The Authorship Question

The authorship of the Shakespearean canon has been in dispute for more than two hundred years. Contrary to what you may often hear, the issue is not William Shakespeare’s lack of education. That particular issue is simply the easiest for Shakespeareans to attack: “Oh, you’re just a snob if you think a low-class tradesman from a small village couldn’t write the greatest works in the English language!”

The problem with the snobbery argument is that it’s an ad hominem fallacy—it attacks the person who is speaking and does not address the issue. The Shakespearean is calling you a snob, making you feel badly for thinking such a thing. And then of course, it follows that if you are just a snob, your position has no validity, and that’s the end of it. This is very bad form to use in a discussion—it is an obvious, cheap trick to discredit the person who advanced the argument.

The real issue that has led many to wonder if William Shakespeare was the author of these works is that there is no documented evidence that Shakespeare was a writer. Shakespeare is the most researched topic on Earth—there is nothing about which more has been written. Millions of documents from the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras have been scoured, searching for references to him. Every document that records an activity by Shakespeare that has been found can be seen at this great site:

It is extraordinary that we know such details as he sold a load of stone to Mr. Chamberlin on December 1, 1598 for ten pence and that Shakespeare’s wife had to borrow two pounds from a shepherd—yet we have no record that he was a writer. We have records that he was an actor in two of Ben Jonson’s plays (one of which was boo’d off the stage), he was a shareholder of the Globe theater, he later was part owner of the Blackfriars gatehouse (not the theater), he sued people for small sums of money, and occasionally had huge amounts of cash in his pocket with which he acquired quite a bit of real estate in Stratford.

But no one knows where he got his money. No one acknowledged William Shakespeare as a patron, there is no record that anyone paid him for writing. There is no record in which he mentions himself as a writer, nor does anyone in his family, ever. Records from the royal court only mention his name twice, both times as an actor during King James’ reign.

While Shakespeare was alive, his name was mentioned in twenty-one different “reviews” of writers. It is to these mentions that Shakespeareans refer when they say, “All his friends talked about him!” There is no evidence that any of these writers were “friends,’ and they didn’t actually talk about William Shakespeare. Read these mentions carefully—you’ll notice every one refer to the works or to the name “Shakespeare” as the assumed author of the work, just as you would assume a man named George Eliot wrote the works that have his name on them. The point is that the Elizabethan mentions do not refer personally to the man; they do not connect the person with the work, just the name. For instance, I write a lot of books and I’ve seen a lot of reviews of my books. Some say things like, “If you’ve ever seen Robin speak, she writes exactly like she talks.” This reference clearly connects me to my written work. We have nothing like that for Shakespeare.

Read every mention of Shakespeare during his lifetime here and check for yourself. Ben Jonson did mention Shakespeare twice, years after he died. But there is absolutely no paper trail that indicates Shakespeare socialized with any of the writers, thinkers, philosophers, or other great minds of his own time.

When Shakespeare died, no one mentioned it.

No Shakespearean manuscripts have ever been found.

Shakespeareans claim that his name on the title pages of published plays is proof of his authorship. But Shakespeare’s name is also on the title pages of Sir John Oldcastle, Thomas Lord Cromwell, The London Prodigal, The Puritan, A Yorkshire Tragedy, and The Troublesome Raigne of John, King of England—all while Shakespeare was alive (Locrine was also by “W.S.”). Yet Shakespeareans insist these plays are not by Shakespeare. A proof cannot be true only sometimes. You can’t just decide, “Oh, now it’s proof. Now it’s not. Now it is.” C’mon. So either Shakespeare’s name on the title pages of The London Prodigal and the others proves he wrote those also, or we cannot accept it as proof that he wrote the ones accepted into the canon. Besides, every scholar knows darn well that early modern title pages are notoriously unreliable.

And the list of anomalies goes on.

For some, talking about the authorship of the Shakespearean works is like talking about politics or religion—nothing will ever make some people look at things in a different way, even as a query. Some don’t even want to hear about a new idea; some actually find it offensive to even consider the authorship as a question. And that’s okay. We each discover what makes sense to our own minds and hearts. So don’t get too upset when a Shakespearean derisively calls you a snob (because s/he can’t think of a better reason). Just smile and let it go.


You might also want to see:

Shakespeare Authorship Roundtable

Shakespearean Authorship Trust

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Shakespeare Authorship Coalition’s Declaration of Reasonable Doubt