Probing Question: Did Shakespeare really write all those plays?

Dec 04, 2008 By Alexa Stevenson
William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare

“Done to death by slanderous tongues.” So wrote William Shakespeare in his play, Much Ado About Nothing. Or did he? Even people who have never actually read Shakespeare have heard the theories: Shakespeare’s plays were written by Francis Bacon! Shakespeare’s plays were written by the Earl of Oxford! Shakespeare’s plays were written by anyone, anyone, but William Shakespeare!

“Lunacy,” says Patrick Cheney, Distinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature, gesturing to the early twentieth-century inventor of the Oxford theory, J. Thomas Looney. “The Shakespeare authorship controversy is all conspiracy. Not a single reputable scholar I know has the least doubt that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems ascribed to him.”

One of the chief arguments of those who doubt his authorship is that Shakespeare lacked the education and experience to have produced such a wide-ranging body of work. Not so, argues Cheney, noting that William Shakespeare had a superior education, some of it acquired from grammar school in Stratford, but much expanded upon as an adult. Adds Cheney, research shows that even in a pre-library age, Shakespeare had a good deal of access to books. “Shakespeare was not simply a genius; he was by all accounts a voracious reader: the plots from nearly all his plays and poems come from books.”

As for lacking experience, anti-Stratfordians (as the authorship doubters are sometimes called) usually point to scenes featuring royals or to plays set in foreign countries, and argue that a provincial commoner such as Shakespeare could not have been familiar enough with these topics to have written his worldly plays. Cheney is not impressed by such arguments. “Neither royalty nor international travel has ever been a prerequisite for good fiction,” he notes. “As a member of a royal acting company, Shakespeare had plenty of opportunity to experience the courts of sovereigns first-hand. And as an avid reader of history, he could certainly re-create a foreign country in his fictions.”

The most popular of the anti-Stratfordian theories is that the plays attributed to Shakespeare were written by the Earl of Oxford. However, explains Cheney, Oxford died in 1604, and significant evidence indicates that some of Shakespeare’s work was produced years later. (For instance, The Tempest was influenced by a voyage to the Americas that did not occur until 1610). “The case for Oxford depends on the erasure of history,” says Cheney.

The entire authorship controversy itself “is a product of modernity,” he adds, noting, “For over two hundred years after Shakespeare’s death, it did not occur to anyone to challenge his authorship.”

Explains Cheney, the rising middle class of the nineteenth century could not believe that a mere country stripling could have written what scholar Stephen Greenblatt calls “the most important body of imaginative literature of the last thousand years.” But those who can’t believe that a man with a grammar-school education wrote these plays and poems overlook a sobering fact of literary history: the inventors of modern English literature were overwhelmingly from the working class. “Not only was Shakespeare the son of a glover, but Ben Jonson was the son of bricklayer, and Edmund Spenser the son of a tailor, while Christopher Marlowe was the son of a butcher,” says Cheney. “The case for the Earl of Oxford is about the belief of class-conscious gentlemen that only an aristocrat could produce great works of literature. Perhaps we should let Spenser, Marlowe, and Jonson know.”

Cheney believes there is an important question now being asked about Shakespeare’s authorship, and it has nothing to do with the Earl of Oxford. Instead, it asks what kind of author William Shakespeare really was. “Was he a consummate businessman concerned only with the commercial success of his acting company, or was he also a literary poet-playwright who cared about preserving his artistic legacy?” In two recent books, Cheney has tried to reclassify Shakespeare as at once a man of the theater and a writer with a literary career: “Our fullest understanding of Shakespeare needs to come to terms with both.”

Says Cheney: “It is true, when students come into my Shakespeare courses, they typically want to ask only a single question: ‘Did Shakespeare really write all his plays?’ When they leave, I hope they’re more inclined to ask, ‘How did it come to be that the world’s greatest man of the theater also penned some of the most extraordinary poems in English?’ Shakespeare wrote those plays—and poems. Read them; see them: listen to them. They are our great cultural inheritance, the real legacy of William Shakespeare.”

Source: By Alexa Stevenson, Research Penn State

Explore further: Education Dept awards $75M in innovation grants

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Research band at Karolinska tuck Dylan gems into papers

Sep 29, 2014

(Phys.org) —A 17-year old bet among scientists at the Karolinska Institute has been a wager that whoever wrote the most articles with Dylan quotes before they retired would get a free lunch. Results included ...

A simulation game to help people prep for court

Sep 25, 2014

Preparing for court and appearing before a judge can be a daunting experience, particularly for people who are representing themselves because they can't afford a lawyer or simply don't know all the ropes ...

When finding 'nothing' means something

Sep 25, 2014

Scientists usually communicate their latest findings by publishing results as scientific papers in journals that are almost always accessible online (albeit often at a price), ensuring fast sharing of latest ...

User comments : 19

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

CTD
5 / 5 (2) Dec 04, 2008
With all due respect to the professor, the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, consisting of some of the world's leading Shakespearean actors and academics (yes, academics, professor!), argues that reasonable doubt exists to at least doubt authorship. Too many Stratfordians haven't taken the time to read the wealth of material that has been published in the last 30 years or so, and such individuals will never be convinced. For those who are open-minded (Mark Twain, Henry James, Charles Dickens doubted Shakespeare as author, by the way), I suggest you visit the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition website, The Marlowe-Shakespeare Connection blog, the Shakespeare Authorship Trust site, just to name a few.

Query, Professor Cheney: Why didn't Shakespeare leave any evidence in his will that he was a writer? Why, when he died, was there not a word about his death among the Elizabethan literati? It's startling that from the meager two pages of hard facts that exist about Shakespeare (and laid out by Mark Twain in Is Shakespeare Dead?)"academics" have managed to write dozens of 400-page biographies about Shakespeare's life. Whose being intellectually honest, professor?
Under_Educated
3 / 5 (2) Dec 04, 2008
So CTD, I would like to ask you a question about your belief that William Shakespeare didn't write his plays or poems. What do you and your fellow "Scholars" believe is the reason for someone witting all of those plays and naming Shakespeare as the author?
I also find it amusing that you named several of the conspiracy websites to convince the professor of your beliefs, mainly because all of those sites would be very one sided. I would challenge you to find a neutral site containing all of the evidence for either side of the argument.
flashgordon
5 / 5 (3) Dec 04, 2008
now, lets analyse the whole jesus christ is a sun god thing!
brant
5 / 5 (6) Dec 04, 2008
William Shakespeare was an alien. Thats how he wrote all those great works.....
Arikin
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 04, 2008
Has anyone done an analysis of the writing style and word choices of all the works? That should help to show if they were all written by one person at least.

And weren't the plays written on notes for each player and then later gathered together? During rehearsal wouldn't there be changes and additions made by the players themselves? Plays are living creatures until they are set in a collection of works.
earls
3 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2008
"William Shakespeare was an alien. Thats how he wrote all those great works....."

With his MIND!
gmurphy
4 / 5 (4) Dec 05, 2008
"With his MIND!", tricky alien bastard
Doug_Huffman
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2008
I note that their Shakespeare image is open source.
superhuman
5 / 5 (3) Dec 05, 2008
People have the tendency to think their own limitations apply equally to others.
Formal education is just one way of learning, self teaching and careful observation of reality can easily make up for it (if you have enough neurons willing to cooperate).
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Dec 05, 2008
Re analysis; http://en.wikiped...question

A further argument against the mainstream view is the erudition of Shakespeare's works, including an enormous vocabulary of approximately 29,000 different words.[6] Authorship doubters find it difficult to believe that a 16th-century commoner, with no university education, could be so well-versed in English language and literature, as well as a number of other disciplines including politics, law, medicine, astronomy and foreign languages.

[6] ^ Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court, 1603-1613 By Alvin B. Kernan, Published 1995, Yale University Press, Page 194, ISBN 0300072589
DPinksen
4.7 / 5 (3) Dec 05, 2008
Professor Cheney is right about one thing, the Oxford theory is ridiculous. But doubt about Shakespeare's authorship expresses a legitimate concern. Cheney is misleading when he says, "[Shakespeare] was by all accounts a voracious reader". Let's be clear, there is no evidence of William Shakespeare having attended school or even having read a book. It is the writer of the plays Cheney is talking about. If William Shakespeare is that man, then yes, he would have to have been a voracious reader. But this is a circular argument, and does nothing to settle the matter.

Cheney is correct when he says that no one questioned Shakespeare's authorship until 200 years later. There's a good reason for this, it coincides with the birth of Shakespearean scholarship and research based biography. It was only when a clearer biographical picture of Shakespeare came into focus that people started to question the man.

I've written a book about the subject, Marlowe's Ghost, which argues that a reading of mainstream scholarship suggests Christopher Marlowe may have been the author of Shakespeare's plays. I doubt that I would fit Professor Cheney's definition of an academic: I completed a degree in Physics, followed immediately (in a futile attempt to avoid the workforce) by a degree in English Literature with a History minor. Some years later I completed a Master's degree in Science Teaching.

In my observations (made from both sides of the academic divide), in stark contrast with my experience in the sciences, the English departments were primarily concerned with tradition and passing received knowledge to the next generation. The scientific concepts of tentative knowledge and falsifiability are unheard of in an English class. If you have a background in science, and are interested in this debate, check out my website marlowesghost.com.
jgreen
4.5 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2008
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy;
It is the green-ey'd monster, which doth mock
The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss, Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger: But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o'er
Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!
RFC
5 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2008
Shakespeare's plays are the English secular canon. They will be analyzed and re-analyzed, debated and doubted until hell freezes over. In a way, it's a kind of homage, even deification, of Shakespeare and the mythology he (or whoever) created.

These debates are interesting, but I've noticed that few people that engage in the debate have even read all of Shakespeare's plays. I've ALMOST read all of them (still building up the will and stamina to handle the Henrys). I don't think reading all the plays is a necessary qualification to have this kind of debate, but it might betray a bias to focus on the messenger instead of the message.

By the way, for those of you that love Shakespeare or are interested in reading his plays, I highly recommend finding the audio performances of his plays available on iTunes and/or Audible.com. Shakespeare is meant to be performed and experienced as performance, and these plays, produced by the BBC and others, are a superb was to experience, learn about, and rediscover Shakespeare. I highly recommend giving them a shot!
Rick69
3 / 5 (2) Dec 05, 2008
I find it interesting that CTD lists Mark Twain as a "doubter" of Shakespeare. After all, Twain is also responsible for a great body of work and yet he too, was from very ordinary circumstances and educational background.
Doug_Huffman
5 / 5 (1) Dec 05, 2008
Oh my! Falsifiability! Good man. Off to MarlowesGhost.com
cab55
5 / 5 (2) Dec 07, 2008
Professor Cheney betrays his own scholarship through his evident lack of research, out-of-date reading, false statements, his straw man arguments, appeals to 'authority', and other typical efforts to avoid examining available evidence. For instance, it is NOT true that no one thought someone other that Will S. of Stratford wrote any of the Shakespeare canon. This has been proven by N B Cockburn in The Bacon Shakespeare Question (1998). Also, current Shakespeare authorship contentions aren't primarily based on such things as his education, his supposed genius, his social status, etc. They are primarily based on evidence. Unfortunately, Professor Cheney and his other cited 'scholars' seem loathe to consider ALL evidence when supporting their contentions. It's just so much easier to use the ad hominem fallacy or smear tactics or the citing of only their one-sided pieces of evidence to intimidate students or anyone with a contrary view. But in true scholarship if a serious question has been raised, whether it be in science or society, then it is not enough merely to assert an answer. Evidence must be provided, and that evidence should be accompanied by an assessment of its own reliability. Such evidence does exist for the authorship question. Go to the websites http://www.shakes...ndex.htm or http://www.doubtaboutwill.org/ for a start of sources. If Professor Cheney or one of his like-minded scholars would sincerely examine the evidence available and respond to it in an honest way, and allow for open responses in turn, then maybe a genuine scholarly opinion will develop about this important historical question that will satisfy the many opposing views.
Nartoon
3 / 5 (2) Dec 07, 2008
Like the Jack the Ripper, the real answers won't be proven until man develops a time machine.
lengould100
not rated yet Dec 08, 2008
What would a 17th century classical university education have provided anyone which would have been an advantage in writing these plays and poems? The ability to read Greek and Latin? One of the things which surprises me about those Shakspeare plays I've read is the apparent absence of Latin words and phrases. Even a simple priest's education in those days would have betrayed itself with a sprinkling of Latin words, but very few (I can't think of any immediately) actually show.

I'd say I'll need to see a lot more genuine evidence of alternate authorship to credit the conspiracy of the zealous jealous.
Ted_A
not rated yet Dec 09, 2008
I first came upon the Shakespeare Authorship question through a Frontline documentary around 1989 and have followed it closely ever since. Professor Cheney repeats the same old establish nonsense I have heard hundreds of times. The arguments are consistently false or illogical: Shakespeare is a voracious reader because the plays show vast learning; the plays show vast learning because the author was a voracious reader. Round and round we go.
All the supposed facts proving the orthodox view upon close examination betray the shoddiest scholarship (for example, see recent Tempest research by Stritmatter/Kositsky).
For a fine introduction to all this see doubter Mark Rylance's response to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Stanley Wells at http://www.doubta...g/debate .