Celebrating Shakespeare: Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays, Anyway?

by Sharon Browning

It’s April and for those of us at LitStack who happen to love Shakespeare, that means a month of honoring his legacy. We kick off the month leading to what would have been his 454th birthday, by presenting to you (again) Sharon’s post on the much-debated theory of Shakespeare’s authorship.


Anyone who has delved into the life and works of William Shakespeare shakespeares authorshipwill be aware, at least, of the controversy surrounding the authorship of the works attributed to him.  A vast majority of people are willing to accept that a man who was reported to have been born on April 23, 1564 and who died on the same day in 1616, and lived for much of his life in Stratford-on-Avon (traveling no further than London), penned all of the plays, poems and sonnets ascribed to William Shakespeare.  Others, however, purport that this simply cannot be so.

The reasonings of the distracters are many, but seem to mainly boil down to an inability to accept that a person who lived his entire life in a small geographical area and of supposedly limited education could be capable of writing works that show such a deep knowledge of other cities, other cultures, other professions and other genders.  How could someone so lacking in the knowledge of Italy write so eloquently of Verona?  How could someone who was not trained in the law write so deeply of matters that use not only legal processes, but legal language and procedures?  How could someone not privy to court life and intrigues be so adept at capturing those complexities and the histories behind them?  In that day and age, how could a fellow of limited experience be  aware of the workings of the female mind?

What is uncontested knowledge of William Shakespeare is that he was the third child and oldest son of a successful glover and alderman, and that his mother came from an affluent farming family.  He was believed to have been educated at the local King’s New School, where his curriculum would have included an intense knowledge of Latin and grammar.  At age 18 he was hastily married to a woman 8 years his senior, and their daughter was born 6 months later.  He also fathered two other children, twins, two years later, but his only son died at age 11 of undocumented causes.  Sometime before 1592 (possibly as early as 1585) Shakespeare relocated to London, where plays attributed to him were performed; he was also known to be an actor and a part owner of a players company which grew in importance and influence, eventually building the Globe Theater in 1599.  He split time between London and Stratford-on-Avon and became a fairly wealthy man.  After 1606 his writing production had slowed, and nothing of his was published after 1614.  He died in Stratford in 1616, at the probable age of 52; the cause of his death is unknown but does not appear to have been out of the ordinary.

Questions about the authenticity of Shakespeare’s authorship didn’t crop up until more than 200 years after his death.  In 1848, American writer J.C. Hart cast aspersions on Shakespeare’s ability to write the plays, and in 1857, W.H. Smith made the assertion, which many have taken up since then, that it was actually Sir Francis Bacon who had written the plays, with William Shakespeare (or perhaps, the actor William Shakspere, as the author referred to himself when he was on the stage rather than working in support of it) as a front.  Since Bacon was  a man of the court, not only would it have been unseemly for him to have stooped so low as to write something as common as a public play, but it also may have gotten him in political hot water were he to have been the one who’s name appeared on a playbill (especially with the anti-royalist tone of a number of the plays), so actor and theater promoter Shakespeare was named in his stead.  Additionally, Bacon was a statesman, a lawyer, a scientist and an accomplished author in his own right, making him more believably capable of writing about the subjects found in many of the plays – more so than a glover’s son from Stratford.

But Sir Francis was not the only noble who has been nominated to be the brains behind the Bard.  In 1919, Frenchman Abel Lefranc claimed that William Stanley, the 6th Earl of Derby was the actual “W.S.” behind Will Shakespeare, and in 1920 J.T. Looney supported that it was instead Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.  This popular theory has since been modified to put the Earl at the head of a band of courtiers who grouped together to produce the plays as an ensemble; the use of a pen name was necessary due to the “stigma of print” that was in force at the time, prohibiting aristocrats from writing any literary work as a commercial endeavor, instead limiting them to private or courtly audiences.  In both the Derby and Oxford theories, both men had relationships with various performing companies, and had extensive experience with the courts in not only England, but France and, in Oxford’s case, Italy as well.  In both cases, each man had acquaintances with persons who were very like characters in Shakespearean plays, and their writing style could be aligned with those of the Bard.

The final and most recent contestant in the Shakespeare arena was Christopher Marlowe, another Elizabethan playwright and poet who was considered second only to the Bard in talent and success.  The fanciful Marlowian theory, first suggested in 1884 but fully championed by American Calvin Hoffman in 1955, has Marlowe’s death in a bar fight in 1593 being itself a staged act so the dramatist could escape the noose that most certainly was in his future due to a formal charge of subversive atheism.  Sequestered away safely in Italy, Marlowe continued to pen his plays and forward them to his former lover, the rich Kentish landowner Sir Thomas Walsingham, who then gave them to their dupe, William Shakespeare, for publication and performance.

As facetious as any of these theories may seem, each one of them has been backed up by what seems to be some pretty meticulous scholarship, overlying dates, circumstances, styles, motivation and opportunity to make what at first glance may seem outlandish into something intriguingly probable – especially when compared to the understandable skepticism that can be coaxed while considering the lack of experience of Shakespeare himself at court or in any environment outside of London.

Yet to quote H.N. Gibson, who in 1962 wrote the still informative and thorough The Shakespeare Claimants:

… we must be equally on our guard against accepting the arguments of the theorists too readily.  Almost any one of their books, read in isolation and with little knowledge of the historical background, will be found startlingly convincing.  The reason for this is that the author is not genuinely examining the problem in search of truth, but is making the best possible case for his own particular view.  This is not to impute dishonesty to him.  He may be sincerely convinced of the truth of that view; but this does not alter the fact that in presenting his case he is an advocate, not an investigator.

So the question remains – who really did write Shakespeare’s plays?  Was it truly Shakespeare, or some other person/persons or a collaboration with others?

For me, the answer is simple.  It doesn’t matter.  While it is wondrously romantic to think that one man, of common origin and modest means, could write the most gorgeous works in the English language, were it to prove that the words belonged to someone else, those words would still be, well, just as sweet.  And seeing that the highly touted Hollywood film “Anonymous”, which dramatized the claim of the Earl of Oxford and touted such star power as Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave with a production budget of over $30 million, caused barely a blip on the entertainment radar, taking in only $4.5 million at the box office, I would say that a vast majority of people agree with me.  I also have to believe that anyone astute enough to write such brilliant works would desire to link his name with them at least in the vanity of posterity, yet we have no deathbed confessionals, no seals broken on secret documents down the ages, no dusty diaries full of scandalous disclosures or even hints of hidden family heritages to substantiate any of the modern scholarly claims.

So I will continue to celebrate William Shakespeare unsullied, and raise an uncompromising glass to him on April 23 both in cheer at his birth and in sorrow for his passing.  He is, and will always be, the genius and glorious Bard of Avon to me.  Anything else is, to coin a phrase, much ado about nothing.

-Sharon Browning

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