Monday, February 12, 2018


Questions about the Question


To my students who asked me whether Shakespeare wrote the plays attributed to him, I answered, no: they were written by another man with the same name.  To the public who ask this question, anti-Stratfordians answer, no: they were written by another man who used his name to conceal his own identity.  My quip is their quest.

The anti-Stratfordian consensus is straightforward.  Shakespeare lacked the education in school or college, or the experience abroad or at court, to write the plays attributed to him.  No unequivocal direct evidence or unimpeachable indirect evidence of his authorship exists.  His association with theatrical companies as an actor and presumably manager enabled him to serve as a front for the real author of his plays.  The real author was educated and experienced, and of high enough social standing to require that he conceal his identity to protect himself from social scandal or political danger.[1]

The Stratfordian response necessarily contradicts this anti-Stratfordian consensus about Shakespeare.  He had the start of a good education in Stratford’s free school, self-educated himself thereafter, and augmented his education in a profession embedded in literary and dramatic culture.  At a time when literacy was increasing in all social classes and the variety and volume of publications expanding, manuscripts routinely circulated among friends and associates, and tavern conversations were a source of information, his opportunities and the resources for self-education were numerous and varied—informal as well as, perhaps more than, formal, yes, but educational nonetheless.

The objections to Shakespeare’s authorship because of a posited lack of education are surprising.  Scholars on both sides of the debate agree, to greater or lesser degree, on several points.  Shakespeare received an education at a grammar school in Stratford.  He had sufficient literacy to read his actor’s parts, to participate in his company’s financial and legal activities, and to conduct his business affairs.  Like his contemporaries, he was aware of political and religious issues, cultural riches, and social energies in London and around Elizabethan and Jacobean courts and theaters.  As a member of companies which performed plays at court, he observed behavior there.  The assumption that Shakespeare responded creatively to diverse opportunities and experiences is more likely than the assumption that elite educational or social standing was prerequisite for authorship.

Recently, objections to Shakespeare’s authorship have aspersed his character or conduct (perhaps implicitly contrasted with the presumably far more refined character and conduct of those who attended college or court).  Denigrations allege such non-academic and -aristocratic behavior as usury and other unscrupulous business practices in order to taint important early evidence of his career as a playwright as well as actor and businessman.  I do not reject these smears out of hand because I want Shakespeare to be regarded as a model citizen as well as a superlative dramatist, but because I am interested only in the question of his authorship.  Even if one accepts all imputations of all evils, each practiced many ways, against Shakespeare’s person, not one of them bears upon the question of his authorship.  Anti-Stratfordians invoke one or more of these denigrations to discredit Shakespeare the man in the hope of thereby transferring contempt for him as a person to contempt for the claim not only of his authorship, but also of his exalted status as England’s greatest playwright.  Such depictions are polemical and, without evidence, not scholarly.  The less said about these smears the better.


  The unusual dynamics of this debate—controversy, really—reflect its multiple asymmetries.  Stratfordians have a single candidate for authorship, namely, William Shakespeare of Stratford and London.  Anti-Stratfordians have many alternative candidates; Wikipedia lists 87 nominees for the honor.[2]  Among the more popular candidates today are Edward DeVere (Earl of Oxford) and Christopher Marlowe.[3]  Among the odder candidates are: Thomas More (Chancellor of England beheaded in 1535), Elizabeth Tudor (aka Queen Elizabeth), Miguel Cervantes (Spanish author), and Anne Hathaway (Shakespeare’s wife).

This asymmetry in numbers of candidates enables an asymmetry in challenges.  Stratfordians, who have a single candidate, confront a large number of challengers; anti-Stratfordians, who have many candidates, operate as if they confront only a single combatant.  In itself, this imbalance reflects an unscholarly bias.  In principle, each anti-Stratfordian confronts as many challengers as Stratfordians do; in practice, anti-Stratfordians oppose Shakespeare and ignore candidates other than their own.  For example, advocates of, say, the DeVere and Marlowe candidacies do not address, debate, or dispatch each other.

Another asymmetry, one of different kinds (and standards) of evidence, explains this unbalanced engagement.  Stratfordians have a body of documentary evidence with a prima facie claim to credibility: his name on title pages of quartos and the First Folio, in entries in the Stationers Register, in commendatory poems, among others.  (I discuss the much debated reference in Robert Greene’s A Groatsworth of Wit below.)  By contrast, anti-Stratfordians have no body of documentary evidence of an alternative candidate comparable in kind.  Indeed, their assumption of deliberate concealment rules out in advance the likelihood of finding such evidence, certainly any mention of a name, to support an alternative to Shakespeare.  It is one thing for anti-Stratfordians to ignore the existence of or impeach any and all evidence supporting Shakespeare’s authorship; it is another for them to provide nothing, or nothing more credible, as supporting evidence of another candidate.  This void of evidence created by their assumption of concealed identity invites a plenum of speculation—criticism, like nature, abhors a vacuum—which anti-Stratfordians fill with hypotheses of possibilities, their re-interpretations of well-known documents, or their interpretations of other, often obscure, documents—the biased evidence of special pleadings all.[4]  Part of the asymmetry, then, is a double standard when it comes to evidence.

These asymmetries have an unacknowledged implication: anti-Stratfordians take the arguments for Shakespeare’s candidacy seriously but they do not take each other’s arguments seriously.  It is not clear how they could since each advocate of a particular candidate can offer nothing but arguments for which no relevant, much less decisive, evidence exists.  Were advocates of different alternative candidates, say, DeVere and Marlowe, to debate each other, they could attack the other’s arguments but could not defend their own.  Obviously, they could not accuse each other of defending vested interests in an entrenched orthodoxy, or conspiring to disregard alternatives.  Debates among advocates of the up to 87 alternative candidates would discredit each one of them and leave Shakespeare the last author standing.

Anti-Stratfordians avoid the disaster of such mutually assured destruction by uniting to attack outsiders.  Instead of attacking each other, they join in attacking Stratfordians with charges that they not only avoid debate, but also conspire to avoid it and the truth about Shakespeare—projections of their own conduct in this debate-at-a-distance.  They also join in claiming to want a free, fair, and open discussion of authorship—posturing to claim the high rhetorical ground and cast Stratfordians as scholarly frauds.

  To which charges, there are three rebuttals.  One, Stratfordians do not constitute a conspiracy; they constitute a consensus, quite a different thing, on Shakespeare’s authorship.  They can agree among themselves without forming an organized group to oppose those with whom they disagree.  Two, Stratfordians have no vested interest in the outcome of the debate; whoever the author is, they still have the plays and the theater to research and teach.  Three, Stratfordians share a commitment to traditional scholarly principles and practices, and engage in free, fair, and open discussions with others whom they believe to share that same commitment.  Accordingly, they are likely disinclined to debate those whom they believe not to share that commitment or to debate in venues ill-suited to scholarly exchanges.

  Corresponding counter-charges are merited.  One, anti-Stratfordians, as discussed above, are united in opposition only to Shakespeare, not, in disinterest, to all other candidates but their own—a shared basis of a conspiracy.  Two, anti-Stratfordians have a vested interest in promoting and protecting their candidate.  If their candidate were decisively eliminated, his (or her) advocates would presumably no longer publish, but perish, fame-and-fortune-wise.  Three, far from wanting the kind of debate which they claim to want, anti-Stratfordians make discrediting personal charges in advance about Stratfordians, charges which, in themselves and in their timing, signify bad faith.

In sum, scholarly debate under the rubric “the Shakespeare authorship question” is less likely to be scholarly than stagey.  The claims and counter-claims signal that one side adheres to the traditional belief in the face of challenge and the other side adheres to the idées fixes of a quasi-religious faith.  Stratfordians adhere to traditional standards of scholarship and adduce established evidence to support Shakespeare’s authorship.  Anti-Stratfordians offer arguments which carry no weight with other anti-Stratfordians and thereby carry no weight with Stratfordians.  Obviously, with each side accusing the other of scholarly obstinacy, neither is going to persuade the other.  Notwithstanding that anti-Stratfordians agree that Shakespeare is not the author of the plays in the canon attributed to him, their unity on this point neither establishes truth nor even entitles them to have their arguments for alternative candidates taken seriously or claim that the fact of not being taken seriously implies a conspiracy against any alternative, avoidance of truth, or dread of debate.  Until they can muster convincing evidence and argument for their candidates, Shakespeare the incumbent abides by default as the recognized author of the plays in the canon.

The Test of the Question: Is Shakespeare’s Authorship Established in 1592?


No discussion of Shakespeare’s authorship, whether Stratfordian or anti-Stratfordian, can avoid engagement with A Groatsworth of Wit (London, 1592), a short pamphlet attributed to Robert Greene but possibly written or revised by Henry Chettle.  For it is the first document to suggest, reliably or not, that Shakespeare is a playwright.  In citing the following passage, Stratfordians affirm and anti-Stratfordians deny that it is the first evidence of Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist:

Base minded men all three of you, if by my miserie ye be not warned: for vnto none of you (like me) sought those burres to cleaue: those Puppets (I meane) that speake from our mouths, those Anticks garnisht in our colours. Is it not strange that I, to whom they al haue beene beholding: is it not like that you, to whome they all haue beene beholding, shall (were yee in that case that I am now) bee both at once of them forsaken? Yes, trust them not: for there is an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Iohannes fac totum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey. O that I might intreate your rare wits to be imploied in more profitable courses: & let those Apes imitate your past excellence, and neuer more acquaint them with your admired inuentions.[5]

The consensus of scholars is that the three dramatists directly addressed are George Peele, Thomas Nashe, and Christopher Marlowe.  Stratfordians identify the “vpstart Crow” as Shakespeare by interpreting “Shake-scene,” as a pun on his name and by identifying the line “Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” as an adaptation of “O tiger’s heart wrapp’d in a woman’s hide” (3 Henry VI, I, iv, 137).  Anti-Stratfordians interpret this passage quite differently.  They selectively reproduce or interpret this passage, identify the “vpstart Crow” as someone else, imply that only an actor would “bombast out a blank verse” written by others, or discount or ignore this passage altogether.

Greene’s passage is a warning to three fellow dramatists.  It begins by warning them  against actors who benefit from their plays but who, ungrateful to them, will abandon them at some point.  It ends by warning them of a pretentious actor who, in addition to speaking their lines, writes lines himself.  For this warning to work, Greene relies on the three dramatists’ knowledge of the actor, his name, and his plays.  In this context, the epithet “Shake-scene” and the adaptation of the line “Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde” make sense in this context only if Shakespeare and his line were known to them—strong evidence that other dramatists knew of Shakespeare as a playwright in his own right.  All in all, Greene’s passage means that Shakespeare was not only a writer, but also a capable one, of this line as well as of many others, by 1592.[6]

If anti-Stratfordians address the passage at all, they interpret it as Greene’s warning about “an vpstart Crow, beautified with our feathers...[who] supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you.”[7]  This actor, and only an actor, struts upon the stage and bellows—“bombast[s]” is the word—out their lines, to advance himself in the theater.  Most anti-Stratfordians accept and rely on the narrower modern meaning of the word, that “bombast out” is oratorical, not compositional.  Yet, in 1592, the word “bombast” referred to pretentious language spoken or written, often used as padding (OED), and less likely speech than text.[8]  In context, the modern meaning makes no sense; it implies that these three dramatists were themselves actors bombasting out lines, with “an vpstart Crow” presuming to “bombast out” blank verse as well as they do.

Greene recognizes that Shakespeare’s ability to both speak and write made him an emerging threat to independent dramatists: an in-house playwright and an actor in his and others’ plays.[9]  Whatever else he is doing, he is not warning fellow dramatists about an ungrateful actor no matter how he speaks their blank verse on the stage.  After all, it makes no sense to warn them about an actor doing what dramatists expect actors to do with their lines.  Instead, he is warning fellow dramatists about an actor doing something new and threatening to their livelihood, namely, writing for his company and thereby reducing its need for plays from independent playwrights.  Until then, unaffiliated dramatists had written for acting companies; now, one actor presumes to write plays for his company.  Greene expresses this double function as actor and writer by declaring Shakespeare to be “an absolute Iohannes fac totum,” a Jack-of-all-trades.  If “Shake-scene,” with a double career as both actor and writer, is not Shakespeare, an alternative candidate must be someone who did not need to conceal an association with the theater.

How Do Anti-Stratfordians Answer the Test Question?

My reading of the anti-Stratfordian challenges to the orthodox attribution is not extensive—an article here, a book there, over about six decades.  Most challenges from scholars, affiliated or independent, are mostly similar.  They attempt to undermine Shakespeare’s authorship because of his purported lack of education and experience.  They advance alternative candidates as the author of the canonical plays, usually with an impressive display of detailed and often recherché information.  Typical of the kind is Rosalind Barber’s well-received “Shakespeare Authorship Doubt in 1593.”[10]  Atypical is Diana Price’s well-regarded Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, which advances no alternative to Shakespeare—neither a Baconian nor a Marlovian (nor anyone else), she.[11]

Whatever the relative merits of these anti-Stratfordian efforts, their challenges have not only not convinced me, but also not given me pause.  Lest I be liable to the charges made against Stratfordians, I here testify briefly in my behalf and ask that you believe me.  As an independent scholar, I am often skeptical of received opinion.[12]  I have no vested interest in, and am not biased, close-minded, or obstinate about, the traditional attribution; the plays are the plays.  Knowing their author tells us nothing about them, so, from a strictly critical perspective, it does not matter who wrote them.  It certainly does not matter to me.  Indeed, my only interest in the authorship question is a concern that both sides argue according to the traditional norms of scholarship and accept the same scholarly standards of judgment of their arguments.  That said, I believe that anyone has an unqualified right to challenge the conventional wisdom or received opinion on the question whether Shakespeare is the author of all or large parts of the plays in the canon attributed to him.

In that spirit, I want to examine only one argument by the aforementioned anti-Stratfordians Marlovian Barber and agnostic Price against Shakespeare’s authorship.  That argument concerns their treatment of Greene’s warning to fellow dramatists.

Barber’s argument must prove that Shakespeare was not the author of plays and, to that end, tries to show that he had no reputation as a writer, particularly, as a dramatist, before Marlowe’s presumed death in 1593.  Thus, she claims,[13]

Those steeped in the orthodox biography of Shakespeare may strain to believe that in the summer of 1593, the name William Shakespeare was entirely new and had no history attached to it; scholarly tradition has long assumed that William Shakespeare was a familiar name in literary and theatrical circles before the appearance of Venus and Adonis. Yet there is no evidence for this assumption.18

Barber’s snideness about “those steeped in the orthodox biography of Shakespeare,” thus likely to strain to believe an easier truth, casually insults opponents.  Her slur tries to insinuate as truth without argument what others doubt for many reasons, some of which I have provided.  Her footnote 18 provides her reasons for dismissing the view that “William Shakespeare was a familiar name in literary and theatrical circles” in 1593.

18 The single literary allusion taken to refer to Shakespeare prior to this point, Robert Greene’s famous ‘upstart Crow’ passage of September 1592, is more likely than not a reference to Edward Alleyne, the ‘Player’ or ‘Shake-scene’ of whom Greene writes in the body of Groatsworth, who claimed himself to be ‘a country author’, and employed Greene to write plays. He is documented as loaning money to his authors; the subject of Greene’s attack is not only an actor but an ‘userer’. The identification of Alleyn as the ‘upstart Crow’, persuasively argued by non-Stratfordian A. D. Wraight, has been supported by another questioner of orthodoxies, Donna Murphy. See A. D. Wraight, Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn (Chichester: Adam Hart, 1993), 130-85; Donna N. Murphy, 'Did Gabriel Harvey Write Greene's Groatsworth of Wit?,' Notes and Queries 54, no. 3 (2007).

Aside from mentioning the relevant passage in Greene’s pamphlet, Barber does not engage its text.  Indeed, although nothing in the passage suggests usury by anyone, she falsely claims that “the subject of Greene’s attack is not only an actor but an ‘userer’ [sic].”  (Usury is mentioned in the following passage but it not linked to “Shake-scene.”)  Instead of engaging the text, she relies on arguments by other anti-Stratfordians who apply interpretative identifications of individuals elsewhere to identify individuals in this passage.  Such dubious analogies allow an interpretation of Edward “Ned” Alleyn as a usurer to be retrofitted to the usurer purportedly present in this passage.  Such dishonest argument is inevitable when an anti-Stratfordian, operating in a closed circle of fellow believers, has to avoid the clear meaning of a text contradicting a pre-ordained conclusion in an argument for an alternative candidate.

Much of what has been said against Barber’s argument can be said against Price’s (and, having said it in my reviews, I do not repeat much of it here).  Price denies that Greene’s passage is personal literary evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship and thereby support for the traditional interpretation that Shakespeare was both playwright and actor.  According to Price’s interpretation of this passage,

“Shake-scene” is resented, not as a promising dramatist who threatens the status quo, but as a paymaster, callous usurer, and actor who thinks [italics hers] himself capable of extemporizing blank verse....[and] is arrogant enough to presume that his ad-libbing can compete with or improve upon the lines written by professional dramatists, the very same writers whom he hires.  Moreover, he thinks he can pass off their words as his own.”[14]

Price’s interpretation of this passage shows some of the shortcomings typical of anti-Stratfordian argument.  Nowhere does Greene describe Shakespeare as a “paymaster” or “callous usurer”; Price’s pejorative terms derive from characterizations of unnamed individuals elsewhere in the pamphlet, none identifiable as Shakespeare.[15]  In accepting charges from this passage and elsewhere in the pamphlet at face value, Price does not exercise that skepticism which she exercises elsewhere about the meaning of documents implying Shakespeare’s career as a playwright.

These two examples show a common approach to the question of Shakespeare’s authorship, clannish language of abuse for Stratfordians or Shakespeare, a closed circle of citation, and, despite the display of scholarly paraphernalia, shoddy scholarship.  Non-scholars may be readily attracted to and persuaded by the excitement of attacks on Stratfordians and their alleged conspiracy; if so, they will certainly be distracted by the fake news from the anti-Stratfordians.

[1] I think it less than likely that the real author could conceal his identity for two decades during the period of authoring the plays and in later years, without contemporary disclosure.
[3] A recent collection of arguments for Shakespeare and other contenders for the canon is William D. Leahy, ed., My Shakespeare: The Authorship Controversy: Experts Examine the Arguments for Bacon, Neville, Oxford, Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Shakspere, and Shakespeare (Brighton, Eng.: Edward Everett Root Publishers, 2018).  Of the many alternative candidates, I select Marlowe because, as a known dramatist and apparently a sometime collaborator with Shakespeare, he has the support of skill and, up to a point, contemporaneity; accordingly, I examine one paper of a Marlovian well known because of her academic and fictional writing on Marlowe.
[4] Some anti-Stratfordians explicitly regard contemporary documents as encoded evidence which, when they crack the code, supports their position.
[6] Greene’s metaphor reinforces the idea of writing, not acting.  As “Shake-scene” is an “upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers,” so the three dramatists whom he warns are also birds.  The ornithological metaphor associates all five writers—Peele, Nashe, Marlowe, Greene, and Shakespeare—of blank verse, bombastic or not, as birds and makes sense only if they are professionally of a feather.
[7] Greene may deprecate Shakespeare as a presumptuous writer, plagiaristic or not, but his deprecation still recognizes him as a writer of importance.  His implicit standard may be education; of the five dramatists involved, only Shakespeare was known not to have attended a university.  If so, Greene’s pamphlet is the first document to sneer at Shakespeare’s lack of a university education, but not to discredit his playwriting ability.
[8] In Love’s Labor’s Lost (c. 1595), the Princess comments on correspondence received as textual verbosity:
We have receiv’d your letters full of love;
Your favors, embassadors of love;
And in our maiden council rated them
At [as merely] courtship, pleasant jest, and courtesy,
As bombast and as lining to the time... (V,ii,777-781).
[9] Until 1592 and for years thereafter, Shakespeare was the only man of the theatre both to write and to act in plays; his position at the time and later in The Lord Chamberlain’s Men and in The King’s Men enabled him to make a double contribution to his company, in the latter two of which he was a shareholder.
[10] Critical Survey, 21. 2, Questioning Shakespeare (2009), 83-110.
[11] Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 2001).  Price requested that I review her book; I infer that she thought that I would be fair in my review.  My initial review claims that her book is the best of its kind, although it is not uncritical of her argument.  I do not say that I do not think highly of the kind.  On my initiative, my later criticism of her revision launches no personal attack, reveals no interest in the identity of plays’ author, and indicates my interest in the standards of scholarship on this question.  See “Diana Price’s Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography: The Epitome of Anti-Stratfordian Scholarship,” <MLH blog Shakespeare White Knyght> or <MLH (Price)>.
[12] My two articles discrediting the paleographic argument for identifying the handwriting of Shakespeare’s six legal signatures and the handwriting of Addition IIc in the Sir Thomas More manuscript may have been better received by anti-Stratfordians than Stratfordians.  Price refers to them in her various publications.)  In a recent public debate (How to: Academy, 26 September 2017;, Alexander Waugh chastises Jonathan Bate for not keeping up with the latest scholarship and cites my second article, which he claims “completely rubbishes” (36:29-43) the argument for attribution.  Waugh over-reached, but Bates, not having read my article, could not rebut him.  My article insistently distinguishes identification of penmanship from attribution of authorship.  See my “Shakespeare’s Hand in Sir Thomas More: Some Aspects of the Paleographic Argument,” Shakespeare Studies VIII (1975), 241-53; and “Shakespeare’s Hand Unknown in Sir Thomas More: Thompson, Dawson, and the Futility of the Paleographic Argument,” Shakespeare Quarterly, 67.2 (Summer 2016), 180-203.
[13] “Shakespeare Authorship Doubt in 1593,” 8.  My text is a downloaded pdf version from Barber’s site at <Barber, U of London, Goldsmiths>.
[14] Price, Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, 50.
[15] Price neither acknowledges nor discounts accordingly that these charges resemble the slanderous allegations which the envious or the insecure in one literary circle have made against others in another literary circle throughout history; smearing other writers for plagiarism, presumption, pomposity, and pelf is a custom of literary clans. 

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