Happy to accept the challenge and examine the record
By Tom Woosnam
Mr. Herbert Rothschild’s column asking “Was Shakespeare literature’s greatest fraud?” is deserving of a response.
The question is not “Did William Shakspeare (the name on the Stratford baptism registry) write the works of Shakespeare?” It is, “How did he write them without leaving any unambiguous primary source evidence of having done so, given that 24 of his contemporaries, from Ben Jonson to Christopher Marlowe, did leave such evidence?”
Mr. Rothschild writes: “Until now, I’ve refused invitations to argue about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. Partly that’s because my focus in literary studies has always been the texts; biography is of interest to me only if it illuminates the works themselves.”
Mr. Rothschild is not alone in this view. He is saying the documented life of William Shakspeare would shed no light on his plays. Just as the life of Eugene O’Neill doesn’t illuminate “Long Day’s Journey into Night,” one supposes.
“(T)hose familiar … know how extensive a record there was in Shakespeare’s own day of recognition of his authorship,” Mr. Rothschild continues.
There are indeed thousands of references to Shakespeare the author, but all of them are impersonal critiques, play reviews, and the like. Not one is an unambiguous personal link to the man from Stratford.
“As early as 1592, Robert Greene mentioned him as an ‘upstart crow’ who supposedly borrowed from other playwrites like himself for the Henry VI plays,” Mr. Rothschild continues.
A question for Mr. Rothschild: “Upstart crow” is used to justify that Shakespeare was a famous playwright in 1592 because of the Tiger’s Heart reference from “Henry VI, Part 3.” The problem is that that play was published anonymously until 1619 which is when Shakespeare’s name was first attached to it. Could you explain, please, Mr. Rothschild, how Shakespeare was famous as a playwright in 1592 based on a play that would not bear his name for another 27 years?
I am delighted that Occam’s Razor is brought up, though Mr. Rothschild did not state it correctly. It’s not the simplest explanation that is likely to be correct, it’s the one with the fewest assumptions that is likely to be correct.
In that light, let’s examine some of the assumptions one must make to believe the man from Stratford was the author:
- We must assume that every reference to any spelling of the name Shakespeare, Shakspere, Shakspeare, Shaxpere etc. is simultaneously a reference to the man from Stratford as the author. And vice versa.
- The first time the name William Shakespeare was attached to a literary work was in 1593 as the author of the poem “Venus and Adonis.” The first unambiguous record of the man from Stratford being associated with theater is 1595 (see “upstart crow” reference above to debunk 1592, though there is more to debunk it that I don’t have space to state). So, the name Shakespeare was in use before Shakspere arrived in London, according to unambiguous primary source evidence. We must assume this isn’t a problem.
- We must assume there is only one Stratford in England (there are many) and that the word Avon was not the name of Hampton Court on the River Thames, a place in whose Great Hall Shakespeare plays were performed for Queen Elizabeth and King James.
From Ben Jonson’s eulogy to Shakespeare in the First Folio:
Sweet swan of Avon! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appeare,
And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James !
- We must assume that the plaque on the wall Holy Trinity Church in Stratford that says Shakspeare (sic) is a monument to Shakespeare when the plaque makes no mention of him being a poet dramatist.
- We must assume that it’s not strange that in his lifetime no one referred to the man from Stratford as an author when we have 24 contemporaneous poet dramatists for whom there is primary source evidence of their professions.
- We must assume it’s not a problem that Shakspere’s son-in-law John Hall, a copious diarist, never once mentioned his famous father-in-law in his diaries.
- We must assume it’s perfectly OK that, without evidence of how, the Stratford man learned enough Greek, Spanish, Italian and French to be able to use untranslated works in those languages as sources for his plays.
- We must assume it’s perfectly OK that, without evidence of how he did it, the Stratford man became deeply knowledgeable about the law, medicine, hunting, seamanship, falconry, philosophy, science, music and history.
- We must assume there’s nothing odd about his will leaving no mention of objects of value that one would expect to see in the life of a literary man — books, writing desk, pens, bookshelves, poems, copies of manuscripts.
And on it goes.
What assumptions do Doubters make?
Only one: perhaps the name was a pseudonym.
Occam’s razor doesn’t make my conclusion true in this case, of course. It is impossible to prove that the Stratford man did notwrite the plays and poems for the simple reason that in the absence of confirmatory evidence, one cannot prove a negative.
Should Mr. Rothschild wish to overcome his aversion to public comment on the topic I would be delighted to be the person he talks to in public. I will use only facts that can be verified and eschew myths and traditions. The topic I propose is: “There is a Reasonable Doubt about the Authorship,” and I would speak in the affirmative. I would not present an alternative candidate.
We could even make it a fundraiser for Mr. Rothschild’s favorite charity.
Mr. Rothschild — the ball is in your court. Do you accept?
Tom Woosnam was born in England where he received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Imperial College, London. He has lived in the U.S. since 1975, earned a master’s degree in education from Stanford University and taught high school physics and math before retiring with his wife, Julia, to Ashland in 2019. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.