Questioning Shakespeare’s Authorship
Abstract: The former artistic director of the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London argues, in a 2018 BBC interview, that if great works of theatre are to be made in future, it is important to understand how such works were created in the past. To do that with Shakespeare, we need to know who he really was and how he actually worked.
Keywords: Shakespeare. Authorship Question. Mark Rylance
The following interview with actor Mark Rylance was done on 24 April 2018,
by the BBC’s Dan Damonat at Brunel University. It is published here
with the permission of Mark Rylance and the BBC.
Mark Rylance*: There have been questions about Shakespeare’s authorship almost from the time he began writing. One of the first references to him suggests he stole other people’s work and presented it as his own. The great research done by Stratfordians—those who believe that the man from Stratford wrote the plays—has, in the last hundred years, revealed an enormous amount of incredible book-learning in the plays, a lot of it in continental languages, ancient languages. Research by Oxfordians—those who believe that Edward de Vere wrote the plays—has revealed that Shakespeare’s experience of Italy, his writing of Italy, is incredibly accurate. It is the kind of writing you would expect from a visitor to Italy, and not just reported information from a person who never left England.
Unfortunately, these things which are revealed in the plays—book-learning and life experience—cannot be found in evidence about the Stratford man’s life, what we know of him. We can’t prove that he ever owned a book or even read a book or ever travelled outside of England. So, that raises a question. I don’t think you can be born with book-learning and life experience.
BBC: Those who disagree, who say “no, it was the man from Stratford,” accuse people like yourself of being “classist.” Yes, de Vere was the Earl of Oxford, an educated man and he could have written these books while the Stratford man as the son of a glover, was lower middle class. Are you saying that he was too poor to be clever?
Rylance: No, it has nothing to do with that. I know that Marlowe was a fantastic playwright and was born of humble origins. No one questions whether he actually wrote his plays. We know he was noticed by his teachers in university, in grammar school in Canterbury, and he was sent to Cambridge. They all saw how brilliant he was. Well, there was also a university-educated teacher in the grammar school in Stratford upon-Avon. Didn’t he notice how brilliant William was and say this young person is extraordinary and should come up to Oxford? No, he didn’t. We don’t even have evidence that William even attended grammar school. We have no evidence—apart from the plays—he was educated at all. And that’s a circular argument. So, it has nothing to do with classism.
To be honest, this is a reverse classism. I have experienced more of it from Stratfordians than I ever have amongst all the people I ever met who were researching say Francis Bacon, de Vere, Mary Sidney (who is a very interesting candidate), Neville or Stanley. All those names are associated with drama. Bacon particularly was named by Ben Jonson, one of his greatest friends, as the acme of the English language. All the wits flourished around him. I can’t see how Bacon wasn’t involved in these plays when there are so many parallel uses of language and parallel interests. Even the intentions of Bacon are the same as the plays. It has nothing to do with class though. I don’t think because someone is an aristocrat they are necessarily more of a genius than a poor man. It’s a ridiculous and rather insulting accusation. It’s gone on for years.
BBC: One problem was that publishing was such a wild west kind of enterprise in those days that writers didn’t own copyright and publishers could put all this stuff together and sell it in any form they wanted. So, how do we get back far enough to know who actually wrote the plays or who owned them?
Rylance: That’s a very good point. The evidence that I look at in terms of publishing is mostly from a diary by a man called [Phillip] Henslowe, who ran the Rose Theatre. He was a theatre manager. We have a period of his diary where he records payments to writers for plays. Now, I haven’t looked at this for a while, but I believe that about a third of the payments were to anonymous authors, about a third were to single authors and a third were to groups of authors—two, three even five playwrights writing plays together. That’s very much how modern television—an equivalent popular form of drama—is made these days. It’s rare that you have one author, one writer.
A film like Bridge of Spies was originally written by one English writer and, then, the Coen brothers came on and did a rewrite and developed it. It’s like a first and second quarto of that film script. Then, you have the director, Steven Spielberg, who goes on and changes it even more in his editing. It’s fascinating to study how these plays were made in England’s—in the world’s—Golden Age of theatre. (Perhaps that is presumptuous of me to say given Kathakali Theare and Kabuki Theatre and so many other forms of theatre that exist. But, Shakespeare is, certainly, a very successful international playwright and that’s my enquiry.) Even if we all agreed that the man from Stratford wrote the plays (or that Oxford or Bacon wrote the plays), each of us would still imagine a different person. The Stratfordians can’t even agree on whether he was Protestant or Catholic.
BBC: Would it make a difference?
Rylance: How the plays were written matters to me. That matters a lot as a theatre-maker. I want to do them properly, present and play them properly and make new plays that are as good.
BBC: Would it really make any difference if there suddenly was a declaration that it wasn’t Shakespeare after all?
Rylance: I’ve been curious about this issue since 1988. The difference I’ve noticed in all the various proposals for the authorship (including the Stratfordian one) is that everyone is certain about one thing. They look at the evidence—A,B,C,D,E,F,G—and they say, “oh, there’s a story if you put A and C and D and G together. It makes a story that really fits my candidate.” But, wait a minute, evidence B completely contradicts that. Well, they say, “that’s not a very important piece of evidence.” And, then, they go back to whatever piece of evidence they’ve previously strung together.
Well, I suppose that’s fine. I don’t mind that you string different bits of evidence together to fit the biography that suits you as an individual. That’s all well and good and can’t be avoided. But, if you start to say, well, the play’s are not that intelligent, or that the sonnets are not personal, that they are just literary exercises (if you accept the personal nature of the sonnets, it may be difficult for you to connect that to your vision of who the author is), well, that becomes a problem. You are limiting the work of art.
So, as a theatre artist who is trusted by the public to play these works, I like to look at all the different ideas of biography as if they are different windows into the house of Shakespeare’s creative work. Each one gives me something different. The Oxford story gives me a man who went to Italy where he experienced the commedia dell’arte and various locales of Renaissance Italy. That goes a long way to explaining why there are 14 or so plays set in Italy, gives them credibility. Bacon has all kinds of philosophical ideas that are very revealing about the plays. Mary Sidney has other incredible things to add. So, for me, each one adds something that colours the plays. I’m happy to talk to anyone regardless of their views of who the author was.
BBC: But are they happy to talk to you? Do those who support the idea that it was the man from Stratford, do they come up and poke you in the chest and say “Mark, stop it. You’re damaging Britain?”
Rylance: Yes. Stanley Wells once pulled me by the beard and called me “naughty Mark.” And, in his book talking about Shakespearean actors from Burbage to Branagh, he doesn’t include me, though I have acted in over 50 productions of the plays and am an Associate Artist of the RSC and the former Artistic Director of the Globe Theatre. I wouldn’t put myself in because I’m a great Shakespeare actor, but I’ve certainly dedicated my life to Shakespeare. So, some individuals do try and influence people away from listening to me. But that’s the minority and, mostly, people whose job it is to defend the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the story of the Stratford man. Well, that’s a very beautiful story and it has an enormous meaning for many people. It is important for many people. I have no desire to change their minds or other people’s minds. I’m actually interested in every biographical story I’m told. It tells me something about that person. Maybe you can assume things about me when I say I’m interested in the stories of all these people. I’m certainly not sure who wrote the plays or how they were written.
Indeed, the majority of Stratfordian professors and people who believe in the Stratford myth do talk to me and don’t get angry. Some come back with very good points—that the plays are attributed to the man from Stratford in the First Folio seven years after his death. That’s a very, very strong piece of evidence. It’s why the man from Stratford is the leading candidate (if I can speak of him that way without being rude).
So, it’s really just people who are defending Stratford and are frightened about Stratford who say that. I think they are silly. I think that the Birthplace Trust should have a coach that goes off every couple of days to visit the Earl of Oxford’s house, in Essex, or Gorhambury, where Sir Francis Bacon lived. They should welcome and explore this. That would be the behavior of a confident organization. “Listen we’re confident in our position but we’re delighted people have other ideas too. Go measure those ideas for yourself.” But they don’t behave like that. They behave in a frightened, aggressive and very insulting manner to people like myself and Sir Derek Jacobi and Professor William Leahy, who runs an MA course at Brunel University where graduate students can study the authorship question. They are particularly looking at the idolization of the author, how we have created an idol of the author and whether that is revealing or obscuring the work.
BBC: Are there any verses that you can point us to that illustrate these issues?
RYLANCE: Well, I’ll give you this one – Sonnet 81:
Or I shall live your epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten
From hence your memory death cannot take
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I, once gone, to all the world must die.
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
When you entombed in men’s eyes shall lie.
Your monument shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o’erread,
And tongues to be your being shall rehearse.
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live — such vertue hath my pen —
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
There are some very curious details in that lovely sonnet. A common grave. How the author will disappear but the person he is writing about—or perhaps he is speaking about his work or his higher self or however you wish to interpret that—will live on and be immortal. There’s a certain sense of the author expecting to really disappear into a common grave. Stratfordians would therefore say that it is not an aristocrat. But people who think someone else wrote it would say that’s because the author is withdrawing, wants to be anonymous and wants the work to live on unobscured much as you would want a mirror to be unobscured. In Hamlet, the author describes great theatre work as being “like holding a mirror up to nature.” Well, you don’t want an etching of someone’s face on your mirror when you have a shave in the morning or when you look deep into your eyes to see who you are. You want a clear mirror. I think whoever the author was—even the Stratford man—just got out of the way. It wasn’t about drawing attention to himself. It was about reflecting us. And on that basis, I am the one guilty of obscuring the mirror a bit by being interested in the authorship.
I think you have to come back to the point I made before. I am a professional theatre maker and it’s of importance to me to know how great works of theatre are made.
Transcribed and edited by Don Rubin.
The original conversation can be found at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p0657ctx
*Mark Rylance is an actor, theatre director and playwright. He has served as the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe in London (1995-2005). He has received several theatre, television, and film awards, including three Tony Awards (2008, 2011, 2014), the BAFTA TV Award for Best Actor (2005), as well as the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies (2015). He is a patron of the London International Festival of Theatre and of the London-based charity Peace Direct.
“It’s important to know how great works of theatre are made”