CONTENT RATING: universal
Did Shakespeare really write…well, Shakespeare? Or is the Swan of Avon a five-century-old con? Part 1 of this slowburn mini-series looks at the question “Who wrote Shakespeare?” Below you will find data, audio credits, further reading, and a transcript of the podcast.
David Hilowitz – Angle of Light
Aaron Dunn – Minuet – Notebook for Anna Magdalena (cropped)
Scott Holmes – Postcards
This is a multi-part content warning – and, given its unusual length, it will not appear at the start of the next five episodes. First content warning: this is a slowburn six-part miniseries. Episode one charts the history of the “who wrote Shakespeare?” question, episode two considers the weightiness of the arguments for doubting Shakespeare, episodes three and four look at alternative candidates, episode five looks at the case for Shakespeare being Shakespeare, and episode six takes us right up to where we are with the question today. In short, this is a long-haul investigation.
Second content warning: if this miniseries will teach you anything, it’s that Shakespeare retains an immortal talent for inexplicably driving people into wild rages, so some of the episodes contain swearing. The second episode contains a brief mention of suicidal thoughts. The third episode alludes in an extremely oblique way to very serious crimes indeed. It is not possible to work out what those crimes are based on what I say, and I have made this choice on purpose.
Third and final content warning: whether you are a Stratfordian – and we’ll get onto what precisely that means later – or an anti-Stratfordian, prepare yourself. I am not out to make friends or allies. I try to present all the evidence as fairly as I can – the good, the bad, and the ugly – on all sides of this debate. But it is worth noting that, if judged purely on publication numbers and enthusiasm, Shakespeare is arguably the biggest authorship case in existence ever. This six-part miniseries barely scratches the surface. It is inevitable that key details have been omitted and some of the more complex events and arguments have been simplified. If I hadn’t done that, this case would easily (easily!) be ten times longer. But the good news is, if this topic really appeals to you, there are literally – that’s the literally that does mean literally – thousands of books written on it, and huge numbers of them are readily accessible. As always, I have tried to provide good starting points at the blog.
Case S02E03: Slowburn Shakespeare, part 1 of 6 – Who Wrote Shakespeare?
How do you begin an episode on Shakespeare? My early memories on this subject are awful. Middle school, year six, aged about ten: Romeo & Juliet. Every Friday, last lesson. For the first few weeks we had to read the play out. I spent one dreary week as the nurse and then after that, I was demoted to the blessed relief of silence. For the first two weeks, we watched this ancient film that the teacher paused every half minute to explain what was happening. We got dragged to a museum somewhere to look at… something. I actually don’t remember any more what it was. I just remember the sales pitches I got in response to all the complaints I made (I made quite a few): Shakespeare’s lofty wisdom would elevate my uncultured little mind. His rich poetic verse would nourish my young soul. His complex characters and their evolving moral narrative arcs would help me chart paths through my own haphazard, pedestrian, unremarkable life. Rustic prose! Iambic pentameter! Trochaic chants!!
All I remember is actually, really, miserably hating every last second of it. From my earliest childhood, I have loved books, passionately. They were an escapism that was invaluable to me – but when high school ended, I threw away the five or six plays I’d been forced to buy and read and study, and it’s from that experience that I actually fully understand people who don’t really get reading. I remember how I would feel staring at those infuriating, over-clever, needlessly mangled lines and think, “This is excruciating. This is meant to be humorous? This isn’t even funny.”
Okay, so – Comedy of Errors, right? Parents and their baby twins are ripped apart, and the rest of the play is each parent with one twin desperately trying to reunite with the other missing parent and child. Hilarious. So comedic.
Romeo & Juliet: more tragedy involving kids, but this time they die. Really uplifting.
Midsummer Night’s Dream: what was going on there?!
And I just about managed to get it together and raise a modicum of interest for Macbeth, right? Murder! Ghosts! Betrayal! A super-relatable arch-villain! Who doesn’t remember Lady Macbeth? It was going really well. Aaaand then all of that enthusiasm died again with The Tempest.
Based on all of this, had you told me that one day I would not only own multiple versions of the works of Shakespeare, but that I would have read all of them, riveted, I would have thought you were out of your mind. And yet here we are. Probably not quite what my literature teacher, Ms. Symonds, imagined, though. For me (forgive me, Ms. Symonds, and Jonathan), Shakespeare isn’t interesting for its elegant artistry or profound wisdom or deep studies of the tortured human psyche. It’s interesting because – out of every play and poem, every scene, every character – it’s the author, Shakespeare himself, that might just be the greatest fiction of them all.
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 links to further reading – at the blog. The web address is given at the end of this podcast.
Sound and fury
Shakespeare has been written about, celebrated, argued over, so heatedly and for so long that it’s difficult to know where to begin. And yet, it might be easier to fill volumes with what we don’t know about this mysterious individual. To quote Taylor and Egan, who we’ll get back to much later on:
[…] much of Shakespeare’s biography remains conjectural, and recent biographies (by Jonathan Bate, Stephen Greenblatt, E. A. J. Honigmann, René Weis, and others) are full of biographical speculation. Such conjectures about the life cannot provide a secure foundation for further conjectures about the work. (Taylor & Egan 2016: 435)
Hmm. Not a good start. However, as a direct corollary to this, Maguire and Smith (2013) point out that
…we know a great deal about Shakespeare’s life and movements – far more than we know about most other Elizabethan dramatists. We may not know all that we want to know, or precise details of the bits that most interest us, but it is not true to say that the records are scant. We know when Shakespeare was born (plus or minus a day). We know when he died. We know the birth dates and death dates of his three children. We know their godparents. We know about his mother’s family and his father’s, and we know about his father’s civic activities in Stratford, his activities in wool-brogging (smuggling) and usury, and his subsequent debts. We know who Shakespeare’s Stratford neighbors were. We know about his property inheritance, acquisition, and investment – houses in Henley Street and New Place, a cottage in Chapel Lane, land in Old Town, Stratford, a gatehouse in London’s Blackfriars, a share in Stratford’s tithes. We know about his litigation (it was a litigious culture). We know about his son’s premature death and his two daughters’ marriages. We lack comparable information for many of Shakespeare’s Elizabethan and Jacobean contemporaries. Part of the reason that we know so much, relatively speaking, about Shakespeare is that he maintained links with his home town, thus providing a constant in his life. Yes, there are gaps. [… I’ll come back to these shortly.] Clearly there is much that we would like to know; but this should not blind us to how much we do know. It is what we do with what we know – how we evaluate the evidence (and negative evidence) and the inferences we draw – that is important. (Maguire & Smith 2013: 106-107)
So with Maguire and Smith’s wise words to guide us, let’s review the basic biographical facts that are documented and that most people generally do agree upon, as follows:
On the 26th April 1564, one baby, name of William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon: baptised. That’s the closest thing we have to a date of birth so we’ll use it as a proxy for his age from here onwards. He was the son of John Shakespeare, a glover, and Mary Arden, the daughter of a wealthy farmer. When he was four, in 1568, his father became Mayor of Stratford so it’s possible that he attended the local grammar school for free, but there are no educational records from this time, so realistically, that is again just speculation. In 1582, just as he turned eighteen, he married Anne Hathaway. She came from a nearby wealthy farming family. Six months later, when Shakespeare was nineteen, his first child Susanna was born, and by the time Shakespeare was twenty-one, fraternal twins Hamnet and Judith had arrived.
But then it all goes dark.
And not just for a bit.
From 1585 to 1592, seven long years pass by in which there are – as far as we can tell – no records of Shakespeare.
Finally, just as he turns twenty-eight, his plays emerge on the London stage.
Obviously something happened in those lost seven years. Lots of people have spent lots of time speculating about quite what that might be. Did he whisk off directly to London and begin his life as a playwright? John Aubrey suspects that he actually worked in Lancashire as a schoolmaster. I mean, did he spend seven years undergoing an extended rite to trade his soul for the fame he would be accorded after his death? I don’t know. And the point is, neither does anyone else, really. There’s probably a five-part Netflix docudrama on it somewhere and several books – but even if they do exist, it’s all speculation. We can only guess. Perhaps he simply took that most natural of seven-year paths from schoolboy to young man with three kids to celebrated literary genius. You know, like you do (Maguire & Smith 2013: 107).
But maybe there’s another explanation – and I’ll come back to that later on.
Our next records pick up in the middle of 1593. The first copy of the poem Venus and Adonis is sold, and it has twenty-nine-year-old William Shakespeare in the author line. Five years later, as he’s approaching his mid-thirties, the play Love’s Labour’s Lost is published with his name on the title page. There’s also a hint of possibly another play: Love’s Labour’s Won is listed in library guidebook from the same year, but if it ever existed, it seems to have been lost to time. More likely, it was just an alternative name for an existing play, but again, we don’t know that for sure.
By 1600, as Shakespeare is just passing his mid-thirties, booksellers are now trying to peddle works by other authors under his name, because Shakespeare is starting to sell. By 1608, he’s in charge of the King’s Men group of actors. By 1609, his first complete set of sonnets is published – and then, just eight years later, aged fifty-two, he dies. The circumstances of Shakespeare’s death are unknown, but it’s not likely that his passing will have made much of a sensation. Like so many artists, the astronomical (in this case almost surreal) levels of fame arrived years after his death. In his case, however, the groundwork for this was precipitated by his contemporaries publishing The First Folio. This was a collection of thirty-six works attributed directly to him that would, in future centuries, become almost holy amongst scholars of Shakespeare. The First Folio comes up a lot in this miniseries, so try to remember it if you can.
Anyway, that’s it. That’s really all the major points of Shakespeare’s life. Birth, marriage, kids, plays, poems, death, First Folio. (Shakespeare scholars in the background are screaming. I know, there’s lots more, but this is a podcast series and we can’t do everything.)
As I noted earlier, what we do know about Shakespeare, really, is that – though we know more about him than pretty much most other Elizabethan playwrights of the time – we still, overall, don’t actually know as much about him as we would like. But of all the things we don’t know, there is one particular question about Shakespeare that first arose in around the mid-1800s. When I finally came across it, I found it so interesting that it even managed to overcome the absolute horror of Shakespeare instilled in me from school. That question is: Did Shakespeare even write the works attributed to him (McCrea, 2005: xii)? Or, in different words: Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?
Actually I’m setting my sights rather low here. Some people have a significantly bigger and far more ambitious question still: did Shakespeare even exist? In all the plays and poems under his name, was Shakespeare the most fictitious character of them all? Did it just happen, coincidentally, that another man of the same name lived nearby?
To be fair, both of these bardic existential conundrums still actually boil down to the same thing. After all, if Shakespeare didn’t exist, all the works under his name most certainly still do, and someone must have written them – so the question would still be: Well then, who did write them? But before we get stuck into the who, we should really start with the why.
Why did anyone start questioning Shakespeare’s authorship in the first place?
Heir of all eternity
Okay, so here’s what happened: Shakespeare dies. He enjoys – as much as one can when one is dead – a reasonable degree of renown for about two centuries, but nothing amazing. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Marlowe was arguably more famous, and for the first few decades after his death at least, he’s overshadowed by the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher. These are, incidentally, another of history’s authorship cases, but that’s getting off the point. Back to Shakespeare being dead and not really all that famous. The decades pass by, and as far as we can tell, no one has any questions or doubts around his existence, his talents, his authorship of the works. But then in 1725, Alexander Pope publishes his Complete Works of Shakespeare, and in it he makes some fairly pointed comments. He doesn’t think that the supreme First Folio is as faithful and accurate as people have taken it to be. He considers the earlier Quartos to be more authentic. He feels like trifles and bombast have been added to The First Folio by actors or plagiarized from them. He thinks Love’s Labour’s Lost, The Winter’s Tale, and Titus Andronicus are hardly by Shakespeare at all. Maybe only a scene or a verse or a few lines. Pope’s evidence is not amazing. He thinks this because another playwright called Ben Jonson said so, and because his own refined tastes direct him to agree – but he wasn’t alone. Only a few years later, in the 1740s, Thomas Hanmer and John Upton publish similar questions around Shakespeare’s authorship. Could this man – this nobody – really have written such works? Again, they draw on similarly unscientific underpinnings, but the point now is, these are early cracks in the otherwise perfect veneer of unquestioning attribution. As far as we know, everyone was perfectly satisfied before this – so why this sudden doubt? What is happening in the world that can exert enough pressure to direct the attention of scholars and enthusiasts to revisit these previously well-held beliefs? Well, on the one hand, Maguire & Smith (2013) put some of it down to tectonic shifts in the philosophy of science – a daring new willingness to ask politically radical questions, to reject formerly held beliefs, to follow the heart and the senses. Some of this is captured in the early Romanticism that rose like a phoenix from the raging fires of the Napoleonic Wars. So you can imagine how a climate that encouraged freer thinking, bolder questions, riskier ideas, would nourish questions around issues such as whether Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. But there were several more factors than just this.
When we hit the late 1700s, a phenomenon known as bardolatry enters the provincial group chat. The actual name, bardolatry, won’t pop into existence until the 1900s but the act itself gets in a good long run first. In very simple terms, as the name suggests, bardolatry is idolatry of the bard – a sort of over-awed, excessive adulation. The indulgence of ever-more flattering panegyrics of the Swan of Avon.
And again, inevitably, it’s worth asking why bardolatry suddenly happened. There wasn’t a Twitter back then; this didn’t suddenly trend on the town’s topic list. And there were plenty of idolizable candidates to choose from, so why this one? And why now? Again, we can’t know but we can speculate, and one suggestion is that this was driven by the British Empire having quite a notable wobble during those decades. The American War of Independence – that is, independence from the British Empire – raged from the mid-1770s to the early 1780s. And as we know, that independence was attained. The British Empire found some of its power slipping away. Similarly, tensions between the US and Britain escalated drastically with the Napoleonic Wars, and I’ve already mentioned that shift in scientific philosophy that took root around this time.
So what we find during times of instability and crisis and conflict – as during these wars – is that countries tend to become more insular and more nationalistic. This expresses itself is through the sudden celebration of home talent, the raising of patriotic icons, the adulation of the nation’s most successful children. Invariably, given that arts are a sort of emotional barometer of a country’s wellbeing at any moment, these also tend to be influenced by the political and cultural climate in all kinds of ways. This can involve the commissioning of jazzy patriotic music or the deification of leaders in gigantic sculptures – and, of course, the unpleasant depiction of enemies in works of fiction. (That still happens now, by the way. Look back over the major Hollywood movies of the past fifty years – actually, you can go back further than that, but, you know, fifty years is good – check out where the baddies supposedly come from in the world, their countries of origin; look at how they’re represented, the stereotypes and what they do and how they speak; and then look at the state of the world at the time when the film was made. It’s really not subtle.)
Anyway, the biggest and nearest hostile force, the French Empire, had outstanding composers. Extraordinary artists. Amazing food. And it had monster heavyweight writers: Moliere, Rousseau, Voltaire. It makes some sense, then, that during these precarious decades as the British Empire lost its grip on the US and started shaping up for a titanic battle with the French Empire, Shakespeare stood out as an ideal candidate to be the poster boy for British awesomeness. It could have been another playwright, of course, or a composer, or whomever, but it just so happens to have been him. And thus, bardolatry takes off. The thing is, though, just like the disinformation of today, even if some people at the time are just bardolising ironically or patriotically, enough people still take it as fact. And, perhaps accelerated by the fear of worldwide dominance slipping away, within a few decades, Shakespeare meteorically transcends from just another also-ran dramatist into the rarified stratosphere of genre-defining grand master; a superlative towering intellect well-versed in political, scientific, legal, and royal knowledge; an untutored incandescent rustic genius; the internationally acclaimed, consummate literary polestar.
As over-the-top as all this sounds, it doesn’t come close to the feverish pitch of some of the lathered praise heaped on Shakespeare’s memory by his most ardent devotees and admirers. In fact, as a brief aside, it also rather begs an interesting question about just who the chumps are. Were his lifetime contemporaries simply too ignorant and oblivious to recognize his brilliance? Or are we all a little carried away with a rather over-egged story? Has the bardolatry won? I mean, who doesn’t love a local underdog turned global success, sure – but it does ultimately mean that someone, somewhere, really got it wrong.
Anyway, the point here is that just as Shakespeare’s name was becoming synonymous with the very pinnacle of artistic brilliance, and just as these new philosophical notions of asking bold questions have taken hold, that’s also when the doubt arrived. And I don’t think that these things are a coincidence. I think, in fact, that bardolatry and this scientific shift – I think they’re the catalyst. Whatever the case, there is this seismic stress between the ground reality of a very ordinary man from a very ordinary country town versus this ever-ascending image of a literary titan, and when the two become so disjointed (with the encouragement of these radical new ways of thinking), for some, the whole Shakespeare phenomenon fractures into suspicion and doubt.
And along with all the fame, of course, come the hordes of people: the enthusiasts, the scholars, adherents of other playwrights, many armed with access to libraries, each determined to investigate to their own satisfaction. Inevitably, the result is torrents of contradictory evidence, all pointing in different directions. The gaffes in his plays? Well, a market town boy would make those kinds of mistakes, so it must be the man from Stratford. But what about the adept descriptions of royalty? How could a glover’s son even begin to manage such a feat? Obviously, therefore, it cannot possibly be the man from Stratford – and so on, and so forth.
From these divisions, people soon amassed evidence to champion their own candidate, whether Shakespeare himself or someone else, and so we get to where we are today. Now, under normal circumstances, a question like this – a doubt about whether a person has written the works attributed to them – could be put to bed fairly straightforwardly. The problem is, there is no base truth for all these people to find, not even the ones who are happy that the glover’s son really is the bard (the Stratfordians). There is no gameshow host who is ever going to pop into view, whip a sparkly card from an envelope, and read out the correct answer. And that leaves the door wide open for questions. And so, from the middle of the 1800s, people start to ask the unthinkable out loud. Isn’t it weird that this nobody from nowhere should suddenly turn into one of the foremost literary geniuses of the modern age? Is that even possible? Can a glover’s son with no extraordinary artistic lineage, no aristocratic blood, no culture, no class, no connections, turn into… Shakespeare? Couldn’t someone else with more believable credentials maybe have written all that stuff? As you’ve probably gathered, these are questions deeply entrenched in class snobbery, and yet they also spring from a culture that was itself fundamentally wrapped up in agonies about these exact issues, so their unpalatable elitist tenor is kind of unsurprising.
But whatever people were saying, all we have today are the written records. Inevitably, these tend to lag behind conversational topics, sometimes by decades, so, to the best of our current knowledge, the earliest documentary evidence for this Shakespeare authorship question is found in the mid-1800s, and it starts with, of all things… yachts.
When the sea was calm
In 1848, Joseph C. Hart, a lawyer from New York, published a book called – of all things – The Romance of Yachting. Amusingly enough, some lament that it really doesn’t have much to say about yachting at all; that it is, in fact, “a gossipy account of a voyage to Spain”, and in it, inexplicably, he devotes a whole section to Shakespeare. And he really does have opinions. He labels the man as ignorant, argues that he filled his plays with “impurities” (McCrea, 2005), and states that he likely stole the scripts from better and more accomplished playwrights.
Yet notwithstanding all this mystery, and the absence of any positive information, learned and voluminous commentators and biographers, in great numbers, have been led to suppose and assert a thousand things in regard to Shakespeare’s history, pursuits and attainments, which cannot be substantiated by a particle of proof. Among these is the authorship of the plays grouped under his name, which they assume as his for a certainty and beyond dispute. This egregious folly is beginning to react upon those who have been engaged in it—especially Pope the poet, who, on the score of the supposed great learning of Shakespeare, has contributed not a little to the delusion concerning him. (Hart 1848: 15, emphasis original)
Really doesn’t like Shakespeare, does he?
Anyway, four years later in 1852, an anonymous 3,000-word article entitled Who Wrote Shakespeare? is published in the Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal. Now this is widely credited to Dr. Robert W. Jameson. I put loads of effort into fact-checking that attribution; I can’t find out why it’s attributed to him. Everyone credits him because everyone credits him, but I cannot find a single primary source, so I’m just going to continue to say it’s anonymous. I’ve put the link in the blog post anyway, but I’ll quote just a tiny snippet of this anonymous thing. It says:
Is it more difficult to suppose that Shakspeare was not the author of the poetry ascribed to him, than to account for the fact, that there is nothing in the recorded or traditionary life of Shakspeare which in any way connects the poet with the man?
In different words, I think what he’s saying here is that since, biographically, Shakespeare’s connections to the theatre are supposedly fairly tenuous, then arguing that he was the playwright is just as sensible (or easy or difficult) as arguing that he wasn’t. The quantum of evidence required to go in either direction is about the same, according to whoever this anonymous guy was.
Now quite what the readership of The Romance of Yachting or Chambers’s Edinburgh Journal were, I couldn’t say, but their close proximity in time suggests that maybe this question was abroad verbally in some circles. Maybe it was an intellectual post-dinner talking point, I don’t know. But even if the well-educated upper-middle-classes were enjoying canvassing the subject whilst taking the yacht out for a spin – or whatever you do with a yacht, I’m not sure – up until that point no one had committed it to paper yet. That we know of, anyway.
In their 2016 work, Taylor and Bouros put the whole affair rather more bluntly:
The feeling that Shakespeare is the poet of the top one per cent, of ‘the billionaire class’, also lies behind the one claim about Shakespeare that almost everyone has heard: [I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know how many people actually know that there’s a question about Shakespeare’s authorship. But anyway] that he did not actually write his own works. This conspiracy theory, which originated in the nineteenth century, is grounded in the conviction that the writing attributed to Shakespeare is ‘not relatable’ to the ordinary life of a man who never went to college, was born and raised in a small town, worked for a living, came from a socially and intellectually unremarkable family, married a boring woman, and fathered boring children. Therefore the plays and poems must have been written by someone with a more appropriately elevated pedigree and more interesting relatives: the Earl of Oxford, say, or Sir Francis Bacon, or Sir Henry Neville, or Queen Elizabeth I, or Thomas Sackville (Earl of Dorset), someone, anyone, better born and better educated and better connected than the ‘upstart crow’. (Taylor & Bouros 2016: 11)
Now as I’ve said, under normal circumstances, a question like this might easily be put back to bed, but as this miniseries will hopefully show, with Shakespeare, nothing is simple. Hence the swearing. There are large, undocumented holes in Shakespeare’s history – I’ve already pointed some of them out – and for some people, those by themselves are enough. The holes leave wiggle-room to allow other explanations – some more plausible, others frankly batshit – to not only exist, but to even flourish.
After all, most people enjoy a fun conspiracy theory, even if they don’t subscribe to it. It’s just another avenue of fiction. And pretty much everybody loves a dramatic national intrigue. I mean, who isn’t fascinated by the idea that a globally treasured canon of literature might itself hide a story even greater than its most elaborate plots? Most conveniently, it’s a question without an answer. There is no base truth. We cannot go back half a millennia to question the relevant parties or view CCTV footage or spy on the writer (or writers) at work. We have various statements and accounts and lots of circumstantial evidence, some of it very compelling, yes – and Occam’s razor warns us to throw that all in the bin at our peril – but still, we have nothing more concrete than that, and weird things have happened around authorship before.
So, just as we find with other conundrums like the Voynich manuscript and the Dorabella Cipher and so on, for people who get quite heavily invested in these sorts of eternal unanswerable debates, this is perfect. They can pick a hill to die on, argue their different theories for the rest of their lives until they do indeed expire with no risk of someone turning up one day, yoinking the actual answer out of an envelope, and spoiling their fun by proving them wrong. Some people have built whole careers on this kind of never-ending unverifiable debate. With Shakespeare, we have the perfect conditions for a gripping whodunit – whobardit?
I’m not actually sorry.
Throw together one national treasure, one unanswerable challenge, and a handful of enthused scholars, and you get… the Shakespearian authorship question.
Now, I mentioned the Stratfordians and the anti-Stratfordians before, so it might be time to introduce you to them now.
On one side of this question, you have perhaps the majority of Shakespearean scholars. These are the people for whom the authorship question is either uninteresting or irrelevant or already answered to their satisfaction. Either they’re assured that a glover’s son called William Shakespeare from Stratford-Upon-Avon existed and that most, if not all, of the works attributed to him were indeed written by him – 0r they actually don’t care who wrote Shakespeare. They just love the works themselves and that’s quite enough, thank you very much. And for most of those people, if there is debate, it’s around the apocrypha/one or two plays that are a little bit dicey, but otherwise the main canon is widely accepted as Shakespeare’s. These people are sometimes referred to as the Stratfordians, because they support the idea of the man from Stratford. For them – the Stratfordians – there is no question, or the question is fundamentally uninteresting. As far as I’m concerned, these are perfectly reasonable positions to occupy on the authorship continuum. But there is a stronger version of this Stratfordian position which is best phrased thus: not only is there no question, but even daring to ask questions or doubt Shakespeare’s authorship in the canon is problematic. Embarrassing. Ridiculous. And if you seriously pursue the question, then you’re a fringe conspiracy theorist who does not deserve to be taken seriously.
In fact, this opposition to even asking the question has escalated, at times, to frankly eyebrow raising levels. Back in 2005, Shakespearian academic titan, Stephen Greenblatt wrote a letter to The New York Times. In a prior issue, another scholar had suggested teaching the authorship controversy in the national curriculum, and Greenblatt was Not Having It™:
The idea that William Shakespeare’s authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the ‘authorship controversy’ be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that ‘intelligent design’ be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time. The demand seems harmless enough until one reflects on its implications. Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum? (Rosenbaum 2005)
That’s right. In very measured and nuanced response, Greenblatt seems to have equated questioning Shakespeare’s authorship with Holocaust denial. He’s not alone. Others are ferociously territorial about the bard too. Another figure who will come up again in this miniseries is Brian Vickers, and he wrote that:
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 being used to teach students, and being sold in bookshops to unsuspecting laymen. (Vickers 2020)
“These editions” are The New Oxford Shakespeare. This is a series which investigates the authorship of the various plays, and way down the line, we’ll get back to those books too. The problem here is that Vickers has a really serious issue with anybody suggesting that anyone other than Shakespeare was involved in writing Shakespeare.
Anyway, who lurks on the twilight side of this question? As you’ve probably gathered, there are the Stratfordians on one side, and on the other side we have the anti-Stratfordians. I’m just going to call them the Antis from hereon because that’s way too many syllables to say loads of times. The Antis are essentially the doubters. They are a constellation of scholars, celebrities, and enthusiasts who have amassed over the centuries to ponder this shadowy historical question and put forward alternative authors for the works of Shakespeare. Better-known names in this camp include Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplain, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman (Dudley, 2013: 1). A not insignificant number of books have been published on the subject that challenge Shakespeare’s authorship (Dudley, 2013). I’m sorry to say that I’ve only read and consulted eleven books for this episode, plus a bunch of articles. Dudley’s 2013 research quotes from 2,125 – so, you know, more to be done here. In fact, the publications, as will become obvious the longer this miniseries goes on, are not only numerous, they get quite bitterly confrontational too. Shakespeare may have been dead five hundred years, but his capacity to generate drama is still very much alive. I’ll give you a super tame example (spicier ones come up later on): in 2013, Edmondson & Wells published the pro-Stratfordian Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy. The very same year, Shahan & Waugh published Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Exposing an Industry in Denial. No surprise, this was a direct counter arguing the Anti side of the question.
But there isn’t just reputation in this; there is also money – including the Hoffman Prize. This is a competition administered by The King’s School, Canterbury, and named in honour of Calvin Hoffman. Hoffman was convinced that Christopher Marlowe wrote the works of Shakespeare and so through his Calvin & Rose G Hoffman Marlowe Memorial Trust, he created a prize of one half of the capital of the entire Trust Fund. I don’t really understand accounting documents well, but the Trust Fund seems to be sitting on about one million pounds, so if I’m correct, the prize is half a million, or about $700,000. What do you have to do to win this actually really quite good prize? Not much. You get the money if you have,
in the opinion of the King’s School furnished irrefutable and incontrovertible proof and evidence required to satisfy the world of Shakespearian scholarship that all the plays and poems now commonly attributed to William Shakespeare were in fact written by Christopher Marlowe. (Marlowe Society 2021)
Amusingly, however, the Marlowe Society do add this little encouraging comment on at the very end of their Hoffman Prize page:
Can the Principal Prize Ever Be Won? […] it is difficult to see how it could actually be won. Even if The King’s School were satisfied that a competitor had produced the irrefutable evidence required, how should Shakespearian scholarship be convinced? If evidence is “irrefutable”, but highly inconvenient, it is normal practice to dismiss it with lofty scorn – not to try to refute it. It would surely take a generation or two, and possibly more than the value of the prize itself, before the sceptical world of Shakespearian scholarship – to say nothing of the interested world of Shakespearian commerce – would abandon its claims in the face of “irrefutable evidence”.
So, there’s money in the question…eh, not really. Anyway, there are multiple other websites devoted entirely to the authorship question – some outline all the Anti theories, and others champion a specific candidate author. A few examples, and as ever, you can find links to these in the casenotes: There’s the Shakespearean Authorship Trust, and this will come back up later on so I won’t say more here. There’s the de Vere Society which declares itself “dedicated to the proposition that the works of Shakespeare were written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford”. And, amongst many others, there’s also Doubt About Will, which is the home of the Shakespearean Authorship Coalition, or for short…the SAC. Anyway, the SAC questions both the body of evidence supporting William Shakespeare’s authorship of his attributed works, and the “enormous gulf between the alleged author’s life and the contents of his works”. A list of prominent doubters takes center stage. Alongside ones I already noted earlier, they cite Ralph Waldo Emerson, Orson Welles, Henry James, and Mortimer J. Adler. They also created the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, which reads thus:
We, the undersigned, hereby declare our view that there is room for reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare, and that it is an important question for anyone seeking to understand the works, the formative literary culture in which they were produced, or the nature of literary creativity and genius. (SAC Declaration, emphasis original)
According to the website, at the time that I was recording this, the Declaration had 4,336 verified signatories, 725 academic signatories, and 93 “notable signatories” (professors, actors and actresses, directors, and the like). When compared with all Shakespeare scholars worldwide, this is a tiny number, but then not everyone knows the site exists, and even for those who do, not everyone wants to publicly sign their name on a website, so we can’t read too much into that.
The SAC has perhaps been more proactive in its campaign than some. One of those spicier instances that I mentioned: on 04th July 2013, they sent an open letter to Peter Kyle. Who’s this? Well, this is the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and they invited the Trust to take part in a mock trial with a panel of neutral judges. The SAC hoped, in this trial, to resolve the authorship question, citing the argument that there is indeed “reasonable doubt” that the Stratford glover’s son was also the author William Shakespeare. A very long two months later, Mr. Kyle responded with a rejection. Undeterred, SAC penned another letter – link at the blog again – offering the Trust £40,000 if it managed to win the trial. A list of prominent signatories who had pledged to donate towards the £40,000 was included in the letter. Once again, the Trust declined to participate.
While debates and mock trials (typically held in libraries) on the Shakespeare authorship question sound like fairly tame affairs frequented by bookish scholarly types, the issue seems to have stirred considerable animosity between the two camps. Sir Stanley William Wells (CBE), Shakespearian scholar, professor, and honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, published an article in 2010 on the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust website. I’ll only quote the very last paragraph, but it’s really quite something. Wells says:
The phenomenon of disbelief in Shakespeare’s authorship is a psychological aberration of considerable interest. Endorsement of it in favour of aristocratic candidates may be ascribed to snobbery – reluctance to believe that works of genius could emanate from a man of relatively humble origin – an attitude that would not permit Marlowe to have written his own works, let alone Shakespeare’s. Other causes include ignorance; poor sense of logic; refusal, willful or otherwise, to accept evidence; folly; the desire for publicity; and even (as in the sad case of Delia Bacon, who hoped to open Shakespeare’s grave in 1856) certifiable madness.
As a sidenote, I am not remotely enamored with this reference to Delia Bacon. The best I can reconstruct of her final years is that she lived in desperate poverty, struggled with recurrent fevers, slid into a very severe depression, and, as with so many vulnerable women of that era, the solution imposed on her was an asylum, where she died shortly afterwards. Notably, her research into Shakespeare predated this untimely death by fifteen years, and the interested listener who can stomach it should read an account of asylums from that era, such as Nellie Bly’s Ten Days in a Madhouse. Lots of the women who were in there were not mentally ill. Anyway, it’s heartbreaking stuff, and I take strong issue with this really flippant allusion to Delia Bacon.
Moving on, the SAC sent multiple letters of complaint about the article, which for many months went completely unanswered. Finally, just over a year later, in May 2011, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust removed the article. That’s interesting, but then… it was promptly republished on the website of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). It’s worth noting that the article’s author, Stanley Wells, was also Vice-Chair and subsequently Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which is presumably why and how the matter evolved as it did. Unsurprisingly, the SAC were even more unimpressed, and they escalated by sending a letter to then-President of the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Prince of Wales. In May 2015, the SAC chairman John Shahan was informed that the article would be removed, but, though it has indeed gone from its original location, you can still find a copy on the Wayback Machine. And yes the link is indeed in the blog.
As this spat highlights, it’s not just the case that plenty of Stratfordians don’t feel that there is a question to answer. The issue is with the more aggressive Stratfordian gatekeepers who think that even asking the question is “a psychological aberration”. As a result, a primary, explicit goal of sites like the SAC is simply to legitimize the Shakespeare authorship question as a field of scholarly enquiry (Gibson, 2005; Nelson, 2004). In other words, part of the campaign is tackling the notion that even just asking the question is problematic. And as this miniseries will go on to show, this aim seems to have been at least partially, if not completely, successful. Just some early signs of that include the fact that, in 2007, Brunel University in London and Concordia University in Portland, Oregon both launched Master’s degree programmes in Authorship Studies, and Brunel’s is specifically focused on Shakespeare. Then in 2016, Oxford University Press launched The New Oxford Shakespeare, which I mentioned a moment ago, and that was…
Well, let’s not jump ahead of ourselves. We’ll get back to that development right at the end.
For now, let’s do something much more immediate and important. We need to assess just how much room for reasonable doubt there is. I mean, does the SAC actually have a point? What evidence do the Antis point to? Is this truly all obstinately ignorant folly, fame-hungry straw-clutching, willfully illogical snobbery? Or is there some actual reasonable scope for asking and answering the question?
We’ll take a look at the evidence in the next episode.
End of part 1 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 about both revealing meanings in the works and exploring the myths about Shakespeare in general, and as a bonus, you get introduced to corpus-based methods for analysing Shakespeare. 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, 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
Brewer, C. (2013). Shakespeare, word-coining, and the OED. Shakespeare Survey, 65, 345-357.
Craig, H. (2011). Shakespeare’s Vocabulary: Myth and Reality. Shakespeare Quarterly, 62(1), 53-74.
Dudley, M.Q. (2013). “‘My Library Was Dukedom Large Enough’: Academic Libraries Mediating the Shakespeare Authorship Debate”, The Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research, 8(2), 1-9.
Elliot, W., & Valenza, R. (1991). Was the Earl of Oxford the True Shakespeare? A Computer-Aided Analysis. Notes and Queries, 38(4), 501-506.
Franssen, P. (2013). “Fictional treatments of Shakespeare’s authorship”. In: P. Edmonson and S. Wells (Eds), Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy (pp. 189-200). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Friberg, J. (2016). The Seven Steps to Mercy: Cracking the Shakespeare Code [Documentary Series]. Syndicado.
Friedlander, A. (2015). Five myths about William Shakespeare. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-william-shakespeare/2015/09/04/bc986ef6-524d-11e5-9812-92d5948a40f8_story.html [Accessed 9th June 2020]
Holderness, G. (2013). “The unreadable Delia Bacon”. In: P. Edmonson and S. Wells (Eds), Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy (pp. 5-15). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
McCrea, S. (2005). The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers.
Meares, H. (2020 [Original 2019]). Why Is William Shakespeare’s Life Considered a Mystery? Retrieved from https://www.biography.com/news/william-shakespeare-life-mystery?li_source=LI&li_medium=bio-mid-article&li_pl=208&li_tr=bio-mid-article [Accessed 9th June 2020]
Peer, M., & Jacobi, D. (2004). The Shakespeare Conspiracy [Film]. TMW Media.
Rubinstein, W. (2001, 08). Who was Shakespeare? History Today, 51, 28-35.
Schmitz, E., & Utzt, S. (2011). The Shakespeare Enigma [Film]. Atlantis Film.
Stewart, A. (2013). “The Case for Bacon”. In: P. Edmonson and S. Wells (Eds), Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy (pp. 16-28). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Syme, H. (2011). Shakespearean Mythbusting I: The Fantasy of the Unsurpassed Vocabulary. Retrieved from http://www.dispositio.net/archives/501#:~:text=If%20one%20only%20counts%20the,was%20indeed%20an%20impressive%20number [Accessed 9th June 2020]
Taylor, G. and Bourus, T. (2016a). “Why Read Shakespeare’s Complete Works?” In: G. Taylor, J. Jowett, T. Bourus, G. Egan (Eds), The New Oxford Shakespeare: William Shakespeare, The Complete Works (pp. 1-44). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Taylor, G. and Bourus, T. (2016b). “Why Read This Complete Works?” In: G. Taylor, J. Jowett, T. Bourus, G. Egan (Eds), The New Oxford Shakespeare: William Shakespeare, The Complete Works (pp. 45-58). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
William Webbe’s Discourse of English Poetrie is accessible here: http://eebo.chadwyck.com/search/full_rec?SOURCE=pgimages.cfg&ACTION=ByID&ID=99846918&FILE=&SEARCHSCREEN=param(SEARCHSCREEN)&VID=11915&PAGENO=2&ZOOM=FIT&VIEWPORT=&SEARCHCONFIG=param(SEARCHCONFIG)&DISPLAY=param(DISPLAY)&HIGHLIGHT_KEYWORD=param(HIGHLIGHT_KEYWORD)