Oxford or Stratford: Does it Matter?

Shakespeareby FJ Rocca6/18/15
A great debate rages among certain denizens of dust filled cells of academia. Did Shakespeare or somebody else write all those plays? The argument goes this way. Macbeth, Hamlet, Julius Caesar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice, and others contain an extraordinary depth of detail; therefore, it is to be assumed that their creator must have traveled widely and had a very deep and varied education to develop such voluminous and ready knowledge of history, philosophy, psychology, politics and geography imparted in the plays. But Shakespeare is not known to have traveled very far from his home, nor did he attain great education. Therefore, a mystery presents itself, scholars assert, of whether Shakespeare or somebody else wrote the plays.

This assumption in itself is not illogical. To have traveled to places as far apart as Scotland from Italy and elsewhere was a hardship that would have taken a great deal of time and cost a great deal of money in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare did not possess great wealth nor is he known to have had a remarkably deep education. To have mastered history and geography as extensively as the plays suggest would have taken many years of study. Shakespeare probably would not have time to write the plays had he spent all those years abroad and done all the research himself. Scholars seeing in this apparent anomaly an opportunity to worry everyone about a subject that normally wouldn’t be anyone’s concern but theirs, scramble to give us various answers. Perhaps it was Christopher Marlowe, or Lord Essex. Perhaps it was some unknown scholar of the time. This is the red meat of scholarship, to develop esoteric theories and stumble all over each other asserting them, challenging competing theories.

One prominent theory eventually developed into two general “schools” known as “Oxfordian v. Stratfordian.”  It states that the Earl of Oxford, rather than William Shakespeare, wrote the plays. They offer abundant evidence. Oxford was a poet, well-educated and widely traveled, with a knowledge of world affairs, history and literature. His experience was so much greater than Shakespeare’s, it is probably logical to assume that he had a hand in crafting the plays, or at least in filling them with his knowledge and experience, and that Shakespeare merely wrote them down.

But writers consult people with experience they have not had to provide details with which they are unfamiliar. John Gardner, in one of his books on the art of fiction, suggests that one need not work as a field picker to know about the work. He merely has to ask several people who have done it. How do we know that Oxford—or any of the others—might not have been a consultant?

There are other considerations. Even as late as the sixteenth and seventeenth Centuries, literacy was not wide spread. Common people were indeed mostly illiterate and continued to rely on word of mouth for news and other information as they had done for centuries. However, the lack of literacy forced people to develop extraordinary memories. Auditors, who did the annual books of a business, didn’t write the figures down. They memorized them and recited them recalling every detail from year to year. This is why they were called auditors.

Shakespeare operated in this oral tradition. He and his actors very likely developed plays through guided improvisation, probably with lots of experimentation and input from outside parties with interest. In fact, something like this still happens in some of today’s theater production. Directors, playwrights and actors work together to produce the final product. During the rehearsals, if something doesn’t play particularly well, someone suggests a change. More changes are tested and made; more details are inserted, removed or amended, until the play takes shape.

Actors, trained in speaking verse at places like the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, where Shakespeare’s play are elevated to Olympian status, can spout lines from practically any Shakespeare play at will. Shakespeare himself could probably do the same and better.

Moreover, The Globe Theater was not a one-man operation.  It couldn’t have been. Shakespeare must have had a whole entourage of regular actors, production people, and co-authors—yes co-authors—helping him. Theater was a business venture, after all, and not generally considered an art form. It was entertainment, like the movies nowadays. This was so in other arts, as well. When Vermeer painted, his work was not thought of as fine art, but craftsmanship. He was considered an artisan whose paintings were treated as very fine decoration. Shakespeare’s plays were entertainment.

None of this adds to scholarship, of course, because I’m not a scholar. But the consensus of all the logic at least creates (for me anyway) a circumstantial case for Shakespeare as author. On the assumption “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” I’m inclined to think that, unless someone has a solid reason to question authorship, for example, if it makes a difference in the meaning and impact of the plays, I will ignore the academics and continue to accept that Shakespeare was the author of his own plays. Whether they were written by Oxford or Shakespeare, by Marlowe or Tennessee Williams, for that matter, changes nothing about their greatness. The plays are celestial in their celebration of human spirit, of ethics, morality, evil and goodness. They show us flaws in human kind, but they also show us the hero, the troubled protagonist in his psychologically driven quests, and the giddy joys of pure laughter. Frankly, I don’t care about the concerns of all those academics who want to make cases against old Will. When I watch Hamlet, I think of Hamlet, Laertes, and Polonius, of tragedy, anger and dying. That’s what matters, the essence, not the scholarship.


FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com. • (2115 views)

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FJ Rocca

About FJ Rocca

FJ Rocca was born the day after Pearl Harbor in the same hometown as Johnny Appleseed. He is a trained classical musician, a published illustrator and a prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction. His website is candiddiscourse.com.

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37 Responses to Oxford or Stratford: Does it Matter?

  1. M Farrell says:

    FJ– Sratford or Oxford?– Given that “The play’s the thing”… It all seems “Much Ado About Nothing”–

    • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

      Very droll.

      • M Farrell says:

        FJ– the Stratford v. Oxford argument always reminds me of the much more current example of Tom Clancy– He was hauled before a Congressional Committee to explain how his novels (particularly “The Hunt for Red October”) were so realistic and where he got his information (re: nuclear sub capabilities and warfare/Cold War espionage tactics)– But unlike poor Shakespeare, I don’t think anyone ever claimed someone (other than Clancy) experienced in such matters wrote his books–

  2. Timothy Lane says:

    There are some very good arguments for the Earl of Oxford, including the likelihood that on his trip to Italy he would have picked up a copy of the obscure Italian book that was the source for Othello, as well as the panegyric to him saying that his countenance “shakes spears”. I don’t think the case has been made sufficiently to disprove William Shakespeare of Stratford (and the argument that Oxford was in effect an unofficial consultant is a good argument that has occurred to me before), but I will say that the case for Oxford is a good one even so.

    For anyone curious, three good books about the possibility of the Earl of Oxford having written the plays are The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn, Alias Shakespeare by Joseph Sobran, and Shaksepeare by Another Name by Mark Anderson. Needless to say, there are plenty of books making the orthodox case, though very few that actually try to refute the Oxfordian thesis (or any other).

    In If, or History Rewritten, there is a chapter in which it’s discovered that Bacon (who was then the favorite alternative) actually wrote the plays. Amusingly, it then posits that Bacon’s essays were written by Shakespeare.

    • M Farrell says:

      I believe the marvelous actor, Derek Jacobi, is also an anti-Stratdfordian– A few years ago he narrated a short BBC Documentary supporting the position– I will post the title as soon as I can find it on the Internet– I remember it being very well done and informative–

      • Timothy Lane says:

        He is indeed an Oxfordian, and did an introduction to the third of the volumes I listed (which is a biography of the Earl of Oxford as well as an argument for his having written the plays). Orson Welles was another Oxfordian, and Mark Twain was convinced that William Shakespeare of Stratford wasn’t the author (though the Oxford theory hadn’t been developed yet). Note that Irving Wallace had a chapter on Delia Bacon (a Baconian) in his book The Nympho and Other Maniacs (the title woman was Valeria Messalina).

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        Love Jacobi the actor. But Jacobi the philosopher is a libtard pinhead.

        • I actually don’t even care for his acting. 😉

          • FJ Rocca says:

            I agree about Jacobi’s acting. I judge an actor by how convincing he is. Jacobi has never convinced me of anything about the characters he played, from Claudius’s stammer (utterly fake) to other parts he’s played. Only one performance stands out–that of the valet in Gosford Park. Otherwise, I’m afraid I think he’s overrated.

          • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

            Well, I’ll be in the minority opinion then on this. I think he’s terrific in “Cadfael” as well as “I, Clavdivs.” And as FJ mentioned, he’s quite good in “Gosford Park” as well. He’s played some good bit parts here in there, such as in “The King’s Speech”.

            • Timothy Lane says:

              I only remember him from I, Claudius, where I will admit I liked his performance. (But I definitely don’t consider myself a judge of acting.) Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of the Brother Cadfael mysteries even though I have the books and have read most of them (as well as many others by Ellis Peters/Edith Pargeter).

              • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

                Oddly enough, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of the Brother Cadfael mysteries even though I have the books and have read most of them

                You show me yours and I’ll show you mine. Let me know how the books are. I’ll tell you about the TV series.

                The TV series is hit-and-miss in regards to the plot. Many of them seem chopped up as if 15 minutes or so is missing, the needed parts to make it all make sense. But what generally holds them all together is a very strong cast. Having not read the book, I can’t tell you if the cast is representative of the characters described in the book.

                Jacobi is terrific as a kind of “progressive” Benedictine monk. Some of the better episodes are “A Morbid Taste for Bones” and “The Devil’s Novice” where Cadfael is rolling his eyes a bit at the centrality of what amounts to superstition. But he himself is a very faithful man. This isn’t just (at least in the TV series) deconstruction of Catholicism.

                Michael Culver is superb as the antagonist (along with his cohort, Julian Firth as Brother Jerome). Terrence Hardiman, whom you might recognize in a few other movies or two, is strong as Abbot Radulfus. And last but not least is the heart-of-gold (but gangly) Brother Oswin played superbly and sympathetically by Mark Charnock.

                Finally, Sean Pertwee is terrific as the main (one of 3 actors) Hugh Beringar. The show lost a lot with the substitute actors.

                But the series is carried on the shoulders of Jacobi who describes a very sympathetic and imperfect Benedictine monk. His past life and loves sometimes cross his path, but if he’s tempted or perturbed, he doesn’t show it. And there are some truly terrific moments in the episodes that contain such plots. He was a Crusader but now has set aside the sword to answer a call from God. And never do you suppose that his “call” is a dodge, a retreat from the world, or any semi-false thing. He comes across as a man of deep and true faith while the others are, frankly, often too obsessed with bones.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                As it happens, A Morbid Taste for Bones was the first Cadfael mystery I read (the first book I ever read by Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters was The Bloody Field, about the Battle of Shrewsbury in 1403, where her take is very different from Shakespeare’s). I can’t compare it to the episode, but I obviously continued buying and reading the books. One deals with the civil war between Stephen and Matilda; another story has Cadfael’s change from crusader to cleric.

            • NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

              Allow me to join you, Brad – Jacobi was and is a superb actor. Not only did he give a great performance as Claudius, he was excellent in a version of Hamlet from a couple of years later, as I remember it (I haven’t seen this version since and don’t know if it’s available), and in fact I’ve never seen him give a bad performance. His technique is undeniable.

              Of course like most actors his political views are idiotic, but not really worse than his fellows.

            • FJ Rocca says:

              I’ll give you that. He was superb as Cadfael. My wife and I watch those episodes over and over on Netflix. I was probably too harsh in my judgment of him. He was also quite good in Dead Again, as Frankie (no relation) the killer. Playing that role he did his inimitable Claudius stammer. The entire audience erupted in applause! I think, other than the stammer, he was quite good in Claudius. I change my mind on judgment of him.

  3. FJ — I tend to agree with you on this, though it’s true that Oxford has a lot going for him, I still find it curious that when the First Folio came out in 1623, 7 years after Shakespeare’s death, no one is reported to have objected to Will having the credit for 36 of the plays. Why would anyone think, 7 years after his death, that he wrote them if he didn’t? I think we forget sometimes what real genius is and what it is capable of.

    Of course, I still think Moses wrote the Torah as well, so what can I say? Thanks for a fun essay.

    • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

      I think we forget sometimes what real genius is and what it is capable of.

      Thanks your for stating the obvious, Deana. That is normally an insult. But in this case I think it is deep analysis and I appreciate your ability to single out the essential point in a zebra-herd of criss-crossing and bewildering misinformation. This should be obvious, but those brought up in our culture the last fifty years have been taught that everything in Western Civilization is either tainted or a lie.

      The default position therefore, by these new Golden Children, is to suspect that people such as Shakespeare are frauds. If Western Civilization is considered worthy to be thrown on the scrap heap (“Hey hey, ho ho, Western Civ has got to go”) then surely such people as Shakespeare can’t really be great.

      Unless you understand the motivation behind this, you can’t judge it, for we see now that simply by doubting Shakespeare the doubt tends to stick. And that is the true objective.

      I no more believe that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays than Ronald Reagan was a Martian. Given the deconstructionist Marxist bent of those doing serious “research” these days, we should dismiss them as the cultural warriors they are, looking to “fundamentally transform” anything they can. Without ironclad evidence, they should be devalued and dismissed.

      • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

        I recall one Shakespeare scholar, it might have been Allen Bloom, thought all the talk about someone else being the real author, arose because the swells and intellectual types could not stand it that a “common” man could display such genius.

        I think he said Shakespeare used over 17,000 different words in his plays.

        More commonly used English aphorisms come from Shakespeare than any other source, including the Bible.

        • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

          There’s been an attempt to demote or re-write nearly all aspects of Western Civilization. And that doesn’t mean there isn’t a fuller, more complete story behind the rough pencil sketches that are taught. No, perhaps Columbus didn’t discover America (no one knows who might have first crossed the land bridge between Russia and North America, or if a Polynesian might have found it by boat), but it was an important event in the history of both Europe and America.

          And any look at who “really” supposedly wrote Shakespeare’s plays must be seen in the context of a scholarly culture gone mad. I read recently where Harvard (or some other school) doesn’t even have a course on Western Civilization and turned down substantial funds by a benefactor to institute one. The Left is trying to erase history and out of a bizarre sense of “fairness” is teaching supposed greats who are black, or Muslim, or simply because they’re women.

          And now they’re going to put a woman on the ten-dollar bill to replace Hamilton…and as Rick Moran notes:

          There are probably 20 men in business, labor, and government who deserve to be on our currency more than any American woman who has ever lived.

          Simply as a tool of logic and reason the default position these days must be to assume that someone trying to tell the “real” story is motivated by anything but the real.

          • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

            I read recently where Harvard (or some other school) doesn’t even have a course on Western Civilization and turned down substantial funds by a benefactor to institute one.

            My school did this about 12-13 years back. I was told this by my ex Poly Sci professor who expressed disgust and dismay about it. And he was a liberal!!!

            The rot in this country goes very deep, particularly in academia. (It was the faculty which voted to discontinue the course, which was at least two semesters.)

            • Timothy Lane says:

              Back when I went to Purdue, there was no specific course in Western civilization. However, the required English literature did include a lot of good culture (the one I took had King Lear and Oedipus Rex as well as numerous poems and stories, and the “Grand Inquisitor” excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov).

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                I recently read “The Brothers Karamazov” and have to admit I was underwhelmed. My overriding thought was that if he describes real Russians, it is no wonder the place has been such a mess for decades.

              • Timothy Lane says:

                In the Russian literature section of our advanced English in high school, we had The Brothers Karamazov, Fathers and Sons, and some short stories. Plus, we had Notes From the Underground — but the teacher couldn’t get us to read the whole thing. Talk about overwhelmingly underwhelmed.

              • Steve Lancaster says:

                I read this in high school, my English teacher caught me while dissecting some complex sentence that no one in their right mind would ever write. After class she asked me if I understood what I was reading, at that moment it was the Grand Inquisitor section. When I told her it was about freedom of action and thought, she told me to read anything I wanted for the rest of the year and just turn in book reports, best year I ever spent in secondary school.

            • Steve Lancaster says:

              In my school, University of Arkansas we still label the class Western Civilization, but the teaching focus is Asia and Africa. The Greeks and Romans are a second thought, less than one chapter of the text. I find it saddening that 3000 years of thought, ideas, and philosophy are summed up in one rather thin chapter.

          • But Brad, doesn’t he realize that if we replace Hamilton with, oh, say, Margaret Sanger on the $10 bill that unfairness toward women will cease to exist? We just have to bite the bullet (can we still use that word?) and do what is good for womankind.

            • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

              Deana, somebody elsewhere mentioned that Lady Liberty (who has appeared here and there on coinage) would be a great option. I’m all for that. I’m not against a woman appearing on money, but it does disturb me when “diversity,” not importance, is the motivation.

              Of course, if they’d like to put Sarah Palin on the 10, fine with me although you can be sure it will be some crashing feminist who makes the cut. I could live with Abigail Adams however. She’s perhaps not that important to American history, but she was no dolt. Betsy Ross would be fine too. How about Martha Washington?

              And we could circumvent all this nonsense by simply declaring (in our minds) that Alexander Hamilton is now Alexandra Hamilton. We just re-identify his gender as-is. That will save on printing costs as well. They can use the old plates.

              • Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

                If there must be a woman on the $10 bill, I suggest:

                Mary Ludwig Hays McCauley

                aka

                Molly Pitcher

              • Timothy Lane says:

                Apparently Martha Washington was in fact on paper currency a century or so ago. She may be the only woman who has ever appeared.

                Another good choice would be Dolley Madison, for her heroic behavior in the British attack on Washington in 1814. Or, if we want to link history to modern culture, how about Sally Hemings?

      • Timothy Lane says:

        There has been an accusation that many of the skeptics simply refuse to believe that an ordinary person was capable of writing those plays (I recall Charlton Heston raising this issue in an issue of National Review, presumably after an article by Sobran, who used to appear there). However, Sobran makes the point that Shakespeare’s writing was much more sympathetic to the nobility than other writers of that era, such as Ben Jonson.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      One interesting argument I’ve seen for the Oxfordian case is that when the Sonnets were published, the poet was referred to as “ever-living” — a term for someone who has died, but lives on in memory. At that time, Oxford was dead but Shakespeare was alive.

  4. Steve Lancaster says:

    This debate is a tsunami in the smallest of academic teacups. It doesn’t matter who wrote the plays, sonnets and pomes. For over 400 years millions of people believed Shakespeare wrote them, and if belief has any power that settles the question. For 2000 years people have believed that Jesus was the son of God. It does not matter if it is true or not, the belief of billions of people over time makes it true. One of the touchstones of our western culture is the ability to believe in truths, half-truths and even outright lies. But time eventually encourages and ultimately brings forth truth. I think it is time to put the debate to bed and enjoy the Bard, whoever he or she was, for the genius of the spoken word.

    • Anniel says:

      Steve Lancaster I agree with you. Somebody wonderful wrote the exquisite poetic line “where late the sweet birds sang.” Six little words and all true poets have been jealous forever after.

  5. NAHALKIDES NAHALKIDES says:

    “Shakespeare operated in this oral tradition. He and his actors very likely developed plays through guided improvisation, probably with lots of experimentation and input from outside parties with interest.”

    Well, no, I don’t think so. Improvisation is part of the performing arts, true, but actors could no more improvise a play like Macbeth than musicians could improvise Beethoven’s 9th Symphony! Perhaps the plays were revised and perhaps not – we really don’t know. But I’m a little disturbed by the tendency of this essay to collectivize achievement, as if real dramatic art were not the product of one creative intellect. Whoever wrote these plays, it was clearly one person and not a committee – suggesting a small revision does not qualify someone as a co-writer or collaborator. Committees do for the arts the same thing they do for automotive design (see the Edsel or pretty much any modern car, which are all Edsels in spirit).

    Who did write the plays? Of course I don’t know, any more than anyone else does. The sketchiness of the historical record means we can never prove Will was the author, and this invites contrary theories. I suppose it could have been the Earl of Oxford, although then one would be left trying to explain the stylistic dissimilarities of Oxford’s poetry to Shakespeare’s. But I really don’t like the idea that an untutored country bumpkin like Will simply could not have written the plays. The fact is that talent exists, and there’s no reason why the plays had to be written by the wealthy and well-traveled.

    In fact, are the plays so historically accurate that we should expect the author had actually travelled across Scotland and Italy? Do we read Hamlet because of its ultra-realistic depiction of life in the 12th-century Danish court? Or is it the enduring human truths of the plays which make them great? I’m a writer of fiction myself, though not a prolific one, and I have written about things and places I never actually experienced. How did I do it? Two of the writer’s standard tools, imagination and research – just like Will Shakespeare did. 🙂

    • Timothy Lane says:

      Ogburn in his book mentioned providing people with mixed excerpts of poetry by Shakespeare and Oxford, and no one could tell where one ended and the other began. I don’t know if he tried to stump any experts (he would have needed to find an expert stylist who didn’t actually recognize any of the lines).

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