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Whose Life Is it Anyway?

William Shakespeare:
This is the most famous portrait of the Stratford-born glovemaker's son commonly accepted as the real author.

The Shakespeare identity mystery

It's the literary 'grassy knoll.' The puzzle would challenge the combined talents of Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot and Sam Spade. And chances are, each one would come up with a different theory. The clues: Several suspects. Could be an aristocrat or a glovemaker's son. Three signatures in different handwriting. Six similar­though far from identical­portraits. No birth certificate or school records. And four poems, 37 plays and 154 sonnets. The biggest name in English literature is also one of the greatest enigmas. The same William Shakespeare who left behind the most revered body of work in the history of the language left less physical evidence than O.J. Simpson. His will grants his wife his "second best" bed, but you'll look in vain for mention of the precious manuscripts. We have Michelangelo's sketches, Newton's calculations, Da Vinci's notes­and Shakespeare's bed. (Of course, there isn't a shred of proof that it's actually his.) We handed Kerry Reid a trenchcoat and sent her out to investigate the identity of the "sweet swan of Avon."

As Shakespeare season descends once again upon the Bay Area, Bard-lovers look forward to idyllic nights of iambic pentameter, picnic dinners and Elizabethan music under the stars. Meanwhile, debate about the true authorship of the Shakespearean canon continues to simmer.

Complete schedule of Bay Area summer
Shakespeare festivals

Suspicions were first raised around the turn of this century, and Shakespeare-spotting has since become a pastime of authors and researchers. Even Mark Twain got in on the act, expressing the belief in his "Is Shakespeare Dead?" (1909) that the plays were the work of Sir Francis Bacon. "That is to say, I took this attitude, to wit: I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn't."

Edward de Vere,
17th Earl of Oxford:

The Oxfordian case is based largely on de Vere's familiarity with the royal court and on passages in his letters resembling Shakespeare's language.

The most-touted candidate for "the real Shakespeare" is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. The Oxfordian theory has persisted since suspicions were first raised that the most famous plays in the English language were the works of a prominent member of the Elizabethan court, rather than those of an obscure, itinerant actor. On Oxford's family crest, a lion shakes a spear.

The arguments against Shakespeare and for Oxford are upheld by Stephen Moorer, artistic director of the Carmel Shake-speare Festival. (The spelling is claimed to be historically accurate based on surviving signatures of Shakespeare's). Moorer explains, "In 1989, I saw a documentary on the Earl of Oxford. I was immediately fascinated and intrigued. It hit a lot of personal buttons with me. I then read "The Mysterious William Shakespeare" by Charlton Ogburn, who championed Oxford as the true author. So many things made sense to me. So many valid questions were raised."

He goes on, "I have never been comfortable with the official authorship explanation. Coming from a standpoint as an actor and director, I have always identified more with the royal characters. They seemed far better developed, far more grounded in their mannerisms and talk and intimate details. I have always wondered how on earth William Shakespeare of Stratford, who had never visited the court -- and they kept very detailed records of who was there -- could have written about nobles so accurately."

Christopher Marlowe:
The "rival poet" seems to have have competed with Shakespeare for patronage. This portrait at Cambridge University is only thought to be of Marlowe. There is no known authentic likeness.

Bay Area performer and Shakespearean scholar Lorraine Helms also sees class as a key element in the authorship debate, but for quite different reasons than Moorer. "It seems to have started with, basically, snobbism," she says. "It turns out that all of these various candidates are aristocrats. Very often the people who have forwarded the theories have some tangential claim to be a descendant of the Earl of Oxford." Helms cites Samuel Schoenbaum's "Shakespeare's Lives" as an excellent de-bunking of the anti-Stratfordians.

As for contentions that only someone with specialized court knowledge could have written so tellingly of the world of royals, Helms says, "There is no reason to think Shakespeare wouldn't have known enough about the court to write intelligently about it. The players were in the service of courtiers. Shakespeare's company was the Lord Chamberlain's company, and then the King's company. I think there are things that an intelligent person can understand about, say, the workings of the American presidency without actually being in the halls of power. It depends what you put your mind to."

So what was the quality of that mind? Oxfordians maintain that very little is known of William Shakespeare of Stratford's life, and what little historical record there is points to someone who was more businessman than poet. They claim that many of the writings known to be from Oxford's pen bear close resemblance to passages in Shakespeare's works. Moorer refers to a huge book of Oxford's letters, some containing very similar and even identical language to Shakespeare passages.

Sir Francis Bacon:
Along with Marlowe and other "University Wits," the famed writer and Lord Chancellor of England is said to have collaborated on works with the Earl of Oxford.

However, according to Helms, "There is, in fact, no evidence whatsoever that anyone other than Shakespeare actually wrote the plays, and there is voluminous evidence that he did. There are no better grounds for denying Shakespeare wrote the plays than for denying that San Francisco is in California. It's not something that makes any sense so far as rational evidence, historical criteria or the archive, because the evidence is quite firm. The fact is that quite a few of his contemporaries have gone into print talking about his methods of composition, people who knew him and knew these were his works. Ben Jonson was one."

The "anti-Stratfordians" point to Shakespeare's grammar school education as proof that he lacked the tools to craft such masterpieces. Even Twain, whose own educational background was sketchy at best, weighs in with this argument. Says Moorer, "The thing that struck home with me as I did research was the sheer knowledge of other languages that whoever wrote the plays must have had. Much of the source material was not available in English at the time -- it was in Greek, Latin, Italian and French."

Helms counters again, "There's been a great deal of research into just what Shakespeare's education was. And by contemporary standards, it's a very good education. It's a thorough enough grounding in classics, in rhetoric, in law, that there's no reason to think that there are points of information in the plays that would not have been available to him."

Elizabeth I:
Yes, even "Queen Bess" gets in on the act. Computer matching has apparently shown unusual similarities between her portrait and an engraving of Shakespeare.

However, Helms acknowledges, "There are variations in the text. There's reason to believe there was a lot of collaboration with the actors, and that the plays were revised and refined in the process of rehearsal. So there is a looseness about the plays themselves. But so far as anyone who gets credit for them, we do have that on record."

Moorer also believes that collaboration was at the heart of the plays. However, he maintains that the collaborators were Oxford and "the University Wits," a circle which included playwright Christopher Marlowe and Bacon. In the Oxfordian view, what Shakespeare contributed was no more than his name on the title page. As a member of the aristocracy, Oxford would have regarded playwriting as too lowly an occupation to risk identifying his works as his own. "Ogburn thinks that Shakespeare was paid well to be Oxford's beard," says Moorer. "He retired to Stratford and bought a couple of really expensive houses."

And so the debate drags on and the legend grows. Says Helms, "It's turned Shakespeare into a kind of mythic figure rather than a very, very good playwright. So it's no longer possible for people to believe simply in the usual progression of the production of the plays. It starts taking on the myth of the hero, the lonely birth of the hero, who then ascends. Everyone from the Greek myths through Jesus has got to have a lowly birth. The hero's life then becomes a heroic, mythical enterprise."

What kind of proof would satisfy the nay-sayers? Says Moorer, "They've found Oxford's Bible, a 1565 Geneva Bible. In it are underlined passages corresponding to lines that appear in Shakespeare's plays. It's the closest thing to a smoking gun."

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From the July 1996 issue of SF Live

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