ever known.