I originally wrote this article for middle and high school teachers who are introducing their students to Shakespeare, but I have had so many readers of The Bookman’s Tale ask me where I stand on the authorship controversy, that it seems worth republishing here.
William Shakespeare has been good to me. He has entertained me in theatres on two continents and given me some of the juiciest roles I’ve ever had the pleasure to play on stage. On four occasions as a playwright I’ve taken my inspiration from him in writing comedies for young audiences.
Shakespeare is also at the center of my novel, The Bookman’s Tale. One story line in the novel follows a Shakespearean artifact from a London tavern in 1592 through the 1990s. Our present-day hero is racing to prove that this book is not a forgery, because if it is genuine, it would settle once and for all a debate that has raged for 200 years — who really wrote the plays of William Shakespeare?
If you have students who have seen the film Anonymous, or who have delved into one of the thousands of books casting doubt on the authorship of the Shakespeare canon, you might like to be equipped to answer this question; my answer might surprise you. After reading some of the best and most up-to-date scholarship on Shakespeare, I have come to this startling conclusion: the plays commonly attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, were actually written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shocking, right? Well, you’d be surprised how many people (including some characters in my novel) disagree with me.
Over the years Shakespeare’s works have been attributed to figures such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford by scholars hoping to prove that Shakespeare’s plays were written by someone else. Here’s how the kernel of the argument goes: Shakespeare, so far as we know, never attended a university or traveled outside of England. He was only moderately educated at a grammar school. Therefore, he could not have written plays which show an intimate knowledge of topics such as law, medicine, the Italian court, naval affairs and so on. There are some key flaws in this argument and in the supporting arguments its proponents put forth.
First of all, we don’t know much about Shakespeare’s life. True, he is not listed in the rolls of any university, but who are we to say he did not simply read about these topics in books? Some anti-Stratfordians (the word for those who believe someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays) actually claim that Shakespeare “never owned a book,” simply because there is no evidence that he did. As Bill Bryson points out in his brilliant monograph on Shakespeare, this is like claiming that he never wore pants, simply because there is no incontrovertible evidence that he did so. Pick almost any person who lived in the sixteenth century and try to prove that he owned a book, or pants, or anything else. Teaching your students about the Shakespeare controversy can be a good lesson in negative evidence: it is often impossible to prove that someone did something — that doesn’t mean that they didn’t. This is why, in our modern court system, defendants are not required to prove innocence, only reasonable doubt of guilt. There is certainly lots of reason to doubt the statement “Shakespeare never owned a book.”
Bill Bryson, whose book is slim, readable, witty and perfect for high school students or even middle school students wanting to know more about Shakespeare, writes that “nearly all of the anti-Shakespeare sentiment — actually all of it, every bit — involves manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact.” This is another great learning opportunity for students. We live in an age when, more than ever, students need to learn to evaluate the information they receive. Showing students that information that has appeared in such venerated sources as the New York Times, History Today and Scientific American can still be based on “manipulative scholarship and sweeping misstatements of fact” can help open their eyes to the dangers of taking any information at face value without corroborating research.
Simply stated, the problem with the anti-Stratfordians is twofold. First, after nearly two hundred years of challenging Shakespeare (following two hundred years during which no one, including those who knew him, challenged him), they have yet to present a single shred of solid evidence that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Secondly, they have summarily ignored quite a few shreds of evidence that Shakespeare did in fact write his plays. In the accounts of the Master of the Kings Revels, Shakespeare is named seven times as the author of plays presented before King James I, not to mention the presence of his name on the title page of most of his works, including many published during his lifetime. For someone other than Shakespeare to have planted such evidence would have involved a conspiracy of publishers, printers, actors, managers and royal officials, all of whom took the secret to their graves. Do you have reasonable doubt that that could happen? I certainly do.