Want to keep learning?

This content is taken from the The University of Warwick's online course, Shakespeare and his World. Join the course to learn more.

Skip to 0 minutes and 5 seconds Hi, I’m Jennifer Reid, and I am the course mentor on Shakespeare and His World. I’m here today with Jonathan to talk about the authorship question. We’re in week one of Shakespeare and His World, and it’s bound to have come up by now. So we’d like to just address the question in person and put it to bed once and for all. Jonathan. OK, thanks very much, Jen. Yeah, this is the one that if you’re a Shakespeare scholar, and you get in a taxi anywhere in the world, first question’s, “So, was Shakespeare really Shakespeare? Was it the man from Stratford?” Well, the answer to that is yes. The thing about any kind of scholarship is that you begin with the evidence.

Skip to 0 minutes and 43 seconds And there is ample evidence that William Shakespeare, a man from Stratford-upon-Avon, and born in this place, became an actor, became a playwright, then eventually returned to Stratford and died. Behind me on the wall is a facsimile of his bust in Holy Trinity Church here in Stratford, in which he’s got his hand on a piece of paper. In the other hand, there would have been a quill, although, over time, the quill tended to be stolen and had to be replaced. And underneath that bust, there’s also an inscription. This was the bust put there, his monument above his grave, put there very soon after his death.

Skip to 1 minute and 24 seconds And on that inscription, it describes him as having the greatest intellect since Socrates in ancient Greece, and being the greatest poet since Virgil in ancient Rome. There’s pretty strong evidence that Stratford, his family, his neighbours remembered him as a great writer. And there’s so much more evidence than that, that the writer was the actor, the actor was the man from Stratford. I’ve got In front of me here a facsimile of the First Folio. We’ll be talking more about Shakespeare in print and the First Folio throughout the course. But early on in the book is a wonderful poem in praise of Shakespeare by Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson– friend, rival, fellow actor, fellow playwright.

Skip to 2 minutes and 13 seconds And he describes Shakespeare there in that poem as “the sweet swan of Avon.” He makes it clear that his fellow writer, the author of these 36 plays, is a writer from by the river, Avon. Shakespeare, known as a man from Stratford. And what’s more, Jonson was very involved in the production of the First Folio. He worked closely with Shakespeare’s fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, the leading surviving actors from his time. They’re the ones who put together the First Folio. And they talk about Shakespeare as a writer. And indeed, Jonson talks in his conversations with other writers in his notebooks about Shakespeare’s techniques of writing.

Skip to 3 minutes and 0 seconds And of course, Heminges and Condell, the fellow actors, are remembered in the will of Shakespeare, the man from Stratford. So there’s a tight nexus of relationships between these people. There are all sorts of other local details as well. For example, the fact that Shakespeare got into print with “Venus and Adonis”, his narrative poem, the most popular poem of the age, the poem that made his name. That was printed by Richard Field, a fellow schoolboy from the grammar school here in Stratford. The First Folio was published after Shakespeare’s death. Are there any references to him during his lifetime by other authors? Yes, indeed.

Skip to 3 minutes and 41 seconds Throughout his life, there are a range of people who refer to Shakespeare as a writer, and indeed, as a great writer. I’ve got a fascinating book here. It’s called Wits Commonwealth. It was published in 1598, so quite early in Shakespeare’s career, by a man called Francis Meres, who was very keen on literature. And he wanted to give a sense of the greatness, the dignity of all the new English literature being written in the 1590s in his time. And he wants to say that British writers are as good as those of classical antiquity.

Skip to 4 minutes and 20 seconds So we find him here, for example, saying that just as the Latin tongue, the Latin language was glorified by great writers like Virgil, and Ovid, and Horace, so the English language has been glorified by the wonderful poetry of Sir Philip Sidney, Edmund Spenser, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, William Warner, Shakespeare, Marlowe, and Chapman. So Shakespeare there, in the company of other writers. And indeed, Meres goes on a few pages later to say that “The greatness of Shakespeare as a writer was the range of his work.” Not only his poems, which Meres suggests are like those of the Roman poet Ovid, but also his comedies and tragedies.

Skip to 5 minutes and 9 seconds “Shakespeare, among the English, is the most excellent in both kinds for the stage”, both comedy and tragedy. “For comedy, witness his Two Gentlemen of Verona, his Comedy of Errors, Love’s Labours Lost, Love’s Labours Won” (that’s a lost play) “Midsummer Night’s Dream, Merchant of Venice. And for tragedy, his Richard II, Richard III, Henry IV, King John, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet.” Now, you might say, if you’re a conspiracy theorist, well, that’s only saying that these works were performed and published with the name William Shakespeare on the page. Maybe he was just a stooge, just a front man, and someone else actually wrote them. And, of course, over the years there have been a number of theories of this sort.

Skip to 5 minutes and 54 seconds People like Christopher Marlowe and, indeed, a variety of aristocrats, Lord Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, have been proposed as the true author of Shakespeare. But the intriguing thing about Meres is that he does mention Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford elsewhere as writers. Yes, these other men did write. But Meres, who seemed to know everybody in the London literary world, is quite clear that they’re different people from Shakespeare. So the evidence of Meres, and, as I say, a number of other people publishing books in Shakespeare’s lifetime praising his poetry, make the connection with the actor, with the man from Stratford.

Skip to 6 minutes and 35 seconds So what is the strongest piece of evidence we have that Shakespeare the actor from Stratford-upon-Avon was the Shakespeare that wrote the plays? OK, well, we’ve seen the evidence from Stratford itself– the bust. We’ve seen the evidence of his fellow actors. But in terms of external verification– again, scholarship always looks for external verification. That’s a way of obviating the idea that, oh, it was all a conspiracy, and Ben Jonson and Shakespeare’s family were all in on it. But I think the most fascinating piece of external verification is the combination of these two things, a document and a book.

Skip to 7 minutes and 13 seconds As we’ll discover later in the course, Shakespeare was very concerned with the fact that his father’s reputation had decayed as a result of financial problems. And Shakespeare was very keen to restore the good name of his family. So acting on behalf of his family, he managed to get a coat of arms for the family so he could call himself a gentleman. And there’s a long process, getting a coat of arms. You had to go to an office called the heralds’ office. But he duly got it, and the coat of arms is reproduced here.

Skip to 7 minutes and 49 seconds But one of the officials in the heralds’ office who gave out these coats of arms said that various people from vulgar backgrounds, sort of insufficiently high-class people, were getting coats of arms. And among them, he said, was Shakespeare the player. Now, there were two other men in the heralds’ office who disagreed, and they defended Shakespeare’s right to have a coat of arms on the grounds that his father and mother had a good pedigree in Stratford-upon-Avon. So the complaint about the coat of arms for Shakespeare the player is intimately linked to the references back to Stratford. So nobody doubts that Shakespeare the player, came from Stratford, was the son of John Shakespeare and Mary Arden.

Skip to 8 minutes and 36 seconds But the really interesting thing is that one of the two men in the heralds’ office who defended Shakespeare the player’s right to a coat of arms also spoke about Shakespeare the writer, Shakespeare the poet and dramatist. And what’s more, that man was William Camden, one of the most learned men in England. And he’d been Ben Jonson’s schoolmaster at Westminster School. He knew the literary scene inside out. And in one of his books, which is a kind of overflow from his history of England– it was called “The Remains of a Greater History”– he talks about the great writers, the pregnant wits, as he calls them, of his own time.

Skip to 9 minutes and 20 seconds And there’s a list of the writers there, and William Shakespeare is bang in the middle of it. Camden defending Shakespeare the player, coat of arms, Camden saying Shakespeare the writer. That’s the golden bullet. Well, you certainly convinced me. If there is such strong evidence, why is there this controversy, and when did it start? Well, that’s a great question. I think the way to begin an answer to that is to think about other conspiracy theories. Was there a second gunman assassinating John F. Kennedy? Was Marilyn Monroe secretly murdered? I think the answer is wherever there is great fame and a kind of cult, then inevitably, heresies, alternative views, conspiracy theories tend to emerge.

Skip to 10 minutes and 13 seconds Elvis is alive and well, and that kind of idea. So if we ask when did this begin, the idea that Shakespeare, the actor from Stratford, was not the author of the plays, the answer is round about the Victorian period. That’s to say, for over 200 years after Shakespeare’s death, nobody questioned that Shakespeare, the man from Stratford, Shakespeare the player, was Shakespeare the writer. For 200 years, the question didn’t occur to anybody. Nobody had any doubts. What then happened in the Victorian period is there was a rather eccentric American lady called Delia Bacon who became convinced that Shakespeare couldn’t have been Shakespeare, and that maybe someone called Francis Bacon, a famous writer, a famous politician, was Shakespeare.

Skip to 11 minutes and 11 seconds And she started finding all sorts of hidden codes that led her to believe that Bacon was Shakespeare. She ended up in a private lunatic asylum not far from Stratford, actually. She had hoped to dig up Shakespeare’s bones and find some secret document. But that was sort of where it began. And then it was really in the early 20th century that other theories emerged. There was a schoolmaster called Thomas Looney who accepted it wasn’t Bacon, but again thought, how could this grammar schoolboy from the provinces have known so much about courts and aristocracy? And so he suggested that it was Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford. And then all sorts of other people came forward.

Skip to 11 minutes and 55 seconds Maybe it was the sixth Earl of Derby, or the fifth Earl of Stanley, and so the list goes on. Or even people suggesting maybe Queen Elizabeth or King James wrote the works of Shakespeare. I’m rather disappointed in both Delia Bacon and Thomas Looney. Delia Bacon was an American. She came from a country where it was supposed to be possible to go from a log cabin to the White House. And equally, Looney was a schoolmaster. And he should have known that the great grammar school education that was available to Shakespeare in Stratford, as it was to other middle-class boys in Shakespeare’s time, meant that you could become a great and sophisticated writer without going to university.

Skip to 12 minutes and 35 seconds How did Shakespeare know about the life of the court? Because the acting companies were invited to perform at the court. That was the very rationale of having acting companies. So it does seem that a lot of the arguments come down to a kind of snobbery– the idea that such a great mind could not have come from such a humble background. But I do also think that the other factor is to do with the Romantic movement of the 19th century. That’s to say, it was with the Romantic poets, with people like Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lord Byron, John Keats, that you got the idea that a great poet must have a rather glamorous, romantic kind of life.

Skip to 13 minutes and 22 seconds And the evidence about Shakespeare’s actual life is really rather boring. There are all these documents concerning property transactions, a sort of Shakespeare the businessman. For the Romantics, that wasn’t really glamorous enough. You know in the Romantic period, the most famous poet in Europe was Lord Byron. And so I think it sort of became inevitable that people would think well, we need Shakespeare to have a bit of glamour, to be a lord. So in a way, I think it’s a kind of offshoot of the Romantic movement. Because, of course, it was with the Romantics that the great cult of Shakespeare took off. It was the Romantics who were the first to say, Shakespeare is the greatest genius there has ever been.

Skip to 14 minutes and 6 seconds So in a way, I think the authorship controversy emerged out of a kind of disappointment that the hard evidence of the documents didn’t quite have the colour and the glamour to go with the idea of Shakespeare as the quintessential genius. I think by the later 20th century, the phenomenon, the controversy was dying away. But then, of course, with the advent of the internet, it came back in a big way. Because marvellous thing that the internet is, the problem is that there isn’t a system of independent verification where you can discover which websites are actually based on evidence, and which are based on conspiracy theory. So I’m afraid it’s not going to go away.

Skip to 14 minutes and 55 seconds But from our point of view, from the point of view of the course, we feel, on the basis of the evidence we’ve laid out, other evidence that’s available in a number of books that we’ll be listing on the course site, the matter is settled. And it’s not a matter that we want to discuss further, either within the films or in the forum.

The authorship question

Our experience with running Shakespeare and his World online is that the subject of whether William Shakespeare from Stratford-upon- Avon really was the author of the plays is bound to come up at some point. This is a subject many feel passionately about, and has often been the cause of friction in this course.

Here, Jonathan Bate and Jennifer Reid, Course Mentor and Collections Development Officer at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, discuss the evidence and history of the authorship debate, using artefacts from the Birthplace Trust vaults to outline the evidence that supports the claim. These include:

  • Plaster cast bust of William Shakespeare from the memorial in Holy Trinity Church, made in 1814 by George Bullock - SBT 1868-3/280
  • ‘Remaines of a greater worke, concerning Britaine, the inhabitants thereof, their languages, names, surnames, empreses, wise speeches, poeêsies, and epitaphes’, by William Camden, 1605 - 83011951
  • Grant of Arms, in the collection of the College of Arms, London
  • ‘Wits common vvealth. The second part. A treasurie of diuine, morall, and phylosophicall similies, and sentences, generally vsefull’. But more particularly published, for the vse of schooles. By F.M. Master of Arts of both Vniuersitie, by Francis Meres - 83000135
  • Facsimile of Meisei University heavily annotated First Folio - 83427190

At the end of the film Jonathan mentions several books that are available that offer further evidence that supports the belief that William Shakespeare is the legitimate author of the plays and poems. If you are interested in reading further, these books are:

Jonathan Bate, The Genius of Shakespeare (Picador Classics, 2016), Chapter 3, The Authorship Controversy

Irvin Matus, Shakespeare, In Fact (Dover, 2012)

James Shapiro, Contested Will: Who wrote Shakespeare? (Faber and Faber, 2011)

“The Shakespeare Authorship Page”: http://shakespeareauthorship.com/

As Jonathan and Jennifer highlight in the film, this is a passionate subject that everyone has a view on. Whilst the course team welcomes robust and genuine debate about this and other aspects of the course, we would like to remind learners that you need to show respect and calmness to each other in these debates in accordance to the FutureLearn Code of Conduct.

If you feel that the discussion has become personal or abusive, either directed at you or someone else, here or in any other part of the course, we encourage you to use the reporting mechanism within FutureLearn (the ‘flag’ icon next to the offending comment) and raise your concerns to FutureLearn for action.

Please note that we, the course team, will not enter this discussion, and that FutureLearn will remove any defamatory, abusive, or personal comments that breach the code of conduct and, in extreme cases, remove the learner from the course. We hope it does not come to this.

Share this video:

This video is from the free online course:

Shakespeare and his World

The University of Warwick

Get a taste of this course

Find out what this course is like by previewing some of the course steps before you join: