CONTENT RATING: universal
Did Shakespeare really write, well, Shakespeare? Or is the Swan of Avon a five century old con? Part 2 explores why we doubt Shakespeare and what happens if we kill him off. Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
David Hilowitz – New Dawn
Scott Holmes – Postcards
Scott Holmes – Empires
Aaron Dunn – Minuet – Notebook for Anna Magdalena (cropped)
Case S02E04: Slowburn Shakespeare, part 2 of 6 – The Shakeslayers
In the previous episode in this miniseries, we looked at the general biography of Shakespeare – birth, kids, fame, death, superstardom. Then we looked at the advent of Romanticism and the wobble of the British Empire and bardolatry, how they all coincidentally – or perhaps not – arrived at around the same time as the first documented existence of the Shakespearian authorship question. That led us neatly to the combatants. On the one side in scarlet, the colossal, well-resourced, heavily-fortified Stratfordians – the people who largely either don’t care who wrote the works in question, or who care, sometimes in very loud and indignant tones, that even daring to question Shakespeare’s authorship is the deepest desecration of a holy national institution. And on the other side, in a splintered, colourful spectrum, the anti-Stratfordians – scholars, enthusiasts, celebrities, lawyers, those who feel that there is enough room for reasonable doubt, and have, accordingly, developed a wide array of theories and alternative Shakespeare candidates. The Antis are better understood as a large collection of tiny factions, some of whom are just as prone to warring with each other as with the Stratfordians. At the same time, however, their united agreement on one point – that there is room for doubt – and their tireless persistence in suggesting alternative explanations and digging for evidence, has ultimately meant that their voice has been heard, even in the face of strenuous objections.
That’s a critical concept that I haven’t said much about yet. It’s not likely that the Shakespeare authorship question could have lived on this long if the evidence on either side was completely non-existent or absolutely overwhelming. We’ll get to the Stratfordian evidence towards the end of this miniseries. For now, let’s focus on the Antis. When they make these claims about whichever candidate or theory they prefer, what are they basing them on? What is their evidence?
At its simplest, the arguments for doubting Shakespeare’s authorship generally boil down to about five themes, depending on quite how you slice them up, and we’ll take each one in turn.
Welcome to en clair, an archive of forensic linguistics, literary detection, and language mysteries. You can find case notes about this episode, including credits, acknowledgements, and, far more than usual, many extra links to further reading at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.
The first theme that is usually drawn on when doubting that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, focuses on education and literacy. No one really knows if Shakespeare did go to that grammar school, or indeed any other more advanced educational establishment. There are just no records either way. He may never have done a day of school in his life. If that were true it would be extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile with the extensive vocabulary and cultural references exemplified in the canon. Moreover, some point to his six surviving signatures and how most of them spell his name in different ways. This, they say, is evidence that he was illiterate. Presumably the argument here is that it would be rather hard to write a play if you can’t even spell your own name. In fact, if we take surviving signatures as evidence of literacy, then his whole family was illiterate. A few even argue that between these six Shakespeare signatures, the handwriting itself differs. This might suggest that different people were forging the signature and using the identity fraudulently – something we come back to. Or more prosaically, two or more different people who happened to have very similar names have all mistakenly been identified as the same person. Or the handwriting experts are wrong (Franssen 2013: 190).
And what about those seven lost years? If he did become a fully-fledged poet and playwright, one presumes it at least started, if not developed then, but how? When? Where? He doesn’t seem to have had any literary talent in his bloodlines from whom he might have learned, or at least inherited a talent for the craft, and there is no record of any plausible mentor or guide.
The second theme is all about culture and class. Remember that was born, grew up, lived in Stratford-Upon-Avon? At the time, this was essentially a market town and its main business was sheep. But his works indicate advanced education, an appreciation for culture and the arts, and a degree of intimacy with very elevated lifestyles. The plays depict the aristocracy, including their hunting and hawking, their tennis and lawn games, their court politics, and their petty squabbles. They also depict foreign places and customs. And some argue that they generally depict the class of people that Shakespeare’s own family belonged to as derisible, ridiculous, and even dangerous. Moreover, some argue that there is no evidence of a Warwickshire accent in his plays (McCrea 2005). The angle here, then, is that the plays should be thought of as sort of semi-autobiographical in nature. According to this argument, we should view them as representative of Shakespeare’s own lived experiences from boyhood to man.
But there’s still more. The third theme centers on the spelling of his name. Remember those varied handwritten Shakespeare signatures? Well, it happens that not only do their spellings mostly differ to each other. They also differ to the spelling of the name on most of the plays and poems attributed to him. This, the Antis argue, is evidence. Why? Well, take my own surname, Hardaker. Lots of people spell this HARDACRE. Like an acre of land. It’s actually the more common variant. Similarly, lots of surnames have multiple common variants. Brown can have an E at the end. Johnson sometimes appears without the H. Phillips can have one L or two. In the same way, Shakespeare sometimes had a hyphen after the Shake. Sometimes the middle E or last E was dropped. Sometimes both vanished. Sometimes the A from the Speare half went missing. Essentially there are over seventy attested variations of the name, some say over eighty, and just as a Dr Davis with an IS is not the same person as a Dr Davies with an IES, so the Antis argued, this was a different person. William was an exceptionally common first name. His surname also wasn’t unique to him. Thus there could easily have been another William Shakespeare walking around, penning masterpieces.
Or, maybe it was the same man, but he was a cut-out. A front. A pen-name-for-hire. And accordingly, the fourth theme focuses on the lack of documentary evidence linking Shakespeare to literature. The Antis argue that the man from Stratford, William, the glover’s son, was in fact more notable for his money-lending, real-estate investment, trading, shareholding, oh, and maybe a bit of acting on the side, but even that is questioned by some. Documentary evidence supports these business-man aspects of his identity, whilst nothing, according to the Antis, explicitly identifies him as a writer during his lifetime. Yes, his name was on the title page of lots of publications, but groups of writers and individuals have been using pseudonyms and pen-names since forever. My god as a kid I had about forty nom de plumes. Looking back, they were very embarrassing, but luckily none of them got published so I can take them with me to the grave. Anyway, Mark Twain’s real name was Samuel Clemens. George Orwell’s real name was Eric Arthur Blair. The Brontë sisters published as Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. Jane Austen’s novels were simply penned by A Lady. For recent and still living examples, look no further than Stephen King, John le Carré, EL James, Isaac Asimov, Michael Crichton… the list goes, into infinity.
People have good reasons for pen-names. A new author might predict wild success, and decide that whilst this will all be very nice, they’d also like to be able to retreat into a normal life now and again. Since the fame follows the pen-name, the ordinary person behind it can go to the local supermarket without the risk of weird strangers taking secret photos of her. Sometimes the author has already had success and wants to see if a new novel is being accepted on its actual merits, and not just because of their past record. Sometimes an author wants to move to a distinctly new genre, but keep a clear airgap just in case it’s embarrassing or controversial or, in their mind, doomed to failure. And sometimes there might be something about their identity that makes others think that it is inconsistent with publishing.
Historically, for instance, the idea of women writing, well, anything for public consumption was largely scorned. Similarly, an aristocrat writing plays for the amusement of the commoners would have been seen as shamefully beneath their dignity. Like a world-class pianist playing Rachmaninov for a herd of goats. And to do so for profit – for money – would have been considered the most humiliating of degradations. Other would-be authors might have warrants out for their arrest or have faked their own deaths or whatever, and not really want to advertise that they were still alive, close by, and in excellent shape for an immediate public hanging. I’ll get back to these weirdly specific examples later.
Anyway, one sub-version of this businessman argument runs that yes, William-the-glover’s-son was indeed there, acting and leasing and whatnot, but that a secret individual or group of writers were borrowing his name, presumably with his consent, to publish these plays and poems under. This way they could still accrue money and fame, whilst at the same time being shielded by this pen-name from any possible unpleasant repercussions, like mockery or execution or both. Another subversion of this is that, according to the Antis, there’s no evidence that anybody saw him in a play or commented on his performance in his lifetime, and since the reports are all posthumous, they must be invented. Therefore, he may have existed, but had nothing to do with the acting or writing sides of the business. Or he was a purely coincidental figure who happened to float through the scene, confusing matters with his similar name and temporal proximity to eh events. Or William Shakespeare simply didn’t exist at all. He was a figment of someone’s imagination.
The fifth theme, and rather appropriately for its final place in the list, is all about Shakespeare’s death. Antis point to several issues with his will. It is singularly unpoetic in its language. Moreover, it doesn’t even bother to directly mention anything to do with the theatre – nothing about his existing plays or poems, and there were a lot of them by this stage, nor even the stack of unfinished works. The one exception to this has been added in later, between the lines, in the form of mourning rings for three of the actors, and some Antis point to this as a forgery designed purely to make the will connect in any way whatsoever to the theatre. Instead, consistent with a man doing a lot of buying, selling, leasing, and lending, Shakespeare’s will is primarily concerned with settling his real estate affairs. And if we had hoped that some secret family heirlooms or archives might have survived through the intervening centuries, Shakespeare doesn’t even have any direct living descendants that we know of who might at least have inherited something in the way of personal letters or books or papers that might fill in the gaps one way or another.
That’s the more concrete end of the spectrum, but some of the Antis also claim to have found other hints and insinuations. Note that what I’m about to read is poem from the start of the First Folio, a collection of Shakespeare’s works that was printed in tribute to him by his contemporaries shortly after his death, and it’s set opposite a picture of Shakespeare, as hinted at in the first two lines.
Bear with as I butcher some classical verse:
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut:
Wherein the Grauer had a strife
with Nature, to out-doo the life:
O, could he but haue dravvne his vvit
As vvell in brasse, as he hath hit
His face; the Print vvould then surpasse
All, that vvas euer vvrit in brasse.
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his picture, but his Booke.
So, as I said, this poem is from the start of the First Folio, published shortly after Shakespeare’s death, and however unremarkable it might seem from a sleuthing perspective, several Antis have picked it up in different ways as evidence of their particular pet theory. Some have commented on the use of the word figure in the first line:
This Figure, that thou here seest put,
It was for gentle Shakespeare cut:
Generally, this is considered to refer to the image of Shakespeare on the opposite page, as I’ve mentioned, but some Antis have claimed that in the Elizabethan period, figure meant something more like fiction. This, they argued, was a subtle allusion to the image as a fictitious author (Peer & Jacobi, 2004).
And then there are the last two lines:
But, since he cannot, Reader, looke
Not on his picture, but his Booke.
The poem asks the reader to look beyond the image and read his works. Rather than inferring that we should enjoy the plays instead of focusing on who wrote them, Antis have interpreted this as a reference to the picture being a cover-up of sorts. I’ll keep coming back to this First Folio and these dark hints at a cover-up, but for now let’s get back to the point.
Shakespeare. According to the more concrete end of the account – those five themes I ran over – he’s illiterate, uneducated, a humble market-town boy with no clear connection, living or dead, to the arts or aristocracy, and, if we are to understand the subtext of his will, far more bothered about property than poetry.
When we take all this together, then, is this sufficient to ask the question: did Shakespeare really write all the works attributed to him? Well, plenty of people from ordinary individuals to famous academics have argued that, yes, this is enough evidence. And I would add one more thread to the tapestry before we move on.
There are also, to me, two very obvious reason why we should be able to ask this question, if we want to, and the first is: people should just be allowed to ask questions. Want to question gravity? Knock yourself out. Perhaps empirically if that helps with your data collection. Want to doubt the existence of humans? Podcasts? Words? Be my guest. It doesn’t hurt me in the slightest, and actually, as most linguists know to their agony, it’s really difficult to answer whether the concept of the word even exists anyway. But that’s a philosophical nightmare we’re going to sidestep. More importantly, history has shown us innumerable times that nothing stops the advancement of knowledge more completely than the belief that we already know the answer. And, plenty of times, answers we have taken for granted have actually turned out to be wrong. Subjects we think we know as fats are actually false, but because we think we know, we never check and so the error remains, uncorrected. Einstein didn’t fail maths. He failed an entry exam, and then excelled at maths. We have far more than just five senses. We do not have separate parts on our tongue for each taste. Goldfish have surprisingly good memories. Three months! … and so on, and so on, and so on…
Moreover, why even bother to gatekeep the question? If the answer is so certain, letting people study it should only bring further confirmation. If their actual approach or method or analysis is terrible, then critique that. And if the people who claim that doubts are ridiculous do in fact, secretly, have doubts? Then stifling the question is not just censorship, it’s also pretty damned dishonest. On this exact same basis, I see no good reason why people can’t choose to question the authorship of Jane Austen or Jane Eyre or Jane Fonda for that matter. Will I join them on that quest? Actually I probably would go in for a Jane Austen authorship analysis just because I love her work. The rest, eh. But I wouldn’t deride someone’s desire to tackle the question. And you never know. What if I’m wrong and they’re right? Imagine the advancement of knowledge. It’s just a win-win. So, who am I to gatekeep that canon, or the knowledge around it? What does stifling the question achieve? If anything, it’s likely to just inflame any existing conspiracy theories about censorship and secrecy. Let people ask, and answer, and be happy.
The second reason I feel like people should be free to ask this question is that Shakespeare scholars have been asking it in various forms since forever anyway. So, you know, hypocrisy much? Any time someone creates a Complete Works of Shakespeare, they must make even the most cursory struggle with issues like the Shakespeare apocrypha, the plays with missing, unclear, or contradictory attributions, the ones that have Shakespeare on but seem to be, well, Fakespeare, scams and forgeries being sold to the credulous, and so on. Shakespeare’s name has been found on such plays as The London Prodigal from 1605, A Yorkshire Tragedy from 1608, Sir John Oldcastle from 1619, and so on, yet these are widely viewed as either deliberately or accidentally incorrect attributions. They also have to deal with issues like collaborations, revisions, and multiple conflicting copies. So, in deciding what to include and exclude, those people are already implicitly answering the “Did Shakespeare write everything attributed to him?” question even if they haven’t thought about it out loud, as it were. Alternatively, if they follow someone else’s model, then they are accepting the answers to this question that others have come up with long before. And as the next episode will show, the passing centuries have provided countless opportunities for incrementally mounting errors. Indeed, we already have a historical record showing that the canon itself – that enshrined collection of Shakespeare’s undoubted works, is not as concrete as it might seem. In the words of Gabriel Egan:
In 1623 the First Folio gave Shakespeare sole credit for thirty-six plays that have since then formed the core of his accepted canon. Only one play that was already in print but left out of the First Folio has been universally accepted as part of the Shakespeare canon since the late eighteenth century: Pericles, which was published in 1609 with his name on the title page. In 1634 an edition of The Two Noble Kinsmen appeared with the names of Shakespeare and John Fletcher on its title page, and by the late twentieth century this had become widely accepted as an accurate attribution. One seemingly conservative way to define Shakespeare’s dramatic canon, then, is to include the thirty-six First Folio plays plus Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. These thirty-eight plays are the ones offered in the Royal Shakespeare Company edition Complete Works (Bate and Rasmussen 2007). Unfortunately this conservative definition is certainly wrong: there are undoubtedly more plays to which Shakespeare contributed parts, and substantial parts of plays in the 1623 First Folio are not his. (Egan 2016: 28)
Anyway, if we are genuinely open-minded in asking whether Shakespeare wrote some or all of the works attributed to him, then obviously, we have to be equally open-minded in answering it. And if we accept that this answer could turn out to be partially, or even fully no, then we have to be prepared for an even bigger question still: If some or all of the works of Shakespeare, in full or in part, were not penned by the Stratford glover’s son, then who did write them? And why is anyone even bothered anyway? Does it really matter who wrote Shakespeare? We have the works. Can’t we just enjoy them? Why is the Shakespeare authorship question so important?
I mean, Shakespeare is dead. Even if his estate were still receiving royalties, I’m not sure dead people are authorized to make monetary transfers, much the same way as cats are not allowed to have credit cards, and how would they go about disentangling centuries of incorrectly attributed payments, and… I don’t know. I can’t say I’m au fait with these pressing areas of law. Anyway, the point is, if Shakespeare’s own money isn’t the issue, then why do we care? Why can’t we just let these plays and poems be nice pieces of work and accept that the authorship on them is maybe a little woolly here and there? Why are people invested in answering this question as firmly as possible? And people really have been very invested in it, as you’ll see in the ensuing episodes – both the Stratfordians who are certain that the glover’s son really is the bard, and the Antis who have a range of alternative candidates in his place. Who stands to lose or gain if the current accepted wisdom changes? In the Authorship Companion, when discussing a lofty Foucault lecture on why we bother to attach so much importance to the author, Taylor (2016) writes,
What is the importance, to us, four centuries after Shakespeare’s death and burial, of the hypothesis that some scenes of the play Edward III were written by the same hand that wrote the long narrative poem Lucrece? Has the cultural importance of attribution, or anonymity, changed between Shakespeare’s time and ours?
I’ll try to answer by way of a brief hypothetical. Grab your Dan Brown hat, suspend your disbelief as high as you possibly can, maybe stick a bag over its head to really keep it quiet, and come with me on a fantastic short story called The Shakeslayer.
So let’s imagine that, say, a PhD student has taken on the Shakespeare authorship question for their thesis. Via the power of an old laptop covered in swampert stickers, they’ve gathered digital copies of the many versions of Shakespeare, including everything from the canon and all the works from the apocrypha. Alongside this they are comparing the complete known works of one hundred other authors from around that time. And after an exhaustive process of corpus linguistic analyses, Shakespeare has been compared to everything else, and some really rather surprising results have come back. Shakespeare didn’t write most of the canon. Or maybe even any of it. Remember this is a story and to an extent you can choose the details to suit you, I don’t mind. Anyway, maybe this student – I’m just going to call them Alex for short, Twitter handle @alexisapart – so at the start Alex had quickly learned that the Shakespeare authorship question is a mess that sprawls across centuries and continents and the bitter fault-lines of human ego. But at the end of their PhD they also find out that attempts to publish unorthodox answers to that question pretty much all end up plunging down into the academic abyss known as Desk Reject. But Alex is social media savvy, and undeterred by the old modes of scientific communication, they start pinging out their findings into the public domain, maybe using blog posts and memes and jokes and so on, making it fun and accessible. Next thing, a local journalist picks it up, and then it gets bigger, and then after it’s snowballed for a bit in the press, maybe some bigshot scientist with a million followers posts about it and the singularity hits. Whatever the case, imagine that in one way or another, the story gets out, and it lands in front of the eyes of a large number of people. What would the reaction be to the news that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare?
Well, once upon a time – or actually twice upon a time but I’ll merge them together as if they were one – my work also got picked up in the media, and each time things went surreal very quickly. Each time it lasted about a week and looking back, I will be very glad if it never happens again, to be honest. The levels of stress are unreal. Anyway, the first time, it started out small – a somewhat snide, backhanded article in the Guardian half-laughing at my research. Har har. Trolls. Aren’t academics weird. But then it got picked up much more seriously in the US where there had been a spate of really serious incidents involving children. And then back in the UK it got recannibalised into the topic du jour. Except for a week. And as a related high-profile story of abuse hit the headlines everywhere, it exploded. I’d wake up with numerous of texts, dozens of private messages, sometimes hundreds of emails, missed calls, and more. Lots of the contacts were generally uplifting. I had barristers emailing to ask if I would do talks for them. Politicians lining up to see if I could speak either at their constituency offices or in the Houses of Parliament. Interview requests with more TV and radio shows and publications than I will ever now be able to remember. And given that my research was just about trying to understand why people are awful online, you’d think that there wouldn’t be much for anyone to get angry at me about. Seems like a nice thing, right? Making the internet a bit less horrible for all of us? And you would be wrong. The extreme free speech advocates were convinced that I had been put on this planet purely to eradicate them and they came for my blood. Similarly, the groups and communities explicitly oriented to creating and enjoying online conflict felt that maybe I might be a problem. It was a lot.
But back to this episode. Imagine that instead of online abuse we’re talking about Shakespeare, and in case you think, well, how can that possibly cause offence, think for a second what Shakespeare means to this country, and I guess more broadly, the world. Remember that quote from Brian Vickers in the last episode:
Shakespeare is not just a national, but an international treasure and it is tragic to contemplate the damage done to culture in general by these editions… (Vickers 2020)
An international treasure. Blimey.
People think of Shakespeare as an institution. A powerful barometer of superior cultivation. An ancient literary warhammer to club down know-nothing upstarts. Shakespeare is a thousand prestigious university literature degree programmes up and down the country. The lofty quote on any number of coats of arms, historic buildings, sporting events, coins, antiques. The muse for galleries full of art, scores of music, libraries of inspired literature, dances, dramas, novels, films, architecture, and more. Shakespeare is class, education, culture, heritage, prestige… For some people these will be foundational pillars upon which they build their national and their individual identity, and these same pillars are closely intertwined with other forms of power like privilege, wealth, and rank. Throughout the centuries Shakespeare has put down very deep roots reaching from entertaining the aristocracy to being quoted at the 2012 London Olympic opening ceremonies on the world stage to being emblazoned on modern corporate buildings to being taught to most children at most schools in the UK and beyond. Shakespeare is centuries of long-standing, deeply treasured, invisible, authorised, narrative protected by absolute reverence. Shakespeare is, for many, sacred. And, like it or not, Shakespeare is a global commercial industry worth billions. Literally.
And now imagine some young academic with a laptop covered in swampert stickers has put out results that fairly convincingly show that Shakespeare didn’t write some or any the works attributed to him. The foundational literature that this country was built on, not written by that godlike figure. And then imagine what the tabloids might do with this story. Strip away the nuance. Get rid of all the scientific wonder of some new facts that could revolutionise and shape our world. Forget the idea that this could give us a wonderful glimpse into a past that has always been hidden. Nope. I don’t see that happening. Instead, I see headlines like…
THE GEEK WHO WANTS TO KILL BILL
WOKE SNOWFLAKE BOFFIN CANCELS BARD
FIRST THEY TOOK OUR SUGAR, NOW SCIENTISTS TRY TO TAKE OUR SHAKESPEARE
Okay maybe I should stop.
Anyway, I’m guessing they’d use mock-ups of dead Shakespeares, or Shakespeares with VOID stamps on their faces or copies of Shakespeare in a bin, on fire, outside, with a weeping teacher curled up on the floor in the background. The subtext, I imagine would be, who is this nobody from nowhere trying to destroy our culture. Our heritage. Our national identity. And I imagine the feverish catastrophizing would escalate by the hour. If Shakespeare is dead, what about the Shakespeare museums? All those people out of work. What about the trusts? Whose money is it now? What about the theatres and acting companies? Actors have a hard enough time as it is. What about all those big budget movies? What about the buildings and streets and schools and pubs and god knows what else named after him? What should they be called now? What about school curricula? What about everyone who ever got a degree in Shakespeare? This would be the end of definitive intellectual kitemark of the literati.
Of course, most of these questions are hyperbolic and nonsensical. Obviously we could still enjoy the works, celebrate them, learn about them. Shakespeare wouldn’t vanish. It would evolve from a man to a beautiful collection art. Look, I called it beautiful. See? I’m not a complete monster. Anyway, back to Shakeslaying, no matter what common sense may tell the individual person, tabloids are not given to throwing away something that can be framed as a monumental tragedy of the modern age when it’s gifted to them, and so I imagine that a story like this would be absolute cannon-fodder for the most divisive, jingoistic, and populist voices. And this would be picked up and parroted endlessly by opportunistic politicians and ruffled captains of industry and other invested figures who feel like this pulls some of the rug out from under their feet. Such a story has the potential to feed class wars and nationalist moral panics and more. It would be entrenched into whatever the major issue of the day was – war, pandemics, scandal, it wouldn’t matter. It would be made to fit.
But it would do more than just this. Perhaps most directly aggrieved of all would be the thousands of scholars working in the field of Shakespeare. Quite unintentionally, Alex would have debunked innumerable publications both by Stratfordians, and by most of the Antis too. All those books and articles and treatises and talks. The way one play relates to another. The development of Shakespeare’s craft over time. The glowing panegyrics on his life and art. The extensive, speculative biographies. A well-evidenced largescale shift in Shakespearian authorship attribution would render entire libraries of publications on Shakespeare utterly irrelevant.
So, back to our question. Why do we care about who wrote Shakespeare? Well, because for many people, Shakespeare is something they feel like they “own”. It’s part of who they are. It is deeply enmeshed within their identity as both a single person and as part of a larger culture. They feel like it’s in their blood. Their social tapestry. Their very meaning. And when new science arrives that challenges who we are, we’re likely to react not with reason, but with feelings. For most people, and certainly for many tabloids, challenging Shakespeare’s authorship would be reduced to a black and white narrative of killing him off. Destroying a legacy. And that is like demolishing several major cornerstones of identity, all at once. No matter how good the facts, people will not easily loosen their grip on things that make them feel relevant and important and educated. Instead, feelings come into play.
And no matter how little facts care about feelings, time and again through history we’ve seen what happens when the sharp scalpel of science cuts through deep-running sentiments such as nationalism and status. In response, feelings have a damned good go at murdering facts. Copernicus once proposed that we’re not the actual centre of the universe. People got really mad about that. It hurt their feelings of importance. Their sense of rank. Their place in the cosmic ordering of things. Then scientists dug up dinosaurs. Like actual bones. Not just theory. Big things you could touch and put together like giant, confusing legos. Lots of people got really mad about that too. They didn’t like how it made them feel about religion. Then Darwin published Origin of Species and if you thought the dinosaur bones were bad, dear god, that one just went on forever. So many sensitive, bruised egos about the idea that we are descended from mere common apes, from animals, and not created like a work of art by the divine hand of some ultimate being. So many hurt feelings that day. The academy. The politicians. The Pope. You name it. Everyone got stuck into that. Present day. Science is currently making a lot of noise about climate change. You’d think a mantra of, “Let’s make the place cleaner” would be pretty uncontroversial, right? Nope. Lot of people also very mad about that too. It’s inconvenient. It’s implicitly critical of past actions. People don’t like how it makes them feel about what they’ve done before and what they’ll need to do next. It’s an F- on the global report card for how well we’ve tidied our room and lots of people have decided to sit on the bed and sulk rather than help with cleaning up.
So how would it go if someone like Alex debunked Shakespeare as the sole or primary author of some or all of the canon? Yeah, well, feelings would happen and I suspect that it would probably get very ugly, very quickly. In this modern era of social media, it might even escalate into a politically divisive culture-war. And yet even though Alex would be catapulted through a lot of very immediate, angry infamy, once passions about the matter died down, Alex’s final destination would be immortality. Or as close to it as we ever get. Just like Copernicus and Darwin. Make a historical course correction like this that takes hold, and once everyone comes to accept it as the new normal, then it’s your name that goes on all the buildings and libraries, just as Darwin’s is everywhere now. Should this person end up being you, dear listener, then I imagine the first few years would be rough. The fighting would not stop in your lifetime. But before the end of the first decade, your career would be made. You would be the name everyone knows. The speaker everyone invites. The high profile hire guaranteed to draw in the crowds. For the person who genuinely cracks the Shakespeare authorship question – whether to prove that he did author the works, or didn’t, or something in between – there is a glittering future. At the same time, should the authorship of Shakespeare be reconfigured, it would dismantle the whole field and reassemble it in such a way that you or Alex or whoever would probably end up at or near the apex, and at least some of the old guard would find themselves falling off the bottom. Obsolete.
Once again, it’s essential to reiterate how improbable this exact version of this story is, on two grounds. The first is Occam’s razor. I’ve mentioned it before and I’m going to come back to it again later. The other is all difficulties of working with this kind of data that I mentioned in the very beginning of this miniseries. Producing results that could rise to such an evidentiary standard as to overcome plenty of reasonable objections – and there would be plenty – would be incredibly difficult. Remember that you would have to contend with choosing the best datasets, accounting for the many ways multiple authorship can make its way into a text, justifying the choice of the suspect list, explaining your methods needle-to-thread, evidencing why your results really do convincingly identify someone else as the probable author, and so on, and so on. I mean, any one of these parts of the project would be agony by itself and there are still other issues besides. But yet, though every single one of these is extremely difficult, none are impossible.
So let’s scale it right down from, say, catastrophically changing authorship on most of the canon to maybe just inconveniently relegating Shakespeare into second place on a few of the major plays or adding his name to other works previously unsuspected or some combination of that. Even these much more modest results would produce aftershocks sufficient to reconstruct the field of Shakespeare, and just as some stakeholder shares would go up, others would certainly go down. It would result in the republications of countless volumes. I said it before but the name of Shakespeare being stamped upon a work is a de facto hallmark of excellence. To have the name added to some new work would instantly confer interest in it. There would be new publications, productions, degree programmes, and more. The warm springs of both fame and funding would change course, leaving the big fish in their old ponds to slowly dry out whilst the little newcomers are flooded (Maguire & Smith 2013: 200).
Back in real life, then, for me, that resistance to questioning Shakespeare, and particularly his authorship of the canon, has always seemed less about, say, having a sensible research question or using rigorous methods or finding results that rise to an appropriate evidentiary standard. Instead, it’s felt more insidious. Defensive, even. It’s often looked more like gatekeeping and maintaining a highly prestigious status quo, protecting a monolithic source of huge national pride, and maybe even safeguarding individual careers and reputations. After so many decades around so many academics, I find it impossible to believe that there aren’t at least a few Stratfordians whose motives for deriding the question will have been impelled, at least in part, by fear. Like all the examples I just gave from Copernicus to climate change, this emotional knee-jerk reaction has happened in too many fields over too many centuries in matters both trivial and immense to have absolutely no bearing here. As I argued right back in the beginning, if someone questions Shakespeare’s authorship using rigorous science and their answers back the Stratfordian position up, then what’s the problem? More power to the Strats. And if someone challenges the authorship with bad science, then take their work apart on those grounds. Point out the problems and then move on. But I suspect, rightly or wrongly, that the concern is with neither of these outcomes. I think, instead, it might be that little voice that haunts the pre-dawn hours and whispers, “Yes, but, what if they’re right?”
So how easy – or hard – is it be to tackle this question properly? What do you even have to contend with if you want to put together a convincing set of results capable of changing the tide on this already-stormy sea? Let’s get stuck into the difficult bit.
Will the real Bill Shakespeare please stand up
In forensic linguistics, generally speaking, you get a disputed text – the one everyone’s arguing over. It might actually be twenty emails or a thousand text messages or whatever, but typically, whatever that dataset is, there is just one version of it. There aren’t three versions of the, say, the first tweet, and then seven different versions of the next tweet, and no clear idea which should be taken as the official one. But as usual, Shakespeare has to be the overachiever. In lots of cases there are canonical editions of, well, the Shakespeare canon. That is, there are the versions that most people take as the Romeo & Juliet or the Macbeth. Some of us have even learned some of the lines from them and we think of those lines as being immutably part of that work. That those works are just not the real, complete thing if those lines don’t exist. But in reality, this simply isn’t true.
There are multiple versions of many of Shakespeare’s plays. What am I talking about? Well, firstly, these plays were usually written by hand to start with, and imagine writing out the entire script, say, ten times, one for every actor. That’s a massive job. Instead, in Elizabethan times, rather than writing out plays in full, they were typically written per character and later combined into a master copy. Shakespeare allegedly operated this way, crafting characters for each actor and collaborating with them when practicing and performing the play (Taylor & Bourus, 2016: 20). Every actor was given his part, consisting of his character’s spoken lines along with a few cues. Taylor & Bourus (2016:21) argue that “all Shakespeare’s plays were written to be cocreated by a team”, and that members of this team were continually changing over time. Shakespeare’s plays, and Shakespeare himself, was connected with multiple actors, artists, and playwrights, and it would be impossible to name them all. So, the playwright creates the separate pages of lines for each actor. Then the actors might have input. Then maybe a line or a joke doesn’t work so well on the night and they change it afterwards. Or a whole scene gets cut, and maybe a new one put in. Maybe an actor breaks a leg and a new guy steps in, but they like to play that character a little differently.
But, then, let’s say a publisher gets in touch or the playwright secures a deal. It’s now time to reproduce, print, and sell Hamlet, but to do this, the typesetters need a copy of the play. The trouble is, the version in writing isn’t an exact replica of the one being performed because some of the actors play their parts differently depending on where the performance is taking place. They may leave certain jokes in if it’s just the rabble at the theatre, and take the riskier lines out if they’re in court entertaining the aristocracy. And since they’ve memorized their part they haven’t bothered to update their script because what’s the point. They’d have to change it every day sometimes. And even if they were keeping their parts beautifully up to date somehow, manuscripts go missing. Fall apart. Land in the fire. Get stolen. Let’s say, though, that the playwright manages to create an up-to-the-moment copy of the play as it’s generally happening onstage right then, and off it goes to the printers. A week later, the production might have changed again to reflect recent politically or socially relevant events. New jokes will be added and old ones dropped because they’re tired, or dangerous. Then a bright new star might breeze in and adapt, shorten, revitalize. The script is now half the length but twice as brilliant. And very different to the one that went off to print last month. So now, which one counts as the real version? Multiply all these variables by plenty of actors, dozens of plays, hundreds of edits, thousands of performances, tens of thousands of print runs, and what you’re left with is, in some cases, not just incredible variation between different versions of the exact same play, but also a long history of lost versions that were never committed to record before the last spoken word of them faded from the air, never to be revived.
In response to all this, you might say, well, what about that First Folio? Surely, once Shakespeare dies and people have picked their favoured version, that would be it, right?
Wrong. Yet more complications.
In 1755, Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language. In its wake, various societies, handbooks, style guides, notable figures, and even political efforts all bent their attention on spelling reforms. That’s a whole topic by itself, but the short version is that spelling didn’t standardize overnight. It’s lurched and staggered along, sometimes stumbling back a bit, then racing forward, until we are where we are today. As a result, however, copies of Shakespeare’s works from different time-periods typically have their original spelling variations modified to reflect whatever the accepted standard of spelling was in that moment, but some might apply light touch changes here and there whilst others might comb through the whole work, changing a substantial percentage of it. And alongside this, modern copies often have perceived wording errors and lineation problems fixed too. Then you have people like Bowdler who, quite literally, Bowdlerized Shakespeare. I’m going to try not to roll my eyes right out of my head here but it’s going to be tough. Bowdler expurgated – no really, it sounds like something out of Futurama but that is the proper technical term… Anyway he expurgated the works of Shakespeare. By this I mean that he removed or reworked lewd and lascivious content, or in other words, deployed metaphorical fig-leaves to the text, hence why these are sometimes called fig-leaf editions. Why would he do this? To protect the innocent eyes, ears, and easily corrupted minds of women and children. (See also: Comstockery. Patronising. Streisand effect.)
Small digression: my upper school didn’t have much going for it, but I do vividly remember, all these decades later, the sheer scorn that our English teacher, Ms Symonds, poured on the idea of censoring texts. Apparently the previous teacher on the course had used fig-leaf editions for the girls, and her contempt for that idea was wonderfully scathing. Good teachers really do stay with you forever. Never mind the fact that, having studied the play twice over for two different schools, I couldn’t tell you which bits were supposed to have put my fragile little mind in such peril anyway. But back to the point.
Aside from spelling reforms and censorship, you also have the publishers who think some bits are just too dull, or that the whole thing is way too long, and they decide to abridge a volume, but different editors might abridge in different ways. Then you have the straight up errors that can easily creep in when typesetting a whole play by hand – missed words, missed lines, missed pages – that might have been not only replicated from one copy to another, but added to with yet more errors, through the centuries, just as a new cell in the body recreates all the previous errors and then adds one or two more of their own to the mix.
In forensic linguistics, the idea that someone has tampered with the spelling, formatting, and content of the data sends a wave of cold sweat over the skin. This is meant to be your disputed text, and you can’t even figure out which is supposed to count as the original. And then it’s possibly been tampered with, edited, standardized, abridged, airbrushed, fixed, sanitized, corrupted, over, and over, and over again. For centuries. By innumerable unnamed people.
So, let’s say you’re a Shakespearian authorship analyst – which play, or plays, do you take as your known texts? What’s your evidence for assuming that this version of the data was purely and completely the work of one man called Shakespeare? Because if you get that wrong, then you have already started from a problematic, if not an entirely false position. Can you be sure there was no interference? If it’s unavoidable to use texts that will have been modified in some way, how do you mitigate against the influence of other voices and hands? Do you cut out entire swathes of analysis like spelling and formatting and punctuation, because these are all far too vulnerable to the vagaries of editing and publishing? Do you only consider the handwritten originals? And again, which ones? Once you’ve sorted out those problems, you have to go through exactly the same sets of questions about your disputed texts. Essentially, this all introduces innumerable potentially conflicting variables, and infinite possible configurations of known texts and disputed texts.
At the risk of over-explaining the whole thing, I’ll put this into a concrete example. Let’s say you decide to run a Shakespeare authorship project, and your best friend thinks this is a great idea. You both agree to use the exact same methods. And you both decide to use King Lear and Hamlet as your known texts. This is a fairly reasonable starting point, because both plays are pretty well known, and widely accepted as having been authored by Shakespeare. And you decide to compare these against, say, Othello to see if it matches King Lear and Hamlet. This would be a sort of inclusion or exclusion question, with Othello as the disputed text. Robust similarities would have Othello accepted into or kept in the Shakespeare canon. Striking differences would have it removed or excluded from the canon. So far so good. You both go ahead and feverishly run your analyses and get your results, and then you get back together. Like good scientists, you’re striving to replicate the studies for maximum empirical validity, but when you compare, your results are different. Baffled, you each take over the other’s project and run the same analyses as an error checking precaution, but all you do is reconfirm the first round of results. And they remain, stubbornly, different to each other. What has happened? Well, hopefully very obvious given everything I’ve already said. You’ve each unwittingly chosen different versions of King Lear, Hamlet, and Othello. And they really can be quite different. One version of King Lear has about two hundred lines more than another. Similarly, the Quarto version of Hamlet has over two hundred lines that the Folio version doesn’t have, but at the same time, the Folio version has seventy lines that the Quarto doesn’t have. And there are hundreds of other differences in individual words or short phrases. In fact, there are multiple versions of the various Folios and Quartos, and remember, these are all, still, publications that are a long way downstream from the original handwritten scripts.
Don’t forget, too, that if you want to do this properly, and especially if you’re going to want to show that someone else wrote one of the works of Shakespeare, you’re going to have to draw up a list of viable possible alternatives. So who is going on your suspect list? What’s your evidence for inclusion and exclusion? Do you even know all the people who could realistically be the alternative author or authors? Is this an impossibly open-ended list? Once you finally have a hopefully closed set of candidates, you’re also going to have to find comprehensive known text datasets for them. That is, if they even have surviving texts that can be confidently attributed to them. And you’re also going to have to deal with exactly the same sets of issues around editing and standardization and interference for all of their works. And then you’re going to need to perform rigorous comparisons back and forth until you’ve got a complete picture of what’s going on. And of course, the analysis itself has got to be meaningful. You can’t just wheel out any old method and assume it will actually tell you anything useful. And even more of course, lots of people disagree about the best ways to test for authorship. Methods range from highly qualitative historical approaches, discourse analysis, and stylistics through to much more quantitative methods like corpus linguistics and statistical analyses through to straight out black-box algorithms and multivariate methods such as principle component analysis and Bayesian mathematics.
The short version here is that when it comes to the field of Shakespearian authorship, if you’re really trying to do it properly, there are quite a lot of headaches involved just in getting off the ground. But even those many difficulties involved in identifying versions, creating datasets, mitigating for interference, using a robust method, interpreting the results sensibly, and so forth have not remotely stopped scholars in the field. For some I’m sure it’s actually just made it all the more fun. And plenty of Shakespeare scholars have given all of these matters, and far more besides, considerable thought. Plenty of work makes its steps and methods as transparent as possible, and clearly identifies the range of potential problems and shortcomings. But, some enthusiasts haven’t worried themselves about any of this at all. They’ve galloped straight past any evidence supporting the Stratford position without bothering to discount it sensibly, past the methodological headaches and biographical evidence and linguistic nightmares, right into the far juicier part of the equation – who they think the real William Shakespeare is.
Let’s get onto the pet theories, and I’ll warn you now, some are definitely more robust than others. Moreover, the past two centuries have produced an astonishing number of answers to the question, Who wrote Shakespeare? As I record this, over eighty different candidates have been put forward as the real Shakespeare. But, because this miniseries has to end somewhere, we only cover the five most popular theories, and as ever, we’ll start at the beginning, with a theory that is…
…coming up in the next episode.
End of part 2 of 6.
If you’re interested in more Shakespeare content, from linguists, at Lancaster, then search the internet for Future Learn, Shakespeare’s Language. This free online course is all about both revealing meanings and exploring myths, and as a bonus, you get introduced to corpus-based methods for analysing Shakespeare’s language. What’s not to love!
The episode was researched and fact-checked by my research assistant, Rebecca Jagodzinski, and my intern, Debbi Tomkinson, and it was narrated and produced by me, Dr Claire Hardaker. I am also extremely grateful for all the input I’ve had from the renowned Shakespeare authority, Jonathan Culpeper – creator of that online course I mentioned – who has patiently entertained this whole miniseries idea from inception to gruesome, bloody execution.
However, this work wouldn’t exist in its current form without the prior efforts of many others. You can find acknowledgements and references for those people at the blog. Also there you can find data, links, articles, pictures, older cases, and more besides.
The address for the blog is wp.lancs.ac.uk/enclair. And you can follow the podcast on Twitter at _enclair. Or if you like, you can follow me on Twitter at DrClaireH.
Credits, sources, and more
See Casenotes for S02E03 Slowburn Shakespeare, part 1 of 6 – Who Wrote Shakespeare?