Who wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare?

The 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death on April 23rd has brought to the fore once again the question of whether the man identified as the author actually wrote the plays. Over 3,000 people, some of them quite eminent, have signed on to a document titled Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare that examines the case for and against him. Two eminent Shakespearean actors Derek Jacobi and Mark Rylance have added their voices to the list of skeptics.

There seems to be a curious divergence emerging whereby scholars and academics in the field of English literature tend to dismiss any speculations that Will was not the author while academics in other disciplines, especially history, tend to be more skeptical. Rylance says that outside English literature departments and especially among historians and lawyers “you’ll find more people open-minded about this question because they’re looking at the facts without a presupposition”.

If not Will, then who? There have been many candidates suggested and historian William D. Rubinstein makes the case for the most recent entrant Henry Neville.

I have no idea and suspect that barring some dramatic discovery of old records or some new forensic tools, this question will be debated indefinitely. But irrespective of who wrote them, when one reads any of the plays ascribed to Shakespeare, one is struck by the number of phrases one encounters that are part of everyday conversation. Rob Brydon reminds us of some.


  1. CJO says

    I’ve never looked that closely at the issue. Some of the theories do have a definite whiff of crankery. What I never have understood is what is the justification for skepticism in the first place? What is it that makes it so implausible, in some people’s minds, that a certain Wm. Shakespear of Stratford on Avon, late of the Globe and King Jame’s Men, was capable of authoring the oeuvre attributed to him?

  2. Menyambal says

    I agree that there’s no reason to think he didn’t. It was a time of self-made accomplishers, and the arc of his plays looks like a person learning a craft. (And failing more often than his fans wish to admit.)

    Heh. I have a name in common with one of the candidates, so you’d think I’d be voting for my possible ancestor. I was introducing myself in an English class one time, and said, “Like the guy who wrote Shakespeare.” The professor was not pleased.

  3. DonDueed says

    CJO, one argument I’ve seen mentioned is that WS was a commoner and not particularly well educated. The works attributed to him show a significant knowledge of the affairs of the English court, which he would not have direct knowledge of. That’s why some have suggested that the true author was an “insider” who used WS as a front to preserve his (or her!) anonymity.

    Regarding “you’re quoting Shakespeare”… I found myself wondering how many of those expressions were truly original, and how many (and which) might have been in common usage in those days. I presume that most or all of them are credited to WS because we have no prior written examples, but that doesn’t mean they all were coined by one author; they may have simply been the Elizabethan equivalent of “street language” that other writers considered too hoi polloi to use in their works.

  4. Numenaster says

    Shakespeare wasn’t the only playwright whose works were published in his lifetime. Ben Jonson was active at the same time, as were John Marston, Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton among others. There is sufficient material to compare with Shakespeare to determine whether he was using original phrasing or common slang. Although I don’t have a reference to hand, my recollection is that the body of work ascribed to Shakespeare commonly displays a wider range of originality in phrasing than his contemporaries.

  5. Robert,+not+Bob says

    In a sense, we ought to define “William Shakespeare” as “the author of this set of plays and poetry”, whatever his (or conceivably her) name actually was. Just like the apostle Paul.

  6. says

    I have an old edition of the Sonnets that (by means of a TOTALLY, ABSOLUTELY, BELIEVABLE analysis of extremely slight differences in the weight of certain printed characters) conclusively proves that Francis Bacon wrote Shakespeare—and Marlow and (rather surprisingly) Bacon too!!
    Oh yes, and was the illegitemate son of (apparently Not-So-) Good Queen Bess!!

  7. says

    I thought I’d share something more about the book, merely as an example of why I think Linnæus totally screwed up the naming of our species.
    I’m at work so it’s blocked and I can’t get to the site, but I think this is the book I have.

    (Our Shake-Speare). The Son Of Queen Elizabeth. As Revealed by The Sonnets arranged in the. Correct Numerical and Chronological order by. Alfred Dodd.

    I think the whole thing is funny and totally irrelevant to enjoyment of the plays and poems.

  8. lorn says

    Estimates of the relative genius are always subject to the differing dynamics of the state of the art at the time. Whether in writing or physics those early to the task are gifted with an open field where originality is easy but accuracy is always in doubt. As the field is established originality gets much harder but the surety of pronouncement is much easier.

    It seems likely that WS benefited from vast stores of previously undocumented idiom and vernacular wisdom. In this he might be considered more of a folklorist than playwright. No matter, he was clearly a keen observer of human nature and social structure. His plays hold up not so much because of the apt turn of phrase, although that helps, but rather because the themes are universal.

  9. flex says

    To continue with what Lorn wrote, it’s not even so much that the themes are universal, but that many of the Shakespeare’s plays are direct rip-offs of earlier works. Of course Shakespeare usually improved on them, but the core ideas from many of his plays are taken from other works. http://www.shakespeare-w.com/english/shakespeare/source.html

    Which doesn’t diminish his greatness, but it does make it easier to believe that William Shakespeare was, in fact, the author of the works of William Shakespeare.

  10. Reginald Selkirk says

    Over 3,000 people, some of them quite eminent, have signed on to a document titled Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare that examines the case for and against him.

    That sounds like a lot of people, but how many of them are names Steve?

    Seriously, I heard an actress interviewed on NPR once comment that the author of Shakespeare’s plays must have been intimately familiar with the theatre. For example, if an actor appears in two scenes and needs a change of costume, there is always an intervening scene to give him a few more minutes.

  11. patrick2 says

    DonDueed @3

    CJO, one argument I’ve seen mentioned is that WS was a commoner and not particularly well educated. The works attributed to him show a significant knowledge of the affairs of the English court, which he would not have direct knowledge of. That’s why some have suggested that the true author was an “insider” who used WS as a front to preserve his (or her!) anonymity.

    Yes, I haven’t looked closely at this question either, but I’ve still noticed this implicit classism/elitism behind theories that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays -- they often argue the plays are too literate, or show too much knowledge for someone of Shakespeare’s class, and that the real author was an anonymous aristocrat.

    A question that I’m not sure has been answered is, why would an aristocrat not take the credit for their wildly successful and popular plays? Why would they want all accolades to pass to a “commoner” like William Shakespeare?

  12. flex says

    patrick2 @12 wrote,

    why would an aristocrat not take the credit for their wildly successful and popular plays?

    The people who propose Roger Bacon (Baconite’s? Baconions? Nutters?) as the author of Shakespeare’s works have an answer to that one. According to them, Roger Bacon would have been expelled from court if it came out that he was the writer of the plays.

    If you really want to have some fun, look up Baconian Cipher in Shakespeare. Roger Bacon was an pretty good cryptologist and is credited with a cipher technique. So, for the past couple hundred years, the Baconian’s have been subjecting the works of Shakespeare to a decoding process using Baconian ciphers. And, wouldn’t you know it, they’ve found acrostics, word-scrambles, hidden messages, etc. All of which are used by the Baconians as more evidence of just how much of a genius Bacon was, to use such advanced cryptographic techniques unknown at the time.

    Here’s one site which looks at some of the Baconian weirdness: http://www.rictin.com/a/bacon-cipher/

    But, yes. I suspect much of the desire to reduce Shakespeare to a third-rate producer is classism.

  13. says

    @ flex “Roger Bacon” He must have been bloody old when he got round to playwriting!!
    *Roger Francis Bacon c. 1219/20 — 9 April 1626 (looks good in his later portraits too)
    (Bacon Schmacon! I often make that slip too)

  14. flex says

    DOH! And it’s not the first time I’ve flipped them. I thought about looking them up to be sure (I know -- 2 seconds with google), but I didn’t.

    I think it’s because when I think of bacon, I start salivating.

  15. moarscienceplz says

    As I understand it, some of the Shakespeare plays we have we only have because some of the actors who first acted in the plays saved their scripts and passed them on to their heirs, and presumably also stories of their life on the boards. They should surely have known who wrote what. The fact that they didn’t deny Shakespeare’s authorship even on their deathbeds isn’t absolute proof that they were telling the truth, but it points strongly in that direction. And if in fact there was a conspiracy among the actors to hide the true author’s identity, I don’t see how we could come up with good evidence today to prove it.

  16. says

    A fun tidbit: William Friedman, the inventor of mathematical cryptanalysis (who went on to write the ‘index of coincidence’ and the ‘riverbank series’ for NSA) got interested in cryptography as a side-effect of being hired by a wealthy patron to determine statistically if Bacon wrote Shakespeare. His work became the foundation of modern cryptanalysis and was still partially classified until relatively recently.

    I don’t understand why some people have trouble with the idea that there can be a single genius who accomplishes a great body of work. Nobody’s going around saying “Leonardo’s work was actually Brunelleschi’s!” or “Caravaggio was actually done by Gentileschi!” Why is it this particular genius that people have problems with? Is it simply because there were plenty of people who say Michaelangelo being Michaelangelo and they went “oh, ok. genius.”? There were equally many people who saw Shakespeare, and if there was doubt, it would have been expressed at the time You know how theater people are 😉 … I mean, look at the great genius Milo Yiannopolous: how long did it take for word to get out that “his” blogging was a bunch of unpaid interns? How long did it take for Milli Vanilli to be outed? This kind of stuff gets discovered very quickly -- certainly within the life-spans of the people who knew where the bodies were buried.

  17. Numenaster says

    I found an article by Richard Lederer this morning that relates directly to the question of vocabulary. Of roughly 18,100 base words in Shakespeare’s writing, 1700 of them make their first appearance in his work. This strongly implies that he invented them. The article was in a dead tree magazine or I’d include a link.

  18. says

    Anyone up for a game of Six Degrees of Wiliam Sakespeare?

    I brain-farted that as “fifty shades of shakespeare”
    … You may do what you wish with that idea.

  19. says

    Wasn’t that basically the plot of that Shakespeare in Love movie?
    (Quite liked the movie, good use of anachronism, and I think I was the only person in the cinema who burst out laughing when it was revealed that the boy with the rat and the cat was John Webster)

  20. wsierichs says

    I had read several “Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare” articles before I found a comprehensive argument that he was indeed the author. The article cited multiple references to him by contemporaries found in various sources, and said he could, in fact, gotten a pretty good education at his town’s school, contrary to the “he was basically ill-educated” claims. It also said that his knowledge of English history and its royalty could be had from reading a few history works in print in his time.
    I do not know enough to argue pro/con on this, but the “Shakespeare was not Shakespeare” argument has always struck me as reaching to find fault with his life story. Indeed, I’ve often thought of it as just a long-running joke, like the “Paul is dead” fabrication about the Beatle. If the counter-argument that I read is reasonably accurate, the anti-Shakespeare case is far weaker than I might otherwise think. At any rate, I will continue to consider him the author of his works unless some big contrary evidence materializes.
    BTW, a blog comment on this issue made the interesting suggestion that our versions of Shakespeare’s works may be based on revised originals, in which actors ad-libbed lines that were written into scripts, that Shakespeare might have followed others’ suggestions for rewrites, perhaps even based on early audience reactions, etc. One can always hope that, somewhere, in a dusty box in a dusty room of a little-accessed library of an antiquities collector of long ago, some original actors’ scripts of Shakespeare might turn up and let us see what changes, if any, were made before his works were canonized.

  21. says

    he could, in fact, gotten a pretty good education at his town’s school, contrary to the “he was basically ill-educated” claims. It also said that his knowledge of English history and its royalty could be had from reading a few history works in print in his time.

    Some bits are pretty much direct from certain translations of Plutarch, I forget which and don’t want to look it up on wikipedia and pretend to be more knowledgeable than I am. If I recall correctly the differences between Shakespeare’s accounts of parts of the life of Julius Caesar, and Plutarch’s are only that it’s a dramatization of Plutarch’s history. So it’s not like Shakespeare was some genius scholar -- he was a genius with words, and a hell of a script-writer.

  22. says

    One can always hope that, somewhere, in a dusty box in a dusty room of a little-accessed library of an antiquities collector of long ago, some original actors’ scripts of Shakespeare might turn up and let us see what changes, if any, were made before his works were canonized

    There’s a rather lovely novel (in the category of “literary mysteries”) about that, in which the characters pursue tantalizing clues about a previously unknown Shakespeare play, allegedly hidden because it showed Shakespeare to have been sympathetic to catholicism. I’m damned if I can remember the name of the novel, now. And any search for “Shakespeare literary mystery” just trawls up bucketloads of goo about literary tinfoil hat theories.

    I love mysteries about bibliophiles and lost books. If you who are reading this share my love, you might want to check out Caldwell/Thomason’s “The Rule of Four” and Perez-Reverte’s “The Club Dumas” The ‘treasure’ in “The Rule of Four” was such an amazing idea I went catatonic with joy for an hour when I hit the ‘reveal’.

  23. flex says

    Eco plays with that trope a lot, both directly (Name of the Rose and as a trigger to catatonia in The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana. In The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana it is actually an undiscovered 1623 Shakespeare folio which triggers the stroke which puts the narrator into a catatonic state.

    I recently read The Club Dumas and I didn’t find it quite as good as advertised, I found the plot a little muddy and the translation wasn’t as crisp as I thought it could be. I didn’t put the book down, but it didn’t grab me as much as I had hoped. I enjoyed The Fencing Master more. But there is no accounting for taste.

    I will go looking for The Rule of Four. I do like literary mysteries.

    And since this is a day-old thread, I will mention that a book which I’ve recently acquired, and I’m enjoying very much, is R.K. Narayan’s Malgudi Days. It’s kind of an Indian James Thurber. Not a literary mystery, but good writing and good stories.

  24. Mano Singham says


    If you like that kind of mystery, you may also enjoy Josephine Tey’s Daughter of Time. It is not quite a literary mystery. It involves her detective becoming bored during an extended stay in hospital and unraveling from his hospital bed the story of Richard III that is quite different from Shakespeare’s portrayal of him.

  25. Mano Singham says

    I would not be quite so quick to criticize critics as being classist. When there is doubt as to authorship of anything, the question of whether the purported author had resources to get the information written about seems like a valid question to investigate.

    More than his knowledge of the English court, what seems to a concern of critics is his knowledge of foreign lands and their courts, since he is not known to have traveled abroad.

    But as I said, barring some new discoveries, this debate is likely to be inconclusive.

  26. flex says


    Great book. I read it about once a year. I like her work, The Singing Sands almost as much. That’s a mystery which starts because her detective has a nervous breakdown in which the distraction caused by a murder helps him recover. But if you know The Daughter of Time you probably also know The Singing Sands.

    By the way, if you like great writing, and haven’t already heard of her, I’d put Sharon McCrumb on your list. I’d say Lovely in Her Bones is her best work, but I haven’t read all of them. Most of them are set in Appalachia, and have a real love for the region. Her books are not straightforward clue-fests, not mysteries in the same vein as Christie or Stout, but bring in lots of extraneous detail which makes the conclusion immediately understandable once the last veil is removed from the mystery.

  27. says

    The other book I was thinking of is “The Bookman’s Tale: a Novel of Obsession”
    It’s got some Shakespeare folio mystery stuff in it. Not bad.

    @flex -- well, if you didn’t like Club Dumas maybe my tastes aren’t yours and “The Rule of Four” won’t be enjoyable. It’s so hard to tell these things. If you try it and don’t like it, I’m sorry in advance!

  28. says

    This morning, my podcast queue served me up this:
    It’s a discussion with several scholars that have studied Shakespeare’s inputs. Really fascinating stuff. Apparently it’s fairly easy to tell what books William had open at his elbow while he was writing what play -- a lot of imagery is directly lifted from various sources that were popular at the time. There is a great deal of really interesting information in this ~1hr episode -- I highly recommend it.

    One thing that came through loud and clear for me is that the Shakespeare conspiracy theorists are engaged in motivated reasoning. One of the topics they discussed in the podcast was that there were other writers alive at the time who left public complaints about that upstart Will Shakespeare who was ripping off their content and putting it in his plays. When the conspiracy buffs talk about Shakespeare, why do they ignore that? Oh, because it explodes their conspiracy theory, perhaps? The tendency to carefully edit out contradictory information is a sure giveaway that you’ve got motivated reasoning/conspiracy think going on.

    What I took away from the discussion was that it’s quite clear that Shakespeare was a man of his time and was embedded in the media of his time. So he lifted heavily from Plutarch because there was a very nice translation available, in a semi-liturgical tone, in English -- and plenty of people at the time had it. There were other popular histories about that had dramatic settings of foreign lands and tempests and wars and whatnot… And Shakespeare lifted from those (often word for word) Listen to the podcast; they talk about that a fair bit. So I imagine if Quentin Tarantino’s corpus survived hundreds of years from now, but all the blaxploitation, kung fu action flicks, and 70s tough guy movies didn’t. Someone might look at Pulp Fiction and see it as a complex work of amazing brilliance because they didn’t realize it was a remix of lots of tropes distilled out of the auteur’s favorite films. Scholars of cinema would, of course, know of Bullitt and Shaft and Enter the Dragon and the James Bond movies and whatnot, but the audiences would only see Pulp Fiction, and would argue whether George Lucas had actually written it under the pen name of Quentin Tarantino.

    As far as I am concerned, learning that Shakespeare’s literary sources are well-known to scholars, drives a stake through the heart of all baconian conspiracies.

  29. flex says

    @Marcus @30,

    My tastes are catholic, and I didn’t throw The Club Dumas across the room. I just felt that the justification for the levels of violence in the plot was weak and it ultimately left me moderately dissatisfied. If there had been a few less murders and conflagrations I would have enjoyed it more. And, knowing how the publishing industry works, it may not have been Perez-Reverte’s choice to write it that way. I think my first encounter with a novel where the agent/publisher greatly changed the outcome of the novel in order to sell it was David Brin’s The Postman. I have no proof of this, but it reads to me like the second section of the novel was tacked on to change a very interesting novella about citizenship and patriotism into a cyberpunk thriller, and thus sell to a publisher (and market to an audience who was enamored with cyberpunk at the time). [Side note: in my frenzied typing, I just typed the word cypherpunk. Now that would be an interesting genre.]

    So I’ll give The Rule of Four a try, and I won’t go into it with any expectations.

    @Marcus @31. When I learned the Shakepeare’s literary sources were known, it also finished the conspiracy theories in my opinion. I would like to point out, however, that it looks like the scholarly identification of Shakespeare’s sources has only been done in the last 80-100 years. Since the baconian conspiracy pre-dates that, I don’t judge the baconian’s too harshly (and I’m not saying you do either). It’s a natural reaction of wonderment to disbelieve that an unknown human agency could create some enthralling human artifact. Whether it is the pyramids, the Nazca Lines, Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, the bible, the koran, or shakespeare’s plays, I’ve seen claims that all of these were the work of superhumans or aliens. I’m just surprised that the baconians landed on Francis Bacon.

    My favorite Shakespeare’s plays origin story was that a time-traveler took a copy of Shakespeare’s complete works to the Bard of Avon for a signature, and Shakespeare killed him and stole the book to copy from.

  30. brucegee1962 says

    It’s also worth noting that the whole “towering genius of human intellect — greatest playwright ever — words that will last a thousand years” version of Shakespeare didn’t get going until around the late 18th century. During his lifetime, his contemporaries seemed to think of him as “There are a bunch of playwrights around, and he’s one of them.” Those contemporaries who happened to write about seeing his plays didn’t seem to think of them as much beyond a pleasant afternoon’s outing.

    Harold Bloom’s thesis in his book “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human” is that it isn’t so much that Shakespeare is a great playwright (though he is), but that for various historical reasons he gained such a central place in British, and then the version of Western thought that he helped to create formed the kind of society in which he could then be seen as a central figure.

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