On 26 April the world commemorated the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare, one of literature’s most influential figures. Shakespeare has made a considerable impact on the lives of many – whether they realise it or not. Even those who are not well versed with his works use words and expressions coined by Shakespeare on a daily basis. However, since the late 19th century, a group of people now known as the Anti-Stratfordians, have voiced their doubts over whether Shakespeare really did write the plays and poems that have affected the world of literature so immensely.
Anti-Stratfordians theorise that Shakespeare was in fact only an actor (it is true that he worked as an actor for an acting troupe called “The King’s Men”), but never a playwright. The group also claim that Shakespeare would have lacked the schooling to write as eloquently as he did, arguing that someone with his background would have most likely been illiterate.
A 2011 movie by German director Roland Emmerich entitled Anonymous, explores a combination of theories proposed by the Anti-Stratfordians. One such theory is the Oxfordian Theory of Shakespeare Authorship, which says that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was the actual author of the famous poems and plays. However, the events portrayed in the movie are more fiction than fact, and should be regarded in that light. The movie may have intended to propose a serious theory, but critics said that it was facetious and absurd, and chastised the movie for being riddled with factual inaccuracies. Anonymous’ poor performance at the box office did not make it any easier for the Anti-Stratfordians to strengthen their standpoint.
Other possibilities that have been suggested as authors of Shakespeare’s works include Francis Bacon, the 6th Earl of Derby and Christopher Marlowe, although it has also been proposed that Shakespeare’s works were written by a number of different authors in collaboration. In fact, more than 70 possible authors for the works of Shakespeare have been suggested over the years.
Many famous figures, such as Mark Twain, Charles Dickens and Sigmund Freud, have also questioned Shakespeare’s authenticity. In his book The Genius of Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate, Shakespearean scholar and professor of English literature at the University of Oxford, writes that Anti-Stratfordian ideology is “heresy” and states that many of the well-known figures who supported these opinions were intimidated by “the knowledge of Shakespeare’s unsurmountable superiority”. Bate further states that Anti-Stratfordians will “continue to believe in their theories even after scholarship has shown them to be groundless”.
Although the majority of these theories are very compelling, little evidence exists proving that they are correct. It would have been foolish for any of these proposed authors to allow anyone else to “take the credit, money, adulation etc. for the plays which were so popular in London,” argues E Boje, retired English lecturer at UP. “Shakespeare would have been stabbed in a darkened alley if he had claimed to have written them and had not,” she continues.
It is also believed that Shakespeare attended grammar school in his birthplace Stratford-upon-Avon, which means that he was not illiterate. Many Anti-Stratfordians say that there is no proof that Shakespeare attended this grammar school, as no attendance records have survived.
Shakespeare’s education also extended well into his adult life, which becomes evident when one considers that many of his plays are based on already-existing books, showing that Shakespeare was an avid reader.
The notion that Shakespeare was not Shakespeare seems to be no more than a conspiracy theory, as the majority of academics agree that Shakespeare’s authorship was genuine. Until more modern study has been done, for the moment it may be safest to believe that Shakespeare really was the bard whose words inspired the world.
Illustration: Simon-Kai Garvie