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‘Sweetest Shakespeare fancy’s child’: The frontispiece of the First Folio

We live, it seems, in a world of zombies. The economic crisis has created a host of metaphorical zombies-zombie banks, zombie companies, zombie households, all kept moving, if not exactly alive, by artificially low interest rates. The life of the mind also has its metaphorical zombies. In particular, there are zombie arguments, which can never be finally killed. No matter how often they are — you might think — overwhelmed by evidence to the contrary, these arguments find new advocates, are reanimated, get unsteadily to their feet, and stumble groggily onwards.

A prime example of such a zombie is the denial that the plays of Shakespeare were written by William Shakespeare, and the accompanying claim that in fact they were written by Francis Bacon, or the Earl of Oxford, or Christopher Marlowe, or even Queen Elizabeth I. It's worth just pausing for a moment, as we stand on the brink of an engagement with these assertions and before we have begun to consider their glaring weaknesses, to summarise the evidence for the straightforward view that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays attributed to him.

In the first place, in Shakespeare's lifetime plays were often written in a collaborative manner involving other playwrights, and also at moments drawing on contributions from the actors in the company which would perform the play (and which would also then own the playbook). This open and collaborative mode of composition would have made it virtually impossible for someone to pass off their work as that of someone else. The process of creating a play in Shakespeare's age was too public and involved too many people for a conspiracy over authorship to be sustained.

Secondly, many of Shakespeare's contemporaries — Robert Greene, William Covell, Richard Barnfield, Francis Meres, Gabriel Harvey, John Weever, William Camden, William Drummond, John Webster, Michael Drayton, Francis Beaumont, and, most extensively, Ben Jonson — all wrote or spoke about Shakespeare as the author of the plays which bear his name. If there was a conspiracy over Shakespeare's authorship of his plays, then it either involved or took in a very large number of well-placed contemporaries, a number of whom (such as Robert Greene) would have been delighted to discover that Shakespeare was a fraud. But there is in fact, as James Shapiro observed in his astute and perceptive book on the Shakespeare authorship controversy, Contested Will (2010), much more evidence that Shakespeare wrote King Lear and Hamlet and Henry V than there is that Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine or that Kyd wrote The Spanish Tragedy. Yet — strangely — there is no Marlowe or Kyd authorship debate.

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Tom Burroughes
July 25th, 2013
9:07 AM
I think there may be a simple psychological explanation for this sort of denial, akin to the denial that Man did actually walk on the Moon. There is a deep-rooted refusal to accept that human greatness, or achievement, is possible. There is a constant itch among some people to assume the worst, to denigrate, to pull down, to "cut down to size". So instead of accepting that the plays/sonnets were written by Mr W. Shakespeare, such folk want to believe they were written by a committee, or by some obscure courtier, etc. There may be slightly more creditable reasons for this sort of denialism, but I cannot think of any.

July 25th, 2013
1:07 AM
this article is not up to your usual standard, several hours research exposes good reasons to doubt shakespeare's authorship and you don't even mention the most likely real author sir henry Neville who is starting to gain (semi-secretly!) some of his rightful currency in the academic circuit !

July 25th, 2013
12:07 AM
This article, and the book it reviews, both try to shame people into accepting the word of "authority" without question. "Shakespeare Beyond Doubt" uses the cheap trick of ignoring serious anti-Stratfordian scholarship while spending three chapters on Delia Bacon and her fanciful book on the authorship question. Yet it doesn't even mention Diana Price's "Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography" for which it has no adequate answer. I hope people will study the issue for themselves and come to their own conclusions.

July 24th, 2013
8:07 PM
There are just as many, if not more, scholars who doubt the authenticity of Shakespeare's true authorship as there are who cling to the belief that that this peasant with limited education could write with such breadth, depth, and eloquence on myriad topics. Mark Twain is foremost among the non-believers, and he researched the topic extensively. Furthermore, despite the open collaboration typical of playwrights of the time, all of Shakespeare's plays exhibit similar styles and, more importantly, themes. In fact, there are Rosicrucian beliefs and philosophies pervasive in the canon. Bacon was a Rosicrucian. Shakespeare was a "pen name."

Tom Goff
July 24th, 2013
6:07 PM
The article is absolute tripe. There are no Marlowe or Kyd authorship controversies partly because each of these authors left documents in their own hand amounting to proof of authorship, or of interest in (or payment for)poetry, playwrighting, literature. William Shakspere left nothing behind from his own lifetime attesting in his own hand to a writing or acting career. By the way, has anyone noticed that the First Folio frontispiece portrait of "Shakespeare" gazes out at us with a look so Undead, and from a head and shoulders so crazily proportioned, we need not look for the zombie: he's here! The evidence for the nobleman who really wrote what no Stratford zombie ever could has long been available--why do the Shakespeare professors keep peddling the old lies?

Tom Reedy
July 24th, 2013
5:07 PM
Get ready, they'll be here soon.

David J Wilson
July 24th, 2013
4:07 PM
The deniers will never go away, for the straightforward reason that it is incredible that anyone at all could have written Shakespeare's works. The arguments against any of the candidates - including the Stratford man - are overwhelming.

Gregory McColm
July 24th, 2013
1:07 PM
I recall that one of the numerous literary grumps about Michael Wood's In Search of Shakespeare was that he spent too much time on historical and biographical context and not enough time quoting the bard. Meanwhile, the Shakespeare doubter crowd were grouchy because anyone who read or watched Wood's piece would recognize the anti-Shakespeare thesis as nonsense. Perhaps a little less obsession with the text, and more interest in the context, would inoculate people against this sort of thing. PS. People have always been taken in by nonsense, especially in nonsense-ridden eras like the, ahem, Enlightenment. I suspect that if Womersley hasn't found any pre-Romantic Shakespeare doubters, he simply hasn't looked hard enough.

July 24th, 2013
12:07 PM
Again, the old joke: If Shakespeare didn't write those plays...then they must have been written by another guy named Shakespeare.

AnonymousAlex Bensky
July 24th, 2013
12:07 PM
Or as my dad used to say (not original with him, I think): "Shakespeare didn't write the plays. It was another guy with the same name."

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