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Intriguing mysteries: Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?


1st Jan 2015 Meet the Author

Intriguing mysteries: Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?

The Bard's complex comedies and dramas are obviously the work of a brilliant wordsmith but was Shakespeare himself the author?

Who was William Shakespeare?

who was william shakespeare
Shakespeare as played by Joseph Fiennes in Shakespeare in Love. Image via Hey u Guys

William Shakespeare was a provincial with no more than a grammar-school education, but he somehow managed to compose works extraordinary for their erudition and depth of learning.

He was the son of a glove maker from the small market town of Stratford-upon-Avon, but he wrote plays exhibiting an intimate knowledge of court politics, law, the habits of royalty, and the practice of warfare.

From a life hemmed in by limitations of birth wealth, access and opportunity, the writer William Shakespeare created an art that lives on.


Did he pen the plays he's famed for? 

Shakespeare's 6 remaining signitures

Did "William Shakepere", the upstart actor from Stratford really write the works the world knows as Shakespeare's plays

For more than 200 years, various doubters—encouraged by the lack of surviving biographical information about the man from Stratford—have sifted through plays, sonnets, and the annals of Elizabethan England for evidence of another author.

The search dates back to the early 1780s when the Reverend Doctor James Wilmot travelled to Stratford and its surrounding environ looking for information about the life of the man hailed as the greatest of all English writers. To his surprise and alarm, Wilmot found not a shred of evidence connection the Stratford Shakespeare with the authorship of the plays.

The available information was limited to a group of legal documents—on which are preserved the six signatures of Shakespeare, written in a wobbly and barely legible hand, that constitute the sole surviving examples of his handwriting—and no sign beyond his gravestone memorial that he ever penned a poem, much less that he wrote Hamlet and King Lear

In the years that followed, small groups of scholars, writers, actors, and journalists began proclaiming candidates, claiming that they had discovered the "real" writer.

In the early years, attempts to dethrone the man from Stratford centred on two alternative writers Christopher Marlowe, a poet and playwright who was murdered under mysterious circumstances in 1593 (some say he disappeared but that's an entirely different mystery) shortly before Shakespeare's greatest works were written; and Sir Francis Bacon, the great scholar, philosopher and scientist.

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A genuine contender?

edward de vere shakespeare
Rhys Ifans played Edward de Vere in Anonymous, a film about the conspiracy theory. Image via Daily Herald

In the last century, the authorship question has centred increasingly around Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford during Shakespeare's day, "Oxfordians" (those who believe Oxford wrote Shakespeare's plays) have amassed an armada of suggestive evidence.

A number of Shakespeare's sonnets hint that their author's true name has been obscured and they are dedicated to a mysterious "Mr W H"—the reversed initials of Henry Wriothesley, the Earl of Southampton, whom Oxford urged to marry his daughter Elizabeth.

A bible known to have belonged to Oxford contains many marked passages that alluded to in Shakespeare's plays. The sonnets contain hints of Shakespeare's bisexuality, and also of a mysterious public scandal that tarnished his name—and Oxford was accused of the shameful crime of sleeping with young boys. 

After Oxford's death in 1604, there was a publication of Shakespeare's plays. 12 years later, upon the death of William Shakespeare, there seems to have been no public memorial ceremony in London, nor even in Stratford—a strange omission for a celebrated playwright.

The original monument to Shakespeare in Stratford seems to have portrayed him as a grain merchant, and only later was it changed to show him holding a pen. 

The Oxfordians claim that Oxford chose the pen name "William Shake-speare" because it was considered improper in the Elizabethan England for noblemen to write plays. They claim that his choice of the name had nothing to do with the actor and theatre owner from Stratford, but that it referred instead to the spear held by Pallas Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom and protector of the theatrical arts.

They see biographical parallels between Oxford's life and many of Shakespeare's plays; the character of Polonius from Hamlet, for instance, bears a certain resemblance to Lord Burghley, Oxford's stepfather.

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Was Shakespeare a black Jewish woman?


Shakespeare vs Oxford

who wrote shakespeare's plays?
Image via Five Books

Although a number of prominent writers and thinkers—including Sigmund Freud—have been convinced that the Earl of Oxford was the real author of the plays, very few serious specialists have ever given credence to the idea. To start with, much of the evidence for Oxford is conjectural or circumstantial.

Simply because Oxford experienced public disgrace does mot mean that he wrote Shakespeare's sonnets; simply because Hamlet can be interpreted in such a way as to indicate parallels to Oxford's relatives does not mean that Oxford wrote the plays. And as much evidence as the Oxfordians has, the Stratfordians (those who believe that Shakespeare was the writer) have an equally impressive bulk of evidence against Oxford's authorship.

For one thing, Shakespeare is referred to as the author of the plays in the private notebooks of Ben Jonson, a contemporary playwright and friend of the poet. Perhaps most important of all, Oxford's death occurred before the last 12 of Shakespeare's plays had been written.

Some of the cases against authorship are compelling, but based on the available historical evidence, none are convincing enough to wrest history's mantle from William Shakespeare. It is remarkable that Shakespeare could have written such erudite works with no more than a grammar-school education, but it is hardly impossible to imagine: Jonson, in fact, was educated at the same level and wrote even more erudite works.

There will always be doubters who believe Shakespeare from the provincial Stratford could not have written the greatest dramas in all English language but in the absence of reliable proof, theories of alternate authorship can never be considered more than beguiling myths.


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