Shakespeare authorship question

controversy over whether William Shakespeare wrote the works ascribed to him

Some people say that some of the works attributed to William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon were not actually written by him. The scientific argument behind this claim is known as the Shakespeare authorship question. Anti-Stratfordians say Shakespeare of Stratford was a fake name to hide the identity of the real author or authors. These authors did not want their real names to become public, for various reasons.[1] Although the idea has attracted much public interest,[2][a] all but a few Shakespeare scholars and literary historians consider it a conspiracy theory and for the most part acknowledge it only to rebut or disparage the claims, for example James Shapiro wrote a book arguing that Shakespeare was the person who wrote Shakespeare’s plays.[3]

Portraits of Shakespeare and four proposed alternative authors.Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of OxfordFrancis BaconWilliam ShakespeareChristopher MarloweWilliam Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby
Oxford, Bacon, Derby, and Marlowe (clockwise from top left, Shakespeare centre) have each been proposed as the true author. (Clickable image—use cursor to identify.)

Shakespeare's authorship was first questioned in the middle of the 19th century. [4] At that time the idea that Shakespeare was the greatest writer of all time had become widespread.[5] Shakespeare had a simple background, and many details of his life are unknown. Those that are known do not necessarily support his authorship. These facts seemed to be incompatible with his poetic eminence and his reputation for genius.[6] Some people suspected that Shakespeare might not have written the works attributed to him.[7] The controversy has since spawned a vast body of literature,[8] and 80 authorship candidates have been proposed,[9] including those most studied, Francis Bacon, the 6th Earl of Derby, Christopher Marlowe, and the 17th Earl of Oxford.[10]

Some Anti-Stratfordians say William Shakespeare lacked the education, aristocratic sensibility, or familiarity with the royal court. They also say that these characteristics can be found in his works.[11] Those Shakespeare scholars who have responded to such claims hold that biographical interpretations of literature are unreliable in attributing authorship,[12] and that the convergence of documentary evidence used to support Shakespeare's authorship—title pages, testimony by other contemporary poets and historians, and official records—is the same used for all other authorial attributions of his era.[13] No such direct evidence exists for any other candidate,[14] and Shakespeare's authorship was not questioned during his lifetime or for centuries after his death.[15]

Despite the scholarly consensus,[16] a relatively small[17] but highly visible and diverse assortment of supporters, including prominent public figures,[18] have questioned the conventional attribution.[19] They work for acknowledgment of the authorship question as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry and for acceptance of one or another of the various authorship candidates.[20]


  1. Prescott 2010, p. 273: 'Anti-Stratfordian' is the collective name for the belief that someone other than the man from Stratford wrote the plays commonly attributed to him."; McMichael & Glenn 1962, p. 56.
  2. Shapiro 2010, pp. 2–3 (3–4).
  3. Kathman 2003, p. 621: "...antiStratfordism has remained a fringe belief system"; Schoenbaum 1991, p. 450; Paster 1999, p. 38: "To ask me about the authorship question ... is like asking a palaeontologist to debate a creationist's account of the fossil record."; Nelson 2004, pp. 149–51: "I do not know of a single professor of the 1,300-member Shakespeare Association of America who questions the identity of Shakespeare ... antagonism to the authorship debate from within the profession is so great that it would be as difficult for a professed Oxfordian to be hired in the first place, much less gain tenure..."; Carroll 2004, pp. 278–9: "I have never met anyone in an academic position like mine, in the Establishment, who entertained the slightest doubt as to Shakespeare's authorship of the general body of plays attributed to him."; Pendleton 1994, p. 21: "Shakespeareans sometimes take the position that to even engage the Oxfordian hypothesis is to give it a countenance it does not warrant."; Sutherland & Watts 2000, p. 7: "There is, it should be noted, no academic Shakespearian of any standing who goes along with the Oxfordian theory."; Gibson 2005, p. 30: "...most of the great Shakespearean scholars are to be found in the Stratfordian camp..."
  4. Bate 1998, p. 73; Hastings 1959, p. 486; Wadsworth 1958, pp. 8–16; McCrea 2005, p. 13; Kathman 2003, p. 622.
  5. Taylor 1989, p. 167: By 1840, admiration for Shakespeare throughout Europe had become such that Thomas Carlyle "could say without hyperbole" that "Shakespeare is the chief of all Poets hitherto; the greatest intellect who, in our recorded world, has left record of himself in the way of literature."
  6. Shapiro 2010, pp. 87–8 (77–8).
  7. Bate 2002, p. 106.
  8. Shapiro 2010, p. 317 (281).
  9. Gross 2010, p. 39.
  10. Shapiro 2010, pp. 2–3 (4); McCrea 2005, p. 13.
  11. Dobson 2001, p. 31: "These two notions—that the Shakespeare canon represented the highest achievement of human culture, while William Shakespeare was a completely uneducated rustic—combined to persuade Delia Bacon and her successors that the Folio's title page and preliminaries could only be part of a fabulously elaborate charade orchestrated by some more elevated personage, and they accordingly misread the distinctive literary traces of Shakespeare's solid Elizabethan grammar-school education visible throughout the volume as evidence that the 'real' author had attended Oxford or Cambridge."
  12. Bate 1998, p. 90: "Their [Oxfordians'] favorite code is the hidden personal allusion ... But this method is in essence no different from the cryptogram, since Shakespeare's range of characters and plots, both familial and political, is so vast that it would be possible to find in the plays 'self-portraits' of, once more, anybody one cares to think of."; Love 2002, pp. 87, 200: "It has more than once been claimed that the combination of 'biographical-fit' and cryptographical arguments could be used to establish a case for almost any individual ... The very fact that their application has produced so many rival claimants demonstrates their unreliability." Shapiro 2010, pp. 304–13 (268–77); Schoone-Jongen 2008, p. 5: "in voicing dissatisfaction over the apparent lack of continuity between the certain facts of Shakespeare's life and the spirit of his literary output, anti-Stratfordians adopt the very Modernist assumption that an author's work must reflect his or her life. Neither Shakespeare nor his fellow Elizabethan writers operated under this assumption."; Smith 2008, p. 629: "...deriving an idea of an author from his or her works is always problematic, particularly in a multi-vocal genre like drama, since it crucially underestimates the heterogeneous influences and imaginative reaches of creative writing."
  13. Wadsworth 1958, pp. 163–4: "The reasons we have for believing that William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon wrote the plays and poems are the same as the reasons we have for believing any other historical event ... the historical evidence says that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems."; McCrea 2005, pp. xii–xiii, 10; Nelson 2004, p. 162: "Apart from the First Folio, the documentary evidence for William Shakespeare is the same as we get for other writers of the period..."
  14. Love 2002, pp. 198–202, 303–7: "The problem that confronts all such attempts is that they have to dispose of the many testimonies from Will the player's own time that he was regarded as the author of the plays and the absence of any clear contravening public claims of the same nature for any of the other favoured candidates."; Bate 1998, pp. 68–73.
  15. Bate 1998, p. 73: "No one in Shakespeare's lifetime or the first two hundred years after his death expressed the slightest doubt about his authorship."; Hastings 1959, pp. 486–8: " suspicions regarding Shakespeare's authorship (except for a few mainly humorous comments) were expressed until the middle of the nineteenth century".
  16. Dobson 2001, p. 31; Greenblatt 2005: "The idea that William Shakespeare's authorship of his plays and poems is a matter of conjecture and the idea that the 'authorship controversy' be taught in the classroom are the exact equivalent of current arguments that 'intelligent design' be taught alongside evolution. In both cases an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on a serious assessment of hard evidence, is challenged by passionately held fantasies whose adherents demand equal time."
  17. Price 2001, p. 9: "Nevertheless, the skeptics who question Shakespeare’s authorship are relatively few in number, and they do not speak for the majority of academic and literary professionals."
  18. Nicholl 2010, p. 3.
  19. Nicholl 2010, p. 3; Shapiro 2010, p. 2 (4).
  20. Shapiro 2010, pp. 246–9 (216–9); Niederkorn 2005.
  1. The UK and US editions of Shapiro 2010 differ significantly in pagination. The citations to the book used in this article list the UK page numbers first, followed by the page numbers of the US edition in parentheses.