Washington State University
SHAKE-SPEARE: OTHER LIVES
Attempts to disprove that this Stratford grain-merchant Shakspere wrote the works of Shakespeare are typically sneered at as resulting either from snobbery — that we are reluctant to think that works of genius can have come from someone without a university education or travel experience — or from a post-romantic disappointment when a poet’s life is not as dramatic as his or her work. Alternate biographical investigation is labelled “bardolatry for paranoids” (Paster 38).
But we have no manuscripts, no working notebooks, no letters, no direct information on his private life from “the Warwickshire gentleman,” typically spelled Shakspere or a short-a variant in the records we do have. Give me a break! I’ve got my cherished photo of myself standing next to Agnes Nixon, and no one even knows who she is! (The creator of All My Children.) Shakespeare, in his own lifetime, was bigger than Agnes Nixon, yet nobody proudly decided in 1615 to hang onto a short personal letter by the great William Shakspere? (And this notion of celebrity culture is not anachronistic: witness the demand for portraits of Elizabeth, and the opening scene in Antony and Cleopatra.)
No one even attempted to write a biographical sketch of Stratford Will until a century later. “The evidence does not establish that he was the author of anything, let alone the erudite works of ‘Shakespeare.'” We have six “quavering and ill-written” signatures on legal documents. His wife and daughter signed their names with an X. So, “the author of King Lear was a litigious businessman” (Bethell 36)? Shakspere left London in 1604 at the age of forty — odd that that would make him the only great writer in history to “retire” young and triumphant. He shows up almost immediately in a Stratford small claims court, suing a neighbor for a malt debt of 35 shillings, soon after the publication of Hamlet?!
Orthodox scholars think Ben Jonson was sniping that Shakespeare had “small Latin and less Greek,” but the phrasing indicates something more like “Even if you had had small Latin and less Greek, still….” For Shakespeare knows classical material and classical rhetoric and certainly more than just the spirit of Ovid and Virgil. It’s argued that Elizabethan grammar school could be impressive, beginning at 6:00 am, centered on Latin language and literature, etc. (Shakespeare has assumed the place that these formerly occupied in schooling.) The Stratford grammar school was, in fact, a one-room schoolhouse for farmers’ sons of all ages. We have no record that William attended.
Noblemen did not use their names when writing for public theater, so pen names were the rule. The printing press threatened absolutist regimes such as the Tudor. Attempts to control ideas included destruction of unlicensed presses; pamphlets seized; theaters closed; writers interrogated (Samuel Daniel), imprisoned (George Chapman, Ben Jonson), mutilated (John Stubbs, Alexander Leighton, William Prynne), maybe even assassinated (Marlowe?). The majority of plays before the Elizabethan era are anonymous. Sidney and Surrey were published under their names only after death.
References to the playwright frequently read “Shake-speare” with the hyphen. As a pseudonym, this would work most appropriately. Pallas Athena was the mythological patron of theater arts (patron goddess of Athens), and wore a helmet that made her invisible; but she carried a spear and, for example, invisibly influences the spear-throwing scene between Hector and Achilles in The Iliad. So, a “spear shaker” is an invisible writer for the theater.
A mid-nineteenth-century hypothesis looked to Bacon, based on a comparison of the works and references to the law (“Shakespeare” knows it too well to be identified with Stratford Will), the Bible, classics, etc. But the theory became “encrusted with absurdities: ciphers, buried manuscripts, excavations by moonlight” (Michell 37). Bacon is an essayist, not a poet-playwright.
WILLIAM STANLEY, 6th EARL OF DERBY
When the best alternative to the illiterate grain-merchant Shakspere as the poet/playwright Shakespeare was Sir Francis Bacon, whose case for the authorship can seem hopelessly tangled in the arcane analytical contortions of conflicting “symbolists and cryptologists” (Michell 159), the discovery of even a slight hint to take the question in a new direction must have been thrilling. In the early 1890s, archivist James Greenstreet wrote of having discovered a Jesuit spy letter from June 1599 reporting that William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby – a person of interest to the European Catholic forces and one who carried considerable political potential – was “busyed only in penning commodyes for the common players” (qtd. in Michell 192), no doubt a disappointment to those in the Catholic cause. From this sole reference to Stanley’s involvement in literature, Greenstreet was impelled to explore the case for this “WS” as Shakespeare, extrapolating much but initiating the Derbyite movement. The case demands much faith. “While there is one piece of documentary evidence to establish that Derby was a playwright, there is no body of work available by him to compare to compare with the Shakespeare plays and poems. Unlike Bacon, there is not even any work to show him as a thinker – merely some letters on mundane matters” (Hope 67). Stanley had an interest in theater and was patron to his own company of actors. But that’s about it. He may have a connection to The Tempest though. And as the Earl of Oxford’s son-in-law, he may indeed have been “penning comedies” in the last years of the 16th century — not writing them, but “penning” them, that is, serving as Oxford’s last secretary. Perhaps he is responsible for some of the unShakespearean touches in some romance plays such as The Tempest. [See Abel Lefranc, Under the Mask of William Shakespeare. 1918. Trans. Cecil Cragg. Devon: Merlin Books Ltd., 1988; Lefranc, newly translated and edited by Frank Lawler. Veritas Publications, 2022.]
Marlowe produced in a few short years work most like Shakespeare’s. But for him to have been Shakespeare, we have to insist that he was not killed in the tavern brawl but smuggled into France and Italy where he continued to write; and Shakspere was paid to keep quiet. This theory has the misfortune of being the brainchild of a Broadway press agent, but there’s something to it. Everyone involved in that supposedly fatal incident was a government agent, including Marlowe himself. It looks like a cover-up afterwards, so maybe he did go into deep cover. A recent PBS show did a good job of deconstructing the Stratford hoax, but when it came to actual connections between Marlowe and the works, all I heard was 1) the Italian settings (anyone from England at the time would have been enamored of Italy) and 2) a “theme of exile.” Pretty slim.
EDWARD DE VERE, 17th EARL OF OXFORD
After full consideration of the case for de Vere being Shake-speare, pretense that there is still any question about the issue is ludicrous. He gets his own page from me: Edward de Vere.