Doting on His Absence

Who Wrote Shakespeare’s
Works & Who Really Cares?

As conspiracy theories go, the one about William Shakespeare’s authorship has lost much of its controversial edge. Short of a blockbuster, scholarly breakthrough, and even then, the issue may never be settled to anyone’s satisfaction.
As such, Anonymous, the new Hollywood flick about the possibility the Bard’s works were created by an aristocrat, Edward de Vere, most likely won’t be adding any substance to this discussion.
So here’s at where this heated, often irrational, continuously virulent, and ultimately irrelevant discussion now stands:
The main theory against the existence of a playwright named William Shakespeare is not just the lack of written proof connecting him to his works.
There’s no officially accepted portrait of the man, only one signature with the name, and a will that lists his possessions, including a bed and other minutia, but not a single book.
Add to that the context of his times, where no commoner would have access to the inner workings of the life in the royal courts, which the plays attributed to him portray with such richness of detail and exactitude, and some think they have a case.
That would be the Oxfordians, a group of doubters named after the nobility title of de Vere, Earl of Oxford, who also invoke his life, which seems to parallel much of what’s narrated in Shakespeare’s works.
As a member of the court of Elizabeth I, he was taken under the wing of the powerful, highly educated (and pointedly named), William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, the court’s Secretary of State and architect of England’s first intelligence service.
With Cecil’s tutoring, de Vere became a writer on his own right and traveled extensively through the empire, including to Denmark and other ally courts, that figure prominently on Shakespeare’s plays.
That gave the Oxfordians the context and circumstantial proof they needed to elect de Vere as the author of the classical Shakespearean library.
At least, he really seems to be the best candidate, if ever there was a need for one, over other famous figures of the period such as Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon, also considered at one time or another as stand-ins for Shakespeare.
The problem with these series of possibilities, stitched together to form a quasi-coherent narrative, is that they don’t include a single shred of evidence.
As with the best conspiracy theories, this may even be possible, but short of any scientific proof, it’s bound to remain just that, another conspiracy theory.
Furthermore, since J. Thomas Looney, an 1800s English teacher widely considered the originator of the Edward de Vere theory, there hasn’t been many works of depth and insight advancing his case.
On the contrary, scholars and intellectuals who dedicated their lives to study Shakespeare’s profound impact not just on literature, but on the history of the English language itself, are usually dismissive of the Oxfordians take.
One may argue that they have too much invested into the significance of the Bard’s work, to care much about the circumstances of its coming into being.
But, at the end of the day, they still carry the most weight in the discussion, if not for what we now know for sure about the works themselves, but because their research is focused on their cultural relevance, not the eventual novelty of their origin.
Another irrevocably obstacle standing in the way of framing this argument properly is the concept of authorship itself. Our contemporary notion of intellectual rights goes as far back as the Romanticism, at best. Before then, the work belonged to the patron who sponsored it, not its creator.
In fact, for every Shakespeare and Marlowe and others, who coincidentally or not, had some kind of connection with the Crown (Marlowe is believed to have been a spy, which may have precipitated his untimely murder), there were many others who simply didn’t manage to attach their names to the works they created.
The advocates of finding historical bearings to whether there was such a person named William Shakespeare are, of course, within their own right to pursue their quest.
It’ll be extremely enlightening if we ever find it out one way or another. But it’s unlikely that it’ll even scratch the significance of the Bard’s work to our understanding of our humanity, which is one of the crucial tenets of his gift as an artist.
After all, these works are, for all we know, fiction. But as such, they still manage to tell a deeper, way more exact and insightful portray of reality than most attempts done during his lifetime or since.
In other words, all the exhaustive research both of the works attributed to him, what’s been pieced together as his personal life, gaps and all, as well as all the theories and doubts about the authorship, brings anyone to a very prosaic conclusion.
Whether William Shakespeare, the person, ever existed, we may never know. But we should be grateful that his works have survived and are out there, for anyone’s enlightenment. Ask, though, as you may, whether they have been written by him, and the answer can only be one: Who cares?

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