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Paul Cantor - Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?
Summary by Mr. John Roach
Paul Cantor, Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Virginia spoke about Shakespeare authorship controversies. He argued strongly in favor of the position that Shakespeare did indeed write Shakespeare’s plays, and that this whole controversy is stupid.
His first point was that this whole controversy is based on the anachronism that who the author is matters. Regardless who wrote the plays they are stupendous works of literature and that isn’t changing. What is important about the plays is their subject matter not any potential self-expression. The notion that art is about self-expression is a Romantic notion. Authors like Byron and Hemingway make us think of the author as a hero, a singular human being, but in fact most authors are boring, and the fact that Shakespeare might be boring has no bearing on whether he wrote the plays.
Another line of attack on Shakespeare consists of saying his life experiences didn’t give him enough knowledge or experience to write these plays. He didn’t go to college; he wasn’t an aristocrat, so how could he write aristocratic characters. Cantor argued that these attacks were also anachronistic and flawed. It is a modern idea that one needs to go to college to be educated; most didn’t go to college in Shakespeare’s time, and he was well educated for his time, learning Latin. Furthermore, arguments that Shakespeare wasn’t “x” therefore he couldn’t have written about “x” demonstrate a lack of imagination. You do not need to be an aristocrat to write about aristocrats or a beggar to write about beggars. Shakespeare was middle class and could therefore observe all walks of life. If he were an aristocrat how would he know how the lower classes live? This point is further reinforced by the fact that nine out of ten playwrights weren’t aristocratic. Aristocrats were wealthy enough to not work, so why would they spend so much time trying to make a living writing plays? The one experience key to being able to write successful plays is experience working in a theater and acting, and that is one thing Shakespeare had that other contenders for authorship simply don’t.
Lastly, Cantor argued that none of the other candidates for authorship make much sense. The primary pretender is the Earl of Oxford. The first big problem with the Earl of Oxford is that we have Shakespeare plays for 6 years after Oxford’s death in 1604. Proponents of Oxford have to argue ludicrously that all the plays were in fact written by 1604 and any post-1604 allusions were added after his death. Another big problem is that we have some of the Earl of Oxford’s poetry in his own name, and it is very low quality. Also, it doesn’t seem plausible that Oxford could’ve written Shakespeare’s sonnets which are written from the perspective of someone flattered to being friends with an aristocrat, fawning over him and flattering him. Oxford was already an aristocrat, so why would he beg for patronage from a younger lord?
To sum it up, so many arguments against Shakespeare are based on plausibility. However, it is already implausible for someone to write this many amazing plays. Normal people don’t write this much this well; that is what genius is. It challenges our expectations so it’s silly to try and pin someone extraordinary into notions of “plausibility.”
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