While I was recuperating last week I read and enjoyed James Shapiro’s new book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? It’s an excellent history of the debates over the authorship of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare — and it’s primarily that, a history. Shapiro wants to understand how and why, at some point in the 19th century, people began to suspect that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, and why they chose the alternative candidates they did. For the first hundred years of doubt, the preferred candidate was Francis Bacon; when that hypothesis became entangled in a dense web of ludicrous theories about cryptography and hidden acrostics, Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, was put forward — and is today the preferred candidate of most anti-Stratfordians.The case against William Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays is based almost wholly on what Richard Dawkins calls, in a very different context, the argument from personal incredulity. People think that it’s just not possible for a poorly educated glover’s son from a provincial town to have written those plays, with their wealth of knowledge, wisdom, and even technical detail in a range of fields (from law to sailing). Leaving aside the question of whether Oxford or Bacon had more direct experience, across the whole range of Shakespearean reference, than the man from Stratford, we can note that this incredulity is based on a very low opinion of the learning that can be acquired from reading, even by a person of genius. The possibility that the glover’s son could have had the intellectual resources to draw more from books than most people draw from direct experience is never considered, even though the plays show unmistakeable signs of extraordinarily deep and broad reading.Shapiro knows, and mentions at the outset of the book, that his fellow professional Shakespeareans have tended to be contemptuous of the hypotheses of alternative authorship, and is determined to be more respectful, even though he is convinced that William Shakespeare did indeed write the plays (and poems). He may succeed in this too well. In his last chapter, in which he lays out the case for Shakespearean authorship, he noticeably pulls his punches. The case for alternative authorship, especially that of the Earl of Oxford, simply cannot survive an encounter with what scholars now know about the composition and performance of the plays, especially the later ones, and I wish Shapiro had been more assertive in making this point.But he does make it all the same, and the book is very much worth reading not only for its history — which is fascinating in its own right — but for that case. Is it likely that a man from the provinces with a limited education and a head for business wrote the plays of Shakespeare? In one sense, no — in the sense that it’s not likely that anyone could have written those plays, since they constitute some of the most amazing productions of the human mind. That they exist at all is a miracle. But if you go through the records of the theatrical companies of the era, and you listen to the testimony of people like Ben Jonson who knew Shakespeare as man and poet, and you scrutinize the surviving versions of the plays, I don’t see how you could come to any other conclusion than this: Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.


  1. Thanks for this post. I have not read enough on the topic to state anything too convincingly or articulately and it sounds like Shapiro's book will be the one I'd want to read. Previously my most profound thought on it came from "The Friendly Shakespeare" and James Barrie: "I don't know if Bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare, but if he did not, he missed the opportunity of his life."

  2. the more i read about Oxford, the more things fit.

    the more i read about William from Stratford, the less they fit.

  3. What's always struck me as a bit odd about the anti-Stratfordian argument is its thinly disguised class prejudice. Odder still is that the argument often finds quarter among populist conspiracy theorists. Like so many conspiracy theories, the view betrays an deeply ambivalent attitude towards "expertise." On the one hand, the it discounts the expert opinion of contemporary scholars; on the other hand, the anti-Stratfordian argument espouses a wholly conventional (and crude) hierarchy of learnedness (i.e., Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because he was not from the educated class).

  4. Dave, that's a very good point.

    By the way, Shapiro is good on the ways that conspiracy theorizing led to the downfall of the Baconian hypothesis, but the Oxfordian one is scarcely less convoluted. If Oxford was the author, then a great many people had to be in on a conspiracy — a conspiracy the whole purpose of which has never been explained — without one of them giving the game away, even long after Shakespeare's death, and without generating any suspicion or speculation during their lifetime or for a hundred-plus years afterwards. And yet many, many people have no trouble swallowing just that claim.

  5. The most boring thing about Conspiracy theorists and Shakespeare is their mono-maniacal insistence on the biography of the writer. Effectually all discussion of Shakespeare's plays and poems resorts to a whodunnit wherein one can find clues as to the writer's identity.

    Consequently any discussion of the plays and poems intrinsic value flies out the window. If shakespeare is the bathwater, his babies are discarded too. Literature doesn't work this way.
    A book, film, poem can be taken for what it is without any recourse to who wrote it.

    If you don't believe me check the comments on any review of Shapiro's book. The Orksfordians accuse the Stratfrodians of blindness as to the obvious clues inherent within the plays, and especially his sonnets.

    William S.

  6. I think the Stratfordian cry of "classist" against those who don't believe William of Stratford wrote the plays is overhyped. I'd believe it in a minute if I felt the evidence was strong for it. I have no problem with natural genius, but William's life, of what we know of it, leaves no such trail. No personal trail and no trail left by other writers in their correspondence. And no one in Stratford blinked an eye when William died, apparently unaware that they had a poetic genius living among them. I don't care that he's a glover's son or that he was poorly educated. If he wrote the plays, show me the evidence. The most damning evidence, I believe, against his credulity is that his daughters were illiterate. I cannot believe that the man who wrote these brilliant works, the man who was so in love with knowledge, would not pass on the skills to read and write to his progeny. It's possible, of course, but in my mind highly unlikely.

    When I asked a question in a college Shakespeare class about the meaning of something in one of the plays, the teacher said, "We don't know that. There are many things we don't know about Shakespeare." I was neither a Stratfordian nor an Oxfordian then, neither did I know about this controversy. But I found it hard to believe we couldn't know about things in the plays because I intuitively felt that the author of the plays bled his heart and soul into the works. And isn't that why we are still engaged with these plays 500 years later? These works cut to the bone of human existence in a way that I believe goes beyond mere imagination and includes life experiences. Am I classist for thinking so? I believe a man like William could have become friends with courtly figures and could have written the works based on his own experiences and his experiences with others. But again, the evidence of his life doesn't point to such a high life.

    Here is an interesting review of Shapiro's book from a man who says he's agnostic about the authorship controversy.



  7. In case you haven't seen it, you might check out "The Shakespeare Authorship Debate Revisited" by Emma Smith, Literature Compass 5/3 (2008): 618–632.

    It's been a little while since I read it, but it essentially gave a summary debunking of non-Stratfordian arguments, but then argued that part of the problem is our anachronistic focus on single authorship. It's much more likely the plays were written somewhat collaboratively and evolved over time through performance, and in some cases specific contributing authors can be identified — but on the whole, Shakespeare remains the primary author.

  8. The most laughable anti-Shakespeare tirade is from Mark Twain. The man from nowhere Missouri scoffs at the idea that someone from Stratford could have written the plays. Freud would have a field day.

  9. "If he wrote the plays, show me the evidence."

    His name was published on the quartos. Ben Johnson calls him the "Swan of Avon" and says he had "little latin and less greek" a clear reference to his Stratford schooling. The dates of the plays correspond directly with Shakespeare of Stratford's involvement in the London theater. When Shakespeare leaves London and retires to Stratford no more plays of genius are produced. Hmmmmmm, wonder how that could be?

    Look, geniuses aren't fascinating and saintly. They are earthy and human, prone to all of the sin and silliness as everyone else. Look at how dreadfully Dickens treated his wife and his children. Look at what Beethoven did to his nephew. That's just the way it is. Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and no amount of grasping after straws and handsome Earls and Dukes in the clouds changes this historical reality.

  10. I completely believe that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare for all the reasons stated, but the claim that his daughters were illiterate does bother me. Is it provably true (I know anti-Stratfordians are prone to make exaggerated claims), and if so, how do scholars explain it? Bert is right that great geniuses often treat their loved ones callously, but it's hard to imagune Shakespeare not caring whether his family knew how to read.

  11. If you Stratfordians are so certain of your theory, please answer the following questions and please don't say that it was all a big "literary exercise" because that is simply unbelievable:

    1. The Sonnets were published in 1609 bearing the most personal and intimate details of a man's life. At a time when the author was still alive, he took no part in its publication nor did he attempt to stop publication. Why?

    2. The dedication to the Sonnets is written to our "ever-living author", a tribute almost always reserved for someone who is no longer alive. Why?

    3. In Sonnet #125, the author claims to have "borne the canopy". This refers to carrying the canopy over royalty during a procession. Oxford was known to have done this on several occasions. A commoner such as Shaksper would not have been allowed within 1000 feet of the monarchs. Please explain.

    4. The first 100 or so verses of the sonnets entreats a fair young man to marry. Scholars agree that the fair young man refers to Henry Wriotheseley, the 3rd Earl of Southhampton. No commoner such as Shaksper of Stratford would be allowed to address royalty in such a manner. Please explain.

    5. Shakespeare without question was one of the greatest if not the greatest writer in the English language, yet his daughters were illiterate. Why?

    6. None of Shaksper's relatives from Stratford ever claimed that their relative was the famous author.

    7. Dr. Hall was the husband of Susan Shaksper, daughter of William. In his journals he refers to famous men he knew and treated, yet never once mentions his wife's illustrious father. Please explain.

    8. The sonnets are widely accepted to have been written in the early 1590s at a time when the man from Stratford would have been in his late twenties, yet his sonnets tell us that the poet was in his declining years when writing them. He was "Beated and chopped with tanned antiquity," "With Time's injurious hand crushed and o'er worn", in the "twilight of life". He is lamenting "all those friends" who have died, "my lovers gone". His is "That time of year/When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang/Upon those boughs that shake against the cold." Please explain.

    9. The sonnets that most contradict Will of Stratford's life story are those about shame and disgrace to name and reputation. Here Shakespeare's biographers have nothing to go on. The sonnets talk about a man who was in disgrace from fortune and men's eyes. What biographical connection is there to the life of the man from Stratford that would have disgraced him?

    10. Thomas Nashe and Gabriel Harvey were literary pamphleteers who wrote about the most prominent literary figures of the day and have many references to the Earl of Oxford, yet are strangely silent on any writer named Shakespeare. Why?

    11. After two successful poems were published under the name of Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece), all the plays were published anonymously for five years until 1598 when William Cecil died. Why?

    12. At the height of his popularity, Shaksper retired to Stratford and bought property. It is widely agreed that many of his latter works were collaborations. Why would the greatest author in the language suddenly turn away from his profession, become a wealthy landowner and entrust the completion of his work to lesser writers?

    13. Many of the known sources for the plays were books in Italian, French, and Spanish which were untranslated at the time. There is no evidence that Shakspere could read any language other than English and there is even some question whether or not he was literate since nothing of his writing remains. There is no literary paper trail of any sort. While Oxford was fluent in those languages, what is there in the known background of the man from Stratford that could explain this knowledge?

  12. The fact that some works were published under the attribute of William Shakespeare does not identify the man behind the name. There is nothing in his handwriting ever discovered except for six almost illegible signatures. There are no letters, no correspondence, no manuscripts, no paper trail at all to identify the man behind the name, not a single word. Huckleberry Finn was published under the name of Mark Twain but there is nothing to identify him as Samuel Clemens. When contemporaries refer to William Shakespeare, they are referring to the name on the title page and nothing else.

    There is nothing in his biography to connect him with the works. Indeed the opposite is true. Robert Bearman sums up Shakespeare's life as follows in "Shakespeare in the Stratford Records" (1994), published by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust: "Certainly, there is little, if anything, to remind us that we are studying the life of one who in his writings emerges as perhaps the most gifted of all time in describing the human condition. He seems merely to have been a man of the world, buying up property, laying in ample stocks of barley and malt, when others were starving, selling off his surpluses and pursuing debtors in court…."

Comments are closed.