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  Wikipedia: Shakespearean authorship

Wikipedia: Shakespearean authorship
Shakespearean authorship
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Beginning about one hundred years after William Shakespeare's death in 1616, when the estimation of the critical value of his works had risen in the popular mind and the knowledge of Shakespeare's repute had begun to fade, some began to express doubts about the authorship of the peerless plays and poetry hitherto unquestionably attributed to "William Shakespeare".

There is also ongoing serious academic work to ascertain the authorship of plays and poems of the time, both those attributed to Shakespeare and others.

Shakespeare: the pros and cons

The conventional belief, generally accepted from Shakespeare's death until the late 19th century, is that William Shakespeare, the author of the plays, is the same man as one William Shakespere, recorded as living in Stratford-upon-Avon. According to standard scholarship, Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He was a poet, a playwright, an actor, part-owner of the Globe Theatre in London and a member of the favoured acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later The King's Men). His father was illiterate.

Those who question whether William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of Shakespeare's plays are called anti-Stratfordians. They call those who have no such doubts Stratfordians. ("Stratfordians" view the question of authorship as settled, and generally have no need for a name for themselves.) Anti-Stratfordians discussing the authorship controversy conventionally refer to the man from Stratford as "Shaksper" and the author of the plays and poems (whoever he may be) as "Shakespeare."

Shakespeare's life

Anti-Stratfordians say that we know little of Shakespeare's life, though mainstream scholars point out that we know more about him than we do about any other literary figure of that day other than Ben Jonson. In his lifetime Shakespeare was referred to specifically by name as a well-known writer at least twenty-three times, and his name also appears on the title pages of fourteen of the fifteen works published during his lifetime. No contemporary document connecting any other person with the plays exists.

Shakespeare's education

Anti-Stratfordians believe that Shakespere was either uneducated or poorly educated. They are doubtful that he could have produced the plays and poems that are critically acclaimed as sublime. The author of the Shakespeare canon must, according to anti-Stratfordians, have been a man of better education and probably noble background, concealed behind a pseudonym in part because the writing of drama for the public stage was considered a disreputable activity for an Elizabethan gentleman.

William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon is held to have been a bumpkin whose father was unable to write his own name. Indeed, his wife and his two daughters are also said to have been illiterate beyond signing their own names, and, anti-Stratfordians claim, the literacy of Shakespere himself is in doubt. How, they ask, could he have written the masterpieces of literature that we know as the works of Shakespeare?

The man from Stratford spelled his name in several different ways, a mark of illiteracy according to anti-Stratfordians. But in Shakespeare's time there was no standardized orthography. Early editions of the works of the university-educated Christopher Marlowe spell his name as Marlowe, Marlo, Marlow, Marklin, and Marley.

Anti-Stratfordians point out that there are no records that William Shakespere of Stratford ever attended school at all, although it is assumed that he was a student in the Stratford Free School (textbooks used at the Stratford Free School are alluded to in the plays). But there are no extant records of the school from the relevant period, for Shakespeare or anyone else. No one contends he attended any university, though there is little actual information about his activities between leaving Stratford and the first reference to him in the London theatre many years later.

Shakespeare's colleague Ben Jonson stated that Shakespeare knew "small Latin, and less Greek," which by the standards of the day implies that Shakespeare the actor was likely to have studied both at least partially. This supports the argument that he did indeed attend a school at some time.

It is known that the Stratford Shakespere was a fairly rich man from information about land he owned. Anti-Stratfordians claim he amassed this wealth from his trading career. However, to be a successful trader at that time one would likely need to be able at least to read and write, though probably not to compose poetry and plays. There are also several signatures from this time that are almost universally accepted to be valid.

Candidates and their champions

As early as the 18th century, unorthodox views of Shakespeare were expressed in two allegorical stories. In The Life and Adventures of Common Sense (1769) by Herbert Lawrence, Shakespeare is portrayed as a "shifty theatrical character ... and incorrigible thief" (Michell). In The Story of the Learned Pig (1786) by an anonymous author described as "an officer of the Royal Navy," Shakespeare is merely a front for the real author, a chap called "Pimping Billy."

Around this time, James Wilmot, a Warwickshire clergyman and scholar, was researching a biography on Shakespeare. He travelled extensively around Stratford, visiting the libraries of country houses within a radius of fifty miles looking for records or correspondence connected with Shakespeare or books that had been owned by him. By 1781, Wilmot had become so appalled at the lack of evidence for Shakespeare that he concluded he could not be the author of the works. Wilmot was familiar with the writings of Francis Bacon and formed the opinion that he was more likely the real author of the Shakespearean canon. He confided this to one James Cowell. Cowell disclosed it in a paper read to the Ipswich Philosophical Society in 1805. (Cowell’s paper was only rediscovered in 1932.)

These stories were soon forgotten. However, Bacon would emerge again as a candidate in the nineteenth century when, at the height of bardolatry, the "authorship question" was popularised.


In 1856, William Henry Smith put forth the claim that the author of Shakespeare's plays was Sir Francis Bacon, a major scientist, a courtier, a diplomat, an essayist, a historian and a successful politician, who served as Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613) and Lord Chancellor (1618). Smith was supported by Delia Bacon in her book The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays (1857), in which she maintains that Shakespeare was in fact a group of writers including Bacon. Ignatius Donelly, a US congressman, science fiction author and Atlantis theorist, wrote The Great Cryptogram (1888), in which he found encoded messages attributing authorship to Bacon — encoded messages that, sadly, Donelly alone could discern.

With these theories the floodgates of doubt opened, and a new fad developed: discerning authorial cryptograms in Shakespeare's works. One of the most vigorous "cryptographers" was Mrs. Ashmead Windle. Elizabeth Wells Gallup examined Bacon's "bi-lateral cipher" (in which two typefaces were used as a method of encoding) and announced that Bacon was not only the author of the Shakespearean works but also the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth, the product of a secret marriage. Again, however, only Ms. Gallup could reliably distinguish between the "two" fonts.

One of the most convincing arguments against the Baconian theory was published in 1957 by William F. Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. William, considered by many to be the greatest cryptologist of all time, and Elizebeth, a noted cryptologist in her own right for her US Government work on "rum runners'" ciphers, demonstrated that the encrypted messages claimed to have been included in texts from one (or both) of these authors were entirely implausible cryptographically and in some cases impossible. They then went on to use statistical methods to demonstrate just how different the two styles of writing were.

A common example of a word which looks like an encrypted message of some kind is the word honorificabilitudinitatibus, used in Love's Labour's Lost. Unfortunately for those seeing more than an unusual word, it had been used (though rarely) by other writers before Shakespeare.


Main article: Oxfordian theory

The most popular latter-day candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. First proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920, de Vere is today the alternative candidate the majority of anti-Stratfordians have settled upon. Advocates of de Vere are usually referred to as Oxfordians.

Oxfordians have argued that there are striking similarities between his biography and events in Shakespeare's plays, the acclaim of his contemporaries regarding his talent as a poet and a playwright, his closeness to Queen Elizabeth and Court life, underlined passages in his Bible that correspond to quotations in Shakespeare's plays and his extensive education and intelligence.

Supporters of the standard view would dispute most if not all of these contentions. The supposed connections between Oxford's life and the plots of Shakespeare's plays is conjectural at best, for instance, and the acclaim of Oxford's contemporaries for his poetic and dramatic skill was distinctly modest. Near contemporaries, like John Dryden, indicated that Shakespeare got many details wrong in his depiction of life at court, meaning that Oxford's court connections do not support the case for his authorship very strongly. Oxford died in 1604, perhaps the most convincing argument against Oxford's authorship, as ten of Shakespeare's plays are most likely written after Oxford's death, and several specifically refer to events later than 1604 — e.g. The Tempest, which alludes to a 1609 shipwreck in Bermuda.

The present (as of 2004) Earl of Oxford is, amusingly, known to be a supporter of the Oxfordian theory.


The gifted playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe would seem perfectly qualified to write the works of Shakespeare except for one handicap: he was dead.

A case for Marlowe was made as early as 1895, but the creator of the most detailed theory of Marlowe's authorship was Calvin Hoffman, an American journalist, whose book on the subject was published in 1955. According to history, Marlowe had been killed in 1593 by men who had worked for the English secret service, as Marlowe himself had. The theory is that Marlowe's apparent 'patron' Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Francis Walsingham (who directed the spy network), had Marlowe's death faked as part of some kind of cover-up. Marlowe was then smuggled out of the country and wrote "Shakespeare's" plays and other work.

Marlowe's death does indeed appear suspicious, but no part of this scenario is supportable by anything other than conjecture. In any case, Marlowe's work is stylistically and intellectually quite different from Shakespeare's.


Other candidates proposed include, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, Sir Edward Dyer, Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland and at least fifty others, even Queen Elizabeth.

The poems

Strong arguments exist against the claim of any rival author. The opening lines of Sonnet 135 argue strongly against any alternate author, or at least any not named William:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.

It is also hard to understand why the poems (as opposed to the plays), if by a nobleman, would have been published under an assumed name. The writing of poetry was a skill expected of an Elizabethan courtier, and poems like The Rape of Lucrece or Venus and Adonis, long narrative works on classical subjects, were a prestigious and highly respectable form of composition, and in a completely distinct category from 'merely popular' plays. The poems' timing, having originally been published after a period when theatres had been closed by an outbreak of the
plague, is also more consistent with composition by a professional writer looking for an alternate source of income than a rich dilettante coincidentally during a theatre closing.

Shakespeare's Will

Some anti-Stratfordians bring up William Shakespeare's will. It is long and explicit, listing the possessions of a successful bourgeois in detail, but is remarkable for containing no mention at all of personal papers, manuscripts, or books. (Books were rare and expensive items at the time.) However, manuscripts of the plays would have, as was the ordinary practice, been owned by the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a shareholder. And books were not normally listed separately in wills at this time; despite their value, they were included among the house-contents. Known wills of other authors of the time often do not mention books either.

Other evidence

There are no direct comments about veiled authorship in Jonson's private Diaries of the time, nor in any of the known gossip reports of the time or the succeeding few decades (e.g., Aubrey's Lives or Pepys's Diary). Argument from absence is tricky and rarely compelling at best, but in this case certainly is supportive of the Stratfordian position.

The debate, such as it is, seems far from being resolved, with standard scholarship noting that the theories of ghost authorship began to develop two centuries or more after Shakespeare's death while anti-Stratfordians claim evidence of a "cover-up" during the lifetime of the author. The debate has gone on for several centuries, and, barring the sudden discovery of new evidence which disposes of the question, is unlikely to be settled in the near future. As long as people enjoy a mystery, the controversy surrounding the authorship of the works of Shakespeare will flourish.

Academic authorship debates

The above refers to what might be termed the "popular" authorship debate, which revolves around the idea of a single genius responsible for the Shakespearean canon. There is, however, another authorship debate among scholars in the field. This is concerned with the issues of collaboration and revision of plays and the correct attribution of works.

The Elizabethan theatre was nothing like the modern theatre, but rather more like the modern film business. Scripts were often written under pressure of performance, and many were the product of collaboration, with plays often being rewritten by the actors as well as other writers. Many scholars also argue that the concept of the creative integrity of a single author, as we know it, did not exist at the time, and the unscrupulous nature of the Elizabethan book printing 'trade' complicates the attribution of plays further; e.g., William Jaggard, who published the First Folio, also published The Passionate Pilgrim by W. Shakespeare, which is mostly the work of other writers).

Many experts in the field who write about, and edit, Shakespeare for a popular audience are very conservative of the traditional ascriptions and insist that Shakespeare wrote everything in the accepted canon, but it would be wrong to claim that their views represent a consensus. Most of these conservatives concede that even some of Shakespeare's greatest plays, like Hamlet and King Lear, are old plays that Shakespeare revised or at least stories that Shakespeare 'borrowed' from earlier writers. Others believe that Shakespeare's dependence on other writers may have been considerable. There is some reason, though hotly disputed, to believe that Shakespeare contributed to plays other than those he is traditionally assigned.

Recent work on computer analysis of textual 'style' (e.g., word use, word and phrase patterns) has given some reason to believe that parts of some of the 'early' plays ascribed to Shakespeare are actually by other (unknown) writers.

Meanwhile, some scholars have used computer analysis to attempt to "unearth" previously unattributed works whose syntactical and semantic signatures they believe may be uniquely attributed to Shakespeare's pen. These investigations prove somewhat strange to many, who wonder why we should care about work whose merits alone have not, over the centuries, suggested themselves as products of Shakespeare's unique — and possibly unquantifiable — insight and skill. Others, primarily scholars, point out that even a clearly substandard work by Shakespeare is of great interest because of the insight it gives into his better efforts.

The most famous example of computerized attribution is that of scholar (and forensic linguist) Don Foster, who attributed A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter, previously ascribed only to "W.S.", to William Shakespeare, based on an analysis of its grammatical patterns and idiosyncratic word usage. A sign of the great interest taken in the authorship question even in today's era where Shakespeare's plays must compete with a vast array of other media for attention is the tremendous press attention paid to this discovery, which made the New York Times and other headlines.

Unfortunately for Foster, a later analysis by scholar Gilles Monsarrat showed Foster's attribution to be premature, and that the true author may well have been John Ford. Don Foster ceded to Monsarrat's argument in an e-mail message to the SHAKSPER e-mail list in 2002. Since Monsarrat's analysis also relied upon linguistic analysis, rather than facts of historical record, however, it may be said that the idea of attempting to find a unique "linguistic signature" of Shakespearian authorship that is separable from a judgement of artistic merit — or even the possibility of eventual confirmation by historical record — has survived. Foster's "concession message," in referring to his experience serving as an expert witness in linguistic analysis in the American court system, provides an interesting take on this question: "My experience with the anonymous documents in criminal investigations indicates that competent and trusted people — math professors, parents, biowarfare experts — often commit acts or write texts that you wouldn't expect of them."

These analyses impact the more "popular" authorship debate, as any new evidence for works written outside of the known dates may be used to rule out alternate authors. Don Foster's work, in particular, was taken as a threat to the Oxfordians.


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