[Editor: Keir Cutler sent us this article in response to Joel Fishbane's Theatre For Thought of October 22]
The True Story of ShakespeareThe Stratford-upon-Avon billion dollar tourist industry is perhaps the main reason there is such unwillingness to even look at the evidence that Shakespeare did not write his famous works.
By Keir Cutler
The movie Anonymous with its theme that “Shakespeare was a fraud” opens this week and it is bound to renew interest in the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Those like myself who question who wrote the great works will be viciously condemned, showered with insults and labeled as elitists, fools, conspiracy theorists or worse, as in the case of Joel Fishbane of The Charlebois Post, compared to Nazis and eugenicists (Shakespeare and the other 99%). The one thing you will not hear from the defenders of the orthodoxy is the true story. So here it is.
There never was an Elizabethan playwright named William Shakespeare. There was an Elizabethan actor and theatre manager by the name of William Shaxper or Shakspere born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. When academics speak of the historical William Shakespeare they are referring to this person.
Unfortunately there is no direct evidence to show that William Shaxper was a writer. None. There are no original manuscripts of plays or poems, no diaries, no letters and only six shaky signatures, all in dispute. Both his parents, John and Mary, were illiterate. His wife Anne Hathaway was illiterate. His children were illiterate, which would make Shaxper the only prominent writer in history whose children are known to have been illiterate.
The lack of any letters written by William Shaxper is particularly significant. As a great writer, it is likely he would have written a large number. Voltaire’s collected correspondence totals roughly 20,000 pieces. Shaxper’s, or Shakespeare’s (or whatever you choose to call him) collected correspondence totals exactly zero items. Oh, sorry, there does exist one letter, a bill sent to Shaxper found after his death, but nothing in the supposed writer’s own hand.
The man from Stratford never went to college and as far as can be determined never had any schooling. There has been an attempt by Stratfordians to surmise that William Shaxper attended a grammar school in Stratford. No records of this exist, and Shaxper made no mention of this school in his long and detailed will. A startling oversight if this school was single-handedly responsible for creating perhaps the most literate scholarly man of all time. But then again, the will never mentions that he was a writer.
The writer of Shakespeare’s plays had great command of not only English, but Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish. There are themes and passages from classical works untranslated in Shakespeare’s day. The Comedy of Errors was based on a Latin play by Plautus of which there was no translation. The over 3,000 new words Shakespeare added to the English language were created from his multi-lingual expertise. There is no way of reconciling the immense scholarship evinced in Shakespeare’s works with William Shaxper, who from birth was surrounded by illiterate people, had little or no education, and left not a single manuscript in his own hand: pointing this out is not elitism, it is simply stating the facts.
Certainly no one thought much of Shaxper at the time of his death. Mark Twain, in his hilarious 1909 debunking of the Shakespeare myth titled Is Shakespeare Dead?, points out that no one in England took any notice of his demise. “His death was not even an event in the little town of Stratford. Does this mean that in Stratford he was not regarded as a celebrity of any kind? His death made no more stir in England than the death of any other forgotten theatre-actor would have made. Nobody came down from London; there were no lamenting poems, no eulogies, no national tears. A striking contrast with what happened when Ben Jonson, and Francis Bacon, and Spenser, and Raleigh and the other distinguished folk of Shakespeare's time passed from life! No praiseful voice was lifted for the lost Bard of Avon.”
It is important to underline the myth of William Shakespeare was created posthumously. Beginning with the publication of the First Folio a full seven years after the death of the supposed author, then with the fabrication of tourism industry in Stratford-upon-Avon more than a century after Shaxper’s demise. The so-called “Birth Place of Shakespeare” is one of the most successful tourist sites in England, though less than 10% of the visitors ever attend a single play. The visitors come not to see theatre but as pilgrims to worship a cult hero in his birth place. They visit the house that someone in the eighteenth century decided for commercial purposes Shakespeare was born in. In this house they can see Shakespeare’s birth room, desk, water jug, gloves and favourite armchair. All of these are fictitious, with no connection to the mythical playwright William Shakespeare or even the semi-literate actor and theatre manager, William Shaxper.
In 1969 the people selling tours of Shakespeare home were taken to court and sued under England’s Trade Descriptions Act. The Act forbids false statements and claims in advertising. Since no evidence exists to support the claim that Shakespeare or Shaxper was born in the house, the court had to find a creative way of ignoring the Act in order to maintain the lucrative tourist site. The judgement decided the Act did not apply since the historical site was a “Trust” and not a business. “Trust” being a belief in something based on faith, not proof.
The Stratford-upon-Avon billion dollar tourist industry is perhaps the main reason there is such unwillingness to even look at the evidence that Shakespeare did not write his famous works. The actor William Shaxper was born in Stratford-upon-Avon. Once this actor is separated from authorship, Stratford no longer has any connection to the famous works. Incidentally, the name “Stratford” does not appear anywhere in William Shakespeare’s works, not even a single time.
All of this information and much, much more is kept from the vast majority of students. I certainly never heard any of it during my more than 12 years of post-secondary education leading to a Ph. D. in theatre. I became interested in the subject years after leaving school, and I have now been studying the Shakespeare Authorship Question for more than a decade. I have not settled on a candidate. There are strong cases to be made for the 17th Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon; or that a secret group of Free-Thinkers was at work given the enormity of the achievement. On the other hand, the case for Shaxper as the writer is profoundly weak; this perhaps explains why professors, academics, and others use ad hominem attacks to defend the indefensible. The Shakespeare Birth Trust which runs Shaxper’s supposed birthplace says “The phenomenon of disbelief in Shakespeare's authorship is a psychological aberration. . . ”
But why does it matter? Fishbane of The Charlebois Post claims investigating the authorship of Shakespeare’s works is a “parlour game for intellects.” I could not disagree more! The authorship question matters because a totally false image of Elizabethan England has been created largely out of the Shakespeare myth. The film “Shakespeare in Love” beautifully depicts this never-existed place. A place where playwrights frolicked, and their only worry was whether their next play would be a success. The Master-of-the-Revels, whose job was to restrict the theatres, is depicted as inept, innocuous and a victim of public derision. Nothing could be further from reality.
When Elizabeth I took the throne, she was expected to last a few weeks, possibly a few months, certainly no one expected a reign of several decades. She succeeded by turning her realm into a police-state and a time of brutal censorship. There was no freedom of speech, and the state employed spies and torture to secure power.
The vast majority of the British people at that time were illiterate, and consequently the public theatres presented a great danger since they could communicate to the average person. Theatres, including The Globe, faced strict censorship, and were often viewed as dens of inequity and vice. Many powerful figures were actively attempting to close all of England’s theatres, and less than 20 years after Shaxper, they succeeded.
During Shaxper’s lifetime, the Master of the Revels and the dreaded Star Chamber had the power to imprison and torture any writer. The playwright Thomas Kyd was essentially tortured to death. Christopher Marlowe was facing torture when he was murdered or, as some believe, staged his own murder and escaped. Playwrights Ben Jonson, Thomas Nashe, George Chapman, John Marston were all temporarily imprisoned for their writings. And yet William Shaxper, supposedly the most prolific and successful of playwrights, was never arrested. This fact is particularly astonishing given that the 2nd Earl of Essex, to encourage a rebellion against the Queen Elizabeth I, sponsored a performance of Shakespeare’s Richard II in 1601. The Earl was arrested and executed, but Shaxper was never so much as questioned. Surely when a play is being used to provoke civil unrest, the playwright of that play would come under scrutiny? Apparently no one, not even the Master of the Revels, believed Shaxper was a writer.
Remaining anonymous for a playwright or group of playwrights in Elizabethan times would have been a very wise choice. Many plays, not credited to William Shakespeare today, appeared under the nom-de-plume “Shake-spear” back then, these include The London Prodigal, The Second Maiden’s Tragedy, The Puritan Widow of Watling Street, The Comedy of George a Greene, Fair Em - the Miller’s daughter, The Birth of Martin, The Arraignment of Paris and The Merrie Devil of Edmonton. Since these plays are not believed to have been written by the mythical William Shakespeare, clearly at least one other writer was using the pen name “Shake-spear.”
The case against the man from Stratford is not based on elitism, stupidity, or even the love of eugenics, it is based solely on common sense.