To say the Shakespeare authorship question is controversial would be an understatement. It certainly divides opinion, the arguments often being quite heated from either side.
And it isn’t new; the controversy has been going on longer than most people realise. By the early nineteenth century the doubts about the ‘man from Stratford’ were beginning to become more vocal.
Perhaps the most groundbreaking book of the last century was written by a certain J Thomas Looney (Shakespeare Identified), who claimed that the 17th Earl of Oxford, one Edward de Vere, was the true genius of English literature. Needless to say there are now numerous books about the issue and many alternative candidates, including Christopher Marlowe and Roger Manners, the 5th Earl of Rutland.
However, what has been lacking is documentary proof of someone other than ‘the man from Stratford’ being the actual author of the works of Shakespeare. The great problem stems from the fact that there is a gaping whole, a paucity of information, in the known biography of the man called William Shakespeare. We know when he was born, when he got married and when he died; added to that are pieces of records of litigious information in regard to someone who seems far more like a businessman than England’s greatest ever playwright and poet. And in his will there is no mention of a library, let alone any books, surely prerequisites for such a literary giant as this.
Materialist rather than poet
The character emerging from the available information, including six rather poor signatures, is of someone who is quite materialistically minded, not at all prone to writing the best blank verse you’ve ever seen.
That said, it is still possible that there is a huge chunk of his biography waiting to be found and that he did indeed write the works attributed to him – genius is still after all, genius, as they say. But genius still needs an education, something which, other than a possible grammar school education up until around the age of fourteen, is also glaringly absent.
I have been interested by this subject, though not entirely persuaded by any candidate, for many years now. For me, just about the best book I have come across in regard to this controversy is The Shakespeare Guide to Italy (HarpPeren; Illustrated edition) by Richard Paul Roe, now sadly deceased. He is well qualified for this undertaking, having a degree in English literature and European history from Berkeley.
Ten plays set in Italy
It has long been speculated as to why at least ten out of the thirty six of the Bard’s plays are set in Italy. Surely the most obvious answer to this fact is that author of the plays visited Italy extensively at some stage in his life, or at the very least knew people who had, or he had access to much information about that country.
What Roe does is set about researching patiently and wholly systematically over some period of time, visiting all the places mentioned in the works; Venice, Padua, Verona, Mantua, Milan, Florence, Messina, Palermo, the latter two locations being in Sicily. Many of the pictures within the book are the authors and you get some idea as to his intelligence, sheer persistence and depth of character.
He produces a logically argued and beautifully illustrated book, which while highly detailed, is also easy to read. What I particularly like is that he does not force upon the reader a favourite candidate for authorship; he presents facts, information, from which the discerning reader can make up their own mind.
Hitherto it has been assumed by most that much of the information that the author of Shakespeare put into his plays about certain locals was either imagined, or learned anecdotally. However, if you know a place more intimately, there are certain facts you can drop in which draws a more convincing picture.
An example of this is from Romeo and Juliet, where Benvolio is describing the scene of a grove of sycamore trees through the western wall of the city of Verona. Roe visited this area and found that to this day sycamores still grow there.
Now, it might be said that such scenes exist from many an Italian city and have done for centuries, and that Shakespeare just ‘got lucky’ in putting in this detail, but it does seem these trees have been a feature here way back into past. And it does create a picture of intimacy, as if the author is seeing things from his own mind’s eye, or recollection, and not merely making it up.
Sailing to Milan?
There are many other examples of course, including the volcanic island of Vulcano off the north coast of Sicily which bears a remarkable similarity to Prospero’s island described in what is regarded as Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest.
In The Two Gentlemen of Verona there is the unequivocable statement of being able to sail from Verona to distant Milan, an oft quoted ‘error’ on behalf of the Bard, of whom it has been said was clearly ignorant of northern Italy and its geography. However, thanks to the work and insight of Roe, it turns out that it was indeed possible to sail, by boat or barge perhaps, between those two beautiful cities in the late sixteenth centuries by means of canals and the navigable rivers of the Adige, Po and Adda.
In fact, until the late 1950s, Milan was still considered one of Italy’s prime maritime ports. After all, it must be realised that northern Italy is, at least below the Alps and before the Appenines rise to form the backbone of the peninsula, a vast plain, perfectly suited for navigation as well as growing the rice for risotto.
So what I came away with from reading this book is of having visited Italy myself, albeit in my mind, yet deeply – and yes – intimately. Whoever the author of Shakespeare was, he (or she?) must surely having experienced it at first hand, just like the author of this book.
Copyright Francis 2020