In its early years, the Society hosted two formal debates on the authorship question, that is, whether William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon truly wrote the plays, sonnets, and poems commonly attributed to “William Shakespeare.”
In 2019, as the Society’s Lecture Series Coordinator, I decided to again raise the question. Authorship doubters, as represented by two Society members, Bryan H. Wildenthal and William Glaser, were supportive. Recruiting someone to argue the orthodox position, however, proved difficult. Several likely candidates were approached but all declined. Finally, in 2022, local radio personality and newspaper columnist Richard Lederer agreed to appear at an informal discussion. He would later need to excuse himself due to a scheduling conflict but did submit a written statement to be read at the event. We were subsequently able to persuade Gideon Rappaport, San Diego’s premier Shakespearean dramaturg, to participate.
On June 12th, 2022, a hybrid event was held, in-person at the Coronado Public Library in Coronado, California and via Zoom. Bryan, William, and Gideon were at the library. Appearing via Zoom was documentary filmmaker Cheryl Eagan-Donovan. I served as the host and moderator of the forum.
The event itself was plagued by technical problems at the in-person site, which were only overcome with difficulty. The resulting recording is of poor quality, although the audio is clear enough to follow the arguments. The recording has been posted on the Society’s YouTube channel, and at last count had garnered 1.4K views.
To introduce the general audience to the authorship question, the event began with a showing of the first twenty minutes of the documentary Last Will. & Testament (with the permission of co-directors Lisa Wilson and Laura Wilson Matthias) as it provides a concise overview and presents both sides of the question.
After the film segment, Gideon was invited to make a statement in support of the orthodox position. He made five debate points, summarized briefly: (1) Who wrote Shakespeare does not matter; (2) The works do not possess the writing style of any of the authorship candidates; (3) Doubters suffer from envy and so need to “explain” Shakespeare by finding another author; (4) Doubters are also intellectual snobs who refuse to believe a country bumpkin could have written the works; and (5) People love conspiracies.
Next, I read off the statement provided by Richard, which began with an anecdote about the actor Ian Richardson meeting two men in Warwickshire working on a hedge, one of whom explained he “rough-hews them” and the other “shapes their ends.” Presumably, this was an old Warwickshire expression, and only Shakespeare of Stratford would have heard it and adapted it to Hamlet; the most likely alternative candidate, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, would not have been strolling in Warwickshire. Richard also contended the plays were adapted to fit the specific talents of the actors in his company, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men; and likewise, Oxford would have been unfamiliar with those actors.
As Richard’s statement and orthodox scholars in Last Will. had argued that “genius” is sufficient to explain the canon, Bryan was called on to respond. He began by noting he was glad to meet Gideon and looked forward to reading his book, Appreciating Shakespeare. And Bryan said that enjoying the works in and of themselves is, in fact, what doubters are most fond of, just as are orthodox believers.
Bryan agreed the true author was clearly a genius with a tremendous in-born talent, but genius alone cannot explain the works. The author displays such a remarkable range of knowledge, particularly the classics, as noted by Gideon, which is not acquired by simply being a genius; you must be exposed to such knowledge somewhere and given the youth of Shakespeare of Stratford and his ongoing business and acting pursuits, it is difficult to imagine how he found the time to be so exposed. The works also indicate extensive knowledge of the specific culture, geography, customs, and art of northern Italy, another improbable attribute for Shakespeare of Stratford. By contrast, Mozart provides an excellent example of someone who was a genius but who also was marinated in specific musical culture and whose father devoted years to training him.
Bryan took the opportunity to respond to Gideon’s first debate point that it does not matter who wrote Shakespeare, first noting that Gideon’s passion in expressing his arguments belies such indifference. The brilliance of the works should only heighten our interest in the author, which is why literary biography is so popular. Historian Katherine Chiljan put it best by saying, “If the true biography of one of the greatest minds of Western civilization doesn’t matter, then whose does?” Doubters simply wish to know who the true author is. And if it is Shakespeare of Stratford, so be it.
Gideon brought up the absence of information as a problem in arriving at a complete literary biography. Bryan reiterated that doubters are not attached by faith to a particular candidate but driven by the evidence in the search for truth. Orthodox scholars have churned out volumes attempting to produce literary biographies of the traditionally credited author and their works are popular due to the desire to know more about the author of these works. And for doubters, that too, is the motivation.
Gideon disputed that the search for truth was the only motivation of doubters. In Gideon’s view, since people aren’t satisfied with limited information, they “dump the Shakespeare, and they go off to somebody else,” in fact, to several other authorship candidates. He agreed with Bryan that genius is not enough to explain Shakespeare. But genius plus a great memory plus a great capacity to invent plus a reading list plus a knowledge of all kinds of people including aristocrats would explain the author. He then read off a long list of works that Shakespeare of Stratford would have studied in a standard grammar school of the time.
Gideon was asked to respond to the statement of Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells in Last Will. that Shakespeare need not have had a great education as the plays aren’t all that learned or scholarly. Gideon agreed his statement was too simplistic and bald. The plays may not be scholarly in a modern sense, but Shakespeare had a huge, capacious memory and was able to weave together the commonest speech and the profoundest ideas, citing the quotation from Macbeth as to “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” None of the other contemporary writers could write like that.
Discussion then turned to the alternative candidate of Oxford first proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920. Cheryl was introduced and asked to discuss her research, particularly the Italian connection. Cheryl explained the importance of the poems and sonnets in identifying Oxford as the likely author, especially Oxford’s conflicted feelings toward women. To her, Oxford’s early poetry demonstrates the development of Shakespeare’s voice and style. She described one theory that the author’s sexual preference required the re-invention of the author as a commoner, and further, one aim of the First Folio was to distance the “mere untitled common player” from the Earl of Southampton and thus bury the memory of his relationship with Oxford.
Cheryl explained her film Nothing is Truer than Truth focuses on the two years in Oxford’s life when he traveled in Italy, and which provided the raw material for many of the plays. She argued Oxford’s bisexuality is one of the reasons for the pseudonym Shakespeare. Her film retraces Oxford’s grand tour and provides several examples of how his experiences and observances manifest in different plays.
Gideon was asked whether it was curious a man who never left England would set so many of his plays in Italy. Gideon responded the plays are set in many locales and times. Everything in those plays could have come to Shakespeare through his reading. The purported connection to Oxford is all conclusion by wishful thinking without proof. Gideon was asked whether Shakespeare of Stratford would have learned details from merchant seamen. Gideon said he would have talked to many kinds of people since London was as much a crossroads as Venice was at that time, but mostly his knowledge came through his reading. The records of travels to the New World inform The Tempest, and the Geneva Bible contributes to the plays. And how could Oxford write the ten plays after he died in 1604?
Bryan responded to the “1604 objection” by explaining that, except for The Tempest, even orthodox scholars have never claimed definitive dating of the writing of the plays or even of the performances. Scholars have estimated a range of time that did extend before 1604. As to the influence of Strachey’s letter written in 1610 on The Tempest, that document may have plagiarized a much earlier report, one pre-dating 1604. Further, even the specific form of Strachey’s letter may not have been readily available to Shakespeare of Stratford. Roger Stritmatter and Lynn Kositsky have researched the dating of The Tempest thoroughly and their book on the subject, On the Date, Sources and Design of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is accepted even by orthodox scholars. Thus, no solid evidence establishes that the plays were written after 1604.
Also, the level of publication of the plays credited to Shakespeare that commenced in 1598 saw a marked drop-off after 1604. The main publication after 1604 is the First Folio in 1623, seven years after the death of Shakespeare of Stratford. So ironically, both the traditionally credited author and Oxford are in a situation where half of the Shakespearean canon is first published after their deaths. They both are then in the position of posthumous publication, although obviously, plays could be written long before publication. In any event, a “1616 objection” could certainly be asserted against Shakespeare of Stratford.
Cheryl responded to Gideon that the true author must have viewed the artwork in Italy, and so it could not have been Shakespeare of Stratford simply reading about it. And specifically, the author must have seen the fresco depicting the Trojan War that inspired the 242 lines in The Rape of Lucrece. If it really was Shakespeare of Stratford, someone would have had to tell him about the fresco in great, great detail. Also, the Geneva Bible owned by Oxford and now in the Folger Library is arguably the strongest evidence of the connection of Oxford to the true author in that its extensive annotations match several passages in the plays and poems.
Doubters are typically dismissed as conspiracy theorists, and Bryan was asked whether some truth might attach to the charge. He conceded some people are indeed drawn to conspiracies. Nevertheless, conspiracies do happen in the real world, and anonymous publication and people writing under pseudonyms did happen in the Elizabethan period as it does today, often with good reason. When the First Folio was published in 1623, the Earl of Southampton, to whom the florid dedications of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were made and whom even orthodox scholars agree may have been the “beloved youth” of the sonnets, was still very much alive and very powerful, and it may not have been acceptable to openly talk about who the real author was. Such a dynamic may explain why the pseudonym was adopted and maintained. But any honest doubter will agree there is still much mystery to the question and cannot pretend to know all the answers.
Returning to the question of motivations, Bryan realized he may not persuade others to adopt authorship doubt, but he modestly hoped to simply persuade others that the motivations of doubters are not that they are obsessed by conspiracies or are snobs, but that they honestly find evidence to raise questions. Doubters may end up being mistaken, but the motivation is the fascination with the range of evidence. While evidence has been adduced as to several different authorship candidates, it is fair to say Oxford is the predominant alternative author. Doubters find problems with the evidence and chronology purporting to establish Shakespeare of Stratford as the true author, as demonstrated by Cheryl in describing her Italian research.
As to the broad-brush elitist charge leveled against all doubters as raised by Richard and others, it is not possible to sustain, for example, against supporters of Christopher Marlowe, as he was of a certainly modest background, in fact, of a lower socioeconomic background than Shakespeare of Stratford. And interestingly, evidence exists of Marlowe attending university on scholarship, while no similar evidence exists for Shakespeare of Stratford. Bryan personally did not find Marlowe’s work as great as Shakespeare’s, to which Gideon agreed. Doubters fall into different camps according to their respective authorship candidates with accompanying passion. Doubters are unsatisfied with the traditional scholarship and think they have some pieces of the puzzle and may be right about those pieces.
Bryan concluded by saying that in writing his book, Early Shakespeare Authorship Doubts, he came to the belief that all sides in the debate need to do a better job in reading each other’s scholarly work more carefully and respectfully to advance the search for truth, and not to score points. The mocking of Looney’s name is an example of unworthy discourse.
Gideon was glad to hear Bryan clarify the motivations of doubters and was glad both he and Bryan are interested in the pursuit of truth. He did wish, however, to undermine a bit of evidence provided by Cheryl: He did not believe the author was bisexual. He was capable of a romantic attachment to the young man of the sonnets, but Sonnet 20 proves it was not homosexual, it was an imaginative joke. Further, the sexually explicit sonnets are all directed to women, and those directed to men are more idealized. He did not accept the justification for saying the author of the plays had to be suppressed because the sexuality question would have been embarrassing for an aristocrat; it would have been less embarrassing for an aristocrat than for a country bumpkin. But that is all irrelevant as Gideon believes he can prove from the plays that the author was not homosexual.
I quoted Professor Jonathan Bate from Last Will. to the effect that questioning historical facts is “dangerous,” yet we have the historical facts of Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece being published respectively in 1593 and 1594, both with the name Shakespeare, but afterward, many plays were published anonymously. If it was the up-and-coming commoner from out of town, wouldn’t he want publicity? Gideon replied that Shakespeare of Stratford was not a 21st century publicity hound. He was a successful playwright, so much so that many poems and plays were falsely attributed to Shakespeare. A cottage industry of publishers sprang up to convince the public that whatever they were publishing was by Shakespeare. True, many plays were published anonymously, but the evidence of the First Folio and the testimony of the people quoted in it is so overwhelmingly strong as to the true author being Shakespeare of Stratford. The voice of Shakespeare is a unique voice, and no one else at that time sounded like Shakespeare. To get past this “voice” argument and say everything written under the name Shakespeare was written by Oxford, you must also say everything written under the name Oxford was written by someone else pretending to be Oxford. The voice is so different that it could not be the same person, and to Gideon, that makes it a “slam dunk.”
Bryan agreed the voice of the true author is very distinctive and recognizable, making that a point of agreement. But scholars who have examined the early works of Walt Whitman, for example, find no resemblance to his mature works. The poetic voice may change over time. Also, Bryan agreed many reasons may exist for anonymous publication, even that plays were not considered worthy of publication with an author’s name, so anonymity alone may not serve as dispositive evidence. And he noted that many doubters agree that the sonnets are not indicating a sexual interest in the “beloved youth,” but it is altogether a complicated subject. Bryan stated personally, he thought the author was predominantly heterosexual but some of the plays and poems may indicate bisexuality.
At that point, the discussion concluded quite amicably.
While the hybrid format certainly left much to be desired from a presentation standpoint, the substantive goal of seriously addressing the authorship question was achieved, a truly major accomplishment as orthodox believers typically refuse to even consider the matter. Afterward, one attendee contacted me to say that they had not really thought about the authorship question before, but since hearing the discussion, they could not stop thinking about it.
I am glad the Society staged this event, but for anyone seeking to attempt a similar event in the future, I would only recommend proceeding if you are reasonably certain that you can secure a Stratfordian representative willing to engage with some seriousness. As mentioned earlier, I contacted several prospects who were quite dismissive, even openly hostile. We were lucky in being able to recruit Gideon. He has an incredibly extensive knowledge of the canon and is highly respected in his field. And Bryan was persuasive in stressing that doubters are not kooks and are not “anti-Shakespeare.”
In any kind of “debate” setting such as this, doubters probably have a natural advantage in that they have already done their “shadow boxing,” whereas orthodox believers generally are more complacent in accepting of the conventional wisdom, so things may seem slanted in that regard.
September 26, 2022