Tempest On Avon

The Argument

Some scholars question -- and others fiercely defend -- the identity and authorship of the world's two most celebrated writers: Shakespeare and God.

December 05, 2004|By Diane Cole | Diane Cole,Special to the Sun

In the uncertain Cold War decades, I grew up with two bedrock certainties: God wrote the Bible, and Shakespeare was the Bard of Avon.

These days, in an age that possesses even fewer certainties, I wonder if either wrote anything.

My journey to literary and spiritual skepticism began innocently enough with my discovery of an entertaining true-life literary who-done-it from 1996 called, Who Wrote Shakespeare? Actually, author John Mitchell's tantalizing title is something of a misnomer, since he is less interested in finding a definitive answer than in making a case that the question must be posed.

When it is, he contends, reasonable minds will discover reasonable doubts.

And doubters appear to be increasing, both in number, and in public consciousness: PBS broadcast a program on the subject, and playwright Amy Freed used the controversy as the jumping off point for her play, The Beard of Avon, a critical and popular hit when it was produced in New York last year. In addition to the poet we call Shakespeare, top contenders for authorship include Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and, the most popular candidate currently, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. To gauge the growth of this movement, just take a peek at the Shakespeare-Oxford Web site (www.shakespeare-oxford.com).

Surely none of this escaped the notice of Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt, author of the current best seller Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (Norton, 430 pages, $26.95). Yet never once does Greenblatt deign to raise the possibility that Shakespeare could have been anyone but Shakespeare.

Greenblatt's vivid historical portrait of the Elizabethan era and his extraordinary insight into the plays themselves make the book well worth reading, but this snub is both telling and amusing. Yes, he acknowledges, factual gaps do exist in the documentation of Shakespeare's early life. Then he proceeds to fill in those gaps with an engaging re-creation of the life Shakespeare may have led.

Readers may think this is biography, but Greenblatt's vocabulary -- the words "imagine," "possibly," "perhaps," "if," "maybe," and the like appear paragraph after paragraph, page after page -- reveals a heavy reliance on supposition and hypothesis. Of course, when such leaps from fact to possibility are used to assert authorship for someone other than Shakespeare, scholars ridicule them (as Greenblatt, in fact, did in a recent letter in Harvard Magazine).

Well, perhaps (Greenblatt's word) Shake-speare's life did happen just as he extrapolates. Or, if you are open to a bit of skepticism, you might (again using Greenblatt's words) "possibly" "imagine" a different hypothesis altogether.

In the debate over Shakespeare's authorship, I hear echoes of another authorship debate surrounding an even more revered work: the Bible. Moreover, that controversy is nicely laid out in a similarly titled who-wrote-it, Richard Elliott Friedman's 1987 Who Wrote the Bible? Taken together, the Shakespeare and Bible canons (a word often used to refer to both these culturally sacred texts) comprise the holy writ of English-language literacy. Which means my double skepticism should count as heresy both intellectual and spiritual.

Because both authorship questions lie in the same sacred realm: that of belief itself.

Believers take it on faith that the all-knowing, omniscient God dictated the Old Testament to Moses -- despite the fact that the Book of Deuteronomy concludes after the death of Moses. Similarly, our acceptance of the Shakespearean byline rests on our suspension of disbelief that an uneducated rustic composed dramatic masterpieces filled with sophisticated references to Latin, Greek, history, politics, law, court life, country life, and life in faraway lands, none of which there is any record of his ever visiting or studying.

Nor do we know precisely when the Bible, or the individual plays, were written. In both cases, scholarly re-examinations of manuscripts, historical artifacts, and close textual readings lead to constant revising of the timetables.

Then there is the question of names. Today, biblical scholars commonly refer to "J" as the author of those passages that refer to "Yahweh"; "E" as the author who invokes "El" or "Elohim." In his day, the man we call the playwright Shakespeare was referred to, as well, including the hyphenated Shake-speare, as well as Shaxpere, Shagspere, and so on, up to 57 documented variations. Yes, the Bible and Shakespeare's plays by any author's name would still be great. But a little certainty would be nice.

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