Editor’s Column: Who Was Shakespeare?

Sumner Ellsworth

The Bard is considered to be one of the greatest literary geniuses ever to live. He was a poet and a dramatist. His words have survived centuries, and his work has transcended time to make him a legend.

But who was Shakespeare the man? That’s a question that doesn’t have such an easy answer, nor certainly one that’s as universally agreed upon.

William Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon was the son of a glover who became an actor, and went on to author at least 38 popular plays and a number of poems. What could be more straightforward than that?

Shakespearean skeptics object that William Shakespeare did not have the formal education, questioning even his literacy. They also argue that he did not have a position in society that would have made him knowledgeable about law or the machinations of a court, things he often wrote about in precise detail.

Over the years, a number of ideas as to alternate authorship have emerged. The most popular theories advance candidates like Christopher Marlowe, assuming the circumstances surrounding his death were contrived; Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Francis Bacon.

Recently, the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition (SAC) issued a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of William Shakespeare. Led by Sir Derek Jacobi, a noted Shakespearean actor, and Mark Rylance, former artistic director of the Globe Theatre, SAC has assembled a group of supporters, some respected academics, to sign their Declaration. Their stated goal is to give legitimacy to “conspiracy theories” regarding the works of Shakespeare and foster academic debate around a subject that, they feel, has previously been regarded with scorn and derision.

Some of the theories are quite interesting. My personal favorite is that Marlowe either was Shakespeare or collaborated with him to write the plays. I’m sure this appeals to me because there’s intrigue and sensationalism. The idea is that Marlowe didn’t die when he is reputed to. Marlowe was a spy, and that’s usually the reason people think he was killed. In this scenario though, it is used to explain some of the discrepancies. Though he was of the same birth as Shakespeare, he had a formal education at University, giving him greater credibility to speak in the voice of the elite. The idea is that in collaboration, Marlowe would have brought the high voice, similar to the one seen in his plays, and Shakespeare the low, the voice of the commoner. Marlowe also could have fled the country and been living in Italy, which was a frequent setting for Shakespeare’s plays, though there is no indication that Shakespeare ever left England.

Just like any of the theories, there are a lot of parallels that make it a possibility. Of course, you have to overlook the fact that Marlowe was dead. A lot of the theories seem to be drawn from coincidences, and, really, if you’re looking hard enough, you could probably find them in the life of any given person. Maybe I was Shakespeare.

I like to think that Shakespeare wrote his own plays. Sure the records connecting the man to the work are dubious at best, but it was 400 years ago, and paper isn’t the most durable of materials. Even in a society that keeps fastidious records (and Elizabethan England doesn’t strike me as one), things get lost, especially over time.

Maybe, even coming from an illiterate or barely literate family Shakespeare read a lot. You don’t need a formal education to be a genius; in fact, education often hinders genius. Contact with nobility surely came through his time as an actor and playwright, whether or not he had it before.

One of the geniuses of Shakespeare is that he wrote for a company, bringing out upon the strengths of each player, and he wrote as an actor. Perhaps his work was more of a collaboration within his company than a solitary work, but he could still easily have been the lead author.

The fact of the matter is we’re not ever going to know the truth. There are too many things we can’t know, no matter how much we might want to. Even if more information is uncovered (and how likely is it that something substantial will be at this point?) it’ll be questioned by someone.

So why not let Shakespeare be Shakespeare? The name, with the recognition and tradition it carries, is more important than the man behind it. The plays were performed and published under the name of William Shakespeare; his contemporaries recognized his authorship, and they’re remembered as Shakespeare’s plays. Do we need more than that?