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Shakespearean authorship

Beginning about one hundred years after William Shakespeare's death in 1616, when the estimation of his works' critical value had risen in the popular mind, and the knowledge of Shakespeare's repute had begun to fade, some people began to express doubts about the authorship of the peerless prose and poetry that they esteemed.

The standard belief, generally accepted from Shakespeare's death until the late 19th century, is that William Shakespeare, the author of the plays, is the same man as one William Shakespere, recorded as living in Stratford-upon-Avon.

The people who question whether William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of Shakespeare's plays are called anti-Stratfordians. They call those who have no such doubts Stratfordians: Stratfordians view the question of authorship as settled, and have no need for a name for themselves. It is the convention of anti-Stratfordians discussing the authorship controversy to refer to the man from Stratford as "Shaksper," and the author of the plays and poems (whoever he may be) as "Shakespeare."

According to standard scholarship, Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He was a poet, a playwright, an actor, part-owner of the Globe Theatre in London, and a member of the favored acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later The King's Men). His father was illiterate.

Anti-Stratfordians, however, believe that Shakspeare was either uneducated or poorly educated. They are doubtful that he could have produced the plays and poems that are critically acclaimed as sublime. The author of the Shakespeare canon must, according to anti-Stratfordians, have been a man of better education and probably noble background, concealed behind a pseudonym in part because the writing of drama for the public stage was considered a disreputable activity for an Elizabethan gentleman.

According to anti-Stratfordians, William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon was a rube whose father was unable to write his own name. Indeed, his wife and his two daughters were also illiterate beyond signing their own names, and, according to anti-Stratfordians, the literacy of Shakspeare himself is in doubt. How, they ask, could he have written the masterpieces of literature that we know as the works of Shakespeare?

We know little of Shakespeare's life, say anti-Stratfordians, while mainstream scholars point out that we know more about him than we do about any literary figure of that day, with the exception of Ben Jonson. In his lifetime Shakespeare was referred to specifically by name as a well-known writer at least twenty-three times, and his name also appears on the title pages of fourteen of the fifteen works published during his lifetime. No contemporary document connecting any other person with the plays exists.

Regarding the Shaksper/Shakespeare arguments, the man from Stratford spelled his name in different ways, a mark of illiteracy according to anti-Stratfordians. But in Shakespeare's time there was no standardized orthography: the thought that there was is an anachronism. Early editions of the works of the university-educated Christopher Marlowe spell his name as Marlowe, Marlo, Marlow, Marklin, and Marley.

Anti-Stratfordians point out that there are no records that William Shakespeare of Stratford ever attended school at all, although it is assumed that he was a student in the Stratford Free School (textbooks used at the Stratford Free School are alluded to in the plays). No one contends he attended any university.

William Henry Smith put forth, in 1856, the first claim that the author of Shakespeare's plays was Sir Francis Bacon, a major scientist, a courtier, a diplomat, an essayist, a historian, and a successful politician, who served as Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613), and Lord Chancellor (1618). Smith was later supported by New Haven's Delia Bacon in her book The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays, in which she maintains that Shakespeare was in fact a group of writers including Bacon. Delia Bacon was committed to a mental institution in England, brought back in confinement to Connecticut, and died in Hartford in 1859. Science fiction author, congressman, and Atlantis theorist, Ignatius Donelly's The Great Cryptogram, in which he found encoded messages attributing authorship to Bacon, is also cited as supporting the Bacon theory... encoded messages that, sadly, he alone could discern.

With these theories the floodgates of doubt opened, and a new fad developed: discerning auctorial cryptograms in Shakespeare's works. One of the most vigorous "cryptographers" was Mrs. Ashmead Windle. Claimants proposed included the Earl of Derby[?], Sir Edward Dyer[?], Queen Elizabeth, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford, the Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland[?], and at least fifty others. Elizabeth Wells Gallup examined Bacon's "bi-lateral cipher" (in which two fonts were used as a method of encoding) and announced that Bacon was not only the author of the Shakespearean works but also the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth, the product of a secret marriage. Again, sadly, only Ms. Gallup could reliably distinguish between the "two" fonts.

One of the most convincing arguments against the Baconian theory was delivered in 1957 by William F. Friedman and his wife Elizabeth. William, considered by many to be the greatest cryptologist of all time, and Elizabeth, a famous cryptologist for her work against "rum running," used their techniques to demonstrate that the codes included in some texts from both authors were in fact completely different, then went on to use statistical methods to demonstrate just how different the two styles of writing were.

The most popular latter-day candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. First proposed by John Looney[?] in 1920, de Vere is today the alternative candidate upon whom the majority of anti-Stratfordians have settled as their candidate for the identity of Shakespeare. Advocates of de Vere as the Shakespeare author are usually referred to as Oxfordians. Oxford died in 1604, the most convincing argument against Oxford's authorship, as ten of Shakespeare's plays have traditionally been dated after Oxford's death (and several of them, particularly The Tempest, which alludes to a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda, specifically refer to events following 1604). Oxfordians have argued in his favor that striking similarities between his biography and events in Shakespeare's plays, the acclaim of his contemporaries regarding his talent as a poet and a playwright, his closeness to Queen Elizabeth and Court life, underlined passages in his Bible that correspond to quotations in Shakespeare's plays, and his extensive education and intelligence all support the theory that he was, in fact, the author of the plays and poems conventionally attributed to Shakespeare. Supporters of the standard view would dispute most if not all of these contentions. The supposed connections between Oxford's life and the plots of Shakespeare's plays is conjectural at best, for instance, and the acclaim of Oxford's contemporaries for his poetic and dramatic skill was distinctly modest. Near contemporaries, like John Dryden, indicated that Shakespeare got many details wrong in his depiction of life at court, which means that Oxford's court connections do not support the case for his authorship very strongly.

Strong arguments exist, in fact, against the claim of any rival author. The opening lines of Sonnet 135 argue strongly against any alternate author, or at least any not named William:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.

It is also hard to understand why the poems, (as opposed to the plays) if by a nobleman, would have been published under an assumed name. The writing of poetry was an expected skill of an Elizabethan courtier, and poems like The Rape of Lucrece[?] or Venus and Adonis[?], long narrative works on classical subjects, were a completely distinct category from popular plays - a prestigious and highly respectable form of composition. Also, the fact that they were originally published after a period when theatres had been closed by an outbreak of the plague is more consistent with composition by a professional writer looking for an alternate source of income than by a rich dilettante.

Some anti-Stratfordians are perplexed by William Shakespeare's will. It is long and explicit, listing the possessions of a successful bourgeois in extensive detail, but is remarkable for containing no mention at all of personal papers, manuscripts, or books. (Books were rare and expensive items at the time.) However, it is worth noting that manuscripts of the plays would have been owned by the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a shareholder.

Other theories on who, other than the Stratford actor, may have written the works have been proposed. The debate, such as it is, seems far from being resolved, with standard scholarship noting that the theories of ghost authorship began to develop two centuries or more after Shakespeare's death and anti-Stratfordians claiming that there is evidence of a "cover-up" during the lifetime of the author. In any case, the debate has gone on for several centuries, and, barring the sudden discovery of new conclusive evidence, it is unlikely to be settled in the near future. As long as people enjoy a mystery, the controversy surrounding the authorship of the works of Shakespeare will flourish.

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