In the centuries after the death of William Shakespeare in 1616, comparatively few people have asked the question: Did Shakespeare write his plays?
Amongst those to raise doubts about the authorship of the plays that ‘Shakespeare’ wrote, as many would suggest, the author Mark Twain (famed for his books Huckleberry Finn and the Adventures of Tom Sawyer), remarked:
So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life.. – Mark Twain, Is Shakespeare Dead? (1909)
Mark Twain was not the first to ask this question, and prior to Twain’s essay Samuel Mosheim Scmuker, in his book Historic Doubts Respecting Shakespeare (1853), also raised doubts about whether Shakespeare could possibly have been the sole author of so extensive a body of work*.
37 – The total number of plays written.
154 – The number of sonnets composed.
5 – The number of poems penned.
More recently, a number of individuals, among them famous actors, academics, and writers , have suggested that the plays attributed to William Shakespeare were either not the work of one man or, alternatively, were not penned by Shakespeare at all – a viewpoint that had been held by Charlie Chaplin, a star of the silver screen, who wrote:
I am not concerned with who wrote the works of Shakespeare […] but I can hardly think it was the Stratford boy. Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude. – Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography (1964).
Arguments Against Shakespeare’s Authorship
So why do so some people suggest that William Shakespeare is either not the sole author or, more controversially, not the author of the plays all?
Amongst the many theories forwarded, a few arguments have emerged. Although by no means an exhaustive list, these include:
Theory 1 – As an individual of common birth, there is no way that such an individual would have the necessary grasp of languages, the classics, political theory, and history, necessary to write such works, whereas a high born and educated gentleman would.
Theory 2 – Given the sheer number of plays, poems, and sonnets, it would be impossible for a single individual to produce so extensive a body of work.
Theory 3 – Linguistically and structurally, it has been suggested that both the language (lexicon) and writing style is far too varied, and would therefore point to a number of authors – and not necessarily including Shakespeare.
Theory 4 – There is too little contemporary documentation linking Shakespeare to the plays and writings of associated to the ‘Bard’. It cannot therefore be conclusively shown that Shakespeare is the author.
The Other Candidates
If, as some have suggested, William Shakespeare is not the author of the plays (and poems) that bear his name, who did? To support this argument, a number of individuals have been suggested as possible authors, including Queen Elizabeth I, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, and Sir Francis Bacon, to name but a few. Whilst many other potential authors have been suggested, WHY these particular individuals?
Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
It is suggested that Elizabeth I’s considerable learning, grasp of languages, politics, the classics, and rhetoric, typical of the humanist education Henry VIII had insisted she receive, social taboos against female authors meant that Elizabeth I had to conceal her identity.
To do so, so this argument goes, William Shakespeare was in effect a cover story for the Queen, and therefore merely pretended to be the author.
Edward de Vere (1550-1604)
One of the more complicated theories, it is argued that the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the true author behind the plays.
To support this view, amongst other evidential offerings, it has been suggested that Ben Jonson, a contemporary of William Shakespeare, stated that ‘Shakespeare’ had died in, or just prior to, 1605 -just one year after the death of the 17th Earl, but 11 years before Shakespeare died in 1616.
It has also been suggested that, in support of this, Shakespeare’s death was not remarked upon by notable Elizabethan writers and scholars – a fact which, according to this particular theory, would seem at odds with the fame that would be accorded to so prominent a playwright, and poet.
Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626)
Thought to be hidden throughout the works of Shakespeare, for those forwarding the so-called Baconian theory, and particularly Ignatius Donnelly, it is thought that Sir Francis Bacon, a contemporary authority on ciphers and codes, was the true author whereas Shakespeare, on the other hand, was – as with the theory surrounding Elizabeth I – ‘acting’ the part of author.
In an attempt to support this, it has been suggested that Sir Francis Bacon left hidden clues in the form of codes and ciphers throughout ‘his’ plays which reveal that he alone, and not Shakespeare, is the real author.
Arguments in Favour of William Shakespeare
Whilst some have suggested that the plays Shakespeare wrote were in fact the work of another individual, for many scholars and Shakespeare enthusiasts alike there is little doubt that William Shakespeare was the author of each of 38 plays, in addition to his other literary offerings.
To support this view, although by no means exhaustive, the following arguments have been made:
Shakespeare, although a commoner, had received a sufficiently good education that included subjects such the classics, rhetoric, history, and Latin grammar, in order to be able to write such literary works.
The majority of the plays bear his name on the title page, including subsequent editions of the same play, albeit with some variation (such as Shake-speare instead of Shakespeare, for example).
The Shakespearean plays were performed by a company of actors variously known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1594-96), Lord Hunsdon’s Men (1596-97), Lord Chamberlain’s Men (1597-1603), and finally the King’s Men 91603-42). Shakespeare was a central member of this company.
In 1610, and in a publication with the title The Scourge of Folly, John Davies’ poem ‘To our English Terence, Mr Will. Shake-speare’, clearly identified William Shakespeare as a playwright – the word Terence referring to an ancient Roman playwright of that name.
With regards to the deeds to the Globe Theatre, there is documentation that proves that the William Shakespeare named on the deeds, and the William Shakespeare who appears in the Stratford-upon-Avon baptismal record of 1564, are one and the same person.
The suggestion that either Queen Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Bacon, or the 17th Earl of Oxford authored the plays are, to those supporting the view that Shakespeare is the author, deeply flawed.
Opposing Views and Further Sources
For most Shakespeare enthusiasts and scholars alike, the suggestion that William Shakespeare is not the author of the plays and poems attributed to him are wholly incorrect. Therefore, to question did Shakespeare write his plays, the answer would be a very definite YES.
On the other hand, for those individuals and organisations who suggest otherwise, the 38 plays, 154 sonnets, and 5 poems attributed to William Shakespeare were in fact not written by Shakespeare at all (or only in part at most), and a number of other possible candidates/authors have been suggested instead of Shakespeare.
Unsurprisingly, there is little agreement between these two views. As such, the views expressed above highlight just a few of the arguments, and counter arguments, that have been made. But, if you would like to know more, some further web sources are provided below, as well as a wealth of useful information upon the life, and work, of William Shakespeare on available on this website.
The question of whether Shakespeare wrote his plays is just one of the topics explored on the site. Read more facts about Shakespeare via the menu at the top of this page, or if you are new to Shakespeare we can recommend the complete list of Shakespeare plays, our comprehensive timeline of the Bard’s life and works, or our selection of Shakespeare quotes as excellent starting points.