The Case for Shakespeare

In defense of Shakespeare as the author of the Shakespeare works

What seems even more suspicious to Oxfordians than Shakespeare's indifference to his own greatness is the complementary indifference of his contemporaries. "To make Shakspere the author," said Peter Jaszi, an Oxfordian attorney, in an authorship debate in Washington, D.C., in September of 1987, "we would have to explain away the lack of recognition, in life and at death, that he would have received as such an author, in London or in Stratford." This seems a perfectly reasonable idea in the twentieth century, and especially nowadays, when a person can be famous for being famous, and journalists and biographers will root through trash to find every scrap of paper that may hold some secret to this evanescent personality. But the Elizabethans were guilty of something more than failing to anticipate what our century would want to know about Shakespeare: there is little reason to believe they shared our exalted opinion of the Bard.

To put Shakespeare into the perspective of his age, one must recognize that stage plays were considered things of slight literary merit. In 1612 Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of the famous Bodleian Library, at Oxford, took the library's keeper to task for cataloguing "riffraffs," a category that included plays. "Some plays," he allowed, "may be worth the keeping, but hardly one in forty." For although the playwrights of other nations were "men of great fame for wisdom and learning," such qualities were "seldom or never seen among us." Indeed, he feared the scandal "when it shall be given out that we stuff [the library] full of baggage books." None of Shakespeare's plays was among the one in forty.

For all the honors that were soon to be conferred on Ben Jonson, when his 1616 folio, The Works of Benjamin Jonson, appeared, a wag posed the famous question, "Pray tell me, Ben, where doth the mystery lurk,/What others call a play you call a work."

Though John Dryden was an admirer of Shakespeare's, he confessed that Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher "had with the advantage of Shakespeare's wit, which was their precedent, great natural gifts, improv'd by study," and that for this reason "their Plays are now the most pleasant and frequent entertainments of the Stage; two of theirs being acted through the year for one of Shakespeare's or Jonson's." Whether or not Dryden's estimate is reliable, the Restoration audiences of Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher saw the plays as they had been written. But Shakespeare offended this refined age, violating its idea of dramatic form and good taste. Not many of his plays escaped thorough adaptation. The Macbeth that Restoration audiences saw owed more to Sir William Davenant than to Shakespeare; Nahum Tate's revision of King Lear is notorious. Antony and Cleopatra was newly made by Dryden to become All for Love. And so on.

In Shakespeare and Jonson, the scholar Gerald Eades Bentley set himself the task of comparing the reputations of the two in the seventeenth century. By tabulating direct references to the playwrights, their plays, and their characters, he found that "not only was Jonson mentioned oftener, quoted oftener, and praised oftener, but his individual plays and poems were named more frequently than Shakespeare's, though his canon is smaller." Six plays by Jonson were mentioned more frequently than any work by Shakespeare; there were more than twice as many references to Catiline as to the most frequently named Shakespeare tragedy, Othello.

Well into the next century Shakespeare would be derided "for neglecting the unities, for ignoring the ancients, for violating decorum by resorting to tragicomedy and supernatural characters, and for using puns and blank verse." In 1709 his greatest interpreter in Restoration theater, the tragedian Thomas Betterton, looked down loftily upon the man who "liv'd under a kind of mere Light of Nature a state of almost universal License and Ignorance."

Betterton's opinion appeared in the first modern edition of Shakespeare's plays, edited by Nicholas Rowe himself a dramatist who would become poet laureate of Britain. Ben Jonson had left behind carefully edited plays, and an excellent Beaumont and Fletcher folio was published in 1647; the Shakespeare folio texts were by comparison poor stuff. Rowe's attempt to put the texts in order incidentally set into motion the incredible reversal of opinion about their author. In 1725 Alexander Pope's edition attempted to better Rowe, and was in turn challenged by Lewis Theobald, with more to come. Finally Samuel Johnson set his formidable self to the task, for which he enlisted the aid of several literary scholars. However, not even this titanic effort satisfied George Steevens (who would collaborate with Johnson on subsequent editions). "A perfect edition of the plays of Shakespeare," he wrote after the publication of Johnson's edition, "requires at once the assistance of the Antiquary, the Historian, the Grammarian, and the Poet." It had not been a hundred years since Nahum Tate, Rowe's predecessor as poet laureate, had reworked King Lear, which he declared to be "a heap of jewels...dazzling in their disorder," and Dryden had removed from Troilus and Cressida "that heap of Rubbish, under which so many excellent Thoughts lay wholly bury'd." Now the originals of these plays and their brethren needed nothing less than the efforts of a legion of scholars to be fully revealed. It was inevitable that someone would conclude that the author who required such a throwing about of brains must have been quite a brain himself, at once a master of the classics, of geography, of law, of court life—of any subject that could be found in his plays. This would become the Shakespeare of the authorship debate.


At the heart of the authorship controversy is not only what we should expect to find of the author in his own time but precisely what his special genius was. Was it essential that he have been a man deeply involved in the world of the theater (as Oxford was not)? Or could he have been, as Algernon Charles Swinburne contended, a learned belletrist who wrote for the studious future reader "who would be competent and careful to appreciate what his audience and fellow actors could not"?

Virtually all the support Ogburn can muster for the notion that Shakespeare was not a man of the theater is from nineteenth-century critics. For instance, Ogburn cites William Hazlitt's comment "We do not like to see our author's plays acted, and least of all, Hamlet." Hazlitt wrote this, however, in a review of a specific performance (by Edmund Kean). In fact, it was Hazlitt who believed that Shakespeare wrote for the "great vulgar and the small," and that he did so for those "in his time, not for posterity." Indeed, no one has more eloquently captured the unique qualities of Shakespeare's theater than Hazlitt did when he wrote in praise of the "wonderful truth and individuality of conception" of his characters, each "as much itself, and as absolutely independent of the rest, as well as of the author, as if they were living persons, not fictions of the mind." This is precisely what a playwright must accomplish. And no one has done it better than Shakespeare. Unlike the narrative poet or the novelist who, in Hazlitt's words, "answer[s] for his characters himself," Shakespeare created characters who "introduced upon the stage are liable to be asked all sorts of questions, and are forced to answer for themselves." Simply, Shakespeare had the power to make a well-rehearsed actor seem spontaneous, even unpredictable—the power to improvise a life upon the stage.

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