Esdaile's Reviews > The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality

The Mysterious William Shakespeare by Charlton Ogburn Jr.
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's review
Jan 21, 2012

it was amazing
bookshelves: biographies, my-library, psychology, renaissance-drama, literary-criticism, revisonist
Read from January 21 to 29, 2012

A little personal background first. I studied Shakespeare at school and was struck at the time I did so by the fact that in class virtually no biography of the man was offered at all, in contrast to the biographical details which were readily supplied to us for Chaucer and Milton. There was always an aura of mystery about the man William Shakespeare. I had somewhat vaguely heard of doubts about the main referred to as the author. I think my mother once mentioned that some people questioned the official biography and a friend of mine lent me a book when I was quite young in which one of the main characters argues that Francis Bacon wrote the Shkespeare plays. In that book by the way, there is a hilarious review of a Shakespeare production in which the reviewer concludes by stating that the Shakespeare controvery will be settled by this production, for if the coffins of the Shakespeare contenders are opened one only has to see which corspe will have turned!
Shortly after school I decided to buy a biography and picked up the one by AL Rowse I think it was. I was disappointed and uneasy. The work was replete with speculation and supposition. Astonishingly little was known as fact about the most famous writer in the Western world. The book wa sfull of hypotheses and suppositions "it may be" "probably", perhaps" etc. For years I let it rest. Shakespeare was a phenomenon rather than a person. Years later I came across this book in a British Council library and I found Charlton Ogburn echoing thoughts which had been slumbering within me so to speak for the last 30 years. This book is really two books, one pointing out what an edifice of fraudulent assurance has built on foudntationms of speculation and scant evidence and in so arguing, Ogburn denyiesauthorship to the man from Stratford. The second part of the book presents Edward de Vere, the Seventeeth Earl of Oxford Earl of Oxford, on avialable evidence, as the only conceivable writer of Shakespeare's works.
I shall not enter into the details of the argument-that is what the book is for-but would like to make a few observations on the signficance of this debate and the issues at stake in conspiracy theories in general.
Firstly, when a conspiracy is suspected and the cry of "hoax!" is raised in connection with some historical event-to take another example than this, Josephine Tay's challenge to Shakespeare's own portrayal of Richard III as the murderer of the two princes in the Tower in a book called "The Daughter of Time" BOTH sides become committed to their positions in such a manner that neither side is disinterested. Both sides in such debates in the great majority are highly partisan.
In the case of the authorship debate both sides tend to have a political agendas in a broad sense of the word agenda, one eltist and one anti-elitist. Orthodox scholars never tire of insisting that challengers to the Stratford theory are motivated by snobbery and elitism, overlooking the fact that upholders of orthdoxy are equally inspired by the myth of a "man of the people" showing that genius can sprout up anywhere and that a man or woman of the humblest circumstances can be Shakespeare. Many of those involved in this debate on both sides have an agenda. More importantly however is the personal commitment. For example, if one has written a book like this it very hard and takes a deal of moral courage to retract one's views-even if the "smoking gun" had been produced, anti-Stratfordians would be denying it to the bitter end, they have invested too much in their case. Likewise orthdoxy-those who have committed themsleves in print to the Stratford cause will look very foolish accepting they were wrong. This should be borne in mind when considering arguemnts from either side.
I am convinced by the argument that Shakespeare was not the the obscurecommoner from Stratford. Ogburn's enormous rivetting work goes to great length explaining how claiming authorship for the man from Stratford runs in the face of everything we know about human nature. The core of this work however, is the argument that Shakespeare's plays are the fruit of experience. If this is accepted, then the works, aristocratic and elitist through and through can only be accepted as having been written by a member of the aristocracy.
Common sense prompts me to accept Ogburn's arguments. There is also an instinctive reason. The dismissive and defensive reaction of upholders of orthodoxy, who seem unwilling to even discuss the issue, does not give the impression of much self-assurance on their part. Their invective and abuse of doubters is remarkable and calls to mind the loud protests of someone rightly accused of some misdemeanour. In this context I would note especially 1) the cynical accusationm that "Oxfordians" blithely ignore the fact that the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, years before many major works were written. Those who use this argument, hoping thereby to make challengers to orthodoxy seem like "conspiracy nuts who ignore the facts when they are inconvenient" simply neglect to inform the unwary that nobody has any evidence as to exactly in what year Shakespeare's plays were written in any case. No original copies exist of any play and no date of composition. All is speculation. 2) the repeated statement or implication that alternative theories as to the true authorship have been "laid to rest". They have not. To my knowledge, nobody has made any systematic attempt to challenge Ogburn's arguments in this book. The usual reaction by the hostile is "elitist claptrap" "lunacy" and other even less complimentary comments. Another especially silly and fatuous argument (used by the late critic Bernard Levin among others) is that many people have been put forward as "candidates" which shows how shallow the anti-Stratford arguments are. That is like saying, -"three members of the jury disagree with the majority that the accused is guilty but disagree as to who is guilty. That proves that the accused is guilty."
Whether conclusive evidence will ever be found I doubt but surely common sense and all evidence is weighed heavily against the authorship of the man from Stratford. Anyone sure that traditonal orthdoxy got it right should treat the many arguments which have gathered over the years with respect and point out in an intelligent and well informed way why they are wrong. To Stratfordians the question is: where is any measured, intellgient and densely argued risposte to this and other challenges to the orthdox biography?
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