The Magazine

Bard of Honor

Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Of course he did.

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By MICAH MATTIX
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The cases for Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are equally unpersuasive. The argument in favor of Bacon, Alan Stewart writes, rests largely on the premise that Shakespeare could not have written the plays because of his lack of education and wide experience. In addition to this, a paper book written in Bacon’s hand, discovered in 1867, contains a list of Bacon’s essays and two of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II and Richard III. This is proof, Stewart notes, of Shakespeare’s growing fame, not (as the anti-Shakespeareans would have it) of Bacon’s authorship of the two plays. Moreover, while comparisons of Bacon’s and Shakespeare’s style yield some similarities, as would the comparisons of any two contemporaries writing in the same, often formulaic, Elizabethan English, they also show some important differences—most notably Bacon’s strong didactic bent, making it all but inconceivable that he was able to write plays such as All’s Well that Ends Well or A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Marlowe’s biggest obstacle, as with Edward de Vere, was his death. Marlowe died in 1593, but anti-Shakespeareans have long suggested that he faked his death in order to escape courtly troubles and cuckolded husbands. According to official records discovered in 1925, Marlowe was stabbed in the eye by one Ingram Frizer following a dispute over the day’s “reckoning,” a “sum of pence owed for the day’s food and drink.” But in The Murder of the Man Who Was ‘Shakespeare’ (1955), Leo Hochman, using the pseudonym Calvin Hoffman, argues that Marlowe’s homosexual lover, Thomas Walsingham, arranged for Frizer and one other man to kill a sailor and claim that it was, in fact, Marlowe so that the beleaguered playwright could escape to the continent. The dead sailor, identified by Marlowe’s associates who were in on the hoax, was buried in an unmarked grave, while Marlowe spent the next 20 years in Italy writing plays and sending them to the uneducated actor, Shakespeare. 

The problem with this theory, Charles Nicholl writes, is that it’s “mere invention. .  .  . [T]he homosexual relationship, the waylaid sailor, the body switch, the suborned coroner, even the unmarked grave” are all simply made up. The pattern of “authorship controversialism,” Nicholl notes, is speculative premise (“Shakespeare could not have written the plays because .  .  .”) followed by “invented evidence” that “plays a determining role in what is presented as genuine historical argument.” Over 80 alternative Shakespeares have been proposed to date, and no doubt more will follow, no matter how little evidence there might be to support them.

As other essays here make clear, the data we do have about Shakespeare’s life suggest that he was, indeed, the author of the plays. While Shakespeare did not attend university, he had an excellent secondary education provided to him by the position of his upper-middle-class father. Stratford-upon-Avon was no London, but it was a bustling market town visited regularly by traveling theater troupes. Many of Shakespeare’s hometown friends went on to serve in positions of prominence in the court and in London. And while it was unusual for a playwright not to have a university education, this might explain some of the early animosity he faced from other playwrights.

Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays bear the mark of being written by a professional theater man. The author’s uses of doubled roles (so that 8 to 10 actors could perform a play of some 20 parts) and acute awareness of how long it would take to change costume or “execute a technical effect,” James Mardock and Eric Rasmussen write, would have been of little concern to courtiers like Edward de Vere or Walter Raleigh. Also, many of the plays’ parts seem to be written for actors who were members of Shakespeare’s company, most famously Will Kemp and Richard Cowley.

It is likely that Shakespeare collaborated on some of his plays—a common practice at the time—and particularly on the early ones, such as Titus Andronicus and all three parts of Henry VI. However, the majority of his plays written after the great success of Venus and Adonis (1592) were done without assistance.