Was William Shakespeare the author of his own works, or was he merely someone else's pseudonym?
by Brian Dunning
October 18, 2011
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Artwork: Mitsuko Stoddard
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As any historical text on the subject will tell you, William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England, probably in 1564, and died in his hometown in 1616. He married and raised three children, and had a successful career in theater in London; so successful, in fact, that he was memorialized in effigy in the cathedral in Stratford-upon-Avon and even in London's own Westminster Abbey. The reason for this success is what you'll find in virtually any literary history: that Shakespeare is widely considered to be the finest playwright who ever lived, in any language, in any era. The "Bard of Avon", as he came to be known during his life, overcame his ordinary middle-class station and relative lack of formal education to compete with the finest noble playwrights of the day, and eventually trumped them all.
His is a fine story itself; a tale of great personal accomplishment, where talent and perseverance won out over the snobby, high-class competitors in the Elizabethan court. And during his life, few denied him the credit he was due.
But as we see so often with many of the subjects we cover on Skeptoid, an event that is unremarkable at the time it occurs is often magnified and misrepresented decades (or centuries) later into an extraordinary mystery, by people who weren't there and have no first hand knowledge. After his death, Shakespeare's fame only grew (though he was not yet considered as great as he now is), and continued to grow for well over a century. In fact it wasn't until the late 1800s, generations after Shakespeare died, that a few fringe authors began raising the spectre of doubt over whether the Bard was indeed the author of the works attributed to him; or whether he was perhaps only the public face of the true author whose identity remains a secret.
The theories are many and varied. In some, an aristocrat is said to have written Shakespeare's works under a pseudonym because it was inappropriate for men of their rank to engage in commercial writing endeavors. In others, more educated authors are believed to have written the works because of the many references to high society and the royal court that they believe Shakespeare, who was of the merchant class, would not have known about. Still others raise the possibility that Shakespeare the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon may have simply coincidentally have had the same name as Shakespeare the author.
But the principal pieces of evidence against William Shakespeare are in three parts: First, that there is evidence he was illiterate. Second, that there are gaps in his documented history as a real living person. And third, the questions of his education and social status.
Shakespeare's presumed illiteracy is supported by scant evidence. There are only seven surviving signatures of his, and oddly, some are spelled differently from one another, and all appear to be nearly illegible scrawls. No signatures at all survive from Shakespeare's parents or from two of his children, except for marks used in place of signatures on legal documents. Marks were typically used by the illiterate. But all this is evidence of is that he was at least as literate as anyone in his family. The style of handwriting common in Shakespeare's time, known as secretary hand, often incorporated breviograms, shortened forms of words. Whether the various spellings of Shakespeare's signatures were breviograms or the result of either illiteracy or simple laziness, can't be known. It does not prove that Shakespeare the man was different from Shakespeare the author.
Shakespeare the man also left no correspondence. However, it turns out that this is the rule with authors of the day, not the exception. There are no original documents at all left by Christopher Marlowe, for one example, who was arguably even more famous than Shakespeare at the time. Not only is there a lack of documents by him, there is a lack of documents about him; where he went, what he did. Most scholars agree that this is not terribly unexpected. In his day he was a playwright and actor in London, a city where there were many playwrights and actors. Shakespeare's fame largely came in later centuries; during his lifetime, he was no more expected to have his activities documented than anyone else. Marlowe is well documented largely because he was often in trouble with the law and was also murdered. Their contemporary Ben Jonson's history is well known, as he was employed by royals and was the first playwright to receive an annual salary from the crown. Like most of his contemporaries, Shakespeare's private life appears to have been relatively unremarkable.
The four main nominees put forth by the anti-Stratfordians — those who doubt William Shakespeare's authorship — are Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, William Stanley the 6th Earl of Derby, and Edward de Vere the 17th Earl of Oxford. Let's take a quick look at each. We won't go into great detail, because none of these are taken seriously by the overwhelming number of Shakespeare academics, but feel free to look more deeply into each on your own.
Marlovian theory states that the famous playwright Christopher Marlowe faked his own murder in 1593, and then wrote Shakespeare's plays. The timing works out pretty well to support this, but that's about all. Though there are questions about Marlowe's death, there's no credible evidence that he didn't actually die. Supporters have often claimed that the style of writing between the two men is too similar to be coincidental. There's little doubt that Marlowe was one of Shakespeare's main influences, but we'll talk more about the style similarities in a moment.
Baconian theory claims that the eminent Sir Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare's works under a pseudonym to protect his reputation as a man of high standing. Throughout the 1800s, Bacon was the leading candidate among the anti-Stratfordians, many of whom claimed to find codes and ciphers within Shakespeare's works, wherein Bacon was trying to drop hints of his true identity. But searches for such clues are really just ex post facto rationalizations, and have never held up to serious scrutiny.
Derbyite theory points to the 6th Earl of Derby as the ringleader of a group of authors who collaborated to produce Shakespeare's works. The best evidence for this theory is no better than some of Shakespeare's plays seemed to parallel events in Derby's life; and the only suggestion for a motive that I've found is that Derby's family was a possible claimant to the English throne, so he felt it best to avoid politics and devote himself to cultural pursuits. Beyond a few nineteenth and early twentieth century authors, few have taken Derbyite theory seriously.
This brings us to the claim that has survived all the others: Oxfordian theory, promoting Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as the true author. It was first proposed some 300 years after Shakespeare's death, by authors noting circumstantial evidence, such as the Oxfords' association with the theater and wealthy patrons. Some did speak well of de Vere's skill at poetry, but others have pointed out that reviewers might well be expected to give exaggerated praise to wealthy and respected men. Oxfordian theory has survived long enough that the 2011 movie Anonymous gives it as fact, much in the way that Amadeus promoted the untrue legend that Salieri murdered Mozart. It's well known that de Vere's family did participate in the publication of Shakespeare's works after his death, called the First Folio. But as evidence, this is only as convincing as suggesting that Stephen King's publisher must be the true author of his books. There's no evidence; only a supposition.
And this is really the best way to encompass all of the evidence that someone other than Shakespeare wrote his works: supposition. Logically, it's the same as 9/11 conspiracy theories. Look at some event or relationship a certain way, and it's always possible to find some circumstance to be consistent with just about any invented theory you like. But "consistent with" does not mean "evidence of".
There was one lesson that, in particular, has always stuck with me from my days studying screenwriting at UCLA. I don't know the actual quote or its source, but the story told by one of my instructors was that composing a play is like building a Frankenstein monster. He can teach you all the anatomy; what connects to what, how to implant the brain, how all the pieces go together, what are all the dramatic elements of a good story. But the one thing he can't teach is the bolt of lightning that makes it all come to life. That lightning is the native genius of the author. You either have it or you don't. There are composers who study their entire lives and go to the best schools, but they will never be Mozart. Edward de Vere may have gone to Oxford and Cambridge and have been as well practiced as any poet on the planet, and William Shakespeare may have come from a small town with only a basic public education; but that spark of lightning was born to one and not to the other. Study and practice can improve your work, but it cannot create true genius. The work attributed to William Shakespeare is the product of true genius, not the product of education and social rank.
But let us not speculate. It turns out that technology finally did evolve to the point where we've been able to conclusively exclude all of these nominees, Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford included, as having written Shakespeare's works. Computational stylistics is a branch of computer science in which a "literary fingerprint" can be determined for any author, based on computational analysis of his writing. As detailed in their 2009 book, Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship, professors Arthur Kinney and Hugh Craig proved during their 2006 research at the University of Massachusetts Amherst that Shakespeare was the author of his own works, and nobody else. These computational techniques also made it possible to determine which plays influenced which later authors, and many other subtleties that escape conventional study of the texts. Hollywood movies to the contrary, we now know for a fact that neither de Vere of Oxford nor anyone else deserves credit for William Shakespeare's life's work.
And neither was the Bard of Avon likely to take such charges lightly. A stone slab covers his remains at the Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, and on it is carved the following warning:
Good frend for Iesvs sake forbeare,
To digg the dvst encloased heare.
Bleste be ye man yt spares thes stones,
And cvrst be he yt moves my bones.
By Brian Dunning
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "Finding Shakespeare." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
18 Oct 2011. Web.
24 Sep 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4280>
References & Further Reading
Callahan, P. "Computerized Analysis Helps Researchers Define Shakespeare's Work Using "Literary Fingerprint"." Office of News and Media Relations. University of Massachusetts Amherst, 27 Sep. 2006. Web. 10 Oct. 2011. <http://www.umass.edu/newsoffice/storyarchive/articles/39476.php>
Joyrich, R. "Shakespeare Oxford Society." Dedicated to Researching and Honoring the True Bard. Shakespeare Oxford Society, 31 Dec. 1996. Web. 13 Oct. 2011. <http://www.shakespeare-oxford.com/>
Kinney, A., Craig, H. Shakespeare, Computers, and the Mystery of Authorship. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.
McCrea, S. The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question. Westport: Praeger, 2004.
McMichael, G., Glenn, E. Shakespeare and his Rivals: A Casebook on the Authorship Controversy. New York: Odyssey Press, 1962.
Nicholl, C. "Yes, Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare." The Times Literary Supplement. 20 Dec. 2010, Number 5586: 3-4.
Shermer, M. "Skeptic's Take on the Life and Argued Works of Shakespeare." Scientific American. Scientific American, Inc., 31 Jul. 2009. Web. 12 Oct. 2011. <http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=skeptics-take-on-the-life>
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