Literary Paper Trails

Diana Price*

Abstract: American researcher and independent scholar Diana Price provides evidence that there are significant irregularities in the standard biography of the putative author of the plays of Shakespeare comparing documentation on the life of the man from Stratford with two dozen other writers of the period.

Keywords: Shakespeare, Authorship, Authorship Question, Biography

The following material first appeared in Diana Price’s volume Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies Number 94, 2001). The version appearing here is from the 2012 paperback edition which includes corrections, revisions and additions. It appears in Critical Stages with the author’s permission.

Biography today, then, may be defined
as the accurate presentation of the life
history from birth to death of an
individual, along with an effort to
interpret the life so as to offer a unified
impression of the subject

C. Hugh Holman and William Harmon,
A Handbook to Literature (54)

Nobody questions whether a man named William Shakspere[1] was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died there in 1616. We know he did because surviving personal records prove his existence. These records do not answer the larger question: Did the man from Stratford write the works that have come down to us under the name of William Shakespeare?

Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, published in Westport, CT, by Greenwood Press, Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies Number 94, in 2001

If the answer to that deceptively simple question were a clear-cut yes, there would be no need for this book. Shakespearean biographers presumably have tested the links in the biographical chain and have pronounced them to be sound, so anti-Stratfordians should have a hard time finding a weak link. But most skeptics claim that no documentation connecting William Shakspere of Stratford to the writing of the works of Shakespeare have ever been found.

Readers are often surprised to discover that there are no manuscripts or surviving letters in his hand. Gerald Eades Bentley acknowledged that

letters to or from or about William Shakespeare have all disappeared except for a few referring to business transactions; diaries or accounts of his friends are gone. In the absence of personal material of this sort which provides the foundation of most biographies, the temptation to amplify, to embroider, in fact to create an appealing and interesting figure, has been too strong for many of Shakespeare’s admirers (Handbook, 4-5).

Bentley has thus diagnosed a major symptom of the problem: biographers rely too much on conjecture and fanciful guesswork. For example, standard biographies leave the reader with the impression that Shakspere attended the Stratford grammar school, that he established a personal relationship with the earl of Southampton, that he was a drinking buddy of playwright Ben Jonson and that he made money from writing plays. No reliable records exist to support any of those statements. As Shakspere went about the business of his life, he left behind documentation that biographers have uncovered. These documents account for his activities as an actor, a theatrical shareholder, a businessman, a moneylender, a real estate investor, a commodity trader, a litigant, and a man with a family, but they do not account for his presumed life as a professional writer.

Indeed, Shakspere’s contemporaneous records reveal nothing of his alleged literary vocation. As we will see, he has been credited with literary activity solely on the basis of posthumous evidence. It is highly unusual, if not unique, to find only posthumous literary evidence remaining for an individual who supposedly lived by his pen.

Shakespeare Who?

Imagine you’re sitting at home, and someone slides an envelope under your door. You open it and take out a manuscript entitled Hamlet—A Play by William Shakespeare. You now know that somebody writing under the name of William Shakespeare has written a play called Hamlet, but you do not know from the title-page whether William Shakespeare is a real or fictitious name.

You know nothing more about the identity of the author after reading a review of Hamlet, the new Shakespeare play. You consult the telephone directory and find numerous William Shakespeares. Neither the reviews nor the directory tell you which William Shakespeare, if any, is to be conferred with the authorship honors. Not until you read an interview in the paper, or see him on camera accepting his award for Best Play, thanking his wife Anne and his friend Ben Jonson, will you know which William Shakespeare is the author.

Now, suppose that everyone has died of the plague. You, the literary archaeologist, are trying to reconstruct Shakespeare’s life, and all you can uncover are some published plays and reviews. Those will not be enough to identify your man. You are going to have to find those video tapes, interviews or other personal references, in order to confirm which William Shakespeare was the author. That’s the problem with the standard Shakespearean biography. Historians have found lots of literary references to “William Shakespeare,” but they are references to his published works, attributions of authorship or reviews. No one has yet found any personal records left by Shakspere during his lifetime that would link him to the occupation of writing.

Literary critics regularly review work by people whom they do not know personally. Back then, John Weever and Francis Meres, both Elizabethan writers, praised “Honey-tongued Shakespeare” and “Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase” in, what we might call, Elizabethan book reviews. Those reviews prove that Weever and Meres thought that the poetry or plays written under the name of William Shakespeare were excellent. The reviews do not prove that Weever or Meres personally recognized the man from Stratford as the author.

Nevertheless, biographers assume that Shakspere of Stratford was the dramatist that the title-pages proclaim him to be, and they support that assumption with posthumous evidence, hearsay and legend. Finally, they accept all the literary references to “Shakespeare” as evidence of William Shakspere’s literary life. Yet, biographers present no evidence—hard evidence left behind during William Shakspere’s own lifetime—that proves that Shakspere was the writer. Moreover, they produce no evidence to show that Shakspere was capable of writing literature.

Despite the unusual absence of literary records, that is, evidence linking the Stratford man directly to the writing of the works, a standard Shakespearean biography reads plausibly enough on the surface. However, skeptical readers, or those especially adept at spotting logical fallacies or contradictions, are likely to find a startling number of conflicts between the known life of the man from Stratford and the literary evidence for William Shakespeare.

Why Bother?

There are those who say it doesn’t matter who wrote the Shakespeare plays. Like other great works of art, the plays stand on their own, no matter who created them. But, like other works of art, the plays take on new dimensions when we know something about who wrote them and their historical context. That is one reason why literary biographies continue to be written and read.

Consider Arthur Miller’s play, After the Fall. It is a painful, intense play on its own terms, but theatergoers who know that Miller was married to Marilyn Monroe probably find the play more fascinating than those who view it in the abstract. Those who know that Miller suffered through the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950’s will see more in The Crucible than those who see the play strictly as an historical drama about witchcraft in Puritan New England. Hamlet is usually considered the most autobiographical of the Shakespeare plays. But, so far, about all that biographers can find in common between Hamlet and the man from Stratford is a passing mention of “sheepskin” in the fifth act and the possibility that Shakspere was apprenticed to his father in the leather trade. A Shakespearean biography based on the life of someone else might reveal events and relationships that tell us far more about Hamlet than does Shakspere’s proximity to the glover’s workbench.

The life of Shakespeare must matter to many people. Hundreds of biographies have been written, and millions of them have been bought and read. When John Updike mulled over the reasons why people bother with literary biography, he decided that “the most worthy is the desire to prolong and extend our intimacy with the author—to partake again, from another angle, of the joys we have experienced within the author’s oeuvre” (3).

In addition, if documentary evidence is ever found that upsets the traditional biography, it will be front-page news. Why? Not just because the discovery would satisfy anti-Stratfordians who are convinced that the wrong man has been getting all the credit. Not just because stage directors, actors and audiences would suddenly find new meaning in all the plays. Such a discovery would surely have an impact on history, literary criticism, school curricula and future research.

Doubts and Theories

Too often, those defending the orthodox position categorize all anti-Stratfordian arguments, regardless of merit, as illegitimate. Typically, they make little or no distinction between, say, the solid research in Sir George Greenwood’s The Shakespeare Problem Restated, and cryptographic or paranormal revelations, such as those transmitted through Dr. Orville Owen’s mystically inspired cipher wheel. In the late 1950s, Frank W. Wadsworth (The Poacher from Stratford) and R. C. Churchill (Shakespeare and His Betters) rebutted the anti-Stratfordians and, interestingly, a reviewer for the Shakespeare Quarterly criticized both orthodox defenders for their lack of discrimination: “One impressed by the learning and dialectic of a Sir George Greenwood may well feel perhaps that [Wadsworth and Churchill], eager to write amusingly, have generally chosen to discuss the more patently absurd claims and to disregard arguments less easily ridiculed” (B. Maxwell, 437).

People who persist in asking questions about Shakespeare’s authorship have often been dismissed as fantasizers interested in grotesque fiction or crackpots hooked on conspiracy theories. Walt Whitman was skeptical, and most literary professionals would not consider him a crackpot. Whitman himself was well aware of the stigma that might attach to anyone with the audacity to question Shakespeare’s authorship. In his words, “beneath a few foundations of proved facts are certainly engulf’d far more dim and elusive ones, of deepest importance—tantalizing and half-suspected—suggesting explanations that one dare not put in plain statement” (2: 404).

Nevertheless, Whitman questioned the traditional authorship because he perceived an unbridgeable gap between the aristocratic perspective in the plays and the non-aristocratic perspective emanating from Shakspere’s documented life. According to film star Charlie Chaplin, writing along the same lines,

it is easy to imagine a farmer’s boy emigrating to London and becoming a successful actor and theatre owner; but for him to have become the great poet and dramatist, and to have had such knowledge of foreign courts, cardinals and kings, is inconceivable to me. . . . I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude (364).

Chaplin went on a guided tour of Stratford and added that after

hearing the scant bits of local information concerning his desultory boyhood, his indifferent school record, his poaching and his country-bumpkin point of view, I cannot believe he went through such a mental metamorphosis as to become the greatest of all poets. In the work of the greatest of geniuses humble beginnings will reveal themselves somewhere—but one cannot trace the slightest sign of them in Shakespeare (364).

Doubts about Shakespeare’s authorship are not new. Questions emerged almost as soon as Shakespeare’s work appeared in print (see Chapter 12). It was not until the 1800’s, however, that the inquiry gained momentum when Delia Bacon advanced the theory that Francis Bacon (no relation) and several others had written the works collectively. Francis Bacon seems to have stuck in many people’s minds as the major contender for Shakespeare’s laurels, even though the claim for Bacon foundered shortly after it was first proposed. One orthodox critic went so far as to say that “the Baconian opinion is an extravagant hallucination” (Robertson, 6). That “hallucination” was Ignatius Donnelly’s theory that the plays were encoded with a cipher that supposedly revealed Bacon as the playwright. Donnelly’s theory, published in 1888 as The Great Cryptogram, was outrageous enough to give the authorship question a bad name (see Hope and Holston, 34-45), but it was not what disqualified Bacon. Today, many doubters consider the substance, style and dates of Bacon’s acknowledged writings insurmountable obstacles to his candidacy, despite strong points in his favor.

Over the years, anti-Stratfordians have proposed theories around the earl of Derby, Sir Edward Dyer, Queen Elizabeth, Christopher Marlowe, the earl of Oxford and the earl of Rutland, among at least fifty others. Some consider the plethora of candidates something of a joke. At first glance, it might seem that almost anyone who was close to the Elizabethan literary scene has been shoved forward as a candidate. Yet, the testing of many candidates is indicative of a logical process. Doubters have identified a gap, and they are trying to fill that gap.

If, for some reason, you were convinced that the man from Stratford did not write Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, you would be led to the next question: Who did? Then you would start casting through the Elizabethan landscape in search of a candidate. After you identified one, you would probably investigate the documentary records, and you would disqualify a candidate whose known activities were incompatible with the literary output. If you found a candidate who passed your preliminary tests, you would intensify your investigation to look for an historical document that confirmed authorship.

That scenario describes precisely what has been happening. Doubters have been testing their candidates, and those who believe that they have identified a viable candidate, supported by a circumstantial case, are looking for a “smoking gun”—hard evidence to prove authorship. Regardless of which candidate they have investigated, all skeptics have first rejected the man from Stratford. That is why most books about the authorship summarize the contradictions in the traditional biography before introducing a contender for the laurels. This book, however, is not concerned with evaluating any particular candidate. It is concerned with those who would never look at any candidate as long as their confidence in the official biography of William Shakspere remained unshaken. And it intends to shake that confidence.

Sacred Tradition

Despite orthodoxy’s claims to the contrary, numerous professors have raised questions about Shakespeare’s authorship, but their names (for example, Abel Lefranc or Pierre S. Porohovshikov) are unknown outside their respective academic communities. However, the general public does recognize the names of Charlie Chaplin, Daphne DuMaurier, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Derek Jacobi, Henry James, the Hon. John Paul Stevens, Mark Twain, and Walt Whitman—all of them anti-Stratfordian.

Nevertheless, the skeptics who question Shakespeare’s authorship are relatively few in number, and they do not speak for the majority of academic and literary professionals. Considering academia’s continued acceptance of the traditional biography, the question of authorship is understandably looked at with cynicism by the public at large. After all, these literary experts can’t all be wrong. And they are not out there organizing panel discussions on the subject. Apparently, they have not considered the questions raised by anti-Stratfordians to be serious or worthy of attention.

Still, the evidence was sufficiently compelling for PBS to dedicate a 1989 Frontline documentary to an examination of both William Shakspere and a front-running candidate, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. The episode was rebroadcast in 1997. In October 1991, the Atlantic published a cover story debate between an orthodox scholar and an Oxfordian. William F. Buckley, Jr. moderated a televised discussion for GTE in September 1992 which convened opposing views and took questions from a nationwide audience. Buckley confronted the issue again on Firing Line in 1994. Some of the publicity surrounding Shakespeare In Love touched on the authorship question, for instance, a story in Time magazine (15 February 1999) and a cover story debate in Harper’s (April 1999). Several books, such as Jonathan Bate’s The Genius of Shakespeare, have devoted some space to defending the traditional authorship. More recently, in Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (2010), James Shapiro attempted to discredit authorship skeptics and dismissed my primary argument as set forth in Chapter 8 (Shapiro, 243-4). However, despite the broadcasts, magazine articles, and a number of books over the years, there has been nothing resembling a vigorous public or academic debate on the subject.

Generally speaking, persistent questions and investigative efforts have come from those outside the fortresses of academia and literary criticism. Laypersons who ask penetrating questions about Shakespeare’s authorship frequently end up talking to each other more than to the academic community. For whatever reason, most academic and literary professionals have been reluctant to reconsider Shakespeare’s authorship, and that has left it largely to outsiders, that is, non-academics, to investigate the case.

The purpose of the investigation is simply to answer the question: Was William Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon the poet and playwright, or is the literary biography constructed around him a fiction? Whitman’s and Chaplin’s confidence in the traditional biography was shaken for one reason or another. Perhaps whatever shook their confidence justifies another look at the issues. This book re-examines the Shakespeare authorship question by analyzing the evidence from a skeptical perspective, freed from the constraints of preconceived notions. When unencumbered by prior assumptions about the playwright, one can follow the evidence wherever it leads, even if it leads to a surprisingly different Shakspere. . . .

Ed. Note 1: In Chapter 8 of Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, Diana Price continues her argument saying:

Some biographers have concluded that Shakespeare was the most celebrated writer of his day. Others have placed him second to Jonson in popularity and renown. And yet, Shakspere is the only alleged writer of any consequence from the period who left no personal contemporaneous records that prove that he wrote for a living. In contrast, the literary fragments left behind by Shakespeare’s lesser contemporaries yield more than a name on a title-page, a disembodied name in a list, or a play review.

The comparative chart that follows shows that the biography of Shakspere as a man of letters is unsupported by the sort of personal literary documentation found for any of his lesser contemporaries.

Scholars have retrieved literary fragments for those lesser contemporaries with far fewer man-hours and fewer research grants behind them. Still, in every case, the personal documents reveal writing as a vocation for the individuals in question. If we had the sort of evidence for Shakspere that we have for his colleagues—that is, straightforward, contemporaneous, and personal literary records for the man who allegedly wrote Shakespeare’s plays—there would be no authorship debate.

A Note on Criteria

Various historians, scholars and biographers have set forth criteria, or illustrated the criteria with examples, to distinguish between contemporary and posthumous evidence; personal and impersonal evidence; explicit and ambiguous evidence; literary and nonliterary evidence; firsthand and secondhand testimony or hearsay, and so on. Among these historians and biographers included in the bibliography are Richard D. Altick and John J. Fenstermaker, Paula R. Backscheider, T. A. Dunn, Arthur Freeman, H. B. George, Robert D. Hume, John Huntington, Paul Murray Kendall, Harold Love, Anthony G. Petti, William Ringler, Chauncery Sanders, Gladys Doidge Willcock and Alice Walker, and Robert C. Williams. More sources with several pages of citations are on the author’s website (“Criteria”).

With the exception of category 10, the following chart (use slider below chart to see all the writers studied) compares personal literary records left by Elizabethan and Jacobean writers during their lifetimes, with at least one record extant for any category marked “Yes.” It is intended to demonstrate the literary quality of evidence for the two dozen writers. Category 10 includes evidence dating up to twelve months following death, to allow for eulogies and reports of death. Category 8 is intended as a catch-all, so that any qualifying literary paper trail will find a home on the chart.

    Ben Jonson Thomas Nashe Samuel Daniel Edmund Spencer Philip Massinger George Peele Gabriel Harvey Michael Drayton George Chapman William Drummond John Marston Anthony Munday Robert Greene John Lyly Thomas Heywood Thomas Lodge Thomas Middleton Thomas Dekker Thomas Watson Francis Beaumont John Fletcher Thomas Kyd John Webster Christopher Marlowe William Shakespeare
1 Evidence of education Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
2 Record of correspondence, especially concerning literary matters Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
3 Evidence of having been paid to write Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
4 Evidence of a direct relationship with a patron Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
5 Original manuscript extant Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
6 Handwritten inscriptions, receipts, letters etc. touching on literary matters Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes   Yes Yes Yes   Yes Yes
7 Commendatory verses, epistles, or epigrams contributed or received Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
8 Personally referred to as a writer; misc. records Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
9 Evidence of books owned, borrowed, or given Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes
10 Notice at death as a writer Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes Yes

Endnotes to this chart can be found on pages 314-22 of the paperback edition. Full bibliographical details are on pages 323-54.

Ed. Note 2: Additional materials on this subject can be found on Diana Price’s personal website at

For the record, a version of the first chapter also appeared on the PBS website.


[1] Since Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography attempts to show that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was not the author of the works that have come down to us under that name, I use “Shakespeare” when talking about the writer whose literary works have come down to us under that name, and “Shakspere” when referring to the man from Stratford.


*Diana Price is an independent scholar who has published her widely respected Shakespearean research in numerous journals including The Review of English Studies (Oxford University Press), Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama, and The Elizabethan Review. Based in the U.S., she is the author of the book Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Greenwood Press, 2001, 2012).

Copyright © 2018 Diana Price
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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