Does it matter if Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

Every now and then, I tend to forget how geeky I really am. I go to work, I do relatively normal things, I come home (occasionally). And then sometimes I go to a friend’s house and end up talking about whether William Shakespeare really wrote all of his own plays.

I love Independence Day as much as the next person, but I’ve so far avoided the Roland Emmerich shocker-in-waiting Anonymous. It looks pretty diabolical, but I also know it’s likely I’ll get really angry with its depiction of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford as the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays.

It’s a long story, but for two centuries after his death nobody seems to have doubted that the Bard was responsible for all of his own work. The conspiracies which have variously named everyone from Francis Bacon to Christopher Marlowe to our friend Oxford as the true author of “Shakespeare’s” plays were mostly spawned in the nineteenth century.

All of these figures were apparently “better qualified” to write with authority on some of the heavy subjects the plays touch upon, and in the case of Oxford’s supporters, there are moments in some texts that seem to refer to incidents in the earl’s life. Have a read of that particular conspiracy theory if you can – it’s an amusing read with lots of incest and illicit sex. And bizarrely, leading Shakespeareans like Mark Rylance and Sir Derek bloody Jacobi buy it.

Personally, I don’t. And I’m not alone. It’s been a lengthy debate, but the best summary of the case for the Bard of Avon is here: the overwhelming critical consensus is that there was a man called Shakespeare (whom we admittedly know little about) who produced, or at least co-authored, a substantial body of work. As it happens, it’s mostly bloody good.

But does it matter? Well, sort of, but not as much as you might think. Ultimately, I think it’s more important for what it says about us than what it says about the plays.

There are lots of reasons why the truth of the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays isn’t really that big of a deal. One of them is the fact that he was writing for theatre. A play consists of more than just the script: it starts out that way, but the process of developing drama involves costumes, props, music and actors. That means that a play is not the work of one person, but the product of many, which is at least partially why there seems to have been a strong collective ethos in the early modern theatre.

Much of the evidence suggests that plays were seen as the work of a company, not a playwright, which is why nearly all the printed playbooks that survive from 1590 onwards bear the name of the company and not the author. Shakespeare’s company seems to have worked on the basis that manuscripts were collectively owned – and it has been argued this is why he didn’t oversee the printing of his own works. It’s almost certainly how Heminges and Condell were able to put together the First Folio. Focusing on Shakespeare as a sole creative genius represents a failure to acknowledge the difference between text and play.

And anyway, the idea of the lone genius is largely an irrelevance for the early modern theatre. It’s a later development that has been fuelled by the histrionics of people like Byron and Blake – a “cult of the author” in which artists have been viewed as prophet-like (or Antichrist-like) voices in the desert and a text must reflect some kind of truth about the author and their life. We want to be able to put a name to a piece of work, and preferably just the one.

Shakespeare’s theatre wasn’t like that. The vast majority of playwrights actually spent most of their time collaborating with one or more dramatists on a play – and they may have even worked on more than one play at once with different people. I’ve just bought a massive book of plays on which Shakespeare is thought to have collaborated, and lots of the early and later plays in his Collected Works (Titus Andronicus, The Two Noble Kinsmen) are known to have been collaborative efforts.

That fact has been neglected over the years because critics and audiences alike have seen co-authored texts as somehow inferior to those composed by individuals. Indeed, Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher worked together on a pretty large body of plays and were known as a team in their early careers, but I believe one of the reasons they were neglected for years by critics is because they usually worked as a duo.

Shakespeare’s unusual. He was famous in his own lifetime as a writer, and his name (on its own) is actually used on many of his plays. But given the amount of mostly forgotten, recently rediscovered plays on which he is known to have collaborated with other writers, it’s unlikely he saw himself as a solo talent – or at least not entirely.

In a lot of ways it is important to know about the context of a text’s production – as one of those people who tends to like her literature old, I generally feel like I’m losing a lot if I don’t have at least an idea of where and when it was produced. It can have a huge impact on the way you interpret a text. But this doesn’t necessarily have to come back to the specifics of an individual’s life. That implies reading biographical detail into the text, which is not always particularly helpful.

There are plenty of other arguments: academics have been talking about “the death of the author” for decades, pondering whether the author really matters once the text has passed to readers. But by the same token – if we choose to talk about the text and not the play – there are plenty of reasons to make sure that Shakespeare is given his due.

There’s a difference between saying that an individual could share some credit with others and calling them a fraud. If nothing else, I’d be pretty irritated if 400 years after my death, everything I’d done was attributed to somebody else.

But it’s more than that. The vast majority of the arguments against Shakespeare writing his own plays stem from the assumption that a man from relatively humble beginnings would have lacked both the experience and the education – and implicitly, the intelligence – to write about some of the serious and complex issues that the plays touch upon. It was born from a combination of snobbery and the belief that all writing has to come from a place of experience. To Shakespeare and his contemporaries, that would have been a very strange view to take.

In the words of James Shapiro:

“Encouraging audiences to believe that the plays are little more than the recycled story of a disgruntled aristocrat’s life and times devalues the very thing that makes Shakespeare so remarkable: his imagination.”

If Shakespeare is the name of the man who wrote all of those plays, then he’s an undeniable genius. But if not, then I’m glad to have a label to refer to one of the greatest bodies of literature in the English language.


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