Much Ado About Something
a fine mystery
a bard in the hand?
what's at stake?
Scenes from the Birth of a Myth and the Death of a Dramatist By Jonathan Bate

Jonathan Bate, in this essay reprinted from Shakespeare's Face (2002), argues the case for the man from Stratford and offers an explanation for why the authorship question has proven so irresistible for nearly two hundred years.

Bate is the King Alfred Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool, and a former Fellow of Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He is the author of Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), and The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage (2001), and is general editor of the new Oxford history of English literature. He has held visiting posts at Harvard, Yale, the University of California, and the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C.

WHY SHOULD THE "DISCOVERY" of what might be a portrait of William Shakespeare make it to the front page of the newspapers? Because, the answer will come, Shakespeare was the greatest writer in the history of the world. "After God," proclaimed the nineteenth-century French author Alexandre Dumas, "Shakespeare created most." Shakespeare has become the supreme deity not just of poetry or drama but of high culture itself.

The technical term for the transformation of a mere mortal into a deity is "apotheosis." In myth and religion, apotheosis happens in an instant. The hero dies, and the next thing you know he has ascended into the heavens and become a star. In history, the process is slower. Even a hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare was regarded as a great dramatist but not a unique genius. His apotheosis was the work of the eighteenth century. His contemporary Ben Jonson admired him "on this side Idoiatry.'' In 1769, by contrast, David Garrick's commemorative Shakespeare Jubilee proclaimed him "the God of our Idolatry." With Garrick, serious Bardolatry was born.

There was, however, a downside to the apotheosis. Gods have an unfortunate propensity for attracting wild-eyed extremists and earnest cranks. A few years after Garrick's Jubilee, a retired Oxford don, the Reverend James Wilmot, went poking around Stratford-upon-Avon in pursuit of relics and reminiscences of the divine William. Disappointed by the paucity of what he found, he became the first person to consider the possibility that the plays might really have been written by someone else. He did not, however, publish his theory.

Fast forward to the mid-nineteenth century. Bardolatry and the British Empire are in their heyday. It is 1852. An unsigned article in an Edinburgh magazine asks for the first time the question over which so much ink would be needlessly spilled in the next century and a half: "Who wrote Shakespeare?" The author found it hard to reconcile our knowledge of Shakespeare's life -- his mealy-mouthed business dealings, his churlish will (that second-best bed) -- with the glories of his plays. Maybe Shakespeare hired someone else to do his writing for him?

Within a few years, a favoured candidate emerged: Francis Bacon, one of the most learned authors of the age. The Baconian argument came to prominence through a book titled The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakspere Unfolded (1857). Its author was one Delia Bacon, who was born in a log cabin in Ohio and was eventually committed to a lunatic asylum near Stratford-upon-Avon. Late in life, she claimed personal descent from Lord Bacon and attempted to locate certain hieroglyphic communications from him that she believed were hidden near Shakespeare's grave.

Delia and her many followers were driven by the belief that the wisdom of the plays was so profound that they could only have been written by a great philosopher. Bacon was the greatest English philosopher of the age, therefore he must have been the author of the plays. The ignorant actor from Stratford was but a front man. It did not seem to matter that Bacon's two distinctive modes of thinking -- arcane Neoplatonic symbolism on the one hand and radically modern empirical inquiry on the other -- represented an altogether different species of learning from that in the plays, which was derived from a combination of classical sources readily available in the grammar school curriculum (such as Ovid and Seneca) and middle-brow vernacular texts (such as Holinshed's historical Chronicles, Sir Thomas North's English versions of Plutarch's lives of the heroes of antiquity and a host of popular novellas, plays and romances).

Bacon was an extremely busy politician. His own efforts at drama were distinctly wooden: he had no interest in the professional theatre. Partly for these reasons, he fell out of favour in the twentieth century and a new candidate found vociferous support: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The case for his authorship was first put forward in 1920 by an elderly schoolmaster called Thomas Looney. Convinced that the plays evinced an aristocratic sensibility, Looney happened on some lyric poems by the Earl of Oxford and decided that they sounded similar to Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis. Knowing little of the conventions of Elizabethan literature -- the tendency of lyric poems to recycle stock images -- he failed to see that similar parallels could have been found in dozens of other poets of the period, both amateur and professional, aristocratic and low-ranking.

The Oxfordian argument goes something like this. The plays were clearly written by a learned man, whereas Shakespeare came from an illiterate household in an ignorant backwater. The plays reveal an intimate knowledge of Elizabethan high politics and court intrigue, whereas Shakespeare was a humble player. The plays are stamped with the genius of a great human spirit, whereas the documentary records of Shakespeare of Stratford concern such low business as tax evasion and money-grubbing land deals. The Oxfordians have, of course, been so busy pointing to the mote in the eye of Stratford William that they have neglected the beam in that of Earl Edward. But we will return to the specifics of the case against him. For now, let us leave him in the company of other claimants to the authorship of Shakespeare's play -- candidates who represent a multitude of the best and brightest of the age: at various times, more than a dozen aristocrats have been put forward, as have Queen Elizabeth, King James, John Florio the Anglo-Italian dictionary maker and Christopher Marlowe (a case that involves the fantasy that he was not killed in the summer of 1593 in a brawl over a bill in Deptford but was spirited away to Italy, whence he despatched his masterworks back to England). The key point to grasp about all these contenders is that their names -- every one of them -- only entered the frame after the apotheosis of Shakespeare from accomplished dramatist to god of our idolatry.

The Shakespeare authorship controversy is an epiphenomenon, a secondary symptom, a consequence of the extraordinary elevation of the dramatist's status that occurred in the eighteenth century. Before this, the conditions simply did not exist for a controversy. The idea of Shakespeare as the greatest artistic genius of all time has now taken such a powerful hold that we are surprised by things that should not surprise us. Why, for instance, ask the anti-Stratfordians, was there no great public reaction to his death? To answer such questions as this we need to suppress the instinct to think of Shakespeare as unique and supreme. We need to return to the age before Bardolatry and to recover the perceptions of Shakespeare's own time.

SPRING 1616. The most brilliant dramatic talent of the age is no more. A man who came to youthful fame with a witty and erotic narrative poem taken from the classical mythology of Ovid. Who wrote occasional verse but found his true vocation in the theatre. Whose gifts were such that even the prodigiously learned Ben Jonson deferred to him in the art of playmaking. He has written for the leading acting company of the age, the King's Men, the actors who bore the livery of James himself and played at court more than any other company.

There is only one place to lay such a man to rest: in Westminster Abbey, close to the tombs of Geoffrey Chaucer, father of English verse, and Edmund Spenser, greatest poet of the Elizabethan age. For the first time in the nation's history, a man of the theatre is acknowledged as equal to the makers of courtly verse. Move over, Chaucer and Spenser. The triumvirate of English genius is complete. Make room for the fallen star, cut off in the prime of his thirty-third year: Francis Beaumont is dead.

Spring 1616, take two. It is three weeks after Beaumont's death. Master William Shakespeare has for some time been retired in his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon. Now he is redrafting his will. Maybe he knows he is dying. His daughter Judith has finally married, but within weeks of the ceremony she has endured the humiliation of her new husband's being publicly accused of "incontinence" with another woman, who has just died as a result of giving birth to his illegitimate child. Shakespeare must change the terms of the will in order to protect his daughter's interests. He also takes the opportunity to add in a bequest of money for the purchase of memorial rings to "my fellows John Hemynnges Richard Burbage & Henry Cundell." They were fellows in more than one sense: friends, but also fellow actors and fellow shareholders in a highly successful business venture dating back over twenty years. That venture was of course the theatre company, established on a joint stock basis in 1594 as the Lord Chamberlain's Men and upgraded to the title of King's Men, courtesy of James I on his accession to the English throne in 1603.

A month later, Shakespeare is dead. We do not know the cause, though tradition speaks of the unfortunate aftereffects of a drinking bout on the occasion of a visit from the dramatist Ben Jonson and the poet Michael Drayton. The latter was a local man, a patient of Shakespeare's son-in-law, the highly reputable Dr. John Hall.

The town's most famous son is buried in the parish church. A monument is erected (the most likely commissioner of it is Dr. Hall). It shows Shakespeare holding a quill pen in his right hand and a piece of paper in the left. For a desk, he has a tasselled cushion. Beneath, there is an inscription that tells of how "Quick Nature died" with him but "Living Art" remains in the pages that manifest his "wit." A Latin motto compares him to the very greatest geniuses of antiquity: he had the wisdom of the philosopher Socrates, the literary skill of the poet Virgil and the good judgment of the legendary Nestor. This would be a very strange set of claims if the man in question were anything but an author.

News travels slowly between the provinces and London. We do not know when the theatre world hears of the master's end. Certainly not in time to arrange for a burial in Westminster Abbey. Such is the unfortunate fate of the man who dies away from the capital. And besides, theatre is a fickle business. Shakespeare is yesterday's news. It is the death of Beaumont, so young and still in the prime of his writing, that has captured the imagination of the court and the literary world. Even to contemplate bringing the body of yesterday's man up from the country would take the shine off Beaumont's glory.

Less familiar than Beaumont's burying place is his opinion of the older playwright who died so soon after him. Sometime before his untimely end, Beaumont wrote two verse epistles from the country. The two letters share the same easygoing style and the same addressee (Ben Jonson). One of them is nostalgic for literary company and "full Mermaid wine,"[1] while the other includes an account of the art of their fellow dramatist William Shakespeare. It was an art that concealed art:

Here I would let slip
(If I had any in me) scholarship,
And from all learning keep these lines as clear
As Shakespeare's best are, which our heirs shall hear
Preachers apt to their auditors to show
How far sometimes a mortal man may go
By the dim light of Nature.

Jonson himself would later reiterate this characterization. He too knew that Shakespeare had outshone his predecessors (Marlowe, Kyd, Lyly) so far that his plays rivalled those of the ancients (Aeschylus, Euripides, Sophocles, Seneca), despite the fact that the writer of them had "small Latin and less Greek." We must not forget, though, that Ben Jonson liked to show off his own prodigious learning in the classical languages. Small Latin by his standards may well be great by ours.

It is regrettable that Beaumont's letter remained unpublished for three hundred years. Here is another dramatist and drinker saying that the distinctive feature of Shakespeare's writing is its lack of learning. And yet one of the main causes of the authorship controversy has been -- what was it now? oh, yes -- the supposed irreconcilability between Shakespeare's writing and his lack of learning.

Let us here and now put to rest for good the image of Shakespeare as an ill-educated country bumpkin. As witnesses for Will's defence, I call upon his Stratford friends the Quineys. There is a surviving letter from Richard Quiney, the town bailiff, to Shakespeare, addressing him as "good friend" and "loving countryman." Quiney's roguish son Thomas was the man who married Judith Shakespeare. But a glance at his eldest son gives us a revealing picture of the level of learning common in Shakespeare's Stratford. At the age of just eleven, Richard Quiney Jr. wrote a letrer to his father requesting new schoolbooks. Nothing unusual about that, except that the letter was written in perfect Latin. Elizabethan England was not a place where ordinary people were ignorant and wealthy aristocrats were learned. On the contrary: the eleven-year-old Stratford boy Quiney had, as we shall see, much better Latin than the mighty Earl of Oxford!

The myth of Stratford as a backwater devoid of all learning was born in the eighteenth century as another incidental consequence of the apotheosis of Shakespeare. It was a fiction that allowed people to believe that Shakespeare's genius was a freak of nature. It gave Romantic spirits the opportunity to gasp at the miracle of such a man coming from such a place.

The consensus in the immediate aftermath of Shakespeare's death was that he had been a great dramatist but no freak of nature. Soon after 1616, a minor Oxford poet called William Basse made the pilgrimage to Stratford, saw the monument to the playwright's memory, noted the month and year of his death and wrote these lines:

Renowned Spenser, lie a thought more nye [near]
To learned Chaucer, and rare Beaumont lie
A little nearer Spenser to make room
For Shakespeare in your threefold fourfold tomb.
To lodge all four in one bed make a shift
Until Doomsday, for hardly will be a fifth
Betwixt this day and that by fate be slain
For whom your curtains may be drawn again.
If your precedency in death doth bar
A fourth place in your sacred sepulchre,
Under this carved marble of thine own
Sleep rare tragedian Shakespeare, sleep alone
Thy unmolested peace, unshared cave
Possess as lord not tenant of thy grave,
That unto us and others it may be
Honor hereafter to be laid by thee.

This moving little poem circulated in numerous manuscripts in the seventeenth century, testimony to the admiration in which Shakespeare was still held in the immediate aftermath of his death, despite the fact that he had written nothing in the last few years of his life. For Basse, the trinity was not enough: Shakespeare was as good as Chaucer, Spenser and Beaumont. The four of them made up sufficient English genius to last until the crack of doom. Still, however, Shakespeare is one among others. He may be rare but he is not unique. At this moment, then, there was no need to attribute the writing of the plays to someone else. If anything, one would have expected someone to come forward and ask why Beaumont wrote so brilliantly about the life of the court, given that he was not a courtier.

THE MASTER'S LIFE NOW OVER, Shakespeare's surviving business partners -- led by Richard Burbage, foremost player of the King's Men, and John Heminges and Henry Condell, the company's sharpest businessmen -- have to decide what to do with his work. It is in their interest to keep as much as possible in manuscript as their own exclusive property. Once a play is disseminated in print, control of it is lost (copyright in its modern sense has not yet been invented). The demand in the literary marketplace for Shakespeare's writing is such that by one means or another, about half his plays have already found their way to the press, sometimes in the form of what Heminges and Condell call "stolen and surreptitious copies." For a while, it seems best to keep the written text of the other works out of the public domain.

Then in 1619 a London publisher named Thomas Pavier, who has already laid his hands on a number of the plays, appears to be moving toward the production of what will advertise itself as a complete Shakespeare. Burbage dies that year, so it is left to Heminges and Condell to act. They set about blocking Pavier's plans and launching their own. The time is right to immortalize their colleague by way of an authoritative collected edition of the plays.

It is a formidable task to gather together all the texts and transform them from working theatre scripts to coherently and consistently presented printed works that will stand the test of time. Even once the copy is prepared, it will still take a long time to print the book: each individual letter of type has to be set on the press by hand. Heminges and Condell initially have thirty-five plays in their possession. At a late stage in the process, they make room for a thirty-sixth, Troilus and Cressida. They decide to exclude The Two Noble Kinsmen and Cardenio, two of Shakespeare's three final plays, written in collaboration with John Fletcher. (Fletcher is also believed to have helped write Henry VIII.) The latter had achieved fame as Beaumont's collaborator and then taken over from Shakespeare as "in-house" playwright for the King's Men. To have included work that was partially Fletcher's in the Shakespeare Folio would have added to the lustre of the dead dramatist at the expense of the living one. The Two Noble Kinsmen was eventually published in 1634 with a title page describing it as the joint work of Shakespeare and Fletcher. The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher and Shakespeare was registered for publication in 1653 but is now lost. There is, however, ample evidence that it was a collaboration between the two dramatists, undertaken shortly after the publication in 1612 of the English translation of Cervantes' Don Quixote.

By 1623 the great book is finally ready. It is printed in large paper double-columned "folio" format. A consortium of publishers, headed by William and Isaac Jaggard, has joined together in the publication of Mr William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. Published according to the True Originall Copies. That latter phrase proclaims the accuracy of these texts, in contrast to the unauthorized earlier editions of individual plays, which Heminges and Condell dismiss in their prefatory address to the reader as "maimed and deformed by the frauds and stealthes of injurious impostors." In the 1623 Folio (known as the "first," to distinguish it from later editions that appeared in 1632, 1663 and 1685), Shakespeare's two friends and colleagues have left us not only a priceless record of his work but the strongest evidence of his authorship.

The title page of the First Folio is adorned with Martin Droeshout's famous engraving of the dramatist, his forehead domed like the Globe, as if to gesture toward the name of his theatre and the fecundity of his art. Opposite the "cut" is the brief poem by Ben Jonson, attesting to the authenticity of the image but telling the reader that the works matter more than the face. Heminges and Condell contribute both their address to the reader and a dedicatory epistle to the Pembroke brothers, two noble earls who assisted in the blocking of the Pavier edition. The actors praise their friend and colleague for his extraordinary verbal facility: "His mind and hand went together: And what he thought, he uttered with that easinesse, that wee have scarce received from him a blot in his papers."

The preliminary pages of the First Folio also include four commendatory poems. One of these, by a poet identified only by the initials "I. M.," makes witty play on the dual identity of "Master William Shake-speare"[2] as both actor and writer. But pride of place in the Folio's front matter is given to Ben Jonson's magnificent tribute, "To the memory of my beloved, the Author Mr William Shakespeare: and what he hath left us." In this poem, Jonson responds to William Basse's complaint that Shakespeare lacked an appropriate physical memorial. It does not matter that Shakespeare lies beneath the ground in Warwickshire. There is no need to build him a monument beside those of Chaucer, Spenser and Beaumont in the Abbey. His monument is his book. This book. The Folio itself:

My Shakespeare, rise; I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
A little further, to make thee a room:
Thou art a monument without a tomb,
And art alive still, while thy book doth live,
And we have wits to read and praise to give.

William Shakespeare of Stratford, an actor who lacked a university education, and Ben Jonson of London, an actor (and sometime bricklayer) who lacked a university education, were intimate friends and friendly rivals. In the first years of the seventeenth century -- before the advent of Beaumont and Fletcher -- they were regarded as indisputably the nation's two greatest living dramatists. The best response to skeptics who doubt that the Stratford man could have written his plays on the foundation of nothing more than a grammar school education is an invitation to read the complete plays of Ben Jonson. They are vastly more academic than Shakespeare's, yet they too were written on the foundation of nothing more than a grammar school education. The thing is, Elizabethan grammar schools were very good. They put our high schools to deep shame.

Jonson knew perfectly well who wrote the plays that were now being properly published for the first time. In the First Folio poem to the memory of his beloved friend, he praised Shakespeare's plays to the skies and referred to him as the "Sweet Swan of Avon." Jonson knew the dramatist intimately in the context of the London theatre world but also linked him to the Avon, the river that runs through Shakespeare's hometown.

And there is more. Shakespeare acted in Jonson's plays. There is strong testimony that he was godfather to one of Jonson's children. In his private notebook, Jonson remarked on Shakespeare's extraordinary verbal facility and the speed of his writing. He spoke about him with affectionate mockery in his conversations with the Scottish poet William Drummond. As for Heminges and Condell, they are remembered with affection in the will of the Stratford man and they were editors of the First Folio. These links ought to be evidence enough to lay to rest all claims that Shakespeare's plays were really written by someone else.

But if all this is still insufficient to satisfy the doubter, there is a fascinating series of further links to consider, a chain that connects the First Folio and Shakespeare's London world to his Stratford world. This chain begins with another poem printed in the Folio's preliminary pages, opposite the "Catalogue of the several! Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies contained in this Volume." It was written by one Leonard Digges, an Oxford-educated poet and literary translator, and is titled "To the Memorie of the deceased Authour Maister W. Shakespeare." Digges's verses refer both to the stone of the author's tomb and to "thy Stratford Moniment." Digges, then, knew that "the deceased Authour" lay beneath a stone in the aisle of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, and that there was a monument to him and his work on the adjacent wall.

Here we have the first link in the chain. For Digges had Stratford-upon-Avon connection: his stepfather was Thomas Russell, a local Stratford gentleman who served as overseer of Shakespeare's will. (Shakespeare was sufficiently fond of Russell to bequeath him his ceremonial sword.) Digges was proud of his stepfather's acquaintance with the great writer. On a visit to Spain, he wrote an inscription in a book sent to a friend, noting that Lope de Vega was admired as both a poet and a dramatist just as "our Will Shakespeare" was admired back in England for both his plays and his sonnets. The combination of that intimate "Will" and the proudly proprietorial "our" speaks volumes. As with Jonson's private notebook, a personal note of this kind is a very special sort of evidence. Digges knew Shakespeare well enough to call him "Will," and he had no doubts about the authorship of the plays.

Thomas Russell leads us to the second link in the chain, for he has some other very interesting connections. In 1591 his name was joined in a legal bond to that of his friend Henry Willoughby of Wiltshire. Russell and Willoughby were connected by marriage: the previous year Russell had married one of a pair of sisters and Willoughby's elder son had wed the other. Then in 1594, Willoughby's younger son, an Oxford student, published an enigmatic poem called "Willobie his Avisa." Among the characters in this work of about three thousand lines is one H.W. (the poet himself?), who has a "familiar friend W.S." whose profession is "player." There is a strong probability that "W.S." stands for William Shakespeare.

In the poem of the younger Willoughby (or Willobie) there is a dialogue between W.S. and H.W in which W.S. says, "She is no saint, she is no nun, I think in time she may be won," a couplet remarkably similar to lines found in three of Shakespeare's early plays (1 Henry VI, Titus Andronicus and Richard III). Scholars have long supposed that there may be some connection between "Willobie his Avisa" and the tangled love matter of Shakespeare's sonnets, in which the poet veers between his worship of a beautiful male youth and his desire for a dark female temptress. The commendatory verses prefixed to"Willobie" include an allusion to Shakespeare's poem The Rape of Lucrece, which was hot off the press at the time Willoughby's poem was written.

The Rape of Lucrece, together with Venus and Adonis, belongs to the period in 1593 and 1594 when the theatres were closed because of plague and Shakespeare was trying to make his way as a non-dramatic poet by gaining the patronage of the 3rd Earl of Southampton -- whose family home at Titchfield was not far from Willoughby's in Wiltshire. The character of "H.W" may denote Henry Willoughly himself, but it may alternatively (or additionally) be a coded representation of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley. Thus Thomas Russell provides the link to Henry Willoughby, whose poem may just provide us with a link to Shakespeare's patron -- and possible lover? -- and thus back to Shakespeare himself.

Thomas Russell also links Shakespeare's country origins to his city world. He turns up in the London theatre district toward the end of the 1590s, when he was arrested as surety for another friend, with whom he had been "bound to go on a sea of voyage" -- a misadventure that has the whiff of Antonio, Bassanio and Shylock's bond in The Merchant of Venice. It was at this time that Russell was wooing the widow Digges, Leonard's mother. She lived in Philip Lane in the Aldermanbury district of London, an address close to those of Heminges, Condell and Shakespeare himself, who was lodging in nearby Silver Street. All this makes for a fascinating and highly suggestive set of relationships and interconnections.

The gap between Shakespeare's Stratford world and his London one was not nearly so great as is sometimes assumed. Whereas Leonard Digges went from London to Stratford, others moved as Shakespeare did in the opposite direction: from Stratford to London. Thomas Greene, the Stratford-upon-Avon town clerk, was Shakespeare's kinsman. He named his children Anne and William, which suggests that the Shakespeares stood as godparents for him. It was customary to name children after their godparents: thus Shakespeare's twins Hamnet end Judith were named after his friends Hamlet and Judith Sadler -- Hamnet and Hamlet being alternative spellings of the same name. Greene and his children lodged with Shakespeare's family in New Place for about two years (1609-1611) while waiting to move into a house of their own. Greene had earlier ventured to London for his legal training. In the capital he moved in the same circle as John Marston and John Manningham, clever young lawyers and writers who were familiar with Shakespeare and his works (Manningham attended an early performance of Twelfth Night and recorded a note in his diary about one of Shakespeare's extramarital sexual escapades, recounted earlier by Stanley Wells.)

The path from Stratford to London was also followed by Richard Field, a boy slightly older than Shakespeare. In London he became a printer, and it was to him that Shakespeare turned for the publication of his poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Field also printed high-quality classical texts, thus revealing what a good education had been available to him at the grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, which Shakespeare had been entitled to attend free, as a result of his father's position on the town council.

The force of the "anti-Stratfordian" myth in the popular imagination has become so powerful that it is necessary to present all this minute evidence in order to reiterate a simple fact that was quite evident to Shakespeare's contemporaries: it was perfectly possible for a boy from a "small trade" background in the provincial town of Stratford-upon-Avon to enter the London theatre world and write some very accomplished plays.

Shakespeare's place of origin was a matter of chance. Original genius is always the result of some freak combination of genes and circumstances. Thomas Greene had some of the same genes. Richard Field and eleven-year-old Richard Quiney Jr., who could write a letter to his father in perfect Latin, shared the same educational circumstances. There is no intrinsic reason why one of these men should not have become a dramatist rather than a lawyer (and amateur poet) or a printer. It so happened that the hand of chance chose William Shakespeare.

PLAYS ARE THE MOST IMPERSONAL of literary forms, so it is only with the greatest degree of caution that we may draw inferences about the life from the work, but it is to the work itself that I will turn for the final evidence on Shakespeare's behalf. His last plays do seem to echo the doings of the man who claimed to have written them. They hint at a settling of accounts, a contemplation of retirement and of mortality. In The Winter's Tale a man asks for a fresh start with his wife, some sixteen years after he has wronged her. When Shakespeare writes these lines, he has spent much of the past sixteen years away from his wife. And there is strong evidence that he was not always sexually faithful to her. In The Tempest a man of "potent art," who has acted out the role of a dramatist, speaks of his retirement. And in both plays there is much harping on daughters and their marriages -- Shakespeare had two daughters, one of whom was not yet married, despite being in her mid-twenties.

For stronger proof, read the First Folio from cover to cover. You will be filled with wonder at the sheer range and variety of Shakespeare's style and vocabulary. The courtly language may make you think he must have been a courtier. But then the country language will make you think he must have been a countryman. In establishing the author's identity, what you need to look for are the quirky things. Courtly language may be learned by imitation -- it is the sort of thing you find in books (or observe when your theatre company is invited to perform at court).

The small, seemingly inconsequential details are what constitute the unique fingerprint. The plays ascribed to William Shakespeare were written by a man who knew of a fat alewife called Marian Hacket in the village of Wincot near Stratford-upon-Avon (she is mentioned in the induction to The Taming of the Shrew and parish records reveal the historical reality of the Hackets of Wincot). The plays ascribed to William Shakespeare were written by someone who refers to many different kinds of animal hide and to the technicalities of leather manufacture. Sounds like the son of a glover, not the son of a lord. All non-Stratfordian, non-glover pretenders to the title of author of these plays suffer from the same debilitating deficiency: they have no way of proving their knowledge of Marian Hacket or the distinction between "neat's leather" (used for shoes) and sheep's leather (for bridles).

Sometimes it takes a creative eye to identify the fingerprint. Thus the novelist Robert Nye in The Late Mr Shakespeare, a biographical "faction" of 1998, draws attention to a particular watery detail:

If you stand on the eighteenth arch of Clopton Bridge (the one nearest the point where the road goes to London), if you watch the River Avon below when it is in flood, you will see a curious thing that Shakespeare saw.

The force of the current under the adjoining arches, coupled with the curve there is at that strait in the riverbank, produces a very queer and swirling eddy. What happens is that the bounding water is forced back through the arch in an exactly contrary direction.

I have seen sticks and straws, which I have just watched swirling downstream through the arch, brought back again as swiftly against the flood.

The boy Will saw this too. Here's how he describes it:

As through an arch the violent roaring tide
Outruns the eye that doth behold his haste,
Yet in the eddy boundeth in his pride
Back to the strait that forc'd him on so fast,
In rage sent out, recall'd in rage, being past:
Even so his sighs, his sorrows, make a saw,
To push grief on and back the same grief draw.

That's from The Rape of Lucrece, lines 1667-73. How many times must he have warched it, perhaps wirh tears in his bright eyes?

Next time you meet members of the anti-Will brigade, ask them on how many occasions their candidate stood on the eighteenth arch of Clopton Bridge in Stratford-upon-Avon and watched the eddying movement of the water.

In one of his loveliest songs, the dramatist writes,"Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust." In Warwickshire vernacular dialect, a dandelion is a "golden lad" when in flower, a "chimney-sweeper" when ready to be blown to the wind. This is no lord's memory. It belongs to a local country boy in a Warwickshire field.

HAVING LAID OUT THE POWERFUL, one might say overwhelming, evidence that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, we must return to the chief among his current rivals and to the very strong case against Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. It is a case, I would submit, to which the Oxfordians can make no adequate answer.

The plays were clearly written by a man reasonably well versed in Latin, whereas Oxford's surviving letters reveal that he was hopeless at Latin. The plays reveal an intimate knowledge of Jacobean high politics and court intrigue, whereas Oxford was on his deathbed at the time of King James's accession to the English throne. Oxford died in June 1604, whereas many of Shakespeare's plays were written after this. So, for instance, works such as King Lear and Cymbeline engage with the idea of "Britain" (whereas the Elizabethan plays always refer to "England") at exactly the time when King James was attempting to unify England and Scotland into a single British nation. And, of course, Oxfordians are strangely silent about their man's ability to co-write plays with John Fletcher some eight years af er his own death.

The plays reveal an intimate knowledge of the grammar school curriculum, leatherwork and professional stagecraft, whereas Oxford did not go to grammar school, join the leather trade or work backstage with a theatre company. And, allowing for the sake of argument the very dubious assumption that it takes a good man to produce a good work of art: the plays are stamped with the genius of a great human spirit, whereas the documentary records of Oxford concern such low business as casual killing and pedophilia. All this will be revealed in a forthcoming biography of Edward de Vere by Alan Nelson of the University of California, Berkeley, who has tracked down every extant piece of writing by, and reference to, the wretched Earl. Thanks to Nelson's researches, the case for Oxford as Shakespeare will die in the early twenty-first century, just as that for Bacon died in the early twentieth. But it is a certain bet that another candidate will emerge.

On this occasion truth is, alas, less strange than fiction. There was no conspiracy, no dashing lord in disguise. Just a very clever boy called Will -- but there were other clever boys in Stratford, who were lucky enough to benefit from the newly established grammar school there. This one grew into a very talented dramatist called Shakespeare -- but there were other very talented dramatists in London, who were his friends, rivals and coauthors. It was not until over a hundred years after his death that people began putting him in an altogether different league from Beaumont, Fletcher and Jonson.

Once that happened, though, Pandora's box was opened. When Shakespeare became God, some of his more ardent admirers started finding his life too dull and provincial. They set about the hunt for a mystery, the search for a suitably glamorous alternative candidate. Others, meanwhile, started finding his image too dull and provincial: dissatisfied with the portly figure on the Stratford monument, they set about the hunt for a lost portrait, the search for a suitably glamorous alternative face. We'll never find an alternative candidate for the authorship, since the plain fact of the matter is that Shakespeare did write the plays. We just might, however, find an authentic alternative for the image. But we must be wary: for who, the Bible reminds us, can look upon the face of God and live?

· Notes:

1. In March 1613 William Shakespeare was in the city, completing the purchase of a gatehouse in the theatre district of Blackfriars. Shakespeare put up the money, but it was actually a co-purchase in company with three other men, one of whom was John Heminges. Another was William Johnson, landlord of the nearby Mermaid tavern. Although the story of Shakespeare and Ben Jonson engaging in wit combats at the Mermaid is probably apocryphal, landlord Johnson's part in the gatehouse purchase shows that Shakespeare was a Mermaid man and lends credibility to the claim that he and Ben Jonson were drinking companions within its walls.

2. Several occurrences of the dramatist's name in the preliminary matter to the First Folio are hyphenated, but most are not. The presence or absence of a hyphen is quite arbitrary -- a printer's vagary, not the momentous matter supposed by anti-Stratfordians.

This essay appears in Shakespeare's Face (2002), by Stephanie Nolen, with contributions by Jonathan Bate, Tarnya Cooper, Marjorie Garber, Andrew Gurr, Alexander Leggatt, Robert Tittler, and Stanley Wells.

Copyright 2002 by Jonathan Bate. All rights reserved. Reprinted here with permission of the author.

home · a fine mystery · a bard in the hand? · what's at stake?
related report: FRONTLINE's the shakespeare mystery · poll: who cares? · quiz · readings & links
join the discussion · teacher's guide · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
privacy · FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

Much Ado About Something [home] FRONTLINE