Have you ever experienced writer’s block? Maybe even as you were preparing your speech, you prayed for a muse. Such was the premise of the Academy Award–winning Best Picture—Shakespeare in Love, a movie Americans spent over 100 million dollars to see, but also one that rekindled the flame of controversy over the question, Who actually wrote Shakespeare’s works? Was it the man called Shakespeare? Or someone else? Why should we care? “Shakespeare” is one of the most respected authors in the world. His honeyed words wove a web that continues to move us to laughter and tears today, hundreds of years after his death. As a result, Shakespeare’s works are integral to education at almost every level. So for all who have enjoyed his works, we like to see what is being argued by the scholars. So, today we’ll look first at the traditional, or what has been called the Stratfordian, school of thought, second at the challenger, which has been called the Oxfordian school of thought, and, third, at comparisons of education, life experience, and parallels between lives and the literature.
The Stratfordian’s claim is that it is possible that a man of humble origins came into the world a pauper and left it a literary prince. What do we know about Shakespeare’s background? Joseph Sabran, author of Alias Shakespeare, observes that a handful of wedding and birth announcements are the only written records we have of the first half of Shakespeare’s life.
William Shakespeare—A Timeline
1582 Marries Ann Hathaway
1587 Moves to London
Actor—Chamberlain’s Men; Writes plays
1604 Moves home to Stratford
1623 First folio of works published
Legal documents indicate that, sometime after he turned twenty, Shakespeare left his family and went to London in order to avoid being prosecuted for a deer-poaching incident. In London, Shakespeare became an actor and in 1594 became involved with the Chamberlain’s Men. This is when Shakespeare was supposed to have turned out most of his material. After 1604, he went home to Stratford, where he died in 1616. In 1623, the first folio of Shakespeare’s work was published.
Although we have little specific documentation of any aspect of his early life, according to Gail Kern Paster, editor of The Shakespeare Quarterly, all that his defenders “need to prove is that such a man from Stratford could have written the plays, not that he did so.” And in fact Stratfordians are able to present some evidence, since his name was on the plays when they were published. Additionally, contemporary playwright Ben Johnson knew and worked with Shakespeare and never mentioned him not being the real author of the plays.
So, now let’s consider the Oxfordian school of thought. The Oxfordians argue that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is the rightful author of the works we ascribe to Shakespeare. Why de Vere? Roger Smitmatter in his article in the 1999 Chronicle of Higher Education looks to the de Vere Bible for proof. Smitmatter discovered that in the Geneva Bible that de Vere purchased in 1570, a remarkable 43% of Biblical references in Shakespeare’s writings are specifically annotated or underlined.
Second, the sonnets also testify to de Vere as their author. Why? As Sabran explains, the subject of most of the sonnets is the young Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothsley—a man that de Vere was known to have had a homosexual affair with.
Third, in Oxford at the time it was considered undignified to submit one’s writing to the public, and it would have been especially scandalous for a nobleman such as de Vere. Moreover, the book The Art of English Poesi, published in 1589, lists de Vere as a nobleman who was known to have secretly written plays.
Now let’s review the evidence of the two on the basis of their education, life experiences, and parallels between life and literature.
Criteria for Comparison
Shakespeare De Vere
Stratford Free School Cambridge U.—BA
High school equivalent Oxford U.—MA
Frequent legal trouble Member of Court
First, education. Shakespeare is believed to have had the equivalent of a high school education from the Stratford Free School, but we have no more specific information to show any depth of education. De Vere, on the other hand, entered Cambridge at the age of nine, where he earned a bachelor’s degree and then went on to earn a master’s degree from Oxford, followed by his study of the law (a common theme in Shakespearean plays) at Gray’s Inn.
Second, life experiences. Shakespeare lived most of his life in Stratford and London, and there is no record of his having traveled abroad. However, he was an actor, very familiar with the theater. De Vere spent a great deal of time abroad, particularly in Italy and France, the setting for many of the plays.
Third, the parallels between life and literature. Shakespeare had a son named Hamlet. De Vere, like Hamlet, was captured by pirates. His father-in-law was Lord Burghley—the man his contemporaries believed was the basis for the character Polonius, and his mother, like Hamlet’s mother, remarried, shortly after her husband’s death, a man of much lower social standing. The play Merchant of Venice focuses on money lending, and we know that Shakespeare was often in debt. Shylock lent the sum of 3,000 ducats to Antonio for an excursion made by three merchant ships, but the ships are lost at sea. De Vere provided 3,000 pounds for an excursion of three merchant ships looking for gold ore. The ships came back empty and declared bankruptcy. Ironically, the ships were owned by a man named Lock, while the prefix “shy” means disreputable or shady, and experts can find no precedent for the name “Shylock” anywhere else in history.
Without a doubt, we have only scratched the surface of the arguments on this issue today. Certainly there are some interesting facts in support of the Oxfordian school and de Vere. On the other hand, over the years we have no proof that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. Perhaps, as time goes by, another candidate’s name will come up—or perhaps scholars will uncover solid evidence to prove the _case for Shakespeare, de Vere, or someone else. Meanwhile we are left to wonder whether the plays, written by another author, would still “sound as sweet.”
Notice how Hillary begins with a question that we are likely to nod “yes” to. Then she moves into her opening featuring reference to Shakespeare in Love that is designed both to adapt to audience information and build interest.
Good series of questions designed to build audience interest.
She uses her thesis statement as a transition leading into the body of the speech.
Throughout the speech, Hillary cites information from numerous sources and documents each.
Here Hillary outlines what we do know about Shakespeare the man.
This sketch provides information about his life, but offers no proof that he wrote the works under his name.
Here, Hillary displays a timeline visual aid that helps the audience follow her sketch of his life.
After showing that “could have written the plays” is an important bit of support, she goes on to present these two specific bits of information that provide indirect support of Shakespeare’s authorship.
Her second main point announces the claim of the Oxfordian school.
Her question here sets up the key statements that follow.
Notice that this material shows de Vere’s familiarity with material in Shakespeare’s works.
She enumerates the second piece of Oxfordian support and provides information that suggests that de Vere had experience with the material of the sonnets.
Notice that each of these three points provides information that shows us why de Vere is even considered as the prospective author.
Now she leads into the final part of the speech, a comparison of information on three important criteria that are useful in determining authorship.
At this point Hillary displays a chart showing criteria for comparison that is covered with three cardboard sections. As she speaks about each criterion, she removes the section of cardboard covering that criterion. This process of unveiling helps keep the audience focused on the appropriate section.
Here she shows why we question “Shakespeare’s” preparedness for writing—and exemplifies de Vere’s strong educational base.
Here she explore’s life experiences—another sound criterion—and gives evidence to support each of the views.
This section shows that scholars have uncovered parallels in the life of de Vere and Shakespearean works. These sound impressive in light of lack of material to support such parallels in Shakespeare’s life.
Here she relates a particularly interesting parallel. Again, the information is provocative but doesn’t prove authorship.
Hillary finishes her brief analysis of the positions. Her point? No significant proof for either, but enough speculative information to kindle further analysis.
Overall good sources, information, organization, and idea development. Moreover, the language of the speech is clear, vivid, and engaging.