Much Ado About Something
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forum: what's at stake - four views of the shakespeare authorship question

"I cannot understand it when people say it doesn't matter. I think that's a pure cop-out. They don't want to deal with this tricky question. They don't want, perhaps, to be disloyal to a myth."
Michael Rubbo, filmmaker

"Partly it's to do with honoring truth, honoring fact. And, you know, without being melodramatic about it, you deny the reality of Shakespeare one moment, you can deny the reality of the Holocaust the next."
Jonathan Bate, Univ. of Liverpool

"When you talk to people who are absolutely committed — they cannot conceive that you would have a doubt about it — now, that's a belief system. And what I've been trying to do is back up to the factual, to the evidence."
Diana Price, independent scholar

"You might say I'm shirking my obligation by not taking a position. But my position is that the phenomenon is fascinating, and that it tells us a great deal about `Shakespeare,' in quotation marks, and the way in which Shakespeare has shaped modern life."
Marjorie Garber, Harvard Univ.

Anti-Stratfordians, those who don't believe the man from Stratford wrote the works attributed to Shakespeare, often refer to the Shakespeare industry -- that is, both the academic industry of traditional Shakespeare studies and the tourist industry surrounding Stratford-upon-Avon. Their point, a valid one, is that there are vested interests, both professional and commercial, at stake in the authorship debate, and that these interests are threatened by "unorthodox" theories of who wrote the works. Yet it's clear that the Authorship Question has spawned something of a cottage industry itself, with its own organizations, publications, websites, and, indeed, vested interests. In fact, the industry may be outgrowing the cottage, with rumors of Hollywood films in the pipeline and with mainstream media getting into the act.

But isn't it possible that far more is at stake in the authorship debate than individual careers and fortunes? Isn't there something about the authorship question that gets to the heart of how we understand Shakespeare, the works themselves, and even our own relationship to history, literature, and creativity? Does the authorship question, in other words, reveal as much about us -- whether we're Stratfordian, anti-Stratfordian, or agnostic -- as it does about the provenance of Hamlet, As You Like It, and MacBeth?

With these questions in mind, and with a strong sense that the authorship controversy is a cultural phenomenon worth pondering (and by no means easily dismissed), we invited Michael Rubbo and three other experts on the subject -- Jonathan Bate (who appears in "Much Ado About Something"), Diana Price, and Marjorie Garber -- to weigh in on what we should make of this puzzling, and at times heated, debate. In Web-exclusive interviews with each of them we tried to get at the questions: Why does it matter who wrote the works of Shakespeare? Is the authorship controversy a distraction from the plays and poems? What, exactly, is at stake here?

The following are excerpts from our conversations, with links to the full interviews. If you, Dear Reader, feel strongly about the matter, we invite you to register your opinion in a special online poll, and then to join the discussion.

Wen Stephenson
Jan. 2, 2003

read the full interview

Michael Rubbo
A filmmaker, painter, and former executive producer of documentaries for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Rubbo produced, wrote, and directed "Much Ado About Something," which explores the case for Christopher Marlowe as the author of Shakespeare.

Where do you place yourself on the authorship question?

Well, I feel in my gut that Shakespeare was not the author. I don't think the proof against him is conclusive, but he just doesn't feel and smell like the author to me. He's not satisfying. There does seem to be a need to have somebody who's intellectually and emotionally satisfying. And the more I find out about him, the more he fails to come to the party. He just doesn't perform as one expects a great author should. This man who often writes about our theatricality, about how we strut and fret on the stage of life -- he has no strut, no fret himself. He seems to stand in the wings of life as a gray ghost.

Of course, the record gets lost, and he may have done things that haven't come down to us. Yet one feels that something would have pushed its way through if he really was the fantastic intellect that he must have been to have written those plays. ... I mean it's fascinating. ... Shakespeare is deeply unsatisfying and deeply implausible. Marlowe is not the perfect replacement, but he fits quite well -- as long as he's not dead in 1593.

Whether it was Marlowe, whether it was Oxford -- whoever it might have been -- how do you answer the question of why it matters?

I find that question very strange. I mean, I don't know why anybody would ask that. Of course it matters.

It's self-evident that it matters?

Yes, because in the sense that we ourselves have any creativity at all, we must be interested in the creative process. ...

So I cannot understand it when people say it doesn't matter. I think that's a pure cop-out. They don't want to deal with this tricky question. They don't want, perhaps, to be disloyal to a myth. Their attitude is, "A bard in the hand is worth two in the bush, and thanks very much."

How do you respond when they say that all this controversy over the authorship is a distraction from the plays and the poems?

Not at all. It feeds back into an understanding of the plays and the works. ... You look at them with fresh interest, you read them through a different eye, and you tease out new meaning. It may be meaning that is relevant to your cause or to your belief, but I don't think it stops there. I think, in fact, you tease out all sorts of meaning and are taken on a real roller-coaster ride, which may end up almost anywhere. Certainly not somewhere safe. ...

Some people would say the authorship controversy represents our obsession with conspiracy theories, or our suspicion of cultural authority -- you know, we want to bring down Shakespeare and the academic establishment. Or maybe it's our obsession with celebrity, and that's why we're more interested in the biography, the life, than we are in the plays.

All those explanations end up as excuses for not taking the authorship question seriously. I mean, whenever the Stratfordians get going, they tend to not review the arguments that are made against Shakespeare but to question the motives of the attackers. For instance, they claim that the de Vere people believe in the Earl of Oxford not because he's a likely choice, but because they're American snobs and they can't tolerate the idea that these plays could have been written by a lowly commoner like Shakespeare. The Marlovians are similarly dismissed not as people with an interesting argument, but as conspiracy theorists, people generally obsessed by conspiracies.

So it's always "shoot the messenger." What you're saying with your questions is a subtle variant on that, you know, that we have to explain this obsession. That it's just a phenomenon. That it suits some people's basic needs because of the cultural traditions of today, or where we find ourselves in terms of history.

But I admit that, finding a good history mystery is immensely satisfying in its own right. And as Peter Farey says, it probably doesn't really matter how it ever turns out, because it's great fun. I agree to that. But I do think there's real substance to this, and the Stratfordians rarely address the substance. In fact, they continually distort the case or trivialize it. ...

But you see, the Stratfordians are in a very awkward position, because whereas the doubters like myself can enjoy this controversy, amass our arguments, and give it our best shot, the Stratfordians must defend this man, like him or not. They're given him as a construct, and they cannot give an inch. ...

A scholar named Tucker Brooke reportedly said, "Even if Shakespeare stood up in his grave and said he was not the author, we wouldn't believe him." And that's a very telling line. We couldn't afford to believe him, one might add. It's not the financial aspect of it; it's the intellectual investment, it's the professional investment. ...

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What the Stratfordians ought to do is just sit down and say, "Yeah, let's consider this, and we'll give the other side their due and their word -- they're not idiots -- and we'll see." If they were to do that, they may be able to close off the whole thing. But of course I think they simply feel they can't, and that these doubts are unanswerable. If they were answerable, then they would stop shooting the messenger and just get on with the business of answering them, wouldn't they? ...

read the full interview

Jonathan Bate
An eloquent and passionate defender of the Stratford case, Bate is a professor of English at the University of Liverpool, the author of The Genius of Shakespeare (1997), The Oxford Illustrated History of Shakespeare on Stage (2001), and Shakespeare and Ovid (1993), and general editor of the new Oxford history of English literature.

What do you make of the Shakespeare authorship controversy as a phenomenon itself?

I am very interested in this as a cultural and historical phenomenon. And for me, it tells us a lot about the kind of cult status of Shakespeare. All religions have many different sects, and they usually have heresies and various extremities within them. And since the 18th century there has been a quasi-religious cult of Shakespeare, and also in modern times there's a way in which literature and the cultural icons of the past have almost become a substitute religion. So I think it's bound to be the case that where Shakespeare is like a religion, where there is a cult, there is bound to be some kind of heresy spinning off from that.

So for me, the really interesting aspect of it is to ask the question: when did people start asking these questions about whether the man from Stratford wrote the plays? ... It wasn't a question that occurred to anybody in Shakespeare's own lifetime, or for nearly two hundred years after his death. What we find is that it begins to be a question in the 19th century, which is at the time that Shakespeare has become a cult figure, he's become widely regarded as the greatest author that has ever been, he's become a kind of god. It seems to me that's the key point to grasp about this whole issue -- that it's an off-shoot, or what a philosopher would call an epiphenomenon, of the cult of Shakespeare. ...

What do you think of pursuing the authorship question as a legitimate literary-historical inquiry?

Well, it's not a legitimate inquiry at all, because it's entirely dependent on evidence that isn't there, it's entirely dependent on a conspiracy theory. ... The whole debate really stems from a profound ignorance about the nature of the literary and dramatic culture of the time. I mean, anybody doing serious research in the period will very quickly see a huge pile of evidence that Shakespeare was very, very deeply involved with the life of the theater. Whereas the various aristocratic candidates that have been put forward -- Lord Bacon was the first one and the Earl of Oxford is currently the most popular one -- they came from a completely different world and had a completely different kind of preoccupation when they were writing. Because Marlowe was a professional man of the theater, it's in that sense that Marlowe is the one sort of theoretically plausible candidate, at a kind of stylistic level. But the evidence that he was actually killed in that brawl is incontrovertible. ...

Where do you see the postmodernists in the authorship debate?

The postmodern idea that, in a sense, the author has no control over the text, that the text sort of floats free, and the meaning of the text is its consumption rather than its production ... all that goes back to this kind of Parisian 1960s idea of the "death of the author." But of course the effect of that among postmodernist scholars is that they cease to be interested in the author as an individual agent ... as an individual persona.

And this means that a lot of academic criticism has vacated the whole area of biography, individual genius, and so on. And it seems to me it's left this gap, which has allowed the amateur sleuths, the eccentrics, the obsessives, to seize the ground, in terms of public perception. And so it is that very, very few academics that I know are remotely interested in the "Shakespeare authorship question." Whereas everybody I ever meet, like a taxi driver, who asks me what I do, and I say I'm a Shakespeare scholar, sooner or later they say, "Well, did he write the plays, then?"

I mean, I don't want to get on a high horse about this, but I think there is an abnegation of scholarly responsibility on the part of many of my colleagues in the profession, because, you know, history does exist, and the fact is that the man from Stratford was a flesh and blood man who did write the plays. ...

So how do you answer the question, Why does it matter?

Partly it's to do with honoring truth, honoring fact, which it seems to me we have a historical duty to do. And, you know, without being melodramatic about it, you deny the reality of Shakespeare one moment, you can deny the reality of the Holocaust the next. I mean, that's the melodramatic answer. A conspiracy theory about the "Shakespeare industry," a conspiracy theory about the "Holocaust industry." It's the responsibility of scholarship to examine evidence -- and, okay, fact is always interpreted, the way we select fact is always value-laden, but history did happen, facts do exist, and we forget that at our peril. So that's a kind of moral argument.

And then I also think, at another level, it matters because the truth about Shakespeare, which is that he was someone from the provinces, from a sort of lower-middle-class background, with no university education -- though a decent grammar school education -- who still managed to achieve an extraordinary amount, that does seem to me, in its quiet way, to be a heroic story, a story that is worth admiring. It's like a story of an ordinary person making it into the White House. And the problem -- less with the Marlowe theory, but with the other ones, particularly the Earl of Oxford and the various other aristocratic theories that have really had a lot of currency, and really have more currency than the Marlowe theory -- is that they are so condescending and snobbish. The suggestion that you have to be a mighty aristocrat in order to write mighty works, I find that politically very offensive. So, you know, without meaning to be pompous, I have got a moral and a political argument there. ...

Do you find the authorship controversy to be a distraction from the plays and poems?

Yeah, I do think that. And having said that it matters, I then would want to go on and say that what really matters is the text of Hamlet. And as I've suggested in the book, and in our discussion, there is a way in which I want to say Shakespeare is not the sole author of Hamlet. Going back to that idea of multiple agency and collaborative authorship, I'm convinced that his very close friend Richard Burbage, who was the first Hamlet on stage, contributed a very, very great deal to what Hamlet was. And there's another sense in which Shakespeare was only the partial author of Hamlet, in that he was rewriting an old play, unfortunately now lost, on the same theme. And we don't actually know for a fact which bits were Shakespeare's and which were in the old play. Whereas in King Lear we do, because we have the old play. And so what we see when we begin to look at the complexity of the text, and its production, and its history, its revisions, we precisely see that the individual author -- the guy from Stratford, the guy with the balding head -- is the most important agent, but he's by no means the only agent.

And indeed I would then want to go on to say that what makes the text important is its extraordinary capacity to go on speaking in new ways to new generations, in ways that Shakespeare, the man, would never have dreamed of. ... In the end, what we mean by the "genius of Shakespeare" is the "Shakespeare effect." It's not the guy who lived from 1564 to 1616, but the extraordinary effect that the works have had on millions and millions of readers and playgoers and other creative artists down the ages. But of course, in a way, that's quite a complicated idea. And I think part of the problem with this division between academic approaches and popular, is that that more complicated idea is quite difficult to put across in a world of soundbites.

read the full interview

Diana Price
A self-described anti-Stratfordian, Price is the author of Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem (2001). Her work on the authorship question has appeared in The Review of English Studies and The Elizabethan Review.

There's clearly a division between the academic establishment, the academic world, and most of those who have written on and are interested in the authorship question. What do you think of that?

Well, it's sort of a vicious circle, because the academic community does not accept the authorship as a legitimate question. But what I'm trying to do is play by their rules and earn their respect and make it very difficult for them to just flick it aside. ... If I have one thing that I think is paramount, it's to do that, and to try to earn the respect of the orthodox, because people like me are usually viewed as crackpots. ... I mean, that's just how it is. ...

It's very unusual, I think, for someone to get this far into the authorship issue and not privilege one candidate over another. ... Oxfordians keep trying to claim me as their own, and, you know, I've been invited to all their conferences, and I don't go. ... But it puts me in a really awkward position, because most of those who are just passionate about the case for Oxford -- or whoever it is -- think I'm sort of wimping out. ...

Why do you think these people become so passionate about it? I mean, there seems to be something at stake here. What do you think is at stake?

I've looked into some of the psychology of belief systems, and I think it has a lot to do with that. It's not that hard to understand why there might be a question for the authorship, but it takes an awful lot to go beyond that into, well, what really did happen and what might Shakespeare's role actually have been, and who are the possible candidates.

People want to gravitate to an answer. And I have to say that the first time I read through the case for Oxford, I could feel the tug of wanting to embrace it and buy into it. And even though I called myself a provisional Oxfordian for those couple years ... when I was doing recreational reading -- before I really started to do this seriously -- even at the point where I said, "I have to back off this theory," I could feel the tug of wanting to emotionally commit to it. And, you know, people fall in love with Oxford. They go way off the deep end. ...

And when you start to talk to people who are absolutely committed -- they cannot conceive that you would have a doubt about it -- now, that's a belief system. And what I've been trying to do is back up to the factual, to the evidence. And I also frame my question very differently than do Oxfordians. Oxfordians say, "Well, was it Shakespeare or was it Oxford?" And I say, "Was it Shakespeare or was it not Shakespeare?" And that, to me, is the first question that needs to be answered before you can begin to look at the candidates and test them -- Oxford and Marlowe being two to be tested. ...

But I notice that you do think there's some credibility to the idea that it was a courtier, that it was a well-born gentleman, someone with a certain social rank.


And that's something that the Oxfordians are often taken to task for, is a kind of--


Yes, a kind of snobbishness or an assumption that it couldn't have been a commoner. What do you think about that aspect?

That comes up regularly -- I got it in the classroom just last week -- and I do address it in the book. But my reaction to that is, simply, it's a misplaced appeal to egalitarian sensibility. I would never say, and I do not say, that Shakespeare of Stratford could not possibly have overcome the disadvantages of his provincial upbringing or the questions about his schooling. I'm not saying he couldn't have done it. I am saying that if he did it, we'd have some evidence to show how he did it. And since we don't have the evidence -- and because he is unique in the absence of that kind of evidence -- that's why I have a doubt as to his authorship.

So I just come back to "show me the evidence." If he did it, he's going to have left us a little bit -- he's going to give us some clue in the historical documentation as to how he did it. ... And if you cannot use the documentary evidence to account for his familiarity with -- and then go into the laundry list of all of the things with which this author was conversant, languages and interests and pastimes that were the exclusive province of the aristocracy -- if you can't account for them with the documentary evidence, then there's a question. ...

Why does it matter who wrote Shakespeare? As you know, a lot of people, especially in the academy, have been trained to say that who the author of a work is doesn't really matter and that questions of biography and authorship are just a distraction.

"We've got the plays. They're great. So who cares?"

Yes. And isn't all of this a distraction?

There are a lot of reasons why it matters. Part of it is giving credit where credit's due. ... I agree with those who think that the plays of Shakespeare are the greatest literature written in the English language, and I would love to know who wrote them. I am profoundly unsatisfied with the traditional biography. I think it answers no questions at all, and I would like to know what happened. ...

But if literary biography didn't matter, we wouldn't have all these literary biographies coming off the press. And whether it's Virginia Woolf or whether it's Oscar Wilde or Mark Twain or William Shakespeare, people want to know about the writers who are their favorites. And I can't think of any author except William Shakespeare who routinely commands his own section in a bookstore, so a lot of people are evidently interested in reading who this guy was. And these hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands and thousands, of biographies of Shakespeare have been written by the very professors who are in the same field as those who are saying biography doesn't matter. Well, it obviously matters to all those professors.

And I'll give you two more reasons as to why this matters to even a lay person. Those biographies of Shakespeare are footnoted in other journal articles on Elizabethan and Jacobean subjects, so it's incorporated into the scholarship. So that's an important reason to be sure that it's right. ...

And then, finally, the fun part, if we had an author whose life made sense with the plays, we'd find new stuff in the plays. ... We probably would find a lot of topical references that we've all been missing. You know how you tilt the prism and all of a sudden you see a new spectrum? ... And I just think we'd find all kinds of new dimensions in the plays if we had an author who fit. Right now I think they're great plays, but it's all abstraction. You don't have a life with any resonances in the plays. At least, I do not consider the reference to sheepskin in the fifth act of Hamlet to be a resonance. ...

The beauty of the plays is that they're so universal, and they speak to so many different issues, and you can always reinterpret the plays. And sometimes the biography can actually shed light on intention or meaning. And that, to me, is a very valuable thing, and it also can be very exciting if you know that this situation motivated this artistic choice.

read the full interview

Marjorie Garber
Professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University, Garber is the author of three books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare's Ghost Writers (1987), and several collections of cultural essays, including Symptoms of Culture (1998) and, most recently, Quotation Marks.

You seem to be more of an observer than a participant in the authorship debate. Is that right?

I think that's fair to say. I think the observer has the most fun here, and that it is a fascinating cultural phenomenon. It's perfectly understandable that people would take an author who is so central to our cultural understanding of what human nature is supposedly like, of what contemporary life is supposedly like -- a figure who seems to be above the notion of authorship, as people like Emerson have said -- and try to bring him down to size, usually their own size, whatever size that might be. So it's a phenomenon worth watching across the centuries, and it's a phenomenon worth watching in the 21st century.

Do you believe that the man from Stratford wrote the plays?

Why don't you ask me whether I care? Because I think that that may be more relevant here.

I'm very interested in the plays. I have given a great deal of my life, and very pleasurably and enthusiastically, to teaching these plays, to reading them, to watching them on the stage, to reading what other scholars have to say about them, and so forth. I think that they are inexhaustible, that these are extraordinary documents; that every time I read the plays, or one of these plays, every time I see a production -- whether it's an undergraduate production or professional production -- I learn something I didn't know about these texts and about how they function in performance. ... So I'm deeply committed to these texts and to a study of these texts, and to the pleasure that they give. ...

Do you feel duty-bound to maintain a critical detachment?

Oh, no. I mean, my position is one of critical disposition rather than of obligation. You might say that I was obligated to come down on one side or the other. ... I am expected to have -- because I teach Shakespeare, I've written about Shakespeare -- I'm expected to have an opinion about it. And in fact, since my opinion is a kind of meta-opinion, or a para-opinion, it doesn't satisfy everyone. So you might say I'm shirking my obligation by not taking a position.

But my position is that the phenomenon is fascinating, and that it is telling, and that it tells us a great deal about "Shakespeare," in quotation marks, about the cultural transmission of the notion of Shakespeare, and the way in which Shakespeare has shaped modern life.

I mean, what interests me about it is how passionate people are about this and to what great lengths they will go to construct theories of conspiracy, of paranoia, of displacement, of masquerade -- all, incidentally, themes that happen within the Shakespeare plays. That they create narratives in which they believe quite passionately, and have gone to very great lengths in terms of excavations and explorations, in order to try to find the true Shakespeare -- as if, somehow, like finding the True Cross, finding some shred of clothing or handwriting would bring us any closer to an understanding of the phenomenon of the writing of the plays or of their cultural power.

What is at stake here?

Well, I think a great deal is at stake, in a funny way. A whole way of reading, or understanding the relationship of literature to life, is, in a way, at stake. ...

I think it would be interesting to discover, as it's easier to do with authors who have written more recently, what the relation of the fictions in an author's work is to his or her own biographical circumstances, or education, or reading, or politics. But I don't go to literature for the message, for the historical event that is now allegorized in MacBeth or King Lear or whatever. For me, the power of these works lies in their delineation of character, the extraordinary language, the way in which there seems to be a conversation from play to play, and so forth. And so for me, the totality here is the collection of the plays, rather than any imagined or verifiable human being whose personal data might play into our understanding of this. ...

So what you're saying, then, is that what's at stake is our very relationship to the art itself?

Yeah. What's at stake in the controversy are, among other things, a lot of vested interests -- I mean, the tourism interest, tourism in Stratford would disappear if the author were Oxford -- but what's at stake more seriously, maybe, for somebody interested in literary study, is why we study literature. What is the power of the work of art? What's the relationship of plays and playing to life? ...

In Shakespeare's Ghost Writers, you say that "a great deal seems invested in not finding the answer" as to who wrote the plays.

I still believe that.

Can you explain what you mean by that?

Well, Shakespeare seems to be a figure who transcends the possibility of authorship -- again, that's something that Emerson says. It's not an original thought with me. But to have Shakespeare turn out to be an ordinary person with a stomach ache or a bad marriage or budget problems, or something like that, would be to bring him down to human scale. And there's almost a kind of secular religion of Shakespeare that wants to quote these texts as if they were a kind of Bible of human nature, and that wants to understand Shakespeare as -- you know, the famous portrait of Shakespeare with the high forehead, as if he were a mind, as if he were an intelligence, looking into our pettier lives and understanding them beyond some way that we could.

If Shakespeare's brought down to size, in a way, to scale, and is made to be subject to the ordinary pressures of his time, or of any time, then we lose that sense of the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Shakespeare, about which, again, poets have written from Matthew Arnold's sonnet on: that desire to imagine that Shakespeare knows us better than we know ourselves. And that kind of numinousness, and that kind of transcendence, is not commensurate with any too-intimate knowledge. So in order to keep the ideal of Shakespeare as the playwright beyond play writing -- the author beyond authorship, the poet who knows us all -- we need, in a way, not to know him. The best way to know him is, in a way, not to know him.

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