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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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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.

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