William Shakespeare and JS Bach are perhaps the two most important cultural figures in Western Civilization. This high pedestal that they occupy makes questions over their authorship almost blasphemous for their admirers. If Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor has come for scholarly debate in recent years, the question marks over Shakespeare’s authorship were raised four centuries earlier and cover a substantial part of his work. The Anti-Stratfordians (as those sceptical of Shakespeare’s authorship are called) prefer to attribute his works to one among the following contenders: Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Edward Dyer, the earl of Derby or especially Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford. In this backdrop, the challenge facing both the faithful and the doubters is the scarce historical record to either support or disprove their claims. If the late Baroque obscurity surrounding Bach’s primary documents lead to no definite conclusions, it is even more pronounced in the early modern era of Shakespeare’s life and career. This essay will attempt to evaluate various claims, both for and against the veracity of Shakespeare’s authorship and will arrive at the most reasonable conclusion.
Those who defend the traditional attribution invariably point to three iron-clad pieces of biographical evidence that ‘prove’ Shakespeare of Stratford was the dramatist. Firstly, Shakespeare’s last will and testimony of 1616 specified “bequests to John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage. All three were his erstwhile fellow actors and shareholders in the Lord Chamberlain’s/King’s Men acting company and in the Globe and Blackfriars theaters.” (Price) Second, at an unspecified date within seven years of Shakespeare’s death, a funerary monument was erected in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-on-Avon. The effigy contains both quill and paper. Third, in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death, 36 plays were published in the collection recognized retrospectively as the First Folio. The prefatory matter “identifies the actor, William Shakespeare of Stratford, as the playwright, and it refers to the Stratford monument and to the “Sweet Swan of Avon.”” (Price) Though these proofs are solid, there are circumstantial and not direct evidence of Shakespeare’s scholarship.
One of the main challenges to Shakespeare’s authorship comes from the overlap of his lifetime with that of Christopher Marlowe – a giant in English Literature in his own right. Some have claimed that what passes for some of Shakespeare’s works were actually authored by Marlowe. They claim that either through obscurity or oversight or deliberate attempt at plagiarism, Shakespeare was wrongly attributed as the author. Somewhat helping Shakespeare’s cause is the death of Marlowe in 1593, after which many of the Bard’s greatest works were performed and published. The inquest document of Marlowe’s demise offers a concrete proof, although the accuracy of the “official documentation has been doubted ever since it was discovered in 1925.” (Barber) Despite recent defences of the official verdict by Constance Brown Kuriyama and J. A. Downie, “the consensus of scholarly opinion appears to be that the verdict of the inquest into Marlowe’s death conducted by the Queen’s Coroner, William Danby, was false.” (Barber) Hence the uncertainties of circumstances, causes and the exact date of Marlowe’s death have given Shakespeare’s doubters room for speculation.
A common method for verifying authorship is by studying the printing history, extant copies and the performance history of the plays. Sir John Oldcastle has done eminent work in this regard. In his extensive research work on the subject Oldcastle has identified how some of the Bard’s plays were printed by Valentine Simmes for Thomas Pavier. Simmes is a printer of some reputation who printed several Shakespeare quartos as well as plays staged by the Admiral’s Men. As with many such quarto editions of plays,
“no author is mentioned, but we know from Philip Henslowe’s diary that ten pounds were allotted “to pay mr monday mr drayton & mr wilsson & haythway for the first pte of the lyfe of Sr Jhon Ouldcastell . . .”. By the time of the 1619 reprint, however, “William Shakespeare” appears on the title page” (Kinney, 201)
While proofs in support of Shakespeare’s authorship exist, there are equally valid proofs to the contrary. For example, at the turn of the 17th century, the proprietary status of printed drama was not of importance. This may have given Pavier the liberty to ascribe Shakespeare’s name to plays he had not written. Further weakening Shakespeare’s case is the fact that
“nearly half of the plays that appeared in print before the 1623 Folio made no claims to Shakespeare’s paternity. Only Nathaniel Butter’s 1608 quarto edition of King Lear – printed for him by Nicholas Okes – accords top-of-the-title-page billing to “M. William Shak-speare”…The only other place that Shakespeare could have seen his name set in comparably large type was blazoned across the title page of the 1609 Sonnets in capital letters. In strictly typographic terms, Shakespeare, the poet, fared better as a “man in print” during his lifetime than Shakespeare, the playwright.” (Brooks)
Even under a thorough typographic examination, more gaps have started to emerge in the authorship debate. For instance, the first quarto of a play to mention Shakespeare’s name was Loves Labors Lost (1598). In the middle of the title page, written in small type is the information ‘Newly corrected and augmented / By W. Shakespeare’. But there is no evidence that Shakespeare was editing and augmenting his own work. It wasn’t until two years later, with the publication of Henry IV Part II that a conclusive accreditation appears: ‘Written by William Shakespeare’. This is the first instance of “an unambiguously authorial attribution to Shakespeare on the title page of an early modern play.” (Brooks)