Tuesday marked William Shakespeare’s 449th birthday. There is nothing new in the observation of Shakespeare’s birthday, but this year there was a difference, a problem perhaps of Stratford’s own making. The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust — the guardian of Shakespeare’s global image — will publish a book of some 20 academic essays that sets out to prove definitively that Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed to him. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt marks a radical development in the Shakespeare authorship question, for it is the first time that the “establishment” has felt the need to acknowledge its existence and importance.
In the past, they have dismissed this question as only of interest to fantasists and, in one famous analogy, as comparable to Holocaust denial. This is the first time that the subject is being taken seriously as “an intriguing cultural phenomenon”. Why are they so worried? One reason is the publication in paperback of Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography by American scholar, Diana Price, in which she analyses every piece of evidence in existence concerning Shakespeare and concludes that the case for Shakespeare writing all of the works attributed to him is quite weak. As with my own research, Price does not argue for an alternative author but rather shows how the case for Shakespeare is built on mis-readings, mythologising and, often wilful deception.
Of the many contemporary records that exist naming Shakespeare, none call him a writer. A couple show he was an actor and he was certainly involved with the Globe Theatre financially, but the vast majority show him to have been a businessman, moneylender and property investor. Perhaps Price’s most important achievement is to show that evidence of a “writing life” exists for all of Shakespeare’s contemporaries in the form of manuscripts, letters or payment records, but that nothing exists for Shakespeare other than reviews and posthumous praise. Shakespeare is uniquely absent from the records as a writer. A number of plays that appeared in the first collected works (the First Folio, printed in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death) have been shown to be works of more than one writer. I would argue that many more than this are collaborations and that some of the plays in that collection were not written by Shakespeare. For example, one record attributes Romeo and Juliet to Samuel Daniel, a contemporary of Shakespeare; Hamlet was being performed on stage 10 years before Shakespeare is supposed to have written it. These are just two of many such examples.
I believe that the plays and poems were written by a number of people — Shakespeare being one of them. The author(s) had broad knowledge, could use five languages and had a vocabulary six or seven times that of an ordinary individual. Does this not suggest six or seven educated writers? This is a logical and well-evidenced explanation, yet one which has met extensive hostility.
There is certainly something about this issue that causes people to lose all sense of reason. Many seem to have formed a personal connection to Shakespeare, or at least to the romantic conception of the author that has been handed down to us. Essentially, they are fans taking criticism of his work personally.
It seems ironic to me that such sublime writings prompt such extreme and often irrational behaviour by so many well-educated people. The reason for this can only be that a romantic, comfortable and conventional truth is being questioned and that this is difficult to handle.