Most scholars agree that Shakespeare can no longer be regarded as the greatest writer in the English language. It's Jodi Picoult.
Nevertheless, many people esteem Shakespeare highly enough to believe he was someone else, most notably the 17th Earl of Oxford, aka Edward de Vere, with the sole agenda of wreaking havoc with English departments worldwide. This is most evident in the Oxfordian Manifesto, paragraph 2(a): "How to Sow Unreasonable Doubt in Undergrads Taking Midterms."
Oxfordians have already been cheeky enough to invest (and lose) millions of pounds (with an exchange rate in billions of dollars) in Anonymous, a movie dramatizing the possibility of an Oxford-Shakespeare conspiracy. With the advent of the quadricentennial celebration of Shakespeare's birth fast approaching in 2016 -that's 400 years of bardolatry, folks-one can expect the attacks on his character, family background, education, sexual orientation and penmanship to escalate.
It's true there isn't much known about the real Shakespeare. About all we know for sure is that he had a wife who ended up sleeping in a second-best bed and a haircut similar in style to Kelsey Grammer's in Frasier. And, of course, Oxfordians believe he was merely a front man for Edward de Vere. But what if they have it completely backwards? What if William Shakespeare of Stratford was the ghostwriter of the plays attributed to the Earl of Oxford?
This is the theory put forward by a former lecturer of English as a Third Language at Queen's College of-ironically enough-Oxford University. Peter D. Quigley (P.D.Q. to his friends and at least one ex-wife), whose lectureship was not renewed following Michaelmas term 1973, believes the whole situation to be misunderstood by both academics and the public at large.
"First of all, let me make the record clear," Professor Quigley stated in a recent telephone interview from his office where he currently teaches Advanced Punctuation at a medium-security prison in the U.S., "I was not let go from Oxford University for drinking on the job."
Regarding the matter at hand-the Shakespeare authorship question-Professor Quigley was less succinct.
The theory goes something as follows:
In 1598, contemporary theatergoer Francis Meres raved about Shakespeare's comedies and tragedies. In a separate list, which includes Shakespeare yet again, he also cited the Earl of Oxford as among the best for comedy.
But where are the good earl's comedies? Why have no manuscripts survived? Better yet, did Edward even write them?
Professor Quigley offers a better proposition that more readily fits the lack of facts at hand: William Shakespeare wrote them, and the earl put his name on them.
This, claims the professor, would certainly explain Shakespeare's whereabouts during his so-called "lost years" if he had been part of the Earl of Oxford's household as resident tutor, poet, actor-or all three together. Let's throw in court jester, just to be safe. The rumor circulated some years after his death, after all, was that he had been a schoolmaster in the country. Why not over at Oxford? The proximity of Oxford to Stratford would have allowed William to procreate and begin a family. Plus, the food was better.
Poet-in-residence at Oxford would also have given young Shakespeare access to a library-without the hassle of always having to return overdue books. Not to mention familiarity with the idiosyncrasies, pursuits, and routines of an aristocratic household-for instance, the earl's documented stabbing of an unarmed servant in a drunken stupor or committing an act of flatulence in front of the queen.
"Let's say Shakespeare ghostwrote a few comedies for the earl," the Professor professed. "After this apprenticeship, let's further speculate that he grew tired of letting Oxford take all the credit and decided to strike out on his own-an 'upstart crow,' as it were. It's also possible," Professor Quigley adds, "he was afraid of unprovoked stabbings and excessive flatulence."
The academic world has been nothing but reticent on the matter. Only one colleague of the professor's stepped forward in his defense on condition he remain Anonymous, which, as it happens, is his actual surname.
"The nice thing about this theory," Professor Anonymous stated anonymously, "is that it requires no cover-up-no laborious, intricate conspiracy involving 38 or so plays (in whole or in part), three or four long poems and 154 sonnets stretching past Oxford's death in 1604, past Shakespeare's in 1616, past publication of the First Folio in 1623 and on and on for another 300 years until 1920 when the idea of Oxford's authorship of Shakespeare's works was first invented-I mean, proposed."
It might also explain why de Vere's and Shakespeare's careers don't appear to overlap: the earl had lost his ghostwriter.
The truly attractive feature of this theory, according to Professor Anonymous, is that it doesn't have one shred of primary evidence to support it, so it isn't weighed down by actual historical records. Critics may scoff, but this lack of evidence means that the theory can't be disproved. Plus, you don't have to fool around with rearranging or compressing dates of composition to make everything fit. It's a theory that can take care of itself.
So what does Professor Quigley think happened to the Earl of Oxford's lost manuscripts-which were really Shakespeare's apprentice comedies? "I suspect de Vere destroyed them in a jealous rage as Shakespeare's star began to rise," he surmised.
But this is just a theory.