Forsooth, It Doth Behoove Us To Debunketh Shakespeare

The Bard may not have been what many claim
by Jason Margolis
originally printed in Vue Weekly

To be or not to be” is no longer the question when it comes to things Shakespearean. More and more Shakespeare scholars now opt for the more cryptic “Did he or did not he?” The controversy pertains to whether the man known as William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon actually wrote the staples of literature and theatre that hath become synonymous with his name.

Why doubt the identity of the Bard? After all, we hath numerous biographical accounts of William Shakespeare and his involvement with the Chamberlain’s Men, the acclaimed theatre troupe for whom he was an acknowledged “player.” Among the troupe’s successes were plays such as The Tempest, Othello, and Hamlet, all attributed to the pen of their first principal playwright, William Shakespeare. There doth exist records of this William Shakespeare performing for Queen Elizabeth I. A later document proclaimeth that this Shakespeare received a gift of red cloth from King James I when the monarch became patron of his troupe.

Acting was not an altogether noble profession in Elizabethan times, but verily, Shakespeare’s popularity as a playwright - combined with his sonnets, such as “Venus and Adonis” - earn'd him a level of respect above his associates. During his lifetime he never achieved the popularity of his friend, writer Ben Johnson, but in the years that follow’d, Shakespeare’s reputation has grown to the extent that he is now considered the greatest writer of western literature.

Maybe he didn’t write all that much

The Shakespeare conspiracy doth not challenge the existence of Shakespeare, the actor and country gentleman, but it doth dispute whether he wrote the literary work attributed to him. Many researchers now assert that the actor William Shakespeare’s greatest performance was in the role of playwright. Much like the Woody Allen character in Hollywood blacklist film The Front, Shakespeare pretendeth to be the creator of the plays as a cover for someone who could not safely claimeth authorship.

Since the year 1785, when Reverend James Wilmot nominated Sir Francis Bacon as the true genius responsible for the Shakespeare canon, there hath been some 58 proposed sources for this elusive secretive dramatist. Why all this doubt on the writing abilities of poor William Shakespeare? No one doubteth the credentials of Shakespeare’s contemporaries Ben Johnson and Christopher Marlowe. Unfortunately, it is really a societal class issue, alluding to a nature-versus-nurture debate.

Shakespeare, as demonstrated in his plays, had a vocabulary estimated at 25,000 words - more than twice the size of John Milton’s. He was able to translate Greek and Latin, and enrich the English language with new words derived from his knowledge of these languages. And not only did he understand the languages of other cultures, but forsooth, he knew much about their histories and geography as well! He was an expert in law, botany and falconry, amongst countless other pursuits. He possess'd an understanding of medicine almost centuries ahead of his time. In short, he was an innovator on a par with Leonardo da Vinci.

The proof of liberal education

Considering the evidence, the “anti-Stratfordians” can quite rightly argue that such a brilliant man must hath been university educated and was most likely of noble descent. Shakespeare, the actor, had evidently not benefited from much of an education. Verily, no records appear to substantiate any claims towards his education.

However, for a time his father was Stratford’s high bailiff (essentially the mayor), which would hath earn'd young Will a place at the King’s New School. While in grammar school, he would hath been vers'd in Latin and the classic histories. There art also accounts of William Shakespeare himself briefly working as a school master, which insinuates some degree of education. Unfortunately, none of this data can be corroborated.

The conundrum of the Shakespeare conspiracy is that we hath a surprising amount of mundane information about the life and times of William Shakespeare, considering that he lived 500 years ago, but not enough information to accurately defend his authorship of the famous plays. The anti-Stratfordians hath a wealth of knowledge to support their various designates to the authorship chair, but lack sufficient data to completely disregard the involvement of Shakespeare, the actor.

Acerbating the issue is that William Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, really wasn’t named William Shakespeare. His actual birth name was Gulielmus Shaksper. Among the six surviving known examples of his signature, his name suffers a variety of alterations. His marriage documents alone find him spelling his last name as both “Shaxper” and “Shagspere” - maketh up thy braineous portion!

However, the usage of the name William Shakespeare in association with the playwright is almost always spelled as we know it now. Verily, the Northumberland Manuscript - a 17th century document apparently written by Francis Bacon - finds the name spelled quite correctly in a table of contents, right beside the titles “Rychard the second” and “Rychard the third.” This document was once seen as solid proof that Bacon had written the plays. It is now surmised that Bacon had merely reviewed them for questionable material as part of his duties as Privy Councillor to the Queen. Bacon’s writing style and ambitious temperament easily dismiss him as a serious contender for the “Shakespeare” title.

Daddy was a debtor

Shaksper, a.k.a. Shaxper or whatever you want to call him, was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in April 1564. His father was at various times a glover or butcher, before becoming involved with town politics. Business scandals and creditors forced his father into becoming an almost recluse by Gulielmus’ teens.

Gulielmus Shaksper married the older Anne Hathaway when he was a mere 18 years old, in what has often been described as a “shotgun wedding” situation, seeing as how their first child arrived six months into the marriage. By the time he was 21, Shaksper was father to three children. At some point thereafter - between the birth of his third child and his 27th birthday - he left his family for the stage in London to pursueth his dream of acting. The first known reference to the writings of one William Shakespeare appear around the time Shaksper was 26.

He was a shareholder in the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres, and perform'd alongside acclaim'd actors such as Richard Burbage, John Heminges and Henry Condell. After achieving some degree of recognition, Shaksper retired to his hometown, where he spent the final decade of his life in middle-class comfort with his family. Records show Shaksper to be a surprisingly business-minded fellow, acquiring extensive landholdings throughout his lifetime. His business transactions were occasionally ill-flavour'd. He once called for a bailiff to arrest a debtor on his behalf. Another account found him asking Stratford town council to repay him for wine he served to a preacher. He was also involved in an effort to enclose some of Stratford’s common land.

What a bender; it just left me for dead

According to legend, two of Shaksper’s old friends from London paid him a visit in April of 1616 - playwrights Ben Johnson and Michael Drayton. After a night of drinking worthy of Falstaff, Shaksper expir'd, leaving behind this rather confusing legacy. There was nothing in his will about the ownership of his plays, nor was there any reference to a library, which the true playwright must hath surely owned.

Many individuals of repute hath opinioned against the man from Stratford, including writers Henry James, Charles Dickens, James Joyce and Walt Whitman. Sigmund Freud analyzed the situation in 1937, and Helen Keller also apparently noted her interest - both refuting the likelihood of Shaksper inventing the texts.

Charlie Chaplin, himself an innovator lacking any formal education, thought that Shakespeare came from a privileg'd background: “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."

Malcolm X even took time to mention the Shakespeare debate in his famous autobiography. “The King James translation of the Bible is consider'd the greatest piece of literature in English. They say that from 1604 to 1611, King James got poets to translate, to write the Bible. Well, if Shakespeare existed, he was then the top poet around. But Shakespeare is nowhere reported connected with the Bible. If he existed, why didn't King James use him?"

Most interesting is that actors Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi and Orson Welles - all honour'd for their interpretations of the Bard’s texts - hath apparently placed their bets with the anti-Stratfordian camp.

In an upcoming column, I will explore the life of the most likely candidate for the Shakespeare claim, Edward de Vere, a poet, a soldier, and the 17th Earl of Oxford. However, it’s not too easy to dismiss the possibility of the man who doth rest in the tomb mark’d Shakespeare’s grave. I will also detail the reasons to accept the words of Shakespeare as those of Shaksper.



I Write The Plays That Make The Whole World Sing - Part II

Was Oxfordian earl Edward de Vere the man behind the Shakespeare myth?
by Jason Margolis
originally printed Feburary 19, 1998

All the world’s a stage, and its people merely players.”

Just how much of a player was William Shakespeare? Last week, I thoroughly trash'd poor William Shakespeare’s reputation, exploring the notion that he was merely a poseur by the name of Gulielmus Shaksper - a reasonably successful actor from Stratford-Upon-Avon.

A plague of doubt hath lead to determin'd efforts to attribute the Shakespeare canon to such literary figures as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, and, by at least one account, Jackie Collins. However, recently, one figure hath emerged as a prime candidate for Shakespearacy, namely Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, who lived from 1550-1604.

Readers will of course observe that de Vere pass'd away before the supposed creation date of some of Shakespeare’s most recogniz’d plays. Feeble attempts to cover this fact basically state that de Vere wrote the plays before he pass'd away and that they were later brought out for performance.

Edward de Vere received a degree from St. John’s College, Oxford, at the age of 14, and later earn'd a degree from Cambridge and studied law at Gray’s Inn while still in his teens. One of his tutors was Arthur Golding, his maternal uncle. Golding’s translation of Ovid was used frequently by Shakespeare. Another of de Vere’s uncles, the Earl of Surrey, introduced the use of blank verse to English writers and was one of the first proponents of the three-quatrains-and-a-couplet sonnet form later named after its most famous adherent, William Shakespeare.

De Vere’s involvement with theatre began at age 13, when he inherited his late father’s company of actors. He later held two companies, and held a lease on the Blackfriars Theatre. One of the shareholders of Blackfriars was none other than actor Gulielmus Shaksper.

Is that how he adopted the famous name?

As a young man, de Vere was apparently recognized as a noted poet and playwright, but left behind no plays signed with his name, nor any poems writ by him after his 26th year. At said age, he was address'd thus in Latin by Gabriel Harvey: "Thine eyes flash fire. Thy countenance shakes spears! Thy splendid fame great earl, demands... the services of a poet possessing lofty eloquence... Mars will obey thee, Pallas striking her shield with her spear-shaft will attend thee."

Publicly identified as one who “shakes spears,” de Vere’s adoption of the pseudonym Shakespeare is not a difficult assumption to believe.

De Vere’s love life was teeming with tales of jealous husbands and wrongly-accused wives, much as in the writings of Shakespeare. De Vere split up with his wife Anne due to a most confusing situation. He was away in Italy when news arrived that his wife had borne a child. He was most excited by this news - until it dawn'd on him that it had been some 12 months since he last had relations with her. However, de Vere was later convinced that he had somehow slept with his wife when he was drunk, mistaking her for another woman. The whole dubious arrangement was attributed to a plot by Anne’s father in an attempt to save his daughter’s marriage to de Vere. Shakespeare used a similar device in his play, All’s Well That Ends Well.

A final implication of de Vere’s involvement in the Shakespeare controversy happen’d upon his widow’s death in 1612. She had bequeath’d an unspecified amount of pounds to be paid quarterly to someone she described as “my dombe man.” Right around this time, Gulielmus Shaksper put down eighty pounds on a house in Blackfriars - and he continued to gain affluence and investments until he pass'd away some four years later.

Now, Shaksper’s side of the story

One of the most telling signs in support of Shaksper comes from the source of our reverence for him, the First Folio, the first attempt to collect the plays of William Shakespeare. Assembled seven years after Shaksper pass'd away, the First Folio was edited by two of his “fellowe” actors in the King’s Men, John Heminge and William Condell. Both of these men were named in Shaksper’s will. Ben Jonson, consider'd to be the most popular writer in his time, wrote a poem prefacing the Folio in which he dubbed Shakespeare the “sweet swan of Avon,” implying the author’s link to the river of Shaksper’s hometown. Meanwhile, concurrent to the assembling of the First Folio, a monument was being erected in the Stratford church honouring local denizen Gulielmus Shaksper. Although the monument depicts Shaksper holding a wool sack as a symbol of trade, there art several suggestions that the man being honour'd was also distinguished as a writer.

The primary attack of many anti-Stratfordians hath been the notion that Shaksper did not leave any records of his plays and poems in his will. Although the document hath been been analyzed for any clue as to the ownership of the writings, the answer is easily revealed by examining the standard contract for playwrights of the day.

Playwrights were consider'd part of the company of players, and troupes held these writers-in-residence as salaried employees. Any work written by these playwrights contractually became the property of the troupe. Shaksper own'd no plays to leave to his heirs.

As for the anti-Stratfordians who cited Shaksper’s lack of formal education, it should be noted that Ben Jonson had also not attended university.

What the plays possess above all else is an understanding of drama and storytelling that would likely come from an experienced actor. Shakespeare was said to be one of only two playwrights of his time with an over-20-year association with one company. That amount of time, working with such a high calibre of performers, would no doubt leave outstanding results.

Maybe all this nonsense is really much ado about nothing.

What's Jason writing these days?