Top 5 Reasons Shakespeare Is Shakespeare
Most authorship controversies about Shakespeare boil down to a basic sense of incredulity: how could one man have written so many great works? Surely a man who wasn’t “well-educated” could have written the works he did, although this somehow does not stop us from appreciating modern figures who did not go to college like Quentin Tarantino, James Cameron, Akira Kurosawa, Julie Taymor, Stanley Kubrick, and Christopher Nolan.
That being said, there is a lot of misunderstandings about Shakespeare. So while the “authorship controversies” can be so implausible as to be dull to refute, it is worth observing some of the points that we misunderstand about early modern dramatists and authors.
While textual analysis and computers are all too happy to say “Shakespeare is Shakespeare” and leave it at that, I think there are qualitative but intuitive reasons to understand that an aristocrat or someone outside the companies could plausibly have been Shakespeare.
1: Shakespeare was a collaborator
Shakespeare collaborated on many plays; different authors would write different sections of plays.
Our general perception of Shakespeare is that he was a lone author, totally in control of each of his creations. Shakespeare did seem to work primarily alone on some of his most popular plays, such as Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but this is also ignoring the extent that Shakespeare relied on existing narratives and historical documents.
Shakespeare is Shakespeare, but presenting him as a solitary author detached from other playwrights is not only wrong, it contributes to his impression as “larger than life” that makes people doubt the reality of his existence.
This brings us to 2: Shakespeare Wrote A Lot of Adaptations
There’s a scene in Shakespeare in Love where Shakespeare, a bit stumped, listens to the broad contours of the plot of Romeo and Juliet from Christopher Marlowe. It’s an amusing scene, but of course, complete nonsense.
The plot structure of Romeo and Juliet comes from earlier texts, most importantly Arthur Brooke’s The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. Brooke’s version wasn’t the first version of the Romeo and Juliet story; it was itself a translation from Italian, but it’s what Shakespeare most relied on.
From broad contours of the plot, to key scenes, Shakespeare drew from historical texts such as Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. Of course, this should come as no surprise for the history plays, but it is also true for plays that are often thought of as “tragedies” which nonetheless draw from historic or mythic figures such as King Lear.
Drawing on already existing texts meant that his audience might already be familiar with the broad contours of his stories. In the same way James Cameron can make a three hour movie where we already know the ending (Titanic) Shakespeare drew on existing plots so that his audiences would have an easier time following the beauty of his language and the acting of those plots.
3: Shakespeare Wrote for his Company
In the most basic sense this is obviously true. Yet sometimes critics treat Shakespeare’s text as though it was written at the time to adequately represent different demographics. The critiques of Shakespeare as “sexist” is overstated for the same reason that the author of his plays had to be an active participant in the theater group, not someone totally detached: many parts were written for specific actors based on their ability.
Gender analysis in some ways goes hand in hand with authorship critics in ignoring a basic fact of Shakespeare’s authorship: he was writing for The King’s Men. Shakespeare wrote parts for specific actors based on his understanding of their capacities, and due to the limitations of the stage. Namely, he was writing mostly between 1592–1613, well before the allowance of women on stage in 1661. Consequently, Shakespeare needed to know the “boy players” well enough to know how large of a part they could handle. In 1599, Hamlet knew he had a strong boy player, and so he created women’s parts that could rely on this actor for Rosalind in As You Like It, Katharine in Henry V, and Ophelia in Hamlet. That being said, this still would have been an apprentice, adolescent boy player, not a professional actress.
Other parts are based around the strengths of a particular actor: Touchstone in As You Like It was probably written specifically for Robert Armin and his style of comedy performance. Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy was written by Will Ferrell, with the presumption that Ferrell would be playing the main part. Happy Gilmore was written by Adam Sandler with the presumption he would play the main part. Comic roles are often written for specific actors to take advante of their particular comic style; this is true today, and it was true in Shakespeare’s day as well. To be able to write a comic character for a specific actor, you need to know the actor and their strengths well.
Shakespeare was restrained by the constraints of his day, so it is a bit strange to see him critiqued for being sexist. But this same point further reinforces the extent that the author of Shakespeare’s plays needed to be an active participant in The King’s Men — the idea that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone detached from the theatrical scene, like Edward de Vere, is thus a bit silly.
4: Edward de Vere’s Authorship Timeline Makes Little Sense
Plays in Shakespeare’s day could have political recognition and some prestige. There’s a reason Shakespeare’s company is called the King’s Men. Likewise, there are occasional times that it seemed as though drama could have a strong influence. Of particular note here is Essex’s Rebellion in 1601, where reputedly the Lord Chamberlain’s Men put on a production of Shakespeare’s Richard II, with the scene where the King is forced to step down included, as a way to rouse the city of London against Queen Elizabeth. Essex’s Rebellion failed. Moreover, in the centuries since, there have been times that Shakespeare’s plays, in performance, have had political tones, particularly with Olivier’s Henry V, whose pro-England message was resounding in the middle of World War II. The film Anonymous is actually predicated on the idea that Edward de Vere put on the entire ruse to support his (not actual) son, Robert Devereux. This premise is fairly absurd, however, since Devereux’s plan did not initially rely on a play at all, and moreover Devereux did not even need support until 1599 when his motivation for rebellion emerged.
While the Elizabethans were stingy about what they would allow to be performed, arresting Ben Jonson for The Isle of Dogs in 1597. This event, which is supposedly the motivating factor for Edward de Vere in Anonymous, makes the chronology for authorship nonsensical, since Shakespeare had by that point already written Titus Andronicus, Richard III, Romeo and Juliet, and A Midsummer’s Night Dream.
Moreover, the publishing and distribution of plays was not a particularly lucrative business. While Shakespeare did profit off his investments in blackfriars and his acting, he did not receive lucrative amounts of money from his plays. Additionally, most playwrights did not have their works collected and published in the 1500s; the idea that de Vere would have ever hoped that people would buy print editions of his plays seems curious when print editions of plays were not particularly common.
This on top of the already intrinsic issues that de Vere was not a part of the King’s Men and would not have had as much access to or knowledge of the players.
5: Christopher Marlowe’s Case Relies on Shakespeare Not Existing
Let’s consider one basic point. Shakespeare the man actually existed.
Christopher Marlowe would seem like a good alternate candidate, since he was a playwright, would have been familiar with the company and the actors involved, and had a coherent motivation in pretending to be someone else, since he’d been charged with owning heretical tracts.
The first big obstacle here is that Christopher Marlowe died in 1593, before most of Shakespeare’s plays were written. Marlovians would say that Marlowe didn’t really die; he faked his death to avoid the charges, and then took up the identity of Shakespeare.
The biggest problem with this is also a problem with all the others: namely, Shakespeare the man did exist. Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, married there, went to London, profited off his work in London, and returned to Stratford-upon-Avon in his retirement. The Marlovian hypothesis requires Marlowe to fake his death, write plays for the King’s Men through the front of Shakespeare, all for a fairly scant amount of money and absolutely no prestige. Additionally, this would require Marlowe, who was a “duelist” and “rakehell” to maintain a low profile. Moreover, why would John Heminges and Henry Condell go through with the publication of the First Folio in Shakespeare’s name, if they knew it was all Marlowe?
Shakespeare and Marlowe did know each other; they probably did work together, on the Henry VI plays. Marlowe influenced Shakespeare, but it is highly implausible they were the same person.