Questioning Shakespeare’s Authorship
Abstract: This is an introduction to a eight essay section on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. The introduction suggests that there are significant irregularities in the traditional biography, that the authorship question has a history of some 400 years and that among its adherents are notable figures in many fields from Henry James, Walt Whitman, Sigmund Freud and Mark Twain to Tyrone Guthrie, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance. It is argued that, should a different author be identified, the contexts of the plays—social, political, sexual—would possibly change leading to new insights in staging them.
Keywords: Shakespeare, Authorship, Authorship Question, Biography
Imagine the following extreme possibilities.
Imagine that a feminist scholar found that the beloved American writer Thornton Wilder was not really the author of Our Town but had simply allowed his name to be used because the real writer, a woman, felt that her work would not be taken seriously.
Imagine that a history scholar studying the labor movement in the United States after World War II finds that black writer Langston Hughes really wrote Death of a Salesman. Not possible. Right?
Imagine that the major plays of Tennessee Williams were really written by conservative guru William F. Buckley. Could it be?
Imagine if any of these absurd leaps were to be proven true. Would it matter? Would it affect our readings of the plays? Possibly. Possibly not. A female author for Our Town? A black author for Death of a Salesman? An aggressively right wing author for the plays of a seriously closeted gay genius?
Surely such revelations would not change the plays. Our Town would still be the ultimate examination of everyday-ness and appreciating every, every moment of life. Salesman would still be the same anatomization of capitalism. Streetcar Named Desire would a still be about the struggle of poets to live in a world dominated by apes. Wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t they all remain the same?
Of course they would. Because the texts would not change.
What would change, however, are the contexts—social, political, sexual. And what would be revealed ultimately—by actors, by directors, perhaps even by scholars—might well be additional layers of truth in each of these areas.
So, would it matter if we actually learned, by circumstance piled upon circumstance, that these writers were not exactly who we thought they were? Would it matter if an early feminist agitator was the person really behind the sweet and heartbreaking words of Emily in Our Town? Or that a black artist felt the only way to communicate the dangers of a certain economic system was to write “white?” Or if a right-wing political genius sought to hide his personal life behind the writings of another?
That is, should we care who wrote what?
Or is the idea of authorhood truly irrelevant to understanding a work of literary art as theoreticians such as Foucault and Barthes argue. Does “authorship” still somehow matter? Should it matter? Could it matter?
I bring these questions up here as an introduction to this special section on “authorship,” one which looks into what is a still controversial area of Early Modern Studies (more specifically, Elizabethan Studies) known as “The Shakespeare Authorship Question.” It is an issue that continues to spawn new books with new evidence on the subject each year, suggesting that the name of the world’s most beloved and respected dramatist—William Shakespeare—might actually have been a pseudonym. And that the man from Stratford might well have been protecting the real author.
But before you say “who cares?” “does it really matter?” and “the plays are the plays so why bother?” imagine the fallout if this possibility actually turned out to be true.
I admit, the three examples I began this essay with are really quite extreme. Indeed, all three are far beyond the point of credibility and I understand that no one is even hinting at such possibilities.
But the authorship argument around the man from Stratford is, I believe, not only within the realm of possibility, but is already being taken seriously in many circles. Far from “crackpot” and far from a “conspiracy theory,” the authorship issue in Shakespeare studies is one that is literally leading thousands of scholars, critics and theatre artists, and hundreds of other researchers in fields such as history, law and medicine to question the traditional attribution of the name “Shakespeare” to a man who had no proven education, whose family was illiterate and who never actually claimed that he was the author.
So shouldn’t we be at least curious enough to look into it?
Many already have. People we know in our profession, people we respect as artists—Sir Derek Jacobi, Sir Mark Rylance, Michael York. All three are on record as saying there is something wrong with the official version that has come down to us.
And there are others. Independent academics such as American scholar and researcher Diana Price, whose book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography put on the academic record significant evidence that proves unequivocally that there are huge literary and biographical gaps in our knowledge of the man from Stratford, gaps that do not exist for most other dramatists of this period.
Item. Can it really be true that the man who wrote more than three dozen plays never wrote a single letter that survives?
Item. Can it be true that he never wrote a literary word after he “retired” from the theatre?
Item. That he never thought to mention that he was a writer in his will or thought to leave even a single book or poem or manuscript to anyone?
Item. That this creator of so many powerful and articulate female roles in the plays never educated his own daughters to read?
Surely these things are not true.
And yet, they are just a few of the disturbing issues being investigated here.
The obvious question is whether or not similar proofs of, for example, writing and education exist for other dramatists of equal or lesser note during the Elizabethan period? The answer is, yes, they do. The lives of some two dozen of the leading dramatists of the period have been minutely examined by Diana Price and contemporaneous proof of writing careers exist for all. Yet, no contemporaneous proof exists for the man from Stratford. Take a look at Price’s amazing chart of comparisons of such evidence, a chart republished in this special section with her permission, and you will probably be amazed. Certainly surprised.
And she is not the only scholar or writer or artist on record in this regard.
Go back through the decades and see who has braved the slings and arrows of academe for doubting publicly. It’s an impressive list: perhaps start with the Irish iconoclast Sir Tyrone Guthrie—the founding Artistic Director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. He doubted. And then move back in time to such well-known artists as Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Henry James, to name just a few.
For those—like British scholar Jonathan Bate—who still maintain that this authorship business is a relatively recent phenomenon, one that only goes back, at most, to the nineteenth century, the fact is that allusions to the dubiousness of the name Shakespeare (or Shake-Speare, as it actually appears on many of the plays) began in the Elizabethan period itself. Indeed, a volume of such allusions has been gathered by American scholar Roger Stritmatter and British scholar Alexander Waugh (grandson of Evelyn Waugh) and is soon to be published. Look for it.
Waugh himself is the former honorary president of an organization called the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, which has created what it calls a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt (DoubtAboutWill.org), summing up the core arguments in this area. And the Declaration has already been signed by some 4,000 people world-wide. Most interesting here is that while academics in many fields have signed it, a relative handful of scholars from English departments have put their names onto it, showing that this is still an area of enquiry that is all but forbidden in academe under penalty of career suicide or excommunication. If you doubt it, try bringing the authorship question up in any form in most English or literature departments. Try finding a course where authorship issues are encouraged or even mentioned as an area of enquiry.
Indeed, in most supposedly liberal English and Literature departments, even speaking about the authorship is a bit like speaking against religion a thousand years ago. Galileo had his career taken away from him for simply suggesting that the sun and not the earth was the centre of our solar system. It took the church 500 years to apologize to Galileo for the error of its ways, for muzzling his own free enquiry in that way. How long will it take academe to recognize that it is clearly muzzling free enquiry in this area in exactly the same way: prioritizing Belief over Evidence.
For me, a career theatre academic who only began reading in this area in the last decade, the authorship question really is a fascinating subject for study, one wrapped in an Elizabethan enigma and well worthy of a play by Shakespeare. Indeed, the deeper I go into this study, the more I question and the more I keep wondering: “what if?”
But so much for my own experiences here. More important is that you, dear Reader, read for yourself and decide for yourself not who wrote the plays of Shakespeare (Shakespeare obviously wrote the plays of Shakespeare), but whether or not the name Shakespeare was a pseudonym. And if it was a pseudonym, if the authorship really does not fit the man from Stratford (who, for instance, never actually spelled or signed his name that way), then who did actually create and use that name as a “front,” and who was it who was using the man from Stratford as a cover?
No attempt is being made here to give a definitive answer as to who that pseudonymous author might really be though two possible candidates are posed in the course of these essays: Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford (the leading candidate) and the Italian scholar John Florio. There are other candidates to be sure, ranging from William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby, to Thomas Sackville to Mary Sidney. And there have been passionate advocates for Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe since at least the 19th century. Take a look at some of the relevant websites, such as the ShakespeareOxfordFellowship.org. They are serious and they will surprise you with current research in the field.
In the end, though, the intent here is not really to put a specific name to the author, but rather to simply open the question about the possibility of pseudonymous writing in the case of the name William Shakespeare to a wider audience, to a wider audience in the theatre community.
What you will find in this special issue therefore is
- a fascinating transcript of a conversation between Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi asking theatre people to at least consider the possibility of the name William Shakespeare being a pseudonym,
- a piece by Canadian actor Keir Cutler asking why in all his years of study for a Ph.D. in Theatre not one of his professors ever told him there was actually debate in this area,
- material from American scholar Diana Price setting a clear background for the whole issue with a chart comparing the literary life of the man from Stratford with others from this period,
- a piece by American scholar and producer Gary Goldstein suggesting new theatrical possibilities for those who are open to such re-thinking,
- an important piece on Hamlet and the law by American legal scholar Tom Regnier which suggests that the author of the plays was almost certainly a trained lawyer,
- a documentation by actor/writer Hank Whittemore of the theatrical connections of the leading candidate in the authorship debate, Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford,
- a personal statement by the Secretary-General of the International Association of Theatre Critics, Michael Vaïs, explaining how he himself came to the authorship question and why he decided recently to translate a book on candidate John Florio into French, and finally,
- a very recent BBC interview with Mark Rylance on this topic.
Hopefully your mind will be open enough to consider some of the possibilities discussed.
*Don Rubin is Professor Emeritus and the former Chair of the Department of Theatre at Toronto’s York University as well as the Founding Chair of York’s MA and Ph.D. Programs in Theatre Studies. He is the founding editor of the quarterly journal Canadian Theatre Review and he was the editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. He has been President of both the Canadian Centre of the International Theatre Institute and the Canadian Centre of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He is Vice President of the Shakespeare Oxford Fellowship and a member of the Critical Stages Editorial Advisory Board. He has taught senior level courses on the authorship question at York University for several years.
The Question That Won’t Go Away:
Did the Man From Stratford Really Write the Plays?