Many around the world will toast Shakespeare’s 445th birthday on April 23rd 2009, but have we been “Barding” up the wrong tree all these years?
When it comes to the Shakespeare authorship question, we should adapt Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but Verify” dictum. Let’s call it “Toast but Verify” – toast the peerless works but try to verify the author’s true identity.
April 23rd is traditionally accepted as the birthday of William Shakespeare, generally regarded as the greatest poet and playwright in the English language.
As Shakespeare lovers around the world prepare to raise a glass to the Great Bard, let us pause for a moment: To toast or not to toast, that is the question!
I say we should adapt Ronald Reagan’s “Trust but Verify” dictum to this occasion. Let’s call it “Toast but Verify.” Let’s toast the peerless works but also endeavor to verify the author’s true identity.
What if we’ve been “barding” up the wrong tree all these years? What if William of Stratford-upon-Avon has had greatness thrust upon him and, as a consequence, we’ve been honoring the wrong man for writing the immortal poems and plays of Shakespeare?
In the spirit of trying to open minds so we can finally get the Shakespeare authorship right, I’d like to offer a Top Ten list of reasons to doubt the traditional theory that attributes the works of “Shakespeare” to the unlikely William Shakspere (as his name was typically spelled in the official records) from Stratford.
10. There is no reliable, contemporaneous evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford ever wrote anything in his life. Not even so much as a letter exists in his handwriting, let alone any manuscripts of plays and poems. Illiteracy ran in his family – his parents, wife and children all seem to have been illiterate or semi-literate at best.
9. There is no evidence that Shakspere of Stratford ever attended any school. At most, he may have attended a few years of grammar school in Stratford but we simply don’t know for sure. Nor is there any evidence to explain how he could have otherwise acquired the educational, linguistic and cultural background necessary to write the masterpieces of English literature attributed to William Shakespeare.
8. What’s in a name? The few signatures of Shakspere of Stratford that exist – barely legible though they are – show that he did not even spell his name “Shakespeare.” Spelling was notoriously fluid in those days, but the name of the author was almost always rendered “Shakespeare” or “Shake-speare” with a hyphen. Shakspere’s family name was almost never spelled “Shakespeare” in the official records.
7. Shakspere of Stratford took no legal action against the pirating of the “Shakespeare” plays or the apparently unauthorized publication of Shake-speare’s Sonnets in 1609, even though he was known to frequently initiate lawsuits to recover petty sums of money owed to him.
6. Shake-speare’s Sonnets, published 400 years ago in 1609, paint a portrait of the artist as a much older man. The scholarly consensus today holds that most of the Sonnets were written in the 1590s, when Shakspere of Stratford was in his late 20s to late 30s, a relatively youthful age even in Elizabethan times. Yet, the author of the Sonnets at times appears to be much older and anticipating his own imminent death. Inexplicably, the publisher’s dedication in the 1609 volume of Sonnets refers to “Shakespeare” as “our ever-living poet” – a term that implies the poet is already dead, but Shakspere of Stratford was still very much alive until 1616.
5. The Sonnets also suggest strongly that “Shakespeare” was a pen name and that the author’s real identity was destined to remain unknown. In Sonnet 72 “Shakespeare” asks that his “name be buried where my body is.” Sonnet 81: “Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.” If Shakspere of Stratford truly was the famous author of the Sonnets, why would he think his name would be buried with his body? After all, the name “Shake-speare” appeared on the title page of the Sonnets themselves.
4. Unlike many other authors of the period – even those who were far less famous or prolific – not a single manuscript or letter exists in Shakspere’s own handwriting. The Stratford man is unique – nothing survives of a literary nature that connects Shakspere of Stratford (the man) during his lifetime with any of the written works that are supposed to represent his literary output.
3. Although traditional biographers of “Shakespeare” claim that he dashed off a couple of masterpieces a year to earn money, there is no evidence of a single payment to Shakspere of Stratford as an author. Such payments are recorded for many other playwrights and poets. Nor is there any evidence of Shakspere of Stratford seeking out or establishing an ongoing literary patron – as was a common practice for writers of the day. Scholars like to assume the Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, but they can produce no evidence to support this claim.
2. Shakspere of Stratford’s minutely detailed 1616 will makes no mention of anything even vaguely literary – no books, unpublished manuscripts, library or diaries. Not even a family bible or copies of his own published works. He doesn’t mention a fellow writer in his will, not even his supposed friend Ben Jonson. Why didn’t this literary giant leave behind a single book or bequeath any literary effects or posthumous literary instructions whatsoever to his widow or children? Why didn’t he bequeath money for the education of his children or grandchildren?
1. Shakspere of Stratford’s death in 1616 was a singular “non-event,” despite the fact that “Shakespeare” the author and poet was widely recognized at the time as one of England’s greatest writers. Why was no notice taken of Shakspere of Stratford’s death if he was such a literary luminary?
The traditional “Stratfordian” theory presents us with a major disconnect between the life of the presumed author and his creative output. It’s almost as if we have a disembodied body of works with little or no relationship to the author.
There is a long and distinguished history of doubting the traditional “Stratfordian” attribution of the “Shakespeare” works. Noted doubters over the years include Mark Twain, Henry James, Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, and Sigmund Freud. More recent skeptics include U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and renowned Shakespearean actors Derek Jacobi, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, and Mark Rylance, former artistic director at the Globe Theatre in London.
Needed: A Shakespeare Authorship Commission
In 1996, the great Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud, while serving as president of the World Shakespeare Congress, signed the following petition:
“We, the undersigned, petition the Shakespeare Association of America, in light of ongoing research, to engage actively in a comprehensive, objective and sustained investigation of the authorship of the Shakespeare Canon, particularly as it relates to the claim of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.”
In 2007, the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (SAC) and the Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable (SAR) began collecting signatures on a “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare.”
To resolve the Shakespeare authorship mystery once and for all, the Shakespeare Oxford Society has called for the creation of an independent, blue ribbon commission composed of distinguished, internationally recognized experts in relevant fields – including historians, biographers, jurists, and other esteemed writers and scholars. All members of the proposed Commission should be unbiased. They should declare going in that they have open minds on this subject and are willing to follow the evidence wherever it leads – using internationally recognized evidentiary standards employed by leading historians and biographers.
I hope Shakespeare enthusiasts in the media, the entertainment industry, and the foundation community will embrace this challenge. All Shakespeare lovers around the world should be able to agree that it’s important to determine the true identity of the author. It’s a matter of basic fairness to give credit where it’s due. In addition, knowing the identity of the author will also help us better understand the works and the author’s motivations. At long last, let’s get the facts and reach a scientific, evidence-based conclusion.
On this April 23rd, my birthday wish for Mr. Shakspere of Stratford is the following: “I wish all Shakespeare lovers around the world will open their minds and support research into more likely authorship candidates so we can finally get to the bottom of this mystery and stop ‘barding’ up the wrong tree.
Let’s “Toast but Verify” – toast the immortal works but verify the author’s true identity.
More About Matthew Cossolotto
Matthew Cossolotto, author of All The World’s A Podium and The Real F Word, is founder and president of Ovations International. Matthew speaks about the Shakespeare authorship issue to interested associations, schools, and community groups. His presentation – entitled “Barding Up the Wrong Tree?” – explores what he calls the “Top 10 Reasons To Doubt The Conventional Theory That William Shakspere of Stratford Wrote the Works of “Shakespeare.” Those interested in booking Mr. Cossolotto as a guest speaker should contact him directly (Tel: 914-245-9721; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.) Visit http://www.theempowermentpro.com or http://www.ovations.com for more information.
About The Shakespeare Oxford Society
Founded in 1957, New York-based Shakespeare Oxford Society is a nonprofit, educational organization dedicated to exploring the Shakespeare authorship question and researching the evidence that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550 – 1604) is the true author of the poems and plays of “William Shakespeare. Visit http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com for more information.
Shakespeare Oxford Society