Can't write when you're dead

The choice of an alternative candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays would seem be limited to people who were alive when they were written.

Oxford wasn’t.

He died in June 1604 before almost a third of the plays were first performed.

Oxfordians airily take issue with what they call the ‘orthodox’ dating of the plays and move them around in time to suit the Earl’s inconvenient demise. Some have argued, without a shred of factual support, that Oxford did not die in 1604 and was able to keep writing anonymously, as before, while he lived in hiding on the Isle of Mersea. Others argue that the plays were all complete before 1604. This involves the claim that the writing can be divorced from the dates of the first performance of the plays and thus simply moved back in time, by five or ten years or even longer.

 Volumnia pleads with Coriolanus

One leading Oxfordian authority moves Coriolanus back almost 30 years in time to synchronise it with Oxford’s CV. I think that if Coriolanus actually had been performed in 1580, with its incorruptible aristocratic hero turning traitor in the face of the demands of democracy, the playwright may very well have been strung up for sedition by the Master of the Revels. The play would have been far, far ahead of its time in 1580. About 30 years ahead, in fact.

The Oxfordian backdating process completely ignores two insurmountable difficulties.

  1. Many tens of thousands of hours have been spent on detailed analysis of the structure and language of the plays. Shakespeare’s skill as a dramatist developed over time, so the order in which he wrote the plays is important and worthy of study.  This stylistic developemnt and growth manifests itself in Shakespeare's work just as clearly as it does in Beethoven's music or Bob Dylan's lyrics.

    Thirty or forty enthusiasts writing in support of Oxford cannot displace the work of the tens of thousands of university scholars who have arranged the work chronologically according to linguistic and stylistic principles. They refer contemptuously to ‘the Shakespearean orthodoxy’ as if it was a plot or a cabal. However, what they call orthodoxy, scholars call hard, solid, factual research. And they’ve been doing it for hundreds of years.

    There is little room for doubt as to when the plays where first performed as performances of all the plays in the First Folio can be tied to the dates of an actual premiere or a first recorded performance that could have been the premiere. Since the plays can’t have been performed before they were written, there’s no arguing with that.

    First performances give the plays a chronological order and using this in conjunction with stylometric analysis results in an approximate but close consensus on the order which plays were written. Amongst the champions of alternative authors, only Oxfordians seriously question this consensus. Because only Oxfordians are compelled to explain death of their candidate before almost a third of the plays were written.

  2. All the plays have some topical content that can be accurately dated. The plays written after 1604 are no exception. Just as the plays can’t have been performed before they were written, they must have been written after any historical facts to which they refer. For example, details about an actual shipwreck in Bermuda, circulated in 1610, show dozens of similarities to the shipwreck in the The Tempest, down to the separation and reunion of the crew, the size and geography of the island, the crew’s fear of evil spirits and noises, details of St Elmo’s Fire and the rigging of the topsail.

    Although Will made use of the first hand accounts, he didn’t really need any of it. He wrote a perfectly good shipwreck in Twelfth Night, there’s another in one The Comedy of Errors and Pericles has a brilliant father/daughter seafaring reunion—“put me to present pain, lest this great sea of joy, rushing upon me, o’er-bear the shores of my mortality, and drown me with their sweetness”

    The list of similar topical references is far too extensive to be explained as pragmatic updating.  There are court manners which the plays ape which did not come into fashion until well after the death of Oxford, such as a predilection for Masques and they likewise feature changes theatrical practice about which the dead Earl could have known nothing such as evenly spaced interact divisions to replace candles in indoor performances.

Only in the wildest dreams of blinkered advocacy could 11 or 12 plays, six of them masterpieces, be lying around for years, waiting for posthumous performance.


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Comments (4)

  • anon

    "Only in the wildest dreams of blinkered advocacy could 11 or 12 plays, six of them masterpieces, be lying around for years, waiting for posthumous performance." In that case, how come most of Schubert's masterpieces were waiting around for years before being posthumously performed?

    Feb 24, 2013
  • anon

    No mystery there. Schubert had a very short career, died young and the music industry he was writing in was not monetized in the same way as the Elizabethan theatre was during Schubert's lifetime. Far fewer entrepreneurs around in Schubert's lifetime, taking chances on new composers.


    In any case, it's a bad example. There are lots of ground-breaking artists whose entire oeuvre was not appreciated in their lifetimes. Shakespeare wasn't one of them. Nor were any of his rivals. Nor are plays like pictures or song cycles. Will was a pretty much instant success (ask Greene) and his work and reputation and success at the box office were unparalleled (ask Digges). If there were 12 unperformed Shakespeare plays in 1604, they would all have been unleashed on the world without hanging about while genre, language, tastes and theatre practice all changed. There are a series of mountains to climb for anyone seeking to prove otherwise and no one is yet in sight of the foothills.

    Feb 24, 2013
  • anon

    You can write when you are half - dead....


    You write: „ The choice of an alternative candidate for the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays would seem be limited to people who were alive when they were written.“. That’s sounds plausible, but it is a fallacy.  Since it excludes not only Oxford [I agree] but also Marlowe.  (unless you argue that Marlowe did not die 11 years earlier than Oxford,….).

    Concealed Marlowe used very many pseudonyms (not only Shake-speare), for instance using the pseudonym Francis Davison  he published a single book „A poetical rhapsody“ 1602.


    I quote Sonett XII(excerpt)


    Comparison of his Hart to a Tempest-beaten Ship



    Like a Sea-tossed Barke with tackling spent,


    And Starres obscur’d his watry iornies guide

    By lowd tempestuous windes and raging tide,

    From wave to wave with dreadful fury sent,


    For from your frowns do spring my sighes & teares…

    Teares flow like seas, & sighes like winds do bloe

    Whose joyned rage most violently beares

    My Tempest-beaten hart from woe to woe.

    And if your Eyes shine not that I may shun it,

    On Rocke, despaire, my sighes, and teares wil run it

    The Tempest“   - was not  a late play of the poet. Ther are much arguments for this thesis…The tempest is the metapher of Marlowes life catastrophy, beeing forced to give up identity and name forever... 

    Mar 20, 2014
  • anon

    @bastian conrad

    Marlowe in exile (hiding) has the same problem as other candidates.

    He did not know the actors personally (parts were written for specific talents), work in the wooden O, or the indoor theater.

    The Shakespeare canon was not made in a vaccuum, the influences of other writers, popularity, style, new genres etc are (almost) impossible to get if the writer is isolated far from the action

    Jul 18, 2014