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William Shakespeare

Plays, poetry
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Greatest Literature

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594)

Romeo and Juliet (c.1596)

Henry IV, Part 1 (1597)

The Merchant of Venice (c.1597)

Julius Caesar (1599)

Hamlet (1601)

Othello (1604)

Macbeth (c.1606)

King Lear (c.1606)

Sonnets (c.1609)

The Tempest (1611)

Greatest Plays

The Taming of the Shrew (1591)

Richard III (1592)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1594)

Richard II (1597)

Romeo and Juliet (c.1596)

Love's Labour's Lost (1597)

Henry IV, Part 1 (1597)

Henry IV, Part 2 (1597)

The Merchant of Venice (c.1597)

Much Ado About Nothing (1598–1599)

As You Like It (1599)

Henry V (1599)

Julius Caesar (1599)

Hamlet (1601)

Twelfth Night (1601)

Measure for Measure (1604)

Othello (1604)

Macbeth (c.1606)

King Lear (c.1606)

Coriolanus (c.1603)

The Winter's Tale (1611)

The Tempest (1611)

Henry VIII (1597)

Fantasy Fiction

The Tempest (1611)

William Shakespeare


Who really wrote those plays?

The Shakespeare authorship controversy has once more been raised in the early years of the twenty-first century. I'm referring to the claims that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, England, did not write the plays attributed to him.

This is a far less serious—and more fun—conspiracy theory than many others today, such as claims that 9/11 was an inside job, or that a new world order is being organized by shadowy international figures, or that governments are hiding evidence of extraterrestrial visitation to earth. After all, it probably doesn't matter much to classical theatre-goers or students reading those Elizabethan plays who really wrote them.

But a look at this apparent controversy does demonstrate some of the factors involved in all such conspiracy theories. (And this is a conspiracy theory, as many people must have conspired to hide the true identity of the plays' author, if the claims be true.)

The latest resurgence of interest in the authorship question comes about because a prominent group of individuals, calling itself the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, has issued a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare". They are pressing for major research into what they call a "taboo subject" in academia.

Now, as you may know from my previous articles on issues of belief, as a skeptic I have to think it is at least possible Shakespeare did not write the plays published under his name. Some small room should always be left for doubt regarding our long-held beliefs. There should always be a willingness to consider new evidence.

However, the evidence favouring anyone else as author of the plays attributed to Shakespeare is far slighter than that favouring the Stratfordian (that is, William Shakespeare himself). Laughably so.

But let's be serious and open-minded. Let us consider the latest evidence of the anti-Stratfordians.

Where does this evidence come from?

The coalition has a website where it presents its case and invites supporters to sign the declaration. As I check it at the time of this writing, it has an impressive list of names attached.

And who are all these scholars pressing the case? Some do indicate their credentials. It seems many are affiliated with universities, though most do not seem to be in positions associated with expertise on historical or literary matters. An investment analyst, a former professor of neurology, a librarian, a professor of radiology, a retired ROTC commandant, and so on. Quite a few people also list their credentials as "skeptics" (in the sense of being skeptical about Shakespeare being the author of the plays), or identify themselves as authors of anti-Stratfordian books, or note they are heads of organizations supporting other contenders as the playwright. My favourite is the self-described "8th Marquess of Exeter, 17th Earl of Exeter, 18th Baron Burghley". Granted, on the list are a few professors of literature, who might be considered experts—but they are swamped by people who seem, judging by their comments, to be enthusiasts.

But that's okay. Everyone has the right to an opinion and we can't judge a proposition entirely by those who sign on to support it. When we look at the shorter list of "notable signatories" and the group's board of directors, we fare a little better. Famed classical actor Derek Jacobi is most noteworthy. Also prominent is Mark Rylance, former artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. And I count one professor of history and four professors of English or comparative literature, among a much greater number of academics with standing in library science, public health, education, medicine, theatre, law and psychology.

I'm struck by the parallel to paranormal and alt-med causes in which academics with expertise in one field are trotted out to support claims in other areas in which they have little, if any, qualifications. It seems that every conspiracy theory is able to come up with a list of prominent names to support its cause, whether or not those individuals have any inside information.

The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition also lists some "past doubters", including Orson Welles, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William James, Charlie Chaplin and Sigmund Freud. Again I am struck by the fact that few, if any, of these did any major research into the issue apart from reading a book or two by anti-Stratfordians. Even as listed on the site, some make poor supporters, indicating in their own words they are not necessarily doubters about Shakespeare's authorship but they just wonder about the issue.

But let's not be petty. With the list of current names, such as it is, the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, has got our attention. We'll bear in mind that the great majority of respected figures who are knowledgeable in the field discount those claims, but we'll move on to consider their arguments and evidence. It is not inconceivable that the majority of experts could be wrong.

The 'new' arguments

The coalition wants to have the supposedly taboo issue of Shakespearean authorship opened to study, not seeming to realize that, far from being prohibited, the topic has been studied to death for a century now. They raise the same points that have already been raised and answered:

• They claim there is no evidence Shakespeare of Stratford was literate or received an education that would have allowed him to become a writer of some sophistication. At another point, they claim Shakespeare could hardly write his own name.

On the contrary, it has been well established that Shakespeare likely received the same grammar school education as other young Stratfordites and was exposed to what were considered classics of literature at the time. There may be "no evidence" that he attended the local school because no records of attendance from that time are available, but neither is there any reason to doubt he attended, as would have been normal at the time.

• The coalition answers that this education could not have given him the "extensive knowledge of law, philosophy, classical literature, ancient and modern history, mathematics, astronomy, art, music, medicine, horticulture, heraldry, military and naval terminology and tactics...." shown in his works.

The first answer to this is that writers, especially those of genius, are typically very quick studies, able to pick up terminology and odds bits of knowledge to present the impression of familiarity with other fields in their works. It's one of the things that writers do. Take even the average pot-boiling best-seller on the market today: do you think the author was formally trained in medicine, espionage techniques, Alpine mountaineering, weaponry, international business, foreign affairs, etc.?

The second answer is that the textbooks of the school in Stratford where Shakespeare is thought to have attended did indeed teach the classical stories (a lot of Ovid, for example) that were later used in Shakespeare's poems and plays. The local school was well-funded and provided a better-than-average training in the Latin classics and British histories from which the future playwright would draw many of his plots.

The third answer—and the closer in my opinion—is that Shakespeare doesn't really show such amazing specialized knowledge in his work! I've never seen a philosophical or legal argument cited professionally from Shakespeare's works. I've never heard of a military commander studying his plays for insights into battlefield strategy. And so on, for all the fields in which the playwright supposedly shows "extensive knowledge". He really does not show expert insight in any these fields.

Rather, like most authors, he shows a smattering of knowledge that any talented generalist may acquire—and a keen ability to pick out intriguing tidbits, as befits a popular writer. Sorry, coalition, but there's just "no evidence" on your side here.

• How could such a commoner have shown intimate familiarity with royal court life in his plays? Or with foreign countries like Italy? The coalition's declaration asks, "How did he become so familiar with all things Italian that even obscure details in these plays are accurate?"

But he didn't show such intimate familiarity with these matters! And he wasn't so accurate. Is there really such deep insight into how the court of Henry IV operated in the two plays covering that reign? Rather there's deep insight into family relationships and into how people deal with responsibility and guilt, all of which are placed in the popular court setting. But I don't see any privileged information about the royal family. Historians seem to agree that his writing did not accurately portray court life or history. We readers and play-goers don't mind, because it's the human drama we want to experience, not a history lesson.

In fact, he shows in those plays a greater familiarity with lower-class life. Witness his lively treatment of the criminal activity and drunken carousing of the rascally Falstaff and the errant Hal with their wenches in the pubs—something that is difficult to see pulled off by the aristocrats like the earls of Oxford and Derby, who are put forward as contenders to have written the plays.

As for his depiction of Italy, Shakespeare—far from being uncannily accurate—made mistakes about that country in his plays that could better be presented as evidence that he didn't know it firsthand—such as when he placed the landlocked city of Milan on the sea!

In any case, this was the period of the Italian-centred Renaissance, during which information about that country and its culture was widely available and lapped up in England. There is no information in the Shakespearean canon that was not commonly available in London, England.

• Shakespeare's will "contains no clearly Shakespearean turn of phrase and mentions no books, plays, poems, or literary effects of any kind."

Why would it? Legal documents are hardly the place for poetic imagery. The theatre company had the rights to his plays, so he couldn't have left them to anyone.

Then there's my favourite argument from the declaration:

• Shakespeare's six known signatures are "shaky, inconsistent" and reveal he "experienced difficulty signing his name".

This is my favourite because my own signature is also terribly written, inconsistent and seldom appearing the same twice. So is this evidence that I'm not really me? Or just that I'm bad at handwriting, especially when it comes to something hastily scrawled.

Shakespeare wrote at a time when consistent handwriting was not valued as it became in later centuries. Moreover, the three shakiest of Shakespeare's six known signatures are on his will, signed less than month before he died when it is thought he may have been ill, weak and suffering tremors.

The coalition makes many more charges, all of which are easily answered without having to discard Stratfordian authorship.

Wherefore art thou Shakespeare?

The group is clever though not to put forward an alternative, although many of its individual supporters do present their own contenders for the bard's title.

And here's the biggest failing of the anti-Stratfordians: none of the alternatives stand up to scrutiny. In the first place, there is zero positive evidence for their authorships. Not a single play carries any of their names as playwright. No critical comments of the time connect their names with the works. No other writers refer to them in that way. No memoirs exist to confess the hoax. No disputed plays exist in their handwriting (which is held against Shakespeare in some cases but seems not to be important when assessing the alternatives).

On the other hand, on William Shakespeare's side, we know of at least twenty-three times that William Shakespeare's name appeared in documents as a writer or playwright during his lifetime. His work was several times criticized, parodied and discussed with his name being referred to as author. His name appeared as the writer on fourteen of the fifteen plays published during his lifetime, as well as appearing seven years after his death on a collection of thirty-six plays published by his colleagues (the famous First Folio, which carried the official name of Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories and Tragedies).

The first Folio also offers a prefacing poem "To the Reader" by England's poet laureate Ben Jonson commending the works to readers, referring to Shakespeare by name. Three other writers also presented eulogies to Shakespeare. In the 20 years after his death Shakespeare was remembered in print by at least 12 poets and playwrights.

So, during his lifetime and for many years afterwards, Shakespeare was widely recognized as author of the works. And not a breath of suspicion fell upon any other candidate.

Also you may notice that, although thousands of websites deny the Stratfordian authorship, they offer a bewildering variety of alternative theories. Nearly 100 putative authors of the Shakespearean canon are put forward: Edward de Vere (the Earl of Oxford), scientist Francis Bacon, William Stanley (Earl of Derby), writer Christopher Marlowe, Jonson, and even Queen Elizabeth I, among them.

The coalition as a whole wisely stays out of the debate among these contenders. But you have to wonder how much credibility can we give any one alternative theory when a dozen others seem to fit just as easily?

Which is, actually, not very easily. The facts often have to be twisted quite a bit to fit some of the contenders. Sometimes we are asked to make additional speculative leaps to make them match.

For example, the case for Christopher Marlowe is hurt by the troublesome fact that he was killed in 1593, just as Shakespeare's career was taking off. No problem for die-hard Markovian though: they just postulate that Marlowe faked his death in 1593 and went to Italy where he continued to write.

The leading contender these days, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, is known to have died in 1604, despite Shakespeare's plays being dated up to at least 1611. For Stratfordian, the response to this difficulty is to presume that all the literary researchers are wrong about the dating and that the Shakespearean canon ended in 1604.

Does this methodology sound familiar to ghost-busting, ESP-debunking, UFO-exposing skeptics? We've found so many times that when people believe strongly in something that is not supported by the simplest facts, they will create more complicated scenarios to accommodate their beliefs. This is natural. Long-held beliefs are difficult to give up.

A funny thing sometimes also happens when people fight for their seemingly discredited beliefs against all comers. As they create more complicated rationalizations, they come to believe more strongly.

Best. Concealed. Secret. Ever.

We may also ask how it could be that during Shakespeare's lifetime and for years afterwards, not a single person seems to have revealed a scrap of information about this incredible hoax. Think of how many people must have been involved, either actively or as observers: Shakespeare of Stratford, his family, his friends, his fellow actors, his colleagues, plus the "real" author's family, his fellow writers, his patrons, his publishers....

Hundreds, if not thousands, of people must have at least known about it and yet not a single one squealed. Not even a tiny bit. Not even after the man's (the real or purported author's) death!

What a really brilliant and all-encompassing conspiracy it must have been. One that is perpetuated to this day by close-minded academics. Or so the conspirators think.

Sure, the academic majority could be wrong. It wouldn't be the first time. It is possible the Shakespearean plays were not written by the man from Stratford. But to judge by the evidence available, the Stratfordian hypothesis is overwhelmingly the more likely one.

Or, to stretch out the usual joke:

Evidence shows Shakespeare's plays were really written by someone with the same name, from the same town and with the same genius.

What an incredible conspiracy.