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The Shakespeare Authorship Question

Who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare?

'To be, or not to be; that is the question [...] .'

— Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

Did Shakespeare Really Write All of His Plays?

In this video, Professor Jonathan Bate joins Jennifer Reid to discuss the question of who wrote the plays of William Shakespeare.

Created in collaboration with Warwick Business School, University of Warwick as part of our Massive Open Online Course, 'Shakespeare and His World'. 


Reid: Hi, I'm Jennifer Reid, and I am the course mentor on Shakespeare and His World. I'm here today with Jonathan [Bate] to talk about the authorship question. We're in week one of Shakespeare and His World, and it's bound to have come up by now. So we'd like to just address the question in person and put it to bed once and for all.

Bate: OK, thanks very much, Jen. Yeah, this is the one that if you're a Shakespeare scholar, and you get in a taxi anywhere in the world, the first question is, "So, was Shakespeare really Shakespeare? Was it the man from Stratford?" Well, the answer to that is yes.

The thing about any kind of scholarship is that you begin with the evidence. And there is ample evidence that William Shakespeare, a man from Stratford-upon-Avon, and born in this place, became an actor, became a playwright, then eventually returned to Stratford and died.

Behind me on the wall is a facsimile of his bust in Holy Trinity Church here in Stratford, in which he's got his hand on a piece of paper. In the other hand, there would have been a quill, although, over time, the quill tended to be stolen and had to be replaced. And underneath that bust, there's also an inscription. This was the bust put there - his monument above his grave - very soon after his death. And on that inscription, it describes him as having the greatest intellect since Socrates in ancient Greece, and being the greatest poet since Virgil in ancient Rome.

There's pretty strong evidence that Stratford, his family, his neighbours, remembered him as a great writer. And there's so much more evidence than that, that the writer was the actor, the actor was the man from Stratford.

I've got In front of me here a facsimile of the First Folio. We'll be talking more about Shakespeare in print and the First Folio throughout the course. But early on in the book is a wonderful poem in praise of Shakespeare by Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson; friend, rival, fellow actor, fellow playwright. And he describes Shakespeare there, in that poem, as "the sweet swan of Avon."

He makes it clear that his fellow writer, the author of these 36 plays is a writer from by the river Avon. Shakespeare, known as a man from Stratford. And what's more, Jonson was very involved in the production of the First Folio. He worked closely with Shakespeare's fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, the leading surviving actors from his time. They're the ones who put together the First Folio, and they talk about Shakespeare as a writer. Indeed, Jonson talks in his conversations with other writers in his notebooks about Shakespeare's techniques of writing.

Of course, Heminges and Condell, the fellow actors, are remembered in the will of Shakespeare, the man from Stratford. So there's a tight nexus of relationships between these people. There are all sorts of other local details as well. For example, the fact that Shakespeare got into print with "Venus and Adonis", his narrative poem, the most popular poem of the age, the poem that made his name.

That was printed by Richard Field, a fellow schoolboy from the grammar school here in Stratford.

Reid: The First Folio was published after Shakespeare's death. Are there any references to him during his lifetime by other authors?

Bate: Yes, indeed. Throughout his life, there are a range of people who refer to Shakespeare as a writer, and indeed as a great writer. I've got a fascinating book here. It's called Wits Commonwealth. It was published in 1598, so quite early in Shakespeare's career, by a man called Francis Meres, who was very keen on literature. He wanted to give a sense of the greatness, the dignity, of all the new English literature being written in the 1590s, in his time. He wants to say that British writers are as good as those of classical antiquity.

So we find him here, for example, saying that just as the Latin tongue, the Latin language was glorified by great writers like Virgil, and Ovid, and Horace, so the English language has been glorified by the wonderful poetry of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, William Warner, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chapman.

So Shakespeare there, in the company of other writers. And indeed, Meres goes on a few pages later to say that "The greatness of Shakespeare as a writer was the range of his work." Not only his poems, which Meres suggests are like those of the Roman poet Ovid, but also his comedies and tragedies.

"Shakespeare, among the English, is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage", both comedy and tragedy. "For comedy, witness his Two Gentlemen of Verona, his Comedy of Errors, Love's Labours Lost, Love's Labours Won" (that's a lost play) "Midsummer Night's Dream, Merchant of Venice. And for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet."

Now, you might say, if you're a conspiracy theorist, well, that's only saying that these works were performed and published with the name William Shakespeare on the page. Maybe he was just a stooge, just a front man, and someone else actually wrote them. And, of course, over the years there have been a number of theories of this sort. People like Christopher Marlowe and, indeed, a variety of aristocrats, Lord Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, have been proposed as the true author of Shakespeare. But the intriguing thing about Meres is that he does mention Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, elsewhere as writers. Yes, these other men did write. But Meres, who seemed to know everybody in the London literary world, is quite clear that they're different people from Shakespeare.

So the evidence of Meres, and, as I say, a number of other people publishing books in Shakespeare's lifetime praising his poetry, make the connection with the actor, with the man from Stratford.

Reid: So what is the strongest piece of evidence we have that Shakespeare the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon was the Shakespeare that wrote the plays?

Bate: OK, well, we've seen the evidence from Stratford itself -- the bust. We've seen the evidence of his fellow actors. But in terms of external verification -- again, scholarship always looks for external verification. That's a way of obviating the idea that, oh, it was all a conspiracy, and Ben Jonson and Shakespeare's family were all in on it. But I think the most fascinating piece of external verification is the combination of these two things, a document and a book.

As we'll discover later in the course, Shakespeare was very concerned with the fact that his father's reputation had decayed as a result of financial problems. And Shakespeare was very keen to restore the good name of his family. So acting on behalf of his family, he managed to get a coat of arms for the family so he could call himself a gentleman. And there's a long process, getting a coat of arms. You had to go to an office called the heralds' office. But he duly got it, and the coat of arms is reproduced here. But one of the officials in the heralds' office who gave out these coats of arms said that various people from vulgar backgrounds, sort of insufficiently high-class people, were getting coats of arms. And among them, he said, was Shakespeare the player.

Now, there were two other men in the heralds' office who disagreed, and they defended Shakespeare's right to have a coat of arms on the grounds that his father and mother had a good pedigree in Stratford-upon-Avon. So the complaint about the coat of arms for Shakespeare the player is intimately linked to the references back to Stratford. So nobody doubts that Shakespeare the player, came from Stratford, was the son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.

But the really interesting thing is that one of the two men in the heralds' office who defended Shakespeare the player's right to a coat of arms also spoke about Shakespeare the writer, Shakespeare the poet and dramatist. And what's more, that man was William Camden, one of the most learned men in England. And he'd been Ben Jonson's schoolmaster at Westminster School. He knew the literary scene inside out. And in one of his books, which is a kind of overflow from his history of England – it was called "The Remains of a Greater History" – he talks about the great writers, the pregnant wits, as he calls them, of his own time. And there's a list of the writers there, and William Shakespeare is bang in the middle of it.

Camden defending Shakespeare the player, coat of arms, Camden saying Shakespeare the writer. That's the golden bullet.

Reid: Well, you certainly convinced me. If there is such strong evidence, why is there this controversy, and when did it start?

Bate: Well, that's a great question. I think the way to begin an answer to that is to think about other conspiracy theories. Was there a second gunman assassinating John F. Kennedy? Was Marilyn Monroe secretly murdered? I think the answer is wherever there is great fame and a kind of cult, then inevitably, heresies, alternative views, conspiracy theories tend to emerge. Elvis is alive and well, and that kind of idea.

So if we ask ‘When did this begin’, the idea that Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, was not the author of the plays, the answer is round about the Victorian period. That's to say, for over 200 years after Shakespeare's death, nobody questioned that Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, Shakespeare the player, was Shakespeare the writer. For 200 years the question didn't occur to anybody. Nobody had any doubts. What then happened in the Victorian period is there was a rather eccentric American lady called Delia Bacon who became convinced that Shakespeare couldn't have been Shakespeare, and that maybe someone called Francis Bacon, a famous writer, a famous politician, was Shakespeare. And she started finding all sorts of hidden codes that led her to believe that Bacon was Shakespeare.

She ended up in a private lunatic asylum not far from Stratford, actually. She had hoped to dig up Shakespeare's bones and find some secret document. But that was sort of where it began. And then it was really in the early twentieth century that other theories emerged. There was a schoolmaster called Thomas Looney who accepted it wasn't Bacon, but again thought; how could this grammar schoolboy from the provinces have known so much about courts and aristocracy?

So he suggested that it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. And then all sorts of other people came forward. Maybe it was the sixth Earl of Derby, or the fifth Earl of Stanley, and so the list goes on. Or even people suggesting maybe Queen Elizabeth or King James wrote the works of Shakespeare.

I'm rather disappointed in both Delia Bacon and Thomas Looney. Delia Bacon was an American. She came from a country where it was supposed to be possible to go from a log cabin to the White House. And equally, Looney was a schoolmaster. And he should have known that the great grammar school education that was available to Shakespeare in Stratford, as it was to other middle-class boys in Shakespeare's time, meant that you could become a great and sophisticated writer without going to university. How did Shakespeare know about the life of the court? Because the acting companies were invited to perform at the court. That was the very rationale of having acting companies.

So it does seem that a lot of the arguments come down to a kind of snobbery-- the idea that such a great mind could not have come from such a humble background. But I do also think that the other factor is to do with the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. That's to say, it was with the Romantic poets, with people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, that you got the idea that a great poet must have a rather glamorous, romantic kind of life.

The evidence about Shakespeare's actual life is really rather boring. There are all these documents concerning property transactions, a sort of Shakespeare the businessman. For the Romantics, that wasn't really glamorous enough. You know in the Romantic period, the most famous poet in Europe was Lord Byron. And so I think it sort of became inevitable that people would think well, we need Shakespeare to have a bit of glamour, to be a lord.

So in a way, I think it's a kind of off-shoot of the Romantic movement. Because, of course, it was with the Romantics that the great cult of Shakespeare took off. It was the Romantics who were the first to say, Shakespeare is the greatest genius there has ever been. So in a way, I think the authorship controversy emerged out of a kind of disappointment that the hard evidence of the documents didn't quite have the colour and the glamour to go with the idea of Shakespeare as the quintessential genius.

I think by the later twentieth century, the phenomenon, the controversy was dying away. But then, of course, with the advent of the internet, it came back in a big way. Because, marvellous thing that the internet is, the problem is that there isn't a system of independent verification where you can discover which websites are actually based on evidence, and which are based on conspiracy theory.

So I'm afraid it's not going to go away. But from our point of view, from the point of view of the course, we feel, on the basis of the evidence we've laid out, other evidence that's available in a number of books that we'll be listing on the course site, the matter is settled. And it's not a matter that we want to discuss further, either within the films or in the forum.

Further Information

Watch: Prof Carol Rutter and Prof Stanley Wells discuss the authorship question in a video conversation.

Listen: Guest speakers on a range of topics in our 60 Minutes with Shakespeare podcast.

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