Most people assume that the man Shakespeare was the author Shakespeare. Although that is one possibility, it is hardly the only possibility. The Shakespeare plays were written in the late 16th century during the reign of Queen Elizabeth the 1st. That was over four hundred years ago. Much of the evidence that a man from Stratford upon Avon (that is the full name of the town) who was named Shakespeare wrote the plays has been lost in time, if it actually ever existed. To put it another way, the evidence that the man Shakespeare was the author Shakespeare is a bit iffy. Not impossible, but the evidence is weak enough to allow for a lot of questions.
How much evidence connects the author, Shakespeare, to the man Shakespeare, who lived in the town of Stratford Upon Avon? There are three small bits of evidence that he was. First, he had the right name, but that does not clinch the argument. Many people have the same or closely related names. Also, the man Shakespeare actually spelled his name a little differently than the author. Second, the man Shakespeare does seem to have worked in the same theater that produced most of Shakespeare’s plays. Third, in Shakespeare’s first Folio which was published after the man Shakespeare’s death, his name is associated with the town Stratford upon Avon. That’s it. There are not layers on layers of evidence that the man and the author were the same person, just those few bits. As I mentioned, there is evidence that someone going by the name Shakespeare was working in the theater at that time, but little to connect that person to the author Shakespeare.
Once I got hooked on this subject, I read a short list of books and watched a few documentaries. These were very convincing. I was first convinced that the Earl of Oxford was the true author and then change my mind when I read about someone else. However, as you will read below I have since settled on one person, not because there is a lot of evidence for him being the author, but because he is the only one for which there is anything close to direct evidence.
The books I read are as follows:
Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays? By William D Rubinstein
This is an excellent book that gives an overview of the eight main authorship contenders, including the man Shakespeare. The book provides reasons for considering each contender and reasons not to.
Shakespeare By Another Name by Mark Anderson
There is some great history told in this book. It puts forth the idea that the real Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford. I found the whole possibility fascinating, but the parts were the writer interprets Shakespeare’s plays as biographical information on the Earl of Oxford went over my head.
The Apocryphal William Shakespeare by Sabrina Feldman
This book explores some interesting questions about Shakespeare.
Shakespeare Beyond Doubt? Edited by John M. Shahan and Alexander Waugh
This book shows, and convinced me, that there are reasons to doubt the authorship of Shakespeare. It does this without trying to advance any other person as the being the real Shakespeare.
Why Shakespeare Was Shakespeare by Stanley Well
This book will try to convince you that the man Shakespeare was also the author. Unfortunately, the book does not directly answer any of the problems put forth by the doubters. And the author even accused the doubters of being snobs for not thinking someone like the man Shakespeare could be the author; very unfortunate because there are good reasons to doubt, even if it does turn out that the man Shakespeare was also the author.
I also watched several fun documentaries:
In Search of Shakespeare with Michael Wood. This is a great documentary. If you like history, you will enjoy this and can watch it on YouTube.
If you have Amazon Prime, you might try these two fun documentaries: “The Shakespeare Conspiracy” and “Last Will. & Testament”
I am convinced of several things after reading these books and watching the documentaries. First, there is an authorship controversy and the mainstream Shakespeare scholars should accept that. Second, all the alternatives to the man Shakespeare have just one convincing fact going for them; the alternatives had advanced educations, and they had traveled to Italy. But third, despite the lack of evidence for Shakespeare’s education or that he traveled, the evidence that Shakespeare wrote the plays is just as good as the evidence that any of the other alternatives wrote the plays. There is no direct evidence that any of the alternatives were the real Shakespeare, but there are a few, small bits for the man Shakespeare, and those problems associated with the man Shakespeare being the author Shakespeare can be explained away.
I would not be surprised if someone other than the man Shakespeare was someday discovered to have been the actual author. But even though I believe that, I can think of many ways that the problems associated with the man Shakespeare can be explained away. And he is the only person for whom there is direct evidence that he is the author. True, there is not much direct evidence, and that evidence is thin, but it is all we have.
Here are some of those problems and ways that they can be explained:
First, his supposed lack of education. There is no evidence that the man Shakespeare ever received any education, although it is assumed he attended his hometown grammar school and after that had no other education. It is true that we have no knowledge about his education, but that does not mean he had none or that his education was limited to grammar school. He could have had tutors. If he was marked as an exceptionally bright student, he might have been sent somewhere to get a better education. And if he was an extremely smart individual, he could have been self-taught. We have absolutely no idea what the man Shakespeare was doing for the first eighteen years of his life.
Second, he is thought to have never traveled to Italy, where many of the Shakespeare plays have their setting. Once again, we lack evidence that he went to Italy, but that does not mean he did not go there. The truth is we just don’t know.
Third, that he owned no books. If the man Shakespeare was also the author, we could reasonably expect that he would have owned a few books, which would have been valuable property. His will, however, does not mention anything about books. This can be explained if he had given his books away before he died.
Fourth, his children’s lack of education. It does seem odd that someone so learned as the author Shakespeare, who clearly would have valued education, would not see to the education of his daughters. However, educating girls was not the norm at that time, although it was not unheard of. Because he traveled so much, to educate his daughters, he would have needed the cooperation of his wife, maybe that of his parents and in-laws, and perhaps even the town. If they saw no need to have his daughters educated, it would have been hard for Shakespeare to make sure it was done. Also, we cannot discount the possibility is that Shakespeare might not have been a good father and just didn’t care if they were educated.
Fifth, the lack of correspondence between the author Shakespeare with other authors and intellectuals. We have no correspondence from the man Shakespeare, period, which is odd for a prolific author. But this is true for the alternatives too. No alternative to the man Shakespeare has left correspondence dealing with any of the works in the Shakespeare canon. If one of the famous, well to do alternatives, such as Bacon or De Vere, was the actual author, you might expect to find personal correspondence, talking about the plays and the theater, but we have nothing like that.
Six, why did the man Shakespeare and the author Shakespeare spell their names different if they were the same person? The man Shakespeare, in the few official documents we have about him, spelled his named differently than the spelling I have been using in this article. The man Shakespeare actually spelled his name Shakspeare, without the “e” after the “k.” It is thought by some that the name Shakespeare is a pseudonym and is an allusion to the Greek myth of Athena, who shook her spear. Maybe, and If that is true, the man Shakespeare could have used that pseudonym too, if he liked the idea of being associated with Athena. It would be just like him to think of such an association.
Seven, there is no tradition in the man Shakespeare’s family that he was the author Shakespeare or even a writer. This might be the most damning point. It seems like there would be some type of tradition passed from generation to generation about their famous relative. But the author Shakespeare was not necessarily famous during his lifetime in his small town of Stratford upon Avon. The plays were put on in London, which was three days from his town. So while he was certainly known to people in London (where the plays were put on) who went to the theater, that does not mean the news got to Stratford upon Avon. Also, being a playwright was not a respectable occupation. In fact, just decades after Shakespeare’s death, plays were outlawed in England when the Puritans came to power because the Puritan element in English society did not approve of the theater. So it might have been that no one in the family wanted to admit that he was a playwright, and he was eventually forgotten by them.
So who was Shakespeare? There is no absolute certainty on that point, but it is just as easy to believe that the man from Stratford upon Avon was the author as it is to believe any of the alternatives were.
How anyone can profess to find animal life interesting and yet take delight in reducing the wonder of any animal to a mass of fur or feathers? -Joseph Wood Krutch, writer and naturalist (1893-1970)