Tuesday, 31 January 2012

The Authorship Debate | Did Shakespeare Write…Well, Anything?

Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?
The Authorship Debate
It probably won’t come as a great shock to learn that I think Shakespeare did indeed write the plays and poems that bear his name. However, there are those who disagree and their numbers are growing.

Although, among literary scholars, it is still viewed as very much a fringe theory, the number of anti-Stratfordians (those who believe Shakespeare did not write the work attributed to him) is increasing.

Among them, actors Mark Rylance and Derek Jacbobi, threw their doubting hats into the ring and, in 2007, released a ‘declaration of reasonable doubt’, which was signed by 200 academics.

Why is There Doubt Over Shakespeare’s Authorship?

There are many reasons cited by anti-Stratdfordians, but one of the main ones is simply that so little is known of Shakespeare’s life. For example:

There is no record of Shakespeare having had an education. This, for many anti-Stratfordians, is the most compelling piece of evidence. After all, how can someone with little or no formal education be the most famous playwright in the world?

There is the large gap, known as the ‘lost years’ (1585-1592), in which no evidence exists to suggest where Shakespeare was or what he was doing. Some have suggested he was teaching, others believe he was forced to leave Stratford Upon Avon, after being caught poaching deer from the local estate.

Then, of course, there is Shakespeare’s rather mysterious will, which does not mention any plays, poems, books or, perhaps most importantly, the Globe Theatre.

Who Did Write Shakespeare’s Plays?

The problem for the anti-Stratforidan case, however, is that no agreement can be reached as to who really did write Shakespeare’s plays. There are many candidates (approximately 70) suggested, some of the more plausible being:

  • Francis Bacon
  • Christopher Marlowe
  • Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
  • William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby

Mary Sydney Countess of Pembroke
Could She Have Been Shakespeare?
In the case of De Vere and Stanley, the reason for concealing their identities may have been due to the ‘stigma of print’; a notion that members of the aristocracy should not be writing and publishing plays and poems.

However, if the author is really Marlowe, Bacon or another writer, then the reason for his secrecy is less clear.

Of course, there are those who have suggested that the real author of Shakespeare’s work was, in fact, a woman - hence the need to create a fictional male playwright as her beard.

And then there are those, like the aforementioned Mark Rylance, who believe that the plays were likely to have been works of collaboration, rather than of any one man (or woman).

Evidence That Shakespeare Did Write Shakespeare

Okay, so let’s look at things from the other side. The truth is that anti-Stratfordian argument hinges on a lack of evidence, so there is no proof that Shakespeare either didn’t exist or was a front man for another author. So, lets look at the three points mentioned above.

Shakespeare had no education - Well, just because no records exist, it doesn’t follow that he didn’t have an education. Given that The King’s New School, was almost on the Shakespeares’ doorstep and the fact that his parents were both comparatively wealthy, it is reasonable to assume he would have attended the school.

Shakespeare didn’t exist for 7 years - There are any number of reasons that Shakespeare fell off the radar for a spell in the latter part of the 16th century. Keep in mind, he wasn’t famous at this point and, as far as we know, hadn’t even begun to write plays for the London theatre scene. Having attempted to trace some of my family tree, I’ve discovered that a number of my ancestors seem to ‘disappear’ for a while. This doesn’t necessarily mean they were posing as a successful playwright for a member of the aristocracy.

Shakespeare's Last Will and Testament

A lack of information in Shakespeare’s Will
- Again, this might not be as mysterious and suspicious as it seems. For one thing, at the time of Shakespeare’s death, the law stated that one third of a man’s estate automatically passed to his widow. Therefore, there may have been little need to dictate individual bequests. Moreover, the Globe Theatre was owned by the entire company - not Shakespeare alone.

Does it Matter Who Wrote Shakespeare?

On the face of it, it doesn’t really seem to matter whether all those great plays and poems were written by the man from Stratford Upon Avon or the man from Del Monte. They’re great works of literature regardless of who wrote them.

Nevertheless, the authorship debate prompts fierce opinions in some. Because the anti-Stratfordian argument is based solely on a lack of evidence, rather than compelling proof to indicate one alternative author, I’m unconvinced by it.

I also wonder why it was not until the middle of the 19th century that the authorship debate arose. If Shakespeare really had been a fraud, surely it wouldn’t have taken almost 250 years for someone to mention it?

If you’d like to learn more about Shakespeare’s life and works, check out What’s It All About, Shakespeare? An Introduction to The Bard of Avon.


  1. It does matter a great deal who the real author was, because without the real biography one of the greatest stories of literature is lost. Or it was until now. http://www.leweslewkenor.com/


    William Corbett

    1. Hello William,

      Interesting theory, which, as you may imagine from my post, I don't buy.

      In terms of the plays, I don't think it is necessarily important who wrote them - they're works of genius and that won't change, whether it's 'proven' that Shakespeare, Lewkenor, De Vere or Sydney wrote them.

      But, you're right in that the conspiracies surrounding the authorship debate make for great stories in of themselves. However, the vast majority are, like Anonymous, just that: stories, without much basis in historical fact.

  2. Considering that nearly everyone who was alive at the time has been proposed as a candidate I don't blame you, but two facts are significant: that Lewes Lewkenor translated the work on Venice that is cited as the source for The Merchant and Othello, and that king James created the post of Master of the Ceremonies for Lewkenor. The wealth of detail that this throws up is well worth examining, even from a historical perspective. Certainly anyone interested in Shakespeare should be aware of the one author whose works he wrote from and who he would have known at court. The two men would have had to be well acquainted.

    1. Hello again, William.

      Lewkenor is undoubtedly an interesting fella, and his potential relationship with Shakespeare is also fascinating. Does the fact that they likely knew one another (and one borrowed from a work the other translated) mean that Shakespeare was Lewes Lewkenor's beard?

      And I'm left wondering, if Lewkenor was publishing his own work, like The Resolved Gentleman, why did he need a beard for his plays and poetry? Surely, the stigma of print was not an issue for him. I'm sure this is something you discuss in your book.

      For me, Shakespeare was obviously such a magpie when it came to borrowing plots, themes and perhaps even styles, that it's more likely Lewkenor was just one such influence on the playwright's work. But, it's something we're unlikely to ever know for sure - which, as you rightly point out above, makes for great stories.

    2. Why did Lewkenor need a "beard" for his plays?
      From: “Elizabeth’s Spy Master: Francis Walsingham and the Secret War that Saved England” by Robert Hutchinson.
      Walsingham’s motives: P.262:
      “Like the rest of the English government, (Walsingham) had heard with horror the graphic accounts of the mass atrocities inflicted on ‘infidel’ Dutch Protestants by the crusading Spanish army of occupation in the Low Countries. He must also have been traumatized and scarred by witnessing the bloody and genocidal St.Bartholomew’s Day massacre in Paris in August 1572. Later, as Secretary of State, reports endlessly crossed his desk from his spies and informers regarding plot after plot to assassinate his queen and the planned invasions, by battle-hardened Catholic forces, of his ill-defended nation. Couple the impact of these events with his own religious fervency and we might begin to understand his determination that Spanish troops would never forcibly return the Mass to English parish churches on the needle-sharp points of their pikes.
      “To him, bribery, teachery, blackmail, coercion, internment, torture and state-sponsored murder were merely handy tools to be employed unhesitatingly to stamp out the contagion of Popish treason and conspiracy. “
      The author makes Walsingham’s hatred of Catholicism sound personal.
      But Lewes Lewkenor was not just another Catholic gentleman fighting with the enemy. He was family.
      Walsingham’s second wife was Ursula St.Barbe. His secretary, Robert Beale married Ursula’s sister, Edith.
      The mother of Ursula and Edith was Eleanor Lewkenor, one of the daughters of Edward Lewkenor of Kingston Bowsey, whose Will was proved in 1522. Edward had been executor to his cousin, Roger Lewkenor of Tangmere, Lewes great-grandfather.
      Sir Francis Walsingham died on April 6th 1590. Did Lewes think that it would now be safe to return to England? If so, he soon found out that he had to prove, again and again, his loyalty to native country. Walsingham might have gone but the police state that he had introduced was still very much in force.

    3. Hello, Gillian.

      Thanks for all that information. At first, I was a little confused over what any of that had to do with writing plays, but I was perhaps being a little dense.

      So, what it boils down to is: Lewes Lewkenor was a Catholic (and 'traitor' of England), so he couldn't have his plays published or performed with his own name attached to them?

      Interesting and, indeed, makes for a dramatic version of events, which is probably what (in part), lends it appeal.

      Thanks again.

    4. My apologies for not responding earlier.
      I have been researching the Lewkenor family for almost twenty years and was about to write my findings on Sir Richard Lewkenor, the Chief Justice of Chester, when William Corbett published “Master of the Ceremonies”. How could I write about the uncle while it was being proposed that his nephew might possibly have been the author of the works of “William Shakespeare” and not address this astonishing suggestion! I expected to discount it.
      Over the years I have been surprised by the associations between William Shakespeare of Stratford and Lewes Lewkenor, the Master of the Ceremonies, but still, on first reading Corbett’s work I dismissed his conclusion. But the niggles stayed with me. I have been revisiting the Shakespeare canon and am increasingly persuaded that this claim deserves serious consideration.
      Why did I suggest that religion was important in this debate?
      From “Master of the Ceremonies”, by William Corbett: “Lewes entered Middle Temple under bond to his uncle, the distinguished lawyer, Richard Lewkenor, and attended alongside his cousin, Richard Lewkenor and Thomas Coombe of Stratford”.
      (Lewes Lewkenor was related to the Coombe family through the Lewkenors of Alvechurch. My research.)
      Lewes, as a Catholic, would not have been allowed to practice as a lawyer or attend university or the Inns of Court, without swearing his allegiance to the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity. Did he refuse to so swear but insist on his loyalty to his country? He was related to Sir Francis Walsingham, Queen Elizabeth’s Protestant spy-master, through Walsingham’s third marriage. Did Walsingham take advantage of Lewes’s iniquitous situation: Prove your loyalty! Go to Flanders, fight for Spain, and report back on those English Catholics in the Low Countries.
      By 1580, Lewes was in the army of the King of Spain, fighting the Protestants in Flanders.
      In 1590 (Corbett): “After obtaining a safe conduct home through his relative, Sir Robert Sidney, Lewes reported in detail to Burghley on the Englishmen in the Spanish service.
      (Lewes was related to Sidney through the Lewkenor family of Kingston Bowsey and Sir Francis Walsingham. My research)
      Lewes was now in a very difficult position. He was now a returned Catholic, under suspicion of treachery by both the Protestants and Catholics of England. He had now to prove his loyalty to his country and his queen. He would now have sworn the oaths of loyalty. He published an account of his experiences in Flanders in “A Discourse of the Usage of the English Fugitives by the Spaniards” with the view of exposing Spanish attitudes to those who chose to fight for them. Other works of his at this time were dedicated to Anne Russell, Countess of Warwick, acknowledging a personal debt of gratitude to the countess and the Dudley family – again, to whom he was related through the Kingston Bowsey Lewkenor family.
      While Lewes was busy proving his loyalty, William Shakespeare’s plays were beginning to be performed.
      Among the mishmash of adapted legends in “Titus Andronicus” is a clear message, delivered in the final scene by Lucius (Lewes?):
      “Lastly, myself, unkindly banished,
      The gates shut on me, and turned weeping out
      To beg relief among Rome’s enemies,
      Who drowned their enmity in my true tears
      And oped their arms to embrace me as a friend.
      I am the turned-forth, be it known to you ...”
      This is the voice of Lewes Lewkenor.
      As a very old lady, brought up on the Stratford theatre, I have found it difficult to move away from the entire “William Shakespeare of Stratford” thinking, but was Shakespeare a fraud? Did he ever say that he wrote “his” plays?
      Is it so unusual to hide one’s identity, or perhaps gender, in order to have one’s work appreciated for what it is?

      Best wishes,

    5. Hi Gillian,

      Well, I rule nothing out categorically (that would be foolish), and, obviously, you're research on Lewkenor is far beyond my own knowledge of him. Perhaps he did write 'Shakespeare's' plays.

      What seems a shame is that it's very unlikely we'll ever know for certain who was responsible for writing them. Actually, scratch that, it's not a shame - it just adds to the mystique and will help keep the work alive for many centuries to come.

      Without in-depth research as you have done, my main reason for thinking the authorship conspiracy unlikely is that there were no such rumblings at the time - or in the years just after Shakespeare's death. You'd think, if Stratford Will were a front for another author, there might have been something mentioned by his contemporaries...or, even more likely, his competitors.

      Anyway, interesting to hear more about Lewkenor and I thank you for sharing that.

      Best wishes,
      S. A.

  3. The story of Lewes Lewkenor throws up some very interesting questions. Perhaps one will suffice - in Ovid’s Metamorpheses is the tale of Pyramis and Thisbe which forms the play-within-a-play of LLL. The contemporary translation which 'Shakespeare' would have turned to was by Arthur Golding, but Golding had made a mistake in his translation and confused the names of the various narrators, he had named the narrator of the tale of Pyramis and Thisbe as Leucathoe, but anyone working from the Latin original would spot that after the tragic tale the line that follows should read,

    ‘There was a pause, and then Leucanoe began to speak’.