An Introduction to the Great Shakespearean Authorship Debate

One day, several years ago, as I was wandering around my local library, I came across a book called Who Wrote Shakespeare? by John Michell and picked it up out of sheer idle curiosity. It would be through this backdoor, so to speak, that I was to discover the mystery that is William Shakespeare and, through him, Christopher Marlowe.

At the time, I had no particular interest in Shakespeare. I was in no way a Shakespearean scholar. I had studied French and Italian rather than English Literature in the final years of high school and university. Apart from the few plays I read in school and those I saw as an avid theatregoer in my youth, I knew little of his work. Shakespeare himself was no more to me than a name, a clumsy engraving and a few legends.

Until I read Who Wrote Shakespeare? I had little knowledge or interest in the question. I had some vague notion of the Authorship Debate – the claim that William Shakespeare, the uneducated glove-maker’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, could not have written the Shakespearean canon – but the only alternative candidate for the authorship I had heard of was Francis Bacon. If I had been asked for an opinion on the matter, I would have quoted the Bard himself: What’s in a name? The play’s the thing.

John Michell’s book opened my eyes to a whole new fascinating and intriguing world. I learned how vital this question was to so many people, not only the Orthodox, or Stratfordians, who steadfastly defend Shakespeare’s honour, but also the Anti-Stratfordians, a disparate and sometimes eccentric contingent who defiantly uphold the claims of their multitude of candidates to be the ‘real’ Shakespeare.

The quest for this elusive author’s true identity began when scholars started searching for documentary evidence for the life of Shakespeare. However, what little they discovered provided no evidence of his having written the plays and only opened the way for a myriad of doubts and questions which persuaded many people that Shakespeare could not have written the plays and poems. In Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? Debunking the Usual Suspects, I address many of those questions and demonstrate that they don’t necessarily disqualify William Shakespeare as the playwright.

However, as with all conspiracy theories, its adherents refuse to accept straightforward answers to their questions and cling to their ‘alternative facts’ and so the debate continues with each faction supporting their preferred candidate. In Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? The Authorship Contenders, I survey the most prominent candidates of the many on offer.

One of the planks of the Authorship Debate is a diatribe by Shakespeare’s fellow playwright, Robert Greene, in his deathbed pamphlet in which he ranted against a member of the theatrical fraternity that he believed had sorely wronged him, calling him an ‘Upstart Crow’ among other things. Leaping on Greene’s use of the epithet ‘Shake-scene’ Orthodox scholars insist that he must be talking about Shakespeare, but they also claim that none of what Greene says is true because he’s writing out of pure jealousy. At the same time, the Anti-Stratfordians jump on this morsel to claim that Shakespeare was nothing but a front man who stole other people’s work. But what if they’ve all got it wrong? In The Upstart Crow in Borrowed Feathers, I explore the strong possibility that Greene wasn’t referring to Shakespeare at all.

One of the most popular contenders for the title of the ‘Real’ Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford and the 2011 film Anonymous purported to make de Vere’s case. In fact, the film was so egregiously wrong on so many historical points that it did his cause more harm than good. I came out of the cinema so irritated by the film that I went home and wrote a point-by-point critique of its claims which I called Anonymous: a fraud indeed.

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