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What's in a Name?

Authorship Q&A with James Shapiro

With the film Anonymous stirring up controversy over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays, Education Director Bob Young asked James Shapiro, Shakespeare Scholar at Columbia University and author of Contested Will, to put a few things in perspective for us about this debate:


1. What is the controversy over the authorship of the plays?
While there is not a scrap of documentary evidence linking anyone but William Shakespeare to the plays that bear his name, there are some people who want to believe that somebody else must have written them. 
2. When did it begin?
It wasn’t until the 1850s—over two hundred years after Shakespeare died—that anyone even suggested that another writer was the true author of his plays. Since then, over 70 alternative candidates have been suggested.  A hundred years ago the leading candidate was Sir Francis Bacon.  Nowadays it is Edward de Vere, 17th earl of Oxford.  Tastes change, so it could be Christopher Marlowe’s turn next.
3. Why are the alternate theories over who wrote Shakespeare’s plays so popular?
Everyone loves a conspiracy story, like the Da Vinci Code.  In the absence of archival evidence, proponents of alternative candidates have to come up with a theory that explains why the truth has been suppressed for the past four hundred years. The unraveling of a mystery is always thrilling.  But there is no mystery when it comes to who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.  Shakespeare did.
4. Why does it matter?
There are those who say, ‘What difference does it make who wrote the plays, as long as we can read and see them in the theater?”

Would that were so!  Unfortunately, those who advance rival candidates inevitably bring a strong political viewpoint (whether they are aware of it or not) to their reading of the plays. Baconians often saw Shakespeare as a political radical. The film Anonymous turns Shakespeare into a political propagandist with a strong distaste for the ‘mob’—as playgoers are called in the film. We don’t know what Shakespeare’s politics were—and it is best to be skeptical of any theory that confidently tells us what he thought. 
5. In the final chapter of your book, Contested Will, you put the question of authorship to rest, or so it must seem to the average reader.  So, why does the authorship question persist?
I don’t put the matter to rest as much as I present hard evidence that confirms Shakespeare’s authorship of the plays. I cite the testimony of the many writers who knew and worked with Shakespeare as well as the abundant evidence (from court and publishing records, too) that confirm his authorship. The controversy persists because there are many people who are more comfortable with conviction or faith based arguments, and what they call circumstantial evidence, rather than with fact-based claims. It is almost impossible to challenge those whose positions are based on faith rather than facts. 
6. The premise of Anonymous is that Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, the Earl of Oxford did, even though he died before ten of the plays were written.  If you were teaching in a high school, and your students asked you, “Who wrote Shakespeare?” how would you respond?
First, I’d urge those students to think hard about what’s at stake in that question. Then I’d suggest that if they are really interested in the authorship controversy, to investigate it further to their own satisfaction, and to acquaint themselves with scholarship on the subject (and I mean scholarship, arguments grounded in evidence, not surmise or fantasy—Contested Will has an extensive "Bibliographical Essay."

But my real advice to any high school student is to read the plays (especially aloud, with friends), go see as many productions as possible, and take the plunge and act in them as well. Shakespeare was an actor, and there is no better way to understand why they were written by a man of the theater than by performing the plays and seeing performances of them.


James Shapiro

Martin Droeshout. Droeshout portrait of Shakespeare. Print, 1623 (Detail)

Folger Magazine

Contested Will: Spring 2010

In the Media

60 minutes with Shakespeare: Who Was William S?

Learn More

Shakespeare FAQs

Questioning Shakespeare's Authorship

Shakespeare Bites Back: Free E-Book


Interview with James Shapiro, 2010

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