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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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August 21st, 2013
4:08 PM
I appreciate Mr. Wilson's comment. It is indeed truly incredible that one glorious mind created those works. A question for those who believe Shakespeare to have been "a disreputable, repugnant sort of human being..." Why would such a person have been chosen as the vessel of transmission?

August 14th, 2013
11:08 PM
Oh this is so old. This issue has long been settled and people refuse to accept it. Shakespeare was Shakespeare and no one else. It's a waste of everyone's energy to convince the unconvincable. The next issue is convincing people that Shakespeare was a Roman Catholic. That evidence is also very solid.

August 12th, 2013
10:08 PM
It is hard to dismiss the "evidence" which thoughtful study of the issue produces. Likewise, it is difficult to accept a "conspiracy" which must have involved many intelligent people being entirely suppressed. That being said, much potential evidence hath withered on the vine of time, and the question of Shakespeare's authorship remains puzzling and mysterious.

August 3rd, 2013
2:08 PM
@JeanVictor: the “seacoast of Bohemia,” in fact, did exist between 1575 and 1609. The 35 miles long seacoast was tucked between the Holy Roman and Ottoman empires. Rudolf II, King of Bohemia, controlled it. Shakespeare in The Winter’s Tale was accurate.

August 1st, 2013
9:08 PM
Dr. Womersley is an excellent historian who in his heart of hearts must know better than the vulgar tripe dished out here in defense of a tourist industry and a failing orthodox paradigm of Shakespearean studies. Pitifully, the article consists of cliches, half-truths, and name calling. The methodology reveals the rising desperation of a Shakespearean status quo that cannot deal honestly and sensibly with the contradictions and implausibilities of its own inquiry. Not only will this book have no impact in quelling doubts about the official bardolatry of the birthplace trust, those who read it with an authentic sense of historical context (i.e., in relation to the arguments it purports to refute but actually refuses to engage), will realize that something is rotten in the state of Stratford.

July 31st, 2013
8:07 PM
Ha ha! I told you they'd be here; it's what they do. Unlike zombies, not even a head shot can disable them, because their arguments are brainless.

Lunar Chandelier Press
July 31st, 2013
2:07 AM
This artcle offers nothing new, no fresh perspective on the authorship question. And it relies on the tired, prejudiced carp that all Oxfordians, and others who question the authorship, must be snobs who thought to themselves “how could a humble midland boy write these works?” and then went ahunting for a likely candidate. Why does that have to be the case? For many of the thousands of Oxfordians, publicly avowed and not, it is the persuasive arguments, provisional theories and diligent questioning of scholars and writers, that make a convincing- but not absolutely fully, yet - historical and literary case for the authorship of Oxford, with an in-group of others, probably including WS, the actor, that has sharpened the issue in the recent decade. The points of contention are too numerous to reiterate here. Try Mark Anderson’s Shakespeare by Another Name, a deliberate, complex biography of Edward De Vere. One of the best pithy summaries of the various arguments is found in Players by Bertram Fields. Fair, reasoned and with a useful integrating proposal of his own. At the least, scan Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identify of William Shakespeare, for a neat gloss on the points that raise doubt. Zombies? No zombies could have produced the copious and indefatigable scholarship now available. Have you actually ever read the copiously annotated, close reading of Shakepeare text’s offered by the maligned Dorothy and Charlton Ogburn in their biography of Edward De Vere, This Star of England (1952). The detailing and depth of their bibliographic reading is quite surprising, even if one isn’t persuaded by their assertions of the full relationship between Edward De Vere and Queen Elizabeth. My own hero is the lesser known Charles Wiser Barell, who tenaciously sorted out dusty Oxford related historical documents during World War II and has come up with reams of interesting correlations. His articles are available in reprint at the Shakespeare Authorship Sourcebook. The fact is: there’s reasonable doubt about the Stratford Man as author or mostly author, however close he may have been to the scene. A fully examined, unbiased exploration of the issue is still too threatening to the long time Shakespeare industry in London. but, the discussion is not going to die. Why should such a compelling literary historical mystery have to go away?

Tom Goff
July 30th, 2013
10:07 PM
By the way, if one must quibble and claim that there is a Kyd authorship controversy, there indeed is, contrary to what Mr. Womersley asserts. From the evidence of an epistle to a play by Robert Greene, penned by Thomas Nashe, we are to believe that Thomas Kyd wrote the so-called "Ur-Hamlet" of 1589. The key words, written by Nashe to a playwright and translator, are, "English Seneca read by candle-light yields many good sentences, as Blood is a begger, and so forth; and if you entreat him fair in a frosty morning, he will afford you whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls of tragical speeches." But Shakespeare scholar Andrew S. Cairncross notes that the accusation is against Kyd, for stealing from the Hamlet author. Hamlet itself, which alludes to the casting of cannons, possibly English cannons in time to turn against the Armada, thus may date to 1589 or earlier. And the "Blood is a beggar" passage, while not surviving into the Hamlet we know, does appear, little changed, in one of "Shakespeare's" Sonnets, writes Katherine Chiljan. So the Hamlet of Kyd, supposedly harmful to an early (Oxfordian) dating of the play is based, says Joseph Sobran, on "evidence too slender to be called hyperbolical." But Hamlet, and most of the Shakespeare plays, were probably drafted much too early for the Stratford man to have taken a hand.

Surazeus Simon Seamount
July 30th, 2013
9:07 PM
My believing Edward de Vere wrote the plays has nothing to do with class or snobbery. Events, characters, and places in the life of Edward de Vere so completely match events, characters, and places in the plays of Shakespeare that it is incredibly difficult to believe that anyone but Edward de Vere wrote the plays. The match between his biography and the plays is so extensive, that this is the only thing that prevents me from believing without doubt that William Shakespeare wrote the plays, and this is what keeps the question so alive. Academics refuse to address that issue. If academics can adequately explain why the biography of Oxford so completely matches the plays, and still proof William Shakespeare wrote the plays, then I will no longer doubt.

July 30th, 2013
1:07 AM
look at this timeline and make your decision, shakespeare was a moneylender : o)

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