Will the real William Shakespeare please stand up?
Who wrote the plays of Shakespeare? Was it Christopher Marlowe? Was it the Earl of Oxford? Was it Sir Francis Bacon? Was it the Earl of Derby? Or (shock, horror) was it a woman – Shakespeare’s famed Dark Lady, Amelia Bassano Lanier – a black Jewish woman?
A new film, Anonymous, directed by Roland Emmerich, is due out later this year, starring the Globe Theatre’s former artistic director Mark Rylance, along with Vanessa Redgrave, Joely Richardson and Sir Derek Jacobi, which maintains that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, played by Rhys Ifans, is the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.
The various people wanting to strip William Shakespeare of the authorship of his own plays claim that in order to write that well, with that much knowledge of the world, he would have to be a nobleman.
At the very least he would have to be an educated commoner like Kit Marlowe who had spent six years studying at Cambridge University.
But, Shakespeare was not an uneducated man, he received a grammar school education in Stratford-upon-Avon, could read and write English and Latin and I suspect was a quick learner. He had a natural affinity for words and language, a facility that developed quickly when he became a player.
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This is the area that many of the academics miss out on. They are so bound up in proving that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays was an upper-class academic like them they overlook that Shakespeare learnt his craft on the stage rather than in the school room.
Also, he was an adaptor. Most of his plays are reworkings of historical events, classical stories or variants on well known plays in the public domain.
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Rummage around in Elizabethan theatre and you will discover that most of his stories exist elsewhere. But what they don’t have is Shakespeare’s flair for language and for dramatic emphasis. Shakespeare could sell a story to an audience and this talent came from the fact that he was first and foremost a player.
His writing was informed by the practical requirements of an actor. The Earl of Oxford or a noble woman like Amelia Bassano Lanier would know nothing of the demands of the stage. It is not surprising that on the frontispiece of the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, published in 1623, is printed a list of names of the actors that appeared in the first productions and alongside such famous names as Richard Burbage and William Kemp is one William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was the company’s resident playwright. His intimate knowledge of acting is reinforced by the fact that he wrote the plays with his company in mind.
You knew when Will Kemp was available because there are some great clowning scenes. You knew when he had some good swordsmen to play with because there are some gratuitous action scenes to get the crowds whipped up.
These plays aren’t dry, historical documents to be studied in libraries and written about for university symposiums – they are living, breathing bits of popular entertainment designed to excite ordinary men and women with action, laughter and romance.
The reason so many people have been quick to try and attribute Shakespeare’s success to someone else is because very little is known about Shakespeare, the man. Because he came from the rural town of Stratford, because he was a humble actor, he didn’t figure in the life of the court and so wasn’t written about by the social commentators of the day.
But, his fellow players and rival playwrights knew of him. His arch-rival Ben Johnson became involved in a long and bitter pamphlet war with Shakespeare as they both claimed ownership of a story.
Johnson, who incidentally recognised Shakespeare’s brilliance and was one of those who helped with the publication of the First Folio after Shakespeare’s death, didn’t accuse the Earl of Oxford or Sir Francis Bacon of stealing his ideas, he accused William Shakespeare.
He contributed two poems to the preface of the First Folio in which he mourns the passing of the naturally brilliant playwright. Although he had previously accused Shakespeare of having “small Latine, and lesse Greeke”, he did acknowledge in his passing, the value of Shakespeare’s works: “To the memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR, Mr. William Shakespeare: And what he hath left us,”
So we have written evidence that Shakespeare was a working, living, breathing actor. He wasn’t a pseudonym and we know he wrote works because a rival accused him of plot plagiarism.
Ipswich-based Shakespeare expert, the late John Southworth, former artistic director of the old Arts Theatre in Tower Street, made a life-long study of Shakespeare the actor and published an exhaustively researched book called Shakespeare: The Player – A Life In The Theatre.
He believed part of the desire to rob Shakespeare of his status as genius playwright was because in many ways he remains ‘an invisible man’. There are few pictures of him painted or drawn during his lifetime. The famous bust in Stratford Church and the famous Droeshout engraving were created after his death by people who didn’t know him.
For John Southworth there was no question that Shakespeare wrote his plays. He said that players and playwrights were the lowest of the low. Playwrights were regularly imprisoned for causing offence. Ben Johnson was incarcerated in 1605 for his play Eastward Ho! which offended the Earl of Salisbury.
Noblemen were interested in literature and recognition, plays, even those as great as Shakespeare’s were not considered worthy of inclusion in the new Oxford library founded by Sir Thomas Bodley – in fact they were expressly excluded.
John Donne, a play-loving poet, writing in 1604/05, the years that Macbeth, Hamlet and Othello were being performed at the Globe fails to mention Shakespeare or any of the other 34 dramatists working in London at the time.
Southworth writes: “He did not consider plays in the category of serious literature. Though Shakespeare, the player, the director, the part-owner would have been known to him, Shakespeare the playwright and the dramatic poet were seemingly invisible.
“Plays of the period were, of course, written to be performed and heard, not read. They existed temporally, only for the two or three hours traffic of the stage. The words were of great importance... and only came into their true, intended form when spoken by actors. We need to remember that Shakespeare was one of those actors, he was writing for himself as a performer as well as for others.”
This then seems to be the last word on the debate. Shakespeare the playwright wrote because he was servicing himself as an actor – they were not intended as worthy examples of literature but only became so because he was naturally gifted and became so good at his craft. Now let the debate rest.