WordsDay: Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? And why it matters…

by JS O’Brien

Today is April 23, the day we celebrate as William Shakespeare’s birthday – though this date is derived by counting backwards from his known christening date, so his actual date of birth is uncertain. Every year at this time, periodicals across the country feel compelled to revisit the issue of whether Shakespeare really wrote the plays and poetry attributed to him, and they do this for good reason: everyone loves conspiracy theories, no matter how absurd they may be.

It is this very absurdity and the accompanying cloudy thought that make the question extremely important to all of us, because the “debate,” itself, is rooted in a very dangerous and destructive human trait: the tendency to decide what is true based on little or no evidence, and then to seek only evidence to support one’s ill-conceived position while ignoring evidence – even overwhelming evidence — to the contrary. In other words, the tale of the Shakespeare conspiracy theorists is a tale of the anti-science that lives in all of us, and its ramifications for all of us.

Inevitably, the standard premise underlying all the objections to William Shakespeare’s authorship of his works are that he was a country bumpkin of little or no learning who could not possibly have produced the brilliant poetry, stunning insights into human behavior, and dramatic tension and structure he managed to produce with such genius that many consider him the greatest writer in the English language. Those anti-Stratfordians who insist that someone else must have written Shakespeare’s works present their own candidates, some silly (Elizabeth I, James I, Christopher Marlowe) and some taken more seriously by too many (Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford), but all having one thing in common: there are no extant works known to be written by any of the other candidates that approach Shakespeare’s genius with words or his insights into human nature. Absent this positive evidence (necessary for science), the anti-Stratfordians use logic based on negative evidence (often in error), or even absence of evidence, to “prove” that William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-Avon could not have written the works attributed to him.

I have no intention of writing a book-length treatise exploding the myths and torturous “logic” of the anti-Stratfordians. Others have done this far better than I could, and if you’ve an interest, this is a great debunking site. Instead, I’m going to use Occam’s Razor to point out the simple absurdity of the anti-Stratfordians’ position.

What we know about William Shakespeare

The common meme that little is known about William Shakespeare from Stratford is entirely untrue. In fact, more is known about him than practically any other writer, or personality, of his time.

He was born in the spring of 1564 at Stratford-upon-Avon, a market town approximately three days ride northwest of London. His father was a prosperous glovemaker who, at one point, held a position equivalent to mayor of Stratford. His mother was from an old and prestigious local family, the Ardens. Recent scholarship suggests that Shakespeare’s parents were pro-Catholic sympathizers in an England rife with Catholic plots against Elizabeth and her kingdom.

Young Will would have grown up going to the local grammar school, as would have been expected of the mayor’s son and most of the other sons of Stratford families. There, he would have learned more Latin than modern university classics majors, and a bit of Greek, as well. He would have read all the great Latin authors at a very early age, including the bloody and overwrought Seneca, whose influence figures heavily in Titus Andronicus, one of Will’s early works. He married Anne Hathaway, a woman of 26, when he was 18 years old. Anne gave birth six months later.

There is an eight-to-ten-year gap in the record before Shakespeare again appears in London in 1592, when playwright Robert Greene, making reference to a line of Will’s from Henry VI, part III, calls him an “upstart crow.” We know that he became a sharer (owner) in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (a theater company), later renamed The King’s Men when James I became their patron. We have written references from the time to some acting roles, authorship of plays, business transactions, etc. We know that he became prosperous enough to buy a very large house in Stratford and to successfully pursue a coat of arms and gentle status for his family. Ben Jonson, another leading playwright, commented on his quick writing method, saying that “he never blotted out line.” He also composed two poems praising Shakespeare.

Shakespeare died on April 23, 1616 and is buried in Stratford’s Holy Trinity Church. The first collection of his works, the famous First Folio, was published in 1623. The first question of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays did not occur until approximately 150 years after his death.

The conspiracy theorists

Since no contemporary of William Shakespeare’s seems to have voiced the slightest doubt that he wrote the plays and poems attributed to him, we must assume that the cover-up of the real author’s identity was a vast conspiracy. Nothing other than a closely guarded conspiracy among a number of people could possibly explain what had to have happened to keep such a thing secret.

First, one must understand how theater works, especially when new plays are being presented. New scripts are not written on tablets and delivered from Mt. Sinai. They are put on their feet in rehearsal and then revised to patch weaknesses. Doubtless, the rehearsal process for any new Elizabethan play would have featured the close cooperation of the playwright, explaining what was meant by certain passages, what human interactions should be taking place, striking lines that didn’t work, and rewriting lines and scenes, or adding scenes, on the spot to improve the plot and/or the character interactions.

William Shakespeare, as a sharer in his company and the playwright, would have been seen at work by all the members of his company as well as those jobbers brought in to do roles the permanent company couldn’t cover with its own members. Backers and other interested people would, undoubtedly, have observed rehearsals, and everything from orange-sellers to box-office cashiers to stagehands to fencing masters and tailors would have passed by rehearsals frequently in the normal course of their duties – all without letting the secret spill that William Shakespeare had no idea why a certain thing was written the way it was, had no insights into characterization, and could not rewrite on the spot as every other playwright doubtlessly did.

The sharers helped cover up this conspiracy in another way: they paid this actor of relatively minor roles well enough, as a partner in their company, to make him a very prosperous man at a relatively early age. One can imagine how Shakespeare would have been made a sharer as a playwright, but it’s much more difficult to imagine his skill as an actor alone affording him that privilege.

Given the positive evidence that Shakespeare existed and wrote plays in London as a sharer in the most famous of the theater companies there, and the unlikely event of a leak-proof cover-up that had to have occurred to keep someone else’s authorship a secret, by far the most probable answer to the question “Who wrote Shakespeare’s works?” is that William Shakespeare wrote them. This application of Occam’s Razor doesn’t mean that Shakespeare’s or any other writer’s authorship is an absolute certainty. Maybe all the works of William Faulkner were written by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but it seems highly unlikely, and there’s no positive evidence that this is so. It seems most likely, by far, that William Faulkner wrote the works attributed to him and that Will Shakespeare also wrote his own works.

So, why does the “controversy” exist?

People have a tendency to believe what they want to believe, finding evidence to support that belief and twisting it however they need to make it fit into unlikely shapes, while disregarding any evidence that contradicts what they want to believe. The belief in alternate authorship for Shakespeare’s works is closely akin to belief in religious texts, even when facts clearly suggest that such beliefs have a very, very low probability of being correct. It is this very human tendency that the process of science, when practiced properly, defeats. So, in its essence, the belief in alternate Shakespearean authorship is an anti-science stance, discarding Occam’s Razor for cherished belief. In this case, the belief seems relatively harmless, but what about beliefs like this in the US Supreme Court? What if we have justices who have a legal premise they want to believe, then bend the legal issues in their minds to find a way to validate that premise, even when the facts speak strongly against their conclusions?

At least two Supreme Court justices, John Paul Stevens and Antonin Scalia, believe in the Edward de Vere conspiracy theory, with Justice Stevens going so far as to speak to the Wall Street Journal about it. I suppose it makes sense that the two most ideologically opposed members of the Court are the ones to take the Shakespearean conspiracy theory most seriously, since it stands to reason that adopting any ideology generally requires a leap of faith coupled with intellectual, internal suppression of inconvenient, contrary facts. They’re clearly very good at doing that, to the point that Stevens is quoted as saying, “I think the evidence that he (Shakespeare) was not the author is beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Beyond a reasonable doubt? He would send a man to death row based on the evidence at hand? Even when real experts, like Brown University English professor Coppelia Kahn, president of the Shakespeare Association of America, have this to say about that opinion: “Oh my. Nobody gives any credence to these arguments.”

I assume Professor Kahn meant that no one who is an actual scholar and reasonable human being gives any credence to anti-Stratfordian arguments, because it’s quite clear that some people, including Supreme Court justices, do. Perhaps many attorneys do, since their training is in taking a proposition, no matter how indefensible, and defending it. Scientists, who believe in testing hypotheses to see if they stand up to rigorous inquiry are quite unlikely to elevate Edward de Vere’s authorship of Hamlet anywhere near “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Stevens’ and Scalia’s insistence that they are nearly sure that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s works is immensely troubling. What sort of ill-trained, anti-science minds do we tolerate on the US Supreme Court? And if these are our best justices, what sorts of minds inhabit benches in our lesser courts?

Let’s hope the good justices never have to hear a case on Holocaust denial.

6 replies »

  1. Belief in Shakespeare as author of the corpus without ONE SINGLE AUTOGRAPH MS is akin to unfounded belief in the god of the Old Testament. The elimination of competing claims has much to do with the reign of Theory in all the English departments and the denial of authorship. We speak of Shakespeare in much the same way as we speak of Homer and the Beowulf poet. It no longer matters to dispute the issue.

  2. Fantastic piece.

    Of course, everyone knows that Shakespeare was in on the JFK assassination and eventually went into hiding with Elvis after some bad shit went down at Area 51.

  3. No noob

    Can you point us to the wealth of other autographed manuscripts we have from other authors of that time?

    As for Homer and the poet of Beowulf, they lived in illiterate, or barely literate, times (if, in fact, there was a Homer which I believe is quite likely based on the textual evidence). We have loads and loads of evidence that Shakespeare existed and that he was the author of the plays and poems attributed to him.

  4. The most charming version ever of this conspiracy theory is a short story called “Winter’s Tale” by the brilliant Connie Willis. The anthology is Impossible Things.

  5. I know what happened. There really was a guy named Shakespeare, but he didn’t start out much of a writer. During the 8-10 year gap mentioned in the piece he, like Robert Johnson, sold his soul to the devil in order that he might be the greatest writer of all time.

    And so it was. Is Shakespeare really the author, or must we credit Lucifer?

  6. I am so sick of the ludicrous references to the JFK assassination and other conspiracies (Incidentally 81% of the American people do not believe the official version). Every issue must be looked at on its own merits and the evidence examined. There is zero proof that the man from Stratford ever wrote anything – a name on a title page does not necessarily indicate who the man behind the name was – witness Mark Twain.

    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.

    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.

    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.

    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?

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

    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.

    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?

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

    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.

    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.