July 8, 1999
issue of Harpers Magazine was devoted to a
debate on the Shakespeare authorship question. Interest in the topic is
high, and the exchange brought an avalanche of mail.
Spreading belief in the Earl of
Oxfords authorship of the Bards works has now driven
Sylvan Barnet, editor of the Signet paperback editions of the Shakespeare
plays, to add several pages to his introduction in order to rebut the
Oxfordian view. But Professor Barnet succeeds only in showing how weak
the case for Stratfords son really is.
Like most adherents of the traditional
Stratfordian view, Mr. Barnet caricatures his opponents views. He
says that all not many, not some, but all
anti-Stratfordian arguments are motivated by snobbery, a
charge for which he offers no evidence and whose relevance he fails to
explain. Then he proceeds to attack a few minor points advanced by some
of the heretics (mostly the cipher-hunting advocates of Sir Francis
Mr. Barnet doesnt address the
stronger points the heretics have always raised. He is typical of the
Stratfordians in that he doesnt know how to debate. He
doesnt know that a good debater states his opponents case
in terms the opponent would agree with; he doesnt know that you
have to address that case at its strongest, facing all the evidence. He
thinks you win an argument by saying snotty things about your
Oxfords partisans argue from the
Shakespeare works. They contend that the plays (especially
Hamlet) and poems (especially the Sonnets) reflect
Oxfords life in great detail and have nothing to do with the life of
William of Stratford. Prince Hamlet, for instance, is captured by pirates
in the English Channel, as Oxford himself once was. Polonius and his
children are clearly based on Oxfords in-laws, the great Cecil
family. The play also contains echoes of Oxfords letters. Nothing in
the play links it to William, its supposed author.
Whats more, Stratfordians like Mr. Barnet
dont even try to link the works to William. You might think the best
way to prove a mans authorship of works attributed to him would
be to show how his personal life shaped and inspired those works. But the
Stratfordians prefer to treat the works of the Bard as inadmissible
evidence that might damage their clients claim.
Think of it! If someone questioned John
Miltons authorship of his poems, it would be easy to show that
Miltons early poems, his sonnets, and his late masterpieces reflect
his public and private life as a passionate Puritan. Miltons life
leaves no room for doubt that he wrote the works bearing his name. Why
isnt this true of Shakespeare?
The task of literary biography is to show
an authors life and works as a unity. This can be done with almost
every great author of whose life we have records but not with
Shakespeare. Williams many biographers are stuck with dull facts
that cant be integrated with the works, and their biographies are
devoid of literary illumination. In short, there is no such thing as a
literary biography of William of Stratford.
But if Oxford is the Bard, a genuine
literary biography is possible. The plays and poems reflect his education,
his legal training, his experience at the court of Elizabeth I, his travels in
Italy and France, his marital troubles, his feuds, his confinement in the
Tower of London, his waste of his huge fortune, and his fall into
Oxfords partisans constantly
appeal to the texts of the works to make the case for Oxford.
Williams professional champions avoid those texts, which
dont support the case for William.
If William were the Bard, the works
would speak for him, just as Miltons poems speak for Milton. But
his defenders treat the Shakespeare works as irrelevant to the question of
Shakespeares identity a virtual admission that those
works have no discernible relation to William, except that his name is on
them. Their argument is chiefly the baseless accusation
that Oxfords partisans are all snobs.
In any debate, its important to
notice not only what your opponents say, but what they dont say.
The Stratfordians never say: Only William could have written these
works. Look at all their obvious links with his life! The only man
with such links is the Earl of Oxford.
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