Home / Shakespeare: Did He or Didn’t He?

Shakespeare: Did He or Didn’t He?

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Well it looks like it’s time to play the academics favourite game again. Did he or didn’t he, that is the question? What a piece of work is Shakespeare, how noble in style. How infinite in plot devices, and unlikely to be the work of William Shakespeare.

But he, ill suited to strut before the wanton academics eye, a glover’s son, scarcely of a class that could do not but descant upon their own illiteracy, cheated by nature of style, wit and position, ill suited for the title of literary master, must therefore be impostor and never writ those fine upstanding words.

Oh what peasants, rogues and slaves are they that do suggest such drivel! But they are so o’er steeped in blood they can no longer turn back. Oh for a muse of fire to ascend the brightest heaven of invention, than might they have an original idea.

Plots have they laid, inductions dangerous, to set us and William in deadly hate the one against the other. Their drunken prophesies state that Bacon or now Sir Henry Neville must Will’s plays be written by.

A plague upon all their houses. Alas, poor academics, I know their type too well. Sent before their time into this world scarce half made up, with hearts so dry and dusty, that emotions recoil from them, and their only joy is to make misery for others. In this world of pleasure and content, since they cannot play the hero, they are determined to play the villain.


The latest entry into the pointless-idiocy exercise of proving that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays he wrote comes from two folks, Brenda James and William Rubinstein, who have written a soon-to-be-published book called The Truth Will Out: Unmasking The Real Shakespeare. In their oh-so-cutely titled book they claim that the above-mentioned Sir Henry Neville had to have written the books.

Their proof: all the references to his family in the histories, and that only a courtier such as himself would be able to describe the different geographies of Europe and the political intrigues at court. In other words that guy William Shakespeare just wouldn’t have moved in the right circles to be able to write what is attributed to him.

Well that’s a good one. Snobbery as an explanation as to why Shakespeare couldn’t have written any of his work: he was only the son of a Glover after all, and what do they know? Now to give James and Rubinstein some due, literacy was nowhere near as common then as is now, and a knowledge of foreign geography was limited.

However, all our biographical information of Shakespeare suggests that he was an educated man. As for his insights into court politics, and the incidences of families appearing in his plays, that is easily answered as well. They both revolve around the fact that in order to survive he would have had to solicit the patronage of people in the court for financial backing.

What better way to butter up a potential patron, than promising to immortalize his family by including them in the plays? (In fact the characters of Banquo and his son Fleance in Macbeth were ancestors of the King James 1st of England.) To be able to secure patronage, one would have to know as much about the intrigues in the palace as would any courtier&#8212how else would you know who was safe to approach for money and who not?

I also wonder at their assumption that, in order to write anything, the author would have had to have first-hand experience of the circumstances. How many mystery writers have actually killed someone? How many horror writers actually know a vampire? If we were to follow their line of reasoning, there would be no such thing as fiction anymore, simply reporting on what we’d seen in our lives.

” Neither side seems to give much credit to the artistic imagination: Whoever wrote Shakespeare’s plays… clearly rejoiced in a very large artistic mind capable of dramatizing a huge range of classes, experiences and places. No single person could possibly have had first-hand experience of all this.” Kate Taylor “The Globe and Mail” Wednesday Oct. 12th 2005.

Shakespeare’s histories are full of glaring inaccuracies, ones designed to throw the current monarch in the best light possible, which only furthers the case in favour of the artist trying to sustain himself through the patronage of the court. He had access to the histories that had been written at the time, and there was plenty of travel between the continent and England in those days.

How difficult would it be for Shakespeare to pick up information about a variety of countries from sailors and traders he would meet in the bars down by the docks where the play houses were? Where else would such fanciful elements of sea stories like The Tempest have evolved if not from the mouths of sailors?

I find it easier to visualize a man of Shakespeare’s class being able to imagine and recreate scenes at court, than a courtier being able to recreate the bawdy speech of the street that is predominant in all of his plays. Yes artistic imagination works both ways, but going down the class scale is far more traumatic than faking your way up, for all involved.

None of the past theories have stood the test of time and popular sentiment. We don’t hear very many people mentioning Sir Francis Bacon anymore, or even postulating that Chris Marlow wrote Shakespeare’s plays. (The fact that Marlow was dead before Romeo and Juliet was produced seems to have put a crimp in that theory.) So even if this new theory gains some notoriety, I don’t foresee it ever knocking Will off his pedestal.

Until someone comes up with an original folio signed by someone other than William Shakespeare (and not in ballpoint pen either), most of us will just keep on believing that the man from Avon was the one and only writer of the whole works. Nobody has provided sufficient proof of anybody else’s credentials to even seriously erode that belief. All the world’s a stage, and Will has written the best lines for it.
Edited: PC

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • I find it interesting that all those who claim Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare often cite the question of how a glover’s son from Stratford could be literate and understand the upper strata of society enough to portray it.

    But they never seem to ask the more pertinant question of how someone from the “nobility” like Sir Henry Neville could ever paint an accurate portrait of the life, cant and experiences of the lower class, which utterly permeates most of Shakespeare’s work. The distance from the upper strata to the lower is a much more impassable gap of knowledge then that of the lower (or in Shakespeare’s case, the middle class) simply from experience.

    I think the simple fact is that scholars have chewed over Shakespeare for the last 300 years quite throughly and very few new facts are available to look at …the result is that scholars now are spinning their wheels frantically looking for something to build a reputation on….

  • Now I understand gypsyman – you’re his reincarnation! (grin) Nicely written intro – I enjoy a bit of Shakespeare before breakfast.

    But seriously, I agree entirely with you – it is a textbook case for Ockham’s razor. If the simplest explanation works perfectly well, why complicate it?

  • There also was not in Shakespeare’s day such a divide between occupations — especially for someone involved in the theater, who might have to turn his hand to any task, from driving a wagon to building a set.

    The writer of dialogue needs an ear for it, so that would no more preclude Sir Henry Whatsis from being the writer of “the bawdy speech of the street” than it would Shakespeare being the writer of courtly dialogue. But I think g-man has the right idea — and Natalie encapsulates it perfectly as Ockham’s Razor.

  • Well done, Gypsy!

    Okay, so this issue rears its ugly head again. I studied under a genuine Shakespeare expert at SJU in New York. He believed (and I agree) that most (if not all) of the first folio was written by Shakespeare (who signed his name more than 23 ways, adding to the confusion, but that was common then).


    -Shakespeare used Plutarch as the source for most of his histories. That doesn’t mean he didn’t take liberties.
    -London was like a “free” port in Shakespeare’s time, filled with people from all over “the globe.” Great source of characters and information.
    -He had a decent enough education, and Latin would have been taught as part of his very comprehensive lessons.
    -He earned more than enough money as time went on to pay off his father’s debt, help finance The Globe Theatre, and invest in property in Avon.

    These are just a few items. I’ve never read anything very credible to prove Willie Boy didn’t dip the quill in the ink and write all those wonderful things.

  • How much of this is elitism? Seriously, how much of this is either (A) the very British belief that nobody who is not a noble could possibly be the greatest English anything;


    the very American-academic belief that nobody who didn’t go to college could possibly amount to greatness?

    Just a thought…

  • Alethinos

    Excellent point Dean! Thanks!


  • Um, I think maybe in my last comment what should have been a “B” in parenthesis became a “B” in greater-than, less-than signs?

    Editor? Can you help us, mighty editor sir/ma’a,m?

  • did that take of the problem

  • Nice job, gypsyman.

    People in academia need things to write about, which is why this topic is rehashed from time to time, me thinks.

  • I find it odd that there are numerous theories that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him, but there are no theories that Christopher Marlowe didn’t write the plays attributed to him, or Ben Jonson, or John Webster. Most of these theories also overlook the fact that, back in the day, the theater was considered a vulgar popular entertainment, not the artform we view it as today; Shakespeare himself would have preferred to be known for his serious poetry (not the sonnets). Mostly, I think this is just another attempt to knock Shakespeare off his pedestal because, really, some people can’t tolerate the idea of someone else’s success.

  • Nancy

    Aside from that it’s all water long under the bridge, it’s fun to pick at details to prove or disprove this or that hypothesis: look at the Richard III societies. This sort of mental gymnastics is good exercise, fun, & it keeps enthusiasts off the streets, as long as they don’t get so serious about it they can’t get a life otherwise. Also, for all that social stratification was (some claim) more pronounced than today (but is it? really?), social mobility was still pretty fluid for those with the intelligence, cunning, or drive to go up. Having connections helped, but by no means was a requirement.

  • Kay

    Well, this all looked very interesting, so I got the book (‘The Truth Will Out,’) and now I think that the case for Henry Neville as the author of Shakespeare’s works is extremely convincing. I’d definitely recommend reading it….

  • lord, what fools these academics be…

  • Conspire

    If shakespeare did write his plays then why in his will are there no drafts for his plays? and if he did he was that great becuase in julius ceasar(set well before the birth of “christ”) there is a part that says the clock struck 1. last i check mechanical clocks werent around then

  • daemon

    Shakespeares work has been rippied apart and put together again by conpirithists. And they found out he did not leave a will? If your going to spend time looking over a conspiracy, spend your time more appropiatly and look towards American politics (9/11, assasination of JFK etc).