‘Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets’ – Ben Jonson

In the course of a couple of months’ highly enjoyable immersion in the Shakespeare authorship question, I have mentioned it to various people, including teaching colleagues, both literature and Theory of Knowledge teachers. The most common response I get is “Does it matter?”

I could take this as both a first order knowledge question (about history) and adapt it into a second order knowledge question (about knowledge in general). Does Shakespeare’s identity matter (1) in the fields of history and literature and (2) does the pursuit of knowledge in general require justification? Or is knowledge worth pursuing for its own sake?

To take the universal question first, I would first note that the pay-off of research is rarely known at the outset. It is rarely possible to predict the practical applications of finding the answer to a question until that answer is found, and often not even then. The implications of a discovery may not become apparent until other discoveries are made in related or apparently unrelated fields, and this may take hundreds or even thousands of years. Gunpowder, for instance, was invented thousands of years before guns came on the scene. So the first answer to the question of whether a particular inquiry ‘matters’ has to be ‘I don’t know. Maybe.’ Most of what we know scientifically would not be known if it weren’t for open-ended inquiry – ‘blue sky’ research.

Therefore the answer “I don’t know” to the question “Does it matter?” is both legitimate and empowering. In finding the answer, we may also find out why it matters, or not. We can’t know in advance.

Human beings are endowed with a desire to know. Knowledge is the human project. We don’t need to know why we need to know. Curiosity is an instinct – and has made us what we are. For the human animal, curiosity has survival value – and that’s why we can derive intense pleasure from solving a problem or entering into a mystery.


Especially such a beautiful one as this.

In my case, I’m using it to model a Theory Of Knowledge presentation, so clearly I must believe that it has potential to shed light on the historical process, and on the nature of knowledge.

It quickly becomes apparent that Shakespeare’s identity is not, at this point, provable beyond reasonable doubt. It’s not as if we can find DNA or fingerprint evidence. Shakespeare wrote over 900,000 words, and every single one of them, in its holographic form, has disappeared. In fact William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon left behind nothing in his own handwriting – no notes, drafts, unfinished works, poems, letters, nothing – except six signatures on legal documents. The evidence which exists takes the form of personal and impersonal third-party testimony; textual evidence from literary works, including certain embedded codes, puns and so on; circumstantial evidence; all of this is by its nature ambiguous and in need of interpretation; none of it is open-and-shut.

Therefore we need to advance a second knowledge question, relating primarily to history but also to all other fields which deal in a search for objective reality or ‘truth’; and that is, how should we proceed when proof is not available?

First, we must acknowledge the absence of proof – we must acknowledge that we don’t know. Therefore we should not behave as if we do – showing impatience or hostility towards alternative hypotheses, for example, or questioning the integrity or motives of those who propose them. The reality of not knowing poses a threat to those whose interests are served by the claim to know, and so they tend to respond in an authoritarian and defensive fashion, resorting to ad hominem characterizations or trying to prematurely close the debate (often by falling back on the cry of ‘Does it matter?’) when they feel the ground slipping from under them. The refusal of such self-appointed gate-keepers to keep up with new research makes them irrelevant and often impossible to engage in rational discussion. Those who support the conventional case for William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon are relying on a vanishingly small and highly ambiguous body of evidence.


The case for William Shakspere

As I’ve discussed in a previous post, this is how the Stratford-upon-Avon man spelled his name, and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, once this became known, this spelling was widely adopted by academics and critics. Therefore it’s a valid way to identify this particular candidate for authorship. It is not intended to be disparaging. He was christened Gulielmus filius Johannes Shakspere: so ‘Shakspere’ it is.

The case for Shakspere is unconvincing, verging on non-existent. While all the other candidates for authorship were known as writers, this is not the case for the Stratford Shakspere. Indeed nothing that is known about this man suggests that he was a writer of any kind. His main occupation was as a broker and moneylender. He bought and sold bagged goods, and was once fined for hoarding grain during a famine. He brokered at least one marriage, and may also have brokered plays. He was litigious, pursuing debtors through the courts for small amounts. The original monument in Stratford-upon-Avon showed him with his hands resting on a bag of grain (as sketched by William Dugdale in 1634).

The Stratford monument in 1634. Where’s the writer?

Questions of probability abound. Is it probable that the world’s greatest writer never wrote a letter to anyone which has survived? Is it probable that the world’s greatest writer would not have ensured that his daughters received an education?

These questions come down to intuition. It’s not just that proof is lacking. The more we know about the biography of William Shakspere, the less it feels like the biography of a writer. There’s a mismatch between the personality which emerges from the works, and the personality which emerges from the Stratford records. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I cannot marry the facts of William Shakespeare to his verse: Other men had led lives in some sort of keeping with their thought, but this man is in wide contrast.”

It’s significant that many of those who question the Stratford man’s authorship of the plays have themselves been writers, actors or directors. Shakespeare left behind no juvenilia, no record of apprenticeship or the experimentation a writer must go through in the search for his style, his scope, his voice. According to the usual narrative, Shakespeare just suddenly appears on the literary scene, in full mastery of his field. Then, in 1612, he just as suddenly retires, returns to Stratford and never picks up a pen again. The Argentinian prose-poet Jorge Luis Borges was intrigued by this, the curious tale spurring his imagination in the story Everyone and No-one. Many writers and creative practitioners, however, don’t buy it. Writers know that you don’t just switch on and off like that. There is always youthful experimentation, imitation and apprenticeship. Where are the juvenilia? Likewise, writers don’t just switch off. Where are the unfinished works, the eighteen unpublished plays left behind when he died (and which surfaced in the First Folio)? Were these not in possession of the author?

It doesn’t ring true.

This is the voice of intuition, and of course intuition must be treated with caution as a way of knowing. Such an intuitive claim must be checked against counterclaims – the claims made in support of the Stratford man’s authorship. For now, I’ll just take the primary claim made by conventional scholars and commentators, and show how it has been undermined by more recent research. ‘Historical facts happen’ – to quote Jonathan Bate – and sometimes they unhappen.

The single most important knowledge claim made by conventional biographers is that we know Shakspere wrote Shakespeare because Ben Jonson confirmed his identity in the First Folio by calling him: ‘the Sweet Swan of Avon.’

This assertion is absolutely central to the case for Shakspere. ‘Avon’ is claimed to be the River Avon in Warwickshire, which runs through the town of Stratford-upon-Avon where Shakspere lived and died. Taken together with L L Digges reference (also in the Preface) to ‘thy Stratford monument’, this is held to constitute proof of identity.

In subjecting any claim to scrutiny we should first check for hidden or unwarranted assumptions. Here, the assumption is that ‘Avon’ signifies this particular location. But could it signify any other places with which the author Shakespeare is known to have been associated?

Two discoveries have been made. First, ‘Avon’ literally means ‘waters’ or ‘watery place’, and it turns out that there are seven River Avons in England – ‘avon’ is simply the old Welsh or Brythonic word for ‘river’. There’s one in Wiltshere, for instance, which runs not far from the Pembroke family seat at Wilton House, though not close enough perhaps to be used to identify Mary Sydney as Shakespeare.

The breakthrough research comes from the brilliant and acerbic controversialist Alexander Waugh, and it almost completely pulls the rug from under the Stratfordian case.

Waugh’s great discovery is that ‘Avon’ was also the old name for the place outside London, on the banks of the Thames and amid the water-meadows of its tributaries, where Henry VIII built the palace of Hampton Court, his English Versailles. This is where both Elizabeth and James held their Revels. Plays were at the heart of the winter, spring and summer Revels, including the plays of Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote for the Crown’s theatre company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, and later the King’s Men. He wrote, not just and perhaps not primarily, for the public stage, but for educated audiences at the Inns of Court and the Royal Court itself. The Swan of Avon was the poet of Hampton Court:

Sweet swan of Avon! what a fight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appeare,

And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,

That so did take Eliza, and our James !

The line tells us nothing except that Shakespeare was celebrated at Court, which we already knew. What it does not tell us is that Shakespeare came from Stratford-upon-Avon. The main witness for the defense just crumbled under cross-examination, but the professors snooze blissfully in their ivory towers, oblivious to the real research that’s going on – because they know that Shakespeare was the moneylender from Stratford. Best not to wake them up – they get awfully grumpy when their nap is interrupted.

Stratford! Calling Stratford! You just lost Ben Jonson!



Examples such as this help us to understand how to proceed when proof is not available. In the case of the Stratford hypothesis, it cannot be proved or disproved. However, we can look at the hypothesis and ask, not whether it is right or wrong, but whether it is productive. In other words, does it lead to new avenues of inquiry, new connections and directions which might at some point lead to proof?

I came across the notion of a productive hypothesis when I took an interest in the controversy surrounding HIV-AIDS. There’s an analogy between the two cases: in both it’s a question of attribution. In both we have a phenomenon – the works of Shakespeare or the physical syndrome called AIDS – and what we want to know is the origin of the phenomenon. Neither one is proved – around 20% of people who die from AIDS are HIV negative, and AIDS deaths are not accompanied by the flooding of the body’s system with the microbial agent, which would normally be required in order to attribute the disease to that particular microbe. HIV is a retrovirus, and no retrovirus has ever been linked with any serious disease. The history of Dr Robert Gallo’s discovery of HIV is dogged with all kinds of irregularities in terms of scientific protocol, the epidemiology as highly untypical, and the hypothesis has not led to significant breakthroughs. For these reasons, it is characterized by scientists such as Dr Peter Duesberg of Berkeley University as an ‘unproductive’ hypothesis.

This is not the same as saying it’s wrong. But the implication is that a good hypothesis would be more productive. If the hypothesis were even along the right lines, it would be expected to lead to further discoveries and avenues of inquiry. I would say that one of the characteristics of truth is that it is productive, since in the objective reality (whether of history or science) everything is organically interconnected. If you touch one strand of the truth, others will vibrate.

Duesberg, acknowledged as the world’s leading retrovirologist until he got side-swiped by the AIDS controversy, merely advises us that the HIV hypothesis has not proved productive, and that we should therefore be looking at alternative hypotheses. He has put one forward himself, that the collapse of immune systems is more likely to be triggered by toxicity than infection: but he has been denied funding to test his hypothesis, and has been ostracized, vilified and professionally victimized by his university to a saddening degree; merely for advancing an alternative hypothesis. We have to ask, why should the scientific method be abandoned like this in certain areas? The scientific method is broadly analogous to the historical method, and the same question applies in the Shakespeare debate. Alternative hypotheses should be welcomed; a more productive hypothesis may eventually lead to proof. The hypothesis we have, after four hundred years, has led nowhere.

However, we see the same kind of circling of academic wagons in the Shakespeare debate. Until recently, no one was able to combine doubts about Shakespeare with a University teaching career. Expression of such doubts opens one up to all kinds of mockery and prejudice. Doubters are dubbed ‘conspiracy theorists’ and ‘crackpots’. If you don’t think Shakspere wrote Shakespeare, you must think that the moon landings were faked. If we’re going to discuss the authorship of Shakespeare, perhaps we should first discuss whether the Holocaust really occurred?

These are real examples, by the way. Weaponized fallacies. Thought-extinguishing cliches. Veiled threats.

Hmm. When you hear this kind of ad hominem, you’ve got to notice that it certainly seems to matter to some people.


Whether in science or history, you have to start with a hypothesis. The hypothesis is an essential part of the process; the hypothesis tells you where to look. If you look there for four hundred years and find nothing, then the hypothesis can fairly be called unproductive. Epistemologically, the  Shakespeare Authorship Question matters for the same reason as the cause(s) of AIDS matters. In both cases, a correct attribution will allow us to build further knowledge. In either case, an incorrect attribution allows us to build only legend. 

Shakespeare was identified with the Stratford man from the earliest biographies written about him, starting in 1709. This focused historical research on Stratford-upon-Avon, in the course of which many documents relating to Shakspere have been discovered. Nothing – repeat, nothing – has been found which links the Stratford man with a career as a professional writer. Any rational person would then entertain the possibility that we are looking in the wrong place.

The next step is to advance an alternative hypothesis: the possibility that the name William Shakespeare was a nom de plume and the businessman William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon a front for the real author.

This hypothesis at once opens up various avenues of research. What might be the motives, based on the social and political conditions of the time, for concealment? Was the concealment of authorial identity through anonymous or pseudonymous publication common at that time? Are there other examples of a front-man or cut-out being used? How and why would the cover-up be perpetuated?

Once Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, is inserted into the hypothesis, these avenues of inquiry become booming boulevards, bustling with life. The comparison with the weirdly lifeless, bloodless tale of the Stratford man who went to London and suddenly found he could write miraculously well and in unbelievably copious quantities, but never got paid for it or in trouble for it or presented at Court, and then completely gave up writing and went back to being a mean and pompous burgher in Stratford, is very pronounced. Shakspere doesn’t resonate at all. Oxford, on the other hand, rings like a bell.

It connects the work in all kinds of ways with its historical context. The plays suddenly mean more, connect more. In following the research of scholars such as Stephanie Hopkins Hughes, Alexander Waugh, and Hank Whittemore, I have found my understanding of all kinds of aspects of that era growing exponentially. I know a lot more about Elizabeth, her Court and government; about William and Robert Cecil, father and son and the most powerful politicians of the time; about the Elizabethan world of espionage and covert political action; about the audiences and arenas and the theatre world of the time; about the origins of secular theatre and the birth of a commercial press; about Sir John Dee, Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, alchemy and the occult, secret societies and utopian agendas; and about the dialectical and deadly struggles between the forces of feudalism, Renaissance and Reformation. The Oxford hypothesis is integrative and explanatory, which, I am arguing, is a sign that the hypothesis is productive and should be taken seriously.


The Oxford hypothesis requires re-dating of the plays. It cuts like Occam’s razor through the awkward ad hoc hypothesis of the UR-Hamlet, and other foreshadowings of Shakespeare’s plays such as the True Tragedy of Richard III. It posits an entirely believable political motivation for concealment. It animates numerous characters in the plays as portraits, loving and respectful or venomously satirical, of people in Oxford’s life, both friends and enemies, and of the author himself. It opens up comprehensive parallels between Oxford’s life and events and themes in Shakespeare to quite an amazing extent, investing the plays (and sonnets) with personal, historical and political resonance. In this hypothesis the biography and the work fit together – they fit like a glove. The more you read the plays in this light, the more resonant they become, and the more you understand why the author, if it was a man in Oxford’s position, had to keep his identity hidden. Walt Whitman nailed it a long time ago in November Boughs (1888), trusting his intuition:

Conceiv’d out of the fullest heat and pulse of European feudalism – personifying in unparalleled ways the medieval aristocracy, its towering spirit of ruthless and gigantic caste, with its own peculiar air and arrogance (no mere imitation) – only one of the “wolfish earls” so plenteous in the plays themselves, or some born descendant and knower, might seem to be the true author of those amazing works – works in some respects greater than anything else in recorded literature.


The extraordinarily autobiographical content of the plays, if de Vere wrote them, comes as a shock. From Othello’s manipulated jealousy, to deadly street-fights over a love affair, to three thousand ducats lost on a shipping venture and a Venice moneylender demanding his bond – it’s all there in the life and the work. This hypothesis shows us a writer’s alchemical transformation of his life-experience into artistic gold – and how genius doesn’t happen without hard work.

Writers know this. Jonson knew this: 

He who casts to write a living line, must sweat,

(Such as thine are) and strike the second heat

Upon the Muses’ anvil.” (Preface to the First Folio).

With Oxford as Shakespeare we see him drafting and redrafting, devoting himself in the 1590’s, with more than twenty years’ theatrical writing behind him already, to republishing and reissuing authorized editions culminating with the enormously expanded literary version of Hamlet in the year of his death, 1604.

Oxford, by the way, was escorted back to England by two Gentlemen Pensioners in 1572, under heavy penalty if he refused. On his way back from Italy, where he had spent a year and a half based in Venice and traveled to all the locations which became settings in Shakespeare’s Italian plays, his ship was attacked by Dutch pirates, who took everything and dumped him ‘naked’ on the English coast. The character of Hamlet is absolutely consistent with Oxford, which makes Polonius William Cecil (widely acknowledged) and Gertrude Elizabeth. While the pseudonymous ‘Shakespeare’ veils these intimate portraits from the public at large, the acknowledged authorship of a Court insider would have made them politically explosive.

Oxford led a turbulent life, full of scandal, intense loves and enmities, debt, disgrace, rehabilitation. He represents both the dying breath of feudalism and the white heat of the literary renaissance. In a word, we can outdo Borges and respond:

Who wrote Shakespeare?


Let’s give Ben Jonson the last word. Now that he’s defected from the Stratfordian side with the revelation that ‘Avon’ is Hampton Court, does he say anything else that would point us in the right direction?

Yes he does.

Sweet swan of Avon! what a fight it were

To see thee in our waters yet appeare,

And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,

That so did take Eliza, and our James !

But stay, I see thee in the Hemisphere

Advanc’d, and made a Constellation there !

Shine forth, thou Starre of Poets, and with rage,

Or influence, chide, or cheere the drooping Stage;

Which, since thy flight fro’ hence, hath mourn’d like night,

And despaires day, but for thy Volumes light.

To sum up, in the absence of proof we look for more productive hypotheses, and among these, for the ‘best fit’. Then we focus on this and continue the search for proof or disproof. As for whether it matters, it is crucial both to our understanding of the period and of the works. It also has a profound impact on literary theory, in an era when some can seriously entertain the notion of the ‘The Death of the Author’ (Roland Barthes). The identification of Oxford as Shakespeare destroys that hollow, collectivist myth. The individual matters; the author matters, and the wolfish earl demands from beyond the grave that at the very least we reread his works in the light of new and compelling research.


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.

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