Who did write the plays attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon? With the Bard labeled both “an upstart crow” and “the soul of the age,” scholars in the last 200 years have sought to reconcile Shakespeare’s lowly country upbringing and questionable formal education with the unmatched heights of his poetry and subsequent fame. The movement has attracted much attention over the years and gained voice from such literary and cultural celebrities as Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Recently the question has been adopted and explored by a new generation of scholars and artists. In October of 2011 film maker Roland Emmerich released a film, Anonymous, that presents an elaborate plot of Elizabethan intrigue to forever disguise the true author’s identity. But over the years dozens of candidates for authorship have been suggested.
The movement really took hold in the late 1800s, about the same time that Shakespeare worship, or “Bardolatry” as George Bernard Shaw termed it, had reached fever pitch. Shakespeare had come to be regarded, especially in America, as the greatest writer of all time. His plays were being performed regularly and lavishly. Author Samuel Johnson had referred to Shakespeare’s plays as “a map of life.” Acclaimed Shakespeare actor David Garrick used the Bard’s own words as praise: “The God of our idolatry.” Such super-human praises have continued throughout the centuries. Critic Harold Bloom’s 1998 treatise Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, claims that the characters written by Shakespeare were beyond the reach of fiction because they have independently shaped all of western culture and thought.
It is not surprising then, that many would take exception to these demi-blasphemous claims. As candidates for authorship have been examined over the years, followers have joined these popular camps:
All proposed candidates to usurp Shakespeare as playwright share a common thread, nobility. Those who claim William Shakespeare could not have authored the works attributed to him are quick to point out a few mysteries of his life. First, Shakespeare was the son of possibly-illiterate parents. There are no records of his attendance at the King’s New School in Stratford, located about a half-mile from his home. There are no claims of being his classmate or teacher from anyone in Stratford during his youth. How could the third child of a sometime-bankrupt glovemaker who at eighteen married a pregnant woman be the author of the most produced and celebrated theatrical works in the world?
Secondly, in the eight primary documents that bear Shakespeare’s signature or name, there is little or no consistency of its spelling. It appears as Shake-spears, Shak-spear, and Shaksper. Anti-Stratfordians would say that this proves that William Shakespeare was semi-literate at best. Adding to the weight of his inconsistent signature, the documents bearing it have no relation to his life in the theatre. He is listed as court witness in property disputes and at a marriage. Why would he not so much as mention his works or career in the last will and testament he made just weeks before his death?
These are the questions we may never have answers to. We cannot empirically prove or disprove that William Shakespeare was who our English teachers told us. John Orloff, screenwriter for Anonymous summed up the argument against Shakespeare this way, “There’s no evidence that Shakespeare actually wrote anything, and I don’t think anyone can be totally convinced either way. In 400 years, there’s been nothing discovered that was written by William Shakespeare. We have letters and manuscripts by his contemporaries. People left pieces of paper that they actually wrote. But not a single one exists by Shakespeare. All the evidence is circumstantial whether you think it’s him or you don’t think it’s him.”