The Doubters

The Doubters: “Have No Fear. If You Begin to Doubt, Remember: You’re Not Alone”

Should you have doubts that the man you’ve been told was “Shakespeare” wasn’t, don’t be concerned. You’re not the only one to question the received wisdom of the ages.

maskCharles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry and William James, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, Royal Shakespeare thespians Derek Jacobi, the late John Gielgud, Jeremy Irons and Michael York also had doubts. So have thousands of people who signed a “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare.

Likewise England’s Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, Germany’s Prime Minister Otto Von Bismark, France’s President de Gaulle, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, United States Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor, Lewis Powell, Henry Blackmun and Antonin Scalia. In a rare instance of agreement, Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens concurred with Justice Scalia, and emphasized that his conclusion is “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

The reasons for doubting that the Stratford man was “Shakespeare” are many, and among them is the autobiographical nature of the plays and sonnets. “Hamlet” and “All’s Well That Ends Well” especially tell Edward de Vere’s life story, including his accusation of the murderer of his father, and the withering parody of his father-in-law’s verbose speech-making.

These doubters also appreciated the fact that at that time in England it was impossible for a nobleman to publish his writings or produce his plays under his own name; that was considered improper. A nobleman who wished to do so had to proceed anonymously and, if pressed, use a pen name and employ a “mask.”

The doubters also realized that, after Edward died, and so did his front man, time passed and anyone who knew them also died. Once there was no one around who knew them, no record existed to reveal that Edward was the author. All handwritten manuscripts had disappeared. So, even though the man from Stratford and his family never claimed the Stratford man was the author, and even though no record existed of his ever receiving payment from anyone for writing anything, and even though there’s no record he even attended the little one-room schoolhouse in Stratford, people were still willing to accept he was “Shakespeare.”

About 150 years after Edward and his “mask” died, when people asked who was this writer “Shakespeare,” no one in Edward’s family or either of his in-laws came forward to make the claim. After all, Edward hardly led a life of pristine morality. He’d been unfaithful to his wife not only with a courtesan in Italy but with another of the ladies of the Bedchamber with whom he’d fathered an illegitimate child. He’d wrongly accused his wife of infidelity and he’d been accused himself of homosexuality, then a crime. His promiscuous drinking, his friendships with “low-life” actors and Catholics as well as with Protestants also got him in trouble.

Samuel Johnson, the leading literary critic of London, opined that no one knew who Homer was, yet Greece revered him. So, why couldn’t England have its “Shakespeare.” No one knew who he was either. When Johnson’s best friend, David Garrick, a famous actor, announced he was staging a “Shakespeare Festival” in Stratford, the myth of the Stratford man “Shakespeare’ was born.

But doubts still persisted. One-third of “Shakespeare”s” plays are set in Italy and filled with such intimate details of that country, its language, its customs and its people only a man who’d lived there and spoke Italian could have written them. That the Stratford man never left England persuaded others, and that 36 of the 37 plays of “Shakespeare” are set in palaces and the homes of aristocrats, and filled with revelations of the behavior of kings, queens and noblemen convinced more.

Myths are easy to create, but harder to destroy so, four hundred years after Edward died, the myth still lives. Besides, for many, it’s a comforting thought that a simple commoner could have written all those complicated, sophisticated plays and poems. Finally, an untraveled virtually illiterate man had a place in the sun.

The glover from Stratford with no education except maybe grammar school until the age of eight, who never left the confines of England, spoke no language other than English, who left nothing in his own handwriting to suggest he knew how to write — not a manuscript, a journal a diary, or even a personal letter—could be the greatest writer in the English language. For those of us who yearn for democracy, that’s heady stuff.

As for Edward de Vere, though he was tutored by the leading Renaissance scholars of England, graduated from Oxford and Cambridge, educated in law at the Inns of Court, fluent in Italian, French, Latin, Greek and Spanish, well acquainted with the palaces and castles of England—as well as a few in a France and Italy—well, he’s out in the cold. But if we knew about his life and doings, might not we be better able to understand some of those poems and plays of his which today still present us with mystery?