Anything but Anonymous
Almost five hundred years after his death, William Shakespeare remains one of the most important figures in human history. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Homer and Dante, he is part of the triumvirate of literary giants who straddle the centuries as permanent witnesses of the permanent things. It is, therefore, gratifying that modern scholarship is showing that this great genius was a believing Catholic in very anti-Catholic times. In this light, Anonymous, the latest Hollywood film purporting to depict Shakespeare and his times, is not only a travesty of history but an act of defamation against the Bard himself.
Anonymous is based upon the discredited “Oxfordian” hypothesis that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare’s plays.
The Oxfordians have erected fabulously imaginative theories to prove that Edward de Vere wrote the plays. It is, however, difficult to take their claims seriously. Edward de Vere died in 1604, a year after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of Shakespeare’s plays was written and performed! Needless to say, the Oxfordians have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed until after their “Shakespeare’s” death.
Ultimately, however, all the rival theories can be disproved through the application of solid historical evidence, combined with common sense. Take, for example, the central premise of the Oxfordian case that the plays must have been written by an aristocrat or, at least, by one with a university education, on the assumption that Shakespeare, as a commoner, must have been illiterate, or, at any rate, incapable of writing literature of such sublime quality. Against such an elitist presumption, we should remind ourselves that great literature is not the preserve of the rich or the privileged. Christopher Marlowe and Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s contemporaries, came from poor families. Daniel Defoe and Samuel Johnson had humble origins, and Charles Dickens experienced grinding poverty as a child. G.K. Chesterton, the “Dr Johnson of his age”, was born of middle-class parents and never received a university education. Perhaps the most applicable parallel to Shakespeare’s situation is, however, the appropriately named Alexander Pope, the son of a draper, who was denied a formal education because, as with Shakespeare, his parents were Catholic. Pope’s “humble origins” and forbidden faith helped him become perhaps the finest poet of the eighteenth century.
The Oxfordians also claim that Shakespeare was too young to have written the sonnets and the early plays. He was in his mid-twenties when the earliest of the plays was written, and in his late-twenties when he wrote the sonnets. The Oxfordians question whether such a young man would be able to write such great literature. Yet Christopher Marlowe wrote the first of his produced plays in around 1587, when he was only twenty-three. Since Marlowe was murdered when he was still in his late-twenties, the whole of his considerable literary legacy rests on his formidably young shoulders. Ben Jonson’s first play was performed in 1598, when he was only twenty-six years old. Thomas Dekker published the first of his comedies in 1600, when he is thought to have been around thirty years old. John Webster published his first plays in 1607, when he was twenty-seven years old, and John Marston wrote all his plays between 1602 and 1607, between the ages of twenty-six and thirty-one. Looking at his contemporaries, Shakespeare was at exactly the age one would expect him to be when he first started writing plays. The Earl of Oxford, on the other hand, would have been around forty when the first of the plays was performed, making him a veritable geriatric by comparison.
And what about the sonnets? Was Shakespeare too young to write with such eloquence and panache? Again, let’s look at his contemporaries. Michael Drayton published his first volume of poetry when he was twenty-eight years old, exactly the same age as Shakespeare is thought to have been when he wrote the sonnets. John Donne’s finest sonnets were written when the poet was in his late twenties or early thirties. Many other great Elizabethan poets died at a young age, having already bequeathed a considerable body of work to posterity. Sir Philip Sidney was thirty-two when he died; Robert Southwell was thirty-three; Marlowe, as already noted, was twenty-nine; and Thomas Nashe was thirty-four.
Moving forward in time, we have the collective youth of the Romantic sonneteers. Byron had reached the ripe old age of thirty-six when he died, Shelley was thirty, and Keats a mere twenty-six years old. Keats never even lived to the age at which Shakespeare is thought to have written his own sonnets.
Let’s conclude with an exposé of the few remaining remnants of the Oxfordian arguments against the real Shakespeare. The fact that Shakespeare’s signature is described as being shaky or untidy is used as evidence of his “illiteracy”. Yet there is absolutely no connection between literature and calligraphy. Beautiful writing and beautiful handwriting do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many great writers had bad handwriting, and, no doubt, many great calligraphers were incapable of putting two literary sentences together. Any scholar who has pored over the mercilessly illegible handwriting of great writers will know that there is absolutely no connection between legibility and literacy.
In similar vein, Oxfordians point a scornful finger at the lack of literary flourish in Shakespeare’s will or the questionable literary merit of the poetic epitaph on his grave. Why, one wonders, should Shakespeare feel inspired to turn his will into a work of literary art? Why should he bother to write his will at all? Why shouldn’t he get his lawyer to write it? And why would Shakespeare be the least concerned with writing verse for his own gravestone? Isn’t it far more likely that someone else wrote the lines? At any rate, these pieces of “evidence” hardly warrant any serious doubt as to the authorship of the plays.
In spite of the dubious “scholarship” of Oxfordians or the febrile fantasies of Hollywood, there is no convincing argument against Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays and, in consequence, no convincing evidence that someone else wrote them. After the dust has settled on the fallen edifices of false scholarship, what is left standing among the ruins? We are left with the reliable, if mundane, reality that William Shakespeare was, in fact, William Shakespeare. We are also left with the equally reliable, if paradoxical, observation of G.K. Chesterton that “Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his critics who have discovered that he was somebody else.”
Joseph Pearce is writer in residence and associate professor of literature at Ave Maria University in Florida. He is the author of The Quest for Shakespeare and Through Shakespeare’s Eyes, both published by Ignatius Press, and the presenter of the eight part course on “Shakespeare’s Catholicism” in the Catholic Courses series (www.CatholicCourses.com).