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No. 2168:
What's in a Name?

by Sidney Berger

Today, UH theatre director Sidney Berger asks what's really in a name. The University of Houston presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

What do the names, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe and Queen Elizabeth have in common? Each has been cited as the possible author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. It's an historical who-done-it.

Today's most popular candidate is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. But most scholars agree that at least ten of the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written after Oxford died in 1604. King Lear, The Tempest, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Henry VIII all date from 1606 TO 1613. Oxford supporters suggest those dates are wrong, or that the plays were furtively slipped to Shakespeare. They claim there's no evidence of his having any schooling, although Stratford's children generally attended the local school.

Shakespeare scholars argue that Oxford's writing couln't touch Shakespeare, and his poetry is simply not in the same universe. And if Oxford masked his identity, then why, after his death was he not given the recognition his supporters say he so richly deserved, particularly with the publication of Shakespeare's collected works in 1623? There was certainly nothing to lose at that point.

De Vere had an education where classic Latin and Greek were staples. Shakespeare had, according to Ben Jonson, "little Latin, less Greek." If that's the case, how do we account for the many errors made in the plays relative to those languages which would clearly have been an embarrassment to the Earl. 

Then there's Sonnet 136 in which Shakespeare continuously plays on his own name: The final couplet ends with:

Make but my name thy love, and love that still,
And then thou lovest me for my name is Will

And would a highly educated and well-traveled noble make the following errors, all of which are in the plays attributed to Shakespeare?: Bohemia is given a sea-coast in A Winter's Tale, Cleopatra wears a corset and plays billiards, Hector quotes Aristotle, Hamlet attends a yet-to-be-founded university. There are clocks in ancient Rome and gun powder in the time of King John. Edgar, although a contemporary of pre-Roman King Lear, is familiar with Bedlam, the hospital for the insane in Shakespeare's London.

And what of the many changes made to the plays in rehearsal, as clearly there were since numerous discrepant texts exist. Rehearsals of a new play in Shakespeare's time were surely no different from those in ours; plays were not written but rewritten. And Shakespeare was there with the actors to make clearly needed cuts and changes. Oxford certainly was not. 

But then the Oxfordians, the Baconites, as well as others, raise arguments that make for stimulating conversations. So the controversy moves on. And I concur with Charles Dickens who wrote:

It is a great comfort ... that so little is known concerning the poet. The life of William Shakespeare is a fine mystery and I tremble every day lest something should turn up.

I'm Sidney Berger, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

J. F. Mitchell, Who Wrote Shakespeare? (Thames and Hudson, 1999).

P. Ackroyd, Shakespeare: The Biography. (Nan A. Talese, 2005).

S. Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.(W. W. Norton, 2005).

I. Wilson, Shakespeare: The Evidence: Unlocking the Mysteries of the Man and His Work. (St. Martin's Griffin, 1999).

S. Schoenbaum, William Shakespeare: A compact Documentary Life.(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987).

Sidney Berger is the Director of Theatre at the University of Houston, founder and Producing Director of the Houston Shakespeare Festival, co-founder and producer of the Children's Theatre Festival, Dr. Berger also co-founded the Shakespeare Theatre Association of America and served as its first president. He has directed over ninety productions on the UH campus, as well as over twenty-seven productions for the Shakespeare Festival. He has also been represented by plays he has directed throughout the city, notably at the Alley Theatre, where he served as associate artist, with many productions. As Artistic Consultant at Stages Repertory Theatre, he has directed many plays including Edward Albee's All Over with Mr. Albee in attendance. At Theatre Under the Stars, he directed the fortieth anniversary production of My Fair Lady with Noel Harrison. He serves on the board of London's Shakespeare's Globe and has received the university's highest honor, the Esther Farfel Award. In 1997 Dr. Berger was elected to the College of Fellows of the American Theatre.

Oxford, Shakespeare, and Bacon

(from public domain images.)