Authorship debate

Portrait of a 16th century gentleman - but not Shakespeare. English school, oil on canvas, circa 1610 © RSC Collection

Professor Stanley Wells, Chairman of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, delves into the authorship debate surrounding the works traditionally attributed to the 'sweet swan of Avon', William Shakespeare.

A mass of evidence from his own time shows that a man called William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems of William Shakespeare. Much of it comes from public sources, such as many title pages of plays and poems published in his lifetime, and references in works by other writers such as Francis Meres, who in 1598 named Shakespeare as the author of twelve plays, and John Weever, who wrote a poem addressed to Shakespeare.

Other references come from manuscript sources, such as references in accounts of court performances, many entries in the Stationers' Register (a volume in which publishers and printers were required to register the works they intended to publish), a note about Hamlet by the writer Gabriel Harvey, and William Drummond's notes of his private conversations with Ben Jonson.

Explicit evidence that the Shakespeare who wrote the plays was the man of Stratford-upon-Avon is provided by his monument in Holy Trinity Church, which compares the man of Stratford with great figures of antiquity, by Ben Jonson's verses in the First Folio, which call him the 'sweet swan of Avon', and, also in the Folio, by verses by Leonard Digges which refer to his 'Stratford monument'. There is also much oblique evidence, such as the fact that visitors to Stratford during the seventeenth century sought to learn more about its most famous former inhabitant.

Equally there is nothing to show that anyone doubted Shakespeare's authorship until the late eighteenth century. Those who express doubts focus on the following propositions:
'The works are too learned to be the product of a man from Stratford who did not go to a university.'

This scepticism reflects ignorance of the grammar school curriculum of Shakespeare's time, which required pupils to write and speak in Latin and gave them a training in classical literature, rhetoric, and oratory entirely adequate for the composition of the works. Stratford contemporaries of Shakespeare, such as Richard Quiney, were demonstrably well versed in Latin.

'The plays show too much knowledge of foreign countries and aristocratic manners to have been written by a man of middle-class, provincial origins.'
This ignores the amount of knowledge that could be absorbed from books and conversations and under-estimates the social mobility of the period.

'Unequivocal references to the Shakespeare of Stratford in local records in his lifetime (i.e. excluding the monument) do not identify him as a writer.'
This is true (though a College of Heralds document of 1602 about his father's grant of arms refers to 'Shakespeare the player') but irrelevant. There was no reason why legal officials in Stratford should mention what he did in London.

Replacement Shakespeares have ranged, absurdly, from Queen Elizabeth I to Daniel Defoe. All suggestions rely on conspiracy theory, that is, the notion that people conspired both to conceal the true author and to shift responsibility for authorship on to someone else, usually Shakespeare the actor; at the same time, it is hypothesized that the same people managed somehow to plant tiny clues that would not be discovered until centuries had passed. It may seem improbable that anyone should wish to disclaim authorship of the greatest plays ever written and to credit a minor actor with them. It might also be thought unlikely that the true authorship could have been concealed for many years from the large number of people involved in putting on plays in public theatres. It is, however, in the nature of conspiracy theories that they can neither be proved nor disproved.

In recent years the most popular replacement Shakespeares have been Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593), and Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604). Even if there were no grounds to doubt Shakespeare's authorship, there are many strong arguments against each candidate.

Francis Bacon was an industrious statesman and lawyer with a vast output in both Latin and English, all of which display an analytical mentality completely different from that which produced the works of Shakespeare.

Christopher Marlowe's death in 1593 is one of the best documented events in English literary history. Those who believe that he wrote Shakespeare's plays have to suppose that he did not really die but went into hiding for over a quarter of a century, leaving no trace of his own identity but somehow supplying to the public theatres a succession of plays which were passed off as having been written by Shakespeare.

The Earl of Oxford died in 1604; his adherents propose that he left at his death a supply of plays which unspecified persons gradually released to the theatre company until around 1613, when the supply dried up. This inherently absurd idea is incompatible with a variety of evidence showing that Shakespeare was writing plays after 1604, such as the indebtedness of The Tempest to travel writings not available until 1610. Moreover, Francis Meres, in 1598, mentions Oxford in addition to Shakespeare.

The phenomenon of disbelief in Shakespeare's authorship is a psychological aberration of considerable interest. Endorsement of it in favour of aristocratic candidates may be ascribed to snobbery - reluctance to believe that works of genius could emanate from a man of relatively humble origin - an attitude that would not permit Marlowe to have written his own works, let alone Shakespeare's. Other causes include ignorance; poor sense of logic; refusal, wilful or otherwise, to accept evidence; folly; the desire for publicity; and even (as in the sad case of Delia Bacon, who hoped to open Shakespeare's grave in 1856) certifiable madness.


(The image above shows a portrait of a 16th century gentleman from the RSC Collection - but it's not Shakespeare. English school, oil on canvas, circa 1610 © RSC Collection)

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