By the spring of 2016, the literary world will be observing the four hundredth anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. For about 250 of those years, the world never had much doubt that the quiet, unassuming actor and businessman from Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of the plays that bear his name. Yet, ever since a crazy lady named Delia Bacon in the early nineteenth century just up and decided one day that a country boy who moved to the city of London to earn a living just couldn’t have been the astonishingly-gifted social observer who wrote those plays, a small but very vocal contingent of doubters has exerted tremendous energy in trying to deny Shakespeare’s authorship and in trying to put forth persons they regard as more likely candidates for the true authorship of the plays.
Stanley Wells, now the doyen of Shakespearean studies in the English-speaking world, could have written Why Shakespeare Was Shakespeare in his sleep. In fact, the ground he covers is so well known that I think he did write the book in his sleep. If you’re looking for a slim, quick-reading summary of the facts of Shakespeare’s life, this is as good a volume as any to turn to; if you’re looking for a bristling, well-argued broadside against the anti-Stratfordians, this book isn’t it.
Wells does a decent, but unexciting job of introducing the figures at the root of the controversy in the nineteenth century, but there’s nary a line about any prominent anti-Stratfordians of the present-day, save for repeated mentions of actors Derek Jacobi and Patrick Stewart. There is no mention, for instance, of Charlton Ogburn, who expended hundreds of pages (and hundreds of man-hours) trying to lay out the case for why only a nobleman (or someone with deeper connections at court than Shakespeare) could have written the plays. It would not have taken much effort–two or three paragraphs, perhaps–to mention some of the more prominent opponents of Shakespearean authorship.
Wells does a better job of refuting the claims to authorship that have been put forth on behalf of Francis Bacon, Edward DeVere (Ogburn’s favorite), Christopher Marlowe, and others. Marlowe’s claim is refuted easily enough: he was dead well before the major plays were produced. Neither Bacon’s nor DeVere’s prose styles give any hint whatsoever that they were capable of producing the sweet suppleness of the Shakespearian line. On the other hand, the career of Ben Jonson, a man who also was raised from a working-class background, demonstrates that it was possible for such a man to acquire and use the Greek and Latin education Shakespeare received growing up without benefit of connections at court the anti-Stratfordians often claim he had to have in order to write the plays.
As Wells hammers home (too hard, I think), the case against Shakespeare is based upon snobbery as much as it is genuine doubts about his authorship. A small part of the world just cannot conceive that a genius could be born out of common stock. But that sort of thing has been happening since the human model first came out. Shakespeare’s fellow actors accepted him and honored him as the author of the plays, and they would have been among the first to notice and remark upon any other strikingly-different hand upon those plays, the gossipy nature of the theatrical world being what it was. They also remarked–in both Shakespeare’s lifetime and upon his death–of Shakespeare’s quiet, gentle nature. He was the character actor, taking the brief roles; the unassuming fellow over in the corner, never saying much in conversation, but watching, always watching, and writing, always writing, spinning worlds for us out of every line he wrote.