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Literary Criticism & Bard > Who Wrote Shakespeare?

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message 1: by Candy (new)

Candy | 1263 comments Mod
A popular argument about who wrote Shakespeare plays has arisen in our discussion of henry VI. Perhaps we can share some of our feelings and research about that topic here?

I once read a very interesting book, back in 2000, called "Author Unknown" by Don Foster.

Foster made his name by helping to bulk up Shakespeare's C.V. with one more entry: As a doctoral candidate in the mid-'80s, he flagged a neglected Elizabethan funeral elegy as a lost work of Shakespeare's, and gradually invented a computer-assisted method of textual analysis to help prove his case. He's also the guy who fingered Joe Klein as the anonymous author of "Primary Colors." He's since worked on the Unabomber and JonBenet Ramsey cases, the Monica Lewinsky fiasco and numerous other high- and low-profile disputes of the who-wrote-what variety. From Salon.

http://www.salon.com/books/review/200...

http://www.amazon.com/Author-Literary...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_W...

and the Wiki page on authorship of Shakespeare....

I take a leap of faith that the works are by Shakespeare...maybe I am little boring in this approach :) but if they weren't totally written by Shakespeare aren't they all at least like a "school of study" (like Renaisance painting or Warhol paintings?)

It's a fun topic though...I can see why it interests some readers. For me, I take a leap of faith and read the plays attributed to S as by him too.


message 2: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 79 comments Back when I was teaching English Literature, I spent some time looking into this. In the end, I go with Peter Saccio in accepting that Shakespeare wrote almost all of Shakespeare, though a few of the plays are collaborations and others may have added edits from time to time.

But basically, those who claim Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because he was too uneducated, not of high enough class, etc., are basically just being elitist and denying the power of genius.

IMHO. But I've spent my time on this issue, been there done that, moved on.


message 3: by Martin (last edited Apr 04, 2010 09:53AM) (new)

Martin | 714 comments Well, let's look at it in a bit more detail. The idea that Shakespeare did not write Henry 6 part 1 is certainly out there. Everyman posted in the reading group,

"One of several reasons [i.e. historical inaccuracy:] there is serious doubt that Shakespeare actually wrote Part 1: the prevailing view seems to be that he made a few adaptations to an already existing play."

and you find this among goodread reviews,

"Fine edition of a fascinating early play. Is that Thomas Nashe I smell in parts of this text?"

The reviewer is hardly likely to have read any Nashe. The idea that Nashe is the author has been picked up from an intro. Similarly Everyman's "prevailing view" is the the lowest common denominator if a batch of intros to the play which lazily follow earlier research.

So where is the evidence? Take Nashe. In 1909 H.C. Hart published his edition of the play promoting Nashe as a leading author. Here is an example of one his pieces of evidence (indeed one of his strongest examples),

S refers in 2.1 to the retrograde motion of Mars,

"Mars his true movings, even as in the heavens,
So in the earth, to this day is not known."

(A coincidence: see post #15 of the Henry 6 discussion, where, to me, this is clear evidence of S's authorship!) Nashe has a similar reference in a 1596 publication of his,

"you are as ignorant in the true movings of my muse as the astronomers are in the true movings of Mars, which to this day they could never attain to."

H.C. Hart traces this back to a book of 1569 by one Cornelius Agrippa,

"...neither hath the true movings of Mars been known until this date."

Then (the argument goes), Nashe is more likely to have read the source than S, because he was better educated. He used it in his known works, so it was he who put in in Henry 6.1. And the argument is really no stronger than that.

It is easy to prove that S could have got this from another source he is known to have read (Cairncross does this), and that it was probably part of the common wisdom of the age. The idea that S might have shown an interest in stars and planets comes as a surprise to no-one who reads S, and will not surprise Candy, who is very alert to these references.

About Nashe's better education: like Greene (the author of Pandosto) he went to St John's College Cambridge. We know nothing of S's education except that he did not go to Cambridge or Oxford. But this idea of S's lack of education is another of those hard-dying myths. Incidentally I went to St John's College Cambridge. I feel in no way whatever educationally superior to anyone else as a result, let alone to Shakespeare.

If you think about it, attribution to Nashe becomes plausible to the average reader only because he is so obscure. An attribution to Marlowe would make no sense. We know Marlowe's plays, and they are stylistically quite distinct from Shakespeare's. Even so, you can find Nashe's poetry in various places. And you find it is nothing like Shakespeare. In some ways, these reattributions are only a slightly more respectable form of the complete-works reattributions of the lunatic fringe.

Another point about the retrograde motion of Mars. It has an astrological significance, it is useful poetically, and it was vital to astronomy. The ptolemaic model of epicycles did not fit the facts for Mars, the best observed planet for this phenomenon. It was essential evidence for the Copernican model. So it would have been a hot topic for an educated public following the controvery. See the wikipedia artice, and the little "film" of retrograde Mars at the bottom,

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparent...

Hardly surprising therefore that it should turn up in Shakespeare.

More generally, the idea that Henry 6.1 is non-Shakespearean goes back to Malone, a great scholar, but doing very questionable work here. He thought Henry 6.1 was by someone else, H6.2 and H6.3 could be divided up into sections (a) not by S, (b) modified by S, (c) by S, and he annotated the last two plays line-by-line with his divisions into these categories. The old edition of Shakespeare I use has these annotations. All guesswork!

Cairncross I'm sure is right when he says that the need to reattribute comes from a reader's sense that the great hero, Shakespeare, cannot write inferior or unpleasant work. Of course it becomes a vicious cirle: S can't have written it because it's inferior; it must be inferior because S did not write it. The only way to break out the circle is to try very hard, in reading, to understand what the play is really doing.


message 4: by Candy (new)

Candy | 1263 comments Mod
You know, the idea that s didn't write all his stuff is an interesting one...for me...because I believe it is reflective of how little we ourselves learn in school. And...how little people read as a past-time and pursue learning and curiousity. I am an avid believer in "lifelong learning" a contemporary trendy term that is often heard among teachers.

This new trend has come about partly because we have realized that children can really learn a lot. I remember the paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould writing about extraodinary it was in the 80's when dinosaurs were super growing hot topics for kids...and kids under the age of 5 were memorizing dinosaurs like crazy...where it took him years in colegge and high school to even get many memorizing of dinosaurs.

If we give children lots of concepts and memory skills and projects...they can really memorize like crazy which is a form of learning.

I believe ther eis a kind of professional jealousy regarding the urban myths of S not writing all his stuff.

I am sure to scholars and teachers and students overwhelmed with working to pay for tuitions, or fighting for grants and time management...that to see a prolific artist like S is intimidating. the thing is...we have such a low standard of expectation for kids and also for ourselves about time management and what we are capable of.

but lets look at Ben Stiller or Tyler Perry...these guys are incredibly prolific writers...and performers. They have each had ten year periods where they are knocking out work.

and lets face it...it's not like shakespeare was busy helping his wife raise their children. He was sort of a dead beat dad erp!

We might not know where S went to school...but we can look at the neighbourhood he grew up in, see the wages of his father and take a fair guess that S went to school and then we can look at the curriculum of provincial schools in his area and at his time of childhood.

Kids were memorizing all kind s of things and working like crazy in rather strict academic settings. I think its a mistake to assume he didn't have at least some schooling until he was 14 or so.

I think this is a potentially interesting topic...but I think it tells us more about what expect from ourselves and our own lives...what we believe a human is capable of much more than what Shakespeare was capable of...look around...there are contemporary examples of prolific artists...in our times and in S's times. Da Vinci is a good example, Michaleangelo...it is possible to be prolific and extremely in tune with human nature and the human condition.

i think instead of trying to squash the potential of shakespeare...we should all try to have lifelong learning and aspire to be as prolific reading or sharing stories as he was.


message 5: by Old-Barbarossa (last edited Apr 04, 2010 10:45PM) (new)

Old-Barbarossa I don't know too much about the theatre of the period, but from what I can gather pretty much everyone collaborated on work to some degree or another.
Is it a modern idea that work should be the production of one author/artist?
Mind you look at the studios of the Itallian masters, I'm sure there was a division of labour...and modern teams of writers produce such gems as the Simpsons...and then there is Dumas, who collaborated to a greater or lesser degree on most of his work.
In what way does it matter if he wrote every line/most of them/only a couple of scenes? Surely the end product is the important bit, not the route to it. If Bill wrote a play and it was rubbish (which may be the case, I've only read a few, and from what I've read of his critics they all tend to have a higherachy of his plays whith some held in lower esteem than others) then to me the fact it was rubbish would be more of a factor than who the author was.
So what I'm trying to ask regarding the question of authorship is: why does it matter?


message 6: by Candy (new)

Candy | 1263 comments Mod
Oh it probably doesn't matter when we look at the material. I'm not sure why the urban myth began in the first place.

It's why the idea mattered that is precisely what interests me. Like, what was the original and prevaling motive in suggesting S didn't write it all.

Much of performance, writing in films and theatre does depend on collaboration. But do we question if Mamet or Sondeheim wrote all of their stuff. Surely...one of their lovers must have inspired their work. Mamet is said to have recorded conversations he heard on the street or at other peoples restaurant tables.

i don't know if thats true but surely what makes the difference between someone who is a writer than someone who isn't at times is the actual sitting down and writing it out...despite the sources or muses?

Mike Myers conducted workshops based on a character of austin powers...those improv workshops likely produced some of the product we see in the movie...but we consider him the author of the concept and film.

So...yes, the teams of workers for Da vinci, or Jeff Koons or Warhol did a lot of the work...but the frame and "story image" is from the artist.

I imagine just like any team of performers one person or another added ideas to stimulate realism or characters to shakespeare's plays...but it seems to me we have major amounts of evidence from the themes and content of the plays to support the idea that one person wrote them.

From Shakespeare's early plays all the way throughout the body of work are recurring themes and even literally plot and repeated character tensions and conflict. We can see that certain themes and images were of concern to the author...whoever the author might have been. I think when the plays are compared it's an incredible stretch to think different writers were in control.

So why does it matter "who" wrote the plays? I think it matters only why we might doubt that one person was the overriding author.

I believe it's a form of cynicism to doubt that one person could have organized the content and themes and characters...


message 7: by Jenna (new)

Jenna | 40 comments Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? has a nice overview of the three major controversies...I think he tends to come down a bit on Stratford - I only skimmed the conclusion as I walked back to the library to return my professor's copy -- but I gathered it had something of a nice overview of the most recent scholarship and some pros and cons for different sides


message 8: by Candy (new)

Candy | 1263 comments Mod
Ha...I was just coming here to link some video...and about this book!

I have a tv show on right now with james shapiro...I was trying to see if it's online...it's on an educational channel right this minute on cable...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pHApDx...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kB4_vR...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q6Z0O4...


message 9: by Candy (new)

Candy | 1263 comments Mod
A review from here:

http://www.tnr.com/book/review/the-hi...


In London in the 1940s a man named Percy Allen, overwhelmed by grief at the death of his brother, sought out the renowned psychic of the day, Hester Dowden. Through Dowden’s primary connection to the dead—an ancient Athenian named Johannes—Allen spoke at length to his recently deceased brother. Astounded by Dowden’s occult talents, Allen decided that she could assist him professionally as well: Allen, president of the Shakespeare Fellowship—a group that believed the Earl of Oxford was the author of Shakespeare’s plays—returned to Dowden and asked her to summon the spirit of the Earl of Oxford, or Shakespeare, or Francis Bacon. Dowden—fortuitously enough the daughter of a Shakespeare scholar—managed to summon all three, and they confirmed that Oxford was indeed the man. Oxford was even generous enough to relay a few unpublished verses. Allen ecstatically published his discussions and findings in Talks With Elizabethans in 1947. This was not the first time Dowden had precipitated a book’s publication: Alfred Dodd’s The Immortal Master, in which the ghost of Francis Bacon assures Dodd of his own claim to Shakespeare’s oeuvre, was released in 1943.

The history of the travails of Shakespeare skeptics is fantastic: psychics, ciphers, dredged rivers, illicit affairs, brilliant forgeries, and famous tombs all swirl through James Shapiro’s entertaining and insightful recounting of the Shakespeare authorship controversy. These mystery-novel elements can be traced back to one single—and irreparable—heartbreak: Shakespeare’s contemporaries missed the opportunity to record the details of his life or the impressions of his friends. By the late eighteenth century, when a ravenous desire to know the man behind the plays emerged, it was simply too late. Adding insult to injury, the sparse details that did remain of Shakespeare’s life painted a far too churlish portrait: a will in which he bequeaths his wife the “second best” bed, a legal document suing a neighbor for a paltry sum. There are many examples in Shapiro’s book of what people over the centuries have found unthinkable—but the first was the hardening reality that the life of the man from Stratford, already a “literary deity” by the 1730s, would really never be known.

Unfortunately, the unthinkable is always a great ally of the gullible. And so in 1795 William-Henry Ireland knew exactly what he was up to when he announced he had discovered (in addition to two new Shakespeare plays and books with Shakespeare’s own notations) a “brief account of [Shakespeare’s:] life in his own hand.” One of the plays, called Vortigern—a doomed love story between a Briton king and a Saxon lady, set in the fifth century—was even staged in London before Edmond Malone, a contemporary Shakespeare scholar, damningly proved every single Ireland document to be a forgery. Ireland’s plays in no way resembled the Elizabethan style or vocabulary. But Ireland was one of the first to grasp that it is not hard to dupe a crowd that wants to be duped.

Malone is the hero of this episode in its classic telling, but Shapiro turns on Malone, castigating him for opening the Pandora’s Box that would eventually release Baconians, Oxfordians, and every Shakespeare skeptic in between. Malone was the first to try to put the plays in chronological order, publishing Attempt to Ascertain the Order in Which the Plays of Shakespeare were Written in 1778. The book made it conceivable, for the first time, to try to patch together a biography through the plays themselves. Malone did so with gusto. But by crediting this method, Shapiro argues, Malone unwittingly codified an assumption that became the first principle of the skeptics: that the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have had a life directly correlated to the events and the ideas of his plays. Amid grumbling about the coarseness of Shakespeare, a rough taxonomy of the characteristics for a more suitable candidate coalesced: “pure motives, good breeding, foreign travel, the best of educations, and the scent of the court.” And, as Delia Bacon would argue, Francis Bacon fit the bill to a tee.

For much of the nineteenth century the public viewed Prospero—powerful, political and philosophical, personally “aloof, bookish, a bit cold”—as the Shakespearean character who most resembled its author. Starting from this rough outline, Delia Bacon made her case for Francis Bacon (already regarded as a genius of Shakespeare’s day) based solely on her particular reading of the plays. (The two, however, were not related.) Born in 1811 to a New Haven minister, Delia Bacon was an impressive and rabidly smart woman. But the more elusive the proof for Francis Bacon proved to be, the more obvious the case seemed to Delia Bacon, and the more maniacally she argued for it. (She even considered opening Shakespeare’s grave, to determine if evidence lay inside.)

It is hard to comprehend why skeptics such as Bacon would continue so fervently in the face of such a crucial lack of evidence. But Shapiro’s history gracefully elucidates the answer: Delia Bacon, like those who followed after her, toiled on the line between obscurity and fame to bring justice to someone whose true deserts were similarly obscured. The more Delia Bacon persevered, the more she was fighting ostensibly for Francis Bacon’s legacy but just as much for her own. Her mental health deteriorated, and she was later dismissed as a mad woman. But the case for Francis Bacon thrived without her. Bacon was known to have written masterful ciphers, and with the invention of Morse code in the 1830s, the idea that Bacon might have coded his attribution in Shakespeare’s plays gained traction. (The approach was given a serious boost in the 1890s with the discovery that an acrostic in a narrative long attributed to Chaucer revealed it to be the work of Thomas Usk.)

Mark Twain, generally considered an enemy of frauds and charlatans, certainly bought it: in 1888, Twain helped to publish The Great Cryptogram: Francis Bacon’s Cipher in the So-Called Shakespeare Plays by Ignatius Donnelly, a congressman from Minnesota. Twain could not believe a low-life like Shakespeare had written the most transcendent plays in the English language. It mattered deeply to Twain that Shakespeare’s work be autobiographical—because his was: when Twain felt he had exhausted his own life and wanted to write a book about mining diamonds in South Africa, he hired a young journalist to go in his stead and return with minute first-hand notes. (Unfortunately the man died on his return voyage and the project was abandoned.) Twain later wrote that “To write with powerful effect, a [sic:] must write out the life he has led—as did Bacon when he wrote Shakespeare.” The idea that Shakespeare had written his works on the basis of reading and imagination alone was impossible, for it undermined Twain’s very conception of literature and his own stature within it.

By the twentieth century the cipher tactic had been exhausted, and so too was Prospero as the authorial figure. A more publicly introspective era had dawned. “Philosophy and politics were out,” Shapiro remarks. “Oedipal desires and mourning for dead fathers in.” J.T. Looney—a former member of the Church of Humanity, which worshipped literary deities instead of God—was playing to the zeitgeist when he published “Shakespeare” Identified in 1920, which offered a new man with a new profile: Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, “a talented poet, a man who was also mysterious, eccentric, and well educated.” There were remarkable confluences between de Vere’s life and Shakespeare’s plays. “Like Hamlet,” Shapiro writes, “Oxford’s father died young and his mother remarried. Like Lear, he had three daughters—and his first wife was the same age as Juliet when they married.” Freud was an Oxfordian: long dissatisfied with Shakespeare, Freud latched on to Looney’s book, pushing it, and the case for Oxford, on friends and patients alike. Shapiro makes a fairly persuasive case that Freud’s fidelity to the cause was, like Twain’s, self-serving: unlike Shakespeare, Oxford’s authorship would mean that Hamlet had been written after the death of the author’s father, bolstering Freud’s interpretation of the play as the archetypal Oedipal text.

In Shapiro’s book, the histories of the cases for Bacon and Oxford seem transparently flimsy, and the extra-textual motivations that spawned them (with Shapiro’s able guidance) too obvious in hindsight—which makes it a jolt to read about the current resurgence of Oxfordianism. By the outbreak of World War II, interest in Oxford as Shakespeare had dropped precipitously. But in the 1980s the Oxfordian cause was fanned back into life. After the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War and Watergate, conspiracy stories struck much of the public as believable. And in a strange by-product of the fairness doctrine, the media’s habit of airing two sides to any story (no matter the relative merits) has meant sympathetic coverage of Oxford’s case on NPR, in The New York Times, Harper’s, and the Atlantic.

Contested Will is detailed and well-researched (Shapiro even exposes a previously undetected forgery), but its thesis finally encircles casual readers, professors, and skeptics alike: contingency in genius is an upsetting pill for all of us to swallow. We prefer that the sustaining figures and words of our civilization be inevitable and that their identities and origins be known. Since their origins are in some sense our origins, obscurity or inconclusiveness about them is a little unbearable. Certainly Henry James couldn’t bring himself to live with it: the idea that Shakespeare could retire at age forty-eight to a backwater town, ostensibly giving up his artistic life and perhaps signaling that he had no recognition of his own significance, was too hard to comprehend. James never publicly supported another candidate, but this particular man from Stratford would not do.

When Shapiro comes to making his own case that it was Shakespeare who was Shakespeare—although his account of the cases for the other candidates is proof enough—he simply inserts him back into his world. People knew the man, and worked with him. Shakespeare often collaborated with other playwrights. As was the custom, his plays were published anonymously, with only the name of the playing company listed—nearly unthinkable in our era of copyright. Shakespeare’s name was added in 1598, when it seemed commercially profitable to do so. Why would someone, even if they could, force a publisher to attribute plays to a false name, Shapiro reasonably asks, if doing nothing would result in complete anonymity too?

Stephen Greenblatt explained the root irony of the controversy in his Shakespearean Negotiations: Shakespeare’s plays brim with such intensity that it is difficult not to conflate their vitality with traces of the author’s vitality. But of course, as works of art, the plays were written “in full awareness of the absence of the life they contrive to represent.” That is, the plays are imbued with their own life precisely because a playwright knows their life will surpass his own. Even the retreat to “the text itself”—the rallying cry of all undergraduate English classes—is a similar fallacy: “The great attraction of [the text itself:],” Greenblatt writes, “is that it appears to bind and fix the energies we prize, to identify a stable and permanent source of literary power, to offer an escape from shared contingency. This project, endlessly repeated, repeatedly fails for one reason: there is no escape from contingency.” Even for Shakespeare.

Sophia Lear is the assistant literary editor of The New Republic.


message 10: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 18 comments Something important to acknowledge about the Shakespeare authorship controversy is that it was not uncommon in that era for playwrights to revise and re-work the works of other writers. There was no such thing as copyright or creative property. So it's entirely possible that parts of plays by Christopher Marlowe, John Fletcher, Ben Jonson, etc...were not wholly written by the playwright to whom the play is attributed. However, it's quite clear (to me at least), due to the precision of Shakespeare's writing and the unique qualities of his style, that the plays were largely written by him and that the scenes not written by Shakespeare were negligible.

It's also important to mention that these works are PLAYS and were performed live by actors who had two to three days of rehearsal, possibly sometimes less. It's not beyond the limits of imagination to think that the actors ad-libbed and embelished the text with their own creativity. Plays are living, breathing objects, never the same twice.

The one argument against Shakespeare writing Shakespeare that really gets to me is the fact that Shakespeare didn't have an advanced enough education to be able to write his plays. They back up their claim citing Shakespeare's knowledge of Latin and French, of Greek mythology and Roman history, of court life etc... I could break down why each of those arguments is bogus, but that's not what really bothers me. The thing that bothers me is the assumption that genius can only come from the world of the educated. Genius can come from anywhere and I feel the thing that must be accepted about Shakespeare was that he was a genius and that genius was always in him.


message 11: by Candy (new)

Candy | 1263 comments Mod
Wow, everything you say rings true to me Rebecca, fantastic thoughts!

It's late and I just got home from a movie...and wish I had the working mind to give a decent response...but just wanted to say yes, I agree. I especially like your vision of Plays are living, breathing objects, never the same twice. Wonderful!


message 12: by Martin (new)

Martin | 714 comments Rebecca,

I've read your recent posts and I'm very impressed by their maturity since I now realise from your edited profile that you are just 20. Would you like to join in the Shakespeare reads that we try and organise here? Now is a good time since we are "between plays".

I found the "sonata for vuvuzela" on your website and needed first-aid for laughing so much!!


message 13: by Rebecca (new)

Rebecca | 18 comments Martin wrote: "Rebecca,

I've read your recent posts and I'm very impressed by their maturity since I now realise from your edited profile that you are just 20. Would you like to join in the Shakespeare reads tha..."


Oh man, thank you so much. I'd love to join in the reads!

And I'm glad I was able to make you laugh! That always makes me happy.


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Books mentioned in this topic

Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? (other topics)