Thursday, October 27, 2011

Who was Shakespeare?

Opening October 28th, Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous asks a question that has dogged scholars for decades: Was Shakespeare really Shakespeare? Was the author of the timeless masterpieces Hamlet and King Lear a glover's son from Stratford-upon-Avon, or someone else entirely?

The "question of authorship," as the debate has been termed, was first raised at the beginning of the 19th century.Since then, many well-known authors and scholars, including Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and Walt Whitman, have challenged conventional wisdom and offered up alternative candidates as the true Shakespeare. Orson Welles once commented,"I think Oxford wrote Shakespeare. If you don't, there are some awful funny coincidences to explain away."

Among those nominated as the "real"Shakespeare is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the same man that Anonymous posits as the author of Shakespeare's works, although he is not the only possibility. Rival playwright Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and even Queen Elizabeth herself have been suggested as the true author(or authors) of Shakespeare's works.

In addition to film, many books have been written on the question of authorship, spanning an entire spectrum of possibilities. Mark Anderson's "Shakespeare"By Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare also argues for Edward de Vere as the true Shakespeare,asserting that, unlike the man named William Shakespeare, de Vere had the education, experience, and means to create such timeless works. Anderson also draws parallels between specific plays and episodes in de Vere's life. For example, during his twenties, de Vere accumulated a large debt with London's moneylenders, a theme echoed in The Merchant of Venice.

Other books written on the question of authorship do not make a case for a specific person as much as they cast doubt on Shakespeare as the sole author of the plays and poetry attributed to him. Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro and Players:The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare by Bertram Fields address the issue by pointing out what they see as inconsistencies in Shakespeare's biography, as well as the scope of the works themselves, as proof that he could not have written all of the works that are claimed as his, or, at least, not by himself.

On the other side of the argument, Scott McCrea's The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question works to dismantle the question altogether, especially the arguments for Edward de Vere. Taking a different approach, Bill Bryson, in Shakespeare:The World as Stage, examines the life of William Shakespeare as a person, and celebrates Shakespeare's works as his own along the way.

If you'd like to explore the subject further, the library has many more books that argue both sides of the controversy. Stop by the Reference Desk or email us at

Happy reading!

~Allison, Adult Services

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