The Triumph Over Will: Why Educators Need to Get it Right About Who Wrote Shakespeare
Imagine that you’ve enrolled in a creative writing class. Perhaps it’s not the only course you’re taking, but for you it’s by far the most important. So you throw yourself into your work with passion. Every day you hit the page, and soon, you begin to stretch the limits of your ability and imagination. Characters leap out from nowhere. Your facility with language skyrockets, and your work as an artist matures. Even your classmates and instructor begin to take note of the scope and depth of your writing. And at the end of the year you are rewarded, because the incredible risks taken have paid off with an enduring and meaningful body of work.
But now pretend that after the class is over (perhaps a year or two has passed), you are abruptly called into your professor’s office. There, he accuses you point blank of plagiarizing every single word. “This can’t be your work,” he says. “I mean really! You lack the background, the breeding, and the life experience to write anything even approaching this level of talent and creativity. This is the work of another author.”
What would you do? Well, you might reasonably challenge this professor to conclusively prove his accusation. But he refuses, and instead has the temerity to put the burden of proof upon you, saying: “Enough of your lies! Prove to me that you aren’t a plagiarist.” Your reputation at stake, you scramble to retrieve notes that you’ve handwritten, or stored away on your computer or USB key, anything to get this professor off of your back and clear your tarnished name. But you’d better do it quickly, because in the meantime your former instructor is drawing up a lengthy list of alternative candidates as the work’s true author. You are guilty until proven innocent, slimed by association, and discredited by crass and baseless innuendo.
It’d be tough, but chances are that you could set the record straight by finding the necessary documentation. But what if a full decade passed before that professor called you in? Or two? Or even three? You might have to work a little harder. The evidence might be tougher to track down. But in the end, you’d probably still be able to advocate on your own behalf, and clear your name while looking your own accuser in the face.
But now imagine that the unfounded smear comes not during your lifetime, but almost two centuries after your death. There wouldn’t be a whole lot that you could do. The defense of your integrity would now be left in the hands of historians and educators, and the public’s perception of the truth might forever be clouded by a thick and impenetrable fog.
Welcome to the world of the authorship “debate.” William Shakespeare’s work and influence is ubiquitous. His plays dominate high school and college reading lists. There are over 115 Shakespeare companies and festivals in the United States alone. It’s all but impossible to count the number of film and television adaptations of his works, but they certainly number in the hundreds. Such an overwhelming cultural presence makes it hard to remember that four centuries ago, someone – a real live human being – had to sit down, pull out a quill, and pump those suckers out. Perhaps I’m speculating, but I’d be willing to bet that writing at least 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and two erotic poems must have been one hell of a chore. I think we can all agree that it involved painstaking hours of intense and exhausting work. And while scores of doubters edge their way into the market place of ideas, there isn’t one shred of reliable evidence to cast any reasonable doubt upon the author’s true identity: William Shakespeare of Stratford upon Avon.
You want me to prove it? Sure you do, and I’m happy to oblige. Declarative assertions demand nothing less. Those of us who celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday mark it on April 23, so the time seems awfully ripe. But before we get down to the case at hand, let’s take a moment to acknowledge the very backwardness of this scenario: any reasonable standard of jurisprudence establishes that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. But thanks to the legion of Doubting Thomases, all but demanding that Shakespeare rise from the grave and present an ink stained stigmata as proof of authentic authorship, the burden appears to have shifted to the Bard’s defenders. Thus, it falls to us to prove a case that was never raised once during the author’s lifetime.
William Shakespeare was baptized on April 26, 1564 (we actually don’t know his date of birth), and died on April 23, 1616 in the Warkwickshire town of Stratford. He was an actor and shareholder of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later The King’s Men) theatre company, which erected the Globe Theatre in 1599. These facts are not in dispute. The “controversy” is over who actually wrote the plays, sonnets, and other poems that bear William Shakespeare’s name. But as earlier mentioned, no such controversy existed when Shakespeare himself was alive. Indeed, in 1964 William M. Murphy cited at least 23 historical documents establishing the man from Stratford as the author of virtually all the works in question, including diary entries and legal papers. (This list does not even include the title pages of plays and poems crediting William Shakespeare as their author).
One of the most impressive of these is Frances Meres’ Palladis Tamia, Wits Treasury, first published in 1598. Meres, a minister educated at Cambridge, was an avid enthusiast of the London theatre scene. He was especially taken with Shakespeare’s work, as evidenced in the following passage:
“…so Shakespeare among y’ English is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage; for Comedy, witnes his Ge’tleme’ of Verona, his Errors, his Love labors lost, his Love labours wonne, his Midsummer night dreame, & his Merchant of Venice : for Tragedy his Richard the 2. Richard the 3. Henry the 4. King John, Titus Andronicus and his Romeo and Juliet.As Epius Stolo said, that the Muses would speake with Plautus tongue, if they would speak Latin: so I say that the Muses would speak with Shakespeares fine filed phrase, if they would speake English.”
Palladis is one of several primary historical documents that acknowledges Shakespeare as the author of the works in question. (It’s also been an indispensable tool for dating his plays.) No one has brought this evidence together more concisely and authoritatively than James Shapiro in his book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Shapiro shows us a Shakespeare deeply rooted in a specific place and time. We see a well-known man of considerable accomplishment and reputation. More than seventy editions of his works appeared in print during his lifetime. Moreover, as we have seen above, Shakespeare’s contemporaries wrote about him, and they had a lot to say. Greene’s Groats-worth of Wit, written in 1592, lampooned Shakespeare’s ‘upstart crow’ pretentions. The author, Robert Greene, was shocked that a lowly actor might presume to be a man of letters, mocking his fellow poet’s “Tygers heart wrapped in a Players hyde…” Other writers appear to have been more positively disposed to Shakespeare’s work. Shapiro cites the Parnassus trilogies, performed at King’s College at the turn of the 17th century, in which one character exclaims: “We shall hear nothing but pure Shakespeare!”
Those of us curious about Shakespeare’s relationship with other writers would do well in turning to Ben Jonson. Shakespeare acted in more than one of Jonson’s plays, and appears to have cast quite the shadow over the younger writer’s career and psyche. Jonson’s reviews of Shakespeare’s works are decidedly mixed. He effusively praised Shakespeare in the First Folio, which was published in 1623. But Jonson could also turn on Shakespeare, as when he took the older poet to task for his geographical inaccuracies in A Winter’s Tale. (How can you have a shipwreck in Bohemia?)
But Jonson’s admiration for Shakespeare appears to have won out, as shown in this excerpt from his private notes, which were published after his death in 1641 as Timber, or Discoveries; Made Upon Men and Matter:
I loved the man, and do honour his memory (on this side of Idolotry) as much as any. He was (indeed) honest, and of an open, and free nature; had an excellent fancy; brave notions, and gentle expressions, wherein he flowed with that it was sometimes necessary that he should be stopped.
William Shakespeare of Stratford died in 1616 a wealthy, famous man. As an actor and shareholder in an incredibly successful theatre company, he’d experienced innumerable business and artistic interactions during the fifty-two years of his life. By his peers and contemporaries, he was both loved and hated. If all of the works attributed to him were actually written by another person, doesn’t it seem like somebody would have figured it out and said something? An Elizabethan/Jacobean theatre company was an extremely competitive business venture; the same was true with publishing. Proving, or even asserting, that a major shareholder and actor in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men didn’t actually write Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet would have been a major (and potentially profitable) coup.
Or let’s just say that this was a conspiracy astoundingly executed for a period of roughly 27 years. This means that virtually every literary, theatrical, and even major political figure in England was either a participant or a dupe. But what about after Shakespeare’s death? Was the awful truth finally revealed? After all, entire books questioning The Warren Commission’s findings on the JFK assassination were being published as early as 1964. If Shakespeare had been the front man for an authorial cover up and conspiracy, somebody would have surely let it slip.
But no one did. For over a century after his death, Shakespeare was universally acknowledged as the author of all the works that bore his name. So where did the controversy start? If the case for Shakespeare is so obvious, why would anyone ever believe otherwise?
To find the answer, we have to go back towards the end of the 18th century, when historians became extremely curious about the facts of Shakespeare’s life. But the discovery of historical documents can be a slow and tedious business; perhaps the lack of ready and immediate evidence seemed suspicious. In the meantime, William Shakespeare was becoming the victim of his own posthumous success. While many of his plays enjoyed great commercial and critical acclaim during his lifetime, his literary reputation ascended dramatically during the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries. Indeed, this rise caused George Bernard Shaw to coin the term ‘Bardolatry’ in derisive reference to the growing deification of Shakespeare and his poetic genius.
But the emerging biographical information discovered proved to be somewhat less than pleasing. It turns out that Shakespeare was not an abstract, idealized personification of genius. The man had many faults. The creator of Shylock was a moneylender himself: in 1609, when his neighbor John Addenbrooke defaulted on a six-pound loan, Shakespeare had the man arrested. Like Abraham Lincoln, Shakespeare was self-educated (which I would consider a virtue, not a vice); the man from Stratford did not attend a university. His first child was apparently conceived out of wedlock. Shakespeare wasn’t much of a family man, living most of his life in London with only occasional visits to his wife and three children back in Stratford. He was probably not even present for his eleven year-old son Hamnet’s burial.
These facts didn’t sit well with some of the 19th century’s more prominent men and women of letters. Rather than abandon their preconceived notion of Shakespeare’s character, they chose instead to abandon Shakespeare:
“I am… haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.” Henry James
“[Shakespeare] carries the court influence with him, unconsciously, wherever he goes… He looks into Arden and Eastcheap from the court standpoint, not from these into the court.” Delia Bacon
“(Shakespeare) was a jovial actor and manager. I cannot marry this fact to his verse.” Ralph Waldo Emerson
The anonymous author of the Shakespeare Oxford Society’s FAQ page puts the case forward in no uncertain terms:
“Nothing about the Stratford man rings true: his character, his background, his education, his family, his friends, his behavior towards his debtors and his neighbors, his recorded conversation and his attitude to money and property. It would have been very surprising if someone like that had become the world’s greatest author.”
And there you have it. William Shakespeare was incapable of such genius. He was too ordinary. Too un-aristocratic. Too common. Too actorly. Too….just not exactly what I want him to be to have written the greatest plays on earth. If I can’t understand it, then I guess it just isn’t true.
The argument is not simply ridiculous. It is downright dangerous in its pernicious elitism. Worse yet, it’s an insult to the wondrous capacities of the human imagination. The mystery and miracle of genius is its sheer inexplicability. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but some people come into the world with astounding abilities and talents that the rest of us don’t have. If aristocratic background and formal education were the only prerequisites for sensational writing, we’d be reading masterpieces penned by the likes Prince Charles and George W. Bush.
But let’s put aside the obscenely classist premise of the “anti-Stratfordian” arguments. I am willing to assume for five uninterrupted minutes that the actor manager (how did Emerson know he was “jovial”?) did not write the works for which all of his contemporaries gave him credit. The accusation begs the question: who really wrote all of Shakespeare’s works?
Brace yourself, people, because answer is shocking. Ladies and Gentlemen, the real author behind the fraud of William Shakespeare is….Francis Bacon!
No, wait, I’m sorry, I got that wrong. It’s actually Christopher Marlowe. It’s not? Ok, wait, hang on, I got it, I got it, it’s, um…it’s Queen Elizabeth! Oh, Jesus (not him either), I’m sorry! It couldn’t be her. Or him. Ok, wait, I’ve got it now: the real author behind the Shakespeare conspiracy is…Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
Go ahead. Pick one. You don’t like them? Don’t worry, there are lots more; keep looking, and eventually you’ll find a candidate who suits you. As long as you’re convinced that Shakespeare wasn’t capable of writing his plays and poems, you can twist any fact to fit your foregone conclusion. And you will have to twist a lot of facts. Of the candidates I just mentioned, only Francis Bacon had the good taste to die after Shakespeare passed away. The rest of them met their respective ends before Shakespeare had written some of his most important work.
The current favorite is Oxford, the misunderstood hero of Anonymous: that Roland Emerich film that everyone talked about and nobody saw. As with every candidate, there are numerous holes in the Oxford candidacy. For now, let’s just look at two. The most obvious is de Vere’s inconvenient date of death: June 24, 1604. Even the most conservative dating of Shakespeare’s works gives us eleven plays composed between 1605 and 1613 (including King Lear, Macbeth, and The Tempest).*
The second piece of evidence is more circumstantial, but to my mind, no less compelling. Edward de Vere was an avid patron of the arts. In fact, the 17th Earl of Oxford sponsored his own theatrical troupe, which existed from 1580 to 1602. If Oxford really was the author of Shakespeare’s plays, why wasn’t he penning his best work for his own company, instead of its rival, The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? For it was Shakespeare’s troupe, and not Oxford’s, who staged Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, and all the other works of the cannon. Doesn’t it seem odd that the anonymous earl didn’t use one of his own actors as a front man? Wouldn’t a more probable authorship candidate be someone who was a member of The Lord Chamberlain’s Men? Perhaps an actor, and a shareholder in the company? Isn’t there a slight possibility that the real author of Shakespeare’s plays is William Shakespeare himself?
Examine the biographies of the other would be Shakespeares; as with Oxford, their cases fall apart. And when you get right down to it, the sheer number of candidates (some count at least 70) tells us everything we need to know. The scramble for anyone but Shakespeare reveals the flimsy reasoning of his desperate nay-sayers. If I’ve already decided that Barack Obama simply couldn’t be an American citizen, then even a certified copy of his birth certificate will fail to change my mind.
It would be comical if nobody took it seriously. But last fall, a major Hollywood film touted this fiction as fact; once again, the authorship debate became part of our cultural conversation. At the time I was directing an 8th grade production of Hamlet, and for a while, I couldn’t get through a rehearsal without the issue coming up. Parents at my son’s soccer games began to ask me: “So! What do you think about the idea that Shakespeare didn’t really write all of those plays?”
I’m always happy to answer a student’s question. And when it comes to my son, I’ll always take one for the team. But my patience finally snapped several months ago during a chat with a friend, an educated man who is not unfamiliar with Shakespeare’s works. Perhaps I wore him down with the passion of my argument. Whatever the reason, I knew he was ready for our conversation to be over when I heard these words: “Well, in a sense, it doesn’t really matter who wrote these plays. They’re great. They’re beautiful. Why don’t we just leave it at that?”
I have heard this argument before, and I’ll be honest: I find it more troubling than the most improbable anti-Stratfordian dogma. Why? Because in fact, it does really matter. It matters because denying an author credit for his or her work is a slap in the face to basic fairness. It matters because what biographical information we have about Shakespeare does help us understand the world of his imaginary creations. And it matters because we know the author’s identity, and to pretend otherwise is simply craven and irresponsible. It isn’t hard to believe that Shakespeare wrote those plays. What’s hard to believe is that anyone wrote them at all. To inhabit the world of Shakespeare – be it as a teacher, student, actor, designer, director, or audience member – is to find yourself in the throws of a life long love affair. Those eighth graders that I mentioned earlier did astonishing work with Hamlet, giving me and a sold out crowd a wild and beautiful night at the theatre. As is so often the case with young actors, these kids tapped into the play’s crazy, angsty, and anarchic spirit with more zest and honesty than I’ve seen in most highly trained professionals.
Those kids in the Hamlet cast are my students. Were I to catch any of them plagiarizing, there would be serious consequences. So I would need to be sure before making the accusation. I couldn’t just draw up a list of alternative authors. I couldn’t just say to my student: “You didn’t write this essay. Nothing about you rings true: your character, your background, your education, your family, your friends.” No. I’d have to lay my prejudices aside and look at the facts. We all have our hunches. And conspiracy theories are always tempting. But the search for the truth demands a rational and coherent respect for the cold, hard facts.
I owe that to my students. And if you’re a teacher, you owe the same to yours, whether you’re looking at their work, or Shakespeare’s. For most of my career I sidestepped the issue with, “Well, some people believe that he wrote the plays, and some believe he didn’t.” I now realize that’s just as much of a cop out as saying Columbus might have proven the world was round, or that climate change might not be man made. There are times when impartiality imparts nothing, and some arguments are more equal than others.
400 years ago, the world was given a body of theatrical and poetic masterpieces that continue to delight, horrify, astound, and amaze. William Shakespeare was universally acknowledged by his friends, enemies, colleagues, and acquaintances as the author of these astonishing wonderworks. Since every effort to prove otherwise has failed, it’s time to stop asking who wrote them. Let’s get back to the business of asking the questions that will help us understand them.
* The dating of Shakespeare’s plays is a favorite line of attack amongst his doubters. The reasoning goes that because we can not always affix a precise date to his plays without absolute certainty, the entire process is no more than professorial conjecture. That’s sort of like saying that meteorology is not a science because the weatherman is sometimes wrong. Just because we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we know nothing.
For instance, many of Shakespeare’s later plays such as The Tempest call for special lighting effects that weren’t present in the earlier plays. Scholars attribute this to the fact that in 1608 Shakespeare’s company took possession of the Blackfriars Theatre, an indoor venue with different production capabilities than the outdoor Globe Theatre. Oxford died in 1604. While this in and of itself does not prove Shakespeare’s authorship, the burden still rests on the prosecution. Their best line of attack is that deVere wrote a number of the plays before his death that happened to be perfectly suited to a venue that Shakespeare’s company coincidentally acquired four years later. I guess that one of Oxford’s agents must have secretly fed these plays to Shakespeare’s company. Feel free to believe this line of reasoning if you like, but be sure to ignore the mountain of evidence supporting Shakespeare, especially the fact that no one during his lifetime challenged the universal acceptance his authorship.
Well, if I wanted to end the debate on who wrote Shakespeare, I didn’t do a very good job, did I? For some reason, I just didn’t think asserting that Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet would be very controversial. But as the responses to this piece clearly demonstrate, I was wrong.
And it’s been a fun debate, albeit one that I’d love to bring to swift conclusion. But since that probably won’t happen, and especially since my colleagues, along with my students and their families, are starting to read this, I wanted to make a few things clear:
- I would never shut a student or anyone else down who disagreed with me on this or any other matter. Respectful debate is good, and I hope that the one we’ve had in the comments section of this blog has modeled that mantra. When I felt that my rhetoric bordered on disrespect, I tried to check in with the respondents to make sure that they felt welcome to come back and share their views, even (and I guess especially) when they disagreed with me.
- I’ve learned a lot from the below discussion. “Edward” in particular gave me a run for my money. I had to do some extra research and fact checking when attempting to disprove some of his arguments. But perhaps more importantly, I’ve learned that two people can look at the same piece of evidence, and come up with completely different conclusions regarding what that evidence means.
- I’ll speak only for myself on this one: the only reason why I sidestepped this issue in the past was because I felt as if I didn’t have enough information. Now, being better educated, I speak with a clearer voice. I believe that an informed educator with a strong view, and who acknowledges that view while inviting debate, does his or her students a tremendous service. To be sure, it’s not the only way to teach. But it can certainly lead to some interesting discussions. I’m looking forward to many more.