Canonizing William Shakespeare

Not long ago, I read the novel Interred With Their Bones, a murder mystery that focuses on what has come t o be known as the Shakespeare Authorship Question. It’s a serviceable thriller, made even better by a fictional visit to the Utah Shakespearean Festival, an event the author describes in detail – and gets the details wonderfully right. It’s something of a Da Vinci Code knock-off, only instead of Jesus, the subject is Shakespeare and one of his lost plays, Cardenio. Along the way, the question of “who was William Shakespeare” comes up more than once, and this book’s greatest flaw is its timidity in providing a definitive answer.

If you’re not familiar with what Shakespeare folks have come to call “The Authorship Question,” the problem arises from the fact that the man credited with writing Shakespeare’s plays is entirely disconnected from the plays themselves. We know very little about him biographically, and what we do know bears no resemblance to the man who would and could have written the works attributed to him.

Just one example: None of his original manuscripts exist, so the only things we have that were written in his own hand are six signatures from legal documents, all of which are spelled differently and are hideously messy. They look more like the handiwork of an illiterate, not the greatest writer in the history of the English language:


There’s more. In fact, the evidence that the man from Stratford-on-Avon did not write these plays is considerable. The question of who DID write them, however, is more difficult to answer. Mark Twain, himself a pseudonymous author, helped make the case that Shakespeare was actually Sir Francis Bacon in his pamphlet Is Shakespeare Dead?  Others believe that playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died in a bar brawl in 1593, faked his own death to return to writing under an assumed name – William Shakespeare. Many candidates have been proposed throughout the years, including Queen Elizabeth I herself, but the most persuasive of them all is Edward de Vere, who had the unfortunate distinction of having the case first made for him in a book by Thomas J. Looney. (His name is pronounced “Loney,” but that doesn’t soften the blow.)

The Looney theory, such as it is, is that de Vere, as a nobleman, would not have been permitted to write for the lowly public theatre under his own name. And since de Vere was such a controversial character in his own right, the Royal Family took great pains to ensure that he remained anonymous even in death. Suddenly, much about Shakespeare’s writing makes all kinds of sense. Hamlet becomes almost autobiographical, and the Sonnets, which are largely love poems from an older man to the Earl of Southhampton, make sense for the first time. (Southhampton ended up as de Vere’s son-in-law, so when he tells him, in Sonnet 10, “make thee another self for love of me,” you can see where he’s coming from.)

Still, despite all of this, orthodox biographers refuse to consider even the possibility of evidence, let alone take the theory seriously. Over at Wikipedia, I got into an edit war on the page “Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship” over my addition of a single word to the article. I ended up banned for 24 hours and wasted a great deal of time fighting over what the Wikipedia experts call “a fringe theory.” If Canonizer had been around, I’d have saved a great deal of time.

What do you think? Was Shakespeare who everyone thinks he was, or are you convinced that he could have been someone else? Join a camp. Let your voice be heard.