Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies

By Elizabeth Winkler
416 pp. New York: Simon & Schuster

Reviewed by Don Rubin*

When American cultural writer Elizabeth Winkler published a free-lance article in the venerable and well-respected journal The Atlantic four years ago speculating rather innocently that Shakespeare’s plays were more than simply feminist-inflected and suggested that maybe Shakespeare was actually a woman using a male pseudonym, she quickly found herself under attack from those who prefer Shakespeare just the way he has been traditionally portrayed: as a barely-educated provincial male.

Traditional Stratfordians, of course, seem to ignore the fact that the writer — whose female characters are often seen reading in the plays or showing off their erudition as cross-dressing lawyers or even (like Gertrude and Cleopatra) running countries as Queens — never actually bothered to teach his own daughters to read or write. How dare one question the rags-to-riches Stratfordian creation myth? Or anything else that might seem slightly off about the man from Stratford as the world’s greatest author.

Things like the dating of the plays which — shoe-horned into the dates of the Stratford man – require us to believe that he wrote two to three full-length plays a year (in iambic pentameter for good measure) for 17 consecutive years all while occasionally acting.  And then, while in retirement for another six years back in provincial Stratford, wrote not a poem or even a letter to anyone. Nor did he keep a single manuscript. Or when this most famous writer died, the theatre world in London (still producing his plays) took absolutely no notice. No eulogies. No nothing. A silence which lasted seven years until the two sons of Mary Sidney (one of them married to the daughter of the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere) published a collection of Shakespeare’s plays — the First Folio. Add into this, the fact that the well-researched life of the Stratford man shows not a stitch of documented proof that he was actually a writer. Yes, there was a writer named Shakespeare. Yes, there was a man from Stratford named Shakspere. But were they one and the same?

It was into this loaded mousetrap that Winkler walked with her speculations about Shakespeare possibly being a woman named Emilia Bassano. After publication of her magazine article, Stratfordians round the world went wild. Some actually going to her editors to demand corrections and apologies.

And that was when Winkler’s journalistic instincts took over. She quickly realized that she had become part of what was a larger story and that larger story was not that Shakespeare had genuine feminist leanings but that anyone even hinting that someone other than the man from Stratford could have written the plays was not just to result in a wrist-slap from academe but was to be seen as akin to religious heresy. Thus the sub-title of Winkler’s book on what happened after her wallop: “How doubting the Bard became the biggest taboo in literature.”

I think every writer in the world should want to know how this situation came about and why, as should everyone who traffics in the works of Shakespeare whether as director or actor or anything in between. Winkler’s splendid book offers hours of absolutely fascinating reading on the subject of what is essentially academic censorship. Its impressive research and bubbling prose will actually make this subject come alive for anyone with even a modicum of theatrical or historical curiosity.

This is certainly the most accessible short history I know of the evolution of things such as Shakespeare Studies, English Literature as an academic field and what is called the Shakespeare Authorship Question. How did an oeuvre of writings from the 16th century in England grow over 400 years into a national industry, one now protected with a fundamentalist ferocity by anglophone academics who willingly serve as a sort of scholarly Swiss Guard. In this most amusing yet intellectually troubling volume, Winkler asks why, in a world where diversity of thought is queen, it has become so intellectually explosive to even talk about research-based alternative ideas related to Shakespearean authorship. Why such historical research is responded to with knee-jerk epithets comparing it (usually without looking into it) to UFO sightings, Flat Eartherism and doubting the holocaust?

The most coherent reason for refusing to look into the historical substance of the issue is, of course, because “We have the works. Who cares who wrote them?” Fair enough. And true enough. But if research proved that, say, James Baldwin actually wrote the works of Arthur Miller would that not change interpretations or enrich understandings of them? As if learning (as we have in recent decades) that Bertolt Brecht’s works were not created alone by this German poet but were actually the result of many hands, often many uncredited female hands, would that not make us rethink some of the ideas behind at least some of the many important plays that boast the Brecht hallmark?

Winkler’s book begins with the simplest of questions: “who has the authority to determine the truth about the past?” Given that the answer would normally be historians, she then wonders why, in the case of Shakespeare, such authority seems to be only in the hands of “Shakespeare scholars, a small but highly prestigious subset of English literature professors…[whose] prestige derives from their specialty. They are priests…of the highest god – the god who gives English literature its very raison d’etre….interpreting and mediating for the masses the meaning of Shakespeare…glow[ing] with the radiance cast by his rays.” And for them, she says clearly, “the theory that William Shakespeare might not have written the works published under his name – does not exist.”

Winkler’s quest to understand this anomalous approach to history is comprised of a combination of her own literary and historical research (she has degrees from Princeton and Stanford) and through interviews by those very authorities to try and understand why the authorship question is a heresy akin to denying a god. Among those she approaches is the high priest of Stratfordianism – Prof. Stanley Wells, Emeritus Director of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, a man who actually stated publicly in 2011 that “It is immoral to question history and to take credit away from William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.” To which Winkler asks incredulously: “Immoral to question history – when inquiry is the very basis of the historical discipline?” (18).

She also meets with some of the leading heretics, prefacing those encounters by quoting Mark Twain, who once said: “So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon never wrote a play in his life. His biography is built up, course upon course, of guess, inferences, theories, conjectures – an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rising sky-high….Facts and presumption are…all the same…..” (54-5). Twain, of course, was not alone in his doubts. Among others are such notable 19th century intellectuals as Helen Keller, Sigmund Freud, Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne and, in the last hundred years, actor-directors such as Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Tyrone Guthrie, Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance.

Between interviews, we are taken briefly through the lives of the major authorship candidates – William of Stratford, himself of course, but also Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon. She adds in as well Emilia Bassano – the Italian musician and psalmstress who got Winkler into such trouble with The Atlantic.

The history really is fascinating. It was David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee where Bardolatry emerged, when Shakespeare began to be “held up as proof of Britain’s cultural superiority—of its right to rule….the mutually reinforcing mythologies of the nation and its poet, the empire and its hero-god….[when] the idea of Shakespeare would become inseparable from the idea of Britain itself…” (111).  

The purchase at auction in 1847 of the house on Henley Street in Stratford-upon-Avon that Shakespeare was supposedly born in (without proof) added in still another layer of veneration. To be “purchased for the nation” by a hand-picked committee of Shakespeare scholars with funding donated by the public, the auction room was apparently  “packed with people who wished to be deceived….They knew it was an illusion, but they loved the illusion. It was a beautiful illusion. Plus, the illusion made good economic sense. The purchase…solidified Stratford-upon-Avon as a tourist mecca”  (129-31).

Her research includes some history of English literature itself as an academic subject. “At the beginning of the nineteenth century, there were no English departments and no such thing as a degree in English literature….Around the mid-nineteenth century, however…a discipline called English literature arose, founded on and formed around Shakespeare. It arose, first and foremost as a substitute for religion….” (147).

“While Europe was full of students ‘liable to dangerous explosions of political feeling’…the men and women of Britain…[were to be] immersed in the ‘civilising, softening charms of the noblest literature in the world.’ …. women were agitating for education. They needed to be placated….English seemed a ‘convenient sort of non-subject to palm off on the ladies….”

“There was a third group, too, that the Victorians sought to control: the natives that they conquered….Armed with Shakespeare, secure in a sense of their national identity and cultural superiority, they could venture forth to impose their higher civilization on the natives….English was institutionalized at the height of the Victorian deification of Shakespeare, swapping the old Judeo-Christian God for one that Britain had ready at hand….” (151).

But as Shakespeare became more god-like, some began to dissent from the common view. “In 1848, a minor American novelist named Joseph Hart suggested that “Shakespeare was a ‘mere factotum of the theatre’ and a ‘vulgar and uneducated man.’ The plays were collaborative works produced by educated writers whose identities had simply been lost…” (153).

Another American, Delia Bacon began arguing in this same period “that the true authors were a group of courtiers led by Francis Bacon” (154). She blamed literary critics especially for not looking deeply into the issue saying that when it comes to Shakespeare they simply “veil their faces, filling the air with mystic utterances which seem to say, that, to this shrine at least…there is yet no admittance.” …Delia deconstructed the workings of the myth….the Baconian theory went global. From Italy to India and Serbia to South Africa writers debated the authorship question.”  By the end of the nineteenth century, the authorship question, we learn, “had become the literary controversy of the day, generating some 160 books, pamphlets, and articles….” (160-62).

Among Winkler’s interviews on both sides of the question are the Birthplace Trust’s Stanley Wells, actor-director Mark Rylance, Harvard professor Emerita Marjorie Garber, Oxfordian independent scholar Alexander Waugh, Marlowe scholar Ros Barber and Oxfordian scholar Roger Stritmatter, the latter the first person to get a doctorate based on an authorship subject (Edward de Vere’s Geneva Bible).

Ever polite but often frustrated, she approaches each of these people with an open mind and similar questions. Some of the interviewees come off well. Some do not. Wells, for instance, comes off quite badly arguing that authorship doubters are simply malicious people and especially malicious against the Birthplace Trust. Attacking the doubters’ motives rather than their research, Wells plays amateur psychologist suggesting that “it’s impossible to determine psychologically complex motives which may have their basis in class issues, sociological issues, even in jealousy.” He adds that independent scholar Alexander Waugh, grandson of novelist Evelyn Waugh, “seems to resent the fact that the Trust makes money….” Insisting that Stratfordian facts are all on his side, Wells says little more than that doubters such as Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir Mark Rylance (two of the world’s greatest Shakespearean actors) are both simply “bonkers” (177).

The interviews with Waugh and Rylance themselves are among the longest in the volume and among the most delicious because Winkler’s descriptions are always so right on. Waugh is described as “a classic in the venerable tradition of the English eccentric, with hair flying wildly around a bald crown like an electrocuted scientist” (223). An Oxfordian, Waugh calls the works of Shakespeare “not only his [Oxford’s] gift to mankind but atonement of his own sins” (239).

Mark Rylance, on the other hand, looks more widely and seems to favor “a collaborative view of the authorship” given the different genres being used and even the changes in the versification over the course of the plays. Interestingly, he feels if other candidates were allowed in, it could actually widen interest in the works generally. As he sees it, if another author were accepted, Stratford would not be abandoned because Will of Stratford would always have a place in the story. “It would be brilliant,” Rylance says, “if the Birthplace had exhibits devoted to the alternate candidates. Why not have bus trips to Oxford’s house and Bacon’s?” (288)

In the end, Winkler wonders what riches actually lay on the other side of uncertainty? What might be discovered if the authorship were truly open to academic study without fear of attack.

“We might gain a deeper understanding of the plays and poems” she says. “Of Renaissance history; of the nature of genius; of the relationship between life and art.”

The book closes with an oddly wonderful interview with a post-modern critic — retired Harvard Shakespeare professor Marjorie Garber. Refusing to term herself a Stratfordian, she insists here on being known simply as a Shakespearean, someone only interested in the works themselves, a position “entirely consistent with her post-modern approach to literature generally – the irrelevance of the author, the supremacy of the text” (333).

“If it came out that the author was someone else, you wouldn’t feel you have to rethink your interpretation of the plays in any way?” I asked.

“I rethink my interpretation of the plays every day,” she said.

“It wouldn’t make you go back and look at them differently knowing they came from a different person?”

“I don’t think of them as coming from a person,” she said. “I think of them as a text….”

But wasn’t she just a little bit curious? Didn’t she want to know the origin of the plays about which she clearly cared so deeply? I was baffled. We talked and talked and got nowhere. The sun set.

334

For Winkler, her long struggle here with the authorship issue ends not with a bang of new understanding but with a whimper of continuing bafflement at the refusal of so many intelligent people to even look at the issue. And that for her is ultimately the hardest nut of all to crack. The nut of dismissive and cultured indifference.

In the end, this new volume is not only a delightful read but, I truly think, an important one for theatre workers, literary scholars, critics and historians, the curious and even the committed. Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies is not just a generational challenge to a 400-year old issue about yet another dead white male but a gauntlet of sorts thrown down in front of a whole new generation daring them to commit to challenge old ideas with new approaches in even this most arcane of intellectual areas. 


*Don Rubin is Professor Emeritus of Theatre at Toronto’s York University and Editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Managing Editor and Book Review Editor of Critical Stages (critical-stages.org), he has been an active figure in the Shakespeare authorship movement since 2009.

Copyright © 2023 Don Rubin
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