Shakespeare & The Authorship Question

A Fascinating Ongoing Problem, Not a Foregone Conclusion

The Shakespeare plays have attracted a degree of cultural reverence and vehement emotion normally reserved for religion. Since almost nothing is known about the life of William Shakspere from the historical standpoint, he has become a near mythic character, a recipient of the projections of successive ages. When rival 'claimants' to the Shakespeare authorship, such as Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford, emerged from the mid 19th century onwards, these too attracted myth-making and partisan champions.

The question turned into a vicious dispute, and each side is traditionally liable to adopt the polemical and intellectually dishonest strategy of overemphasizing useful information, ignoring contrary evidence and making personal attacks on opponents. In other words, starting from a dogma and then striving to prove it at all costs Students of the authorship question will soon discover that the more certain and aggressive the author's tone, the less (s)he will prove to know about renaissance history.

Certain basic facts and questions need to be clarified and highlighted in order to enable a reasoned discussion to take place.

  1. Many writings were published anonymously in Elizabethan England.
  2. Some were published pseudonymously, i.e. either with a pen-name, or under a borrowed name.
  3. Francis Bacon, among other Elizabethans, several of whom were courtiers, is known to have been a concealed poet.
  4. There was often confusion and speculation about the author or authors of a book.

The above details are well-known to Elizabethan specialists, including those Stratfordians who concern themselves with the history of literature. It is important to begin with these, because, while emphasizing the difference between and 16th and 21st literary practice, none of these yet gives any reason to doubt William Shakespeare's authorship. However, we are immediately faced with the need for deeper background knowledge, especially when we discover that

In 1597, when only two poems had been published under the name William Shake-Speare, and no plays at all, it was unambiguously hinted by the poets Hall and Marston that the author was not Shakespeare, the actor, but the lawyer Francis Bacon.

Only one Stratfordian scholar (H.N.Gibson) is known to have studied the evidence from
Hall and Marston, even though it was clearly described by a Baconian, the Rev. Walter Begley, in 1903. H.N.Gibson argues, reasonably, that Hall and Marston may have been wrong. How are we to evaluate the likelihood of this? Evidently by contextualising key issues, primarily.

  • The status of literature in Elizabethan society, including anonymous and pseudonymous authorship.
  • Literature as culturally transformative, or even magical - this specifically involves hermeticism and rosicrucianism.
  • The spread of literacy and personal capability of judgment, called by Bacon the Advancement of Learning
  • The problem of proof

What will become increasingly clear is that the authorship question is based on solid historical foundations. It inevitably arises for anyone who is seriously interested in Elizabethan literature and culture. It is especially important for anyone who wishes to understand the Shakespeare plays in their true historical context rather than through the distorting lenses of discredited 19th and 20th century projections. In the 21st century, these issues can finally be treated in a scholarly and fair-minded way. Almost all early treatments were too hasty.

Origins of the Dispute in the Lack of Cultural Context

Due to a couple of centuries of academic overspecialization, the curious situation arose that in the 19th century, many lay students knew more about the historical and intellectual context of Bacon and Shakespeare than 'experts' in philosophy or literature. When the authorship question erupted, there was no adequate science of cultural history as an interdisciplinary study. As a result, objectivity was hard to maintain - there were no valid 'authorities', but many who ascribed authority to themselves, sometimes on spurious grounds.

This is surely connected with the cultural dichotomy of art and science - that anachronistic view which, following its own prejudice, must see an artist like Shakespeare as an unintellectual, inspired rustic and a scientists like Bacon as a cold, unimaginative thinker. And yet Bacon is among the most poetic of philosophers and Shakespeare the most philosophical of poets. The authorship question may, or may not, be settled by reasoning about facts, but this is not the important point for Baconians. Above all, the shared mentality at work in the Shakespeare and Bacon writings should emerges from a comparative study of the two. They represent the birth of the early modern era out of the late renaissance in the fields of science and art. This era would divide art and science, paradoxically making it impossible for later generations to understand two of its seminal figures.


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