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Shakespeare Short Version

June 10, 2013

Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. The five current and former U.S. Supreme Court Justices (among others) who agree with this assessment are not crackpots.

Each of the five reasons listed below is sufficient, by itself, to warrant close examination of the authorship question. All are routinely ignored by mainstream academics. Taken together, these five pieces of evidence make a virtually airtight case against the traditional authorship attribution.

1.  The author of the sonnets said he was using a pseudonym. 

The only place Shakespeare speaks in the first person is in his sonnets. These poems/personal letters celebrate the life of the Earl of Southampton and remained private for many years after being written.

Sonnet 81: “Your name from hence immortal life shall have/Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.”

This leaves little room for interpretation.

You, Southampton, your name, your life, your beauty, your honor are being immortalized, now, by me, the greatest writer in the world. Though future generations must not know who I am, you will be celebrated for eternity. “Such virtue hath my pen.” He was right about both the virtue and about dying to all the world.

Indeed the name “Shakespeare” was a spectacular overnight success in the early 1590’s beginning with an epic poem lovingly dedicated to Southampton. Everything published after that under the Shakespeare byline might as well have been written in gold. By the time sonnet 81 was put on paper, the author’s immense immodesty about the power of his pen was more than justified.

The sonnets, however, could not be published just yet. Nevertheless, the “sugared sonnets” attracted attention despite being circulated only amongst the author’s “private friends.” This is according to a contemporary account.

Shakespeare knew the sonnets would not remain private forever: “Your monument shall be my gentle verse . . . And tongues to be your being shall rehearse.” The author (whoever he was) also knew he would not fare so well: “the earth can yield me but a common grave.”

Great poets in those days (whose existence was acknowledged!) were routinely honored with graves in Westminster Abbey. Shakespeare knew this was not for him. His work would be his only monument. Sonnet 55:

Not marble, nor the gilded monuments
Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme
But you shall shine more bright in these contents
Than unswept stone besmear’d with sluttish time.

Along these same lines, when Southampton was released from prison upon the death of Queen Elizabeth in 1603, Shakespeare gleefully wrote Sonnet 107:

Now with the drops of this most balmy time,
My love looks fresh, and Death to me subscribes [succumbs],
Since, spite of him, I’ll live in this poor rhyme,
While he insults o’er dull and speechless tribes:
   And thou in this shalt find thy monument,
   When tyrants’ crests and tombs of brass are spent. 

The fame of a name? No. The honor of a tomb? No. He would live on, after a fashion, in his monumental poetry, but his name would be buried where his body was, as he said (again) in Sonnet 72.

Of course, less obvious readings of the sonnets are possible and, one could argue, are required if a cover-up of the true authorship perpetrated by Queen Elizabeth and continued by King James I seems too unlikely. Poems aren’t letters; they could mean anything. Or maybe the sonnets were commissioned.

Mainstream academics are typically 100% sure sonnet 81 and the others cannot be taken at face value. They could be right, they just don’t make a very good case for it by ignoring the whole question.

For ordinary, unbiased observers, “Though I, once gone, to all the world must die; the earth can yield me but a common grave” — written in a private poem to a close friend when the name Shakespeare was already spectacularly famous as the number one literary light in England — is a smoking gun.  

2. The author of the sonnets repeatedly referred to himself as middle aged.

The sonnets follow Southampton’s life from his refusal to marry the bride chosen for him to his release from prison, hence the assumption that “my lovely boy” is indeed the rash young earl. Identifying Southampton as the subject of the sonnets has never been controversial; he is by far the leading candidate.

Four sonnets in particular (2, 3, 22, and 73) disqualify the man from Stratford on the basis of age. William Shakespeare was 9 years older than Southampton.

Sonnet 2: A 26-year-old commoner from Stratford recalling the beauty of Southampton’s mother in “the lovely April of her prime” is, to say the least, suspicious. The man from Stratford had no opportunity whatsoever to know the Earl of Southampton’s mother in the lovely April of her prime or at any other time.

Sonnet 3: Did a 26 year-old commoner really write, “When forty winters shall besiege thy brow . . . ” lecturing the teenaged earl about how he needs to make babies?  Yes, children do allay the psychological rigors of aging and yes, a young man can indeed write from the point of view of an aged man. Theoretically. Read the sonnet.

Sonnet 22: Orthodox scholars believe William Shakespeare of Stratford, a man probably still in his twenties, wrote, “My glass shall not persuade me I am old so long as youth and thou are of one date.” I suppose he could have regarded himself as deeply lined next to his teenaged earl friend.

Sonnet 73: “That time of year thou may’st in me behold/when yellow leaves or none or few do hang/upon those boughs which shake against the cold/bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang . . . ” Was this a “poetical exercise” or was it real. You get to decide.

The most straightforward reading of the sonnets says they were written to the Earl of Southampton by an middle aged (forties) fellow nobleman.

3. According to sonnet publisher Thomas Thorpe, the author was dead in 1609.  

The publisher of the sonnets, Thomas Thorpe, eulogized the author. That’s probably because he was dead. Of course, the commoner named Shakespeare was very much alive in 1609; he couldn’t die just yet as he had neighbors to sue.

The publisher’s dedication of the sonnets to “Our ever-living poet” is obviously taken from Henry VI Part 1 in which we witness the funeral of the great deceased King. The line used by Thorpe reads in part, “. . .that ever-living man of memory, Henry the Fifth . . .”

To some historians, direct testimony from a contemporary in a position to know means something. This is not true in the case of the Shakespeare authorship question.

See if you can follow this logic: The man named William Shakespeare was alive in 1609, so the phrase “our ever-living poet” must not have been a reference to a deceased poet at all, furthermore, the similarity to a Shakespearean eulogy is a coincidence, and finally, the fact that the phrase “ever-living” has never, except for this one time, been used to refer to a living person is entirely irrelevant in this case.

Here’s the dedication in full. “To the onlie begettor of these ensuing sonnets Mr. W. H. All happiness and that eternitie promised by our ever-living poet. Wisheth the well wishing adventurer in setting forth.” As with the sonnets themselves, it is possible to argue that the dedication need not be read in the most obvious way. Absent such an argument Shakespeare died before 1609.

The publisher’s dedication in the sonnets, if read in a straightforward manner, strongly implies that Thomas Thorpe believed the author was deceased at the time of publication. If so, Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. 

4. Some modern experts protest way too much. 

It’s been known and widely accepted for more than 150 years that Polonius is a funny, nasty, and fiendishly accurate caricature of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, the most powerful man in Elizabethan England.  It is hard to imagine a commoner getting away with such an obvious parody and the identification of Edward de Vere (who knew Burghley all too well) as the most likely alternative author makes the Polonius character and the viciousness of the parody far more understandable (and funnier).

All of this is a problem for the traditional Shakespeare story and is typically met with either silence or denial.

Sometimes the furious backpedaling of a modern scholars provides amusing entertainment. For example, professor Jonathan Bates made comments in Harper’s magazine that included this whopper: “Hamlet is approached via fantastically cryptic supposed parallels between Lord Burghley and the character of Polonius.”

What was once obvious is now “cryptic.” This kind of desperation coming from an expert in the field is almost as convincing to me as the hard evidence in the sonnets.

The Hamlet character Polonius lampooning the powerful Lord Burghley could only have been created by a nobleman — Edward de Vere is the most promising candidate. This has led to intense backpedaling among experts who evidently fear nothing more than de Vere himself.  

5. Shakespeare of Stratford was probably illiterate. 

No letters survive; Shakespeare’s long, detailed will did not mention books or manuscripts; both adult daughters were demonstrably unable to read and write.

Shakespeare could write his name, barely. Six scrawled signatures on legal documents look suspiciously like the struggles of a barely literate man to sign his name — the contrast with the fluid signatures commonly seen from real professional writers of the time is striking. This is a man who supposedly penned more than a million words with a quill.

A man who was known during his lifetime as the greatest writer in England, a man who wrote play after play featuring brilliant, educated, witty women, did not see to it that his two daughters learned to read? Really? Centuries of painstaking searching cannot turn up a single letter or manuscript or book, nothing to even indicate literacy. Really? The most famous writer in England?

If a man leaves behind an extensive paper trail of legal documents but no books, no letters, no manuscripts, and no literate relatives, one might be tempted to conclude that the man in question was not literate.

Conclusion

(1) The author stated in rather clear language in his private sonnets that he was using a pseudonym.  (2) In the sonnets, the author repeatedly presents himself as middle-aged. (3) The dedication written when the sonnets were finally published in 1609 is a Shakespearean eulogy; Shakespeare of Stratford wasn’t dead. (4) Mainstream academics put forward absurd arguments even though there are many perfectly cogent ways to support the traditional attribution. (5) A man who was literally the most literate man in England, a brilliant, multi-lingual, widely-read, broadly-educated genius with a knowledge base that touched on literature, history, science, warfare, botany, music, law, and even falconry and a vocabulary that dwarfed that of his most erudite contemporaries brought up two illiterate daughters.

As Justices Powell, Blackmun, O’Connor, Stevens, and Scalia and many others suspect, the too-young, barely-literate man from Stratford was, in all probability, put in place as a front-man for the true author. 

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