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Why the Shakespeare Authorship Question Matters to Us

Why the Shakespeare Authorship Question Matters to Us

The Shakespeare authorship question is a theory (which was first proposed during the Victorian era) that William Shakespeare did not write the plays and poems which were accredited to him.

Anti-Stratfordians - the name given to those backing multiple authorship theories - believe that Shakespeare (who came from Stratford-upon-Avon) was used as a front to shield the identities of the real writers, who did not want or could not accept, for various reasons, credit for the original works.

It’s a remarkably popular theory: famous historical figures such as Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin and the actor Orson Welles were doubtful about Shakespeare’s authenticity, and even today renowned Shakespearian actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance believe there is “reasonable doubt about the identity of Willian Shakespeare”. There are several candidates for the category of “real” author: Sir Francis Bacon, the English philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator and author is one. Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe, an English playwright, poet and translator are two more.

Believers of the alternative authorship theory often argue that William Shakespeare lacked the education, aristocratic sensibility and familiarity with the royal courts which is clearly evident in his works. Personally, I would say that as a dedicated reader of Shakespeare’s works, many of these claims do not seem to be supported by any reasonable evidence.

I would suggest that this theory derives from a deeply embedded prejudice rooted in the English class system (most marked during the Victorian era, when the authorship question first gained widespread credence). Certainly, Shakespeare came from relatively humble beginnings, and was not a member of royalty or part of the nobility - but, I argue, that is no reason to suppose that someone from his background could not write as well as he did, or accrue the wealth, position and influence in London theatrical society that he did.

There is lots of empirical evidence to repute these theories. Shakespeare probably attended a grammar school in Stratford-upon-Avon, the town of which his father was Mayor, and where he himself probably studied Greek and Latin, so the idea that Shakespeare himself was not educated enough to be writing such impressively allusive plays seems absurd. He was also an actor in the company that performed his plays, and as an actor for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of the most prominent playing companies in London, his annual income would have been sufficient to enable him to take shares in the theatre company and rise up socially.

It can never be definitively proved one way or the other - the historical evidence may well be lost for ever - but it seems to me that the authorship theory is mainly based on preconceptions of what people expect Shakespeare to be; their own personal idea of him.

This is where the implications for people reading Shakespeare today 400 years on are most important. How can we read (and be taught) Shakespeare’s plays, if we can never really understand the complete context of their composition, the time in which they were written and, yes, the prejudice and controversy that still engulfs them.

The question of authorship can completely change a person’s view on William Shakespeare, because it speaks to what we think is possible in life. Shakespeare’s works have long symbolised for us all aspects of the human condition - and I would argue that he writes equally as honestly, profoundly and comically about Mistress Quickly, an inn-keeper in The Merry Wives of Windsor, as he does King Henry V. The psychological precision and incision of his portrait of Richard III is more than matched by the intricacy with which he writes about Iago, the thwarted lower class ensign in Othello.

It is important to discuss the question of authorship, because the facts are not undisputed. But it is more important, I think, to keep such a debate in perspective, because if Shakespeare did write those works (and all the evidence makes that more likely than not) it reminds us that genius is not delimited by our start in life. Given a chance, the Shakespeare from Stratford became one of the greatest playwrights the world has ever seen.