William Shakespeare


For about 150 years after his death no one seemed to doubt that Shakespeare wrote the works attributed to him. However, in the latter part of the 18th cent. questions began to arise as to whether or not the historical William Shakespeare was indeed the author. Since then the issue has continued to be a subject of often heated debate, albeit mainly in academic circles. Those who doubt that Shakespeare wrote the works (sometimes called "anti-Stratfordians") generally assert that the actor from Stratford had a limited education; some have even claimed that he was illiterate. Many of the questioners maintain that such a provincial upstart could not have had the wide-ranging worldly and scholarly knowledge, linguistic skills, and fine sensibilities evinced by the author of the Shakespearean canon. Such qualities, they assert, could only have been possessed by a university-educated gentleman, multilingual, well-traveled, and quite possibly titled. Critics further contend that playwriting was a lowly profession at the time and that the "real" author protected his reputation by using Shakespeare's name as a pseudonym. Over the years, many other arguments, some involving secret codes, some even more abstruse, have been offered to cast doubt on Shakespeare's authorship.

On the other hand, traditionalists ("Stratfordians") who believe that William Shakespeare was indeed the author of the plays and poems, point out that his probable education at the Stratford grammar school would have provided the required knowledge of the classics and classical civilization as well as of Latin and at least some Greek. They also maintain that what can be assumed to be his broad reading of historical sources along with his daily involvement in the lively worlds of Elizabethan London—artistic and intellectual, ordinary and aristocratic—would, when transmuted by his genius, have provided Shakespeare with the necessary background to create his dramatic and poetic works. Moreover, they say, Shakespeare was known to his contemporaries, as attested to by a number of extant references to him as a writer by other notable men of his time.

Anti-Stratfordians have suggested a number of Elizabethans as candidates for the "real" author of the works. From the late 18th through the 19th cent. the individual most often cited was Francis Bacon, who had the requisite aristocratic background, education, courtly experience, and literary talent. Others claimed that Bacon was one of a group that collectively wrote the Shakespearean oeuvre. In the 20th cent. a new candidate emerged as the authorial front runner—Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford. His proponents, the Oxfordians, cited correspondences between events in his life and those in some of the plays, apparent similarities in the two men's language, and Oxford's proven skills as a dramatist and poet. Prominent among the many reasons to doubt de Vere's authorship is the fact that he died in 1604 and that some of Shakespeare's greatest works were written well after that date.

More than 50 other names have been put forward as the "real" Shakespeare, ranging from the implausible, e.g., Queen Elizabeth I, to the somewhat more possible, e.g., Christopher Marlowe; William Stanley, 6th earl of Derby; and Roger Manners, 5th earl of Rutland. Still others have suggested that the works were the result of a collaboration by two or more Elizabethan writers. In 2005 a new candidate, Sir Henry Neville, a courtier, diplomat, and distant relative of Shakespeare, was proposed. Even as studies and biographies of Shakespeare proliferate, the authorship controversy shows few signs of subsiding, and books, scholarly essays, and, more recently, websites continue to be devoted to the question.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: English Literature, 1500 to 1799: Biographies


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