On the face of it, Who wrote the plays of “Shakespeare”? is not an interesting question. The answer is “Shakespeare.” People will make objections and say “what if?” or “isn’t it true that…?” But these are easily answered. I used to get asked this question quite a lot. Comes with the territory of working towards (and subsequently being awarded) a doctorate in English literature. Specifically in the time-period in which Shakespeare lived and worked. Another question I got asked a lot was “when did the word ‘fuck’ originate?” But that’s another story.
Why we’re Even Talking about this Shakespeare Authorship Stuff
I used to roll my eyes at the Shakespeare-authorship question. Partly I was tired of answering it. Partly I was tired of the question itself. But then I realized that most of the people asking this question did not know much about the period. And those who knew something about the period did not know much about how history works; about what you can and cannot prove using historical evidence. So I started answering. Because if you give people a framework in which to think about a question like this, you can actually undo, or head off, a lot of harm. Unfortunately, this is also the structure under which people ask lots of questions of People of Color, Trans people, etc. And they answer those questions partly out of fear that if they don’t the questioners will get their information from a bigoted source.
I’m not putting the Shakespeare authorship question on the same level with what Trans folk and PoC have to go through. But I do think that using a relatively harmless question like this to talk about how historical evidence works and how arguments works and how conspiracy theories are poison… benefits everyone.
So my job isn’t to defend Shakespeare or to martyr myself to other people’s questions or anything like that. But I did learn to take pleasure in using the non-question of Shakespeare’s authorship to talk to people about how historical evidence works. And how English literary culture worked some four hundred years ago.
The Shakespeare Authorship Question, TL;DR
Before we get started, the short answer, the tl;dr, if you will, is this: no-one ever questioned the authenticity of Shakespeare’s plays until the mid-1800s. There is no direct evidence that Shakespeare did not write the plays he is credited with. Nor is there any direct evidence that anyone else did write them. Yes, a scene or even an act might have been parceled out to a colleague. Such collaboration was common. But any play that had Shakespeare’s name on it? It’s reasonable to assume it has mostly his writing inside.
The idea that it might have been someone else is based on the notion that a member of the nobility could not openly associate with the theater (this part is true) except as a patron. Plays, including the work of Shakespeare, were not the sophisticated stuff they are today. So, the (shaky) theory goes, if a member of the nobility were besotted with the idea of writing plays, they could only do so anonymously or through a pseudonym. Or by employing a large and cumbersome conspiracy to pretend that this other guy wrote them. Except. Lots of nobles wrote poetry and circulated it in manuscript. And some wrote closet-drama, which is a play that would be performed for friends but not for a paying public. It’s a cool idea. Some noble wants so much to be in the theater that he would go to any length?
But it falls apart if you touch it.
The most common argument I see is: There’s no evidence Shakespeare attended grammar school. There’s no evidence he learned to write. That sounds pretty bold right? You wouldn’t know to hear such argument that there’s no evidence ANYONE from his town attended the FREE grammar school that was PRACTICALLY IN HIS BACK YARD. It’s that kind of argument I’d like to head off if I can. If you have a hypothesis, good for you. But in order to stand by your hypothesis, you need to be able to make arguments that work as arguments. We also have no REAL evidence Shakespeare had 2 ears, a nose, and a mouth. Not everyone has all of those things. And the portraits of him were drawn post-mortem. But in the absence of other evidence, it’s the simplest assumption.
Dead or in Politics
For instance. What do all of the leading candidates for “the real Shakespeare” have in common? They were all busy doing something else at just the moment when they would supposedly have spent hours a day writing plays and perhaps even supervising their production. Francis Bacon was busy inventing science and running the British government. Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford were busy being dead. Oh but wait! Marlowe faked his death! And the Earl of Oxford wrote a bunch of plays to be performed after he had passed on! And so it goes. We’ve seen conspiracy theories before. We live with them every day. This one is fairly tame as they go. But there’s still something sinister about it. Why can’t Shakespeare just be Shakespeare?
Because that’s what it boils down to. Why can’t the thing that nobody seems to have disputed at the time just be the thing that was? People come up with all sorts of ways in which they can prove that someone did dispute Shakespeare’s authorship at the time. And there I do invoke my right to roll my eyes and move on. Because these arguments tend to be complicated ways of saying: a middle class nobody from the West Midlands could not have written so knowledgeably about court politics and Italian nobility and so on.
As if there weren’t books about nobles and Italians for him to reference. And as if the people writing political thrillers nowadays are all the Representative of this or the Minister of that. It’s fine to have a hypothesis. But as Shakespeare’s apparent alter ego Francis Bacon liked to say: you need to test your hypothesis to see if it makes sense. And if it doesn’t? Well…
The Shakespeare Authorship Question Boils Down to Snootiness. And Attempts at Biographical Arguments
So the basis for every Shakespearean authorship argument I’ve ever seen has been textual and biographical in nature: The author of this play, which includes this tidbit, must have had this background. Must have had extensive connections to the court. Must have been a scholar. Extensive area-knowledge of Italy. A woman, so as to write such plausible female characters. And so on. So we end up with conjectured biographies of Shakespeare that include: a nobleman with documented ties to the theater, a man of letters, an Italian-Jewish woman.
Biographical arguments are a touchy business in literary scholarship. You can make a lot of dodgy claims based on supposed biographical necessity. What if we note the prevalence and prominence of fools in Shakespeare’s plays and conjecture that Shakespeare himself was a court-fool? Or what if we note the number of ghosts in his plays and conjecture that Shakespeare himself was a ghost? After a while we’re just denying the possibility that a writer can write about something they haven’t directly experienced. And that is a losing argument.
That’s It. End of Article.
Anyway. That’s the short(ish) answer. That there just isn’t a lot of reason to think it was someone other than the son of John Shakespeare, who was a glover and Bailiff (equivalent to Mayor) of Stratford. Sure there isn’t a lot of argument in favor, but there wouldn’t be, would there? Unless you were an important person at court, they didn’t keep your records. And Shakespeare’s reputation, however excellent, didn’t really cross the boundary into worship until the 1800s. It turns out one of the things the Romantics were Romantic about was Renaissance Literature. Actually it’s the 19th century that gave us some of our most enduring myths about the European Renaissance, though perhaps that’s a story for another time.
But Wait… There’s More: Lack of Historical Records, Lack of Historical Context
But yeah. That lack of records really bothers people. But why should it? By the time Shakespeare crossed from popularity into idolatry, a lot of records were no longer available. Another issue that these arguments run afoul of is: a lot of understanding of how a play would have been written and produced is also no longer widely available. So So I’m going to discuss a plausible scenario of how a Joe Average from the West Midlands became the most celebrated poet in English literary history.
How Shakespeare became Shakespeare: The Grammar School Years
Let’s start with the basics. How did he learn to write plays so well? Well. It’s a funny story. You see, at the time, the basic curriculum at school was in Latin, not English. And it was all about reading plays. I know that sounds weird to someone from our era. But you have to remember that, back then, Latin was a useful skill for both business and politics. You could use it to communicate with similarly educated people from other countries. You could use it to read or write a book intended for a general European audience (like Thomas More’s Utopia or Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Praise of Folly).
The idea of language didn’t exist back then as it does now. You didn’t learn modern languages in the systematic way we do these days. You learned Latin and did your best to apply what you learned to English, French, Italian… Think back to the spots in Jane Austen novels where the lady of the house decrees that for a few hours, all conversation will take place in French.
So the curriculum was in Latin. And for whatever reason, the dramatic poetry of Plautus, Terence, and Seneca were among the earliest things a boy would learn at school. Is that a good system? It’s not for us to judge. What it means, though, is that any boy who spent a few years at the free Latin grammar school in Stratford (or at any of the schools with equivalent curriculum elsewhere in England) would have that many years of practice translating plays and speeches from Latin to English and then back again.
The Playwright’s Enduring Fondness for Privy Humor in General and Plautus in Particular
Roger Ascham writes about it in his manual The Scholemaster, published in 1570. Ascham even recommends against giving the children the more scandalous passages to translate. Though apparently Shakespeare found a way to read those anyway, whether at the time or when he got older. It’s from this circumstance that we arrive at the first biographical argument I’m actually willing to make about Shakespeare.
If you read through the plays, you find that the author has retained a schoolboy’s fondness for what I’ll call Plautine comedy. Plautus was famously sexual. And frequently gross. All of his comedies (if he wrote anything besides comedic plays, they don’t survive) feature secret sexual liaisons, servants leading their masters by the nose, scatological humor, gender-play. In other words, all of the comedic notes you’ll typically hear Shakespeare hit in one of his own plays.
Now. What can we deduce from this biographical argument? Does it favor one candidate or eliminate another? No, not really. Plautus was to them like Shakespeare is to us. They read him early and often. So a commoner’s son and a nobleman’s son (maybe even the daughters! I make no promises!) would both be familiar with the old Roman comedies. Small wonder, then, that the theater of Shakespeare’s time is STUFFED with commoner’s sons. Thomas Middleton was a bricklayer’s son. Ben Jonson was a bricklayer’s stepson. (Different bricklayer, I think. Probably.)
The Word “Bardolatry” Makes me Gag a Little Bit
Actually, this nonsense about idolizing Shakespeare is probably where the Shakespeare authorship conspiracies arose from. Makes sense. That’s why the hero-worship and the authorship controversies surface within a few decades of each other. Poets and other admirers crafted this image of Shakespeare as a transcendent wit: poet, philosopher, linguist. The plays were built up to be larger-than-life and so the author had to also be larger than life. How disappointing, then, that the actual author was just some dude from just some town. But this kind of reconstruction is the equivalent of questioning whether J.R.R. Tolkien was the author of The Lord of the Rings, given the paucity of evidence that he’d ever been to Middle Earth.
So the antidote to this whole mess is to do what we’re doing. Imaginatively construct for ourselves a version of Shakespeare who can write very well and who knows what makes a good play. And who doesn’t need to have had the learning and courtly connections of Francis Bacon combined with the Italian area-knowledge of Emilia Bassano Lanier.
Anyway this brings us to the question: What is so good about Shakespeare? What skills did he have, really? Did he have intimate knowledge of court? A mastery of modern languages? A really bitchin’ mustache? A lot of the skills he supposedly demonstrates can be faked either through the magic of fiction or through working with collaborators. People point to the scene in Henry V in which the French Princess is learning English words, including the resemblance of the English word “foot” to the French word “foutre.” They point to that scene and cite it as evidence that Shakespeare spoke French. And maybe he did. Yet I write stories that include words from languages I don’t know. All the time.
Shakespeare lived in London. Even if he only knew enough French to order a loaf of bread, he could have asked his fellow actors and playwrights to help him write that scene. The same goes for his supposed knowledge of Italy. There were no books about Italy? There were no Italians living in London? None that he could talk to? We know of at least one (an Englishman of Italian descent) he was friends with.
But such questions are beside the point. You could remove all of the French and Italian from his plays (or imagine that he farmed it out to collaborators) and it wouldn’t be a big deal. It’s not that big a percentage of his writing. And it’s mostly just dropped in for color. You could even plausibly imagine that the French and Italian lines in his plays are pretty much the only words from either language that he knew. Then you could remove all of the supposed learning. It won’t take long. His plays aren’t very learned. Especially contrasted from Ben Jonson who prided himself in working from original Greek and Latin sources.
Shakespeare the Basic Bitch
Shakespeare’s plots are based on the popular books of the time: Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch (a collection of morally instructive biographies from a Greek philosopher who lived about 1500 years before Shakespeare) was one of his favorites. That’s where he got his Roman plots from. Another was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. That’s where he got the plots for King Lear and Cymbeline. Oh. And at one point he has a character recite a speech that’s basically stolen from the aforementioned John Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals.”
The list of petty thefts goes on. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a straight ripoff of The Knight’s Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer. Shakespeare’s contributions to the plot of Midsummer Night’s Dream are threefold: first, he replaces the gods with fairies. Second, he adds a second woman so that there can be a happy ending. Third, he adds the Rude Mechanicals so that at the end of the action he can have them bounce around the stage like idiots, allowing for further comedy. Those three and one more: he makes the characters feel like real people with real problems, even though they are tripping (in both senses) through a fantasy forest in Ancient Greece. Not bad, Shakespeare, not bad. If you can’t tell, I frigging love this play. But it would be a mistake to think that the premise is original. It’s the execution that’s original.
Shakespeare, Crafter of characters
And there we’ve stumbled on the point. Shakespeare borrowed all of his plots. And wrote versions of those borrowed stories in which the characters feel like real people. That’s it. That’s the magic. And I’m not the only one saying so.
One of my favorite authors, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (1623-1673) expressed a similar sentiment in Letter #123 of her book Sociable Letters:
nay, it Expresses and Declares a Greater Wit, to Express, and Deliver to Posterity, the Extravagancies of Madness, the Subtilty of Knaves, the Ignorance of Clowns, and the Simplicity of Naturals, or the Craft of Feigned Fools, than to Express Regularities, Plain Honesty, Courtly Garbs, or Sensible Discourses, for ’tis harder to Express Nonsense than Sense, and Ordinary Conversations, than that which is Unusual; and ’tis Harder, and Requires more Wit to Express a Jester, than a Grave Statesman; yet Shakespear did not want Wit, to Express to the Life all Sorts of Persons, of what Quality, Profession, Degree, Breeding, or Birth soever…
Is that to say that he lacked all learning? All refinement? No. That would be playing into the myth of the unlearned genius. But consider the example of Walt Whitman. Walt had a few years of formal education. Then he went to work in an office. Then he apprenticed himself to a newspaper. And by 19, he was starting his own newspaper, writing a hack novel, and getting up to all sorts of other shenanigans. I have yet to hear the conspiracy theories alleging that Emerson was feeding him lines to put in his poetry. Or that “Walled Wit-Man” was a literary front for a group of gay poets who wanted to be able to express their WIT in verse without coming out from behind the WALLS of their feigned respectability.
Shakespeare the Brand-Name
Which brings us to the name. One of the real innovations involving Shakespeare (aside from his innovations in character and his infuriating habit of changing the endings of settled stories like King Lear and The Iliad) is that he was among the first to produce plays with his name on them. Okay, we don’t 100% know that he produced the publications. They could have been pirated copies that were published illicitly. The Elizabethan Theater was like the wild west but without all the rules and manners. Marlowe got stabbed to death in a pub.
Plays back then were considered like house-secrets for a theater. If someone somehow pirated your playscript, they could perform it themselves, and make money off of your play. So theaters were not enthusiastic about publishing successful dramas. But still. Most of Shakespeare’s plays were published in his lifetime, and his name was on the cover. Other plays published just before Shakespeare tended not to have such a feature. On the cover. So we know it was an innovation that he was given an actual by-line. We don’t know if the innovation was perpetrated by him or on him.
Shakespeare the Author
Can we take a moment to appreciate how weird it is that the most conspiracy theories should swirl around the poet/playwright who, in some ways, invented the idea of authorship with respect to a work of English theater? In Shakespeare’s day as well as before and after, a play was assumed to have been written by committee. The first English tragedy was Gorbuduc, written by Thomas Sackville and Thomas Norton. Several plays from the period, including some attributed to Shakespeare, are reliably attributed to two or even five authors. Writing work was committee work.
But then something happened. Shakespeare either took over the process and supervised the authorship of the works that bear his name enough to ensure consistent quality or… he wrote them more-or-less himself. Whatever the truth is, it’s a fascinating story that we probably won’t ever learn in full. So it’ll just have to continue to fascinate us with its mystery. The point is, two plays a year for twenty years would be a lot. But it’s a doable feat for one person. We don’t have any particular reason to think that it wasn’t just one person. And we don’t have any particular reason to think it wasn’t a middle class kid from Stratford who just… had an understanding of three-dimensional characters that was ahead of his time.
Shakespeare, Master of the Theater
I’ll close on one last biographical-ish argument I feel comfortable making. The man Shakespeare really knew his way around the theater. The notion of a member of the nobility secretly writing these plays is romantic. It’s touching. And it’s resulted in one of the most picturesquely awful movies I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch sober. Seriously. Seriously. This is a real movie. And it shouldn’t be. It would be like if, I don’t know, the director of Independence Day tried his hand at Shakespeare scholarship. It’s a tragedy that doesn’t know it’s a farce.
The point is: none of these arguments address the fact that these are plays. They’re works of theater. You or I couldn’t just sit down and write a play. (Unless you’re a professional in the theater. In which case you could. But I couldn’t. Because I’m not.) Am I a good writer? That’s neither here nor there. My timing would be off. One scene would be too long. The next would be too short. Lines that sound great in my head and read fine on the page would sound ridiculous in rehearsal. I’d have to make cuts and additions.
Writing as Career Versus Writing as Avocation
Writing a particular genre, with a particular audience in mind is serious stuff. It takes time and effort. And apprenticeship. You want to know where Shakespeare was during the Lost Years? He was probably doing bit parts and copying out scripts for his fellow actors. Boring, I know. I haven’t had an apprenticeship like that. So me trying to write a play would just be a bad fit. It would be like someone who knew plenty about theater but didn’t know anything about comic books trying to write a musical based on a comic book character. It would be a fiasco. Knowing how to write in the abstract only gets you so far. You have to learn the craft. Slowly. You have to have room to make mistakes.
So where in Francis Bacon’s illustrious career of running the English Government and founding modern science did he have time to apprentice to a theater?
No, writing a play was hard. Not just anyone could do it. And not without the proper training. At the time it would have been even more difficult. A play like Richard III, with 50 named characters, would need to be performed by a cast of, at most, twenty. And if the plague forced them to tour the small towns and suburbs? Maybe even fewer than ten. Not only could certain characters not appear onstage together, but they needed time to change from one costume to another.
Some Final Questions
Here’s a question you need to answer for yourself: does it make you respect Shakespeare more or less that, when he had the whole stage clear except for one monologuing actor, that actor was just buying time for his colleagues to dash backstage and change their clothes? And yet those monologues are beautiful. They’re often the most memorable parts of the play. The guy who wrote those monologues took the stuff of dramatic necessity; the nuts and bolts of what made a play performable or not. He took those awkward odds and ends and crafted beauty out of them.
Here is another question: if you somehow dispute that Shakespeare wrote the plays that bear his name, does that argument lead you to a greater appreciation of the poetry? I suppose in theory it could. It might be nice to imagine someone like Francis Bacon had a flair for potty-humor that he didn’t get to indulge in his Latin writings. The idea that his poetry had real-world analogues; that he was settling scores and promulgating ideas through verse. It’s a very tempting scenario.
Good Plays are Good Business
But I keep coming back to the fact that his plays are still popular today as plays. Impresarios of theaters aren’t scholars. Leastwise not first and foremost. They also aren’t romantic fools with a soft spot for a particular author. They are business-people. Their job is to put asses in seats and souvenirs in hands. The only logical reason why we are still mounting performances of Shakespeare after some four hundred years is because he still makes money for his backers.
I don’t know if it makes me love Shakespeare more or less as a poet; as a borrower of twice-told-tales; as a fellow connoisseur of privy-humor. But I think any reasonable appraisal of Shakespeare needs to start from the fact that he and his group of misfits were the most successful businessmen (and probably women in some backstage capacity, though of course they never get any credit) the theater has ever known. Wherever else we go, it makes sense to start from there.