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The Shakespeare Mystery 



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18 April 1989 (UK)  »

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Despite a Few Shortcomings Still the Best Small Screen Presentation on the Shakespeare Question
1 September 2008 | by (Oakland, CA) – See all my reviews

What if the most famous writer of the English language, William Shakespeare, was not the man from Stratford-on-Avon as tradition holds but a somewhat forgotten nobleman using "William Shakespeare" as a pseudonym? And what if that nobleman's writings characterized and satirized prominent personages of the Elizabethan court to a degree that if it was known, the very writing of these plays would have birthed a scandal? This is the subject of "The Shakespeare Mystery". And there are people on both sides of the debate fervently committed to their point of view. In academia, if it were ever established that William Shakespeare, poet/playwright, was not the man from Stratford born in 1564 but a nobleman born in 1550, thousands of volumes of scholarship would become irrelevant. And the residence of Stratford might lose yearly tourism. A lot is at stake.

There is probably no other writer in the English Language with the stature equivalent to that of William Shakespeare. Simultaneously, there is also no other writer of such prominence in the late English Renaissance that is more shrouded in mystery. Tradition has held that he was born in Stratford-on-Avon in 1564, made his income as a businessman, arrived in London during the 1580's, became an actor and writer for a period of about 20 to 25 years, and returned to Stratford in the early 1600's, thus ending his theatrical career before his death in 1616. And subsequently became the most celebrated figure of English letters.

The first half of the documentary relate the known facts based on the few primary sources that survive which record his birth, business transactions (primarily grain and property), and his death, in the form of a will that is very characteristically un-Shakespearian. However, few primary sources survive linking him to the theatrical scene of London: a recorded document that lists him along with other members of a theatrical company in London, The Lord Chamberlain's Men/The King's Men and another document that he was part owner of the same company that owned the Globe Theatre. A short reference to him in a pamphlet called "Greene's Groats-worth of Witte" (1592) in which a playwright, presumably Shakespeare, is chastised is briefly mentioned. Other than the two poems that bore the name "as by William Shakespeare", Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece, 1594 and 1595, respectively, and the early quartos bearing his name, "These are the nuggets", as correspondent Alan Austin comments when showing the meager amount of Shakespeare primary sources that survive. No letters in Shakespeare's hand are known to exist--only six signatures, all spelled differently, and written by someone who was illiterate according to the anti-Stratfordians.

The documentary then moves to an alternative theory, proposed by an English schoolmaster, J. Thomas Looney (pronounced loan-ee), in "Shakespeare Identified" (1922). Looney suggests a new candidate, an alternative to Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe, the leading candidates among anti-Stratfordians during the 19th century. His conclusion: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, penned the plays under the pseudonym "William Shakespeare". The documentary outlines Looney's method. After a painstaking examination of the plays, Looney outlines some of the characteristics of who Shakespeare might have been. He loved Italian fashion and culture, was engaged in Falconry, was a lawyer, and, probably most important of all, was a poet before he hid under the name of "Shakespeare". Looney found two primary sources that identify Oxford as a poet and playwright. Some of his early poems survive, while all of his plays seem to be missing. And he appears to have completely stopped writing by middle age. This was the link that led Looney to believe he had found his man.

Probably the weakest aspects of the documentary occur during some of the interviews with the leaders of both sides of the debate, particularly Charleton Ogburn for the Oxfordians, and A.L. Rowse and Samuel Schoenbaum for the Stratfordians. In one of Ogburn's early assessments, his view that "we've vested {Shakespeare's work} on this miserable unattractive Stratford man of whom, nothing good was ever said..." does little to shed light on the question. Some of the greatest artists in history, Beethoven and Wagner come to mind, were (or are) neither attractive nor terribly well-liked during their lifetimes. Later, A.L. Rowse is put on the defensive when asked why there have been doubts about the Stratford man. I think I would have preferred if Austin had asked him why we should have no doubt about Stratford. Later, when asked about Oxford, Rowse points out that Oxford wrote no plays but was a "roaring homo", as if being a heterosexual is a prerequisite to the honor of being Shakespeare.

Later, when Schoenbaum is confronted with the issue, he dismisses those notions by saying that he doesn't "find any grassy knoll (referencing the JFK conspiracy theory) in Shakespeare." He further expounds the reasons for the Shakespeare debate that it is simply a means to "come to terms with the incomprehensibility of genius", which sheds no light on why the man from Stratford is Shakespeare. Analyzing the psychology of the Oxfordians is not evidence in either direction. Again, I would have liked him to have been asked specifically, given the scant amount of primary sources regarding Shakesepeare, why the public should continue to hold the Stratfordian view.

Still, the documentary stands on its own as a good assessment of the issue and why the debate even exists. "The Shakespeare Mystery" does not exactly answer the question it poses, but rather demonstrates the point of view of the different sides and why they are on these sides. The debate rages on. Stratford is still the incumbent but Oxford is gaining ground. Academia has often categorically dismissed even the notion that there might be a question. They may not be able to afford to avoid the debate in the years to come.

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