If you want to ignite a firestorm among scholars of English literature, just bring up the possibility that the author of the works that now constitute the Shakespeare canon were not written by the historical figure William Shakespeare but by another author who, for whatever reason, chose to be anonymous and had him act as a front. To keep the issue under discussion clear, some people refer to the author of the canon as the Bard and to the historical figure as William Shakespeare, so that the question can be formulated as to whether the Bard was William Shakespeare or someone else.
One would think that the issue would have been resolved by now but part of the problem is that although many doubts can be raised as to Shakespeare being the Bard, the alternatives also have problems. Furthermore, one could analyze the question from different disciplines such as literature, history, and linguistics, each with their own methodologies, and arrive at different conclusions.
Elizabeth Winkler is the latest to enter into this minefield with a new book, according to this article.
The doubters point to Shakespeare’s lack of higher education and aristocratic background and the scarcity of personal documents and literary evidence directly linking him to the works. Some suggest candidates such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as potential authors of Shakespeare’s plays.
It would of course have been the hoax of the millennium: no need to fake a moon landing. The theory remains decidedly fringe, outside the mainstream academic consensus and, as Winkler puts it, “not permitted”. In her book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, she writes that “it has become the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature.
“In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespeare authorship question’ elicits contempt – eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging. If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity. Someone else might get up and leave the room. Tears may be shed. A whip may be produced. You will be punished, which is to say, educated. Because it is obscene to suggest that the god of English literature might be a false god. It is heresy.”
But Winkler not only looks at the authorship question but also at why this topic arouses such strong passions on all sides, and why defenders of Shakespeare as the Bard are so determined to rebut any challenge to his authorship. After all, there is nothing really tangible involved in the answer, either money or other forms of reward. We have the canon. Shouldn’t that be enough?
Her book makes three compelling arguments: tying the authorship question to the rise and fall of imperial Britain and its need for national mythmaking; exploring how Shakespeare was turned into a secular god, with theatre filling the vacuum left by the decline of the church; and challenging the basic human need to cling to belief when doubt might be the proper response.
Her central point is not the authorship question itself but the ecosystem of egos, vested interests, literary feuds and cultish bardolatry that has grown up around it. We meet Stratfordians who defend Shakespeare’s genius with religious intensity and zeal and anti-Stratfordians who respond with a contrarian ferocity worthy of atheist Richard Dawkins. This is one fight with little room for agnostics.
Winkler writes: “The authorship question is a massive game of Clue played out over the centuries. The weapon is a pen. The crime is the composition of the greatest works of literature in the English language. The suspects are numerous. The game is played in back rooms and basements, beyond the purview of the authorities.
“Now and then, reports of the game surface in the press, and the authorities (by which I mean the Shakespeare scholars) are incensed. They come in blowing their whistles and stomping their feet, waving their batons wildly.”
“In some ways, the authorship question is an interdisciplinary subject. It’s not actually a subject just for English literature scholars whose training is in literary analysis. They’re literary critics. They don’t have the same methodological training often as historians, although they would probably get mad at me for saying that.
“They certainly don’t have training in all these other fields that the author seems to be knowledgable about. There’s a sense in which the authorship question should be attacked in an interdisciplinary space, and instead because it’s seen as just the purview of Shakespeare scholars and only they are the authorities – that’s the problem.”
This is the kind of academic dispute that people outside academia find hard to comprehend since there are really no consequences whatsoever that depend upon the answer. It is about as pure a theoretical question as one might imagine. But for scholars in the field, the search for truth and accuracy can take on an outsize value that has little to do with any practical concerns.