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Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?

Jonathan Bates takes on the "Who wrote Shakespeare?" conspiracy theory.
Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?

I've been reading Jonathan Bate's truly excellent introduction in William Shakespeare Complete Works (Modern Library). He has this wonderful couple of paragraphs about the conspiracy theory that arose around Shakespearean authorship.

You can check out his other books. I've got my eye on, How the Classics Shaped Shakespeare, which looks to be scratching at a classical education itch I've had for a while (more on that later), but I'm excited for it because Bates is one of the most readable scholars with which I've engaged. Here's what I mean:

In an age when orthodox religion was facing severe challenges, the cult of Shakespeare was becoming a secular faith. Thanks to the enthusiasm of poets, critics, and translators such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt and John Keats in England, J. W. von Goethe and the Schlegel brothers in Germany, Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas in France, during the nineteenth-century era of Romanticism, the grammar school boy from the edge of the Forest of Arden became the supreme deity not just of poetry and drama, but of high culture itself.

There was, however, a downside to the apotheosis. Gods have an unfortunate propensity to attract wild-eyed extremists and earnest cranks. A few years after Garrick’s Jubilee, a retired Oxford don named the Reverend James Wilmot went poking around Stratford-upon-Avon in pursuit of relics and reminiscences of the divine William. Disappointed by the paucity of what he found, he became the first person to consider the possibility that the plays might really have been written by someone else. He did not, however, publish his theory.

Fast-forward to the mid-nineteenth century. Bardolatry and the British Empire are in their heyday. It is 1852. An unsigned article in an Edinburgh magazine asks for the first time the question over which so much ink would be needlessly spilt in the next century and a half: “Who wrote Shakspeare?” The author found it hard to reconcile the glories of the plays with our knowledge of Shakespeare’s life— his mealy-mouthed business dealings, his churlish will (that “second-best bed”). Maybe Shakespeare hired someone else to do his writing for him? Within a few years, a favored candidate emerged: Lord Bacon, one of the most learned authors of the age. It did not seem to matter that Bacon’s “new philosophy” of scientific empiricism represented an altogether different species of learning from that of the plays, with their habitual skepticism and casual resort to folk wisdom. Nor that Bacon’s own efforts at drama were distinctly wooden. The theory that “Shakespeare was Bacon” remained popular for half a century, despite numerous reasoned refutations. After the First World War, dozens of other candidates began to be brought forward. Those who found most vociferous support in the twentieth century were aristocrats such as William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, and Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.

The love of conspiracy theories that pervaded Western popular culture in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries gave continuing prominence to the “authorship dispute.” One response to the phenomenon is dismissive: what does it matter so long as we have the plays? But there is a repellent snobbery in the idea that a man from an ordinary background could not have written the plays, that the true author must have been an aristocrat in disguise. Shakespeare’s family and fellow townspeople knew his gift: they represented him as a writer on his Stratford monument and compared him to Socrates and Virgil in the inscription upon it. His fellow actors and intimate associates in the running of his theater company, whom he remembered in his will, knew that he wrote the plays: they edited the First Folio and never doubted his authorship. Ben Jonson knew Shakespeare extremely well: Shakespeare acted in his plays, they quoted and parodied each other’s works, he contributed verses to the First Folio (a short poem affirming that the frontispiece was a true likeness of the author and a long epistle praising him as “swan of Avon” and saying that the plays were very good despite their poor attainment in the classical languages). In both his conversations with fellow poet Drummond of Hawthornden and his commonplace book, Jonson discussed Shakespeare’s compositional method and his relationship with the actors. Others who described Shakespeare as both an actor and a writer included Sir George Buc, William Camden, Leonard Digges (stepson of an overseer of Shakespeare’s will), John Davies of Hereford (on at least two occasions), and the author of the academic Parnassus plays. Among those who knew Shakespeare and described him as a writer were Francis Beaumont (who praised the plays specifically on the grounds of their lack of book learning) and Francis Meres, who knew some of the sonnets in manuscript (perhaps including the one with the phrase “my name is Will,” which has always proved mildly embarrassing to proponents of the view that the real author was called Francis or Edward or Christopher or Elizabeth).

The poor quality of the French, the hazy knowledge of European geography and the howlers in the representation of court etiquette in the plays rule out the authorship of any highly educated courtier or gentleman. Specific allusions, for instance to the names of villages around Stratford-upon-Avon and to individuals such as Shakespeare’s schoolmate and publisher Richard Field and the local Somerville family, prove that the author was from Warwickshire. Though Shakespeare lets slip his identity in casual passing allusions of this kind, early modern plays were not autobiographical documents. Nearly all Shakespeare’s plots were taken over from old plays, novels, history books, and other sources. They were not encodings of a secret life at court, as conspiracy theorists like to propose. Indeed, the principal failure of all “disguised aristocrat” fantasies about the authorship of the plays is their failure to account for the deeply collaborative nature of early modern theater: stray speech headings and other details reveal how Shakespeare wrote particular parts for particular actors; allusions to other plays, especially during the period of fierce intercompany rivalry around 1600, reveal that he was in constant dialogue with rival playwrights; the plays have many technical innovations intimately linked to practicalities of the theater, such as the opening of the Globe in 1599 and the introduction of act divisions in response to the move to Blackfriars in 1608: all these are signs of a professional theatrical insider, not an accomplished gentleman amateur. Above all, there is the fact of actual collaboration: the revision of other men’s plays in the early works, the involvement with Thomas Middleton and George Wilkins (author of the first half of Pericles) in the early 1600s, and the co-writing of the last three plays with Fletcher. We know an immense amount about how plays were put together collaboratively and a whole battery of stylometric tests has enabled us to work out which playwright wrote which scenes. The “disguised aristocrat” theory cannot account for this. Besides, all verifiable stylometric tests conclusively rule out every alternative candidate who has been proposed as the true author of Shakespeare.

Jonathan Bates, Introduction in Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare Complete Works (Modern Library) (Kindle Locations 1354-1402). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.