Four hundred and fifty years after Shakespeare, was there a ghost hand behind the master writer? Martin Hickes reports.
SHAKESPEARE’S works might echo a lost age, 450 years since his birth, but even today, critics still wonder whether his masterly works were penned by him.
Intellectual snobbery has much to do with it; many think the son of a gentleman glover could not possibly have had the intellect to write arguably the greatest literary works in our language.
In fact, the mystery as to who he was, whether he wrote the 38 plays, as well as his poetry and sonnets, and whether there are clues embedded within such, has lent added appeal to Shakespeare’s timeless works for both critics and theatregoers alike for years.
Many think the story is simple enough – Shakespeare, the son of John Shakespeare, had a good grammar school education, married Anne Hathaway of nearby Shottery at the age of 18 – she was his senior by eight years and reportedly with child – and travelled to London to find fame as a playwright, actor and eventual theatre entrepreneur.
By the time of his return to Stratford, he had amassed a fortune large enough to buy New Place – one of the largest houses in the town – though mysteriously left his ‘second best bed’ to his wife who survived him for seven years.
Three children were born to Anne: Susanna in 1583, and the twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585. Hamnet died at 11 years old; Susanna married the local doctor John Hall in 1607, giving birth to Anne and William's granddaughter Elizabeth in the following year. Judith married Thomas Quiney, who was a vintner and tavern owner from a good family, in February 1616.
But is there another story behind Shakespeare and his plays?
Supporters of Shakespeare as writer suggest there are too many coincidences in his works and life to indicate that any other hand might have penned the master works.
Sonnet No 145 seems to make a play of the words ‘hate away’ in the line 'I hate' from hate away she threw / And saved my life, saying 'not you, seemingly making an oblique reference to Anne Hathaway.
Others have speculated that the death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet, in 1596, may have had a direct influence on his writing of Hamlet, (whose main subject is the relationship between father and son).
Twelfth Night (1601) features a twin boy and girl as a main plot device, which may have also influenced Romeo and Juliet.
Historian Michael Wood suggests in In Search of Shakespeare that Sonnet 33 might have nothing to do with the so-called Fair Youth sonnets, but that it alludes to the death of Hamnet and that there is a pun on the word sun/son.
" ’Even so my sun one early morn did shine, with all triumphant splendour on my brow; but out, alack, he was but one hour mine, the region cloud hath mask'd him from me now".
Shakespeare was known to have worked collaboratively; his later works were written in collaboration with John Fletcher, again argument in favour of a known writer working with a fellow.
But conspiracy theories still abound.
Shakespeare's authorship was first questioned in the middle of the 19th century, when adulation of him as the greatest writer of all time had become widespread.
Today, more than 80 alternative authors and theories have been suggested. Key among them is that the true author was either Francis Bacon, known as Baconian Theory; that it was the 6th Earl of Derby; or Christopher Marlowe, a contemporary writer.
The film ‘Anonymous’ starring Rhys Ifans suggests that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward De Vere was the true author, and used Shakespeare, a jobbing actor, as a front for the works.
The film builds upon the so-called Oxfordian Theory which has been known to academics for years – in fact it has become the most popular alternate theory since the 1920s.
Oxford was noted for his literary and theatrical patronage, garnering dedications from a wide range of authors.
For much of his adult life, he patronised both adult and boy acting companies, as well as performances by musicians, acrobats and performing animals, and in 1583, he was a leaseholder of the first Blackfriars Theatre in London.
Oxford was related to several noted literary figures. His mother, Margory Golding, was the sister of the Ovid translator Arthur Golding, and his uncle, Henry Howard, Earl of Surrey, was the inventor of the English or Shakespearian sonnet form.
Three major dedicatees of Shakespeare's works (the earls of Southampton, Montgomery and Pembroke) were each proposed as husbands for the three daughters of Edward de Vere.
Shakespeare’s poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece were dedicated to Southampton (whom many scholars have argued was the Fair Youth of the Sonnets), and the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays was dedicated to Montgomery (who married Susan Devere) and Pembroke (who was once engaged to Bridget Devere).
In the late 1990s, Roger A. Stritmatter conducted a study of the marked passages found in Edward de Vere's Geneva Bible, which is now owned by the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Bible contains 1,028 instances of underlined words or passages and a few hand-written annotations, most of which consist of a single word or fragment. Stritmatter believes about a quarter of the marked passages appear in Shakespeare's works as either a theme, allusion, or quotation.
De Vere’s manors were also close to both the Forest of Arden and the Avon, both familiar to Shakespeareans.
Oxfordians even argue the earl was given the vast sum of £1,000 a year by Queen Elizabeth I which was granted in 1586 and which would have continued ‘until his death’, in 1604.
They add that this sum - the equivalent of at least £50,000 today – might have been used in the pursuit of writing pro-Ellzabethan plays under the Shakespearean pen name for a devoted public; in effect a form of Government propaganda via proxy.
The idea might have some argument; no playwright under an Elizabethan regime is likely to have portrayed Richard III in a welcoming light – Elizabeth being a Tudor and the grand-daughter of Richard’s victor Henry VII.
The fact that Shakespeare’s plays were still being written and performed post 1604 (after the death of Oxford) does not baulk the Oxfordians.
Because Shakespeare lived until 1616, Oxfordians question why, if he were the author, did he not eulogise Queen Elizabeth at her death in 1603 or Henry, Prince of Wales, at his in 1612.
They believe Oxford's 1604 death provides the explanation, and that already completed plays might have been released post 1604, with Macbeth being the last written while Oxford was alive, mirroring the accession of the Scottish James I.
In effect, they argue, that the ‘Shakespeare factory’ came to an end in 1604, and that later plays post those which had already been penned, relied on collaborations.
Shakespeare’s Sonnets, published in 1609, shortly before his death, have as their subject a ‘fair youth’, a ‘dark lady’ and ‘rival poet’ and a dedication to a mysterious Mr WH.
Critics have speculated that this might be a reversal of the initials of Henry Wriothesley, the 3rd Earl of Southampton. Shakespeare's two narrative poems, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, were dedicated to Southampton, who is generally identified as the Fair Youth of Shakespeare's Sonnets.
Oxfordians suggest that the subject matter of the Sonnets more closely mirror the life of Oxford himself than either Southampton or Shakespeare.
Oxfordians believe that the "Fair Youth" referred to in the early sonnets refers to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton, Oxford's peer and prospective son-in-law. The Dark Lady is believed by some to be Anne Vavasour, Oxford's mistress, who bore him a son out of wedlock and that the Rival Poet was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.
Elizabeth I had Oxford locked in the Tower for a period after his affair with Anne Vavasour came to light.
Marlovian theory holds that the Elizabethan poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe did not die in Deptford on 30 May 1593, as the historical records state, but rather that his death was faked, and that he was the main author of the poems and plays.
Calvin Hoffman, the late American theatre critic, press agent and writer, who popularized the Marlovian theory in his 1955 book The Man Who Was Shakespeare, is still today commemorated by the Hoffman Prize, still offered by the King’s School, Cambridge, which encourages writers to consider the enduring puzzle of the Shakespeare authorship question.