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‘Sweetest Shakespeare fancy’s child’: The frontispiece of the First Folio

We live, it seems, in a world of zombies. The economic crisis has created a host of metaphorical zombies-zombie banks, zombie companies, zombie households, all kept moving, if not exactly alive, by artificially low interest rates. The life of the mind also has its metaphorical zombies. In particular, there are zombie arguments, which can never be finally killed. No matter how often they are — you might think — overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary, these arguments find new advocates, are reanimated, get unsteadily to their feet, and stumble groggily onwards.

A prime example of such a zombie is the denial that the plays of Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare, and the accompanying claim that in fact they were written by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I. It's worth just pausing for a moment, as we stand on the brink of an engagement with these assertions and before we have begun to consider their glaring weaknesses, to summarise the evidence for the straightforward view that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him.

In the first place, in Shakespeare's lifetime plays were often written in a collaborative manner involving other playwrights, and also at moments drawing on contributions from the actors in the company which would perform the play (and which would also then own the playbook). This open and collaborative mode of composition would have made it virtually impossible for someone to pass off their work as that of someone else. The process of creating a play in Shakespeare's age was too public and involved too many people for a conspiracy over authorship to be sustained.

Secondly, many of Shakespeare's contemporaries — Robert Greene, William Covell, Richard Barnfield, Francis Meres, Gabriel Harvey, John Weever, William Camden, William Drummond, John Webster, Michael Drayton, Francis Beaumont, and, most extensively, Ben Jonson — all wrote or spoke about Shakespeare as the author of the plays which bear his name. If there was a conspiracy over Shakespeare's authorship of his plays, then it either involved or took in a very large number of well-placed contemporaries, a number of whom (such as Robert Greene) would have been delighted to discover that Shakespeare was a fraud. But there is in fact, as James Shapiro observed in his astute and perceptive book on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, Contested Will (2010), much more evidence that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Hamlet and Henry V than there is that Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine or that Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy. Yet — strangely — there is no Marlowe or Kyd authorship debate.

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Charles Matheson
July 28th, 2013
2:07 PM
The writer was C. Marlowe in exile (Prospero) who delivered the plays (Miranda) by way of his spirit agent(s) the Earl of Oxford or Jonson (Ariel) to be preformed by his "slave" Shakespeare (Caliban). The mystery is illuminated in the Tempest - it's all there for those with eyes to see.

Chuck Vekert
July 27th, 2013
2:07 PM
A long-winded friend once game me a hour lecture on why Shakespeare did not write the plays. As I filled my lungs with air to reply he gave one more reason: He had asked his channel to the next world to ask Shakespeare himself. And the so-called Bard admitted that he was not the author. I gently exhaled, feeling much like the supporters of Lance Armstrong and Barry Bonds.

JeanVictor
July 27th, 2013
12:07 PM
The plays and poems ascribed to Shakespeare are full of the sort of classical book learning that a clever, humbly-born grammar school boy could have picked up. Conversely, when it comes to Geography, our bard is clearly out of his depth. No courtier could possibly have imagined Bohemia had a sea coast. But a lad from a Midland shire who had as much chance of foreign travel as we have of a trip to Uranus could easily have made such a mistake. Ergo Shakespeare is Shakespeare. Or, if he isn't, he's certainly not Oxford, Bacon or some other nob.

Howard Schumann
July 26th, 2013
3:07 AM
Your article is simply a repeat of all the tired misrepresentations about the authorship debate that we have heard over and over again. You owe your readers more than the typical Stratfordian hand-wringing and arrogant put-downs that are so typical. None of the names you mentioned in your article as evidence for the orthodox position ever identified the author Shakespeare as the man from Stratford-on-Avon. When contemporaries referred to Shakespeare, they were referring only to the name on the title page. No one during his lifetime ever claimed to have met the man. There are no descriptions, no anecdotes, no diaries, no correspondence, only a blank. Nothing in your article even remotely suggests that you have ever read a book on the evidence supporting Edward de Vere as the true author of the Shakespeare canon.

AnRick Johnson
July 25th, 2013
9:07 PM
KJV, Psalm #46, 46th word from top, 46th word from bottom. Bacon directed NEW translation, and loved cryptograms. And he would have been 46 in 1607, just about that percentage way through the work.

SF Professor
July 25th, 2013
5:07 PM
In the 80s I subscribed to a famous skeptic organization which investigated UFO sightings. Disappointing. The newspaper stories they all quoted weren't being misquoted; they were often from newspapers that didn't even exist. Why did this nonsense persist? An article finally observed that if you were an uneducated person sitting ignored in the company cafeteria listening to people discuss books you'd never read and ideas you didn't grasp, how could you attract attention? You could say you were a Communist or atheist but you might get in trouble. If you said you believed in UFO's, you'd attract annoyed attention from the educated people. And it was safe. You could even strike the pose of the brave rebel against established opinion. Saying Shakespeare didn't write his plays is just annoying enough to make others notice you, but you won't get in trouble.

RobertH
July 25th, 2013
4:07 PM
There may be two reasons for the zombie arguments about Shakespeare's authorship of his acknowledged corpus: 1. The spread of plagiarism along with literacy, and 2. The ascendency of celebrity-worship by hoi polloi One suspects some of those who doubt Shakespeare's authorship to be, themselves, plagiarists of ideas and text, and others to be outraged that someone of grander rank and station in life is NOT the author - their ilk also populate the troll-ish commentary sites on the Internet

Bruce Leyland
July 25th, 2013
2:07 PM
It should not be surprising that many people at the time believed Shakespeare to be the poet - as his name was published on poems from 1593 (plays from 1598 - a couple that were not of the same writer). However, the host of testimonials you cite need to be examined one-by-one. A few seem to support Shakespeare the actor as author. A large proportion are ambivalent if not directly negative. Certainly, Greene (Chettle probably - an instance of a writer using the name of a real person) and Jonson's comments/characters cast doubt on his authorship. Jonson also seems to have written the First Folio epistles of Heminge and Condell (another instance of a master poet using the names of real people - this time while they're still alive). We have to ask - why? Certainly, the epistles do cement the First Folio to the otherwise unlikely hand of William Shakespeare the actor. The problem is, they're fake. Setting aside the outlandish claims of particular candidates - many of which must be wishful thinking - as there is (notwithstanding a little collaboration)only one real author - there is real doubt about the litigious man who: never left England; had illiterate daughters, no books, or letters (from, or to); "never blotted a line"; profiteered during grain shortages; is pilloried in Every Man Out of His Humour, Return from Parnassus,and Groatsworth of Wit; associated with crooks - at least one of whom (Wilkins) kicked a pregnant woman in the belly; left a stingy will bereft of cultural objects; and who wrote awful epitaphs for himself, a brewer, and an unscrupulous money lender, but no eulogy for Elizabeth or Prince Henry (a little awkward under a pseudonym). In fact, it is the Stratfordian perspective that diminishes the writer - by arc-welding this mean biography to works of consistent generosity.

Drivelbuster
July 25th, 2013
1:07 PM
There is no evidence whatsoever associating Pimping Billy with the works of "Shake-speare". That men like Ben Jonson had met the imposter is clear from references to him in, say, Every Man Out of His Humour and, of course, the anonymous "Pimping Billy" story, which for centuries has told the world every thing that needs to be known about the Stratford fake: that he was a disreputable, repugnant sort of human being, the sort of man who sued other people for money owed to him, who was fined for hoarding grain during a food shortage and who, when he asked to be allotted a family coat of arms and was refused, converted the words contained within the official rejection of his claim into the Shakspar family motto. There is, as Mark Twain correctly observed of this minor historical figure, nothing remotely worth remembering.

Anonymous
July 25th, 2013
1:07 PM
The 'zombie argument' is the one with witless and truth-averse proponents of the likes of Stanley Wells. There is no evidence whatsoever that Pimping Billy [yes, your boy was known to people like Ben Jonson and others in what passed for the literary world of the Elizabethan England, but for a range of unflattering reasons connected to his real trade as a commodity broker and illiterate poseur] wrote any of the plays or poetry attributed to "Shake-speare". None whatsoever. As Mark Twain correctly observed, there is nothing worth remembering about the Stratsford contentder. Nothing whatsoever.

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