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Will the Real Shakespeare Please Stand Up? | Joseph Pearce | Chapter One of
The Quest for Shakespeare | Part 2 |
In contrast, Shakespeare's depictions of, and allusions to, Catholicism are
invariably accurate, proving his experience and knowledge of the Catholic
Faith. Such textual evidence would suffice to illustrate that Shakespeare had
been a practicing Catholic at some stage in his life, if not necessarily that
he had always remained one. As we shall see in the following chapters, there is
an abundance of solid historical evidence to prove, beyond all reasonable
doubt, that Shakespeare was raised a Catholic and that he probably remained a
Catholic throughout his life.
Perhaps at this juncture, however, it might be prudent to consider, albeit
briefly, those who claim that Shakespeare was not really Shakespeare but that
he was really someone else. Nobody denies that the real William Shakespeare
existed, but many have claimed that the plays ascribed to him are not really
his. These "anti-Stratfordians" have erected fabulously imaginative
theories to prove that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays. Some
have claimed that Francis Bacon was the real author of the plays, others that
they were written by the Earl of Oxford, and some even believe that Queen
Elizabeth was William Shakespeare! It is difficult to take any of these rival
claims very seriously. Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, died in 1604, a year
after the death of Queen Elizabeth, and about eight years before the last of
Shakespeare's plays was written and performed! Needless to say, the Oxfordians,
as they are known, have gone to great lengths, stretching the bounds of credulity
to the very limit (and beyond), to explain why the plays were not performed
until after their "Shakespeare's" death.
The claims of the Oxfordians might be bizarre, but they are positively
pedestrian compared to some of the wackier "Shakespeare" theorists.
Other aristocrats who are alleged by some to have been the real Shakespeare
include King James I, and the Earls of Derby, Rutland, Essex, and Southampton.
Others have claimed that Mr. Shakespeare was really Mrs. Shakespeare, in the
sense that the plays were really written by Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway,
using her husband's name as a nom de plume.
The difficulties that the Oxfordians face in trying to explain (or explain away)
why many of Shakespeare's finest plays were not performed until after the Earl
of Oxford's death are as nothing compared to the difficulties faced by another
group of "Shakespeare" theorists. The "Marlovians", as the
members of this particular anti-Stratfordian sect are known, are convinced that
all of Shakespeare's plays were really written by Shakespeare's contemporary
Christopher Marlowe. The fact that Marlowe was murdered in 1593, when most of
Shakespeare's plays had still not been written, does not trouble the ingenious
Marlovians. They claim that Marlowe's "murder" was a sham, and that
Marlowe had been spirited away to France and Italy by his powerful patron
Thomas Walsingham, returning secretly to England where, in hiding, he wrote
plays under the pseudonym "William Shakespeare". Faced with such
ludicrous conspiracy theories one is reminded of present-day theories about the
allegedly staged death of Elvis Presley, as exemplified in the reports in the
lower-brow tabloids of Elvis sightings alongside the sightings of UFOs. Yet
even the resurrection of the dead, whether it be Marlowe, the Earl of Oxford,
or Elvis, seems uncontroversial beside the claims of another bizarre
anti-Stratfordian theory that the plays were written by Daniel Defoe, the
author of Robinson Crusoe. Since
Defoe was not born until 166o, almost half a century after the last of
Shakespeare's plays had been performed, it seems that we are dealing not only
with the raising of the dead but with the raising of the unborn!
It would, of course, be a little unfair to suggest that the relatively sober
scholarship of the Baconians or the Oxfordians is as ridiculous as the evident
lack of scholarship of those who favor Daniel Defoe as the real Shakespeare.
Ultimately, however, all the rival theories can be disproved through the
application of solid historical evidence, combined with common sense. Take, for
example, the central premise of the Oxfordian or Baconian case that the plays
must have been written by an aristocrat or, at least, by one with a university
education, on the assumption that Shakespeare, as a commoner without a
university education, must have been illiterate, or, at any rate, incapable of
writing literature of such sublime quality.
Let's look at the facts.  Shakespeare's father was not poor but, on the
contrary, was relatively wealthy. He was, furthermore, a highly respected and
influential member of the Stratford-upon-Avon community. With regard to
Shakespeare's education, the historian Michael Wood has shown that the sort of
education that Shakespeare would have received at the Stratford Grammar School
would have been of exceptionally good quality. On the other hand, the plays and
sonnets do not display the great knowledge of classical languages that one
might have expected if Shakespeare had been an aristocrat or if, like Bacon, he
had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Francis Bacon did much of his writing in
Latin, whereas Shakespeare, to quote his good friend Ben Jonson, had
"little Latin and less Greek" and wrote entirely in the vernacular.
The evidence illustrates, therefore, that William Shakespeare would have had a good
education but that he might not have been as comfortable with classical
languages as he would have been had he been to Oxford or Cambridge. This
excellent but non-classical education is reflected in the content of his plays.
It should also be noted that Francis Bacon was vehemently anti-Catholic. His
mother was a zealous Calvinist and his father an outspoken enemy of the
Catholic Church. Such an upbringing would have precluded him from being able to
write the profoundly Catholic plays attributed to Shakespeare.
As for the presumption of the Oxfordians and Baconians that Shakespeare's
"humble origins" would have precluded him from being able to write
the plays, one need only remind these proponents of supercilious elitism that
great literature is not the preserve of the rich or the privileged. Christopher
Marlowe was a shoemaker's son, and Ben Jonson's stepfather was a bricklayer.
Poverty prevented Jonson from pursuing a university education. Since Marlowe
and Jonson, along with Shakespeare, are the most important dramatists of the
Elizabethan and Jacobean period, it is clear that having humble origins did not
disqualify a writer from producing great literature; on the contrary, it could
be argued from the evidence that such origins were an important ingredient of
literary greatness in Shakespeare's day. Furthermore, the importance of humble
origins to the pursuit of literary greatness is not confined to Shakespeare's contemporaries.
Later generations have also produced an abundance of "humble" greats.
Daniel Defoe was the son of a butcher, and Samuel Johnson, arguably the
greatest wit and literary figure of the eighteenth century, was also born of
poor parents. Poverty would force Johnson to abandon his university education.
Charles Dickens, the greatest novelist of the Victorian era, experienced
grinding poverty as a child and, when his father was sent to prison for debt,
the ten-year-old Dickens was forced to work in a factory. Moving into the
twentieth century, G. K. Chesterton, the "Dr. Johnson of his age",
was born of middle-class parents and never received a university education. And
these are but some of the brightest lights in the humble firmament of literary
greatness. Many others could be added to the illustrious list. Perhaps the most
applicable parallel to Shakespeare's situation is, however, the appropriately
named Alexander Pope, the son of a draper, who was denied a formal education
because his parents were Catholic. Pope's humble origins helped him become perhaps
the finest poet of the eighteenth century.
So much for the weakness of the Oxfordian argument about Shakespeare's
"humble origins". The other argument often employed by the Oxfordians
is that Shakespeare was too young to have written the sonnets and the early
plays. Shakespeare was only in his midtwenties when the earliest of the plays
was written and was in his late twenties when he wrote the sonnets. There is no
way that such a young man could have written such work, whereas the Earl of
Oxford, being born in 1550 and therefore fourteen years Shakespeare's senior,
would have been sufficiently mature to have written these masterpieces. So the
argument runs. Whether the Earl of Oxford, a most violent and volatile
individual, was ever "sufficiently mature" to have written the works
of Shakespeare is itself highly questionable. Nonetheless, let's look at the
crux of the matter, namely, whether a young man is able to write great
Christopher Marlowe, who was born in the same year as Shakespeare, wrote the
first of his produced plays in around 1587, when he was only twenty-three, two
or three years younger than Shakespeare is thought to have been when the first
of his plays was produced. The first of Marlowe's plays, Tamburlaine
the Great, is generally considered to be
the first of the great Elizabethan tragedies. Since Marlowe was murdered when
he was still in his late twenties, the whole of his considerable literary
legacy rests on his formidably young shoulders. Ben Jonson's first play, Every
Man in his Humour, was performed in 1598,
with Shakespeare in the cast, when Jonson was only twenty-six years old. Thomas
Dekker published the first of his comedies in 1600, when he is thought to have
been around thirty years old. Thomas Middleton's first printed plays were
published in 1602, when the playwright was about thirty-two, but they were
probably first performed a year or two earlier. John Webster published his
first plays in 1607, when he was twenty-seven years old, but is known to have
made additions to John Marston's The Malcontent three years earlier. As for Marston himself he wrote
all his plays between 1602 and 1607, between the ages of twenty-six and
thirty-one. Looking at his contemporaries, Shakespeare was at exactly the age one
would expect him to be when he first started writing plays. The Earl of Oxford,
on the other hand, would have been around forty when the first of the plays was
performed, making him a positive geriatric by comparison.
So much for the youthfulness of Shakespeare the playwright, but what about the
Oxfordian argument that he would have been too young to write the sonnets?
Again, let's begin with Shakespeare's contemporaries. Michael Drayton published
his first volume of poetry, The Harmony of the Church, in 1591, when he was twenty-eight years old,
exactly the same age as Shakespeare is thought to have been when he wrote the sonnets.
Many of John Donne's finest sonnets were written in the early ióoos when the
poet was in his late twenties or early thirties. Many other great Elizabethan
poets died at a young age, having already bequeathed a considerable body of
work to posterity. Sir Philip Sidney was thirty-two when he died; Robert
Southwell was thirty-three; Marlowe, as already noted, was twenty-nine; and
Thomas Nashe was thirty-four.
Moving forward in time to the eighteenth century it is worth noting that Samuel
Johnson was twenty-eight when he finished his play Irene and was only a year older when his poem London was published, the latter of which, according to
Boswell, was greeted with adulation and the judgment of his contemporaries that
"here is an unknown poet, greater even than Pope".  And as for
Pope, he published his first poems at the tender age of twenty-one.
Should these examples fail to convince us that the art of the sonnet is not
beyond the reach of the young, we need look no further than the example of
Byron, Shelley, and Keats. Byron had reached the ripe old age of thirty-six
when he died, Shelley was thirty, and Keats a mere twenty-six years old. As for
the precocious talent of the youngest of this youthful trio, Keats is said to
have written some of his finest sonnets in as little as fifteen minutes! And
Keats never even lived to the age at which Shakespeare is thought to have
written his own sonnets.
Before we leave the anti-Stratfordians behind, we should at least address the
few remaining remnants of their arguments against "the Stratford man".
The fact that Shakespeare's signature is described as being shaky or untidy is
used as evidence of his "illiteracy". Although some Oxfor- dians
admit grudgingly that most of the surviving signatures date from the period of
Shakespeare's retirement when the infirmity that would eventually lead to his
relatively early death might account for the infirmity of the signature, there
is still the implicit suggestion that the untidy signature is evidence that
Shakespeare could not have written the plays.
Perhaps it is necessary to remind these "scholars" that there is
absolutely no connection between calligraphy and literature, or that beautiful
writing and beautiful handwriting do not necessarily go hand in hand. Many of
the greatest writers had bad handwriting, and, no doubt, many of the greatest
calligraphers were incapable of putting two literary sentences together. The
temptation to produce a further list of great writers, this time itemizing
those who had illegible handwriting, will be resisted. Let it suffice to say
that any scholar who has pored over the mercilessly illegible handwriting of
great writers will know that there is absolutely no connection between
legibility and literacy.
In similar vein, anti-Stratfordians point a scornful finger at the lack of
literary flourish in Shakespeare's will or the questionable literary merit of
the poetic epitaph on his grave. Why, one wonders, should Shakespeare feel
inspired to turn his will into a work of literary art? Why, one wonders, should
he bother to write his will at all? Why shouldn't he get his lawyer to do it?
And why, one wonders, would Shakespeare be the least concerned with writing
verse for his own gravestone? How common is it for self-penned epitaphs to
adorn the tombs of the dead? Isn't it far more likely that someone else wrote
the lines? At any rate, these pieces of "evidence" hardly warrant any
serious doubt as to the authorship of the plays.
In the final analysis, there is no convincing argument against Shakespeare's
authorship of the plays and, in consequence, no convincing evidence that
someone else wrote them. If the very foundations upon which the
anti-Stratfordian edifice is built are shown to be fallacious, the rest of the
ingenious, if far-fetched, historical arguments for other "Shakespeares"
fall to the ground ignominiously. After the dust has settled on the fallen
edifices of false scholarship, what is left standing among the ruins? There is
no Earl of Oxford, no Francis Bacon, no Queen Elizabeth nor King James, no
Christopher Marlowe, no Daniel Defoe, no Elvis. We are left with the reliable,
if mundane, reality that William Shakespeare was, in fact, William Shakespeare.
We are also left with the equally reliable, if paradoxical, observation of G.
K. Chesterton that "Shakespeare is quite himself; it is only some of his
critics who have discovered that he was somebody else." 
 G. K. Chesterton, Chaucer (1932);
republished in G. K. Chesterton: The Collected Works, vol. 18 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1991), p.
 Carol Curt Enos, Shakespeare and the Catholic Religion (Pittsburgh: Dorrance Publishing, 2000), p. 45.
 Anthony Holden, William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Genius (Boston: Little, Brown, 1999), p. 1.
 Peter Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography (New York: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2005), p. 474.
 George Santayana, "Absence of Religion in Shakespeare";
originally published in 1896, and collected in George Santayana,
Interpretations of Poetry and Religion (New
York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 5922), pp. 152,161,163. Although Santayana's
words can be taken to imply an element of nihilism in Shakespeare, I am not
implying, of course, that Santayana was himself a nihilist in the strict sense
of the word.
 Quoted in H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and
Catholicism (New York: Sheed and Ward,
I952), p. vi.
 Quoted in Ackroyd, Shakespeare,
 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1873); quoted in Peter Milward, Shakespeare
the Papist (Naples, Fla.: Sapientia Press, 2005),
 Hilaire Belloc, Europe and the Faith (1920); quoted in Velma Richmond, Shakespeare, Catholicism, and Romance
(New York: Continuum, 2000), p. 16.
 G.K. Chesterton, Chaucer
(1934; republished in Chesterton: The Collected Works, vol. 18, p. 333.
 G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News (May 18, 1907).
 Ibid. (June 8, 1907).
 Gene Fendt, Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? An Essay on a Question
in Kierkegaard (Milwaukee: Marquette
University Press 1998), p. 93. Fendt is referring specifically to notions of
"ecstasy" in Hamlet, but his conclusions are nonetheless applicable
in a much wider sense.
 Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism, p. 212.
 Sonnet 62.
 Coriolanus, 1.1..230.
 The Tempest, 2.1.223.
 2 Henry IV, 1.2.34.
 Twelfth Night, 5.1.47.
 Othello, 2.3.296-97.
 Comedy of Errors, 2.2.141.
 All's Well That Ends Well,
 Measure for Measure,
 Ibid., 2.4.107.
 Mutschmann and Wentersdorf, Shakespeare and Catholicism, p. 252.
 Ibid p. 263.
 Full details of the sources for the assertions made in this brief summary
are given in subsequent chapters where these summarized facts are treated more
 James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (London: Macmillan, 1912), p. 83.
 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
(London: Sheed and Ward, 1939), p. 15.
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Interviews, Articles, and Book Excerpts:
Ignatius Insight Author Page for Joseph Pearce
The Quest for Shakespeare website (includes
a PDF version of this excerpt from The Quest for Shakespeare)
Finding Shakespeare and Reclaiming the Classics | Joseph Pearce
The Attraction of Orthodoxy | Joseph Pearce
Converts and Saints | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | An excerpt from
Literary Giants, Literary Catholics | Joseph Pearce
The Power of Poetry | Interview with Joseph Pearce
about Flowers of Heaven: One Thousand Years of Christian Verse
Escape From Puritania | An excerpt from
C. S. Lewis and the Catholic Church | Joseph Pearce
of Literary Giants | An interview with Joseph Pearce
and Saint Francis | Joseph Pearce
Love, Beauty and Reason | An interview with Joseph Pearce
of Oscar Wilde | An interview with Joseph Pearce
Joseph Pearce is the prolific author of several acclaimed biographies of major Catholic literary
figures, including G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Hilaire Belloc, as
well as several other works. He is a Writer in Residence and Professor of
Literature at Ave Maria University in Florida, Editor-in-Chief of Ave Maria University
Communications and Sapientia Press, as well as Co-Editor of the The
Saint Austin Review (or StAR), an international review of Christian culture,
literature, and ideas published in England (St. Austin Press) and the United
States (Sapientia Press).
Pearce's most recent book is
The Quest for Shakespeare. He is also editor of the Ignatius
Critical Editions, a tradition-oriented alternative to popular textbook series such as
the Norton Critical Editions or Oxford
World Classics, designed to
concentrate on traditional readings of the Classics of world literature. The
three initial volumes of the Ignatius Critical Editions—King Lear,
Wuthering Heights—will be published this spring by
the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments
by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies,
and news in the Church!
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