The Authorship Agnostic: So You’re REALLY Sure Who Shakespeare Was, Eh?

First of all, a very important disclaimer: I am NOT, nor have I ever been, a member of any Anti-Stratfordian cult, group, organization, or sewing circle, including but not limited to a proponent of Oxford, Bacon, Neville, Marlowe, et al. (although I am historically, a fan of anything that promotes bacon the foodgroup). In the interest of full disclosure though, and the purpose of this post, I am also not strictly a Stratfordian (those that are convinced that Shakespeare was in fact written by the guy with the really big forehead and bad haircut). I’m a Shakespearean Agnostic. I’m hoping to make a few of the reasons clear below.

What perplexes me is the vehemence of the arguments on both sides. Stratfordians (the vast majority of at least the vociferous critics) laugh at, scoff at, and more usually abuse, those that proffer their reasons that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, or Francis Bacon, or Christopher Marlowe or others was in fact the “one true author of Shakespeare’s writing”. I have certainly not read all of, or even the majority of, either side’s manifestos. The articles, books, papers, and lectures are in the thousands, if not tens of thousands. I have in fact seen arguments made for no less than 10 different people being the author(s). As well as dozens of refutations from Stratfordians.

But the key here is this: The refutations consist mostly of reasons why the Anti-Stratfordians’ arguments may not hold water (the bias against a ‘commoner’ knowing enough to write that well is just a bias; the lack of verifiable documents of/by Shakespeare himself is circumstantial, etc.), rather than any actual factual historical data. I’ve seen refutations that say we have no more “evidence” that Marlowe wasn’t Marlowe, or that Ben Jonson didn’t write what he was credited with, and so on. Okay, I’m personally also fine with that assumption. Not only is it impossible to prove a negative, the lack of genuinely primary resources can also fail to prove a positive.

As a fundamental example of a “refutation”, Tom Reedy and David Kathman wrote a well-shared article called “How We Know That Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare: The Historical Facts”. In it, the authors cite things like: “The name William Shakespeare Appears on the Plays and Poems”. Well, if you assume ANY sort of intrigue, including that at the time, plays were not considered literature (a point that the authors themselves make in the same paragraph), and that a noble would not want his name associated with it, having a “mere actor” in a company the author of a collection of plays is hardly evidence of true authorship. In fact, the first six plays published in quarto were initially published without an author, and the first four of them NEVER had an original author name published. By Reedy and Kathman’s logic, does that mean that’s evidence that Shakespeare didn’t write those?

Two more pieces of “evidence” cited were the facts that we know that William Shakespeare was an actor, and that he lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Well, okay, we do in fact have some evidence of those facts. Neither of which sheds light on actual authorship.

Again, please remember, I am not advocating that I know or believe that the man we know as Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. Nor am I advocating anyone else’s name above anyone else’s for that honor. I do believe that some day we may have more significant historical evidence of who wrote it (hell, we found Richard III in a carpark in Leicester, England). I’m simply very content to go on reading, acting, directing, and loving the words. Whether they are Shakespeare’s, Oxford’s, Bacon’s, Marlowe’s, or anyone else’s, they are quite probably the best words, collectively, ever written in the English language. And quite possibly, any other language.