William Shakespeare and his challengers [Archives:2005/836/Education]

April 25 2005

Dr Murari Prasad
[email protected]
Faculty of Education, Arts & Science

Even as the spate of fierce controversies surrounding the authorship of William Shakespeare's works has continued to rage since the late 1990s, the faith of academic Shakespearians in the man from Stratford-upon-Avon (23 April 1564)23 April 1616) seems far from shaken. However, the claims and counter-claims by Stratfordians, on the one hand, and Oxfordians or antiStratfordians, on the other, have thrown up interesting facts about the Elizabethan playwright and actor as well as about his challenger Edward de Vere(1550-1604), the 17th Earl of Oxford and preferred candidate as an alternate Shakespeare. Inevitably, flourishing material in the form of attribution studies and competing theories on the plays and poems attributed to the Bard has come out more recently, such as Joseph Sobran's Alias Shakespeare, John Michell's Who Wrote Shakespeare? Irvin Leigh Matus' Shakespeare, In Fact, and Alan H. Nelson's Monstrous Adversary, plus a plethora of research papers and web stuff.

The debate which started in 1920 with an English schoolmaster J Thomas Looney's claim in favour of Edward de Vere has now turned into a battle following the wave of the Bard's new vogue. Hollywood's take on Shakespeare in the late 90s came up in modish remakes of the earlier versions. “Shakespeare cures everything,” says Tina Packer, the founder of Shakespeare & Company, one of the most acclaimed Shakespeare festivals in the United States. Stressing the Stratford screenplay writer's continuing relevance, Packer adds: “[He] comes alive in your soul and helps you contend with the human condition. Hamlet is the first modern hero because he knows there's no absolute answer. We make choices out of lesser versions of good)none's perfect. What's the most ethical? The most creative? The choice that'll make us grow? Shakespeare's an excellent guide for this. When Falstaff asks, 'What is honour? Who hath it?' Shakespeare's saying, 'What do you think, guys?' He's searching for a way to look at life.”

Not surprisingly, the unmatched plot pitcher during the last 400 years was recently not only the hottest writer of treatments in Hollywood for the new crop of pop creations)Franco Zeffirell's “Hamlet” with Mell Gibson; Leonard Di Caprio and Clare Danes in Baz Luhrmann's 1996 gangland ” Romeo+ Juliet”; a modern version of Hamlet, featuring Ethan Hawke; takeoffs on Macbeth, Titus Andronicus, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and of course Love's Labour Lost –but also the hero of the romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love” (1998). Certain well-known facts about his life (that he was married and that his theatrical rival was Christopher Marlowe) and fantasies got melded into a clever and charming screenplay by Tom Stoppard and Marc Norman. The movie about the young Shakespeare (played by Joseph Fiennes), which has strong similarities to the plot of No Bed for Bacon (a 1941 novel by Caryl Brahms and S J Simon), is a fantasia, lacking in the sequence of a literary biography, although it does capture Romeo and Juliet admirably, according to Harold Bloom, the Yale scholar and author of a 1999 best seller, Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.

As it happened, the first-ever film on Shakespeare fuelled the fringe belief that it was the 17th Earl of Oxford who wrote the works attributed to the half-educated glover's son from Warwickshire. Incensed Stratfordians described Oxfordians' reconstruction as “a farrago of misinformation” based on evidence “plucked from thin air”. However, the new candidate put up as the real Shakespeare proved more credible than his predecessors such as Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, Sir Edward Dyer, the Earl of Rutland, and William Pierce. Each of these candidates as alternate Shakespeare has been set up by a cadre of promoters, but the thesis in support of Edward de Vere supported by articulate advocates and a new slew of evidence has grabbed considerable attention, making him the Bard's chief challenger. Consequently, the two-century-old Baconian argument, or Marlovian hypothesis for that matter, has fallen by the wayside.

De Vere's champions or Oxford partisans harp on the known fact that the outward events of Shakespeare's life are incompatible with his literary eminence. Certain clues do make the Earl's supposed authorship of these poems and plays plausible. Besides drawing on the similarity of language in de Vere's copy of the Geneva Bible and Shakespeare's texts, the Oxford camp has been playing up the circumstantial evidence which links the episodes in plays such as Hamlet, Love's Labour Lost, Taming of the Shrew, Measure for Measure, Othello, Cymbeline, Winter's Tale, King Lear, as well as the sonnets to certain events around the Earl's life. But his death earlier than Shakespeare's weakens the Oxfordians' plea in that the plays like The Tempest, The Winter's Tale, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, Cymbeline, Pericles, King Lear, and Macbeth were written after 1604. Although the revisionist faction defends de Vere's authorship with the contention that the plays are misdated, the Earl's extant poetry -20 short lyrics)does not match the elegance and spark of the lines attributed to the William of Stratford-upon- Avon.

None the less, the non-believers in the Stratford man have pressed the verbal parallels between Oxford's acknowledged poetry and Shakespeare's poems and plays to assert that the former was the pseudonymous author of the Shakespeare canon. Among the facts turned up to Oxford's credit are the legal terms used both in his private letters and in Shakespeare's works. As the Oxfordians have argued, intimate knowledge of court intrigues, nobility, history and law as well as the details of Italian life evident in Shakespeare's plays was beyond the background of a country bumpkin. None but a gifted writer like Oxford, who was also among the movers and shakers at Elizabeth's court, could have authored these works. Why did he choose to remain anonymous all along? His admirers declare that playwriting was beneath the dignity of nobility in Elizabethan England, so de Vere hid behind the nondescript man from Stratford whose name came in handy because Gabriel Harvey once saluted the Earl before Queen Elizabeth as a man whose countenance “shakes a spear”)hence the literary twinning.

Orthodox Stratfordians have taken these assertions as fanciful contortions and have rallied round the Bard with equal vehemence. They also see an American angle in this conspiracy to subvert the English literary heritage headed by a provincial rough diamond. As regards Shakespeare's education, it is generally agreed that he attended the local grammar school, the Stratford Free School, where good education in Latin including training in rhetoric was imparted. “Stratford came to be known as a town remarkable for the birth of famous William Shakespeare as early as the seventeenth century,” said Robert Smallwood, deputy director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in a conversation with me during my visit to Stratford-upon-Avon. A road or straet across Avon's ford, a major tributary of the Severn in the south-western corner of Warwickshire, gave the place the name of Stratford in Roman times. During the middle ages its growth was fostered by tradesmen who crossed the Avon by a wooden bridge alongside the ford on their way from Coventry to Bristol. During Shakespeare's time, it became the centre of a flourishing glove-making industry. His father, John Shakespeare, was a glover and wool dealer. Stratford is still a small district town with a population of less than 30 thousand but it is now known as Shakespeare's town where over 2.5 million tourists come every year to see the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Swan Theatre, the Shakespeare Centre, adjacent to Shakespeare's Birthplace, New Place ( the most expensive house in the town bought by Shakespeare in 1597 where he lived in retirement and died), Anne Hathaway's Cottage ( named after Shakespeare's wife), Mary Arden's House( named after Shakespeare's mother) and Hall's Croft ( the home of Shakespeare's daughter, Susanna, and her husband, Dr John Hall).

Thus Stratford and Shakespeare have become synonymous with each other. More to the point of the larger Shakespearian camp, the doubters have not convincingly explained away the printed allusion to the Stratford screenplay writer from Greene's 1592 pamphlet [or possibly by Chettle?]: “an upstart Crow” who “is in his own conceit the only shake-scene in a countrey” and Ben Jonson's encomium in the 1623 First Folio: “the sweet swan of Avon”. Also, no claim came from any quarter for the authorship of Shakespeare's works during his life time, or even much later.

Nevertheless, the mystery of authorship of Shakespeare's works, which carries the weight of doubt expressed in the past by writers like Mark Twain and Walt Whitman in America and of late by scholar politicians like Enoch Powell in Britain and the media (the New York Times, February 10, 2002) as well, has engaged the attention of many scholars. Some of them do veer round the tantalizing de Vere line, following up Charlton Ogburn's contention in his book The Mysterious William Shakespeare, while a few have rejected the Oxfordian chestnut as an altogether unpalatable doctrine. The debate continues as Edward de Vere Studies Conference held every April at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon , Shakespeare Oxford Society meetings as well as Dutch Shakespeare Authorship Conference, Utrecht (Netherlands) have been drawing a large number of academicians over the years to share their research on who wrote Shakespeare. Notably in addition, a US-Aussie grant of $170,000 to develop computer software capable of analyzing the works of William Shakespeare and clarifying historical disputes over the authorship by applying computational stylistics is likely to yield decisive indications in the next two years. Until the “historic whodunit” emerges with clinching evidence, for the mainstream Shakespearians the Bard of Avon remains as potent as his pentameters.