Monday, January 29, 2007

The Authorship Issue

Today in the Shakespeare class, a student started in explaining that many experts think that someone else wrote the play we're reading.

I'm always a bit at a loss about what to do when a student goes off on the authorship issue and assert that person X or Y wrote whatever text we're reading. I imagine it's a bit like a student wanting to argue for irreducible complexity in a paleontology class; there's so much important, well-studied science to talk about there that one wouldn't want to spend time talking about what isn't science.

I don't really want to make this enthusiastic and eager student feel bad, but I don't want to take time from our discussion of the first play to talk about authorship issues. It's the age old issue of balancing between telling the class what experts think is important, and being open to other voices or opinions.

This student mentioned on the first day of class how much he loves early modern literature. I'm happy for someone to love this stuff; lots of early modern playwrights wrote really wonderful plays. If Shakespeare had never lived or written, the period would still be a rich source of great drama. Heck, Marlowe and Jonson alone could keep us happy and busy, but add Middleton, Chapman, Beaumont, Fletcher, and on and on, and the wealth of pleasure is almost embarrassing.

I'm pretty sure this student's assertion about the authorship thing came from genuine enthusiasm, but the usual anti-Stratfordians (the people who don't believe some yokel from Stratford named William Shakespeare wrote whichever texts are commonly associated with his name) usually have an agenda.

They may believe that a yokel without a university education couldn't have written the wonders that are Lear or Hamlet. There's a class bias there, a sense that only someone with a university education could have the sorts of sensibilities we find in those plays. Sometimes people have more at stake, such as the current Earl of Oxford, who, not surprisingly, believes that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, wrote the texts.

Or they may argue that only someone with an intimate knowledge of the court or law courts or whatever specialized field could possibly have written a play set at court or representing a trial. If we read history, though, say Chamberlain's letters or Akrigg's work on the Jacobean court, we realize that dramatic representations of the court are better drama than history. Plays don't represent historical reality any more accurately than television dramas do. They represent dramatic choices.

Anti-Stratfordians, like all of us, pick and choose their evidence, and generally believe there was some sort of grand conspiracy to put William Shakespeare in place as a figurehead for someone too important to be seen as a common playwright. I'm not much of a conspiracy theorist, though, and there seem to be too many early modern people who talk about Shakespeare as the playwright for me to buy easy conspiracy theories. For example, there's Frances Meres' Palladis Tamia, Wit's Treasury, which lists plays he attributes to Shakespeare as well as works by Marlowe (here's a facscimile of a page of text; the Shakespeare stuff is on the upper right side; note that it mentions Love Labours Wonne? That's a mystery! Is it a lost text, or a text we have under another name: future Shakespeareans, if you can find the text, your future is pretty much assured!).

And there are the stories passed on by Ben Jonson, recorded by William Drummond of Hawthornden, including recollections of Shakespeare's wit; Jonson was a competitor of Shakespeare's, and not reticent in criticizing others. I have a hard time believing that Jonson could know Shakespeare and be fooled into believing he were the competing playwright if he weren't. I have an even harder time believing that Jonson wouldn't have spilled the beans if he'd known, especially since Shakespeare and all the supposed candidates for authorship pre-deceased him.

I know no serious scholar of early modern literature who believes that a guy named William Shakespeare didn't "write" the texts associated with his name, and none who believe that any of the texts have come to us pure in the form Shakespeare wrote them. Real authorship questions are complex and interesting, and engage us in learning about textual transmission, the organization and economics of theatrical companies and practices, the organization and economics of printing and stationer's companies. Those authorship questions are well worth taking up class time with because they make us think about our beliefs about "authorship" and the metonymic relationships between names and works and the people we associate with them.

Now how to get that across in class without making my enthusiastic student feel too bad, or make other students think I'm attacking him? That is the question.


  1. I think that you do just what you did here: explain to your other students what this particular student is talking about and the reasons why this theory has gained purchase (a lack of a sense of Shakespeare's personal life or personality, due to a lack of letters, manuscripts, etc.), and why various candidates have been advanced. . . but then suggest that there are fundamentally flawed assumptions here about education, worldliness, class, etc.

    I think it's possible to say flat-out that there's absolutely no shred of evidence that Shakespeare didn't write the plays that bear his name, while still appearing sympathetic to the desire that motivates people to want to know who the "real" Shakespeare is. It might be a useful way of discussing why we care about the personal lives and personalities of the authors we read, and under what circumstances that kind of knowledge helpful to our reading of their works, and under what circumstances it isn't.
    If Oxford or Bacon or whoever wrote the plays we attribute to Shakespeare. . . would the texts of the plays themselves take on different meanings?

  2. I agree... you could even start it with a general question to the whole class, does it matter to them whether or not it was Shakespeare? That has the potential for some interesting discussion (though also great potential to go off on pointless tangents), but it would then let you explain why it matters to particular people, and what the flaws are in their arguments. But you can still emphasize that it's an interesting question.

  3. I had this situation come up with a group of mainly freshmen last year (I wasn't teaching Shakespeare, but they'd all been required to see Hamlet together as part of the quarter-long orientation program, so we talked about it.)

    And it caught me off-guard when an eager student brought up Sir Francis Bacon.

    But after blinking like Nancy Pelosi for 10 seconds, I brought up the fact that some of Shakespeare's plays borrow heavily, or could even be seen as adaptations of even older Greek comedies. It was the natural answer for me because of my theatre and Classics majors. (Plus, it was all I could come up with on the fly!)

    And it did seem to work. My main point was that the issue was even more complex than the Shakespeare conspiracy theories mention, in terms of authorship and originality. But I also wanted to deal with the deification of the plays themselves. They ARE marvelous; I'm not arguing with that.

    But my experience (with both theatre and English majors) is that Shakespeare's plays are kind of like the Holy Grail for them, and that's why it sometimes seems important for them to think about whose name is attached to the grail.

    If you can change the way they view that holy grail, then they're better able to understand why the authorship issue is a) important in different ways than they perhaps realized and b) too big to cover in short discussion. But you can still make the student feel good for being interested in the subject, too.

    But this is coming from a theatre/classics perspective; perhaps it would seem all wrong to an early modernist/Shakespearean?

    In any case, I figure I'll be in the same situation again at some point. Flavia's question about whether the authorship changes the way we see the plays is always what I have assumed I would use -- it's funny that when I actually needed it, it sprang clean out of my memory.

  4. I like the way you've put things in your post and agree with the comments so far, too.

    I wonder whether it might also help to point out that Shakespeare is at the center of this kind of controversy precisely because he's so central, so prestigious, and so socially and economically valuable; it's really as though everybody wants a piece of him!

  5. It's been a while since I taught Shakespeare, and I'm not an Early Modernist (rather a drama guy more interested in the most recent century), but when I did teach a 200-level Shakespeare class, I actually devoted the second day of class to it, with the explicit purpose of debunking (so I believe) the many various camps, much like you do here, in some detail. (I think your response, as a response, is spot-on, btw.)

    I would then give a short lecture on Foucault's author-function, which English majors should know about anyway, and underscore that "Shakespeare" is as important as Shakespeare, and that we can spend semesters studying "Shakespeare" without ever needing to know much more about the "actual author" than has been presented in that first full class.

    That usually got it out of their system for the semester, and introduced a bit of necessary theory to boot.

  6. Anything you say will be better than the teacher that once told me I was an 'idiot' for thinking there was a Shakespeare.

    On a side note a group of us were just talking about this with regard to Titus Andronicus and how much we wish we could disown it from Shakespeare 'canon'. Or at least wait to study it until Mel Brooks has done a film verison. ;)

  7. Few realize that Titus Andronicus is actually a Monty Python sketch. How it got smuggled into the Shakespeare canon is a mystery.