7 – The idea that he didn’t write his plays was unheard of at the time, and probably says more about the rumour mongers than it does about Shakespeare
“Men’s evil manners live in brass; their virtues we write in water.” Henry VIII in Henry VIII
The quote above is emblematic – as it might well not actually have been written by Shakespeare. Certainly, Shakespeare was not above bringing in a little help to churn out dramas at the rate that was required for him to be profitable. It is ironic, given the controversy that has dogged Shakespeare regarding the authorship of his works, that he so openly stole from other writers for his plots. Few of his greatest works were truly original stories, or at least, did not draw heavily on scenarios which with his audience were already familiar. The histories, obviously, draw on history, while the likes of Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear to name just three are all based on pre-existing plot lines.
Whether Shakespeare was the man who actually wrote them all is a fairly moot point. Most scholars have agreed that Shakespeare did write his plays and consider those who posit other ideas to be little more than conspiracy theorists, and in truth, it doesn’t really matter that much either way. It is telling that the great conspiracy required to create the illusion that Shakespeare did not write his own plays was never mentioned in his lifetime and indeed, did not surface at all until hundreds of years after his death, which would make it just about the most successful conspiracy ever. Nevertheless, figures of the heft of Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin, Mark Twain and Sigmund Freud have all signed up to the cause at one time or another.
The claims centre on some of the aspects of Shakespeare’s life that we have covered. Many find it hard to believe that a man from such humble origins, with such a lack of education – though we have mentioned his schooling, there is actually no evidence that he ever went to the school that most scholars think that he attended in Stratford – could have written such detailed and intricate works about royal affairs and court behaviour. The shaky spelling of Shakespeare’s name, which we will touch on later, has also coloured views of him, as has his poor handwriting and signature.
Of course, when claiming that Shakespeare did not write his plays, it is necessary to suggest who might have. In that field, there is no clear candidate. Contemporaries of Shakespeare such as Christopher Marlowe, a celebrated playwright in his own right, and Sir Francis Bacon, the philosopher and politician, were posited, among as many as 80 others. Most recently, Edward de Vere, a courtesan and amateur poet, has been considered a potential author.
The accusers might actually reveal more about themselves than they do about Shakespeare. When the majority of accusations occurred, in the 18th and 19th centuries, the level of social stratification in England was almost at its height. Thus, the idea that a man of humble origins could have written such startling works was anathema to those who were in the thrall of what was known as “Bardolatry”, the adulation of Shakespeare that began to grow around 1800. Nobody had considered Shakespeare to be the greatest writer ever in his lifetime, nor in the first two centuries that followed, and it was only afterwards that his fame grew to the level that it currently holds. Shakespeare’s background is questioned regularly, but those of his greatest two contemporaries – Ben Jonson and Christopher Marlowe – are largely similar and yet no questions are asked of their authorship.
There is also a theory that the biggest argument in favor of Shakespeare having written his own plays is exactly the same argument that is used to discredit him: his lack of education. For those who claim that Shakespeare lacked the knowledge and education to have accurately depicted many of the courtly behaviors that are in the plays, there are countless examples of him proving that to be correct in the plays themselves: notably, because Shakespeare’s ancient plays are filled with errors. Shakespeare’s school might have taught the basics of Greek and Latin, but having not been to university, his knowledge of the classics is poor: he has ancient characters quote figures who lived hundreds of years after the plays were set, for example, a mistake a true classicist would not have made.
Whether he wrote them or not, the effect of the plays on the English language has been massive. Shakespeare’s limited education meant that he did not know more words than other contemporary playwrights, but the esteem in which his work was held has left his words as those that remain to this day. In the next section, we will discuss just how influential Shakespeare has been in shaping the way that we speak today.