The Man from Stratford
To the Editor:
I was disappointed with John Gross’s article, “Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up?” [March]. Seeing the title, I thought that Mr. Gross might have been venturing into the heterodox territory of challenging traditional Shakespeare authorship. But no such luck. Instead, we have his erudite but bland dissection of 1,394 additional pages of Elizabethan literary speculation.
Standard Shakespearian historicism is an easy game. It begins with a basic premise—William Shaks-pere of Stratford authored the works—and inventively backfills from there. Mr. Gross encapsulates the system nicely: “There are no diaries, letters, memoirs, or interviews”; the documentary evidence is “dry and impersonal; major aspects of his life remain a blank.” But then there are “the plays and the poems” themselves and “knowledge . . . of the society in which he lived and moved.”
The orthodox account of Shakespeare’s life thus becomes a self-sustaining literary organism. No evidence that Shakspere of Stratford ever attended school? Well, he must have; he authored the plays. The provincial grammar schools of his day were wildly inconsistent in quality? His must have been a proletarian Eton (after all, he authored the plays). Shakespeare’s own daughters were illiterate? Well, he may have invented Portia, Lady Macbeth, and many other women of substance, but he was a man of his time. How did he learn Romance languages, court etiquette, law, military science, botany, dynastic and classical history, contemporary continental minutiae, etc.? Perhaps he had access to a library or tutored a noble child. And so on.
Were the author of Shakespeare’s works to be identified as an actual historical personage, like Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604), this orthodoxy would collapse. Literary speculation would have to be replaced by the drudgery of biographical research and dissection. The intentions of the author might be reasonably discerned, rather than, as now, conveniently occulted.
The latest attack by Stratfordian scholars on Edward de Vere’s probable authorship of the canon takes theA0tack that he was too bad, or too busy, to have written Shakespeare’s works. Put another way, a real man in history simply could not have done it. Now, that’s biography!
Jonathan F. Keiler
John Gross writes:
I must admit that Jonathan F. Keiler is in good company. Some illustrious figures—Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud, for instance—are among those who have persuaded themselves that the works of Shakespeare must have been written by somebody else.
But I am afraid that Mr. Keiler is also, rather more obviously, in not such good company. The so-called “authorship controversy” is a beacon for cranks. It has generated an enormous amount of haywire theorizing and ingenious pseudo-scholarship.
Over the years, there have been many contenders for the role of “real” author. Francis Bacon, who once stood in proud isolation, has been all but elbowed aside by subsequent claimants, including Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford (Freud’s candidate as well as Mr. Keiler’s), sundry other Elizabethan noblemen, and Queen Elizabeth I herself. I can only suggest that Mr. Keiler read up and ponder the history of the entire controversy. The relevant chapters in Samuel Schoenbaum’s The Lives of Shakespeare would make a good (and entertaining) place to start.
One curious feature of the campaign to dethrone “the man from Stratford” is the extent to which it has been an American enterprise. Not entirely, of course. The first seeds of the Baconian theory were planted in 18th-century England. There have also been German anti-Stratfordians, who have tended to champion the claims of the Earl of Rutland, and French ones, who have shown a corresponding weakness for the Earl of Derby.
But from Delia Bacon in the mid-19th century onward (no prizes for guessing whose claims she favored), Americans have undoubtedly predominated. Even Henry James was an anti-Stratfordian, without quite being pro anyone else, while the first bold soul to argue that “Shakespeare” was actually the pen name of King James I was none other than Malcolm X.
This is all rather odd. One would have thought that the idea that the plays were written by the Man from Stratford—the Man from Main Street, so to speak—would have been much more congenial to the American democratic spirit than the notion that they were the work of some crowned head or blueblood. But there it is; and if Mr. Keiler’s views don’t win universal acceptance, he can at least console himself with the thought that he is part of a venerable American tradition.