Questioning Shakespeare’s Authorship
Abstract: This paper offers the reflections of a Canadian actor on the “Shakespeare Authorship Question.” After completing his Ph.D. in Theatre, the writer found himself asking why, in all his years in academe, no one ever mentioned that there even was such a thing as a “Shakespeare Authorship Question.” His own questioning led to the creation of several one-person shows on the subject. His pieces go beyond exploring the “Question” to also tackle the notion of authorship and the practice of biography. One of the most successful of them builds on Mark Twain’s material on the contested issue of Shakespeare’s Authorship.
Keywords: Shakespeare, Authorship, Authorship Question, Biography, Mark Twain
After graduating with my PhD in Theatre, I became a monologist. For my third monologue, I was looking around for something to write. I remembered a crackpot idea called the “Shakespeare Authorship Question,” the theory that William Shakespeare didn’t write his famous plays and poems. I didn’t know much about it, other than it existed. I certainly never had a professor mention it, other than to laugh at it, and say it was a conspiracy theory from the lunatic fringe.
I thought that could make a funny play. I could create some silly buffoon character who believes the nonsense that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. So, I started looking for information on the concept. I didn’t know if I could find it. I didn’t even know if anyone still believed it.
But once I started looking, I discovered there are actually thousands of books on the subject. That was a surprise. Not one of these books had ever appeared on any professor’s reading list. I’d never so much as opened one. So, I opened one, and I read for the very first time, “There are no surviving plays, poems, diaries, or even any letters in William Shakespeare of Stratford’s own hand.”
I had never heard that before. I immediately thought, “Wait, how could I have a PhD in theatre and have never heard this? And why was I never told this?” It seemed to me this information was interesting. There are over 900,000 words in Shakespeare’s plays and poems, and every last one of those words, in their original handwritten form, is lost! Isn’t that something you would tell a theatre student? It seemed to me, as a PhD in theatre, I should know this.
And what about his letters? This is the fact that really shook me up, and changed me forever. No correspondence in Shakespeare’s own hand. I knew Shakespeare had divided his time between his home and family and business dealings in Stratford-upon-Avon and his theatre work in London. So, as a writer, I assumed he’d written dozens of letters, maybe hundreds. But none had survived? Years after finishing my theatre studies, I learned, on my own, for the very first time: there is no actual paper trail connecting William of Stratford with his ever having been a writer.
Then I learned that researchers had found Shakespeare of Stratford’s last will and testament. But his long and detailed will, which goes on for three pages, handwritten by an attorney, and mentions all sorts of things like jewels, swords, silver gilt bowls, and famously a second-best bed, never once mentions Shakespeare was a writer, and never mentions a single book, play, poem, or unfinished literary work, not a scrap of manuscript of any kind. This is William Shakespeare’s will? How did I get a PhD in theatre and never hear this?
But then, digging much deeper, I learned that there supposedly was a text manuscript in Shakespeare’s own hand. Not a play he had written. A play Shakespeare had helped rewrite by someone else. And the handwritten, original script had survived from Elizabethan times. The play was called Sir Thomas More and six writers, including Shakespeare, had rewritten it, and the fourth writer, or the so-called Hand D, was thought to be Shakespeare. If so, this would be the only text manuscript in Shakespeare’s hand known to exist. And this is where there is a very interesting Canadian connection.
In the year 1960, the Stratford Festival in Canada was holding a series of lectures, and they decided to do one on this arcane theory. They took a copy of the Hand D manuscript and copies of Shakespeare’s six known signatures, and went to Canada’s national police force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and asked, “Do you have a handwriting expert?” Turned out they did, Roy A Huber. He co-wrote the book on handwriting analysis, Handwriting Identification: Facts and Fundamentals (still available for purchase on Amazon to this day).
The Stratford Festival asked Roy A Huber to do an analysis and confirm, once and for all, that Shakespeare had written Hand D. Huber took three months on this, becoming an expert reader of the type of writing back then. It’s called Secretarie hand, and both the signatures and Hand D are written in it.
Huber went to Stratford Ontario to give his lecture. Everyone was expecting him to confirm Shakespeare wrote Hand D. That’s not what happened.
Huber announced, “A positive identification of Shakespeare as Hand D is NOT possible.” Huber showed them that all the I’s were dotted in the signatures, none of the I’s were dotted in Hand D. Specific letters were completely different. The K in Shakespeare was shown to be completely different from the K in Hand D (something anyone can confirm by downloading Hand D and the six signatures and making their own analysis).
Huber completely demolished Hand D, and one would think that would have been the end of Hand D. Only it wasn’t. In fact, even though the main handwriting analyst of a major national police force had determined Hand D could not be connected to Shakespeare of Stratford, the findings were completely ignored. And, to this day, the British Museum in London contends that Hand D is Shakespeare’s handwriting. This is similar to the Shroud of Turin controversy.
The Shroud of Turin was supposed to be the actual burial shroud of Jesus Christ, and when God resurrected him after the crucifixion an image of Jesus was burned on the fabric. The only problem with this belief was that, in the twentieth century, carbon dating was discovered. The Vatican allowed scientists to cut off a piece of the Shroud and send pieces of it to three labs for carbon dating. All three labs came back with the same finding, that the Shroud was fabricated not 2000 years ago during Jesus’ time, but in the fourteenth century, effectively making the Shroud valueless as an ancient Christian artifact.
And that should have been the end of it. Only it wasn’t. The discovery had little effect. The people who wanted to believe in the Shroud went on believing in it—much like what happened with Hand D. And that is when I realized why none of the questions about Shakespeare’s Authorship were ever taught to me in all the theatre courses on my way to a doctorate in theatre. Shakespeare is not factual. Shakespeare is not historical. Shakespeare is, in fact, a quasi-religion, and it can’t be questioned.
Subsequently, I discovered that there were several giants in history who had looked into Shakespeare’s biography, unlike theatre PhD students like me, and they had concluded Shakespeare of Stratford had never been a writer. Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, even Mark Twain.
Twain had studied Shakespeare’s biography, visited Stratford-upon-Avon, England and concluded it was all nonsense! Shakespeare, according to Twain, never wrote anything. Twain even wrote a book about it in the year 1909 titled Is Shakespeare Dead? In it, Twain mocks the total guesswork of Shakespeare biographies. I’d never heard of this book. None of my professors had ever mentioned it. And some editors even omit Is Shakespeare Dead? from Mark Twain’s list of books. They don’t like what the book says, so the book never happened. Apparently, in our modern civilized world, we no longer burn books, we just leave them off lists!
All of this, which I was learning for the first time, wasn’t so much about who wrote Shakespeare. Obviously, the plays and poems are brilliant, and someone or some group wrote them. What I was learning was about something larger than Shakespeare. This was about education, or rather mis-education. I had a right to this information, and to do with it whatever I chose! Yet, what I had been given by all the teachers, in all the schools that I’d attended, was orthodoxy. Yes, orthodoxy, from the Greek, orthos meaning the true, and doxa meaning belief.
Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, I was learning on my own, years after finishing my theatre studies, was not fact, it’s a belief. Perhaps it’s true, but the only way to find out is to examine the evidence. Unfortunately, this almost never happens.
Why? Why is Shakespeare an untouchable god who must never be examined? Especially when there are all these troubling facts that clearly point in the opposite direction that the likes of Freud and Whitman and Twain decided there indeed was a question?
Professor James Shapiro of Columbia University, one of the world’s foremost authorities on Shakespeare and a strict believer in the traditional biography, wrote in his book, Contested Will, “There yet remains one subject walled off from serious study by Shakespeare Scholars: the authorship question. . . . virtually taboo in academic circles.”
I didn’t know there were sixteenth-century literary questions that were “walled off” and “taboo” in universities. In fact, this kind of enforced orthodoxy is the very opposite of education.
There are times in life that one gets so hopping mad, so furious, so murderously angry, that there’s only one thing a person can do. And that’s write and perform a one-man show. This was one of those times. The piece I was going to write about a buffoon who believes Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare didn’t happen.
Instead, I adapted Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? And debuted it at the 2002 Montreal Fringe Festival. It was later filmed for Canadian television, and is now on YouTube receiving thousands of hits all over the world every year.
Finally, it’s important to note how far the goal-posts have been moved by those defending the orthodox position that William from Stratford wrote the Shakespearean works. When I started my theatre studies in the 1970s, the position of most scholars was that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare with the possible exception of some of Pericles, which may have been a collaboration and was, consequently, left out of the First Folio.
Today, in 2018, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in their book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy, admits to “a conservative estimate [that] John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, George Wilkens,” all contributed to Shakespeare’s writings. And Oxford University adds another name to the contributors, Christopher Marlowe, who is now credited by this august institution of co-writing the three Henry VI plays. OUP also contends that a full 38 percent of the plays are collaborations.
For orthodox scholars to have moved that far away from Shakespeare as sole author is certainly tantamount to an admission there is a Shakespeare Authorship Question.
*Keir Cutler, Ph.D., is a Montreal-based actor. He has written several one-person shows about the authorship question and his adaptation of Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead can be found on Youtube. His adaptation of the Twain material has also been translated into German and has been played successfully at festivals in Germany.
Questioning Shakespeare’s Authorship