The new reading room of the Folger Shakespeare Library is dominated by a huge painting of the sort that Oscar Wilde's Lady Bracknell might have characterized as being of "more than usually revolting sentimentality." Many scholars who do their research beneath it would share that view. ("I try to keep my back to it," one longtime reader says.) But when it was painted, around 1792, The Infant Shakespeare Attended by Nature and the Passions, by George Romney, was a reflection of the fledgling cult that over the next century matured into what George Bernard Shaw would disdainfully dub "Bardolatry."
The origins of this cult are usually dated to the publication of Samuel Johnson's edition of Shakespeare's plays, in 1765, and the Shakespeare Jubilee staged by the actor David Garrick in Stratford-on-Avon, in 1769. The jubilee brought into the open a division that would shape perceptions of Shakespeare well into the future: the actor's Shakespeare versus the scholar's Shakespeare. The actor's Shakespeare was a fellow who wrote plum parts, often set to musically poetic verse. Actors do not seem to have ever doubted that he wrote his plays for the stage—what else would one write a play for? The scholar's Shakespeare, on the other hand, could not be revealed in an "ephemeral stage work," as Martha Winburn England put it; he became apparent only in "the eternal values of written commentary." The likeness of the author that would emerge from these studies was of a highly educated man versed in law and classical literature, fluent in several languages, equally at home at court and on the Continent.
In the 1780s the Reverend James Wilmot scoured Stratford and its environs but could find nothing of the omniscient, cosmopolitan Shakespeare his generation had created. There were only documents of a propertied country gentleman and his rather hard-nosed business dealings, disposed of in a distinctly unpoetic will, sandwiched between church records of his birth and death. Wilmot concluded that the Immortal Bard could not have been that very mortal man. Nowadays, those who dispute the authorship of the plays do concede that there was a "man from Stratford" named "Shakspere" in Elizabethan theater, probably an actor, though not a very good one. He was, they assert, paid off by confederates of the real playwright to go back to Stratford and leave behind the Shakespeare name for the exclusive use of the True Author. No fewer than fifty-eight claimants to that title have been put forward; because the current front-runner is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, the authorship challengers shall here be called Oxfordians. (And let it be understood that any reference by me to Shakespeare is always to that "man from Stratford.") While modern Shakespeare scholars have sought to restore the playwright to his own age and its teeming theater world, Oxfordians carry on the search for Shakespeare the man of vast knowledge, Shakespeare the well-traveled courtier—the Shakespeare who overwhelms all in his age: the Shakespeare of whom Charles Vere, the spear-carrier for his distant ancestor and the family name, has said: "If you get Shakespeare wrong, you get the Elizabethan Age wrong."
The major questions that have been raised and that will be addressed here are whether the contemporaneous record of the man and playwright is suspect; whether the "Soul of the Age" (as Ben Jonson called him) was the very heart of it as well; and, finally, whether Shakespeare was indeed a man of the theater.
There is more about Shakespeare in contemporary materials than about most others in English Renaissance theater. An ample supply of references to Shakespeare as a player and playwright establish his position in the acting company that was under the patronage of the Lord Chamberlain and, from May of 1603 onward, of King James I. Another ample supply of references made during Shakespeare's lifetime substantiate that his plays were performed in public playhouses and also in private theaters and at court. Relatively few though these documents may seem by modern standards, they pose a considerable problem for Oxfordians—and, as Charlton Ogburn, Oxford's foremost American champion, has said, "you can't get anywhere with Oxford unless you dispose of the Stratford man." Ogburn has led the attempt to portray the record of Shakespeare the man as entirely anomalous, and the documents that place Shakespeare within the theater of his time as ambiguous or faulty, while suggesting that those that have not survived might have been deliberately destroyed. These arguments are a disprovable feast, of which only a taste can be given here.
For example, Oxfordians question not merely whether Shakespeare had enough education to be the author of the plays but whether he had any education at all. Wilmot was the first to discover that there is no record of Shakespeare's having attended the Stratford grammar school (nor, for that matter, is there any record of anyone else's having done so before the nineteenth century). Ogburn plants the suspicion that the school records "would have disappeared because they showed he did not attend it." In contrast, Oxfordians observe, virtually all the other dramatists of Shakespeare's age, except Ben Jonson, had been to university, and Jonson had been a student of the learned William Camden, at Westminster School. Camden, however, was the second master, teaching only the lower forms when Jonson attended. Jonson could not, then, have had much more than a few years of rudimentary schooling before he was put to work, probably at his stepfather's trade, bricklaying. Nevertheless, Jonson would become, as we shall see, Britain's most admired playwright in the seventeenth century, and also effectively its first poet laureate. In the top rank of classical scholars, he would be granted honorary master's degrees by both Oxford and Cambridge. Evidently there may be more to both scholarship and literary genius than a formal education.