by FJ Rocca 6/18/15
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)