In 2014, I had the privilege of attending a Shakespeare Festival. In my wardrobe, I still possess a t-shirt from that event with a quote from Much Ado About Nothing, “I was not born under a rhyming planet.” Several years later, my brother wrote an argument piece claiming that another individual authored many of the works long attributed to the Bard of Avon, and in particular, he expressed his partiality toward the Marlovian authorship theory [1]. I’ve attached my brother’s Shakespeare Authorship Argument in the Appendix and I recommend reading it before reading my response. His case largely rests upon three major contentions: (1) Christopher Marlowe faked his death to write under Shakespeare’s penname, (2) Shakespeare did not have the education to write the works, and (3) the lack of original documentation in Shakespeare’s own writing. I have nothing to gain from either side of the debate, but upon scrutiny, I simply feel his arguments were insufficient to justify his case. For such a bold proclamation, the shoddy scholarship combined with tenuous connections makes for a rather lackluster conclusion.

To begin with, the piece directly leeches onto the Christopher Marlowe theory without even addressing the Baconian, Oxfordian, or any of the other multitudinous anti-Stratfordian conspiracies. To be generous, let’s take his Marlovian claims on its own merit and see how well it holds water. Due to extensive computational text analysis of Henry VI trilogy, the majority of historians generally accept that Marlowe indeed collaborated with Shakespeare [2-4]. I suspect the essay does not utilize this evidence of co-authorship to support his hypothesis because this crucial detail demonstrates that Marlowe and Shakespeare have distinguishable writing styles that allow literary critics to readily differentiate between factual and fraudulent claims of authorship.

The essay then goes a step farther by making the extraordinary claim that Marlowe faked his death in order to write under Shakespeare’s penname. The mainstream scholarly view is that Marlowe died in 1593 [5]. This is not to say that mainstream views should be gospel, but if you claim that “Marlowe likely faked his death”, you better have some compelling evidence beyond its mere assertion [1]. Even if we were charitable and assumed there was indisputable evidence that Marlowe faked his death, what proof is there that he wrote using the name “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym? If there is no tenable link attributing the “death” of Marlowe to Shakespeare’s subsequent rise to prominence, then I submit the essayist has committed the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy. Simply because Shakespeare’s rise in popularity chronologically followed Marlowe’s death, that does not imply that Marlowe’s death has any causal relation to the Bard’s spurt in literary fame.

The essay subsequently proceeds to make its most nonsensical inductive argument thus far, “Since Shakespeare seemed to come out of nowhere with no further education in dramatization, it is likely that he is not the true author of the plays.” [1]. It is true there is no record that Shakespeare possessed formal training in dramatization, but that only strengthens the plausibility that Shakespeare is the author, not weakens it. For starters, there are plenty of typographical and anachronistic errors within his works that one would not expect a learned scholar to make. In Julius Caesar, Cassius says to Brutus, “The clock has stricken three.” The story supposedly takes place in ancient Rome—long before clocks were invented. In A Winter’s Tale, Antigonus says, “Our ship hath touched upon the deserts of Bohemia.” Wouldn’t you agree it’s rather impeccably difficult to dock upon the shores of a landlocked country? Troilus and Cressida takes place during the Trojan War and references Plato and Aristotle despite the fact the philosophers wouldn’t even be born until a millennium later. In fact, England’s 1668 Poet Laureate John Dryden, found the latter work brimming with so many errors that he took it upon himself to remedy the legion mistakes in both grammar and plot.

Regarding Shakespeare’s lack of higher education, consider the fact that he attended Stratford Grammar School, which owned a copy of Thesaurus Linguae Romanae et Britannicae. This is significant because many of the errors in this work are also present in the works attributed to Shakespeare [6]. Furthermore, Grammar School curriculum included basic Latin studies from Rudimenta Grammatices. All general references to classical literature can be found in typical Stratfordian education [7]. However, the Shakespearean canon is absent of clever uses of higher level Latin common among the University of Wits (of which Marlowe was an affiliate). There are exceptions to this literary style, of course. Whenever there are erudite displays of classical knowledge, it is always found in the collaborative works such as Titus Andronicus and the aforementioned Henry IV. Furthermore, Shakespeare admits his lack of formal education in Sonnet 29 by “Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope”. He’s saying he wishes that he had the talent, the wit, and the breadth of knowledge of his contemporaries.

In my opinion,  the essay’s strongest line of reasoning is, “There are no letters, outlines of poems, or plays written in Shakespeare’s own handwriting (Declaration of Reasonable Doubt). He is the only famous writer of the time with no documentation of some of his work.” [1]. Rather, I should say that this would be the strongest line of reasoning if it were actually true. Furthermore, even if it were true, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. How does the mere lack of handwritten documents lead one to conclude that he didn’t actually write plays or poetry? We don’t have the original documents or handwriting of Plato, the best we have are Medieval copies with the oldest manuscripts dating around 895 C.E. Does this mean Plato didn’t write The Republic or Apology? Maybe he didn’t. Surely though, a thorough textual analysis would be sufficient to build up an anti-Plato authorship argument, but I know of no such evidence.

Regardless, all it would take is one example of Shakespeare’s handwriting in a literary work to completely destroy this argument. Allow me to introduce you to Sir Thomas More. This early handwritten manuscript was composed and subsequently revised by several authors. One of the signatures (Hand D) is credited to William Shakespeare. Comparing this signature with accepted Shakespeare signatures reveals a very similar match. In 1923, five scholars examined the evidence independently from one another and they all came to the same conclusion: the signature and the passages associated with it all belong to the real William Shakespeare [8]. The Hand D-to-Shakespeare connection is further corroborated with the numerous metaphors, allusions, and parallels that are found in Shakespeare’s later works.

The essay also says, “Strangely enough, there is are [sic] no letters or writings talking about the death of Shakespeare. No description of mourning or even eulogies were ever discovered”. First of all, in his last will and testament, Shakespeare bequeathed a little over 26 shillings to his fellow acting friends. “to my ffellowes John Hemynges, Richard Burbage & Heny Cundell XXVIs VIIId A peece to buy them Ringes.” Second of all, the contemporary playwright Ben Johnson knew Shakespeare personally and wrote the eulogy, To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us,

My Shakespeare, rise! I will not lodge thee by
Chaucer, or Spenser, or bid Beaumont lie
[…]
That I not mix thee so, my brain excuses,
I mean with great, but disproportion’d Muses,
For if I thought my judgment were of years,
I should commit thee surely with thy peers,
And tell how far thou didst our Lyly outshine,
Or sporting Kyd, or Marlowe’s mighty line.
And though thou hadst small Latin and less Greek,
From thence to honour thee, I would not seek
[…]
Sweet Swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza and our James!

Well this is interesting. Johnson calls Shakespeare, the “Swan of Avon” and distinguishes him from Marlowe. Johnson is basically saying that although Shakespeare wasn’t the strongest in “Latin and less Greek”, the bard’s work is still delightful literature. Did you also notice how hesitant Johnson was to place Shakespeare among the ranks of his fellow writers? He also acknowledges that Shakespeare’s work entertained the royal family, “that so did take Eliza and our James!”

In the end, it doesn’t matter to me whether Shakespeare authored Hamlet, or if Macbeth was penned by Sir Francis Bacon, or Othello was composed by the Earl of Oxford, or Julius Caesar was written by  Christopher Marlowe. What matters is that we still have the timeless works they left behind.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons


References

[1] (2017). Shakespeare Authorship Argument.

[2] Nance, John. (2015). We, John Cade”: Shakespeare, Marlowe, and the authorship of 4.2.33–189 2 Henry VI. Shakespeare.

[3] Nance, John and Taylor, Gary. (2015). Imitation or Collaboration? Marlowe and the Early Shakespeare Canon. Cambridge University Press.

[4] Craig, Hugh and Kinney, Arthur. (2009). Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship. Cambridge.

[5] Christopher Marlowe. (1999). Encyclopædia Britannica.

[6] Willinsky, John. (1994). Empire of Words: the Reign of the OED. Princeton University Press.

[7] McCrea, Scott. (2005). The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question

[8] Greg, Walter and Pollard, Alfred. (1923). Shakespeare’s Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More. Cambridge University Press.


Appendix

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