Sarah Beckwith's op-ed piece in today's News & Observer, "Shakespeare was Hardly Anonymous," would have you believe there has never been a controversy over Shakespeare's authorship. But the authorship controversy is nearly as old as the plays themselves. Even some contemporaries of the actor from Stratford-on-Avon and some who came soon after raised doubts about who wrote the plays attributed to him.
I'm no expert on the matter, as Beckwith purports to be, but I've been reading about the controversy and have been intrigued by it for more than three decades. (I blogged about this matter more than two years ago: "Will the true Shakespeare please stand up?") A Washington Post article in the mid-1970s first introduced me to serious doubts about the authorship of the greatest set of writings in the English language. The Atlantic magazine devoted a cover story to the authorship controversy in 1991 and has looked back at the point-counterpoint arguments over the Bard in this post. (I think I still have that issue of the Atlantic squirreled away somewhere.) Neither the Washington Post nor The Atlantic can be accused of lacking seriousness. Amazon.com lists 166 results in a search for books on "Edward de Vere Shakespeare." Admittedly, that doesn't mean there are 166 different books available on this subject, but the controversy has generated dozens of serious books. One of the more recent is "Shakespeare by Another Name: Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, The Man Who Was Shakespeare." I checked that book out of the public library and found it quite persuasive in its argument that Edward de Vere should rightfully be credited for the authorship of the Shakespearean plays. Hank Whittemore has written a book titled "The Great Shakespeare Hoax," and there are others. To claim there is no controversy or that the argument is akin to flat-earth claims is ridiculous.
The contention of the Shakespeare debunkers boils down to doubts about the ability of the man William Shakespeare to write the plays attributed to him. He had little or no education — some even doubt that he could read and write. But the plays attributed to him expanded the English language with new words and metaphors that have become familiar parts of our conversations — "the milk of human kindness," "a pound of flesh," etc. His vocabulary exceeded that of the translators of the King James Bible. He was intimately familiar with the royal court, with foreign literature and classic tales and, perhaps most tellingly, with Italy, where several of his plays are set. But William Shakespeare, the actor, never traveled to Italy. Edward de Vere lived there for some time, in Verona. There were good reasons in Elizabethan society for an aristocrat to deny authorship of plays, which were considered debauched common entertainment unfit for royalty. Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is the logical answer to the question, "Who had the education, skills and life experiences to have written these plays?"
I know English professors who are steadfast in their faith that William Shakespeare, despite his lack of formal education, travel and worldly knowledge, wrote the plays attributed to him, and I respect their position. (I am an English major who took only one Shakespeare course.) I don't think the question is a closed book, but I do lean strongly toward the belief that the Earl of Oxford wrote the plays and an actor named William Shakespeare took credit for them.
We may never be able to satisfy this 500-year-old mystery, but it is a mystery, one of the greatest in literary history. If the mystery is not why de Vere denied his authorship, then it is how Shakespeare managed to write so magnificently about things he never experienced.