Why the Authorship Question Matters

Over the holidays, I was discussing the Shakespeare Authorship Controversy with my father in law. He is an admitted novice when it comes to Shakespeare, but – like most of us – he has some basic experience with the plays. He was unfamiliar with the fact that there is a group of people who doubt that William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon-avon wrote the plays attributed to him. My father-in-law was surprised to learn that this was the case, as are most people when they first learn of the debate. My father-in-law’s biggest question was “why does it matter?”

I can see why he has that question. At the end of the day, who wrote the plays has no effect on the text. It was written by someone and it’s wonderful. I tend to agree with John Green when he asserts that once a work is out in the world, it belongs to the reader not the author. I think this is particularly true when we have no way of knowing what the author’s intention was. This fact allows us to liberally interpret the text in ways that the author never imagined. It allows for a more interesting reading of the text because we are not contained by the author’s intent.

However, I believe it does still matter for the simple fact that facts matter. Each time I have looked into the authorship question, I find that most of the arguments come from a place of misunderstanding. They misunderstand the realities of the time period. They expect there to be record keeping and document preservation on par with what we have today. They assume that the author must have a life experience that fits exactly what happens in all the plays and sonnets combined. They assume because he didn’t attend a university that he must have been uneducated. Him spelling his name differently means he was illiterate. He didn’t mention any books or manuscripts in his final will, so he must not have had any.

Each of these points seems legitimate if we apply our modern values to the past, but there is an inherent problem with this logic. Most of the key points can be taken down with simple explanations of what was normal in the time period. For example, I addressed what grammar school was like in a recent episode of my podcast Breaking Bard. But, to summarize, a grammar school education is equivalent to a modern day classics degree. I don’t think anyone can legitimately argue that he was uneducated. We also have to keep in mind that no one looked for any documents about Shakespeare until a hundred years after he died. That is a long time for records to be lost or destroyed.

I intend to set out on a project to fully understand this debate. I have constructed a list of key anti-Stratfordian texts that I will work my way through over the next several months. My goal here is to understand exactly what the arguments are and then do the research on the important historical context. I want to fully understand and articulate the points and counterpoints of this debate.

I turned to reddit to get recommendations for anti-Stratfordian texts. One of the best comments was asking why anyone would put themselves through this. I had to laugh and then really think about that question. Most people in the Shakespeare community seem to put anti-Stratfordians on the same level as flat earthers, as in they are not worth even debating. I disagree with this point of view. I would equate them more with climate change deniers. The vast majority of experts agree, but doubt still creeps in, largely because of misunderstandings. However, I believe that it is worth debating if only to prevent further misunderstandings.

One big point of contention in the anti-Stratfordian community is that they are not taken seriously by the academic community. The academic community doesn’t acknowledge the authorship question as a legitimate question. This often aggressive rejection of the authorship question seems suspicious to the doubters. If it can be proven that Shakespeare wrote the works, why do they seem afraid of the question. Surely an academic would be open to considering any possibility. This suspicion is the exact reason I believe that debate is largely beneficial.

However, I have to insert the caveat that there will always be those who ignore facts that contradict their point of view. There is a point where debate won’t make a difference. We must be aware of this line.

Now, the anti-Stratfordians are not unintelligent people. They are professors, doctors, lawyers, and theater professionals. Many have doctorates and other advanced degrees. However, intelligence does not mean that you know everything. A medical or law degree does not make you an expert in early modern history, just as an early modern expertise does not make you qualified to be a lawyer. Therefore, when having a debate, expertise must be taken into consideration. The evidence provided by experts (often multiple experts in this case) must be weighed more heavily than the assertions of an intelligent novice. We must be willing to accept that what is normal today was not necessarily normal in Shakespeare’s time.

As I move forward with this project, I want to keep in mind that this debate matters and is worth having. Clearing up misinformation is always an endeavor worth pursuing. My intention is to move forward with an open mind, but in doing that, clearly identify the facts, as laid out by the experts. I’m sure I will encounter those who will never change their minds even in the face of objective facts. However, I remain optimistic that most people will be open to respectful and productive debate. We’ll see if I feel the same at the end of this project.

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