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Book Review: Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?

By (September 24, 2012) One Comment

Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?

by William D. Rubinstein

Amberley Publishing, 2012

The least we can expect from any book on the Shakespeare-authorship subject is some extra nuance, however slight, to justify an addition to the pile, and the most we can hope for is that such an addition will be not only interesting but brief. William D. Rubinstein, long-time Professor of History at the University of Aberyswyth, manages both in his new book Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays? As a primer on the basic elements of a much-vexed topic, it would be tough to beat.

Much like the Bard himself, Rubinstein opens his proceedings with a joke:

This book will now consider the claims for and against the leading alternative candidates as the real author of Shakespeare, as well as the claims of William Shakespeare himself. So far as the author is aware, this has never been attempted before …

… and as Shakespeare jokes go, this one is fairly po-faced. Rubinstein’s book is, conservatively estimated, the fifteen-thousandth of its kind. His own Select Bibliography mentions some of them. In between the first and second paragraphs of this review, I wrote one myself.

His opening festivities concluded, Rubinstein then moves on to cases, pro and con. He has a very open and easy style, and a winning ability to simplify without dumbing-down, so his tour of the major candidates for the job of writing Shakespeare is brisk and very enjoyable, especially since he has the good grace to start with William Shakespeare himself.

That case, as all readers will know, is rife with problems. Yes, we have printed plays with Shakespeare’s name on them, and yes, he’s got those tributes to him in the First Folio put together in 1623 by John Heminges and Henry Condell, his colleagues from the theater world (and with tributes from, among others, Ben Jonson, who certainly couldn’t be co-opted into any elaborate plan of authorship-deceit). But there are some fairly heavy counter-arguments, and Rubinstein makes them all: that the man had no formal education past the age of thirteen, that the author of some of the most literarily allusive works in English appeared to have no books, no access to books, and no interest in books, that the larger world of his time seemed not to know he existed, etc. Rubinstein adds an interesting note of his own (although it makes one worry that he’s not getting quite enough rest up there at Aberyswyth): that Shakespeare the actor and theater manager simply wouldn’t have had the time to write all those plays – that his day job would have exhausted him (less persuasive is Rubinstein’s continued assertion that there’s no link between the known events of Shakespeare’s life and the ‘trajectory’ of his plays from light and facile to dark and brilliant – our author is far too cavalier in dismissing the impact of the death of Shakespeare’s father and son as just such catalysts). As Rubinstein playfully points out, once Shakespeare could make money as a producer of plays, he’d hardly keep up the grind of writing them:

This would be as if someone appointed from the shop floor to become a director of General Motors voluntarily continued to work night shifts at their auto factory four times a week for the fun of it.

The usual suspects are then rounded up. First of course is Edward de Vere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford, who’d already have the job if he hadn’t inconveniently died in 1604, well before many of Shakespeare’s plays were known to be written. Everything else fits perfectly: the learning, the experience, the travel, the access to upper nobility’s world, even the vocabulary. But that death-date is nigh-impossible to circumvent – it would require a radical re-dating of half of Shakespeare’s canon. And, for that matter, Oxford was a fairly busy man too.

That goes double for the other most-likely candidate, Sir Francis Bacon. Rubinstein has a good deal of dry fun in this section – mainly, one suspects, because he’s well aware of the sheer volume of malarkey Bacon has inspired in this context. Our author duly lists the pros and cons, pausing an extra beat on the most damning of all:

Sir Francis Bacon’s elephantine prose style is utterly unlike Shakespeare’s, and stands in comparison with Shakespeare’s style in roughly the same way that the poems of Pushkin compare to a speech by Leonid Brezhnev on tractor production in the Urals.

The other names on Rubinstein’s list range from the famous and unlikely – Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, even a glance at Queen Elizabeth I – to less familiar folk like William Stanley, the Sixth Earl of Derby, or Roger Manners, the Fifth Earl of Rutland. In each instance, the cases for the prosecution and the defense are laid out with equal attention and balance, with length proportionate to how serious the case was from the beginning.

The cumulative effect of all this is, as always, quite damning to the man from Stratford, the petty, mean-spirited low-tier plutocrat who left London as soon as he’d made a pile of money, hoarded food during a famine, sued friends over pocket change, and, amidst the bric-a-brac left in his will to his wife and illiterate daughters, made no mention of books or plays, by himself or anybody else (and whose death didn’t provoke so much as a comment from anybody at the time). That the beefeater buffoon looking out at the world from the Martin Droeshout portrait of First Folio could have written Henry V or Midsummer Night’s Dream (to say nothing of King Lear) seems patently absurd. A simple accounting of the facts only underscores this.

Of course Rubinstein doesn’t stop there. On the Shakespeare-authorship question, nobody – absolutely nobody – ever does. If they did – if such writers simply said, “we don’t know who wrote the plays of Shakespeare, but it sure as Hell wasn’t the Stratford man,” their position would be unassailable. But instead, they invariably paint targets on their own backs by backing one candidate or another. For most of his book, Rubinstein looks to be avoiding this pitfall – but then he gets to wealthy courtier and intellectual nonentity Sir Henry Neville and (perhaps weary?) decides to turn in his ticket and declare a winner.

Rubinstein runs through the man’s qualifications, but it scarcely matters what they are: once you put forward a candidate, you’re fatally vulnerable. The whole genesis of the Shakespearean-authorship question is doubt – not just doubt that the man from Stratford could have written the greatest body of work this side of Homer (who was really Hesiod? Let’s not get started, shall we?), but doubt that anybody could. Raise those doubts – revel in them, even – and you’re on firm footing, since nobody could possibly be good enough to be Shakespeare. Declare an author, and your footing abruptly disappears – because nobody could possibly be good enough to be Shakespeare.