Did Shakespeare Actually Write His Plays?


pictured: William Shakespeare. Or Christopher Marlowe.

Do you hate Shakespeare? If you do, you’re not alone. In recent years, some education reformers have railed against William Shakespeare, whose work is a staple of primary and secondary education. Shakespeare studies, which enjoy a significant amount of attention in both theatre and English circles, have often been criticized for encouraging readers to overlook newer (and possibly better) writers. Furthermore, many believe that Shakespeare is too difficult to learn, especially for younger children. It’s believed that teaching Shakespeare at too early an age can scare children away from studying English, thinking that it is “too hard.” Clearly, there are a number of reasons to unseat Shakespeare, who, despite some unpopularity, is still the most-produced playwright in the country.

But what if there was a moral reason not to teach Shakespeare? And no, it has nothing to do with all of Shakespeare’s sexual innuendos.

“Ay, if myself were to be ‘wrecked’ as such”

The Shakespeare community breathed a collective gasp earlier this week, when Dennis McCarthy, “a self-taught Shakespeare scholar,” announced the publication of his book which argues that Shakespeare used another author’s writings to influence his own. George North, a diplomat who lived in the Elizabethan era, wrote A Brief Discourse of Rebellions and Rebels in 1576, a few years before Shakespeare began writing his plays. McCarthy’s findings suggest highly plausible evidence that many of Shakespeare’s best known plays, including King LearMacbeth, and Richard III, all borrow heavily from North’s manuscript, including major plot elements and specific sequences of words. What’s more unsettling is that McCarthy’s discovery came about after running George North’s book and Shakespeare’s plays through WCopyfind, a plagiarism program that is freely available over the Internet. If Shakespeare was a QC student, he’d be looking for a new college right now.

Although McCarthy’s discovery is somewhat shocking, it’s not exactly novel either. Shakespeare was a noted plagiarist – in a time when drawing from true events and stealing another playwright’s work was acceptable as long as you were improving upon it. 16th and 17th century England was an atmosphere of theatrical one-upmanship. For example, Shakespeare’s play The Taming of the Shrew was adapted numerous times. So the accusation that he himself may have plagiarized is not exactly ground-breaking; Shakespeare was basically The Beatles of his time, except, you know, with actual talent.

“I’m Shakespeare!”
“No, Ringo, I’m Shakespeare!”

It also probably doesn’t help that McCarthy is selling his book for over $100….

However, the question of “Shakespearean Authorship,” meaning whether Shakespeare actually wrote all of the plays ascribed to him, remains a popular debate. There is even a Shakespearean Authorship Trust, which you can donate money to in order to help fund research related to discovering the true author(s) of Shakespeare’s plays. Although it might seem senseless to dedicate time and money to discovering the true writer of Shakespeare’s plays (he or she is certainly dead by now) there are many reasonable arguments for whether Shakespeare actually wrote all of his plays:

  • Many people doubt that Shakespeare, who grew up in a small rural town called Stratford-upon-Avon, would have access to the education necessary to write plays as detailed as he supposedly did.
  • There are almost no surviving records verifying Shakespeare’s existence. There are a few letters and bills addressed to him, but only a handful of signatures written in Shakespeare’s hand.
  • Shakespeare’s will, written a month before his death in 1616, doesn’t mention anything about his plays or sonnets. It also famously left his “second best bed” to his wife.

Although doubts about Shakespearean authorship still have yet to go mainstream, Mark Rylance, an Academy Award-winning, three-time Tony winning actor, has been a vocal proponent of the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt, an online document where doubters can voice their support. Rylance is an unlikely candidate as a Shakespeare doubter; he was the artistic director of the Shakespeare Globe Theatre in England for 10 years, where he directed and acted in dozens of Shakespeare’s works. Rylance won a Tony in 2014 for playing Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, and is regarded as one of the finest actors in the world. It’s either disarming or reassuring that a man so skilled in interpreting Shakespeare’s works would think they were written by another name.

Mark Rylance as Olivia in Twelfth Night
(image credit: Sara Krulwich / New York Times)

However, Rylance is in good company; the Declaration’s website mentions that many respected figures, such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles and Sigmund Freud were all Shakespeare doubters. That’s right, the people who brought you blackface Othello and the theory of penis envy believe Shakespeare was a fraud.

However, the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt does not necessarily mean to say that Shakespeare didn’t write ANY of the plays ascribed to him. It simply suggests that there is room for doubt as to whether he wrote all of it, or, if, as McCarthy’s findings suggest, he was influenced by or collaborating with other writers of the time in order to write his own work. In fact, the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt is one of the least ludicrous ideas about Shakespearean authorship there is:

The Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship proposes that Christopher Marlowe, one of the most well-respected playwrights of Shakespeare’s time and a rival of his, actually wrote all of Shakespeare’s work. The theory suggests that Marlowe, who may have been a spy for the English secret service, faked his death in 1593 to avoid punishment for his political/religious opinions. Supposedly, Marlowe continued to write plays under the name “William Shakespeare.”

The Marlovian theory gained some notoriety in 2016, when Oxford University Press announced they would be crediting Christopher Marlowe as a co-writer on Shakespeare’s plays Henry VI, Parts One, Two and Three. The decision, although not fully accepted by the academic community, implies that Shakespeare and Marlowe collaborated on the three plays. Writers in the Elizabethan period collaborated frequently, usually to meet deadlines for completing their plays, and it’s reasonable that Shakespeare, a relatively green writer, would collaborate with Marlowe, who was the more experienced one. However, as the Henry VI plays were written in 1591 (before Marlowe’s death) this claim doesn’t advance the Marlovian theory. It’s also worth noting that the Henry VI plays are considered some of Shakespeare’s worst.

The Oxfordian theory of Shakespeare authorship (no relation to Oxford University) proposes that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was the writer of Shakespeare’s work. As a lord, it would have disgraceful to be a playwright (which was considered a low form of work), so the pen name “William Shakespeare” served to advance de Vere’s literary aspirations. Plays written under de Vere’s name did exist, but the quality of his work was accepted as significantly below Shakespeare’s level of writing. Oh, also de Vere died in 1604.

Roland Emmerich, filmmaker, Shakespeare hater and penis sculpture enthusiast (not joking)
(image credit: Reiner Bajo)

Nonetheless, this didn’t stop Roland Emmerich, director of thought-provoking films like the 1998 version of Godzilla and Independence Day: Resurgence, from making a film proposing that de Vere was the actual author of Shakespeare’s canon. The film, Anonymous, not only suggests that de Vere was the real “Shakespeare,” but that the actual William Shakespeare was a jealous actor who blackmails de Vere into writing plays under Shakespeare’s name. Shakespeare also kills Christopher Marlowe after Marlowe discovers the blackmail. Also, de Vere is somehow Queen Elizabeth I’s bastard son who also has sex with her? This is actually in the movie. Despite Anonymous being a box office failure and absolutely historically inaccurate, Roland Emmerich is still somehow allowed to make films.

The moral of the story is that it’s acceptable to have healthy doubts about Shakespeare’s plays. They are over 400 years old, and there’s certainly enough evidence to suggest that he didn’t write every single word in them. And maybe if the name “Shakespeare” wasn’t thrown around as much, it would be easier to judge each of these plays on their own merits. If students weren’t made to feel like they were stupid for not enjoying the most celebrated literary works in history, those daunted by “Shakespeare” might not be so afraid. To put it in Shakespeare’s words: would a play by any other name be just as sweet?

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