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Thread: The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

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    The Shakespeare Authorship Controversy

    I find no mention of the Shakespeare Authorship controversy here at TFT.Org, except in a very brief review of the movie Anonymous. (If this oversight is deliberate, I ask TFT management to quickly expunge this thread. :-) )

    I have been quite curious about the Shakespeare Authorship for three decades. The Pro-Stratfordian case (that Shaksper of Stratford wrote the plays and sonnets) is exceptionally meager, once evidence consistent with a hoax hypothesis is ignored.

    Anti-Stratfordian arguments are many: Even without an alternate author to propose, Samuel Clemens wrote a book rejecting a Stratford authorship:
    Quote Originally Posted by Mark Twain in "Is Shakespeare Dead?"
    Shall I set down the rest of the great Conjecture which constitute the Giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster.
    ... All the rest of his vast history, as furnished by the biographers, is built up, course upon course, of guesses, inferences, theories, conjectures--an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rising sky-high from a very flat and very thin foundation of inconsequential facts....
    Just for starters, here are some arguments against a Shaksper (WS) authorship:
    • No letters written by WS have turned up.
    • The only letter to WS that's turned up is a never-sent request for a cash loan.
    • No books owned by, or otherwise associated with WS have turned up.
    • No manuscripts have turned up. None of Shakespeare's children, grandchildren, nieces or nephews every claimed their close relation penned a poem or story for them.
    • No eulogies were written to WS until several years after his death.
    • Documents that imply anyone in Stratford knew WS was employed in the London theater — never mind as a playwright/poet — are exceedingly rare. Dr. John Hall kept a journal, even mentioning a Stratford neighbor who was "an excellente poet", but doesn't mention WS. John Hall was married to WS's favorite daughter.
    • Camden, a semi-official reporter on Stratford for WS's adult life and who does mention London theatrical doings, passes up multiple opportunities and leaves no reference to WS.
    • There is no record of WS ever going to school. (Sure, school records were burned. Still, reconstructions are possible. A mate of the WS youth might have attested "Will was pretty good with words way back in 6th form." No one ever did.)
    • As far as is known, WS never traveled abroad or on a ship, nor did he work as a soldier, teacher nor in a law office nor any of several professions consistent with the playwright's knowledge.
    • As far as is known, WS was friends with no noblemen.
    • Although widely considered a principal Player in the Lord Chamberlain's Men, no role is alleged to be WS's except ... the ghost of Hamlet's father!
    • While there are many mentions of WS from that time, very very few of them mention Stratford, or attest clearly that the writer/speaker knew the poet personally. An exception are legal documents which show (a) WS was charged with poaching near Stratford, being a theater ruffian in London, then hoarding in Stratford; (b) WS was granted a coat-of-arms ca 1592; (c) WS served as witness in two minor proceedings; (d) WS filed suit in Straford (at the same time he was allegedly putting the final touches on King Lear) against a customer of his Stratford butcher shop, seeking payment of a 2-shilling debt and other redress; and (e) WS's much remarked-on last will and testament.
    • Some references to WS-as-writer from the 1605-1609 period seem to imply that the writer was deceased, though WS died in 1616.
    • WS had two children (daughters) who grew to adulthood. It appears neither of them could read or write.

    Stratfordians have trite answers:
    "Papers are destroyed by fire and flood. Biographical data on other playwrights are also missing."
    Wrong. Read the pdf by Stanford's Professor Sturrock accessible from this link to see that among 25 playwrights of that era, and ten binary criteria of notability, only WS satisfies zero of the criteria. John Webster. (1578-1632) is next to bottom place with three criterial satisfactions.

    "A typical rural gentleman of that era was likely to have illiterate daughters."
    We're not speaking of a 'typical rural gentleman.' We're speaking of an alleged lover of words and learning, perhaps the greatest word-smith ever to have lived. Did this great lover of words allow his children to grow up illiterate?

    "The 'Upstart crow' paragraph from Greene's posthumously-published Groatsworth shows that Shakespeare was considered a playwright before the publication of Venus and Adonis."
    That quote ("beautified with our feathers") essentially accuses WS of doing what the Oxfordians accuse him of: putting his name on others' work.

    WS's earliest fame came from the book-length poem Venus and Adonis and its sequel, signed by William Shake-speare and dedicated to Henry Wriothesley; and it is generally supposed that this Earl of Southampton and/or his mother the Dowager Countess was a patron of the fine poet. (Indeed a gift of £1000 — then a large sum — from Wriothesley to Shakespeare is widely mentioned.) Yet there is no evidence of any sponsership — let alone a princely £1000 — of WS by Southampton or his mother. (To give an idea of £1000 then, Edward de Vere received £1000 annually from Her Majesty; this was the largest annual salary or allowance paid to anyone by Queen Elizabeth.

    While many people just focus on the improbability that WS of Stratford wrote the plays and poems, some propose an alternate real author. Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford and 19th hereditary Lord High Chamberlain of England is the most popular choice. He had big reasons (most especially strict instruction by Her Majesty) for keeping himself unnamed.

    This gives us a total of four sub-debates:
    • The case For Stratford
    • The case Against Stratford
    • The case For Oxford (assisted by collaborators)
    • The case Against Oxford

    Please don't mix up the four distinct cases to be debated. The coincidences which make Oxford authorship so likely would still constitute a mystery even if we conclude Oxford didn't write the plays and poems. Did one of his writer friends impersonate the Earl??

    Some argue that scores of people would have been "in the know" about the true authorship, and might have let the facts slip cryptically (they would hardly do so openly against the wishes of Oxford and Majesties). And we do see such cryptic mentions, e.g.
    Quote Originally Posted by Richard Brathwait,in [I
    Strappado for the Devil[/I] (1615)]Yea, this I know I may be bold to say,
    Thames ne'er had swans that sung more sweet than they.
    It's true I may avow it, that ne'er was sung.
    Chanted in any age by swains so young,
    With more delight than was perform'd by them,
    Prettily shadow'd in a borrowed name.
    And long may England's thespian springs be known.
    OR ... read the cryptic dedication of Shakespeare's Sonnets
    OR ... the peculiar preface to Troilus and Cressida
    OR ... consider the riddles of Peacham's Compleat Gentleman
    OR ... the inscription on the monument in Stratford,
    OR ... even the Sonnets, e.g. CXXV, CXXVI or LXXVI: "Every word doth almost tell my name." (The anagram Yword Vere is only almost the name "Edward Vere", bu that's what the line states.)

    Before continuing, I'd like to hear from people reading the thread. Please report which characterization fits best:
    1. I know much more on this topic than Swammi. The "anti-Stratfordians," as they sillily call themselves, really are crackpots, their thinking warped by elitism.
    2. I've read a book on the topic. Hogwash! Let's talk about the time Oxford farted while bowing to the Queen.
    3. I'm read relatively little on the topic. But I'm pretty sure it's crackpottery.
    4. I'd like to learn more about this fascinating topic. Swammi? Can you recommend some reading?
    5. Why the hoax at all? Doesn't seem to make sense: wouldn't Oxford want to boast of his writing prowess?
    6. I've also thought the Oxfordian case to be strong, and am glad someone here finally admitted it.
    7. Other. _________________________________

    It may have been a mistake for me to mention 1 or 2 of the coincidences linking Oxford to the plays or sonnets. Coincidences with odds of a trillion-to-one happen somewhere every day (cf. Littlewood's Law) so those who know a little math will jeer if I mention 2 or 3 coincidences, pretending I claim they're probative. But there are scores of coincidences connecting Oxford to the writings, and odds increase. Surely even detractors will understand that I must limit this already-overly long OP post. There are many books and many hundreds of webpages on the topic.

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    Thirty years ago I was a number 6. Eventually I adopted Occams Razor and rationalized that this guy was real and that he was a gifted writer. It's hard to recall all the particulars but De Vere fell out of favor with me because writings attributed to him were not Shakespeare quality. This involved quite a large dose of conspiracy thinking to believe these lesser writings were a front.

    As to the signatures and that most of them appear on his last will, and are all different, I eventually concluded that the guy was sick and not in good control of his faculties. But I was really, really, really into the subject at one time.

    In short there's a lot of good arguments to be made against Stratford, not to mention all the Shakespeare Apocrypha out there. But like I said, that was a long time ago.

    Thanks for bringing up a fascinating topic. It's similar to biblical authorship discussions.

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    Sapere aude Politesse's Avatar
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    Throw me in with 3; I know little about the topic, but the Oxford crowd seems pretty stereotypically nutty in the way literary conspiracy theorists generally are, and the movie was straight up ridiculous.

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    Elder Contributor DBT's Avatar
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    Whoever wrote the works was "William Shakespeare" regardless of his actual identity?

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    "Don nill he, the author, politician and mountebank, will work this out in time, the Sage is a daisy." "Will I am Shak't spurre writ this play."

    Eldarion Lathria

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    I'd just heard of the controversy a few weeks ago at Historum in this thread. I couldn't express an opinion without looking at the evidence myself, but it's a subject that I'm not interested enough in to really give the time to. Oddly enough I have a biography of Shakespeare kicking around (that I've never read) which might give me more clues.

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    Quote Originally Posted by T.G.G. Moogly View Post
    ... De Vere fell out of favor with me because writings attributed to him were not Shakespeare quality. This involved quite a large dose of conspiracy thinking to believe these lesser writings were a front.
    Yes, the lower quality of Oxford's known poems is, by far, the most significant plank in the Anti-Oxfordian case. That's why I asked that four cases be treated separately. The anti-Stratfordian case and the pro-Oxfordian case are both VERY strong. Even if we conclude that Oxford wasn't the Author, we're left with mysteries. If Oxford wasn't the hidden author, who was? Why do the plays and sonnets mesh so closely with the real life of Edward de Vere?

    Anyway, I'm not sure the lower quality of Oxford's poems is 100% dispositive. Poems ascribed to Oxford were written when he was in his 20's or younger, and poetry was just one of many interests of the precocious young Earl of Oxford. He also was a jouster, playboy, traveller, businessman, and sought a career as a military or naval commander. It was only after he was nearly bankrupted, rendered permanently lame in a duel, and humiliated when his Queen offered him no important military commission during the Spanish Armada threat, that he turned to writing full-time. He immersed himself in the theater culture, even hiring 2 or 3 top playwrights as personal secretaries. I think John Lyly, Anthony Munday and others may have tutored him, or helped craft the plays and sonnets. (And Oxford's son-in-law was also renowned as a playwright though, like Oxford, he had to keep this work hidden.)

    To compare the "Oxford canon" with Shake-speare's poems may be to compare the doodlings of a 20-year old with the honed skills of a 40-year old. And there are connections between Shake-speare's writing and Oxford's. They use some of the same grammatical and metrical devices. The OED shows Shakespeare as the first recorded usage of numerous words, but several of these words have turned up in earlier letters by Oxford.

    Oxford probably wrote under other pseudonyms before he chose "Shake-speare." Some think the praise of "the Author" of Thomas Watson's Hekatompathia was actually directed at Edward de Vere. The seventh sonnet of Watson's work contains the same "silver ... sound" metaphor that is found in works by both Shakes-speare and Oxford. Compare that 7th sonnet with the 130th of Shakespeare's Sonnets which, as Whittemore says, "completely reverses Watson’s sonnet number 7."

    Quote Originally Posted by Thomas Watson's Hekatompathia, VII ca 1582
    Hark you that list to hear what saint I serve:
    Her yellow locks exceed the beaten gold;
    Her sparkling eyes in heav'n a place deserve;
    Her forehead high and fair of comely mold;
    ....Her words are music all of silver sound;
    ....Her wit so sharp as like can scarce be found;
    Each eyebrow hangs like Iris in the skies;
    Her Eagle's nose is straight of stately frame;
    On either cheek a Rose and Lily lies;
    Her breath is sweet perfume, or holy flame;
    ....Her lips more red than any Coral stone;
    ....Her neck more white than aged Swans that moan;
    Her breast transparent is, like Crystal rock;
    Her fingers long, fit for Apollo's Lute;
    Her slipper such as Momus dare not mock;
    Her virtues all so great as make me mute:
    ....What other parts she hath I need not say,
    ....Whose face alone is cause of my decay.
    Quote Originally Posted by Shakespeare's Sonnets, CXXX, ca 1603
    My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun,
    Coral is far more red, than her lips red,
    If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun:
    If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head:
    I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
    But no such roses see I in her cheeks,
    And in some perfumes is there more delight,
    Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
    I love to hear her speak, yet well I know,
    That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
    I grant I never saw a goddess go,
    My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
    ....And yet by heaven I think my love as rare,
    ....As any she belied with false compare.
    Despite these pleadings, I agree that the case against Oxford based on quality and details of their known canons is very strong. But we're still left with strong cases for Oxford, and against Stratford.

    How do traditional scholars explain the weird dedication of the Sonnets? Same say that "W.H." is a type-setter's error for "W.S." Do you believe that? Or that "Our ever-living poet" is a euphemism for God? ("Ever-living" and "immortal" are adjectives seldom applied to living persons, but each was applied to Shake-speare during the 1604-1616 period that Oxford was dead but Shaksper of Stratford still alive.)

    It is even harder for traditional scholars to cope with the peculiar dedication of Troilus. Or the omission of Shakespeare from Peacham's list of Elizabethan playwrights. (It is claimed that Shakespeare was omitted because he wasn't a lord or a knight, but the list does have other names with no distinction but "Mr.", a distinction which Shakespeare — famously — also had.)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Throw me in with 3; I know little about the topic, but the Oxford crowd seems pretty stereotypically nutty in the way literary conspiracy theorists generally are, and the movie was straight up ridiculous.
    Some "Oxfordian" ideas are pretty nutty. Did the movie pretend that Wriothesley was the Queen's love-child by Oxford? Especially crazy since it would mean Oxford tried to marry his daughter to her own half-brother.

    Those arguing pro-Stratford can also get pretty nutty. ("W.H. is a type-setter's error for W.S."?)

    What I'd like to see, from those sincerely curious, is for you to research and find ten interesting anti-Stratford or pro-Oxford arguments and tell us NOT about the nine most easily debunked, but about the one claim that disconcerts, that suggests a connection beyond the limits of mere coincidence.

    Here's one coincidence which might intrigue: A large number of Shakespeare plays are set in Italy, the country where Oxford spent most of a year as a young man. With one exception the set of Italian cities that Oxford visited is equal to the set of Italian cities in which Shakespeare plays are set. (The one exception is understandable: Oxford didn't visit Rome, but set Julius Caesar there.)

    That one coincidence could be just ... coincidence. But when you pore over dozens and dozens of such coincidences it makes you start to wonder.

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    (I submit the following more for my private bookmarking convenience, than as evidence.)


    There's universal agreement that Shakespeare's works, written when Oxford was in his 40's or 50's, are superior. But Oxford's younger work wasn't so very bad. The following poem was sometimes attributed to Oxford and is regarded as a masterpiece.

    My mind to me a kingdom is;
    Such present joys therein I find,
    That it excels all other bliss
    That earth affords or grows by kind:
    Though much I want that most would have,
    Yet still my mind forbids to crave.

    No princely pomp, no wealthy store,
    No force to win the victory,
    No wily wit to salve a sore,
    No shape to feed a loving eye;
    To none of these I yield as thrall;
    For why? my mind doth serve for all.

    I see how plenty surfeits oft,
    And hasty climbers soon do fall;
    I see that those which are aloft
    Mishap doth threaten most of all:
    They get with toil, they keep with fear:
    Such cares my mind could never bear.

    Content I live, this is my stay;
    I seek no more than may suffice;
    I press to bear no haughty sway;
    Look, what I lack my mind supplies.
    Lo, thus I triumph like a king,
    Content with that my mind doth bring.

    Some have too much, yet still do crave;
    I little have, and seek no more.
    They are but poor, though much they have,
    And I am rich with little store;
    They poor, I rich; they beg, I give;
    They lack, I leave; they pine, I live.

    I laugh not at another's loss,
    I grudge not at another's gain;
    No worldly waves my mind can toss;
    My state at one doth still remain:
    I fear no foe, I fawn no friend;
    I loathe not life, nor dread my end.

    Some weigh their pleasure by their lust,
    Their wisdom by their rage of will;
    Their treasure is their only trust,
    A cloakèd craft their store of skill;
    But all the pleasure that I find
    Is to maintain a quiet mind.

    My wealth is health and perfect ease,
    My conscience clear my chief defence;
    I neither seek by bribes to please,
    Nor by deceit to breed offence:
    Thus do I live; thus will I die;
    Would all did so as well as I!
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    The following poem is undisputedly by Oxford (how old was he?) and shows talent, I think.
    IF women could be fair and yet not fond,
    .....Or that their love were firm, not fickle still,
    I would not marvel that they make men bond
    .....By service long to purchase their good will ;
    But when I see how frail those creatures are,
    I laugh that men forget themselves so far.

    To mark the choice they make, and how they change,
    .....How oft from Phoebus do they flee to Pan ;
    Unsettled still, like haggards wild they range,
    .....These gentle birds that fly from man to man ;
    Who would not scorn and shake them from the fist,
    And let them fly, fair fools, which way they list ?

    Yet for our sport we fawn and flatter both,
    .....To pass the time when nothing else can please,
    And train them to our lure with subtle oath,
    .....Till, weary of their wiles, ourselves we ease ;
    And then we say when we their fancy try,
    To play with fools, O what a fool was I !

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    Quote Originally Posted by Politesse View Post
    Throw me in with 3; I know little about the topic, but the Oxford crowd seems pretty stereotypically nutty in the way literary conspiracy theorists generally are, and the movie was straight up ridiculous.
    Certainly was. I could not get past the trailer.

    For a less melodramatic and more dispassionate discussion, albeit the Marlowe argument, this video.


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