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To Be or Not to Be Shakespeare

While skeptics continue to question the authorship of his plays, a new exhibition raises doubts about the authenticity of his portraits.

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Even if you're a regular visitor to London, it's probably never occurred to you to stop in to see William Shakespeare's original manuscripts at the British Museum or Library. That's just as well. There are no original manuscripts. Not so much as a couplet written in Shakespeare's own hand has been proven to exist. In fact, there's no hard evidence that Will Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon (1564-1616), revered as the greatest author in the English language, could even write a complete sentence.

Is it any wonder that controversy swirls around the authorship of the 154 sonnets and some 37 plays credited to him? Skeptics have long belittled the notion of a barely educated small-town boy who moves to London to work as an actor and is suddenly writing masterpieces of unrivaled beauty and sophistication. Henry James wrote to a friend in 1903 that he was "haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world." Other doubters have included Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles and Sir John Gielgud.

At heart, the Shakespeare debate is about more than missing records. It's driven by an unquenchable need to slip past Shakespeare's verses and locate the real-life artist behind them, whoever he or she might be. Little is known about Dante or Chaucer either, but somehow that isn't as nettlesome. "If Shakespeare hadn’t been metamorphosed into a god, nobody would think it was worth having an authorship controversy about him," says Jonathan Bate, a Shakespeare expert at the University of Warwick, not far from Stratford.

It's certainly curious that the creator of such vivid, recognizably human characters as Falstaff, Lear and Hamlet should himself remain as insubstantial as stage smoke. The most detailed description of the man left to us by someone who actually knew him, it seems, is a less-than-incisive sentence from his friend and rival, the playwright Ben Jonson: "He was, indeed, honest, and of an open and free nature." That covers a lot of ground. As for Shakespeare's appearance, none of his contemporaries bothered to describe it. Tall or short? Thin or chubby? It's anyone’s guess.

An exhibition about the visual side of this quest—the desire to see William Shakespeare's face, literally—is on view through September 17 at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. "Searching for Shakespeare" brings together eight images of the Bard (six paintings, one engraving and one sculpted bust)—only one of which was likely done from life—along with rare theatrical artifacts and documents. Rendered by long-forgotten artists, each of the six painted portraits surfaced after the playwright's death, in some cases centuries later. "There's something about Shakespeare that connects with those big human issues—who we are, why we feel the way we do, love, jealousy, passion," says Tarnya Cooper, who curated the exhibition at London's National Portrait Gallery, where the portraits exhibit opened last March. "In looking for a portrait of Shakespeare, we want to see traces of those passions in the portrait's face."

Unfortunately, as a flesh-and-blood human being Will Shakespeare of Stratford remains stubbornly out of reach. He was born to an apparently illiterate glove maker and his wife early in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. At 18, he married the pregnant Anne Hathaway, who was eight years his senior. By 21, he had fathered three children. He turns up in the documentary record next at age 28 in London—apparently without his family—working as an actor. He's later listed as a member of a prominent acting troupe, the Lord Chamberlain's Men, and later, the King's Men. His name appears on the title pages of plays printed for popular consumption beginning in his mid-30s. Records show he retired around 1613 and moved back to Stratford, where he died in relative obscurity three years later at 52. And that's about it.

The sketchy paper trail from Shakespeare's life hasn't stopped the publishing industry from issuing a stream of biographies filled with phrases like "may have" and "could have." Last year in the New York Times Book Review, editor Rachel Donadio mused whether Stephen Greenblatt's 2005 biography of the Bard, Will in the World, should be on the fiction or the nonfiction bestseller list.

"There are documents from William Shakespeare's life that concern his career as an actor and theater manager and so on, but there's nothing that suggests a literary life," says Mark Anderson, author of "Shakespeare" by Another Name, an examination of the plays' authorship. "That's what’s so damning about the documentary record. The greatest manhunt in literary history has turned up no manuscripts, no letters, no diaries." The only definitive examples of Shakespeare's handwriting are six signatures, all on legal documents. Of course, few letters or diaries of commoners from that time have survived.

Doubters over the years have proposed some 60 candidates as the real Shakespeare, among them Sir Walter Ralegh, Christopher Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth herself. The popular favorite among skeptics of the 19th and early 20th centuries was Francis Bacon, philosopher and writer. Some Baconians maintained that secret codes sprinkled throughout Shakespeare's plays pointed to the works' true author. (For example, by counting the difference in total words in two passages from Henry IV, Part 1, multiplying that by the number of hyphenations, then using the result to move up or maybe down a page somewhere else, you can begin to extract hidden messages in the plays, such as "shak'st...spur...never...writ...a...word...of...them.") Other contenders were decidedly far-fetched—a long-dead member of Henry VIII's court; a cabal of Jesuits—but the very proliferation of theories demonstrated how deeply unsatisfying many people found the Stratford story to be. In recent decades, the debate has largely settled down to a dispute between two opposing camps. On one side are the mainstream defenders of the status quo, known as Stratfordians. The anti-Stratfordian movement, meanwhile, backed by books, Web sites and conferences, has coalesced mainly around a single candidate: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604).

Oxfordians, as they are known, dismiss Will of Stratford as a frontman for the ink-stained earl who used his name as a pseudonym. (More or less. Will's surname was often Shakspere but sometimes Shaxspere, Shagspere or Shaxberd, though variants on the spelling of names were hardly uncommon at the time.)

"Shakespeare the writer, whoever he was, was one of the most broadly educated authors in English literature," says Anderson, an avowed Oxfordian. The poet-playwright was steeped in the classics and drew on source texts that hadn’t yet been translated into English. His working vocabulary of more than 17,000 words—twice that of John Milton's according to lexicons compiled for both men in the 19th century—includes nearly 3,200 original coinages. Could such erudition, Anderson asks, really come from a man with, at most, an English grammar-school education?

There is other circumstantial evidence against "the Stratford man," as Oxfordians condescendingly call Shakespeare. Neither his wife nor his daughter Judith, it appears, were sufficiently literate to write their own names. The man himself is not known to have traveled beyond southern England, yet his plays suggest a firsthand knowledge of the Continent—Italy especially. In Stratford he was known as a businessman and property owner with some connection to the theater, not as a writer. His death attracted no notice in London, and he was buried—beneath a marker that bore no name—in Stratford.

The glimpses of Shakespeare's character afforded by the few surviving legal documents from his life, moreover, don't square with the current popular notion of a wise and lofty-minded poet. He apparently sued over debts as small as two shillings. A London acquaintance once sought his arrest, along with that of some other men, "for fear of death." And in 1598, he was accused of hoarding grain in Stratford during a famine, prompting a furious neighbor to demand that he and his fellow profiteers be "hanged on gibbets at their own doors." Then there is his will (a centerpiece of the Yale exhibition), in which he bequeathed to his wife his "second best bed." As poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1850, "Other admirable men have led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast."

The two portraits of Shakespeare that have been widely accepted as authentic have probably contributed to the doubts. The best-known—an image instantly recognizable today—is a posthumous engraving made by Martin Droeshout, a none-too-talented Dutch artist of the early 1600s. It appeared on the title page of the First Folio, the massive compilation of plays by Mr. William Shakespeare published by John Heminges and Henry Condell, fellow actors and longtime friends of the Bard, in 1623, seven years after his death (see "Folio, Where Art Thou?"). In Droeshout's anatomically awkward rendering, which he likely copied from a life portrait that no longer exists, the subject looks distant and slightly uncomfortable, as though he'd rather not be posing at all. The second generally accepted portrait, also posthumous, is a memorial bust in Stratford's Trinity Church, which many find even more disconcerting than Droeshout's engraving. Critic J. Dover Wilson likened the well-fed, vacant-looking man in the carving to "a self-satisfied pork-butcher." The two portraits, Wilson wrote in his 1932 biography The Essential Shakespeare, are "so obviously false images of the greatest poet of all time that the world turns from them in disgust." Wilson seems to have been overstating matters, for evidently both likenesses were acceptable to Shakespeare's own friends and family.

In the years following these two early efforts at depicting him, Shakespearean portraiture became something of a cottage industry. "New portraits turn up quite often," says curator Tarnya Cooper in London. "In the last three months, I've had three." So far, all have been deemed fabrications or portraits of someone else. Last year, a scientific examination revealed that one of the most familiar likenesses of the playwright, the Royal Shakespeare Company's so-called Flower portrait—once thought to have been done in the Bard's lifetime and to have perhaps been the source of the Droeshout engraving—was actually concocted in the 19th century. In 1988, the subject of another rendering, the Folger Shakespeare Library's Janssen portrait, inscribed with the date 1610, proved to be hiding a full head of hair; the subject's domelike forehead was a paint-over added in the 17th or 18th century.

Though Cooper can't affirm that any of the "Searching for Shakespeare" portraits were painted from life, she labels as "pretty high" the odds that a living, breathing William Shakespeare posed for the National Portrait Gallery's own Chandos portrait, which she calls "our Mona Lisa." The undated painting is attributed to an obscure English artist and possible bit actor of Shakespeare's day named John Taylor. A succession of owners since the mid-1600s have deemed it an authentic portrait of Shakespeare, and it was the first work the gallery acquired at its founding in London in 1856. The portrait's swarthy, somewhat lugubrious subject didn't look sufficiently "English" to a few of the Bard's early admirers, however. "Our author exhibits the complexion of a Jew, or rather of a chimney-sweeper in the jaundice," complained an 18th-century editor named George Steevens.

The search for an authentic image of Shakespeare, like the search for revelations about his life, is guided in part by what we hope to find: we hope he flirted with Queen Elizabeth, but he probably didn't. We hope he didn't hoard grain, but he probably did. This may explain the popularity of two of the eight highlighted portraits in the exhibition. Both the Grafton portrait (1588) and the Sanders portrait (1603) depict sensuous young men, neither of whom has any substantial claim to being Shakespeare. For the frontispiece of The Essential Shakespeare, J. Dover Wilson chose the Grafton, confessing that he couldn't help but wish that "the unknown youth of the wonderful eyes and the oval Shelley-like face" was in fact the young poet. And literary critic Harold Bloom announced in Vanity Fair in 2001 that he preferred the "livelier" Sanders to traditional portraits.

But "Searching for Shakespeare" includes one portrait about which there is no doubt whatsoever: it is of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. That he appears a more dashing and self-assured figure than any of the Shakespeares on display is not, of course, why Oxfordians find him the more plausible candidate—though it probably doesn't hurt. Fourteen years Shakespeare's senior, Oxford was an urbane, multilingual dandy, well educated, well traveled and well connected. At 12, when his father died, he was taken in by William Cecil, later Lord Burghley, who for more than 40 years was Queen Elizabeth's most trusted adviser. He became Oxford's father-in-law when Oxford, at 21, married Burghley's daughter, Anne Cecil. At court, he won attention as a jousting champion, clotheshorse and ladies' man. "The Queen's Majesty delighteth more in his personage and his dancing and his valiantness than any other," another young aristocrat, the future Earl of Shrewsbury, wrote of the 21-year-old earl.

Oxford's many enemies, however, described him variously as a whoring, hot-tempered bully, a dissolute spendthrift and a flatulent pederast. At 17, he used his sword to kill an under-cook in Burghley's household (supposedly in self-defense). And at 24, he abandoned his wife for the Continent for more than a year. As for his poetry, Oxford biographer Alan H. Nelson, emeritus professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley and a Stratfordian, ranks it "from absolutely dreadful to middling."

In his own time, at least, Oxford's poetry won praise. So did his skill as a playwright, though none of his dramas survive. Some modern-day advocates claim that it would have been unseemly for a high-ranking nobleman to write plays openly for the hugely popular, sometimes rowdy Elizabethan public theater. And, they say, playwrights who satirized the powerful too obviously could find themselves jailed or worse.

Richard Whalen, author of Shakespeare—Who Was He? (which answers its title's question as, unquestionably, the Earl of Oxford), allows that the earl's identity as the real Shakespeare had to have been known to a number of theater-world insiders, among them an accommodating Will. Nonetheless, Whalen argues, one needn't posit the existence of a grand conspiracy that concealed Oxford's role. "His authorship was probably an open secret," says Whalen, who, like his fellow Oxfordian Mark Anderson, is unaffiliated with a university. The powers that be could pretend they didn't know a nobleman was stooping to farce and, worse, critiquing his peers. As for the general public, he says, "They weren't all that interested in who wrote the plays they went to."

Links between Oxford and Shakespeare are not hard to find. The oldest of Oxford's three daughters was once offered in marriage to the 3rd Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated his two long narrative poems, "Venus and Adonis" and "The Rape of Lucrece." (He declined.) Another daughter was married to one of the two earls to whom the First Folio was dedicated.

Oxford supporters find other evidence in the plays themselves. In Hamlet and King Lear, for example, they hear the voice of an aristocrat, not a commoner. "The plays demonstrate a keen, intimate knowledge of how people in a royal court or a government bureaucracy think and operate," says Whalen. "Yes, great writing is always a creative process, but a writer's best works are products of their own experiences. Think of Tolstoy, who wrote about what he knew best: his family, Russia, war. I would argue the Earl of Oxford's life fits the profile of someone you would expect to have written the works of Shakespeare."

Oxfordian Mark Anderson finds other clues in Shakespeare's settings, plots and characters. He discerns in Hamlet, for instance, elements drawn from Oxford’s life. "Polonius is a caricature of Oxford's father-in-law, Lord Burghley, who was known to be rather prolix and tedious," he says. "Burghley, like Polonius, once sent spies to check up on his own son." Ophelia is Burghley's daughter, whom Oxford/Hamlet woos, and so on.

As persuasive as their case may be, even the most ardent Oxfordians must admit there isn't a scrap of real evidence tying their man to Shakespeare's work. And how to explain Ben Jonson's eulogy of the "Sweet Swan of Avon," in the First Folio? "...Soule of the Age! The applause! delight! the wonder of our Stage!...Thou art a Monument, without a tombe, / And art alive still, while thy Booke doth live, / And we have wits to read, and praise to give."

By and large, orthodox Stratfordians—a group that includes the vast majority of historians and English professors with an interest in Shakespeare—dismiss Oxford's champions as wishful thinkers who ignore or misread historical evidence. It's natural, they say, that we yearn for traces of our most revered writer—a signed love sonnet on parchment, at least, if not a complete first draft of Macbeth. But finding their absence suspicious, they say, reveals basic misunderstandings about life during the English Renaissance.

"In his own time, Shakespeare wasn't thought of as a universal genius," says Marjorie Garber, professor of English and visual studies at Harvard University and the author of several books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare After All (2004). "Nobody was about to save a laundry list he wrote so they could sell it on eBay. It wasn't that kind of culture." Paper, typically handmade in France, was scarce and expensive; when it was no longer needed, it was reused—to line a baking dish, perhaps, or stiffen a book cover. Letter-writing and diary-keeping were unusual, especially for commoners. As for play manuscripts, Garber says, "Once they were set in type, there was certainly no reason to save them." Even in print, plays were considered something less than literature. When Thomas Bodley set up the Bodleian library at Oxford University in Shakespeare's time, she points out, he refused to include play texts. "These were considered trash, like pulp fiction."

One by one, mainstream scholars knock down the Oxfordians' debating points. No, Stratford wasn't an uncultured backwater; a lord mayor of London and an archbishop of Canterbury had both come from there. No, a Stratford grammar-school graduate wasn't akin to a seventh-grade dropout of today. The Greek and Latin classics echoed in the plays were a standard part of the grammar-school curriculum. Shakespeare may never have visited Italy, but neither he nor anyone else during the Renaissance ever set foot in ancient Greece or Rome either, and that did not rule out the Classical world as a popular setting for poetry and drama. And no, you didn't have to be a nobleman to write about kings and queens. Writers of every stripe did so—it's what the Elizabethan public demanded.

"In the end, what sets Shakespeare apart from his contemporaries is the sheer range of his style and his subject matter," says the University of Warwick's Jonathan Bate. "He was great in comedy and tragedy and history. He could write about the court, and he could write about ordinary people." A play doesn’t have to be autobiographical, Bate suggests, any more than a sonnet has to be confessional. "Shakespeare always kept himself well disguised. He didn't insert his own opinions, and he steered away from the topical controversies of the day. That's why it's so easy for directors and filmmakers today to make his plays contemporary. It's the key to his endurance."

Nor, Bate adds, is it necessary to believe that Shakespeare began writing masterpieces as soon as he picked up a quill. "There is good evidence that he started by rewriting the works of other dramatists. Lots of his early plays are either collaborative works, where he's a kind of junior partner working with more established dramatists, or they're reworkings of older plays." Even the mature plays like Hamlet and King Lear, Bate says, drew on existing works for their plots. "In his time, originality wasn't especially valued."

As for England not mourning his death, that's not surprising either. By 1616, Shakespeare was, after all, a middle-class retiree living far from London, and his plays were no longer the latest fashion. "In his own lifetime and for some time after, Shakespeare is certainly admired and respected, but he's not thought of as unique," says Bate. Which is why later writers felt justified in "improving" on him. British poet laureate John Dryden shortened Troilus and Cressida in the late 1600s by excising what he called "that heap of Rubbish, under which so many excellent Thoughts lay wholly bury'd." An unnamed critic in the following century scolded Shakespeare "for ignoring the ancients, for violating decorum by resorting to tragicomedy and supernatural characters, and for using puns and blank verse."

"The idea that he was a completely different order of genius from all his contemporaries only begins in the mid-18th century, with the British Empire taking off and literacy growing," says Bate. The apotheosis became official with actor David Garrick's lavish Shakespeare Jubilee, held in Stratford in 1769. For today's public, of course, Shakespeare is to literary genius what Mozart is to music and Leonardo to painting. The authorship debate, says Bate, is a natural consequence of a cult of Shakespeare now deeply rooted in our culture.

Harvard's Marjorie Garber takes an unusually tolerant view of the long-running dispute. "A lot of people, especially writers, prefer the mystery to an answer," she says. Any answer is going to be simply a human of a particular time and place. We regard Shakespeare today, she believes, the way his friend Ben Jonson did in his First Folio tribute—"He was not of an age, but for all time!"—and asks whether we really want to see him reduced to an ordinary mortal. "Many people prefer to keep the idea of a transcendent, universal Shakespeare," she says. Garber likes to cite a remark Charles Dickens made to a friend in 1847: "The life of Shakespeare is a fine mystery, and I tremble every day lest something should turn up."

Massachusetts freelancer Doug Stewart wrote about the destruction of Pompeii in the February 2006 issue of SMITHSONIAN.

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