William Shakespeare: A Question of Authorship

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.

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