Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The Shakespeare Debates

Charlie Chaplin: “In the work of the greatest geniuses, humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere, but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare … I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare … but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy.”

Carol Chillington Rutter: “Was…education sufficient to equip Shakespeare to write Shakespeare? Certainly, it was enough to equip any school leaver to read any ‘modern’ English writing: Chaucer, Gower, Holinshed, Hall…and to know how to turn such source material to his own uses. Certainly, too, it was sufficient to equip Jonson to write Jonson: young Ben had only three or four years at Westminster School before being removed to learn his step-father’s trade of bricklaying.”

Mark Twain: “Isn’t it odd, when you think of it, that you may list all of the celebrated Englishmen, Irishmen, Scotchmen … clear back to the first Tudors…and you can … learn the particulars of the lives of every one of them…except one — the most famous, the most renowned — by far the most illustrious of them all — Shakespeare!”

Stanley Wells: “Gaps in the record…make people uneasy. There are certainly gaps in the records of Shakespeare’s life, but there is nothing unusual about them. We know more about him than about many of his contemporaries, such as John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, John Webster or John Ford.”

Henry James: “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.”

Barbara Everett: “Those who saw poetry and drama as a lie…are themselves drawn into a fuller understanding of the great life-lies. For this, Shakespeare must often have been grateful to his own beginnings in provincial small-town Stratford, which taught him to distrust mere art, but to trust true creativity. Those who fail to be able, for snobbish or other ‘ignorant’ reasons, to locate the genius of the work in Shakespeare of Stratford, have failed to do what the editors of the First Folio in their prefatory epistle demanded: which is, that we should ‘Read him.’”

Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The Egyptian verdict of the Shakespeare Societies comes to mind, that he was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse: Other admirable men had led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man in wide contrast.”

Matt Kubus: “Even the most sophisticated of readers and thinkers – the Ralph Waldo Emersons of the past and present – rely so heavily on the critical assumption that there is an inherent connection between the author and the content of his works. There is no more credence in saying that the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have visited Vienna, Venice and Athens in order to paint such an illustrious picture of them than there is in saying Dante must have visited the depths of the Inferno, Homer had to have encountered a one-eyed giant, or Milton only could have written Paradise Lost because of his conversations with a talking snake. It is historically and literarily irresponsible to assume that fictions always have and always will be based on actual events.”

Sigmund Freud: “It is undeniably painful to all of us that even now we do not know who was the author of the Comedies, Tragedies and Sonnets of Shakespeare, whether it was in fact the untutored son of the provincial citizen of Stratford, who attained a modest position as an actor in London … ”

James Shapiro: “Oxfordians like to claim that since their candidate had been captured by pirates and had three daughters, he has a better claim, on biographical grounds, to have written Hamlet and King Lear. Yet you never hear a supporter of Oxford’s authorship of Richard III quote Charles Arundel’s contemporary report that Oxford ‘wold often tell my Lord Harrye, my selfe and Sowthewell that he had abused a mare’ and then point to Richard’s famous line about ‘My kingdom for a horse’ as evidence of a deeper and long overlooked romantic attachment.”

Walt Whitman: “I am firm against Shaksper — I mean the Avon man, the actor.”

Roland Emmerich: “I have serious doubts over the Stratford man’s claim to the authorship of the plays attributed to him.”

Paul Edmondson: “There is the loaded assumption that even though one may lack the necessary knowledge and expertise, it is always acceptable to challenge or contradict a knowledgeable and expert authority. It is not. (If the focus of this volume were about a specialized area of nuclear physics those last two sentences would not even have been necessary.) But one characteristic of the Shakespeare authorship discussion is its apparent generosity of scope in which everyone can have their say, ignore the evidence for Shakespeare, propose alternative nominees, contradict authorities and feel empowered.”

So are you on the side of the Shakespeare supporters or the dubious? Have any arguments changed your mind? Tell us who you think wrote the Shakespeare canon below, or use the Twitter hashtag #cbc to talk with other Book Club members.

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