Who Really Wrote Shakespeare's Plays Sir Walter Raleigh

About the controversy over who really wrote Shakespeare's plays, supporters and arguments for and against Sir Walter Raleigh.


SIR WALTER RALEIGH (c. 1552--1618)

Supporters: The case for Raleigh has been pressed mainly by Americans. Various groupist theories also include Raleigh in their syndicate authorship schemes.

Australian George S. Caldwell first claimed Raleigh's sole authorship in 1877 with his pamphlet "Is Sir Walter Raleigh the Author of Shakespeare's Plays and Sonnets?" Then American senator and historian Albert J. Beveridge, in what he later regretted as a youthful exuberance, supported Raleigh's case in a speech presented in the mid-1890s. Later, Philadelphia author Henry Pemberton, Jr., became Raleigh's main advocate, and his Shakspere and Sir Walter Raleigh (1914) is the definitive claim.

Who Was Raleigh? Author, adventurer, explorer, soldier, courtier, and ultimately tragic victim of international politics, Raleigh had a versatile career which made him an ideal candidate for the Shakespearean authorship. A favorite of Queen Elizabeth, he was eager to please, but also eager for reward.

"When will you cease to be a beggar, Raleigh?" the queen teased him.

"When you, madam, cease to be a benefactress," he retorted. While Elizabeth liked sub-servience spiced with a hint of audacity, Raleigh's individualism was usually carefully calculated. When Elizabeth died in 1603, his political enemies closed in, and Raleigh lived rather comfortably in his prison chambers in the Tower for 13 years. At age 65, he was released to lead one last expedition to Guiana, but he returned to England not with gold but with Spanish demands out for his head. King James I was glad to oblige. On the scaffold, Raleigh fingered the headsman's ax and said: "This is sharp medicine, but it is a sure cure for all disease."

Arguments For: Main points in Raleigh's favor are allusions in the Shakespearean works to his active life. Supporters emphasize the knowledge of court life and of military and naval matters the author displayed. Senator Beveridge felt that, unlike Shakespeare and "cold diplomat" Bacon, Raleigh manifested in his life the sensual ardor required by the plays, which "flame with animal passion.... everywhere the spasm of propagation is in full ecstasy."

Pemberton, more specific, found many indications that Raleigh was sole author of the plays and sonnets. Two references to lameness suggest Raleigh's 1596 wound, and Hamlet's violent verbal attack on King Claudius ("O villain, villain, smiling damned villain!") reveals Raleigh's rage against James I.

Arguments Against: The tiresome argument that only an author who had experienced the places and events described in Shakespeare's works could have written them was well demolished by critic H. N. Gibson: "If Shakespeare could give us a portrait of the essential aristocrat in Prospero, he could also give us a portrait of the essential slave in Caliban....He must have been king and commoner, man and woman, victor and vanquished, philosopher and fool... and so, of course, he was ...by virtue of the supreme genius he possessed."

Pemberton's pedantic efforts to connect Raleigh's wound and hatred of his king with Shakespearean allusions are strained, presuming as they do that every Shakespearean incident must have its genuine historical basis. Such an approach to literature is palpably absurd in the absence of a grain of evidence.

Senator Beveridge's curiously erotic imagery revealed more, perhaps, about the state of his own glands than about Raleigh's qualifications for Shakespearean authorship.

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