How Many Shakespeares Were There?
On Authorship, Erasure, and the Myth of the Great Solitary Writer
Just before 2016—a year widely regarded as mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but with none of Byron’s charm—came to an end, a new volume of Shakespeare’s plays presented a striking argument about authorship. Shakespeare, Gary Taylor argued in The New Oxford Shakespeare, had likely co-authored Henry VI with Christopher Marlowe. As if this were not enough, the volume listed seven other playwrights—Ben Jonson, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Nashe, George Peele, John Fletcher, Thomas Heywood, and George Wilkins—as co-authors of 14 plays with the Bard.
Taylor, who is the Oxford Shakespeare series’ editor, had long expressed reservations about how critics continually idolized and reimagined Shakespeare’s identity to suit the shifting needs of new eras; in Reinventing Shakespeare in 1989, he argued that “Shakespeare was a star, but never the only one in our galaxy.” Beyond this, in Elizabethan England, playwrights often worked together, not unlike how screenwriters today may collaborate on a script. But The New Oxford Shakespeare’s claim that the Bard had certainly collaborated with specific other playwrights, based partly on stylistic analysis, took these basic arguments a step further.
Certainly, the idea that Shakespeare did not write all of his plays by himself is hardly new—indeed, the anti-Stratfordians, who argue that a person as supposedly unspectacular as Shakespeare was could not have written such extraordinary and vast plays, have contended for centuries that there is at least “reasonable doubt” that the Bard penned the works attributed to him. And anti-Stratfordianism has long been curiously widespread. Charlie Chaplin, perhaps revealing an ironic classism, famously argued that it was “inconceivable” that “a farmer’s boy” could have written Shakespeare’s cosmopolitan plays. “Whoever wrote them had an aristocratic attitude,” the Tramp said. Mark Twain went so far as to argue not only that Francis Bacon had written Shakespeare’s plays but that the philosopher-scientist had left a coded signature, FRANCISCO BACONO, in the First Folio, as Twain informed people at a dinner in January, 1909 and, that same year, in a book on Shakespeare’s authorship.
In 1987, the writer Charlton Ogburn brought the controversy to no less than the US Supreme Court, where Justices were asked to decide whether or not Edward de Vere—one of the more notoriously implausible candidates, given his death in 1604—had written the plays. (They ruled, to Ogburn’s chagrin, against Mr. de Vere.) Because we know so little of Shakespeare’s historical identity, he has become a canvas for conspiracies; the most extreme anti-Stratfordians, who are rejected even by most other anti-Stratfordians, braid the enigma of Shakespeare’s identity to anything from radical attempts to politically control England through literature (as suggested by that epitome of unhinged ideas, Alex Jones, in an Esquire interview) to a surreptitious ploy by the Jesuits (as proposed by Harold Johnson in 1916, who suggested, ambitiously, that the Jesuits wrote both Shakespeare and Bacon).
To be sure, anti-Stratfordianism—even when it does not involve conspiracies—tends to be looked down upon in academia, and it does not seem a desperate swipe of Occam’s razor to suggest that maybe Shakespeare really just was a brilliant playwright from a humble background. If anything, it’s an old pernicious classism that won’t die to assume someone from a lower socioeconomic position must produce “low” art in turn. Many great writers have struggled and created work that seems all the more remarkable for the circumstances they produced it in. (The broader argument that Shakespeare could not have written about worlds he did not travel to certainly makes one want to look at Tolkien’s passport.)
I myself am a Stratfordian with an open mind. But the fact that The New Oxford Shakespeare so casually and definitively listed Shakespeare as a co-author is provocative and intriguing, all the same. And all of this raises larger, older questions: what does it really mean to say that someone has authored a text? Is it fair to use stylistic and textual analysis to determine authorship? Is anyone, in a larger sense, truly the “single” author of any text? Is the author a stable idea, or forever in flux?
In many ways, perhaps particularly in the West, there is a desire to put the idea of simple authorship on a pedestal. The author is sacred, singular, reified. There is something monotheistic about this idea of the single author-creator; there is something of the primacy of the individual one may see in Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. We write our own work, of course, but writing, and art more broadly, is often collaborative at some level: our all-too-often-unacknowledged editors, our readers who make substantial suggestions, the writers we channel or even borrow from. (It’s fitting that in film, deft editing—meaning editing we do not notice—is called “the invisible art.”) Sometimes, our languages all blur—what I wrote, what I read, what she suggested I write, old diaphanous words from sepia memories. Sometimes, who wrote what, even in a writer’s mind, becomes unclear and dusky because we are always a part of so many conversations as readers, listeners, rememberers, forgetters. Authorship can be obvious, when we don’t have Shakespearean doubts about the identity of a writer, yet it is also often murky, dream-dim, near-far as the words we speak in memories.
It’s no revelation that this model of absolutely sole authorship is an oversimplification, if not a fiction, yet we frequently want to believe in it, all the same. Shakespeare seems lesser if he becomes a co-author. Attributing the Iliad and Odyssey to Homer is problematic; yet we often do, anyway, as it seems to make things simpler and, perhaps subconsciously, more correct: Homer should have composed it, the argument implies, whether or not he did. T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land—but so did Eliot’s wife, Vivienne, and Ezra Pound, whose edits were substantial. Ghostwriters truly become ghosts: Tony Schwartz, not Donald Trump, wrote The Art of the Deal—indeed, Trump’s near-illiteracy almost precludes his writing it—and even has a byline on the cover, yet many people who know it was ghostwritten subconsciously brush aside this fact and assume, with no sign of cognitive dissonance, that Trump is, indeed, still the writer. (Trump himself, as Schwartz has noted, ironically does this himself.) The popular YouTuber Zoella recently became the target of condemnation due to the popularity of her novels, with commentators arguing that the simplicity of her books was causing a “decline in children’s reading age”—yet Zoella’s (whose haul videos I unashamedly watch) novels are ghostwritten, so who, technically, is really being condemned? Many people—and I have been guilty of this—are reluctant to accept the possibility that Shakespeare’s so-called “bad” quartos—simpler, and I would say inferior, versions of certain plays, like Hamlet—may be indications of the Bard having written a bad draft. Instead, we are often more likely to claim the quartos were copied poorly or desirous to believe that “better” versions, like William Henry Ireland’s famous forgery of a trove of manuscripts “by” Shakespeare, are the “real” versions.
Historically, women who substantially edited or even wrote large portions of men’s texts tended to be left out of authorship discussions altogether, while, in the Americas, it was not uncommon for white racialists to argue that black writers could not even be authors at all, simply due to race. In the 18th century, Francis Williams, the son of free black Jamaicans, became the subject of a notorious experiment to “see if” black people could be “cultivated” as Europeans were; Williams was sent to Cambridge and educated, yet when he returned, writing poems in Latin and speaking with eloquence, the philosopher David Hume dismissed Williams as “a parrot,” arguing that a black man could not really be the author of ideas, much less texts, due to then-widespread racist theories of racial differences. The aboriginal people of Australia, who had been living in the continent long before the Dutch and English, were removed entirely from the possibility of artistic creation when the Europeans traveling there described Australia, prior to colonization, as “uninhabited.” Even the limited romantic notion of authorship is more limited than it may first appear, when those holding most of the power in a culture attempt to decide whether or not certain classes and groups even qualify as authors to begin with.
Translation deepens this conversation. When we translate texts, we are also translating an author; the translators become part of what they translate, and some linguistic effects can never be reproduced in another language. We all implicitly know that reading a translation is not the same as the original, but we are also, in a sense, reading a different author entirely—one who seems remarkably like the original, perhaps, but who is nonetheless distinct. If we only read an author in translation, we may come away with a vague sense, a suspension of disbelief, that these translations really are the author’s words—and, in a sense, they are, but we are really reading a kind of marvelous collaboration between author and translator.
And when polylingual, exophonic writers make the choice to work in a second- or third-language, as Nabokov and Conrad famously did, something similar happens: they may be forced to think and create differently to let their language settle into the new shapes, the new molds, of this tongue. The Nabokov and Conrad who wrote in English are the same writers who did not, yet they are arguably distinct in a way, all the same, and to conflate them is to erase how powerfully language can affect how we write and think; we may become different writers in different languages. “My private tragedy,” Nabokov wrote in “On a Book Entitled Lolita,” bemoaning American readers who had never read him in Russian, “is that I had to abandon my natural language, my natural idiom, my untrammeled, rich, and infinitely docile Russian tongue for a second-rate brand of English.” Grief begets language; language, the words we have lost and recovered in dreams, begets grief. “It is easier to write without style,” Samuel Beckett claimed after deciding to write in French; English, the Irish writer thought, was too prone to excess, but French “had the right weakening effect.” Amy Tan tailored her writing in English to be simple enough that her Chinese mother—who, despite her breadth of reading, struggled with her own English—could read it; the Tan that emerged was a quite different writer, on the surface, from the one before, as she herself acknowledged in a charming essay, “Mother Tongue.” As writers, we change as our language does, like reflections in slightly adjusted mirrors. In a poignant essay for The New Yorker, Yiyun Li describes how losing her native language made some of her memories distant, different.
Are we the same writers when our own memories become foreign? When our mirrors become baffling?
Even if it is possible that Shakespeare co-wrote some of his plays, I have concerns with how The New Oxford Shakespeare determined authorship. They did this partly by examining speech patterns, how frequently writers used certain words (even words like “tonight,” as Taylor said,) and comparative textual analysis. Such analysis is unquestionably important, particularly for historical scholarship, as it can shed legitimate concerns in ancient texts that may be forgeries or pseudepigraphs, or in cases where later writers have likely interpolated passages. Indeed, Taylor once dismissed the idea of Marlowe as co-author of Henry VI; textual analysis changed his mind. But despite how advanced this technology has become, its importance comes with dangerous leaps of faith.
Writers certainly have individual stylistic tics and preferences for rhythms and images; it is easy to distinguish much of Gabriel Garcia Marquez from Raymond Carver, and both from Ray Bradbury and Lorna Goodison, and so forth. But sometimes, writers experiment with drastically different styles. I know I enjoy doing so in my more experimental work. Would a computer looking dispassionately at two paragraphs from my novel decide it was co-authored, despite the fact that I wrote all of it? Isn’t trying to determine authorship so rigidly circular, if we are assuming authorship to determine authorship? Taylor himself famously claimed to have discovered a “new” poem by Shakespeare beginning “Shall I die? Shall I fly?” that he found in a collection of manuscripts bearing the Bard’s name, and Taylor justified his attribution to Shakespeare by comparing it to other works by the glove-maker’s son; however, few scholars today accept this attribution, and scholars remain divided on the efficacy of such textual analysis, as misattribution is not uncommon.
Taylor, certainly, was well-aware of such objections when he revealed his findings. “You can’t say anything about Shakespeare without somebody disagreeing with you,” Taylor said in 2016. “But,” he added, “our knowledge of the past increases by debate of this kind.” This, at least, I can agree with and respect.