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

photo of price Diana Price, who describes herself as an anti-Stratfordian, has one overriding goal: to get the academic establishment to take the Shakespeare authorship question seriously. At first an agnostic on the authorship, Price set out in mid life on a scholarly inquiry into just what is known, and not known, about the life of the man from Stratford and the claims made for him. "The academic community does not accept the authorship as a legitimate question," she says here in a Web-exclusive interview with FRONTLINE. "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."

With no formal academic credentials as a literary historian, Price has nonetheless managed to publish her work on the authorship question in The Review of English Studies (published by Oxford University Press) and The Elizabethan Review. Her book, Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of an Authorship Problem, was published by Greenwood Press in 2001, and is, according to Price, the first anti-Stratfordian work to be accepted in an academic series by a mainstream publisher. Price spoke with FRONTLINE's Wen Stephenson on Dec. 9, 2002.

How did you come to write a book on the Shakespeare authorship question?

Well, I came to be aware of the fact that there is an authorship question because of my father, who has been a skeptic for as long as I've known him. I think he read the Looney book back in the early '50s. And I have to tell you, I always thought he was a bit eccentric, and I didn't really take his position very seriously. Now, he's an Oxfordian, and I'm not. I am an anti-Stratfordian, but I'm not an Oxfordian. And I should say that my love of Shakespeare preceded my interest in the authorship, simply because my father is also an actor, a director, and a Shakespeare fan.

And I think it was 1988, when my husband and I were living in London, and my dad was going to come visit, and he was all fired up again about the authorship. It had sort of lain dormant as one of his interests, but he was all fired up when Charlton Ogburn's book, The Mysterious William Shakespeare, came out, and so he wanted me to read this thing. And really, I just read it to be able to humor him, because I didn't take it seriously.

And even though I have since parted company with much that's in that book, when I first read it, I thought, "Hmm, you know, that seems sort of interesting," and I began to read a bit about it. And I think Schoenbaum's book was next on my list, Samuel Schoenbaum's William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life, which is one of the ones that is most respected of the documentary biographies. Anyhow, I went along for several years doing what I call recreational reading, and sort of dabbling in it, and sort of trying on the Oxford theory. And then curiosity got the better of me and I decided to quit my job, and my husband said, "Okay," and I rolled up my sleeves and started to do some serious research. At which point I backed off the Oxfordian solution and just began to try to decide for myself if I thought there really was a question or not.

Did you have a background in literary or historical scholarship?

No. My professional background is as an arts administrator and a strategic business planner. I worked in the northern Ohio area, and I worked in the trenches for some of the arts groups there. So I jumped track in order to do Shakespeare studies. I don't have the proper formal training for it.

· · Related Feature:

· · Related Reading:

That's very interesting. Of course, your work has now been published in scholarly journals.

Well, the book itself is -- I think I'm right in saying this -- the first anti-Stratfordian book to be accepted in an academic series by a mainstream publisher, Greenwood Press. And I was in The Review of English Studies, with Oxford University Press, and that's a big deal.

Really, that's quite an accomplishment. 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.

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.

And because the journals and the professors don't think it's a legitimate question, most people who gravitate to the authorship question do not have to pass the peer-review process. They don't have to submit to a journal, because no journal will take a paper directly on the topic, and so they are free to make up their own solution. And so it tends to -- you know, it's no accident that the authorship organizations are organized around a particular candidate, whether it's Oxford or Marlowe or Bacon, or whoever it is. And so it attracts people who love the romance of the solution, as opposed to those who are seriously wanting to get their research into the journals.

So you saw, and perhaps still do see, a need to play by the professional rules?

Absolutely. I mean, 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.

Well ...

I mean, that's just how it is.

But you're obviously not. The way you've positioned yourself on the whole question seems to give you a role as an observer, in a way, as much as a participant in the debate. In other words, because you don't align yourself with any one candidate, you're able to have a kind of critical detachment from the various theories -- though you've certainly plunged into the question of whether William Shakespeare from Stratford could have been the author. Talk to me about that role, and how you see your role.

It's very unusual, I think, for someone to get this far into the authorship issue and not privilege one candidate over another. And I know this is going to sound bizarre, but 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 because I don't want to be perceived as favoring one particular candidate over another. I happen to think that the circumstantial cases are pretty good, but I don't favor--

For Oxford, you mean?

Yeah. His case is a good circumstantial case as far as I've read, but, you know, I haven't gone and tested his stuff the way I've tested the stuff for Shakespeare. So I generally don't take questions on the case for or against Oxford, or Bacon, or any of them. 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. You know, I've been faulted for not embracing Oxford, in particular, because he's got one of the bigger fan clubs, or one of the biggest constituencies.

Why do you think 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 that I mentioned, 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. You've probably heard some of the crazy theories -- the royal birth theories and that Oxford wrote all of Elizabethan literature. That stuff is nuts. But all of that is emotionally driven, in my view.

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. So to me it's not a question of snobbish values, it's a question of evidence. 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. So that's how I answer that.

Instead of asking what's at stake, one could ask, why does it matter? 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 -- that the biography is secondary, if that -- and that questions of biography and authorship are just a distraction.

Well, the deconstructionist theory is, of course, at the extreme end of that, and I venture to say that every single professor who has written articles on how the author doesn't matter has signed his own name to the paper. I think that's a lot of bunk. And there are some books on the art of biography that take on that issue, and I certainly share the views of those professors who get irate with the attempt to erase the author from the picture. I personally think that any creative work has a creator, and it helps us when we know who that creator is.

But let's assume that that extreme postmodern version isn't really what most people are talking about when they say, "Why does it matter?" They're talking more about--

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

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

Well, you know, I have gotten that question so much that it's in all my talks now. I address it on a regular basis. And there's a lot of reasons why it matters. Part of it is giving credit where credit's due.

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. Samuel Schoenbaum's biography will be cited in all sorts of journal articles on other subjects, about the theater or literature in general, or Queen Elizabeth. You'll find all those journal articles with different biographies of Shakespeare cited as part of the scholarship that's incorporated into it.

So there's a kind of academic or scholarly responsibility?

Absolutely. 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. And I always use the example of Arthur Miller, because everybody knows -- well, most people know who he is, and it's easy to illustrate the point with either The Crucible or After the Fall. If you know Arthur Miller's life, you know The Crucible is not only about Puritan Massachusetts and witchcraft; it's also about the McCarthy witch hunts of the '50s. And if you know he was married to Marilyn Monroe, you will see After the Fall not just as a domestic drama, but as two celebrities fighting in their living room. So, similarly, if we had an author whose life made sense with the work, 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? I think that's what would happen.

And this is anecdotal, but when my husband and I were trying on the "aristocrat wrote this play" theory, and we went to see Daniel Day Lewis in Hamlet at the National, in England, literally at the same line we both grabbed each other, because we heard something autobiographical coming across. And that happened to us again during the production of All's Well. Again, at the exact same line, we both just grabbed each other. Now, that kind of frisson, of "Ooh, I think I got something new out of this," comes with a reverberation or a resonance with who the author might be. 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.

That brings up another question -- this idea of authorship and this idea of seeing autobiography in the plays of Shakespeare. I'm sure you've read those who say that one needs to understand authorship in the Elizabethan theater, and that it wasn't necessarily how we think of authorship today: as the individual artist sitting alone at his desk, thinking great thoughts and writing.

No, it was collaborative, practical.

So isn't there a kind of "presentism" here? Don't we tend to project our own assumptions about what it means to be an author, and about authorship, back 400 years into the Elizabethan era? How do you respond to that?

Well, that's a really good point, but I also think it's tied up as well in the dynamics of the authorship question itself. I mean, Ben Jonson was actually the first writer who said, "I'm writing plays. I'm proud of it and I'm going to see that they're published." And he had a proprietary sense of authorship, which was a fairly new ingredient.

Whoever wrote the plays of Shakespeare, in my view, was writing primarily for himself or herself. I just get a sense of self. This was a writer who was a compulsive creative artist. Whoever wrote them was not writing them to get five pounds. This person was writing them because they, like any creative artist, were going to do it whether they get paid or not, whether it's okay or not. You know, if you know any composers or visual artists, they're just compulsive about it. And I get that kind of intensity from the plays themselves.

Then, once you have this body of work that's come out of whoever this author is -- and I'm sort of getting into my own sense of how this all came to be, and I have mostly questions -- but I think where I would stand on common ground with the professors is that there are all these meddling hands that have interfered with the texts or added onto the texts. Because you've got interpolations, such as those in MacBeth, and you've got the Wilkins sections of Pericles and the Fletcher sections of Henry VIII, and who knows what in the Henry VI trilogy, and all those bits and pieces. And who knows where the compositors meddled, and who knows what was done posthumously. There's just all of this meddling. So in that sense, there's collaborative interference, but I don't think anybody is willing to go to the mat to say they sat at the same table and worked, or this guy got hold of the texts and then he fiddled with it, even though the author wouldn't have liked it. You know, you just don't know how those things came to be.

So it's not a simple question, but first of all, there's no evidence that Shakespeare was working in the same style as all the Henslowe playwrights were, where you'd see five or six guys working on one play, and repeated payments as they're handing in bits and pieces of it. You know, that's how they reconstruct some of those collaborative efforts. Those records for Shakespeare's company don't survive, so we don't know exactly what happened, but we do seem to have more single author plays for the Chamberlain's Men, such as Ben Jonson's plays -- although he also collaborated. He was not always writing just by himself.

So much of this comes back to, ultimately, "We just don't know; there's not enough evidence." We hear this over and over and over again. And I was talking with Marjorie Garber about it being this great mystery, and she doesn't necessarily want to find out who the real author was. She's happy with it being a mystery. Her reason is that she's one who is totally invested in the plays themselves, as works of literary art, and is one who definitely feels that biographical information is less important in appreciating and understanding the plays. And she suggests that if we ever did have a real biography to go along with the plays, it might somehow diminish our experience of the plays.

Oh, I couldn't agree less. Knowledge is power. I just hope I live long enough to see the solution found. And it's a pretty naïve goal, but I had hoped when I got the book published that it would make some small contribution toward legitimizing the questions. Because I would love it if a few orthodox professors would welcome this subject into their classrooms. Can you imagine if the resources got focused -- the money, the grants, the sabbaticals, the term papers, the research projects -- all of that actually could now look at the Shakespeare authorship question, and we might actually find an answer. My fervent wish is that an answer is found, but I don't think it's going to be found until the academic community accepts the question as a legitimate topic.

Garber does bring the authorship question into the classroom. She's very willing to talk about it. She's fascinated by it.

But she doesn't really care.

She certainly doesn't think that there has been any conclusive evidence or proof for any of the other candidates.

I agree with her there.

I think you actually have a lot in common with her. But she's really invested in the idea that it is the plays, it is the texts, and not the biography, that matters.

I bet she signs her research papers.

Of course, but I think she has an intriguing idea, that doing a biographical reading of the plays would somehow diminish them.

I think that's actually a premature judgment. I mean, that's 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.

Let me ask a different question. Anti-Stratfordians point to the "Shakespeare industry" -- both the academic establishment and the whole popular touristic kind of industry surrounding Stratford-Upon-Avon, and the myths surrounding Shakespeare. But of course the authorship question has spawned a kind of cottage industry of its own. And it may be about to outgrow the cottage. Hollywood may be getting into the act, and the mainstream media, including FRONTLINE, certainly has shown a willingness to plunge into this. Do you think one can interpret the authorship controversy as a cultural phenomenon itself? Is it representative of something in our culture at this moment?

Boy, that's a tough question. I mean, this authorship question has been around for so long. And the thing that gets me is that it never goes away and nobody's ever able to close the sale. But when you say there's a cottage industry, you know, I don't even feel like I'm part of that cottage industry. I feel very much like I'm independent, and the people with whom I work are not in any of the organizations, either, with one exception. I work with one person who's a member of the Shakespeare Oxford Society. But almost everybody else that I work with is no longer a member of any of these organizations that I think constitute the cottage industry, because we don't do it for recreation. I know it sounds really sort of arrogant, but most people who go to the conferences, that's their recreation, and they love it. But that's our work, and we want a professional conference.

So when you speak of this cottage industry, I'm very skeptical of it, and I'm very, very skeptical of how, so far, the print media has treated it. Obviously, it's usually going to focus on the mystery part of it. They also like the romance of the candidate. And even the New York Times article, that I'm sure you read last February, focused on stuff that was really peripheral. You know, to me, that was not the best foot forward. So I'm just really skeptical and critical of some of the ways that it's put forth. I'm concerned about trying to argue it responsibly.

What is it about the media's treatment of it?

The thing is that the Shakespeare authorship issue boils down to a lot of very arcane information. And the stuff that you would read in a journal or in a footnote is not going to be the stuff that's going to be of interest to major media. So, at best, it would be a summary. But when you look at, for example, what the New York Times reporter chose, he went for some visuals. There are some portraits that might or might not be Oxford, might or might not be Shakespeare. But when you get down to it, whether they are or not, it doesn't have much to say about the authorship question. But it makes for a very pretty article. I mean, those are gorgeous portraits, and the people who are interested in talking about them are quite passionate about it. So it'll make good copy. But I don't think it moved the authorship question any closer to resolution.

Certainly not, but in defense of The New York Times, in that particular case, I would say that they were just reporting on new developments in the Oxford theory. They were talking about the new book about the de Vere Bible. But your point is still taken, that they're looking for a certain kind of sexy hook.

Exactly. That's a good way to put it. Most of this stuff that I think is important to the Shakespeare authorship question doesn't have any sex appeal. And that's why I would be wondering, well, what kind of movie would Hollywood do? I'm just very cautious. It's so easy to discredit this question, as it is. And if one looks at getting high visibility with something that is not sustainable from an argument standpoint, it's not going to do the issue any good. It's just going to present a bigger target.

So let me ask you again, why does it matter to you who wrote Shakespeare?

Well, 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. When I say curiosity got the better of me, that's true. You know, you think, "This can't be right. This just can't be right." And I'm just the sort of person who wants to nail it down.

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