Putting the Bard on trial

Guest column

Friends ask why I wrote a book on Shakespeare. It’s easy. I write because I love it. I write about English history because of its drama and relevance to contemporary issues.

My interest in Shakespeare initially centered on his extraordinary flesh-and-blood characters, so like characters we encounter in life. Haven’t we seen some truly Shakespearean figures on and off stage at Disney? Finally, I turned to the Shakespeare authorship question because the subject fascinated me.

Many academics insist there simply is no such question. They are unshakeable in their conviction that the marvelous body of work we call “Shakespeare” was written by the balding actor from Stratford.

Some extraordinary people have disagreed. They include Mark Twain, Freud, Disraeli, Walt Whitman and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Henry James labeled Shakespeare “the biggest and most successful fraud ever perpetrated on a patient world.”

Who was right about this? I decided to look into the evidence. After all, that’s what lawyers do. The skills useful in handling legal issues are also useful in evaluating historical data in the search for sound conclusions. Still, despite decades of learning to manage time, the process took seven years.

Ultimately, I concluded that there is indeed a serious authorship issue and that considerable evidence supports the view that the actor from Stratford (I’ll call him the “Stratford man”) was not the primary author of the poems and plays. For example, the Stratford man had, at most, a sixth-grade education. So far as we know he never left England. Yet the plays show us their author knew French, Italian, Greek and Latin, was familiar with foreign cities and customs and had knowledge of many disparate fields, such as military, naval and legal principles, court etiquette, falconry, tennis and the jargon of Cambridge students. His vocabulary was three times that of highly educated contemporaries.

The Stratford man seemed barely able to write his name. The only provable samples of his writing are six shaky and childish signatures. It was said that “if invited to writ, he was in paine.” Yet the true author wrote by hand at least 36 plays, two long narrative poems and 154 sonnets, reportedly without blotting a line.

The 1609 dedication to “Shakespeare’s Sonnets” was not written by the poet — unusual if the poet was alive. It speaks of our “ever living poet,” connoting a dead poet immortalized by his verse. Yet the Stratford man lived until 1616.

The Stratford man could be petty, litigious and selfish. He left his wife and children, sued over small sums, hoarded grain in a time of great shortage, purchased the right to collect local taxes and acquiesced in the enclosure of common lands over the protests of his neighbors. Does that square with the generosity of spirit reflected in the plays?

By 1616, Shakespeare’s works were famous. Yet on the death of the Stratford man, no one mentioned that the great Bard had died. The Stratford man’s will disposes of such mundane items as his “sword” and “silver gilt bowl” and leaves his wife his “second best bed.” Although there were unpublished plays by “Shakespeare” of considerable value, the will makes no mention of any literary property. And these are just examples.

Of course, there is contrary evidence. A monument in the Stratford church shows the Stratford man holding a quill pen — indicating he was a writer. But early sketches of the monument showed no pen. Instead, they depict him clutching what looks like a bag of grain.

The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays plainly identifies their author as the Stratford man. Was that a hoax? If so, by whom and why? My book offers a possible scenario.

Stephen Greenblatt’s “Will in the World” describes events that might have occurred in the life of the Stratford man, and points to aspects of Shakespeare’s works that could have flowed from those events. It’s an interesting, well-written book, but it skates on thin factual ice.

If the Stratford man didn’t write the poems and plays, who did? Was it the talented, highly educated Earl of Oxford? The brilliant Francis Bacon? Or Christopher Marlowe hiding out in Italy after faking his death?

Why would the true author use someone else as a “front”? The public theater was officially denigrated as a place for whores, pickpockets and other miscreants. A highborn nobleman or aspiring politician could not be seen to write for that disreputable venue. But it could be done under someone else’s name.

Is that what happened with “Shakespeare”? There is substantial evidence suggesting it. But there is no conclusive proof. Maybe there will never be. As T.S. Eliot put it, the best we can hope for in discussing Shakespeare is to be wrong in some new way.

Fields is a partner in the Greenberg Glusker Fields Claman Machtinger & Kinsella and author of Royal Blood, named Book of the Year by the Ricardian Society, and two other novels.