Was William Shakespeare a Sockpuppet?

I’m sitting in a hotel lounge in a town in the West Midlands of England, and I’ve just done one of my favorite things: seen a play written by William Shakespeare. It was a hot ticket; David Tennant, famous for having incarnated Doctor Who on TV for 6 years, played the venal Richard II, who pays for his conceit and falls from his throne.[1]

While the audience for Shakespeare’s plays is generally diverse, tonight’s crowd has a bit more tattoos and brightly-colored hair than usual. As my girlfriend and I eat a late dessert, people at the tables around us are discussing the play. Some of the younger spectators – mostly female – are delighted that they got David Tennant to sign their programs at the stage door. Some older people discuss the staging. And, in the corner, someone says, “But you know, Shakespeare didn’t write this play.”

David tennant
David Tennant as Richard II. Photo by Kwame Lestrade

I’m in Stratford-upon-Avon, where Shakespeare was born, and the hotel is across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC). Ask any of the actors in this play, and they’ll most likely shrug off the suggestion that Shakespeare didn’t write this play, or any of the 37 others attributed to him. But for nearly 200 years, people have been trying to prove otherwise.

“He was the author, thou the instrument.” Henry VI Part III

Scholars have long known that Shakespeare didn’t write all of the plays himself; he collaborated with other authors on some of them. John Fletcher, for example, probably co-wrote Henry VII and The Two Noble Kinsmen with Will. Other authors contributed to different plays, such as Titus Andronicus, Measure for Measure, Timon of Athens, and even Macbeth. And there are others: a volume just published under the auspices of the RSC (Amazon.com) collects “collaborative plays,” ones that Shakespeare co-authored with fellow playwrights, which are not currently part of the canon, increasing the list of plays that bear Shakespeare’s name.

But the “Shakespeare authorship question” is not about plays where the bard of Stratford co-authored, contributed a scene or two, or performed the task of the script doctor. It’s about trying to prove that Shakespeare could not have written any of the plays or poems that have been published under his name. That some average guy from a sleepy little town, three days’ ride from London, could not have transcended the art of the theater.

What is it about Shakespeare that makes his works so well-loved, yet his identity doubted? Why does an actor of David Tennant’s stature return to the RSC to play the role of a forgotten English king in one of Shakespeare’s lesser dramas? For some people, there comes a time when you get Shakespeare, when you appreciate the subtlety of the stories and the beauty of his language. For others, his plays are just hard-to-understand 400-year old bores. But Shakespeare managed to wed story and text in a way that no other playwright of his time was able to, and the greatness of these works ensured that his reputation would live on.

Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-Upon-Avon.

Conspiracy theories about Shakespeare’s identity have been around for a long time. The main crux of the anti-Stratfordian argument, as it is called, is this: Shakespeare was not educated enough to have written the plays. He was not an aristocrat, and only those at the pinnacle of society could have known the inner workings of the court. He never traveled to the places that figure in the plays, wasn’t a lawyer (some of the plays mention legal issues), had no experience with falconry or tennis (both mentioned in the plays), and, basically, was a commoner. The thought is that Shakespeare was a sockpuppet; his name was used to obscure the hand behind the plays, that of a man who couldn’t admit his authorship for political reasons.

“I will fight with him upon this theme, Until my eyelids will no longer wag.” Hamlet

I met with the doyen of Shakespeare scholars, Stanley Wells, to discuss this question.[2] Professor Wells, together with Paul Edmondson, his collaborator at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, recently published a free ebook, called Shakespeare Bites Back[3], to counter these arguments. He was moved to do this for two main reasons:

“Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous… [and] because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now — one in America, one in England — where you can do courses in authorship.”

Stanley wells
Professor Stanley Wells. Photo Shakespere Birthplace Trust.

Anonymous (IMDB) tells the story of Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, one of some 77 candidates for Shakespeare’s ghost writer. (“It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story,” said Wells.) Others include Sir Francis Bacon, the playwright Christopher Marlowe, or even a group of writers, the Elizabethan equivalent of the writers’ room, where today’s TV series are scripted. Even Queen Elizabeth I has been suggested as a potential author of the plays. The names have changed over the centuries, but there has been a long-standing tradition of trying to find possible authors for Shakespeare.

Professor Wells questions why people get involved in these theories. “What is it in their psychology that makes them question received truth?” he asks. “It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. It’s not one to which I have any easy answer.”

But much of the explanation is based on an elitist attitude that a commoner couldn’t have written such great works of art. Anti-Stratfordians claim that Shakespeare wasn’t educated enough to write anything, let alone Hamlet, and that, coming from the “backwater” of Stratford-Upon-Avon, he couldn’t have had the knowledge required to create such intricate works.

“In some cases it’s snobbery,” Professor Wells said, “which is often based on ignorance of the sort of education that you would get in a grammar school in England. Of course we can’t prove that Shakespeare went to the grammar school, because we can’t prove that anybody went to the grammar school… Snobbery, then, is partly behind it, [the idea] that it must have been an aristocrat.”

The lack of records and documentary evidence is one of the main arguments used to bolster the idea that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays. Only a handful of documents in his hand exist, and naysayers point to the fact that he spelled his name differently at different times, though English spelling was not normalized at the time. But there are more than enough contemporary mentions of Shakespeare as the author of specific plays and poems, to show that he was well known; that “Shakespeare” as a brand was familiar.

“Do you doubt that?” Hamlet

Questions about Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays go back to the early 19th century. This was a time when the status of the author was rising, and when textual criticism had shown that Homer didn’t write The Iliad and The Odyssey, and that the Bible was written not by a single hand, but by a diverse group of people over several centuries. The Romantic concept of the author also led to the idea that an author’s works must reflect his life and experience. William Wordsworth said, regarding the sonnets, that “Shakespeare expresses his own feelings in his own person.”

An 1805 lecture by Joseph Corton Cowell sums this up. Cowell said, “there is nothing in the writings of Shakespeare that does not argue the long and early training of the schoolman, the traveller, and the associate of the great and learned.” Later skeptics would repeat this idea, choosing a specific favorite as candidate for authorship of the plays, riffing on the idea that, as James Shapiro says in his book Contested Will[4], “Shakespeare could only write about what he had felt or done rather than heard about, read about, borrowed from other writers or imagined.”

Shapiro points out that, “We’ve inherited many ideas about writing that emerged in the eighteenth century, especially an interest in literature as both an expression and an exploration of the self” As we are more interested in artists’ lives, we try and fit their work into their experience.

Even this engraving of Shakespeare, included in the First Folio edition of his plays, has fueled conspiracy theories. From https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Droeshout_portrait

If you take this idea at face value, you could say that Shakespeare could only have written about murder – as he did in many plays, such as Hamlet, Macbeth and Richard II – if he had committed the foul deed himself. And that he could only have written about Titus Andronicus killing and cooking two of Tamora’s sons in meat pies if he, himself, had such culinary experience.

Over time, leading candidates for Shakespeare’s place in history have changed, as some have been sufficiently debunked, and others have fallen out of fashion. Elaborate theories have been constructed based on secret codes, acrostics, and even forgeries, and, more recently, the internet has renewed the ability for anyone to argue this issue. Self-published books abound, championing one potential replacement or another.

In Shakespeare Bites Back, Stanley Wells and Paul Edmondson point out that, “At the last count 77 individuals had been named. The fact that there are so many of them should be enough in itself to topple the whole house of cards. Every additional name added to the list only serves to demonstrate the absurdity of the entire enterprise. All of these nominations are equally invalid; none has a greater claim than any of the others.”

“Tell truth, and shame the devil.” Henry IV, Part I

But in the end, why does it matter who wrote the plays if they are great works of art? If you go to the theater and enjoy a play, does it matter who wrote it? Professor Wells told me, "It matters a great deal who wrote the plays. Partly because the plays are inevitably the product of the community in which their author was born, similar to the way in which Dickens’s are rooted in London, perhaps not to that extent. It matters because young people shouldn’t be subjected to conspiracy theories as if they were truth.

“It matters because history matters, because truth matters.”

Originally published in issue 15 of The Loop Magazine.