Little do we know about the true history of William Shakespeare; there are many conspiracies that surround his life. For centuries, scholars have debated over the true authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Many books and articles have been written arguing that someone other than William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems published under his name. Many quarrels have been exchanged, but the problem remains unresolved.
William Shakespeare is a man of immense mystery. There are many blanks left unfilled about his life due to lost records. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire. His most widely accepted date of birth is on April 23, 1564. However his actual date of birth still remains a mystery. A record from the parish register of Holy Trinity Church in his hometown was found, which states that he was baptized on April 26, 1564. Based on this record, and considering that children of Shakespeare’s time were usually baptized two or three days after their birth, April 23 became traditionally accepted as Shakespeare’s date of birth.
Details about his life are only known from few surviving documents. Shakespeare was the son of John Shakespeare, a locally well-known merchant, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a prosperous landowner. He was the eldest of eight children. Shakespeare probably went to the King’s New School grammar school in Stratford; but he had no education after that. In November of 1582, at the age of eighteen, a license was issued to permit Shakespeare to marry Anne Hathaway, who was eights years his senior and also pregnant with their first child, Susanna.
Hathaway was the daughter of a Warwickshire farmer, owner of the Hathaway farmhouse, which later became known as Anne Hathaway’s Cottage. Susanna, their first child, was born on May 26, 1583. Later, in 1585, Shakespeare’s wife was once again pregnant, this time giving birth to a set of twins, a boy, Hamnet (who would later die at an early age of eleven), and a girl, Judith. Not much is known after the birth of the twins up until 1592, when Shakespeare was writing in London. For this reason, Shakespeare’s biographers referred to the years between 1585 and 1592 as the lost years. There are still many speculations concerning this period in his life.
Many people believe that Shakespeare did not actually write his plays; that someone else wrote them; and this person needed to remain anonymous. Scholars have come up with a list of possible candidates, which range from well-known writers such as Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford; Sir Francis Bacon; and Christopher Marlowe; to far out suggestions such as Queen Elizabeth I; and Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s own wife. Although no one can really prove these claims to be true, there are many arguments to support them. These arguments, used as evidence, were accumulated and summarize into a few points: Shakespeare’s education was very limited, so he could not have had such an exceptional use of English;
Shakespeare did not travel around the world, so he could not have had the knowledge of the foreign countries he had written about in his plays, such as Egypt, Syracuse, and Italy; he knew little of foreign languages, so he could not have written those plays that contained passages of Latin and French; his name was not “Shakespeare,” it was actually “Shaksper”;
the many legal terms that Shakespeare used in his works show great signs that he must have been a lawyer, in which he was not; if he was ever paid for any of his plays, no evidence of such payments were ever discovered; he mention nothing about his plays in his will; there is no evidence of any letter written by him, but only “one” letter written to him, a letter regarding a debt;
Shakespeare was a commoner, whom couldn’t have written about the life of kings and queens in their royal courts, a life unfamiliar to a man of his stature; the manuscripts of all his works have disappeared, indicating a scheme to hide any of his handwriting. These are some of the “evidence,” really merely arguments, to be culled from hundreds if not thousands of books,” (Martin, 10).
Anti-Shakespeare arguments begin with the suggestion that there was no public or private mention of Shakespeare as a poet or dramatist at the time of his death. In Elizabethan convention, the elegiac poem was a true work of respect, yet there was none found for William Shakespeare.
How could he then be the foremost figure in English literature? From all indications found, during 1585 to 1593, Shakespeare’s most creative years, he was never referred to by anyone, personally or professionally. From birth to death, no evidence of his name appeared in the title pages of the nine First Quartos,
Another argument is that only nobles or those associated with nobility could have written such noble thoughts and described the aristocratic character. How could someone of Shakespeare’s status write Hamlet? In addition, familiarity with languages, literature, law, politics, history, geography, and court life found in Shakespeare’s writings, are all inconceivable for a commoner.
Shakespeare never attended a University and was not highly cultured. Yet, whoever wrote the plays must have been highly educated. Some think he may not have been able to even write. His own barely legible signature, attached only to his will and some business deals, with sixteen variations of handwriting, was odd for a literary genius. Self-education was impossible since he probably owned no books. In his will, no mention of any books was made, and books were valuable enough to be mentioned in that time period.
Before death, Shakespeare composed his own epitaph:
“Good friend for Jesus sake forbeare
To digg the dust encloased heare;
Blest be the man that spares these stones
And curste be he who moves my bones” (Hoffman 60).
Why would a poet and playwright who wrote so brilliantly have no higher sentiments for his own epitaph?
Now, who could have written the works attributed to William Shakespeare? Some suggested that is was Christopher Marlowe. He was a well-known English playwright and poet during the Elizabethan era. Marlowe was educated at the University of Cambridge. He associated himself with the Admiral’s Men, a company of actors for whom he wrote most of his plays (Encarta). This proves he was able to produce great works.
Another theory came from Calvin Hoffman, saying that on May 29, 1593, Marlowe, was arrested for atheism and was charged with treason. His homosexual friend, Thomas Walsingham, foresaw doom for his lover and made a plan. Marlowe was to be the victim of a fake murder, allowing charges against him to vanish with his death. The murder of a sailor, supposedly Marlowe, was arranged and committed, forcing Marlowe to pack up and leave the country. A coroner was contacted and Marlowe was officially pronounced dead.
Possibly Marlowe went to Italy after escaping to France. That might account for knowledge of Italy in certain plays. Later he is thought to have returned to England, in disguise, to work in seclusion at Walsingham’s estate. There, he could have walked the thousand acres of woods where so many allusions to nature could have come to him. Thus, was it a coincidence that Marlowe in his thirteenth year, May, 1593, died, and Shakespeare, also in his thirtieth year, came forth as a writer, four months later, in September, 1593?
Marlowe left a poem, called “Venus and Adonis”; it is found to be registered anonymously. Four months after the end of Marlowe, this poem appeared with the name William Shakespeare. To make Shakespeare inconspicuous, the poem was a logical candidate for the first publication, since Marlowe’s reputation was that of a dramatist, not a poet. Walsingham probably received manuscripts from Marlowe, but Marlow’s handwriting was known to his publishers who owned his previous materials, this indicated that his publishers intentionally stole his works and gave it to Shakespeare.
There is a duel in Romeo and Juliet and in The Jew of Malta, there he described his experience, where the character Machevel is Marlowe saying:
“Albert the world think Machevel is dead, Yet was his soul but flown beyond the Alps And now the Guize is dead, us come from France To view this land (Britain) and frolic with friends.
To some, perhaps my name is Odius, But such as love me guard me from their tongues, And let them know that I am Machevel” (Hoffman 142).
Calvin Hoffman found similarities between Marlowe and Shakespeare. He found a picture of both, enlarged them, and saw identical details in their faces. Lastly, in an attempt to prove Marlowe’s authorship, Calvin Hoffman, a long-time critic, received permission to open the tomb of Marlowe’s friend, Thomas Walsingham. There he hoped to find manuscripts. However, all he found was sand. There was no coffin and no papers.
On the other hand, Professor J. M. Massi says that the entire Marlowe theory is ridiculous. To say that just because Shakespeare came from a lower economic class, therefore he could not have written the works, is not a good enough reason.
And to say that only the wealthy and advantaged can be successful, is not true either because Richard Field, who also grew up in Stratford in similar circumstances as Shakespeare, became one of the leading publishers and booksellers in London. Massi also believed that in Shakespeare’s time, authors trained other authors so a work had many authors, and the printer put one name on the cover of the play (Ross and Kathman).
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, another candidate for authorship, was born April 23, 1564, Shakespeare’s birthday. He was also attached to the theaters. He had an intimate relationship with Queen Elizabeth. Edward de Vere studied law, knew the people of court, war, and Italy. He had
appropriate knowledge to write the plays. Some believed that he may have used the pseudonym Shakespeare because in tournaments he carried a long spear, or because his coat of arms was a lion shaking a spear. He may also have been ashamed of writing, being the Earl of Oxford, and therefore assumed a pseudonym as protection against losing status.
Edward de Vere was a royal ward where he had the opportunity to observe and participate in court life, while Shakespeare was in little Stratford, isolated from an intellectual society, at the time he was supposed to be writing. Edward de Vere traveled widely in Europe too. And, Shakespeare’s plays must have been written by a much-traveled man. If Shakespeare ever traveled outside of England, or even further then London, nothing is known of it.
There is further support for Edward de Vere. Writers often put their thoughts, friendships, love affairs and other personal experiences into their works. Matching episodes from his life with the plays, revealed his mother to be similar to Hamlet’s mother, a father-in law like Polonius, a fair lady- the Queen, a dark lady-his mistress, Ann Vavasor, and a boy, de Vere’s bastard son.
Some even believe Edward de Vere paid Shakespeare hush money to use his name. In the de Vere theory, the most popular evidence to his authorship is that his death coincided with Shakespeare’s retirement to Stratford. When de Vere was deceased so were Shakespeare’s plays and poems. Again Professor Massi believes that the evidence for de Vere is highly creative. He says that if there was a cover-up going on, many people would know the truth, and they certainly all would not have kept the secret going to their graves.
A third contender for the writer of Shakespeare’s works is Francis Bacon. Those who support him are Baconians. Bacon was chosen because of his intellectual ability. Also, parallels exist in both Bacon’s and Shakespeare’s works, suggesting their identities are one. Bacon too, invented a cipher and some believes it was to conceal himself. Sir Toby Matthew once wrote to Bacon and said, “The most prodigious wit that ever I knew… is of Your Lordship’s name, though he be known by another” (Encyclopedia Britannica). People who say Bacon did not write
Shakespeare’s works assert that he was not a great poet, so he could not have been a great dramatist. They say he was a cold man, stately, and grave. Whoever wrote Shakespeare’s works was “sparkling” and “extravagant.” Bacon’s works did not sympathize with suffering, while Shakespeare’s did. Bacon and Shakespeare viewed the world differently.
Finally, some disbelievers support another candidate, William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, who was interested in drama, and became a patron of a company of actors. Several poems showed signs of early and immature Shakespeare, but he was a boy at that time. One was signed in Derby’s handwriting, and three signed “William Shakespeare.” His motive is similar to de Vere’s, would have been to avoid association of his family name with the lower social order of the stage.
Was Shakespeare hinting at his name through playing with words? His verses, such as “… every word doth almost tell my name…” seem to be an attempt to reveal his name. Another line says, “What’s in a name?” Sonnet III says, “Hence comes it that my name receives a brand,” and ” my name be buried where my body is….”
In conclusion, curiosity has indeed been aroused for, many years. Hundreds of theories and shreds of proof have been gathered, but the world will always wonder and waver between doubt and belief in William Shakespeare. So, the question still remains, “Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare?”