About sixteen years ago, I participated in a fundraiser for our (then) local theater organization, in the form of a mock jury trial centered on the question: Who Wrote the Plays Attributed to William Shakespeare? The trial was couched as a hypothetical lawsuit between the Mayor and citizens of Stratford-on-Avon, the birthplace of the man we call William Shakespeare (1564-1616; also known as "Shakspere", "Shaxpere", "Shagspere", and numerous other 16th and 17th-century variants), and the City of Castle Hedingham, the birthplace of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (1550-1604), whom many regard as the true author of all the works in the Shakespeare canon.
As the attorney for the plaintiffs from Stratford, I had the job of discrediting the case our opponents made for de Vere. One aspect made that task much lighter. Since de Vere unquestionably died in June 1604, his supporters needed to explain how he managed to write all the plays (23 out of the total of 37!) that appeared in print (or were first mentioned) after that date (including King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, The Winter's Tale, and The Tempest).
Actors from the theater company portrayed William Shakespeare of Stratford, Ben Jonson, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and the "Dark Lady" of the Sonnets, who were each called as witnesses by the respective sides, and cross-examined according to their evidence. In addition, one expert witness testified for each side.
The two juries (one preselected from the notable lights of the community, and the other drawn by lot from the audience that night) retired separately to their deliberations following the trial, but they both returned the same verdict: William Shakespeare of Stratford was indeed the author of the canon, and not de Vere. Given the date of de Vere's death, and the completely pedestrian nature of the poetry that survives under his name, I was not surprised by the verdicts. I left the event that night convinced that the Stratford Shakespeare had prevailed on his own merits, and not just due to clever lawyering.
Lately, however, I was required to revisit the question of authorship, and to update my results in light of the plethora of new candidates put forward as the true authors of the Shakespearean canon. Oxford's case, while still pressed vigorously by his supporters, appears to have waned in influence; ever-new candidates, such as the Earl of Neville and even Queen Elizabeth herself, are pushed forward in preference to Oxford, who is now seen in many other anti-Stratford camps as passé.
But do the new candidates for the authorship of the canon fare any better than Edward de Vere? They do not, and in this post it is my purpose to explain why Shakespeare, the man of Stratford, retains -- and is fully entitled to -- the pride of authorship in his own works.
The problem with every proposal of an alternative to the Stratford Shakespeare is that they are all based on the same criteria: matching the candidate to references, allusions and inferred standards of education and experience drawn from the Collected Works. Because the Works are so universal and all-embracing, so is the list of candidates which may be fashioned by a close reading of their content. Indeed, the more the candidates multiply, the more they prove the point that the criteria for selecting them are too subjective and open-ended.
The real Shakespeare must have been well-educated? Then de Vere, Bacon, Marlowe, Jonson, Neville, and even the Countess of Southampton will each fit the bill. (Meanwhile, we have Ben Jonson's own testimony that Shakespeare of Stratford was not as learned in Latin and Greek as Jonson was, but that he still knew Latin, and a little Greek -- so he was educated according to his time.)
The real Shakespeare must have spent time on the ground in Italy? Again, de Vere, Neville, Bacon and a host of other English aristocrats will qualify. (As for Shakespeare of Stratford, we have evidence that he was an intimate acquaintance of the Italian tutor in the Earl of Southampton's household, John Florio, and could have acquired much of his knowledge of Italy and things Italian there.)
The real Shakespeare must have been intimately familiar with the law? That lets in Bacon, William Stanley, the 5th Earl of Derby, and a goodly number of other noblemen who were squires at their county seats. (We also today have evidence that Shakespeare of Stratford served as a law clerk, and wrote his name in several law books that have come down to us, one of which is in the Folger Library. It's also how he would have acquired a greater than elementary-school proficiency in Latin.)
The real Shakespeare knew hawking and falconry? Once more, so did most English nobles of the day -- and Shakespeare (the deer-hunter) of Stratford could have picked up the terminology easily from Southampton, who was his earliest patron.
When it comes to tracing parallels between the content of the Collected Works and the individual life of any given candidate, however, the gates open wide. From Edward de Vere to Fulke Greville, the individual incidents which afford comparison are infinite in range and variety -- and with 37+ plays and 154 sonnets to interpret, one can never run short of material. Needless to say, there are many parallels with Shakespeare's own life, and with events that he (but not, e.g., de Vere) lived through, as detailed here.
The problem with all the authorship proposals, therefore, is not just that the absence of evidence is treated as evidence of absence (i.e., the lack of evidence about Shakespeare of Stratford means that he had nothing to do with the Collected Works); but the presence of particular evidence is taken as evidence of a particular presence (i.e., that somebody else more "suited" must have written them). Logical inference is piled upon inference until the result is sheer speculation. What is worse, blatant conjecture is treated as the equivalent of "it-must-be-so" fact, when no facts are at hand.
The lack of historical facts about Shakespeare is not a fault of his milieu, or the consequence of a tremendous conspiracy that would have had to reach to the highest levels, and have continued from 1593 all the way to 1623 and beyond, i.e., for more than thirty years, and through a complete change of government. The motives that have to be invented for such an extensive authorship conspiracy far surpass, in degrees of convolution, the explanations for why Stratford's Shakespeare indeed could have been the author of all those magnificent works. It is far less remarkable to observe a few simple factors in mitigation of why Shakespeare was not more celebrated in his own time:
1. We have documentation proving that Shakespeare of Stratford was both an actor and an investor -- for more than twenty years -- in the theaters where his acting company performed. During this time, he made a significant fortune -- not from an actor's salary, or from simply owning a piece of some theaters, but from the revenues of plays performed in those theaters -- most of which were attributed (in contemporaneous quartos and other sources, as well as in the later First Folio) to his authorship. The popularity of plays written by "Shakespeare" during those 20+ years is simply undeniable, and accounts for the fortune that he earned as a major shareholder in the venues where they were performed.
2. The plays themselves, however, were not in Elizabethan law regarded as the intellectual property of the playwright, but rather of the person who registered them with the authorities when they were printed. And from the registers we have from that time, that person was, most often, either the publisher, or the one responsible for staging the plays in the theater, i.e., the head of the acting company (who also was usually a significant owner in the theater). This person does not ever appear to have been Shakespeare. To repeat, because the point is crucial: The author William Shakespeare never appears to have registered (i.e., claimed ownership of) any of his own plays. (And that fact accounts for the entire absence of their mention in his last will and testament.)
3. Many Shakespeare scholars attribute the numerous "bad" quarto editions of the individual plays which were printed during this time period to "rogue actors and producers" who tried to reconstruct the plays (as we know them from the authoritative First Folio) from their imperfect memory. But a much more reasonable hypothesis, when the texts of the quartos are compared to the eventual Folio versions, is that they were the records of the versions as their author had (up to that point) written them -- i.e., that he was constantly revising and improving them as he went along, and that it was only after his death that his fellow actors gathered the final versions from those who had registered them, or who otherwise held the rights to them, and published them as the First Folio.
4. The fact that the First Folio took seven years to produce, after Shakespeare's death, is again not a fault of his fellow actors and producers. They faced an enormous task of gathering and obtaining the rights to all of the 37 texts -- while they continued, no doubt, to earn their living by acting in and staging some of the plays -- and the fact that they persevered against considerable odds is testimony to their devotion to their colleague, and not to their careless neglect of his fame and reputation. Indeed, during this process, one of the printers of the First Folio collaborated with another to rush into print an edition of ten of the plays, based on previous quarto editions to which he held the license (the so-called "False Folio"). That was just three years after Shakespeare died, and it took another four for William Jaggard and Edward Blount to obtain the rights to the remaining 27 of his plays.
5. Meanwhile, without the plays yet being published for posterity, Shakespeare's own town of Stratford saw to it that he was buried most prominently in the local church, with a fitting monument (and inscription) celebrating his achievements. Most of his fellow citizens were probably little aware of the actual extent of those achievements, and had never seen any of his plays: the inscription on the monument celebrates his fame as though won in a distant land, and in a manner not fully understood, but nevertheless great, indeed, and worthy of commemoration. This is exactly the sort of memorial one would expect from the burghers of Stratford who could appreciate that their native son had done great things, without being conversant with any of the particulars.
In other words, take the First Folio's and Stratford's own testimonies at their word: William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works of Shakespeare. They were his contemporaries, and their testimonies are accordingly entitled to the most weight. All else is speculation and conjecture, centuries after the fact: it may agree in some points with the historical record, but it is never wholly consistent with just a single viewpoint, as are the First Folio and the Stratford monument. Instead, all of the collective, present-day speculation about authorship is consistent, in one way or another, with anything and everything -- and thus (to use Shakespeare's own idiom) amounts to a protest that proves too much.