What Is the Real Identity of William Shakespeare?
Since the time of the Renaissance, the identity of one of the greatest playwrights of all time, William Shakespeare, have been constantly questioned. There is still an on-going controversy between Shakespeare’s devoted admirers and anti-Stratfordians, who claim that this illustrious person is nothing more but just a fiction due to a number of reasons, such as lack of documentary evidence of Shakespeare being real, discrepancy of the author’s education and writing manner, and numerous similarities found in works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
One of the main reasons for planting the seed of doubt concerning Shakespeare’s identity is the fact that very little is known of playwright’s personal life. There are no letters, diaries, or authenticated portraits except the posthumous (Shapiro, 2010). The records of William Shakespeare from Stratford are rather rare and are attributed mostly to Shakespeare as to a real estate owner or an actor. There can be found only 6 William’s signatures of literary works, but the name is spelled differently from the one that appears on most Shakespeare title pages. For a great amount of scholars engaged in Shakespeare’s mystery, these facts are the grounds for presupposing that the name was used as a pseudonym for some other author (Barrel, 1940).
Another reason to consider Shakespeare to be a myth is an odd inconsistency observed between his education and style of writing. Anti-Stratfordians tend to think, that William’s humble origins and obscure life cannot be compatible with his poetic eminence. The author creates an impression of a highly educated person with a great experience of travelling, knowledge of foreign languages and court life, but at the same time there is no even an official document proving that William Shakespeare from Stratford attended school and was literate. For many proponents of anti-Stratfordians’ theory it works as a form of logic known as argumentum ex silentio, or argument from silence, since it takes the absence of evidence to be evidence of absence (Shipley, 1943).
A lot of speculation connected with Shakespeare’s identity was also created because of some evident similarities and parallels found in works of Shakespeare and his supposedly more knowledgeable contemporaries, such as Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley, Queen Elizabeth I, and Edward de Vere (Shapiro, 2010). One of the 19th century theories suggested that William Shakespeare was a pseudonym of some other well-known playwright of the epoch, created for a specific purpose, usually depending upon the social status of the candidate. A possible reason for this was a prevailing “stigma of print,” or in the case of commoners, avoidance of prosecution by the authorities (Smith, 2008).
To sum up, it can be stated that the main reasons for questioning Shakespeare’s identity and authorship are lack of documentary background of his life and a great amount of speculations brought up by admirers of other authors of the epoch. However, polemics regarding Shakespeare’s true identity are continuing, not leaving the case closed.
Barrel, C. W. (1940). Identifying Shakespeare: Science in the Shape of Infra-red Photography and the X rays Brings to Light at Last the Real Man Beneath the Surface of a Series of Paintings of the Bard. University of Chicago Press.
Shapiro, J. (2010). Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? New York: Simon & Schuster.
Shipley, J. T. (1943). Anti-Shakespeare theories. New York: Philosophical Library.
Smith, E. (2008). The Shakespeare Authorship Debate Revisited. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.
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John Micheli (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Doubts and Questions," in Who Wrote Shakespeare?, Thames and Hudson, 1996, pp. 67-112.
[In the following overview, Micheli outlines the authorship controversy, noting that while Shakespeare 's life is for the most part a mystery, there is no evidence against his claim as author. Micheli also illustrates the primary thrust of the anti-Stratfordian argument, that there exists a tremendous disparity between the life of Shakespeare and "the mind of the person" who authored the plays and poems.]
Shakspere as Candidate: The Pros, Cons and the Silences
The case for William Shakspere of Stratford has classical simplicity, giving it an initial advantage over the more complicated cases for all rival candidates. The name, with adapted spelling, appeared on the title-pages of plays and poems and, even though neither he nor anyone else in his lifetime clearly identified the actor with the author, no one openly challenged the attribution. Two of his poems were dedicated to the Earl of Southampton who never acknowledged the honour, but neither did he repudiate it. Shakspere's family and neighbours neither acclaimed nor disclaimed the great poet in their midst. His fellow actors and impresarios must have known whether or not he was the real author of the plays they were staging. They never expressed doubts about Shakspere's claim, and two of them, Heminge and Condell, certified his authorship of the plays in the First Folio.
The Folio of 1623 is one of the twin pillars of Stratfordian orthodoxy. The other is the poem inscribed below Shakspere's bust in Stratford's Holy Trinity church which was put there soon after his death, and records that Shakspere was the greatest writer of his age. No matter that the bust may have been changed or tampered with; the inscription beneath it is early and unequivocal.
Everyone concerned with the First Shakespeare Folio—the printers who saw the original texts, the two players who edited it, the two earls who received its dedication and the four poets, including Ben Jonson, who wrote verses for it—openly or tacitly accepted the declared authorship. Jonson addressed his poem. 'To the memory of my beloved, the Author. Mr William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us', and he was specific with his pun on the author's name ('shake a lance') and his 'Swan of Avon' epithet. Leonard Digges with his reference to Shakspere's Stratford monument plainly acknowledged his authorship of the Folio's contents.
The most powerful and compelling defence of William Shakspere is that none of the actors and theatre people who must have known him in London ever openly disputed his authorship of plays. This is a serious problem for the anti-Stratfordians, and their responses to it reveal a serious discrepancy in their argument. The true identity of Shakespeare, they say, was a close secret, known to very few people and thus easily maintained. Yet the conspiratorial group inevitably widens. Many cryptic references to the Authorship mystery by many contemporary writers are detected by the Heretics. If they are right, it would seem that almost every writer of the time was in on the secret, and in that case, if the secret was so widely known, it was really no secret at all. The idea of a concealed Shakespeare, someone other than the man from Stratford, is thus made ridiculous.
The orthodox teaching is that, although Shakspere's life is largely a mystery, there is no evidence worth looking at against his traditional claim to the Authorship. Shakspere's twin pillars stand intact. The Heretics may make mysteries, raise doubts and quibble as they please, but unless they can find proof for some other candidate, Shakespeare is respectably identified as Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon.
It is only when Stratfordians descend into the arena and argue the matter on the Heretics' grounds that perplexities arise. These are inevitably caused by the central paradox of the Authorship question, the discrepancy between the life of Shakspere and the mind of the person who wrote Shakespeare. On the one hand a bookless provincial trader, on the other a universal genius of refined education. How can the two possibly be matched?
This question splits the Stratfordians into two opposite camps, one of which includes the romantics and mystics. These make light of Shakspere's educational deficiencies. They follow Jonson's line, that though Shakspere was far from being a classical scholar, he could defeat the Romans at their own game and outdo all the ancient poets and philosophers. He was a born genius, a child of nature, and such people need no great stock of book learning to be capable of inspired writing, far exceeding anything that a mere pedant or scholar could produce. Shakspere's knowledge came to him directly through mystical channels.
The other, more modern approach to reconciling Shakspere with Shakespeare is by taking a high view of the education provided at the Stratford grammar school, while playing down the classical, legal and other types of rarefied knowledge found in the plays. The Stratford school syllabus has not survived, so if Shakspere went to that school, there is no telling what he might have learnt there. Nor is there any indication of where or what he might have studied during his the 'lost years' of his early manhood. This gap allows room for any amount of speculation, and Stratfordians can take advantage of it to explain any special knowledge attributed to the writer of Shakespeare. Aubrey claimed that Shakspere was once a country schoolmaster, and so he might have been; that would explain his familiarity with the classics. Then again, he could have worked in a lawyer's office, or served in a nobleman's household, studied medicine or theology, enlisted in the army, served in the navy, travelled in Italy. . . . Shakspere could hardly have done all those things, but it is not impossible that he did one or two of them in his early twenties, and with a certain amount of specialized knowledge combined with a quick ear for the characteristic speech of other social and professional types, he could perhaps have qualified himself as a versatile dramatist.
To most of the points raised by the Heretics the Stratfordians have managed to provide more or less reasonable answers. On other points they confess to being mystified. The status quo perpetuates their advantage. Unless their opponents can produce new, conclusive evidence, discrediting Shakspere or proving the claim of one or other rival candidate, Stratford has nothing to fear. Even in the barely imaginable event of such evidence coming to light, the Stratford cult is so gainfully established that Shakspere's home town would probably adapt itself to remaining the shrine of whoever was acclaimed as our National Poet.
The life of William Shakspere himself is the main reason why there is a Shakespeare authorship problem. A review of all the known, documented facts about his career gives a picture of a fairly successful local business man who dealt in land, property and rural commodities and...