For many an understandable question arises, even if one does begin to doubt the Stratford story: “Granted, there does seem to be a problem with the Stratford man as the author. But why are there so many candidates? Why should I choose the Shakespeare Fellowship’s candidate over such illustrious figures as Francis Bacon or Christopher Marlowe? Haven’t these Elizabethan writers had as many, if not more, passionate adherents than the more obscure Earl of Oxford?”
The sheer number of candidates proposed for the august position of “William Shakespeare” is indeed noteworthy. The situation is unique; such doubts exist for no other writer of Shakespeare’s historic importance. Orthodox scholars would have us believe that the number of alternative theories invalidates the entire inquiry. To them, since it is obvious that all of the candidates substituting for William Shakspere of Stratford cannot be the author, therefore none of them can be.
Actually, of the more than eighty Elizabethans put forward as the “true Shakespeare,” only four merit serious consideration: Sir Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam), Christopher Marlowe, William Stanley (Sixth Earl of Derby), and Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford).
Following is summary of the arguments against the first three.
Though possessed of much learning, sophistication, and keen intellect, Francis Bacon expressed these qualities in a different manner from Shakespeare’s whose work is charged throughout with “imagination, passion and idealism” in the words of two commentators. Though both Bacon and Shakespeare had wide knowledge of the law, Shakespeare’s usages of legal terminology, unlike Bacon’s, are richly metaphorical.
The known verse that has come down to us of Francis Bacon’s, such as his metrical settings of the Psalms, is stilted and as unlike Shakespeare’s as is possible. More importantly, it is difficult to imagine that Francis Bacon, with the full life he led and his other numerous literary and official preoccupations, could have also composed thirty-six plays, 154 sonnets and two long narrative poems of the quality these works exhibit. Finally, since Bacon lived through the period of the “definitive” First Folio (1623), one wonders why he didn’t use the opportunity to correct the cornucopia of textual problems left unresolved in that publication.
This talented, bohemian dramatist from the Elizabethan era died in 1593 –at the age of 29 (the same age as the Stratford man in that year) and on the eve of the publication of Shakespeare’s works. To overcome this obstacle, Marlowe’s supporters point to irregularities in the coroner’s inquest, and they suppose that Marlowe did not really die in that year but lived on to write the works of “Shakespeare,” a subterfuge necessitated by the “official coverup” of his documented activities as a spy for the Crown.
But the inquest irregularities do not prove that Marlowe didn’t die; conceivably they have been fabricated to cover up the true cause of his death, but not the fact that he did die, a scenario which is wholly void of any positive evidence let alone conclusive proof.
The assumption that Marlowe survived for an unspecified number of years to write plays under a pseudonym seems a mighty fragile hook on which to hang an authorship theory. But there are many other objections as well –stylistic discrepancies, certainly, not being the least of them, despite the numerous “borrowings” cited by supporters of Marlowe’s candidacy.
Marlowe enthusiasts also point to the year 1593 as the first publication of “Shake-speare,” but overlook the fact that no Shakespearean play appeared in print other than anonymously until 1598. The earliest of these Shakespearean quartos were of plays that must have been on the boards during Marlowe’s lifetime and could safely have been ascribed to him when they were published –especially since all accepted plays by Marlowe were published posthumously and attributed to on original publication — this latter fact destroys any conceivable motive for attributing some of Marlowe’s plays to “Shakespeare”.
The case for William Stanley as Shakespeare rests primarily on two 1599 documents, one describing him as “busied only in penning comedies for the common players,” and the other, by his wife in a letter to Robert Cecil, as “taking delight in the players.”
It is worth pausing to notice that the wife in this instance is Elizabeth Vere (1575-1627), the 17th Earl of Oxford’s oldest daughter. The certain knowledge of these documents that de Vere’s son in law was one of the closeted aristocratic playwrights of the period serves to confirm how secretive much literary activity associated with the theatre remained. Despite the two letters which record his theatrical activities, no public documents of any sort acknowledge that Derby was a closeted playwright.
In 1922 the distinguished French literary historian and editor of Rabelais, Abel Lefranc, published an impressive brief for the Derby candidacy. The involvement of Lefranc, a towering figure in French literary studies, in the authorship question is one of those important historical facts which some proponents of the orthodox theory of authorship conveniently omit when constructing the fictional claim that no “scholars” have considered the subject worth dignifying.
In fact, Lefranc was one of the most important literary scholars of his generation. Although the Shakespeare Fellowship disagrees with Lefranc’s specific conclusions with respect to Derby, we endorse his important contribution, in À La Découverte De Shakespeare, to the dialogue on the authorship question.
A centerpiece of Lefranc’s argument is the strong evidence connecting Love’s Labour’s Lost to events of the court of Navarre, c. 1578, when the young William Stanley was an ambassador.
There is no question that this unmistakable stratum of topical reference in the play constitutes an embarrassing complication for orthodox academicians. William Shakspere was at the time 14 years of age, and seems unlikely, to say the least, to have taken much interest in the minutiae of diplomatic history reflected in the play, or had access to the arcana of international politics of the late 1570s, to which the play makes frequent joking reference.
De Vere, however, could easily have learned what he did not know from firsthand experience about Navarre of 1578 from his known contacts with Stanley, his friend Henry IV (then King of Navarre), or others in his internatinal circuit of associates. Hence Eva Turner Clarke, in her 1933 book The Satirical Comedy of Love’s Labour’s Lost, converts Lefranc’s most persuasive evidence into a compelling brief for Oxford’s authorship.
Most of the other arguments put forth by Derbyites apply to likewise Oxford.
Oxfordians concede that Derby may have had a hand in the composition of the Shakespeare plays, and that such a supposition could account for the evidence of collaboration in some of the “late” dramas. But the facts of Derby’s life do not fit the autobiographical implications of the Sonnets and of many plays as do the facts of Oxford’s life. Derby, after all, was de Vere’s son-in-law, and his literary association with the theatre, although clearly a secret at the time, is well documented in surviving testimony.
We suggest that the most useful approach to Derby’s acknowledged life as a closet dramatist would be to examine the hypothesis that he wrote some of the still unattributed works of Elizabethan drama, such as the three “W.S.” plays included in the Oxford Shakespeare Apocrypha.
As we noted earlier, one objection which has been vigorously advanced to contest the Oxford theory is the allegedly poor quality of his known verse. Though far superior to Francis Bacon’s, de Vere’s poems hardly reach the lyric benchmark established, e.g., in Shake-Speare’s Sonnets. It would be foolhardy to pretend otherwise. On the other hand, striking resemblances to Shakespeare’s verse abound in de Vere’s early work, as J. Thomas Looney originally argued in 1920.
Tellingly, this denigration of Oxford’s poetry is revisionist in character: it is clearly not an objective assessment, but one motivated by the anxiety of 20th century English professors, in the post-Looney era, to deflate public curiousity about Oxford and the Oxfordian case.
A broad historical perspective reveals the revisionist nature of the effort to denigrate Oxford’s lyrics. Numerous pre-Looney commentators from Webbe in the 16th century to Alexander Grosart in the 19th or Sir Sidney Lee in the 20th praised Oxford as a superlative poet. Grosart, who first collected Oxford’s known poetry and prose in 1877, regarded him, as didWilliam Webbe in 1586, as one of the finest poets of the Elizabethan age and believed that “an unlifted shadow lies over his memory.”
Oxford’s reputation as a playwright is also attested to by a number of his contemporaries, including Francis Meres in 1598. It is noteworthy that among all the dramatists Meres praises, Oxford is the only playwright whose plays are unknown (at least under his own name), and for whom not even a title survives!
Also as noted earlier, we believe the traditional Stratfordian chronology is not a barrier because (as many Stratfordian scholars also note) it is conjecture, not fact. There is no extant document from the Elizabethan era attesting to any given play having been written in any given year.
Thus we to have two halves of a single riddle: a man (from Stratford) supposed to be a playwright with 36 plays credited to him, but with no documentation of a literary life or even extant proof of literacy, and on the other hand a known playwright (Oxford) whose literary life is abundantly documented, but with no surviving plays credited to him.