Shakespeare: What’s in the name?

William Marshall's engraving of Shakespeare for John Benson's 1640 edition of Shakespeare's poetry.

Friday will see the limited release of Roland Emmerich’s Anonymous, a film that advocates the Oxfordian theory that work credited to William Shakespeare was actually written by Edward de Vere (17th Earl of Oxford).  While there’s a lot I admire about Shakepeare’s work, I’m hardly a devotee.  It just has always caught my attention when I heard the reasons for discounting him.  The best thing I can say about the people who believe Shakespeare’s upbringing doesn’t add up to his credited accomplishments is that they made me think about him in a more modern context (One where class isn’t a part of destiny . . . Yeah, I know, but ideally).  My appreciation for Shakespeare would only be enhanced by the idea of his upbringing being a modest one.  While there’s not a lot of specificity one can nail down in Shakespeare’s life, there’s enough to inform the breadth of intelligence shown in his work.

William Shakespeare was born to John and Mary in 1564.  John was an illiterate man who had a successful trading business, the good will of which he built off of with a variety of civil service jobs.  Mary, also illiterate, was the daughter of a wealthy businessman.  Since John’s father had worked for Mary’s father as a sharecropper, John would have likely been considered beneath her class.  But when Mary’s father died, those lines obviously got a little less rigid.  For John, Mary’s dowry was likely a factor in the appeal she held to him.

Shakespeare was born during a prosperous time in his parents’ lives.  His father’s civil position allowed for him to be educated for free.  He had seven years of schooling, five of which were grueling by most standards today.  According to, the hours he put in were more than double today’s standard: 2,000 hours a year.  When his father’s propensity for lending money reversed his family’s financial situation, Shakespeare was withdrawn from school at 14, the age where his peers might have gone on to university.  That said, he’d already had an education that required thousands of hours of study, including material by classical authors and dramatists.

Charles Dickens’ education has a similar arc – he enjoyed the fruits of a relatively middle class childhood that, on account of his family’s financial troubles, ended with him being sent to work 10-hour days at a warehouse.  What Dickens had that Shakespeare didn’t are two literate parents – it’s generally believed that the small library of David Copperfield’s father that his son took refuge in was inspired by Dickens’ father own – but Dickens’ formal learning may not have been much better than Shakespeare’s.  Once things got easier for his family, his parents seem to have begrudgingly put him back into school; the school, however, was the kind Dickens would famously write about (fun times, they were not).  It was considered par for the course in Shakespeare’s time that schools be harsh disciplinarians, and not much had changed in two hundred and fifty years.

I mention Dickens to show how exposure to what were then basics, not just the long-term education and tutoring of the privileged class that Edward de Vere belonged to, were enough to build a worldly mind from.  Shakespeare has this much going for him.  To my mind, his beginnings aren’t as modest as they could have been and still be plausible.  His detractors probably say that Shakespeare’s use of English was too sophisticated for his background, but the thing is that the standards of English were malleable back then.  The popularity of Shakespeare’s plays and the way they were written has, in part, influenced English itself.  But probably not so much so that many of his most ardent supporters, themselves among those likely to be separated from the “underclass” by education, couldn’t be persuaded by claims that were supported by whatever empirical evidence there is about Shakespeare’s life.  I could buy an argument against Shakespeare that supposes his shadow looms larger than the man himself, and that such makes people likely to idolize him somewhat blindly.  But as a non-devotee, what I think is missing from that argument is a sense that hard times can feed the imagination – even hard times that aren’t made easier by a relatively gilded life (Look up the under-cook that ‘drunkenly ran onto’ a fencing foil held by de Vere when he was seventeen).

When Shakespeare had been around the theatrical world long enough to garner a reputation, a tract of work by one of Shakespeare’s recently deceased contemporaries, a playwright by the name of Robert Greene, made what’s likely a reference to him as “an upstart crow beautified with our feathers.”  The ‘our’ refers to a bunch of university-educated playwrights, including Greene himself; their ‘feathers’ could be a few things: the field they, or at least Green, saw as their domain, or the templates of their plays themselves.  Maybe a mixture of the two, as they themselves were mixing styles to new effect – something that Shakespeare likely did as well.  Also,  few plays were fresh in the sense that the vast majority treaded on familiarity territory and tropes.

Little about the theatrical world back then would be familiar now.  Collaboration was a normal part of the process of quickly churning work out, and little was produced in a vacuum that didn’t consider what was popular.  While there’s a consensus view that Shakespeare collaborated on plays at the beginning and middle of his career, other works of his are generally considered to have been solo efforts.  Many of his plays probably saw additions after his death.  If there’s any truth that lies in questioning who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, it may be these aspects of the times, and they should be noted.  But what should be hard to deny is a core sensibility in all of them that is hard to pin down to anyone else—and that some people don’t want to pin down to Shakespeare merely because he wasn’t quite privileged enough.

In this Guardian article, John Crate wrote the following:

Shakespeare authorship was a non-existent debate until the 19th century, when a few people started to question whether a grammar-school boy, such as Shakespeare, could possibly have had the classical education considered necessary to write such verse. First in the frame as the real William Shakespeare was Sir Francis Bacon. When the facts proved inconvenient and Bacon had to be dropped, Christopher Marlowe became the prime suspect. He, too, eventually fell by the wayside – along with dozens of others – until in 1920, a schoolteacher came up with the idea that a minor Elizabethan poet, Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, had written Shakespeare’s plays. His claims are still pursued by some today.

Naturally, Emmerich is drawn to the Oxfordians. Where’s the story in the idea that William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare? But an aristocrat who may or may have not had a love-child with Queen Elizabeth I and who died before at least 10 of the plays were performed? Now that’s a potential blockbuster.

If Emmerich’s movie is well-received, it will likely influence some of its less questioning viewers for a while to come.  Its existence certainly will feel like validation for the theories of people inclined to disbelieve Shakespeare.  Beyond his not being the smoothest time in many a person’s curriculum, I hope a large swath of people will be able to see that disavowing Shakespeare for Oxfordian reasons would be to disavow themselves — to deny what imagination and an affinity for words could do along with some form of education to work from.  Just because it’s easier doesn’t mean there’s validity to quality or success as a birthright.

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2 responses to “Shakespeare: What’s in the name?

  1. Keep up the superb piece of work, I read few posts on this web site and I conceive that your site is real interesting and has lots of superb info.

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