Much Ado About Something
a fine mystery
a bard in the hand?
what's at stake?

DEBATING POINTS: Michael Rubbo responds to six of the most commonly asked questions about Shakespeare's claim to authorship.

Shakespeare is the most celebrated writer in the English language. Why have so few details about his life survived?

Stratfordian perspective: Biographical details are scanty for most writers of the Elizabethan era, with some names and plays completely lost. As Jonathan Bate writes in The Genius of Shakespeare, the skepticism that results from the paucity of biographical detail is unwarranted. "We know a great deal more about Shakespeare's life than we do about the lives of most of his fellow-dramatists and fellow-actors," writes Bate.

Rubbo's response: In her book Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography, Diana Price does a comparative study of what survives on the writers of the time. She concludes that less survives on Shakespeare relating to writing than for any other contemporary writer. Shakespeare is the most famous, and yet the least visible. This has been so frustrating to some fans of the Bard that beginning in the mid-1700s, about 150 years after Shakespeare's death, people began forging letters they felt he should have written: letters to his patron, to the queen, to fellow writers. It was just not believable that he had written to no one, or that nothing had survived. The point is that the lack has seemed strange, unbelievable even, to people a long time ago, long before our obsession with the authorship question.

In Shakespeare's will, he does not bequeath any books. Is it possible that such a great author possessed none? Nor does he provide for the future of his plays. Why?

Stratfordian perspective: Shakespeare could have bequeathed his books to his daughter Susanna, among the other things that he left to her. Also, there are wills of other literary figures that do not include books, so Shakespeare's will should not be considered so peculiar.

Further, as Irvin Matus argues in the October 1991 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, in Shakespeare's time, play manuscripts belonged to the company that produced them, not to the playwright. Even theater shareholders, as Shakespeare was in both the Globe and Blackfriars companies, were "forbidden to derive personal benefit from what was viewed as the property of the company as a whole," Matus writes.

Matus says that there is no evidence that Ben Jonson, a well-regarded dramatist and contemporary of Shakespeare's who clearly thought highly of his own plays, attached a great deal of significance to his manuscripts. "Although many examples of his literary output in other forms survive, not a leaf of a Jonson play in his hand has come down to us," Matus writes.

Rubbo's response: Again, we are not the only ones to be puzzled not only by the lack of books but the lack of works in progress, miscellaneous papers, etc., as left by the Bard. In the 18th century, the Rev. James Wilmot, who was a Shakespeare scholar and neighbour of Stratford, was asked by a London publisher to write a biography of Shakespeare. Wilmot, setting out to find the missing books, surmised that even if they were not listed in the will, there must have been books and papers, and they had probably passed out of the family into nearby collections and libraries in the family homes of the gentry. So, being the practical man that he was, he drew a 50-mile circle around Stratford and proceeded to search every grand house and library in the area.

What did he find? We don't know because all his papers were destroyed. Wilmot was so upset by his conclusion that Shakespeare was not the author of the plays, and so worried about the implications of this for his friends in Stratford, that he felt it better to destroy everything. He asked his servants to burn his papers.

Approximately 18 of Shakespeare's greatest plays remained unpublished at the time of his death. You would think that this would concern Mr. Shakespeare. You would think that, whether he has sold them or not, he would keep back-up copies of these precious works just in case. You would think that he would retain some financial interest in this great asset for his family. You would further imagine that he would leave instructions as to how or when they were to be published, even if he no longer owned them.

Perhaps these books were in the package of household effects he left to his eldest daughter, Susanna, and her literate husband, a doctor named John Hall. No, when Dr. Hall died in 1635, he left books and papers clearly specified, and there is no record of any coming from his famous father-in-law. The doctor, like most people at this time, was quite clear as to whom his books and papers were to go. Books were immensely valuable and were normally carefully distributed. We don't even know that the family owned a copy of the First Folio, the collected works, published in 1623. You would think it would be a prized possession.

Why did Shakespeare's death go unremarked?

Stratfordian perspective: While no elegies were published at the time of Shakespeare's death in 1616, the First Folio, which was published in 1623, included several verses dedicated to his memory. Ben Jonson penned the most famous of these, in which he called Shakespeare the "Sweet Swan of Avon." Hugh Holland wrote another, titled "Upon the Lines and Life of the Famous Scenicke Poet, Master William Shakespeare." It begins:

Those hands, which you so clapt, go now, and wring
You Britaines brave; for done are Shakespeares dayes:
His dayes are done, that made the dainty Playes,
Which made the Globe of heav'n and earth to ring.

Holland refers to Shakespeare as "Poets King" and concludes by saying that "the life yet of his lines shall never out."

Leonard Digges, the stepson of one of the overseers of Shakespeare's will, contributed a third dedicatory verse in the Folio, "To the Memorie of the deceased Authour Maister W. Shakespeare." It reads in part:

Shake-speare, at length thy pious fellows give
The world thy Workes: thy Workes, by which, out-live
Thy Tombe, thy name must: when that stone is rent,
And Time dissolves thy Stratford Moniment,
Here we alive shall view thee still.

Digges' poem shows that the monument to Shakespeare was, in fact, already built in the church at Stratford by 1623.

These poems are all elegies and all link the plays in the Folio to William Shakespeare.

Rubbo's response: Did you notice that, except for Ben Jonson, you have never heard of these people, those who wrote the so-called elogies for William? All of the people who should have written about him -- Fletcher, Beaumont, Drayton, Bacon, the big guns of the time and the people who would have known him personally -- are silent, except Jonson. Beaumont does pen a strange line or two, and Drayton gets around to calling Shakespeare a comic writer some five years after his death. But the fulsome eulogies are by second-rate writers who may have little knowledge of whom they talk.

And this is in an age when one did not just send condolences; one wrote elegies and encomia, all in honor of the dead penman. This happened to most of his contemporaries, many of whom were buried in illustrious places like Westminster Abbey, where the great poets were thought to belong.

How could such a champion of the English language, and a playwright who created such strong roles for women, allow his daughters to remain illiterate?

Stratfordian perspective: There is no evidence that allows us to determine conclusively that Shakespeare neglected the education of his daughters, or that they were illiterate. One of Shakespeare's daughters, Susanna, at least had a reputation for intelligence as well as wisdom, for her tombstone reads:

Here lyeth ye body of Susanna Wife to John Hall, gent: ye daughter of William Shakespeare, gent: shee deceased ye 11th of July 1649, aged 66.

Witty above her sexe, but that's not all, Wise to salvation was good Mistris Hall, Something of Shakespeare was in that, but this Wholy of him with whom she's now in blisse.

Rubbo's response: How do we know Susanna was illiterate? After the death of her doctor husband, John Hall, she had a visit in 1642 from a surgeon stationed in the area, James Cooke. He had heard that her husband had written books on his medical work and was anxious to see if they might be published. Susanna showed him books, which she said had been given to her husband in lieu of payment for treatment. Cooke assured her they were in fact in her husband's hand, and the texts he sought. She denied it, unable to read or recognize her husband's handwriting.

As for Susanna being described on her tombstone as witty above her sex, this is no indication of learning. One notes that in As You Like It, the character William claims to have a pretty wit, but admits he's not learned. Also, Susanna's signature is painfully formed. Judith, the younger daughter, signs her name with a mark.

True, girls did not go to school during that time. But in the plays, fathers teach their daughters at home. Prospero teaches Miranda on the island in The Tempest. Or they arrange for tutors to come in, as in the case of The Taming of the Shrew. Why would William do less in life than he did on the page? Was he just putting forward a virtuous and popular face? Unlikely. There was no great movement for the education of women in those days, and thus no reason to show off in this way.

These were the children of the writer who hated ignorance above all else, who made his women characters strong and smart. In his private life, it seems that he cheated them of any participation in his superb creative life.

There is no evidence that Shakespeare had so much as a grammar school education. Could an uneducated man have written the plays?

Stratfordian perspective: While there is no record of Shakespeare having attended the grammar school in Stratford, the fact is that there is no record of anyone attending it until the 19th century. The records of Shakespeare's era simply do not survive. But as the son of a town official, Shakespeare would have been entitled to a free education at the Stratford grammar school.

In The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate describes the typical curriculum of grammar schools such as Stratford's in the 16th century:

Shakespeare's education would, then, have begun with the fundamentals of Christian doctrine, as laid out in the catechism of the Anglican Church. From there, it would have proceeded to a thorough grounding in Latin grammar. Having been drilled in his grammar, the young William would then have been led line by line through a range of set texts -- first, a variety of anthologies and selections, then some original works by the major authors of classical Rome.

Those who question Shakespeare's authorship point to his lack of a university education. Ben Jonson, however, had not attended university, and he went on to become one of Britain's most admired playwrights and poets, one renowned for his classical learning.

Rubbo's response: The author had a vocabulary of more than 20,000 words. This is so prodigious as to be incomprehensible. He also invented words and phrases as no other writer has ever done. Yet, after his death people assumed that he was some sort of natural genius who plucked his inspiration from the air. Milton referred to him as "warbling his native woodnotes wild." Nicholas Rowe, his first biographer, later says that "art had so little, and nature so large a part, in what he did."

Thus did the image of the rustic genius continue for many years, until the 19th century when scholars came to grips with the prodigious learning hidden in the plays and the immense vocabulary and concluded that the previous image was wrong, that the author was highly educated. The learning was beyond all natural cleverness. But where did he get it? That remains the mystery.

We admit he may have gone to the Stratford school. Stratfordians would have us believe that it was the equivalent of a university today. Perhaps it was a higher level than we'd expect of a country school; certainly it could have steeped its reluctant pupils in Latin and Greek, in the classical literature, the poets, and the philosophers. But if the school was up to scratch, was the boy?

Why did no one remember him equipping himself so heroically with all this learning? His feats impressed no one, it seems. We know the name of the man who must have taught him: Mr. Jenkins. How come Jenkins did not spend the rest of his life boasting that he taught Shakespeare, as teachers do when they land a prodigy? How come, too, that William does not get a scholarship? We know there was a scholarship system in place, as there was for Marlowe, and yet William misses out.

"He was a late developer," says Stanley Wells. What does that mean? That he developed elsewhere? Where? Books were hard to get. There were no public libraries in those days, where you could sneak off and become the greatest bookworm ever. In the house of his supposed patron, the Earl of Southampton? He might have had a great library. Those earls usually did have good collections of books. But then there is no record that Shakespeare ever visited the earl. You'd think it would be quite memorable for servants and the earl himself if William had spent his seven lost years, or part of them, tucked way in the earl's library.

As for Ben Jonson's lack of a university education, one must note that Jonson did go to an excellent grammar school and had a famous tutor, William Camden, to whom he accorded all honor.

Why wasn't Shakespeare linked to written works during his lifetime?

Stratfordian perspective: This is one of the common myths put forward by the anti-Stratfordians. In fact, several of Shakespeare's contemporaries refer to him as a writer. Ben Jonson wrote, "I lov'd the man, and do honour his memory (on this side idolatry) as much as any." He also says, "I confess thy writings to be such, As neither Man, nor Muse, can praise too much." Jonson knew Shakespeare as a writer and he knew him personally. Shakespeare had acted in Jonson's Every Man in his Humour in September 1598. Further, Shakespeare's name is on quarto plays published in his lifetime. And in Shakespeare's will, he identifies actors John Heminge and Henry Condell as friends and colleagues, and they go on to refer to Shakespeare as the author of the plays in the 1623 First Folio.

Rubbo's response: It is true that some 20 of Shakespeare's contemporaries refer to him as an author. In some cases, they praise him and list plays that he wrote. But when these references are looked at carefully, one by one, we discover that almost none of them, apart from Jonson, show any knowledge of a living man. They could almost all be about a nom de plume, about a Voltaire or a George Eliot or a Mark Twain.

Jonson is the key witness for Shakespeare, and yet there is something too fulsome, something suspicious about his eulogy in the First Folio that comes out on careful reading. Moreover, at other times Jonson disparages Shakespeare in a way that suggests we are not getting the full story. He satirizes him in his play Every Man Out of His Humour. And also most probably in a sonnet called "On Poet Ape."

It is doubtful that Heminge and Condell were more than front men for this expensive publication, the First Folio. It is interesting that the link to Shakespeare is forged in part by Shakespeare's will, which leaves them each a memorial ring. But it has been pointed out that this bequest has been interlineated, perhaps added later to the will, perhaps by someone wanting to make the document reflect the front constructed for Shakespeare. His supposedly great friend, Ben Jonson, gets no mention in the will.

Almost never in his life did Shakespeare claim any written work as his own. His name was put on works, sometimes ones we say now are not his, but he never claimed he wrote them or, for that matter, disowned those he did not write. The two exceptions are the dedications of his long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.

He could have claimed ownership in many ways, as did other authors. He could have written about his works in letters to others. He could have at least said things to others and been remembered for the quotes. Good quotes come down to us with remarkable reliability. We can be reasonably sure that Shakespeare rarely if ever said anything memorable to anyone about his work. It was really very remiss of him.

home · a fine mystery · a bard in the hand? · what's at stake?
related report: FRONTLINE's the shakespeare mystery · poll: who cares? · quiz · readings & links
join the discussion · teacher's guide · tapes & transcripts · press · credits
privacy · FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbsi

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

Much Ado About Something [home] FRONTLINE