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William Shakespeare

Rafe Spall as William Shakespeare in 'Anonymous'

Of course, the dominant view is still that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare, with a few partial collaborators along the way, especially for some of the later works. Among literature professors, academics, and established mainstream scholars, it’s not merely the most popular theory, it’s the only theory – not even a theory, really, but a closed question.

For Stratfordians, the appropriate non-literary comparison to the Shakespeare authorship question isn’t really the Kennedy assassination. For them, the more likely comparison would be the so-called debate over Darwin’s theory of evolution, in which Stratfordians would view themselves as Darwinians.

Stratfordians acknowledge that there is missing information and little contemporary biographical documentation, but they emphasize that there is not a total absence of evidence and that what does exist all points to William Shakespeare of Stratford, and not to someone else. There are the printed plays themselves, the records of theater companies, and the comments of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, including Ben Jonson.

Stratfordians may suffer from the disadvantage that their evidence tends to be of the more prosaic variety and doesn’t boast hidden codes, shrouded mysteries, or powerful conspiracies – in short, elements similar to those that draw us to the work itself.

For example, Stratfordians concede that there’s not much documentation about the kind of schooling that Shakespeare received as a youth in Stratford, but, they say, there’s not much documentation about the kind of schooling that anyone received in Stratford at the time.

And while there are no extant written manuscripts, Columbia’s James Shapiro points out that there were printed versions of the plays at the time that incorporated changes that could only have been made by Shakespeare himself, not by the Earl of Oxford or Christopher Marlowe, or others, from afar.

Shapiro also points to a rewritten epilogue for a special royal performance of Henry IV, Part II, which is, he says, “the closest we ever get in his plays to hearing Shakespeare speak for and as himself.” Shapiro says: “It’s inconceivable that any of the rival candidates for the authorship of the plays associated with the court” could have possibly stood on stage to deliver that epilogue.

Stratfordians are accused by the doubters of self-interestedly defending the status quo, on which, it is alleged, everything from their livelihoods to the income generated from Shakespeare’s birthplace, relies.

Both sides feel beleaguered – the anti-Stratfordians because they feel that they’ve gotten a raw deal by the establishment over the centuries and Stratfordians because they feel exhausted by what they see as a series of never-ending time-wasting arguments.

In the 1970s, Shakespeare biographer Samuel Schoenbaum wrote that the “voluminousness” of “lunatic rubbish” that questioned Shakespeare’s authorship was “matched only by its intrinsic worthlessness.”

But more recently, Shapiro, whose book Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? has perhaps placed him at the forefront of the Stratfordians, thought it might not be worthless to look into how and why those authorship theories arose. He thinks it shows more about how we read than it does about Shakespeare. In other words, the fault, to paraphrase Julius Caesar, is not in our Bard but in ourselves.

Shapiro ascribes the long-term interest in Shakespeare authorship theories in large part to the modern penchant for hunting down biographical or autobiographical elements in art. He says it’s no coincidence that fascination with Shakespeare authorship arose alongside the development of the modern murder mystery.

And he says that current popular interest in the topic parallels our society’s obsession with conspiracy theories.

Last year, while Anonymous was being filmed, Shapiro wrote in an Los Angeles Times op-ed piece that it was “one more sign that conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays have gone mainstream.”

As an English professor, he’s imagining the flood of questions teachers will get from students.

“Sure, it’s only a movie,” he wrote, “but try explaining that to schoolteachers who will soon be confronted by students arguing that the received histories of Elizabethan England and its greatest poet are lies — and that their teachers, in suppressing the truth, are party to this conspiracy.”

Shapiro also says that the doubters’ outlook reflects an inability to grasp the greatness of the work itself.

“What I find most disheartening about the claim that Shakespeare of Stratford lacked the life experiences to have written the plays is that it diminishes the very thing that makes him so exceptional: his imagination,” he writes.

Harold Bloom, in some ways a sort of Falstaffian figure himself, says Shakespeare’s imagination was so large that it actually changed our consciousness, changed the very way we think. The title of his landmark reading of the plays says it all – Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. It’s just difficult to get our minds around a genius so large.

In other words, Shakespeare’s achievement is so enormous that it’s hard to believe that anybody wrote it all, alone or in conjunction with others, openly or secretly. The resulting body of work has led critics to point out the dilemma: if you think Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, you have to believe in vast arrays of impossible plots, and, if you think he did, then you have to believe in an impossible talent.


Anonymous hits select theaters this Friday.

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By Paul Hechinger