Why Do People Still Doubt Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare? (Classic Remarks)

Classic Remarks

What Is Classic Remarks?

Classic Remarks is a meme hosted here at Pages Unbound that poses questions each Friday about classic literature and asks participants to engage in ongoing discussions surrounding not only themes in the novels but also questions about canon formation, the “timelessness” of literature, and modes of interpretation.

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Leave your link to your post on your own blog in the comments below. And feel free to comment with your thoughts even if you are not officially participating with a full post!

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(Readers who like past prompts but missed them have also answered them on their blog later and linked back to us at Pages Unbound, so feel free to do that, too!)

This Week’s Prompt:

Why do you think some individuals believe in the Shakespeare authorship “controversy” even though the scholarly consensus is that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare?

My understanding of the Shakespeare authorship controversy has long been that proponents of alternate candidates for Shakespeare were simply classist and ill-informed. Conventional arguments that someone else must have written the plays argue that Shakespeare was too middle-class and too uneducated to write the plays, and so someone else like an aristocrat or a university playwright must have done so instead. These arguments suggest that great art can only be achieved by someone who is wealthy or of noble birth–which seems obviously wrong in the 21st century–and ignore the fact that the grammar school Shakespeare attended would have taught Latin and a great many other things the author of the plays knew. (Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro suggests in Contested Will that such schools gave an education better than universities today.)

My reading of James Shapiro’s Contested Will, which traces the history of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, has since expanded my thoughts on the matter. Shapiro demonstrates how Shakespeare’s authorship began to be questioned when the concept of authorship changed. Victorian readers thought that authors could only have written what they had experienced firsthand, and so Shakespeare could not have written about foreign lands or the court if he had never been to foreign lands and never been a member of the court. It seems obvious that people can write about things they have read of or imagined (dragons, for instance, or time travel), but Shapiro notes that even authors like Mark Twain found this argument convincing.

Victorian times are over, however, and the “controversy” rages on. Shapiro suggests this is in part because Shakespeare scholars have largely remained silent on the matter and partly because the rise of the internet gave everyone equal footing in the debate. The Baconians and the Oxfordians could create compelling websites for their proposed candidates, while Shakespeare scholars largely stayed out of the fray. I would extend Shapiro’s argument farther, however. I think the continued fascination with the “real” author of Shakespeare’s plays is also part of the backlash towards academia and expertise in general. People do not only not read academics’ thoughts on Shakespeare–they find them suspect. The academy, they think, has some political agenda and must be hiding things. There is some conspiracy among scholars to keep insisting Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.

Along with the doubt in expertise must necessarily come a renewed fascination in conspiracy theories. If you cannot trust the experts, the scholars, the news, then you must conclude that they are all part of a vast conspiracy meant to keep people in the dark. Why exactly it must be so important to uphold William Shakespeare over the Earl of Oxford, I do not know. But I think a general distrust of the system and a general fascination with hidden codes and hidden identities is enough to keep people engaged by the thought that William Shakespeare was simply a front for someone else.

I believe the evidence available conclusively demonstrates that William Shakespeare wrote his own works. However, for some, the evidence will never be enough. There is something too compelling about a conspiracy centuries old for some to acknowledge that the simplest explanation might, in this case, be the right one.

13 thoughts on “Why Do People Still Doubt Shakespeare Wrote Shakespeare? (Classic Remarks)

  1. Davida Chazan says:

    I’m sure that the controversy is widespread, but I’m going to stick to my guns and say YES he wrote at least MOST of his plays, and probably ALL of his sonnets. There is a thing called genius, you know. Someone whose abilities are uncommonly extraordinary. Mozart wrote music like he was writing a shopping list, and he could play the piano like a virtuoso from the age of 4, so why do we doubt that this same kind of genius couldn’t happen again with Shakespeare and his writing? Because his father was a crook and made gloves? Because he was a bad businessman and had to teach Latin to stay alive before he moved to London? Sorry, I’m not buying any of it. Genius comes in many forms, and arrives when we least expect it. Scholars should get over themselves. They have no proof that he didn’t write it all, nor is there proof that he was the person to write them – but until you can prove otherwise, beyond a reasonable doubt that it wasn’t him, then William Shakespeare was the one. (I am so adamant about this, that I stopped reading the novel The Dark Lady’s Mask because the premise was that some woman wrote or collaborated with him in writing these plays and poems. NO. Just NO!)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I think the controversy is primarily prevalent in pop culture. From what I can tell, there are a bunch of fiction books positing that Shakespeare isn’t really the author of his own plays, in which the protagonist has to find the “real” playwright. Scholars don’t usually advocate for Shakespeare conspiracy theories, however, because the literary and historical evidence all suggests Shakespeare was himself. I think conspiracy theories are more prevalent among individuals who don’t understand how Renaissance authorial and publishing practices were different from our own.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. lesserknowngems says:

    Thank you for an interesting post. I also think it’s very interesting that people usually go to the plays to “prove” shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare since it was the sonnets that were the more important writing in his own time. But does Shapiro say anything about how laymen can meet the controversy, or should it just be specialist?

    https://lesserknowngems.wordpress.com/2020/06/01/why-do-people-still-believe-in-anti-stratfordian-theory/

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    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think Shapiro is particularly interested in laymen answering the controversy. I think his focus is on academia, where he argues scholars have found the theories so silly that they haven’t bothered to answer them–which helped them grow. But I think the thing to do would be for people to read up on Renaissance history and literary production, and that way you can counter the conspiracy arguments, which are often based on a misunderstanding on history.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lesserknowngems says:

        I was given a comic as a present about a world populated by Shakespeare characters. The consept sounded fun, but the first thing the creater wrote was that he hadn’t read much about Shakespeare and the cultural context. I never read it. I don’t know if I would have become frustrated, but that’s usually a recipe for frustration.

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  3. theorangutanlibrarian says:

    Yeah I generally think that this theory comes out of classicism. I think that’s a good point about people having a backlash against academia (I mean, especially since this theory isn’t popular in academia right now). Oh yeah I definitely think it has something to do with the rise in conspiracy theories

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