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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Oxford Shakespeare Theory

I was just noticing that Roland Emmerich is working on a movie premised on the idea that Shakespeare's plays were actually written by Oxford Earl Edward de Vere (due out 2012, a trailer is already up). My first reaction was, "How is Roland Emerich going to incorporate the destruction of famous landmarks into a movie set in Elizabethan England?" But my second reaction was, "So, they're making a movie out of the ol' Oxford-Shakespeare theory. Interesting."

The idea that the William Shakespeare from Stratord-upon-Avon was not the true author of the plays attributed to him is an old theory. First, in the nineteenth century, it was proposed that the plays were written by Francis Bacon. This theory runs into the problem that Bacon's style is fairly distinct from Shakespeare's and Bacon is not known otherwise to have written any plays.

The theory that Christopher Marlowe wrote Shakespeare's plays was next proposed. This had more plausibility since Marlowe did write plays, was very good at writing plays, and certainly had more stylistic similarity to Shakespeare. But it ran into the problem that Marlowe was dead, dying in 1593, about twenty years before Shakespeare retired in 1613. No problem. These people claimed that Marlowed faked his own death. The problem this ran into is that his death, stabbed to death in a bar fight, doesn't exactly fit a plausible description of a faked death. Marlowe was a very public figure, a well-known playwright, who was killed in a very public place, a bar, and it was followed by a post-mortem and inquest. If you want to fake your own death, you're much better off doing it in a way that leaves very few witnesses and little evidence, like say dying in a fire or explosion or plane crash or drowning at sea. Heck even in this day and age you could probably get away with faking your own death as a drowning at sea (note to future self: do not attempt). Even though faking your death in 1593, with their rather primitive forensic science, would be a lot easier then than now, it's still hard to imagine how Marlowe could get away with it.

The currently most popular theory of Shakespearian alternative authorship is the Oxford theory, attributing authorship to Edward de Vere. This is more plausible since de Vere was known to be a celebrated poet and playwright in his day, was a patron of the theater and survived until 1604, which means that we only have to assume that some of de Vere's works were performed posthumously, which is possible.

On the other hand, we should note that most Shakespeare scholars are Stratfordians, that is to say that they believe that the plays of Shakespeare were written by the William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon, not by Edward de Vere or Bacon or Marlowe or anyone else. They believe this for a number of reasons based on very good evidence. For one, there is the simple and obvious one: the plays were, in their day, widely attributed to Shakespeare. The facts that everyone said the plays were written by Shakespeare and that all of the (admittedly unauthorized) publications of the plays that name an author attribute them to Shakespeare are pretty strong evidence. Admittedly, it's possible that there was some sort of clandestine intrigue behind the scenes to obfuscate authorship, but in the absence of evidence of such intrigue, it's best not to assume that everyone was being duped. Additionally, we have good evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford was a real person, which makes one wonder why de Vere (or one of the other supposed authors) attributed their plays to a real person, a minor actor in an acting company, instead of just making up a a pseudonym like "Eddy Veretti" or "Redox Fordbridge" or something.

Also, most scholars reject the argument, which is behind all the alternative authorship theories, that, since education wasn't as widespread then and Shakespeare wasn't from the gentry that could afford high quality education and access to books, Shakespeare simply wasn't well-educated or cultured enough to have written such plays. The truth is that Shakespeare was the son of a prominent merchant and had access to a rigorous grammar school education and certainly became well-connected with the English aristocracy as he became more prominent. Not to mention the fact that most of Shakespeare's plays are adaptations, not original works, meaning a lot of the details that Shakespeare was supposedly not able to know about, come directly from the original works he adapted. Additionally, we only have a small sliver of the plays written during Shakespeare's time, meaning that literary allusions that we now assume to be only possible for someone well-educated, may have in fact between quite commonplace in the theater community at the time. In fact, some Cambridge students, in 1601, mocked the university-trained playwrights for over-using classical allusion, and noted how Shakespeare, not university-educated, was fortunately clear of that vice (quoted here).

When I was a young English major pursuing my undergraduate education, I too toyed with the idea of alternative Shakespeare authorship, first with the Marlowe theory and later with the Oxford theory. But ultimately I dropped them because there were a couple of problems with the theories I couldn't reconcile. For one, Shakespeare became extremely wealthy during his career. He was an actor, but reportedly a relatively minor and not particularly celebrated actor. It just didn't seem plausible that a minor actor could accumulate wealth enough to become, for example, a part owner of the Globe theater.

Even more implausible for me was the idea that a prominent and dignified courtier could write such a bloody play like Titus Andronicus. In the play, not only is Titus' daughter raped and has her hands and tongue cut off, but also Tamora's sons are killed then baked into a pie and fed to her. Trying to imagine a stately Elizabethan aristocrat writing such stories is really difficult (there are authorship questions surrounding Titus Andronicus, but these don't really change things since most scholars believe Shakespeare wrote all of it or co-authored it and was still the author of these famous bloody scenes)

That being said, though I think the Oxford-Shakespeare theory is wrong, it still is an interesting and tantalizing theory. So, making a movie based on it may not be a bad idea, and it could turn out to be a good movie. It's just to say that Hollywood sort of has an unfaithful relationship with historical accuracy, and this movie will probably be no exception.

1 comment:

  1. Hi, thanks for your commentary, however I object to your statement: "The truth is that Shakespeare was the son of a prominent merchant and had access to a rigorous grammar school education and certainly became well-connected with the English aristocracy as he became more prominent." The truth is that there is no data whatsoever supporting the supposition that Shaksper ever attended school. Also saying he became more well connected as he became more prominent is a circular argument that doesn't hold up to scrutiny. Thanks, again,