There’s a line in the movie version of Angels and Demons where Tom Hanks’ character Robert Langdon says, when asked why the old Illuminati wrote messages in English, that the reason for such activities is because English was the language of rebels like “Shakespeare and Chaucer”.
There are so many things wrong with that statement that I don’t have time to unpack it all, but the best part is we, today, have very little idea of what either Geoffrey Chaucer or William Shakespeare actually thought, so Langdon declaring them to be “rebels” with such certainty and confidence is, in a word, preposterous.
But that’s why there are people who doubt Shakespeare’s plays were actually written by Shakespeare.
I recently finished the book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? and in those pages, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro discusses the authorship controversy. Shapiro believes, as do I, that Shakespeare himself wrote the plays. I would think most people would assume that William Shakespeare wrote William Shakespeare’s plays. But there are many who don’t, fingering all manner of alternative authors from Francis Bacon to Edward de Vere the Earl of Oxford, to Christopher Marlowe, and who knows who else. Shapiro’s initial impulse was to do something most scholars of Shakespeare don’t, which is actually discuss the matter at all without being dismissive on those who, for one reason or another, refuse to believe that William Shakespeare wrote those plays and poems.
Part of the problem is Shakespeare kept no diaries, and only a handful of pieces of his handwriting still exist. And none of those pieces of handwriting were on any of his literature. What we have are a handful of legal documents that point to Shakespeare himself. We also have some cases of letters and other people’s diaries mentioning Shakespeare or various plays of his, but nothing much from Shakespeare himself. Chaucer, mentioned above, is perhaps even worse in that regard, because all we have on his life are a series of receipts he collected as a government functionary. I had to read a biography of Chaucer once, and it was rather infuriating since the author seemed to be putting everything down as some sort of “choose your own adventure” book detailing the life of one of the English language’s greatest writers.
We can make some more educated guesses when it comes to Shakespeare. We know roughly when he was born, when he died, and what was in his will. We know how he invested money and may have been something of a moneylender, and he was a founding partner in the acting troupe that called the Globe home. He bought a coat of arms for his family. He married a woman nearly ten years older than him named Anne Hathaway.
We know Anne gave birth to the first of three children seven months after the wedding. We know two of Shakespeare’s three children lived to adulthood. We know they were his daughters, while his lone son Hamnet died young. We know Shakespeare spent most of his life in London while the family resided in Stratford-upon-Avon.
That’s actually about all we know for certain.
Now, the temptation for Shakespeare, or any author really, is to assume the author’s works tell us something about the person’s life. Can an author, any author, write effectively about experiences that he or she has not lived through?
Shapiro believes it isn’t necessary for an author to have experienced things firsthand to write effectively about such things. I am inclined to agree. The best gift any author can have is a good imagination. Not everything needs to be autobiographical. Shapiro even lists one example of an author who did insert autobiographical elements into his work, T.S. Eliot, who was amazed at how wrong people were when he was asked in interviews about certain things he wrote about that hadn’t happened to him. If Eliot, a relatively recent author, can have people make assumptions on his life based on his writings when he himself is still around to refute such assumptions, what do we do about an author who’s been dead for centuries?
The point is that, even if Shakespeare did insert autobiographical details into his plays, which details are they? He is credited with at least co-authoring 38 plays that we still have. At least two more, Cardenio and Love’s Labour’s Won, are mentioned in diaries from theatergoers and the like from his period but copies of which no longer exist. He may have written other plays that we just don’t know about. Regardless, there are dozens and dozens of different characters on display in these works. How many speak lines that Shakespeare knew about from personal experience? We have no way of knowing.
And therein lies the trick. The idea that Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare’s plays often comes from different people reading the works and picking out details that appeal to them and then applying them to Shakespeare. If it comes as an experience the person feels Shakespeare could not have personally experienced (such as details about foreign countries), then the conclusion is Shakespeare could not have written the plays. It must have been someone who had done whatever it was Shakespeare probably didn’t do, and that reading a book or asking someone who had had those experiences just isn’t a good enough explanation.
See, there’s the trick about conspiracy theories, and in the end, all ideas that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays are essentially conspiracy theories. We like to believe the people who believe these ideas are idiots, but that isn’t the case at all. Highly intelligent people often subscribe to such theories. I had the misfortune once of attending a baby shower where the couple sitting at my table were 9/11 Truthers. The man stated he was a man of science, and everything he knew about science told him that the planes alone could not have brought the buildings down. It had to be, he was convinced, an inside job.
Now, I don’t subscribe to that for a very simple reason: people talk. The number of people needed to plant explosives in the Twin Towers would have been far too many to keep the whole plot a secret. Someone would have had an attack of conscience or at least bragged about it over a beer. The same is true for Shakespeare and the question of his authorship of his work. There may not have been diaries and such that Shakespeare kept, but others did, most notably Shakespeare’s rival (and probable friend) Ben Jonson. Jonson was not the kind of man who would have let Shakespeare get away with a deception like that. He was convinced of his own dramatic superiority for one thing. For another, he wrote an introductory poem for the First Folio collection of Shakespeare’s work that is full of compliments, backhanded and otherwise.
But if you bring these up to an individual convinced of a cover-up, these details don’t often matter. In the 19th century, a woman named Delia Bacon was among the first to advocate a different author than Shakespeare. Her choice was Francis Bacon (no relation). When asked about Jonson, Ms. Bacon just stated that Francis Bacon was Jonson’s sponsor, so Jonson was in on the whole thing. New information is either something to be absorbed into the theory or ignored as false.
But while these are often intelligent people, that does not make them experts in all fields, and there’s the rub. The man I met above’s field was medical technology. He was a salesman of such things. If I wanted to know about x-ray machines, he’d be the guy to ask. But during the chat, a woman briefly sat down. She was a structural engineer, and she added that, as far as she knew, the elevator shafts in the Twin Towers actually made the buildings more vulnerable to such attacks. But she likewise knew a losing argument when she heard one and said something to the effect that she could be wrong and exited the chat very quickly.
For what it was worth, I opted not to argue with the man either.
That means that highly intelligent people, people you would think would know better, often do believe unusual theories about all manner of things. At least three recent Supreme Court Justices (Scalia, Blackmun, and John Paul Stevens) all subscribed to one degree or another to the idea that Edward de Vere wrote Shakespeare’s plays. So too do a number of prominent modern Shakespearean actors like Jeremy Irons and Derek Jacobi. Sigmund Freud was outright disagreeable with anyone who failed to see the “truth” in de Vere’s authorship.
Never mind that de Vere was dead before a number of these plays appeared for the first time. These are people who would point out that there is no actual physical record of Shakespeare’s education (true), that Shakespeare spelled his name differently in the signatures of his we have (also true), and that Shakespeare’s name was sometimes printed with a hyphen (also true).
But there is no record of anyone getting an education at the Stratford Grammar School when Shakespeare was a boy because those records were lost. Some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries ended up going to Oxford University. Illiterates don’t often get accepted into college. Grammar school in Shakespeare’s time, and he would have been able to attend, was often more rigorous than college lessons in Latin is today. Shakespeare didn’t spell his name consistently in part because no one did. Standard spelling hadn’t come along yet. And the hyphen was to do with the difficulties in setting different letters next to each other in a printer’s typeface.
None of that information would matter to anyone who didn’t believe Shakespeare was not the author.
In reality, people who buy into these sorts of ideas are often saying more about themselves than they are about who wrote what. Mark Twain believed Francis Bacon wrote the plays in part because he could not understand why a celebrated author like Shakespeare could be so ignored in his own hometown. Twain himself was a huge celebrity, but times were different when Shakespeare was writing. Twain likewise believed great writing was, like his, at least a little autobiographical, so not only did Bacon write Shakespeare’s plays, but Twain also believed John Milton wrote A Pilgrim’s Progress and Queen Elizabeth was secretly a man. Freud had hung a lot of his own Oedipus Complex onto a specific reading of Hamlet. For the theory to work, the author of Hamlet had to have lived through the death of his own father. Shakespeare’s father was still alive when most scholars believe Hamlet was written, so for Freud, Shakespeare couldn’t have been the author. De Vere’s father had been dead by then, so de Vere became a better suspect for Freud. The Bacon theory first appeared in the United States, and much of it was wrapped up in an idea that Bacon was using the plays as a means to spread republican style of government in code. Others just can’t believe an author like Shakespeare wrote for anything other than profit. In all likelihood, Shakespeare wrote not to create great art, but to earn a living. Once he had enough money, he retired. That’s hard to believe for anyone who sees the plays as great art. Surely the author was intending them for posterity?
Except, plays were not considered the highest written form of art in those days. That was reserved for poetry. The novel hadn’t really been invented yet. Actors were often seen as disreputable people. And religious types really had a problem with the idea of people pretending to be something they were not.
Theories like this in many ways won’t be going anywhere for a while. The Oxfordian theory, championing de Vere, has seen a resurgence of late due in part to the idea that there must be two sides to every story. It’s the same reason evolution gets stamped with a “theory” sticker in many school textbooks today. It doesn’t matter what experts say. Other experts (often in other fields) and celebrities keep these ideas breathing. Often times, the simplest explanation is the truest for instances like this. The simplest explanation is Shakespeare wrote those plays. There is no real evidence, no document, no known code or cypher aside from generally a series of coincidences that people read into Shakespeare’s work to say anyone else was responsible.
But that’s just not enough for some people.
Controversies like this will not go away, unless we can answer one question definitively for all people: must great writing always be based on personal experience? I’d say no, but plenty of people would disagree with me. And that’s why some people doubt Shakespeare, or even read more into Shakespeare’s work than might actually be there.