Questioning Shakespeare’s Authorship
Abstract: This paper presents the edited transcript of a conversation between two distinguished Shakespearean actors, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, about why the Shakespeare Authorship Question should be accorded respect and taken more seriously by the theatre, literary and academic communities. The content of the present paper was recorded originally for the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition in April 2016.
Keywords: Shakespeare, Authorship, Authorship Question, Biography
In April 2016, during the worldwide 400th anniversary celebrations of the works of William Shakespeare, two of Britain’s leading Shakespearean actors, Sir Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance, spoke about not only their love of the great works but also why they believe the person usually credited with writing them—the man from Stratford-upon-Avon—may not have been the real author. In 2007, they issued a “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare,” in a public signing event in Chichester. West Sussex. In 2016, they reaffirmed their support for the Declaration in a video now available on YouTube. At that time, the Declaration had over 3,300 signatories. Today it has over 4,000 signatories, including over 1,500 with advanced degrees and nearly 700 current or former college faculty members. What follows is an edited transcript of their conversation on this fascinating topic.
Mark Rylance: Hello. We’re here to celebrate the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt. We’re patrons of the Declaration, and indeed of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition that created this wonderful document back in 2007. It’s done very well, so we wanted to congratulate the 3,300 signatories and give a little bit of news about what’s happened in the years since then.
This will also be viewed by people who are not aware of the Declaration, or that there is even a question about the authorship of the Shakespeare works. For them, Derek and I are part of a group of people who have a “reasonable doubt” that the man from Stratford wrote all of these works and suspect the name William Shakespeare is actually a pseudonym for another writer.
For decades, people researched different candidates and began their books with a chapter on why they doubted that the man from Stratford was the author. You would read this over and over again. Many of us were very impressed by a book from a wonderful American scholar, Diana Price, titled Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, in which she examines orthodox scholarship about the man from Stratford—things often not included in biographies because it’s problematic—and she makes a very good case for why there is a legitimate question.
But it’s a bit of a read, so we thought there should also be a simple declaration to explain why we thought it was reasonable to question and why we doubt the attribution of the plays to the man from Stratford. That’s how the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt came about. Derek and I launched it in the U.K. in September, 2007, in Chichester.
Derek Jacobi: Following a performance of your play, I Am Shakespeare, on the same topic.
Rylance: Yes, and since that time the Declaration has been signed by some 3,300 people, which is absolutely wonderful.
Jacobi: Including many academics, lawyers…
Rylance: Many people with higher degrees, yes. And I really recommend it even today as an explanation of why we feel there is a question. It doesn’t propose any other candidate; it just explains why there is a question. And we have invited criticism, from anyone. I don’t think we’ve had any valid criticism from the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. James Shapiro has written a book, Contested Will, mentioning the Declaration. But none of these critics have done much more than really try to attack our character.
Jacobi: Yes, we have both been called “mad,” and told that we should be in a lunatic asylum. And that is the problem. When you present something like this, it affects people intellectually and emotionally. We are trying to counter what we consider a myth, a legend, and they can be very difficult to dislodge. Mostly what we get is insult and vituperation rather than discussion.
Rylance: I find that theatre people are quite interested in this… It’s mostly just the academics and people who have published about it.
Jacobi: Yes, people whose reputations and livelihoods depend on the Stratford man.
Rylance: Because of our position, we’ve even been called “anti-Shakespearean.”
Jacobi: They ignore the fact that we have spent much of our careers playing Shakespeare. How can we be “anti-Shakespeare”?
Rylance: Well, we invited criticism by putting a “declaration” out. It’s a declaration, not a whisper. So, we listened to all the criticism—all that’s serious criticism—and have made five minor adjustments to the Declaration. We’ve removed two of the people whom we had listed as eminent past doubters, Charles Dickens and Leslie Howard. We thought that perhaps we slightly over-exaggerated their doubts. So, we’ve removed them and replaced them with two other eminent people, Sir George Greenwood and Oxford history professor Hugh Trevor-Roper, whose doubts are stronger. So, we still have a strong list of twenty eminent past doubters—wonderful writers and thinkers, including Mark Twain, Walt Whitman…
Rylance: Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin. We’ve also clarified three other small points that received criticism. And so, if you go to the website today, you will see these clarifications. But, overall, I think that it is a wonderful record after nine years.
Jacobi: We are simply asking for a discussion. We are putting an idea forward, a theory forward. We are not being rude about it. We are being, I hope, gracious about it. And it’s fun! It’s the best whodunit in the world.
Rylance: You’re right that there’s a deep emotional attachment to the Stratford man as the author. Even for me. I was taken to theatre from about age twelve and was acting in them at age sixteen. That’s when I first played Hamlet. I felt that the author was naming things in me that I hadn’t understood before, that he was in a way creating me as a human being (as Harold Bloom says). And so, one’s attachment to this author becomes very deep and intense. For 28 years, I believed the author was the man from Stratford. It was a great surprise to me to find out there was a question.
Jacobi: For me as well.
Rylance: When did you first learn there was a question?
Jacobi: My first time was reading a book by Charlton Ogburn Jr, The Mysterious William Shakespeare—a very thick, 900-page volume. Until then, it never crossed my mind that the man from Stratford didn’t write the plays or that there was a problem, a disconnect. I was in my early 40s and I had played Hamlet about 400 times, and I was still a believer then.
Rylance: When one reads about Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, the connections between his life and Hamlet are so remarkable.
Rylance: If he didn’t write the plays, whoever wrote them must have known about his life, I’ve always thought.
Jacobi: And whoever it was, the amount of knowledge is remarkable. You can’t have genius without knowledge. The amount, the scale, the scope of his knowledge: how did he know all that and express it so naturally? He talked like a lawyer, all the legal metaphors in the plays…
Rylance: There are technical terms from many different professions that he gets right. That’s what struck Mark Twain.
Jacobi: And they move quite naturally; they flow with it.
Rylance: Twain recalled working boats on the Mississippi when he wrote Is Shakespeare Dead?, his book doubting the man from Stratford. It struck him that it would be impossible to write about piloting a boat on the Mississippi, to have the right terminology and slang of that job, and he couldn’t imagine it, no matter what genius you were. Obviously, Shakespeare, the author of the plays, was a genius, but he had to have learned, somehow, all of this knowledge.
Jacobi: Incredible and specific knowledge. We’re talking expertise in each of the fields he was writing about.
Rylance: As patrons of the Declaration, we stand by the original idea that the first thing to do is to make it a neutral declaration of why there is a question, because most people don’t think there is a question or are even unaware of some of the main reasons that you need to question.
As Derek says, it’s a mystery, a very enlightening and enjoyable mystery, and one that is not solved and done. There’s new evidence coming forward all the time. In the last few years, the Coalition was joined by Alexander Waugh, who has made some very good discoveries which, if we’d known about them when we first made the Declaration, we would have included them. We’ve now added them as an addendum which people can also find on the Coalition website.
I must add that there has been a very alarming kind of combat over this question between the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust—which is obviously there to defend the man from Stratford—and the Coalition. I’m sad that I can’t really call it a discussion; it’s been more of a shouting match. But, it’s quite an interesting record of just how intense this debate can be. It came to a head, didn’t it, with a challenge…
Jacobi: There was a challenge issued to the Birthplace Trust to participate in a mock trial, with a cash prize to them if they proved their case. I contributed myself to the prize money.
Rylance: Some £40,000 was raised and available to them.
Jacobi: And, at the trial, the doubters would put their case, and the Birthplace Trust would put their case; then, if an impartial panel of judges ruled that the Trust had proved the case for the man from Stratford “beyond a reasonable doubt,” they would get the £40,000 for their charity.
Rylance: This challenge was issued because the Trust claimed that the case for the Stratford man was “beyond doubt.” So, all we said was, “Right, if you claim that it’s beyond doubt, then come to a courtroom and prove that it’s beyond reasonable doubt.” If they could prove that, we would give them £40,000. Since it’s a registered charity, you would think they would…
Jacobi: …jump at that. But they wouldn’t take the challenge at all.
Rylance: We have been trying, and we will carry on trying, to bring what I call the Stratfordians (and I don’t mean any disrespect) to the table to have a reasonable discussion. Derek and I don’t even have the same image of who the author is, but I have absolute respect for Derek’s perception of the author, and I find that all of us, outside of the orthodoxy, are very happy to have discussions about it and to share evidence and question interpretations.
Jacobi: And as time goes on we become more secure in our belief. As evidence accumulates—and it seems like there’s more and more every week—we feel that we are on firmer ground. I suppose that makes us more confident about discussing it.
Rylance: I have no intention of trying to suppress or change another person’s idea about who Shakespeare is. It’s a very personal thing. But I ask the same respect from other people. This can be a much more enjoyable inquiry. It may not be as important as global warming, but it’s an important historical question.
As a creative artist interested in modern theatre, and wishing I could make plays as great as in that period, it is important to know whether, for example, the Sonnets are just an unemotional, impersonal technical exercise of the imagination, or do they have personal feelings in them? I don’t know of any writer, any author, who can’t help but involve their own life experiences.
Jacobi: I’m sure they do—their own personality, views of life. Like actors, you can’t divorce yourself from it.
Rylance: You can’t just write technically, or laugh technically. If you’re not moved or humoured by what’s in a play, then you find something equivalent in your life that moves you.
Rylance: If I’m wrong about this, and the Stratfordians are right that the Sonnets are just a technical exercise and you can’t read anything biographical into them, I’d like to know that because, then, that’s obviously how you write great sonnets. It doesn’t convince me, though, and the poets I’ve talked to, it doesn’t convince them.
Jacobi: Nor does it convince me. Also, we are accused—to use the word pointedly—of trying to find biographical details in the sonnets and the plays, and we are castigated for that. But, the moment there is a smidgen of a possible relationship to the man from Stratford, they’re in there immediately, counting it as evidence for him!
Rylance: I have no problem, by the way, with the fantasies, hypotheses and imaginations of writers like James Shapiro and, say, Stephen Greenblatt. These are very, very intelligent, imaginative, creative people. I just ask the same freedom to be creative in our thinking from them. Even if we disagree about the name, the person we all feel love for is the same person.
Jacobi: We all love Shakespeare, whoever he was.
Rylance: So the idea that we are anti-Shakespeare or disrespectful to him because we think the name is a pseudonym is not true. We want it on the record that this is not the case at all. During the 400th anniversary celebrations, I’m working at the Globe, doing Sonnet work and many other things, very happily with no intention of standing up and saying you’re all wrong and this is a shame or anything like that.
Jacobi: Curiously, 400 years ago, when the Stratford man died, nobody took any notice at all.
Rylance: Not so much as a letter that has survived records his death.
Jacobi: Nothing, just silence.
Rylance: This is remarkable. When actor Richard Burbage died, it is said that the whole of London mourned. But even Burbage, Heminges and Condell, who were clearly great friends of the Stratford man and members of the same acting company, left no record of his passing.
Jacobi: In contrast, when Francis Beaumont died, he went straight into Westminster Abbey.
Rylance: Francis Beaumont was a much less-known writer. Many may not even know his name today. He died the month before Shakspere of Stratford and was buried immediately in Westminster Abbey. And in 1637, when Ben Jonson died— another great writer of the period—he too goes straight into the Abbey. There were something like 33 eulogies said for him—an extraordinary amount. It was the practice of the period.
Jacobi: Absolutely, yet there wasn’t anything, anything when Shakspere of Stratford died.
Rylance: Are we to believe that he was less loved in his time than he is now? That he was a less remarkable person—less witty, less compassionate, less wise, less profound and deep than the works suggest he is? Are we to believe that no family member, nor any neighbor in Stratford, would have noted his passing in 1616 and made sure he received his due, if he was the author Shakespeare? No one seems to have even known he was a writer in Stratford.
Jacobi: We know his parents were illiterate and his children were illiterate. We are told that he went to the grammar school in Stratford, but there is no documentary evidence to say that. None of his brothers went to school. As someone said, his family members’ literary abilities over time would be listed as: “illiterate, illiterate, illiterate, world’s greatest writer, illiterate.”
Rylance: I suppose these things happen, and there’s no doubt that there’s “genius” involved in this, but, even if one is born with genius, one is not born with book learning and life experience. That’s where I think the question resides.
Jacobi: And the plays are set not just in England. Whoever wrote them had an intimate knowledge of Italy and France and their noble houses. He must have experienced it. He couldn’t have gotten all this knowledge simply by talking to a couple of sailors in a pub. Sorry, but he couldn’t. His knowledge of music, medicine, mathematics, horticulture, heraldry, military knowledge, naval knowledge, law, philosophy, you name it. He had it all.
Rylance: The Stratfordian response to all of this is that he learned a great deal in the Stratford grammar school. Now to be strict—as people are very strict with us about our theories—there is no record that he ever attended the grammar school. The records for those years are lost.
Jacobi: And he wouldn’t have even gone to the grammar school until the age of seven—seven to thirteen. And, in order to get into the school, he had to be able to read and write. The grammar schools didn’t teach you to read and write English; they only taught Latin grammar. So, who was it that taught him to read and write? His family was illiterate. Who taught him?
Rylance: And they didn’t teach continental languages. Shakespeare used sources that existed in some cases only in French, Italian, Spanish, Greek and Latin, not yet translated into English. So, he was remarkably well-educated, including in languages not taught in grammar schools.
Now, one of the things that’s aimed at us—and I think it’s worth addressing here—is that we are snobs, that we can’t believe a common man wrote these plays. That is not the case at all; nor is it the case of any of the authorship skeptics I know. The evidence is clear: Christopher Marlowe, a genius writer, was noticed in grammar school by a university-educated teacher who helped him get admitted to Cambridge University. That education is clear in his plays.
So, there’s clear evidence that a common man can write brilliant plays, as Marlowe did. That’s not the question at all. But I have often wondered: why did his teacher in the Stratford school, with this young, incredible genius, not do the same thing for him that they did for Marlowe?
Jacobi: If indeed he was there. It’s so unfair, this thing about being a snob. Neither of us is from an aristocratic background. I really don’t get it.
Rylance: I think it’s partly because there’s so much learning in the plays about aristocratic pastimes, and most of the characters are involved in aristocratic behavior. There are no plays about Stratford, nor any indication of a Warwickshire dialect or Warwickshire lifestyle.
Jacobi: Nearly all the plays are concerned with kings and princes and queens and princesses.
Rylance: So, naturally, some of the candidates we look to as the real author are people who were in that world or were aware of that world.
To conclude, I just wanted to clarify we’ve been using the names Shakespeare and Shakspere to try and separate, just for purposes of discussion, the author Shakespeare, or Shake-speare, William Shakespeare—the author of the plays and poems—and the man the plays and poems were attributed to seven years after his death, William Shakspere [pronounced Shack – spur] of Stratford-upon-Avon, who is, I suppose, the pre-eminent candidate to be the author. And, when you separate the two, we can then discuss other candidates who we feel are possible candidates for the authorship of the William Shakespeare plays. I hope that’s clear.
We don’t deny that a man—William Shakspere from Stratford-upon-Avon—existed; of course he existed. And I feel he may have written a play. We are not saying that’s impossible.
Jacobi: But we’d like to talk about it, and would like others to be able to talk about it.
Rylance: Shakspere may have collaborated on plays. Or, perhaps, he was just paid to do a very brave thing—to be a front-man for the real author. In times of danger, writers have often had to find someone else to be the front-man, and this was talked about in the Elizabethan period. It was reported that noblemen were using pseudonyms and front men, so Shakspere may have done that. If he did, it was a very brave thing to do. So we honor and respect him for having a very important role. If he did that, he provided a very beautiful authorship story, true or not.
I hope people will take a look at the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt. I believe it’s going to be a historic document. If anything in it is proved to be wrong, or solved, then we will adjust it. It is a living document, as is the mystery. Again, we mean no disrespect to the Stratford man or to those who believe he was the author, but we would like equal respect for those of us looking at it all in a somewhat different way.
You can read the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt and its sequel, Beyond Reasonable Doubt, on the Coalition website at: DoubtAboutWill.org. This article is published with thanks to the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition and its founder and acting chairman, John M. Shahan.
*Derek Jacobi is a classical actor and stage director. He is a founder member of the Royal National Theatre and has won several prestigious theatre awards, including two Laurence Olivier Awards (1983 and 2009), a Tony Award (1984), and a Primetime Award (1988). He has also enjoyed a successful television career and has appeared in many films. In 1994, he was knighted for his services to the theatre, while has also been made a member of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog.
**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.