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shakespeare's unorthodox biography
Independent scholar Diana Price, in this excerpt from Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (2001), challenges the traditional scholarship supporting the man from Stratford as the author of the plays and poems attributed to William Shakespeare. "One can make a case for Shakspere as a shareholder, actor, moneylender, broker, entrepreneur, real estate investor, or commodity trader," writes Price. "[B]ut one cannot make a case, based on the biographical evidence, for Shakspere as a writer."

· Chapter 1: What's the Question?

Biography today, then, may be defined as the accurate presentation of the life history from birth to death of an individual, along with an effort to interpret the life so as to offer a unified impression of the subject.
-- William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature (59)

Nobody questions whether a man named William Shakspere was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616. We know he did because surviving records prove his existence. These records do not answer the larger question: Did the man from Stratford write the works that have come down to us under the name of William Shakespeare? If the answer to that deceptively simple question were a clear-cut yes, there would be no need for this book.

Shakespearean biographers presumably have tested the links in the biographical chain and have pronounced them to be sound, so anti-Stratfordians should have a hard time finding a weak link. But most skeptics claim that no links connecting Shakspere of Stratford to the works of Shakespeare have ever been found. Readers are often surprised to discover that there are no manuscripts or surviving letters in his hand. Gerald Eades Bentley acknowledged that "letters to or from or about William Shakespeare have all disappeared except for a few referring to business transactions; diaries or accounts of his friends are gone. In the absence of personal material of this sort which provides the foundation of most biographies, the temptation to amplify, to embroider, in fact to create an appealing and interesting figure, has been too strong for many of Shakespeare's admirers" (Handbook, 4-5). Bentley has thus diagnosed a major symptom of the problem: Biographers rely too much on conjecture and fanciful guesswork. For example, standard biographies leave the reader with the impression that Shakspere attended the Stratford grammar school, that he established a personal relationship with the earl of Southampton, that he was a drinking buddy of playwright Ben Jonson, and that he made money from writing plays. No reliable records exist to support any of those statements. As Shakspere went about the business of his life, he left behind documentation that biographers have uncovered. These documents account for his activities as an actor, a theatre shareholder, a businessman, a moneylender, a property holder, a litigant, and a man with a family, but they do not account for his presumed life as a professional writer.

Indeed, Shakspere's contemporaneous records reveal nothing of his alleged literary vocation. As we will see, he has been credited with literary activity solely on the basis of posthumous evidence. It is highly unusual, if not unique, to find only posthumous literary evidence remaining for an individual who supposedly lived by his pen.

SHAKESPEARE WHO?

Imagine you're sitting at home, and someone slides an envelope under your door. You open it and take out a manuscript entitled Hamlet -- A Play by William Shakespeare. You now know that somebody writing under the name of William Shakespeare has written a play called Hamlet, but you do not know from the title page whether William Shakespeare is a real or fictitious name.

You know nothing more about the identity of the author after reading a review of Hamlet, the new Shakespeare play. You consult the telephone directory and find numerous William Shakespeares. Neither the reviews nor the directory tell you which William Shakespeare, if any, is to be conferred with the authorship honors. Not until you read an interview in the paper, or see him on camera accepting his award for Best Play, thanking his wife Anne and his friend Ben Jonson, will you know which William Shakespeare is the author.

Now suppose that everyone has died of the plague. You, the literary archaeologist, are trying to reconstruct Shakespeare's life, and all you can uncover are some scripts and reviews. Those will not be enough to identify your man. You are going to have to find those videotapes, interviews, or other personal references in order to confirm which William Shakespeare was the author

That's the problem with the standard Shakespearean biography. Historians have found lots of literary references to "William Shakespeare," but they are references to his published works, attributions of authorship, or reviews. No one has yet found any personal records left by Shakspere or by anybody else during his lifetime that would link him to the occupation of writing.

Literary critics regularly review work by people whom they do not know personally. Back then, John Weever and Francis Meres, both Elizabethan writers, praised "Honey-tongued Shakespeare" and "Shakespeare's fine filed phrase" in what we might call Elizabethan book reviews. Those reviews prove that Weever and Meres thought that the poems or plays written under the name of William Shakespeare were excellent. The reviews do not prove that Weever or Meres personally recognized the man from Stratford as the author.

Nevertheless, biographers assume that Shakspere of Stratford was the dramatist, and they support that assumption with posthumous evidence, hearsay, and legend. Finally, they accept all the impersonal literary references to "Shakespeare" as personal evidence of William Shakspere's literary life. Yet biographers present no evidence -- hard evidence left behind during Shakspere's own lifetime -- that proves he was the writer. Moreover, they produce no evidence to show that Shakspere was capable of writing literature.

Despite the unusual absence of literary records, that is, evidence linking the Stratford man directly to the works, a standard Shakespearean biography reads plausibly enough on the surface. However, skeptical readers, or those adept at spotting logical fallacies or contradictions, are likely to find a startling number of conflicts between the known life of the man from Stratford and the literary evidence for William Shakespeare.

WHY BOTHER?

There are those who say it doesn't matter who wrote the Shakespeare plays. Like other great works of art, the plays stand on their own, no matter who created them. But like other works of art, the plays take on new dimensions when we know something about their historical context and who wrote them. That is one reason why literary biographies continue to be written and read.

Consider Arthur Miller's play After the Fall. It is a painful, intense play on its own terms, but theatregoers who know that Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe probably find the play more fascinating than those who view it in the abstract. Those who know that Miller suffered through the Joseph McCarthy Communist witch-hunts of the 1950s will see more in The Crucible than those who see the play strictly as a historical drama about witchcraft in Puritan New England.

Hamlet is usually considered the most autobiographical of the Shakespeare plays. But so far, about all that biographers can find in common between Hamlet and the man from Stratford is a passing mention of "sheepskin" in the fifth act and the possibility that Shakspere was apprenticed to his father in the leather trade. A Shakespearean biography based on the life of someone else might reveal events and relationships that tell us far more about Hamlet than does Shakspere's proximity to the glover's workbench.

The life of Shakespeare must matter to many people. Hundreds of biographies have been written, and millions of copies of them have been bought and read. When John Updike mulled over the reasons why people bother with literary biography, he decided that "perhaps the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author -- to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author's oeuvre" (3).

In addition, if documentary evidence is ever found that upsets the traditional biography, it will be front-page news. Why? Not just because the discovery would satisfy anti-Stratfordians who are convinced that the wrong man has been getting all the credit. Not just because stage directors, actors, and audiences would suddenly find new meaning in all the plays. Such a discovery would surely have a momentous impact on school curricula, literary criticism, and future research.

DOUBTS AND THEORIES

Too often, those defending the orthodox position categorize all anti-Stratfordian arguments, regardless of merit, as illegitimate. Typically, they make little or no distinction between, say, the solid research in Sir George Greenwood's The Shakespeare Problem Restated, and cryptographic or paranormal revelations, such as those transmitted through Dr. Orville Owen's mystically inspired cipher wheel. In the late 1950s, Frank W. Wadsworth (The Poacher from Stratford) and R C. Churchill (Shakespeare and His Betters) rebutted the anti-Stratfordians, and interestingly, a reviewer for the Shakespeare Quarterly criticized both orthodox defenders for their lack of discrimination: "One impressed by the learning and dialectic of a Sir George Greenwood may well feel perhaps that [Wadsworth and Churchill], eager to write amusingly, have generally chosen to discuss the more patently absurd claims and to disregard arguments less easily ridiculed" (Maxwell, 437).

People who persist in asking questions about Shakespeare's authorship have often been dismissed as fantasizers interested in grotesque fiction or crackpots hooked on conspiracy theories. Walt Whitman was skeptical, and most literary professionals would not consider him a crackpot. Whitman himself was well aware of the stigma that might attach to anyone with the audacity to question Shakespeare's authorship. In his words, "beneath a few foundations of proved facts are certainly engulf'd far more dim and elusive ones, of deepest importance -- tantalizing and half-suspected -- suggesting explanations that one dare not put in plain statement" (2:404). Nevertheless, Whitman questioned the traditional authorship because he perceived an unbridgeable gap between the aristocratic perspective in the plays and the nonaristocratic perspective emanating from Shakspere's documented life. According to film star Charlie Chaplin, writing along the same lines, "it is easy to imagine a farmer's boy emigrating to London and becoming a successful actor and theatre owner; but for him to have become the great poet and dramatist, and to have had such knowledge of foreign courts, cardinals and kings, is inconceivable to me. . . . I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude" (364). Chaplin went on a guided tour of Stratford and added that after "hearing the scant bits of local information concerning his desultory boyhood, his indifferent school record, his poaching and his country-bumpkin point of view, I cannot believe he went through such a mental metamorphosis as to become the greatest of all poets. In the work of the greatest of geniuses humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere -- but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare" (364).

Such doubts about Shakespeare's authorship are not new. Questions emerged almost as soon as Shakespeare's work appeared in print (see Chapter 12). It was not until the 1800s, however, that the inquiry gained momentum when Delia Bacon advanced the theory that Francis Bacon (no relation) and several others had written the works collectively. Francis Bacon seems to have stuck in many people's minds as the major contender for Shakespeare's laurels, even though the claim for Bacon foundered shortly after it was first proposed. One orthodox critic went so far as to say that "the Baconian opinion is an extravagant hallucination" (Robertson, 6). That "hallucination" was Ignatius Donnelly's theory that the plays were encoded with a cipher that supposedly revealed Bacon as the playwright. Donnelly's theory, published in 1888 as The Great Cryptogram, was outrageous enough to give the authorship question a bad name (see Hope and Holston, 39-56), but that was not what disqualified Bacon. Today, many doubters consider the substance, style, and dates of Bacon's acknowledged writings insurmountable obstacles to his candidacy, despite strong points in his favor.

Over the years, anti-Stratfordians have proposed theories around the earl of Derby, Sir Edward Dyer, Queen Elizabeth, Christopher Marlowe, the earl of Oxford, and the earl of Rutland, among at least fifty others. Some consider the plethora of candidates something of a joke. At first glance, it might seem that almost anyone who was close to the Elizabethan literary scene has been shoved forward as a candidate. Yet the testing of many candidates is indicative of a logical process. Doubters have identified a gap, and they are trying to fill that gap.

If, for some reason, you were convinced that the man from Stratford did not write Shakespeare's plays and poetry, you would be led to the next question: Who did? Then you would start casting through the Elizabethan landscape in search of a candidate. After you identified one, you would probably investigate the documentary records, and you would disqualify a candidate whose known activities were incompatible with the literary output. If you found a candidate who passed your preliminary tests, you would intensify your investigation to look for a historical document that confirmed authorship.

That scenario describes precisely what has been happening. Doubters have been testing their candidates, and those who believe that they have identified a viable candidate are looking for a "smoking gun." Regardless of which candidate they have investigated, all skeptics have first rejected the man from Stratford. That is why most books about the authorship summarize the contradictions in the traditional biography before introducing a contender for the laurels. This book, however, is not concerned with evaluating any particular candidate. It is concerned with those who would never look at any candidate as long as their confidence in the official biography of William Shakspere remains unshaken. And it intends to shake that confidence.

SACRED TRADITION

Despite orthodoxy's claims to the contrary, numerous professors have raised questions about Shakespeare's authorship, but their names (e.g., Abel Lefranc or Pierre S. Porohovshikov) are unknown outside their respective academic communities. However, the general public does recognize the names of Charlie Chaplin, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Henry James, the Hon. John Paul Stevens, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman -- all of them anti-Stratfordian.

Nevertheless, the skeptics who question Shakespeare's authorship are relatively few in number, and they do not speak for the majority of academic and literary professionals. Considering academia's continued acceptance of the traditional biography, the question of authorship is understandably looked at with cynicism by the public at large. After all, these literary experts can't all be wrong. And they are not out there organizing panel discussions on the subject. Apparently, they have not considered the questions raised by anti-Stratfordians to be serious or worthy of attention.

Still, the evidence was sufficiently compelling for PBS to dedicate a 1989 Frontline documentary to an examination of both William Shakspere and the front-running candidate, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. The episode was rebroadcast in 1997. In October 1991, the Atlantic published a cover story debate between an orthodox scholar and an Oxfordian. William F. Buckley Jr. moderated a televised discussion for GTE in September 1992, which convened opposing views and took questions from a nationwide audience. Buckley confronted the issue again on Firing Line in 1994. Some of the publicity surrounding the film Shakespeare In Love touched on the authorship question; for instance, a story in Time magazine (15 February 1999) and a cover story debate in Harper's (April 1999). Several books, such as Jonathan Bate's The Genius of Shakespeare, have devoted some space to defending the traditional authorship. However, despite the broadcasts, magazine articles, and a number of books over the years, there has been nothing resembling a vigorous public or academic debate on the subject.

Generally speaking, persistent questions and investigative efforts have come from those outside the fortresses of academia and literary criticism. Laypersons who ask penetrating questions about Shakespeare's authorship frequently end up talking to each other more than to the academic community. For whatever reason, most academic and literary professionals have been reluctant to reconsider Shakespeare's authorship, and that has left it largely to outsiders, that is, nonacademics, to investigate the case.

The purpose of the investigation is simply to answer the question: Was William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon the poet and playwright, or is the literary biography constructed around him a fiction? Whitman's and Chaplin's confidence in the traditional biography was shaken for one reason or another. Perhaps whatever shook their confidence justifies another look at the issues. This book re-examines the Shakespeare authorship question by analyzing the evidence from a skeptical perspective, freed from the constraints of preconceived notions. When unencumbered by prior assumptions about the playwright, one can follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it leads to a surprisingly different Shakspere. ...

· From Chapter 17: A Playwright by Any Other Name

The biography of William Shakspere is deficient. It cites not one personal literary record to prove that he wrote for a living. Moreover, it cites not one personal record to prove that he was capable of writing the works of William Shakespeare. In the genre of Elizabethan and Jacobean literary biography, that deficiency is unique. While Shakspere left over seventy biographical records, not one of them tells us that his occupation was writing. In contrast, George Peele's meager pile of twenty-some personal biographical records includes at least nine that are literary. John Webster, one of the least documented writers of the day, left behind fewer than a dozen personal biographical records, but seven of them are literary.

Scholars do not identify this most glaring of deficiencies in Shakspere's biography -- the absence of contemporaneous personal literary paper trails. Those who express dismay at the paucity of evidence nevertheless imply that there is some legitimate literary peg on which to hang Shakspere's biographical skeleton. There is no such literary peg. One can make a case for Shakspere as a shareholder, actor, moneylender, broker, entrepreneur, real estate investor, or commodity trader, but one cannot make a case, based on the biographical evidence, for Shakspere as a writer. ...

LOOKING FOR SHAKESPEARE

No biographer has successfully integrated the life of Shakspere with the works of Shakespeare. Although the synthesis of what we know about the writer is the antithesis of what we know about the man from Stratford, biographers nevertheless have attempted to merge these mutually incompatible entities, forcing a marriage of convenience filled with chronological disorders. What we know of Shakspere's business activities encroaches too much on his presumed playwriting time, and what we do not know of his education and cultural enlightenment precludes his having gotten the necessary preparation. If Shakspere had acquired the education and cultural experiences to write the plays, he would have left at least a few footprints behind to prove it. Shakspere's extant records are not only devoid of personal literary evidence, they point away from a literary career and toward other vocations. The footprints that he did leave lead to a literary dead end.

The contradictory and incompatible evidence has prompted anti-Stratfordians to search for an alternative author. When the hard evidence is examined, what emerges is an overwhelming weight of probability that William Shakspere of Stratford did not write the plays of William Shakespeare, and an equally overwhelming weight of probability that a gentleman of rank did. The idea that "William Shakespeare" was the pen name of an Elizabethan aristocrat is ultimately less fanciful than ascribing to an alleged grammar school dropout the most exquisite dramatic literature in the English language. And which scenario is more plausible: A code of silence that prevented or obscured written references to an aristocratic writer, or an inexplicable conspiracy to eradicate all the personal literary paper trails for the commoner William Shakspere? Unfortunately, scholars tacitly accept the statistically impossible scenarios: That Shakspere left no personal records revealing his profession as a writer, or that if he left any, they have all been lost or destroyed.

Shakespeare's chroniclers should be able to write a biography that has a rational relationship to the literary output of the man. The fact that biographers have failed after countless attempts strongly suggests that they are writing about the wrong man. It is a pity that no comparable efforts have been expended to find the foot that fits the literary glass slipper. If the effort were made and a solution were found, readers and playgoers would reap immense rewards. Passages that continue to confound scholars would be closer to solution. Works that have captured the imagination of generations of playgoers would increase in their fascination if we knew more about the real life events that inspired them. A biography of a Shakespeare whose life story meshes with the Shakespearean literature is bound to be more illuminating than the litany of property transactions sandwiched in between the writing of Hamlet and King Lear. How exciting it would be if we knew something about Shakespeare's personality, his relationships, his loves, his demons, and his Muses. Unfortunately, until the authorship question gains legitimacy in academic and literary circles, we will all be stuck with a biography out of joint with the plays.

Schoenbaum had this to say about the good folk of Stratford-upon-Avon:

What did fellow townsmen make of the distinguished playwright of the Chamberlain's company and admired poet of love's languishment who sojourned each year in their midst? They probably troubled their heads little enough about the plays and poems. Business was another matter; they saw Shakespeare as a man shrewd in practical affairs. (Documentary, 178)

Certainly the historical record attests to Schoenbaum's description. Nobody in Stratford had anything to say about any famous poet in their midst. It is enough to make one think there was no poet in their midst.

Excerpted from Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Greenwood Press, 2001). Copyright 2001 by Diana Price. All rights reserved. Reprinted here by permission of Greenwood Publishing Group, Inc.


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