How could the son of an illiterate glove-maker,
a man who left school as a child
(if he attended at all. There is no record.)
grow up to secure his place as one of the most
eloquent writers in the English speaking world?
The image to the right shows the six known and authenticated signatures of William Shakespeare, collected over his lifetime, the last being on his will. Not exactly the poetic, quill-on-parchment, calligraphic genius we have glorified in our mind’s eye, is it? Oxfordians say these signatures show a certain level of illiteracy in Shakespeare himself.
Or at least a fair amount of drinking?
Could William Shakespeare Have Written Those Plays?
Here are a couple of arguments that it is highly unlikely Shakespeare wrote those plays and sonnets that bear his name. Because there is no smoking gun, all evidence in the debate is considered circumstantial (especially by those who think Shakespeare was the author). After each point, I’ll offer my thoughts on its merits, strengths, and weaknesses.
It can be assumed that William Shakespeare attended grammar school in his hometown of Stratford at Avon, but apparently there are no class records for the years during which he would have been there. It is widely accepted, however, that his formal schooling went no further. Neither Cambridge nor Oxford University has any record of his attendance. (And unlike the grammar school, they most certainly do have complete records.) If this is the case, how could Shakespeare have so much knowledge about so many different disciplines. English language mastery aside, his writings include far more than a grammar-school grasp of history (English, Roman, Greek and European), politics, art, music, military organization and terminology, and aristocratic hobbies such as falconry, sword duels and archery.
For example, what many consider Shakespeare’s first play, Two Gentlemen of Verona, is strongly influenced by Spanish and Italian stories not translated to English until around 4 years after the publication of Verona. Either Shakespeare got an advanced copy of that translation (of course no such thing existed back then) or read the originals in a language he couldn’t possibly have learned as a commoner with so little education.
(The source material stories were translated and published in French before English.)
This is where Stratfordians would bring up oral tradition. And by that we don’t mean a minstrel strolling through town. We're taking about the OSN (Original Social Network): theater folks who knew of the Italian story. Is it so far-fetched to think Shakespeare was a keen listener and knew how to draw stories out of others? That he may have made connections with those more worldly than he and listened while they told tales (in English!) about characters and dramas they had seen, read or heard about from others?
What About This de Vere Guy?
There's some thought-provoking evidence that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (known as "Oxford") is actually the author of the Works attributed to William Shakespeare. The trouble with the argument in a short form (like a blog post) is that there are so many related, interconnected, “coincidental” points of contention that the tapestry of evidence quickly becomes complex and hard to navigate. That fact, however, serves the Oxfordian argument in that there is a lot of circumstantial evidence. A lot. I'll limit myself to a couple of points then focus on Hamlet, the reason my curiosity was peaked on this debate in the first place.
As I said before, the author would most likely have an outstanding education. It is widely accepted that William Shakespeare did not. But guess who did? Of course a superior education hardly proves authorship, but it does establish the essential foundation for a realistic authorship claim. And there are many details of his education that directly link to content in the plays and sonnets. One example: Oxford made 1,028 marginal notations in his bible. 250 of these can be directly linked to lines in Shakespeare’s plays. If that seems an unimpressive coincidence, then why is that bible now in the possession of the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington D.C.?
The second general point is that Edward de Vere was praised in aristocratic circles as a gifted writer, yet only a handful of short poems bear his name. Much is made of accounts written (or spoken) by scholars such as Gabriel Harvey, William Webbe and Henry Peacham. The latter published a discourse in 1622 titled The Compleat [sic] Gentleman, in which he names Oxford first in a list of the greatest Elizabethan poets. William Shakespeare is not mentioned on the list, despite its being published just four years after Shakespeare’s death. (Oxford had been dead eighteen years by then.) Combine this and other scholarly omissions of Shakespeare with the fact that Shakespeare’s death was uneventful and unregarded compared to other well-known writers of his day, and the Debate-as-Hydra grows a new head. Did the literati of his day actually know Shakespeare was a stand-in?
It turns out some did, but these whistleblowers, however, only left clues in their writings in a Sgt. Pepper/Paul is Dead kind of way. Fun, but far too much to get into here.
Ok, ready? In 1618 (years after Hamlet was first performed), a pamphlet was published. Written many years before by Burghley, the pamphlet was a collection of life advice that Burghley wrote for his own sons. Its title? . . . wait for it . . . Certain Precepts or Directions. Simply put, there is no way Shakespeare could have known about this personal piece of writing by one of the most powerful men in England. Conversely (and equally simple), there is no way Oxford could not have known about it.
Two more points on Polonius: Oxford was matched and forced to wed Burghley’s daughter. No, her name wasn’t Ophelia, but you get the point. And much is made over Burghley being sometimes called “Polus.” Stratfordians are quick to point out the lack of evidence for this nickname theory. What they seem to neglect, however, is that Burghley had an oft-spoken motto for himself: “Cor unam, via una.” (Latin for “One heart. One way.”) What does that have to do with anything? Well . . . Polonius’ original name in the play was “Corambis” (meaning “Two Hearts” or “Double-Hearted”) a not-so-subtle jab at the duplicitous, hypocritical Burghley.
William Cecil, Lord Burghley
Oxford’s cousins Horace (Horatio) and Francis (Francisco) were soldiers and confidants. And once while traveling, Oxford declined an offer to review German troops (a task Hamlet does perform for Fortinbras’ troops). On that trip Oxford was spied on by men sent by Polonius (er… uh … I mean Burghley). And oh yeah, on that same trip, his ship was attacked by pirates (just like Hamlet’s is in the play).
I admit I have an affinity for the alternative, unconventional point of view. Is there a conclusion here? While it’s obvious what I believe to be true, I look forward to continuing my reading on the topic. Apologies for not presenting the Stratfordian case in as much detail. To be honest, I’m still wrapping my head around it. Scholarly works I’ve read offer “Shakespeare's name is on the title pages” and “everyone says Shakespeare wrote them” as evidence for William's authorship. (I’m not kidding.) As promised, I’ve included my source books at the end here. I’d be very curious to know what you think of this debate.
Main Source Material
©Michael Mullin & Gemiknight Studios .
Look at it this way: I could give you the Hollywood pitch for Taxi Driver in about two minutes. You, never having seen the movie or read the script, could write a story that people would say was inspired by Taxi Driver. Depending on how closely you mirrored my pitch, they would call that film your source material. Done. Did that happen in Shakespeare’s case? Nobody knows, but it's certainly plausible.
But here’s the rub. (See what I did there?) It’s easier to buy into the oral tradition argument with regards to a single play. But virtually everything Shakespeare ever wrote? Hmmm. Not so easy.
But wait. It gets worse. It’s not just academic knowledge that he would have had to acquire at the pub over pints of ale. (Sorry, that was me trying to relay the fact that such chats would have taken place in Great Britain.) It’s aristocracy in general. Shakespeare was a commoner, son of an illiterate glove maker, and yet so many of his most highly regarded dramas center around a royal court and the highest of upper class. Common folk and servants in Shakespeare's plays are uniformly presented as insignificant buffoons. It's beyond peculiar that Shakespeare would never create a story or setting that was based on his own life experience in any way. So much for “write what you know.” And his in-depth knowledge of unfamiliar characters and their settings is hard to justify. It’s not like Shakespeare could have faked his knowledge and worldliness via Wikipedia . . .
. . . like I do.
Now on to Hamlet, beginning with a little family history on Oxford. Edward de Vere's father died unexpectedly in 1562, shortly after revising his will. The main beneficiary was then the Earl of Leicester Robert Dudley, whose first wife died under suspicious circumstances and who was suspected of poisoning several other people during his lifetime. Leicester was also a close companion and lover of Queen Elizabeth. Edward De Vere’s mother married a lieutenant of Leicester’s a little more than a year later. Sounds like a fictional stage drama, doesn't it?
Another point of interest involves Oxford’s brother in law, who was sent to Elsinore Castle in Denmark in 1582 as an envoy to the Queen. During his five-month stay, he met several Danish court companions and advisors, one of whom was named Rosenkranz and another Guildenstern. Could these names have traveled from the highest Danish court to the London commoner/theater crowd in a way that inspired Shakespeare? Not likely, but likelihood is not the point. If Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he used those names in a painstakingly, impossibly meticulous exercise in authenticity which would serve no purpose, dramatic or otherwise. If Oxford wrote Hamlet, he simply lifted the names from his own life experience (in this case from an anecdote told to him by a family member.)
Perhaps the most interesting connection involves the character of Polonius, whom many scholars believe was modeled after Queen Elizabeth’s leading counselor, Lord Treasurer, and Principal Secretary William Cecil, Lord Burghley. Stop right there. If Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, he’d have based Polonius on a complete stranger who outranked him in society by light years. If Oxford wrote it, he based Polonius on the man who was in charge of his (de Vere’s) education throughout his childhood!
There are several “inside jokes” that connect Oxford’s personal life with Polonius’ lines (none of which are flattering), but I’ll just focus on one example. In the pompous character’s most famous speech, he gives his son Laertes life advice as the young man prepares to leave for France. (This is the “neither a borrower nor a lender be … to thine own self be true” speech.) In the play, Polonius refers to his collective advice as “precepts.”