Polemicscat's Weblog

Examining settled and unsettling questions.

Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?

with 6 comments

Some people love a mystery.  Others love the idea of a conspiracy better.  The movie-maker Oliver Stone has made a fortune with movies like JFK that feed audiences’ appetite for stories of conspiracies.  In making such movies Stone has a little commercial conspiracy of his own at work.  The main technique of conspiracy creators is to blur the distinction between reality and pure fantasy.  Stone does this by depicting actual, historical people holding purely imaginary conversations that Stone himself has devised.

The list of ongoing conspiracy theories is long.  Some are quite popular.  One perennial favorite contends that the Air Force is covering up the “truth” about extra-terrestrial aliens and UFO’s.  Another recent conspiracy theory asserts that the moon landing was a grand hoax perpetrated by NASA.  There are other theories too preposterous for even conspiracy junkies to swallow.   Among these is the claim that the holocaust never actually occurred but was somehow staged or imagined.

There is no way to refute a conspiracy theory to the satisfaction of a conspiracy addict.  If you say, “Scholars at a  university have studied the issue thoroughly and find no conspiracy,” you will promptly be told that the scholars  have some personal motive for reaching that conclusion and are, in essence, conspirators themselves.

Conspiracy junkies also use the lack of evidence for conspiracy as proof that there is a plot to conceal information.  Many popular conspiracies theories require that thousands of people be involved in the conspiracy, but, contrary to human nature,  not one person in those thousands is willing to come forward with information that would prove the case.

One of the most persistent and interesting conspiracy theories involves the Bard–-William Shakespeare.  It goes something like this.  There was an English actor in the time of Elizabeth I named Shakespeare; he was from Stratford, and historically he is credited with writing the plays and poems.  But in actuality–so the theory goes–someone else did the writing but let Shakespeare take credit for it.  Those who promote this conspiracy theory are known as anti-Stratfordians.

Why, you may wonder, would anyone doubt the authorship of Shakespeare, the man from Stratford.  Well, for one thing, we don’t know as much about Shakespeare’s life as we would like.  In one of his essays  Mark Twain (partly in jest I think) wondered how such a great dramatist and poet could leave so little personal information about himself.

Yet, we know far more about Shakespeare than about many other prominent people living at the time.  The London fire of 1666 destroyed many records.  But official records in Stratford and Worcester document Shakespeare’s Christening, his marriage, and activities of his father.

Also, since we do know that Shakespeare was not educated in a University, the anti-Stratfordians say that anyone who could write so well, who could know human nature and other subjects so well must have been a highly educated person and, therefore, was probably a duke or an earl.  It is said that this nobleman’s motive for concealing his hand in writing the plays and poems was that it would be disreputable for one of his high rank to dabble in such things.

Each anti-Stratfordian promotes one or another of the persons said to be the true author of Shakespeare’s works: Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, the Earl of Southhampton, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Devonshire, Christopher Marlowe (who by the way was not a nobleman) and others.

It is important to stress that none of the Shakespeare specialists in the universities believe that someone else wrote the plays.  The anti-Stratfordians are typically educated, professional people, but they are amateurs in literary research.  When I pointed this out to an acquaintance recently, he said something like, “Well, the Shakespeare scholars maintain that Shakespeare wrote the plays because they have a vested interest in saying so.”  Thus, they are accused of being conspirators.  The weakness of this argument is that it rests on the doubtful assumption that every person who is tempted to distort the truth for personal gain always does so.

True, Shakespeare’s formal education was limited to that of a grammar school in Stratford.  But the curriculum there included the study of Latin.  And his reading of translations and other books written in English would have given him all the information he needed. For example, evidence shows that the knowledge Shakespeare needed to write his Roman plays–like Julius Caesar– came from an English translation by Thomas North of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Romans and Greeks.

Equally important, Shakespeare’s work in the theater would have given him a practical knowledge of play writing that none of the other candidates could have had (with the exception of Marlowe who we now know was killed before some of Shakespeare’s plays were written).

Several references to Shakespeare as a writer of the plays and sonnets were published in his lifetime.  But in my opinion, the most compelling proof of Shakespeare’s authorship is contained in the collection of his plays known as the First Folio Edition published in 1623, seven years after the author’s death.

Henry Condell and John Hemminge, the persons responsible for publishing this book, were actors in the same company with Shakespeare. They worked beside him for years. Their preface to the reader explains that they wished to preserve the plays since Shakespeare took no steps to preserve them.

They also wrote a dedication in this book to William, Earl of Pembroke, and to Philip, Earl of Montgomery. Pembroke was Lord Chamberlain to King James, and Montgomery was another officer of the King.   No perceptive person could read this dedication and believe that it is part of a grand hoax perpetrated by Condell and Hemminge, with or without the complicity of these noblemen.

The First Folio Edition also includes several poems by different people in praise of Shakespeare and his work.  Most important among these is “To the Memory of my beloved, The AUTHOR  Mr. William Shakespeare And what he hath left us,” by Ben Jonson who was a member of the same acting company and was in many ways a rival of Shakespeare.

Jonson, also an author of plays, was a proud but truthful man who had some negative things to say about Shakespeare’s plays.  For example, Jonson did not approve of the way  Shakespeare ignored the rules of drama.  These “unities” or rules practiced by university-educated authors had been derived from the examples of Greek and Roman plays.

But because Jonson knew that Shakespeare had not had a university education, Jonson (and many critics after him) declared that Shakespeare’s strength lay not in formal education, but in his ability to follow nature.  In his dedicatory poem Jonson says that the classical dramatists Aristophanes, Terence, and Plautus “now not please” because “they were not of Natures family.”

Finally, the notion that noble persons did not value the literary arts won’t bear examination.  Sir Philip Sidney and Walter Raleigh openly wrote poems.   Sidney wrote an essay An Apology for Poetry in which he eloquently defended the art of poetry.  Queen Elizabeth and King James enjoyed Shakespeare’s plays.  Jonson calls Shakespeare “Sweet Swan of Avon [the river running by Stratford]” and continues, “what a sight it were/To see thee in our waters yet appeare,/And make those flights upon the bankes of Thames,/That so did take Eliza, and our James.”  Jonson could not have published these words about those monarchs unless they were true.  Of course, conspiracy addicts will say that Queen Elizabeth and King James were themselves participants in the hoax.


Written by polemicscat

July 3, 2008 at 1:52 am

6 Responses

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  1. With regard to your statement that “it is important to stress that none of the Shakespeare specialists in the universities believe that someone else wrote the plays,” it is important to stress you are incorrect. I know at least five professors of English who teach Shakespeare and who are openly Oxfordian, and quite a few more who have not yet revealed their Shakespeare beliefs to their colleagues. What is important to stress is that it is much harder for an Oxfordian to publish in a literary journal or get a job at a university, although some Oxfordian scholars are beginning to break through the barriers that have been erected against them by the orthodox.


    July 3, 2008 at 7:29 am

  2. I thank the author of this Weblog for providing such a cogent, eloquent overview of the mystery as well as the clear proof of the Stratford man’s authorship of the plays, provided by Shakespeare’s fellow actors and rival Ben Jonson.

    It is not just university Shakespeare specialists who see the merit of the First Folio’s proof, but Shakespearean actors, directors, and theatre critics like myself who study Shakespeare’s life and write about his plays.

    Cynthia Greenwood

    July 3, 2008 at 1:38 pm

  3. Mouse, thanks for your comment.
    I’m not opposed to anyone showing evidence that denies the authorship of Shakespeare, but I would like to examine the scholarship. If someone can make a cogent case for it, I could be persuaded. So far, the overwhelming evidence is for the Bard.


    July 3, 2008 at 3:10 pm

  4. Cynthia, thank you for the comment.


    July 3, 2008 at 4:31 pm

  5. Following are the main reasons I question the Stratfordian orthodoxy:

    1. Shakespeare (referring to the actor from Stratford) left no letters or other writing in his own name, except for six crude signatures that are barely legible. There is only one known letter addressed to him — it was about 30 pounds and it was never delivered.

    2. There is no record of Shakespeare attending school. Even assuming he attended the local school until age 13, his plays reveal a knowledge of languages, the law, Latin and Greek classics, medicine, falconry, the sea, music, and nature that is so deep it could have only been learned through personal experience.

    3. He left no books or manuscripts in his will, though, at the time of his death, 20 of his famous plays remained unpublished. Indeed, his will gives no indication that the deceased was engaged in literary activities of any sort.

    4. His parents, siblings, and daughters were all illiterate except that one daughter could sign her own name. Would the greatest writer in English history have allowed this?

    5. At the height of Shakespeare’s alleged fame, tax collectors could not discover where he lived.

    6. At his death, there were no eulogies, no testimonials, or tributes, not even from fellow actors, playwrights, or his esteemed friend, Ben Jonson. His only alleged connection to the plays came seven years after his death in the tribute by Ben Jonson in the First Folio.

    7. Scholars agree that his later plays were collaborations with other authors. Why would the great playwright at the height of his powers turn over his incomplete works to be finished by lesser authors?

    8. Shakespeare is not known to have traveled outside of England, yet the plays reveal an extensive knowledge of Italy and France.

    9. The plays reveal an intimate familiarity with court life and manners that Shakespeare, as a commoner, could not have obtained simply by conversations at the Mermaid Tavern.

    10. Shakespeare’s point of view in the plays and poems is always that of an aristocrat. He has created commoners, but they are mostly buffoons who mangle the language. He portrays the nobility as individuals, but the lower classes as types, even stereotypes.

    Howard Schumann

    July 10, 2008 at 11:09 pm

  6. Howard,
    Thank you for your comment. I won’t attempt to make a definitive discussion of all of your points at this time. I will say that some of the points are interesting and suggestive.

    But all of the points fall into the categories of either (1) things we don’t know about Shakespeare’s life or (2) puzzling things we do know about his life.

    In other words they plead “anybody but Shakespeare”without putting forward another, more likely author.

    My belief is that the life of any other possible author that could be put forward would raise greater puzzles and cause more difficult chronologies than the life of Shakespeare.

    While we may wish to know more about Shakespeare’s activities and whereabouts and while we may wonder about what seem to be his peculiar actions and lack of actions, these missing things cannot stand as positive evidence. The absence of evidence does not have the strength of even circumstantial evidence. On the other hand, we have quite a lot of positive evidence pointing to Shakespeare as our author (some of which I described in the essay).

    Let me address in more detail the points you raise.

    1. These do not prove that he couldn’t write clearly or that he never wrote or received letters.

    2. Again, the absence of things does not prove that they never existed. There are years of Shakespeare’s life unaccounted for. He may have traveled; he may have educated himself in those years. Most really educated people educate themselves anyway (Einstein didn’t do well in math classes).

    3. The example of Einstein shows that geniuses do strange things. The things you say here about Shakespeare do sound odd. Why wouldn’t he do something with his unpublished plays before he died?
    Perhaps as a working writer of plays and an actor, he didn’t see the plays as
    literature to be appreciated outside of the theater. The writers who thought their plays were art were the oddballs in those days and were likely the university-educated writers. (Actually, several of his best plays were published in pirated quarto editions during the active part of his life.)

    4. The question comes from a modern point of view. Remember women–
    and especially commoners–in that time did not do literary things. Also I doubt that
    Shakespeare would have tried to do anything about the illiteracy of his parents or his siblings.
    He was in London most of the time. And he probably didn’t think he was going to be “the greatest writer in English history.” No matter how strange these things may sound to us, they still don’t prove that he was not the author of the plays.

    5. So what?

    6. He was in Stratford and probably was buried before anyone in London knew he was dead.
    Do you know of any writer who had a grand funeral? (Remember that Mozart in 1791 had no grand funeral either, and he was probably far better known by his public.) Probably most theater goers in Shakespeare’s day didn’t know who wrote what play. Only much later were students taught that Shakespeare was a great genius. Besides, the First Folio was a pretty fine tribute by his colleagues.

    7. Collaborations of authors were not unusual. Beaumont and Fletcher wrote several plays together. So did Fletcher and Massinger, and Middleton and Rowley. The play “Eastward Ho!” was written by Chapman, Jonson, and Marston. They weren’t particularly interested in who got the credit for the play. The money was in how well it played at the theater.

    8. (See No. 2)

    9. Most of what EVERY person knows is learned indirectly–usually by reading. I have never been to China, but I believe it is there and I could become quite knowledgeable about it just by reading. The same would be true of Shakespeare’s knowledge of court life. (By the way, his plays have errors about the geography of Italy). Also, Shakespeare would have learned by talking to other authors like Ben Jonson. He lived in London—not just in taverns.

    10. This one is not true. Whoever came up with this one must have read only the English history plays like Henry IV, 1 and 2. Even there the generalization does not hold true. Falstaff is not a type, nor is Poins. Most of the characters in The Merchant of Venice are not aristocrats and are not just types. The same is true of Romeo and Juliet, As You Like It, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and many others.


    July 11, 2008 at 4:41 am

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