The Authorship Question Explained

The Shakespeare Authorship Question began to trouble literary historians as far back as the middle 1700s. But it was not until Victorian times, when the works of ‘Shakespeare’ were re-discovered and popularised by the great theatrical actor managers of the day, that academics began the search for the man behind the plays. Literary biography was, at the time, a relatively new field of research and they began their task with an almost clean slate.

They were unable to discover any evidence that he had attended Stratford Grammar School. The universities too showed a blank. Yet by this time literary scholars had established that the writings of great Roman author Ovid ran through Shakespeare like DNA and that the poems and plays displayed such an astonishing level of classical scholarship that it was hard for some to believe that an uneducated man had risen to these great heights.

Very little has ever been discovered about William Shakspere of Stratford beyond property conveyances, evidence of tax evasion, a modest stake in The Globe theatre and his will. There’s no anecdotal evidence at all. Even his son-in-law, Dr John Hall, whose writings were published after his death, had not a single word to say about him, even though, at the time he was writing, the plays of ‘Shakespeare’ were being performed to great acclaim in London.

In nearly 200 years of research, nobody has ever discovered a single scrap of documentary evidence that William Shakspere of Stratford upon Avon was a writer. Indeed, the overwhelming conclusion one comes to when examining the known facts of the Stratford man (filleting out all the ‘must haves’, might haves’ and ‘we can assumes’ that provide 95% of all modern Shakespeare biogaphies) is that he was probably illiterate.

The great prize, of course, has always been to discover manuscript evidence of the poems and plays. And, almost unaccountably for such a great and prolific author, not a single fragment has ever been discovered.

Over the years, many people have asked themselves, well if it wasn’t the Stratford man – who was the author? And over the years there have been any number of candidates put forward – from Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and Sir Philip Sidney, to name but three.

Many actors, including Sir Derek Jacobi, Leslie Howard, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Michael York and John Gielgud have doubted the traditional biography of William Shakspere of Stratford. Many writers, including Mark Twain, Henry James and Daphne du Maurier have entertained similar doubts. Many other intellectuals including Sigmund Freud and JE Powell, and many politicians including Bismark, Disraeli, Palmerston and De Gaulle have found it impossible to accept the myth. After noting his genius, his unparalleled learning and his aristocratic outlook, they have decided that the Bard cannot have been William Shakspere of Stratford.

The name “Shakespeare” was almost certainly a pseudonym for the real writer of genius. We should look for him elsewhere in the Elizabethan world.

The Empire “Strikes” Back
How Stratfordians have failed to Refute Oxfordian Claims

By Kevin Gilvary
[This article appeared as the final entry in Great Oxford (2004) ed. R. Malim.]

1 Introduction
2 Biographies of the Bard: Bricks without Straw
3 The non-Stratfordian Position
4 The Oxfordian Position
5 Attacking the non-Stratfordians
6 Attacking the Oxfordians
7 Re-asserting the Stratfordian claim
8 Conclusion and Further Reading (as of 2004)