Often, when faced with true talent and mastery, it’s easy for many to doubt such greatness. For the bard with 38 plays, 154 sonnets and two narrative poems, culminating in 884,647 published words, this is exactly the case.
William Shakespeare is revered as one of the greatest English literary geniuses to ever exist, creating stories that encapsulate a variety of genres, themes and characters that are ever-present in our world today. It’s for these very reasons that his authorship and legitimacy are often and unfortunately questioned.
The first major conspiracy surrounding Shakespeare’s authorship rose in popularity more than 200 years after his death. It was in the mid-19th century that American writer Delia Bacon first suggested that the bard of Stratford-upon-Avon had nothing to do with his own work, claiming that it was the product of either Sir Walter Raleigh or Sir Francis Bacon. To try and find supporting evidence, Bacon went through great lengths to uncover information to support her claims, even attempting to dig up Shakespeare’s grave, but came up with little in the end.
Since these early days of accusations, the question of authorship has only grown in popularity, adding to the list of potential people that could’ve been behind Shakespeare’s plays. These claims, however, are founded in a strong elitist foundation which in itself, ignores the facts of Shakespeare’s background.
Most often, doubters of Shakespeare’s capabilities look to his humble upbringings as the foundation of their argument. They hold the belief that for someone with such a modest early life, education and sense of world living, Shakespeare certainly couldn’t have been the one to craft these works.
These beliefs, however, are incredibly narrow.
While Shakespeare did not receive education at a university like many of his contemporaries did, he wasn’t the only one to be a playwright without it. Names like Ben Jonson, Francis Beaumont and John Webster are just a few who also never received degrees from English universities and yet are remembered for their contributions to English Renaissance literature.
Additionally, Shakespeare’s attendance at the King’s New School exposed him to not only English, but also Greek and Latin. He spent his time partaking in classical education, reading primarily Latin prose and drama from the likes of Virgil and Horace. And even though his father was an illiterate glove
While the components of grammar school were ultimately limited, Shakespeare also was provided other opportunities to learn and engage with the world around him. For starters, he was a known actor and also had access to literature to provide him with knowledge on the vast subjects he wrote about. It was “Holinshed’s Chronicles” that influenced many of Shakespeare’s history plays, from “Macbeth” to “King Lear.” Additionally, the mythical writings of Saxo Grammaticus exposed Shakespeare to the story of the Danish prince Amleth that ended up leading him to create his great tragedy, “Hamlet.”
There is also clear acknowledgement of Shakespeare during various times of his career.
Notably, English Renaissance author Francis Meres mentions in “Wits Treasury,” a collection of new writers at the turn of the 16th century, including Shakespeare and a number of his plays written before 1598. In this work, he is listed among the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Michael Drayton and Edmund Spenser. Additionally, Jonson authored an entire poem dedicated to him, titled “To the Memory of my Beloved the Author, Mr. William Shakespeare.” There are also countless other works that reference Shakespeare in his playwright occupation.
While highly regarded as a playwright amongst his peers, Shakespeare also faced criticism. In writer Robert Greene’s pamphlet, “Greene’s Groats-Worth of Wit,” Greene famously calls Shakespeare an “upstart crow,” which many scholars today say refers to Shakespeare’s incapability to properly socialize with those of higher social status.
Connected to the point Greene makes about Shakespeare’s social climb is the fact that his family’s coat of arms has been found in a manuscript that made its way to North America. The manuscript “Promptuarium Armorum” depicts a collection of coats of arms from English families of higher status, and in it
, is the Shakespeare family arms. What is notable about this manuscript is not just the reference to Shakespeare, but it also furthers the hypothesis that Shakespeare himself was looking to obtain the arms not only on behalf of his father, but also to assist his budding career as a playwright.
Whether or not you enjoy Shakespeare, it is incredibly difficult to denounce his existence and occupation. As an individual who worked his way up the social ladder and defied the odds set by a modest upbringing, Shakespeare should be remembered for his greatness without question of his legitimacy.