Why lunatic Shakespeare authorship theories are still gripping academia

Will who? The ‘authorship debate’ has reared its head again - LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images
Will who? The ‘authorship debate’ has reared its head again - LEON NEAL/AFP via Getty Images

This week, the actors Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi wrote a letter to The Telegraph to take issue with a recent review by Jonathan Bate – in which the Shakespeare scholar cast an unconvinced eye on a new study by the American academic Elizabeth Winkler entitled “Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies”. It’s the latest twist in a mighty saga of disputation surrounding the “authorship question” that stretches back centuries and represents a cottage industry of claim, counter-claim and conspiracy theory.

Certainly Winkler’s book sets its author up as going rigorously against the grain of an orthodoxy-upholding establishment. “Among Shakespeare scholars,” she writes, “the Shakespeare authorship question - the theory that William Shakespeare might not have written the works published under his name - does not exist; that is, it is not permitted.

As a consequence, it has become the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature. In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespeare authorship question’ elicits contempt - eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging.. It is obscene to suggest that the god of English literature might be a false god. It is heresy.”

It would be one of the grand upsets of all time to establish that the Complete Works were written by someone other than William Shakespeare, the actor born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564, and who died there in 1616. After all, it’s in the vested interest of the keepers of the flame not to cede legitimacy to the “anti-Stratfordians”, so the line of thinking runs, a concerted effort, perhaps even a cover-up, to ensure that the Bard isn’t knocked off his pedestal. As Winkler notes, quoting another academic (Robin Fox): to ask Shakespeare scholars to research the authorship is “like asking the College of Cardinals to honestly research the Resurrection”.

Where does the heresy begin, and who are the rival deities for our worship? To some extent the door to controversy was left open from the start – not least because Shakespeare’s will didn’t allude to his plays, the works don’t offer much in the way of autobiographical revelation, and there was no great outpouring of grief at the passing of a supposed literary giant in 1616. The sheer scale of achievement attributed to Shakespeare also begs the question: how was it possible? That in turn raises concerns about what a young lad, however gifted, could glean from his attendance at (it’s assumed) a local rural grammar school.

Yet Bate himself has argued “No one in Shakespeare’s lifetime or the first two hundred years after his death expressed the slightest doubt about his authorship”. Even so, that view is countered by those who suggest that even in his day, there were allusions to someone else having written the plays.

In Walter Begley’s Is It Shakespeare? (1903), the use of the soubriquet Labeo in 1597 satires by Joseph Hall and John Marston is held to be a reference to Francis Bacon - a man of equivalent standing to the Roman legal scholar Marcus Labeo alongside a reference to his shifting criticism “to another’s name” [Who list complain of wrongèd faith or fame/ When he may shift it to another’s name?]

Such abstruse reasoning aside, that questions circulated before the 19th century is flagged in RC Churchill’s “Shakespeare and His Betters: A History and Criticism of the Attempts Which Have Been Made to Prove That Shakespeare’s Works Were Written by Others” (1958). It includes a line from a 1760 farce, High Life Below Stairs, in which one character asks “Who wrote Shakespeare?”, another replies “Ben Jonson” and another retorts “Oh, no! Shakespeare was written by one Mr Finis, for I saw his name at the end of the book”.

Almost 90 potential alt-Bards are listed on Wikipedia, but there are three main male candidates held, by some, to be the more plausible authors of such peerless works. Bacon, already mentioned, is put forward on account of the evidence of his breadth and depth of knowledge: a philosopher and statesman, he served as Attorney General and Lord Chancellor of England.

An American teacher called Delia Bacon (no relation) posited the related idea in the mid-19th century, that a small group of like-minded politicians wrote the works to further Bacon’s ideas. If he was the sole author, though, what would be his motive? That he had success already and didn’t want to jeopardise it? The fact that he died three years after the publication of the ‘First Folio’ does raise the question, though, as to why he so stubbornly hid his light under a bushel.

Louis Coblitz's portrait of William Shakespeare at the age of 34 - Photo Josse/Leemage
Louis Coblitz's portrait of William Shakespeare at the age of 34 - Photo Josse/Leemage

Winkler’s book alludes to a mysterious letter written in 1603 sent by Bacon to a lawyer who was to meet the new King, James I, signing off: “So desiring you to be good to concealed poets”. That could be Bacon; equally it could be, Winkler notes, another floated alternative ‘Bard’, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, who died in 1593, just before Shakespeare’s emergence as a writer.

Further it could be the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere (the candidate favoured by Jacobi), who travelled to Italy, so copiously evoked in some of the plays. De Vere’s life incidentally informed the conjectural 2011 film Anonymous, narrated by Jacobi. More recently, last year, De Vere’s claim was re-assessed by the Irish actor and lawyer Rose Loughlin in her one-woman show A Rose by Any Other Name.

Other possibilities have been floated and bubbled away. In 1907, the anti-Semitic German writer Karl Bleibtreu hailed Roger Manners, the Fifth Earl of Rutland, “The Real Shakespeare”, on account of his travels and closeness to the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare’s early poems were dedicated. In 1918, the sixth Earl of Derby, William Stanley, was hailed as the hidden genius, on account of his being busied ‘penning comedies’, none of which oddly were then seen.

If Baconian theories held the most sway in the 19th century, the Earl of Oxford surged in the 20th century and latterly there seems to have been more of a push on Marlowe. The more recent detectable swing though has been towards covert female input and a more inclusive and nebulous idea of what ‘authorship’ entails.

Rylance – who caused upsets during his tenure running the Globe from 1995 to 2005 by being an ‘anti-Stratfordian’, and then wrote and starred in his own play on the authorship question, stated in 2019: “The creator had not only extensive book learning, vocabulary, and life experience, but also the greatest understanding of women any playwright has ever displayed.” His wife Claire van Kampen, has elaborated that provocation: “For me, Mary Sidney [the Countess of Pembroke, an early English female poet] seems very much to have been involved”.

Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love - Allstar
Joseph Fiennes and Gwyneth Paltrow in Shakespeare In Love - Allstar

Latterly, the idea that another poet, Emilia Bassano, held by some to be the ‘dark lady’ of the Sonnets, fed the work, was given centre-stage at the Globe in Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s Emilia. “You’ve used my words and stories in so many of your plays and yet only your name is known.” The idea of an unsung feminine influence in the shadows was there in the rom-com of Shakespeare in Love, which played around with the idea of writer’s block and a handy muse, and Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet re-centres the domestic as a creative spur.

That theatre-makers as well as academics are happy to stir the debate on the authorship question suggests it isn’t going anywhere. There are lots of trip-wires around the subject, and opportunities for virulent disagreement. Nicholas Hytner once told me: The notion that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays is as absurd as the notion that the Holocaust didn’t happen”. Gregory Doran, ex artistic director of the RSC, on the other hand, has stated: “Who wrote Shakespeare? I don’t care. Ultimately we’ve got this fantastic body of plays and I don’t care who he, she or they were in a way because we’ve got them.”

It’s a debate that could easily devour years of scholastic inquiry and plunge one down the rabbit-hole but it always affords the hope that something will turn up, and everything will click into place. The least one can say perhaps is that Shakespeare wasn’t just the greatest writer that ever lived but also the greatest tease. One can’t help thinking of that exchange in Hamlet, and how Will, whoever in the world he quite was, might have laughed at the tedious old fools fussing over vapours: Hamlet:  “Do you see yonder cloud that’s almost in shape of a camel? Polonius: “By the mass, and ‘tis like a camel, indeed.” Hamlet: Methinks it is like a weasel...”

In 1924, Nabokov wrote a poem called Shakespeare, in which he averred “You easily, regretlessly relinquished/ the laurels.. concealing for all time your monstrous genius”. A writer so interested in paradox and ambiguity can’t have been unaware of the power of enigma; all roads lead to Stratford and nowhere.

Writers in the frame

If Shakespeare did not write his classic plays who did? Among the candidates are: