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Why do we keep looking for the author?

Beyond the controversies over identifying the author of the plays, there have been major critical wars over the significance of the author. John Drakakis, Professor of Literature and Languages at the University of Stirling, distilled some of the most important theoretical questions in the landmark Alternative Shakespeares, a volume of essays he co-edited with Terence Hawkes (Methuen, 1985). A second volume followed in 1996. Drakakis will refine and bring up-to-date some of the questions surrounding the “Death of the Author / What is an Author” debate, and in particular, explore the distinction between “author” and “agency” with regard to Shakespeare. As a way of questioning the investments that biographers appear to have in reasoning from fictional texts to author, he will challenge the view that Shakespeare’s writings are in any way transparently autobiographical. He will adumbrate the question that will already have been raised: is “biography” another form of “fiction”?


Following Professor Drakakis’s probing of generic codes and biographers’ own ideological investments in the lives they write, Professor William H. Sherman will examine a different aspect of a preoccupation with codes in relation to Shakespeare’s identity, a preoccupation that has regularly opened up into conspiracy theories. These preoccupations may have receded into the shadows of the authorship question as biography has come into the spotlight, but they engaged some of the most interesting minds of the 19th and early 20th centuries and became closely bound up with developments in bibliography, linguistics, and military cryptography. Many of the early works on the topic—particularly those concerning Bacon rather than Oxford—have little to say about life stories and concern themselves rather with questions of hidden messages and secret symbol systems. Why did this preoccupation emerge so dramatically in the middle of the 19th century? What larger movements and questions is it part of (e.g. identity and authority, ghost-writing, latent meaning, allegory, etc.)? Why did so many people want Bacon to be author of Shakespeare’s plays? Sherman is Professor of English at the University of York. His first book was a study of the Elizabethan courtier and alchemist, John Dee. His current research project links some twentieth-century work in the field of intelligence to its roots in the Renaissance approach to intelligence—which itself encompassed scholarship and espionage. His Folger exhibition, “Decoding the Renaisaance,” is scheduled for fall 2014.


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