Who Wrote Shakespeare?

Four hundred years after the premiere of Hamlet, the authorship question remains a mystery.

by Al Austin

'GBH April 1989

"Isn't it odd, when you think of it," Mark Twain wrote, "that you may list all the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen and Scotchmen of modern times, clear back to the first Tudors - a list containing 500 names, shall we say - and you can go to the histories, biographies and cyclopedias and learn the particulars about every one of them. Every one of them except one - the most famous, the most renowned - by far the most illustrious of them all - Shakespeare!" Twain went on to suggest that it was because Shakespeare "hadn't any history to record!"

Biographies of William Shakespeare do exist - hundreds and hundreds of them. But Twain complained that they are composed of guesswork.

Precious little is known for certain about Shakespeare. He was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, got married when he was 18, had three children, left his family and went off to London. His name was listed among actors who performed twice for the queen, and he is listed among the shareholders in the Globe Theatre. He returned to Stratford in his 40s, bought a big house, dealt in real estate and grain for a while and died in 1616. His will mentioned no plays or poems or books. Only six examples of his handwriting are known to exist: six signatures, each spelled differently. When he died, nobody seems to have noticed.

How did this small-town boy with little or no education learn so much about law and history and Italy and Latin and Greek and royalty and all the other knowledge that filled Shakespeare's plays? Well, say the biographers and historians, by keeping his eyes and ears open and being a genius. Samuel Schoenbaum of Washington, DC, America's foremost Shakespeare biographer, says, "There are certain things that defy rational explanation. There is something incomprehensible about genius. Shakespeare was superhuman."

Answers like that didn't satisfy Twain - or Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sigmund Freud, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman or Henry James. All found something fishy about the man from Stratford.

And doubts continue. New doubters are born every day. This past November, one of England's most famous politicians and classical scholars, Enoch Powell, stood contemplating the Shakespeare monument in the Stratford church. "Isn't it disgusting? It's a lie. I can't look at it."

Since the middle of the last century, non believers in the Stratford man have been putting up other names as the "real" author, men (and a woman or two) who might, for a variety of reasons, have used "William Shakespeare" as a pen name: Francis Bacon, Ben Johnson, Christopher Marlowe. But most of these challengers have fallen by the wayside, and with each failure, the snickering from the Stratford stands has grown louder.

Then, early in this century, an English schoolmaster named J. Thomas Looney went looking for Shakespeare the way a detective might - with a list of characteristics the true author would need to have had, historical fingerprints. After years of searching through old documents, Looney came up with this man: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who lived from 1550 to 1604.

History had all but ignored de Vere. And yet, he was the highest-ranking earl in the kingdom - and brilliant, earning two master's degrees before he was seventeen years old. And he seems to have cut a wide swath through England, France and Italy four centuries ago, was an intimate of Queen Elizabeth I, sailed off in his own ship to help battle the Spanish Armada, got himself captured by pirates, killed a man and engaged in a scandalous extramarital affair.

Looney found several poems written by de Vere under his own name when he was in his early 20s, poems Looney thought were similar to some of those attributed to Shakespeare plays. For example, de Vere's guardian, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in England, seemed to be satirized as Polonious in Hamlet.

De Vere seemed to quit writing when still a young man. But Looney was sure the writing continued under the name "William Shakespeare."

Why wouldn't de Vere have put his own name to the plays? In Looney's view, it was because play-writing was beneath the dignity of nobility. Furthermore, de Vere would have been barred from using his own name because he had inside knowledge of all the court intrigues. Powerful people, like Lord Burghley, and even Queen Elizabeth, would have been embarrassed had the public known de Vere was the author and the plays were satire. So, (according to the scenario constructed by Looney and others who continued his work after he died) de Vere chose a natural pen name. Gabriel Harvey, a poet and secretary to de Vere, had, after all, saluted him in a speech before the queen as a man whose "countenance shakes a spear." Then, when de Vere's friends and relatives decided to publish his plays, long after de Vere's death, they chose as a "front man" the obscure, semiliterate, country bumpkin, William Shakespeare of Stratford, who, Powell noted, "had the added advantage of being dead."

"Preposterous!" retorted the historians and biographers and teachers of Shakespeare. De Vere could not possibly be the author (the counter-attack continued); he died before some of the plays - The Tempest, for one - were written!

Although Looney announced his discoveries 70 years ago, and his disciples have been digging up new evidence ever since, the general public has remained, for the most part, blissfully unaware. To find out about it, one had to read several books not found in most bookstores, or even in most libraries.

Then, in 1983, a successful author named Charlton Ogburn wrote an even bigger book - about 900 pages - called The Mysterious William Shakespeare, skillfully explaining hundreds of ways in which the life of de Vere and the works of Shakespeare seem to meet. Ogburn and many of his readers are confident that the evidence contained in this book amounts to proof that Edward de Vere was William Shakespeare.

De Vere's champions have discovered that once into the fight there seems to be no way out - it becomes an obsession, a lifelong passion. Ogburn and his colleagues consider their man a heroic figure who was wronged in life and slandered through his history as a libertine spendthrift. Tears fill Ogburn's eyes as he quotes lines from Hamlet and Macbeth that he believes came straight from the soul of the tormented Earl of Oxford.

There is a passion on the other side of the argument, too. Historian A.L. Rowse's eyes also well up with tears as he stands beside the "bloody fools" who doubt his hero. "These are people who aren't qualified to hold an opinion," he seethes. The only thing wrong with the man from Stratford is that "he likes the girls too much. He was too sexy."

Rowse and his colleagues insist the evidence in favor of the orthodox view is insurmountable. The First Folio, the first collected edition of the plays, seven years after the Stratford man's death, was edited by two of his fellow actors, Herminge and Condell, men he named in his will. And "Honest Ben" Jonson, in his poem prefacing the First Folio, called the author "sweet swan of Avon." What's more, the Shakespeare monument in the Stratford church, erected about the same time, clearly implies that the man it honors was a famous writer. And throughout their lives, none of the people who took part in those tributes ever let on that they were anything about what they seemed to be.

All part of the hoax, counter the anti-Stratfordians, all cooked up to disguise the author. They contend the First Folio and the Stratford inscription provide sure clues that the people behind those things were joking.

The Stratford man's supporters note that Americans are prominent in the challenge to their man. They suggest that it stems from a peculiar sort of snobbery, that some Americans can't accept the thought of a common English schoolboy being Shakespeare.

The contest - the mystery - comes down to this: Those who believe de Vere was Shakespeare must accept an improbable hoax as part of it, a conspiracy of silence involving, among others, Queen Elizabeth herself. Those who side with the Stratford man must believe in miracles.

Frontline / WGBH Educational Foundation / www.pbs.org
web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation
SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS