Wise scholars have been debating the authorship of William Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for over two hundred years.
The question I repeatedly asked is, who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Ten or more different people have been suggested as the legitimate author of Shakespeare’s works.
The three most widely accepted candidates seem to be William Shakespeare, the actor, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and Sir Henry Neville, Ambassador to France and distant relative of William Shakespeare.
The Stratfordian Case
The abundant historical evidence shows that William Shakespeare (recorded as Shakespeare at his baptism) was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564.
He moved to London, becoming a writer, an actor, and a part-owner of the acting company, the King’s Men, which owned the Globe Theatre and the Blackfriars Theatre. He spent time in both London and Stratford, where he died in 1616.
Shakespeare was probably educated in Stratford at The King’s New School, though there are no surviving records of his early education. At the school, he would have received an excellent education, and he would have learned Latin and studied some Roman playwrights.
There is no evidence or suggestion that Shakespeare received further formal education at a university.
It is likely that he was self-educated during his years in London, much as fellow dramatist and friend Ben Jonson, and fellow writers John Webster, Thomas Dekker, and Edmund Spenser.
In addition to the historical evidence referenced above, there is abundant written evidence that William Shakespeare was a poet and a playwright.
For one, a couple of narrative poems, “Venus and Adonis” and also “The Rape of Lucrece” were published with a dedication to the Earl of Southampton, his patron, and were signed by William Shakespeare.
Also, Thomas Thorpe published the volume, Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Though it is not known whether the publication of the volume was authorized, it is clearly attributed to being the work of Shakespeare.
Also, many of his plays, including “Hamlet” and “King Lear,” were published during his lifetime and attributed to William Shakespeare.
Further, the First Folio of 1623, the posthumous collection of Shakespeare’s plays published by his friends and fellow King’s Men actors, Heminges and Condell, is dedicated to Shakespeare.
The Folio is titled, “Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, and Tragedies,” and Heminges and Condell dedicated the volume to Shakespeare.
Finally, Shakespeare’s death was noted and mourned. William Basse wrote a famous elegy, copies of which still exist, where he says that Shakespeare deserves to be buried in Westminster Abbey next to Chaucer, Beaumont, and Spenser.
A few years after his death a monument was erected in Stratford depicting Shakespeare as a writer sitting at his desk, pen in hand.
The Oxfordian Case
The anti-Stratfordians, those who believe that someone other than Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays and sonnets attributed to him, make some strong arguments. They point to Shakespeare’s modest education and his lack of travel outside of Stratford and London.
Scholars question how he could have written plays that required considerable geographical and political knowledge, and which required knowledge of French, Spanish, and Italian sources, languages that Shakespeare could not read.
The vocabulary in his plays seems to be far greater than the modestly educated Shakespeare could have possessed.
Also, the anti-Stratfordians point out that Shakespeare’s will did not mention any books, manuscripts, or a library. The will dealt in-depth with household items but did not mention anything of literary importance.
Numerous plays were unpublished and unperformed at the time of his death, and scholars believe it reasonable that the author would have made mention of them if they were truly his.
The Oxfordians believe that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is more likely to have been the true author of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets.
For one, Edward de Vere was a talented and well-recognized poet and playwright whose word choices and phrases resembled those of Shakespeare.
He was well enough educated, a Cambridge graduate at age 14, and widely enough traveled to have the knowledge to write the historical plays of Shakespeare.
In many of the sonnets and plays are references to events that parallel de Vere’s own life. In fact, some consider the play “Hamlet” to be a near autobiography of de Vere’s life.
It is true that Edward de Vere died in 1604 before eleven of Shakespeare’s works have traditionally been dated.
The Oxfordians point out errors in the traditional dating of Shakespeare’s later plays and make convincing arguments that the plays were written before de Vere’s death and then published posthumously, not an unusual occurrence.
The Nevillian Case
Recently a strong case has been made for the idea that Sir Thomas Neville is the most likely author of Shakespeare’s works. Neville was educated at Merton College, Oxford, and was fluent in many languages.
He traveled for four years on the continent of Europe directly after graduation and in the company of an Oxford scholar.
He was the Ambassador to France for two years, and then he became involved with the Essex conspiracy to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I. Neville and his friend, Lord Southampton, were convicted, fined, and confined to the Tower of London.
The Tower, for the rich like Neville, was more like a hotel than a prison. There is evidence to suggest that Neville wrote many of the Sonnets, including the ones that were addressed to Lord Southampton, while confined to the Tower.
It is also here that Neville wrote the play, “Hamlet.” Later, he published “Shake-speares Sonnets” and wrote the dedication himself. He dedicated the sonnets to Lord Southampton.
A notebook kept by Neville while in the Tower contained detailed notes that ended up as part of the play, “Henry VIII.”
The Tower experience also explains the shift in the focus of Shakespeare’s plays from histories and comedies to the great tragedies, all of which were written after Neville was released from the Tower when James I became the king.
Other evidence that Neville may have been the author of Shakespeare’s works includes a statistical correlation of word frequency between Neville’s private and diplomatic letters and the works of Shakespeare.
Also, a document was discovered in 1867 that shows that Neville practiced writing William Shakespeare’s name. The document shows 17 attempts at duplicating the famous signature.
Some scholars suggest that Sir Neville used the actor Shakespeare as a frontman for the plays and sonnets. Neville and Shakespeare were distant relatives and knew each other, probably through Lord Southampton, Shakespeare’s patron, and Neville’s good friend.
The suggestion is that Neville needed a pseudonym for his plays and sonnets because some of the plays were politically too sensitive.
Neville was descended from rivals of the Tudors and Henry VIII had executed his grandfather, so he was concerned that his plays would be seen as seditious.
Scholars also suggest that Ben Jonson, who was employed at Gresham College, which was owned by the Neville family, knew of the frontman arrangement.
Since Jonson was involved with putting Shakespeare’s name on the First Folio, it is suggested that he did so at the request of the Neville family.
The argument is that Shakespeare had agreed to the frontman arrangement many years earlier, also at the request of Sir Neville and his family.
The debate about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works continues without a resolution in sight. There are numerous other candidates, including the idea that the plays were written by a group of people.
Perhaps someday the discovery of an original manuscript will be found and the question will be answered once and for all.