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.