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Last Updated: Tuesday, 11 September 2007, 11:15 GMT 12:15 UK
Shakespeare: The dossier
Graphic of first collection of Shakespeare's work and a magnifying glass

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

One of literature's great conspiracy theories has new impetus with Sir Derek Jacobi questioning whether William Shakespeare of Stratford really wrote the works associated with him. So what are the arguments for and against this man really being the Bard?

A formal "declaration of reasonable doubt" about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays and poems has been launched by Sir Derek and Mark Rylance, the former artistic director of the new Globe Theatre.

Who, possibly supported by other writers, wrote the works of Shakespeare?
William of Stratford
 55.02% 
Edward De Vere
 21.23% 
Someone else
 23.75% 
7894 answers so far.
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
No new evidence has been uncovered but the debate has reopened as a new MA course on Shakespeare authorship studies is about to start at Brunel University.

The question boils down to Stratford-upon-Avon, home to a man called William Shakespeare who few dispute became an actor in London. The question is, was this same man also the author of such works as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and King Lear?

The debate broadly divides into two camps:
• the anti-Stratfordians, who don't believe Shakespeare penned the plays; and
• the Stratfordians who take the more orthodox line.

So what is the case for and against Stratford?

HISTORICAL DOCUMENTS

FOR STRATFORD: "The reasons we know that William Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the works of William Shakespeare are that his name appeared on the printed editions of the works," says David Kathman, a Chicago scholar who edits a website on the Shakespeare authorship question. "And numerous other people attributed them to him during his lifetime; there is no evidence that anybody at the time attributed the works to anybody else, or that anybody else in literary circles was ever known at the time as 'William Shakespeare'. It's exactly the same kind of evidence found for other poets and playwrights of the time."

Kate Rumbold of the Shakespeare Institute adds: "There's absolutely plenty of documentary evidence that a man called William Shakespeare wrote the plays, based on the title pages and other records of plays and poems. Other authors refer to his name."

AGAINST: "The main issue is the lack of evidence linking Shakespeare of Stratford with the writing of the plays," says William Leahy, who heads the MA course at Brunel. "Every other writer of the time is recorded in some way and there's some evidence to show they are a writer. There's no evidence of Shakespeare as a writer. None of his manuscripts survived. And no correspondence between him and anyone else has survived. No records delineate that he was a writer, but there are about 70 documents that list him as an actor or a money-lender."

Matthew Cossolotto, president of the Shakespeare Oxford Society, adds: "Unlike other writers of the period, not a single manuscript or letter exists in Shakespeare's own handwriting. Nothing survives of a literary nature connecting William of Stratford, the man, with any of the 'Shakespeare' works."

NO UNIVERSITY EDUCATION

FOR STRATFORD: "Shakespeare's background needs clarification, the idea that he was a poor man and a commoner," says Stuart Hampton-Reeves of the British Shakespeare Association. "His father was mayor of Stratford, which was a thriving market town. He came from a decent background and his education at Stratford Grammar School rivalled any education today. It was very intense and thorough." Few aristocrats found literary success, he says, but others with a similar education to Shakespeare, like Ben Jonson, did.

Italian culture and literature permeated all of Elizabethan literature and drama, not just Shakespeare, says Mr Kathman, and there were many sources for any intelligent Elizabethan to use to find out about Italy.

AGAINST: "Irrespective of class he could have had an extraordinary education and an extraordinary knowledge but there are no records to suggest Shakespeare did," says Mr Leahy. He could have gone to Stratford Grammar School but no records exist to prove that and even if he did, it would have been only for six years. The level of learning demonstrated in the plays does not mean he must have been aristocratic but it is more likely that a team of university-educated playwrights were at work.

No evidence exists explaining how William of Stratford acquired the educational, linguistic and cultural background necessary to write the "Shakespeare" works, says Mr Cossolotto.

THE OMISSION OF HIS PERSONAL LIFE

FOR STRATFORD: "He's writing for a London audience, not a Stratford one," says Mr Hampton-Reeves. "He's writing about things they would recognise and be interested in. There were restrictions in the period on addressing present day issues. There was danger in that." Shakespeare's colleagues were arrested frequently and he came close himself, he says. By staging plays in Italy or Verona he could avoid that kind of censure. And there are some personal references - The Taming of the Shrew refers to Warwickshire and an Anne and William appear in The Merry Wives of Windsor. AGAINST: "It's a bit strange that nothing is mentioned about his hometown yet 13 plays are set in Italy," says Mr Leahy. "It's also strange that no books are mentioned in his will and his daughters remained illiterate. Strange that someone so fond of books and learning would have treated his daughters like that. He spent a lot of time living in London and that would seem the perfect opportunity for correspondence with his family but there is no correspondence."

IT WAS EDWARD DE VERE, 17TH EARL OF OXFORD

FOR STRATFORD: De Vere died in 1604, 10 years before The Tempest, says Mr Hampton-Reeves. Oxford's supporters say the plays were published after he died but it's hard to conceive King Lear being written before King James came to the throne in 1603. "Where's the document linking De Vere or anyone else to the plays? It's non-existent. Until the document is put forward that proves a relationship is possible, this will always be a fringe argument." AGAINST: "Many 'Shakespeare' plays contain characters and details that relate directly to [De Vere's] life, creating a strong circumstantial case for his authorship," says Mr Cossolotto. "'Shakespeare' displayed an intimate knowledge of a wide range of subjects, including the law, Italy, foreign languages, heraldry, music, navigation, court manners and intrigues, and warfare. Oxford's known educational background, foreign travels and life experiences match the knowledge base demonstrated by 'Shakespeare' in his plays and poems." De Vere was often praised for the quality of his poetry and plays but there's no record of any plays published in his name.

THERE WAS MORE THAN ONE WRITER

FOR STRATFORD: He collaborated with other dramatists and one or two plays such as Macbeth were written with other authors, says Ms Rumbold. In a way that confirmed he did write the plays because the passages identified as his are not the work of any of the other candidates, like Francis Bacon.

"Plays of that period were often written by many hands and Shakespeare was known to have adapted plays and been brought in to tart up plays that were past their sell-by date," says Mr Hampton-Reeves. "Hamlet was circulating 10 years before Shakespeare turned his hand to it. Henry V and Lear were reworked by him, and he was known to have collaborated with George Wilkins. So it's never as straightforward as saying he wrote all these plays."

AGAINST: "I subscribe to the group theory. I don't think anybody could do it on their own," says Sir Derek Jacobi. "I think the leading light was probably de Vere as I agree that an author writes about his own experience, his own life and personalities."

"My own theory is that essentially Shakespeare was a theatrical entrepreneur," says Mr Leahy. "Some of the texts came into his ownership and he gave them out to others to add to and complete and it was possible he did a bit of this on his own. They were written and re-written and collected together after his death, some which had his name on and some without. It was a business venture by his ex-colleagues."

OTHER ARGUMENTS

FOR STRATFORD: "William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was an actor in the company that performed the plays of William Shakespeare, and was also a sharer in the theatre in which the plays were presented," says Mr Kathman. "To anyone with a logical mind, it follows that this William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon was also the writer of the plays and poems that bear his name. He is the man with the right name, at the right time, and at the right place." His contemporaries knew who he was, and there was never any doubt in the minds of those who knew him. AGAINST: Existing signatures of William of Stratford show he did not even spell his own name "Shakespeare", says Mr Cossolotto. The 1609 Sonnets suggest the author was a much older man, anticipating his own death, and the publisher's dedication refers to Shakespeare as "our ever-living poet", which implies the poet is already dead. There is also no record of any payment to Shakespeare the author.

On his death there was zero response, even from his friends like Ben Johnson, says Mr Leahy, which is strange for such an important writer.


A selection of your comments appears below.

Thank goodness mass media existed to document the rise of The Beatles in 1963 or someone would maintain that a group of commoners from Liverpool could never write music powerful enough to influence popular culture and academe.
Heather Paige Preston, Boone, North Carolina, USA

So much of Stratford-on-Avon is a Victorian inspired tourist trap and is not genuine Shakespeare. It was a marketing ploy by Victorian entrepreneurs so there is no gaurentee that any of it is based on real facts including the authorship of the plays.
Richard Dean, Alcester. England

It was once said "If Shakespeare didn't write them then someone called Shakespeare did". The conspiracy theories, like all such theories, are a bit silly - Derek Jacobi is a great actor but he should know better.
Simon Hawkins, Coventry

What does it matter whether it was William Shakespeare or another - after all, a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.... That this work survives and enriches so many lives is surely the important thing now.
Emma, Aylesbury, UK

At the time playwright Christopher Marlowe was acknowledged to be the "highest mind in the realm".He died in 1593 but there is evidence that his death was faked in the murky Elizabethan underworld. From being entirely absent Shakespeare emerges weeks later in full possession of his powers. Exile in Italy perchance?
Paul, Falmouth

What does is matter who wrote the books? They are great reads regardless of the class or caste of the author. It's a silly argument and we should just appreciate the work.
Sista Najda, Bradford, Yorkshire

I'll stick fast to my view of Shakespeare the author, actor, and poet, until there is proof positive that his works were collaberative efforts by several other individuals. If that ever happens, it won't change my view of the writing... elegant, beautifully crafted, and very entertaining. Until then, 'cry havoc, and let loose the dogs of war', so that they can join the argument and maybe tear out a few chunks of proof? But it could take a long time, if ever, to dig up the answers...
Tom, Manchester, UK

I don't think there will ever be a conclusive answer to this one. There are arguments on both sides. However, even if it is subsequently proven that these works were written by someone else, they will still be known, for eternity, as Shakespearian.
Andrew, Aberystwyth

Shakespeare's been dead a long time. We'll never know. But does it really matter? We have these wonderful words regardless. The Play's the thing.
Di Starr, York, England

The reason that people can't bear to think Shakespeare wrote those plays is because a) they can't bear to think that a mere commoner could have practically invented the modern English language and b) they can't imagine one man doing so much work. Well, first, even poor men can be literary geniuses. And second - he lived in a time where writing a play in a week was a common occurrence - all writers did it. Companies put on a new play a week. Look at the language - it's the same style throughout all the plays, the same verbal tricks, the same rhythms. Look at the themes that run throughout the plays- the themes changing as Shakespeare gets older and his life changes. You can see all the plays are written by the same person, maturing as he does, dealing with old age as he grows older, death and fathers when his son dies. There's no reason why that man writing those plays can't be Shakespeare.
Nona, London




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