Story on July 3rd: "Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Debate Goes On"
Story on July 4th: "The Real Shakespeare? Evidence Points to Earl"
In short, here's the issue: We have minimal evidence of the life of William Shakespeare, and especially minimal evidence connecting him to the plays we associate metonymically with his name (where "Shakespeare" stands for the body of work, for the plays, and for numerous classes on those works). We have some printed plays in the period attibuting their authorship to Shakespeare (but some we don't think are by Shakespeare now). We have Francis Mere's comments in Palladis Tamia, where he lists plays by Shakespeare along with other playwrights (including the elusive Love's Labors Won, fodder for much hopeful searching over the years). We have a fair number of references to legal issues about the Lord Chamberlain's Men and later the King's Men (the companies we most associate with Shakespeare and his plays). We have a few stories (Ben Jonson's story about Shakespeare beating Richard Burbage to a woman, for example).
So actually, the minimal evidence is actually pretty decent when we consider what we know about most early modern individuals.
Why the questions, then? Mostly, the questions start from the assumption that the man in the records had a modest education and couldn't have written plays representing such a wide variety of social situations, especially monarchal court settings, legal settings, and so forth. The "anti-Stratfordians" then "start" looking for someone with the "right background" to have written the plays, and lately, they end up with Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. But over the years, different folks have suggested Elizabeth I, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, and more recently, Mary Sidney.
Here's a quote from the NPR article citing Diana Price to give you a sense of how the argument goes:
"If there were a signature related to Hamlet, we wouldn't be having this debate," says Diana Price, who wrote the book that's become a bible for doubters, the meticulously researched Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography.
In it, she details all that Shakespeare would have had to know and be able to use effortlessly in metaphors and intricate puns: archery, astronomy, medicine, technical terms for falconry and royal tennis. The list is long.
To link any writer conclusively to the plays, Price argues, "we would certainly have to be able to support how he learned his languages, how he received his education, how he gained his exposure to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, how he had access to the court. And I don't mean as a servant in the court, but someone who actually was in there when the power-playing was going on. We cannot support any of that for Shakespeare." (Source)
Let's think about the assumptions about whether a Stratford native such as Shakespeare could have written plays representing monarchal courts, legal courts, and so forth. At the base of that assumption is that representing something on stage has something to do with how that something is "in real life." You know how when you watch ER or House (or any of those medical shows), they say all these things that sound really cool? But real doctors seem to think they don't do a good job representing medicine at all. (Here's a blog called Polite Dissent that has a series of reviews on House from a medical perspective.) Similarly, if you've ever sat on a jury, you know that Perry Mason or all the other dramatic legal shows aren't about how things work in a real legal court.
Of course not! Those shows are about being television shows, making things dramatic, interesting, engaging viewers enough to stay in front of the television while the commercials run, and getting them to tune in again next week to watch more commercials. And if they produce some good entertainment along the way, that's great, but secondary. Television, like early modern theater, is a business.
So what do we know about the courts Shakespeare represented? He represented courtly situations in classical Rome, proto-medieval England, medieval England, and early modern England, as well as some other European settings. Happily, we know lots about, for example, the early modern English court from the works of historians such as G.P.V. Akrigg (old, but an easy name for me to remember), contemporary letters, and so forth. And what we learn is that the early modern court is pretty much run by the Lord Chamberlain, the Secretary/Treasurer, and the Master of the Horse. The job of the Lord Chamberlain, for example, is to control access to the monarch, especially to the monarch's private chambers.
So if we were to want to write realistically about a court, we might want to represent those roles fully, demonstrating how much power those folks had, right? But that's not how Shakespeare's plays represent the court at all. Instead, Shakespeare's courts are rather freewheeling, with lots of people having access to the monarch's person. In a couple plays, someone is mentioned as the Lord Chamberlain, but I don't remember any treasurer or master of the horse. But then, a king doing the budget makes for less exciting drama than one who's killing off his cousin or fighting a civil war, right?
The thing is, the plays are dramatically wonderful rather than realistic. And that's a darned good thing. They work as drama. One doesn't need to know a lot about tennis, for example, to toss off a term like "let" or "lob." Nor does one need to have actually changed the oil in one's car to create a metaphor about what happens when the oil runs out. Those things don't demonstrate depth of knowledge so much as an ability to make connections that the groundlings in the theater would follow and understand, just as I can follow, nodding along, the dramatic effect of Perry Mason revealing a nefarious criminal on the stand without any legal knowledge at all (and with my experience completely at odds with such a dramatic revelation).
Next up: Class Issues and Conspiracy Theories