You probably don’t care who really wrote the works of Shakespeare, but keep reading anyway — I’ve got a point to make.
For almost 400 years, literary scholars have insisted Hamlet, Macbeth, and all those other plays were written by William Shakespeare, a well-known grain merchant and part-time actor from Stratford-on-Avon.
Those same scholars also acknowledge Shakespeare wasn’t really born in the cottage known today as Shakespeare’s birthplace, which gives you a sense of their finely-tuned critical standards.
Anyway, for nearly 400 years a minority of literary scholars and historians in other fields have pointed out many holes in the traditional Shakespeare authorship story. Too much about Shakespeare’s life is unknown, and too many speculations are presented as fact. In many cases where the facts are known, they don’t make sense.
If you’re curious to know more about the controversy, I can recommend a couple good books. Those arguments pro and con aren’t the point of this column.
Almost from the beginning, historians have suggested other candidates for the plays’ and poems’ authorship. The arguments for most other candidates quickly fell apart since they didn’t fit the facts, either.
There’s one candidate whose potential authorship holds up very well, however — Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. In the last 50 years, most challengers to the orthodox story have come to agree on Oxford as the most likely alternative to Shakespeare.
When I was in college in the early 1990s, I read an article by a British historian making the case for de Vere.
The article made an impression on me since the historian’s evidence was actual 400 year old documents tucked away in museums and collections under everyone’s noses all this time.
But since those documents didn’t support the traditional story taught in the schools, no one until recently thought they might be significant.
I couldn’t resist. I was friends with the English department’s acknowledged Shakespeare expert. Feeling mischievous, I handed him a copy of the article and said, “So...what do you think?”
He grumbled but took it. The next day he handed it back, and said two of the most stunning sentences I’ve ever heard.
He said, “Well, if I were going to decide based on the evidence, I’d go with de Vere. But I’ve always liked the idea that Shakespeare, a commoner, beat the noblemen at their own game, so I’ll just keep teaching that.”
And then he walked away.
My jaw hit the floor. Here was a respected, published professor admitting the evidence supported another theory — and that he didn’t care. He was just going to keep teaching what he prefered to believe instead.
Page 2 of 2 - I stayed friends with that professor for years after that, since he was a good guy in many ways — but I never respected him as a scholar after that day.
And I’ve been wary of “experts” in other fields ever since, too.