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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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July 24th, 2013
10:07 AM
Alfred Harbage fully refuted the zombies a generation ago. “Shakespeare’s claim to the authorship of the plays attributed to him,” he says (I quote from memory), “is of the same nature and degree of validity as Ernest Hemingway’s claim to the authorship of his works. And though it is mathematically possible that “The Old Man and the Sea” was really written by Einstein or the Duke of Windsor, it’s not a bet you would want to take at any odds.”

July 24th, 2013
9:07 AM
The Shakespeare debate is fascinating, which is why Shakespeare Beyond Doubt makes a great read. But I recommend a fiction murder mystery - The Killing of Hamlet, by Ann Morven - for the most intelligent (and entertaining)answer.

July 24th, 2013
5:07 AM
Good article. As stated there are just some ideas that refuse to die. Shakespeare, just a working class kid, I don't think so! I am always taken with a belly laugh when I hear the hymn Jerusalem. It occurs to me that some pompous twat just refuses to believe that his saviour came from the middle east, was Jewish and wore a towel on his head. Surely, he must must must have come to England at some stage. What would be the point of god visiting earth if he didn't come to England. It would be like going to Paris and refusing to look at the Eiffel Tower. I note there is some lunatic clergyman in Scotland claiming Jesus was possibly at Glastonbury. Ye Gods

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