Today’s Washington Post contains two articles taking different sides to the question of whether Shakespeare is the true author of his works.
An article by Roger Stritmatter (vice chairman of the Shakespeare Fellowship and a professor of English at Coppin State University) rehearses the doubts as to Shakespeare’s authorship:
Mark Twain quipped that every relevant fact known about the Stratford author would fit on a postcard, and another century of literary biography hasn’t changed that. Shakespearean professionals begin by noting that there is a Shakespeare monument in Holy Trinity Church at Stratford and go on from there to imagine almost everything else. They have to. They have a monument without a man.
Outside the university, though, populist resistance to the author from Stratford has persisted for two centuries. Skeptics have been divided on their support for one candidate or another — Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe, Queen Elizabeth I or Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford — but we all believe that the real author was forced to conceal his identity and allow his works to be published under another man’s name.
We are not just unrepentant conspiracy theorists who lie awake at night concocting unverifiable historical scenarios and contriving pseudoscientific cryptograms while ignoring the undeniable facts of Shakespeare’s career. We’re struck by the fact that all the speculation the biographers engage in to fill the gaps in our knowledge of Shakespeare reveals a man who contradicted the literary thumbprint of his creation in every way. Their author was a huge commercial success — but “Hamlet” satirically inveighs against buyers and sellers of land. Their author never left England — but 16 of the plays are set in Italy or the Mediterranean. There is no evidence that their author owned any books — but the man who wrote Shakespeare clearly devoured all the most important books of his generation.
“Shall I set down the rest of the Conjectures which constitute [Shakespeare’s] giant Biography?” Twain wrote in 1909. “It would strain the unabridged Dictionary to hold them.” In 1984, Richmond Crinkley, the late director of educational programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, acknowledged that “doubts about Shakespeare arose early. They have a simple and direct plausibility.” Henry James was blunt: “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”
The list of skeptics reads like a Who’s Who of the English-speaking world: Washington Irving, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, Herman Melville, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Helen Keller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Malcolm X, Leslie Howard, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, and many more. And the ranks keep growing.
But modern Shakespearean studies are founded on the undeviating principle that rational authorities — i.e. “Shakespeareans” — do not discuss the authorship question. Beyond this, we seem to be deeply invested in a view of the Bard as a creator in our own image. Born to a comfortable middle-class existence, he evades the stark class realities of Elizabethan society and conquers the literary world through Will-power, re-creating the lives of kings, queens and courtiers simply by deploying his superabundant imagination.
Stritmatter believes that the true author was Edward de Vere: