"This above all: to thine own self be true.” – William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Scholars and intellectuals have argued the subject for centuries. Was William Shakespeare, the man from Stratford-upon-Avon, the “true” writer who penned the scope of work attributed to him? Or, was the name “Shakespeare” merely a cloaked facade to shield the identity of the works’ authentic author? Have we all been “played”?
Most Shakespearean scholars hold to “The Stratfordian Argument,” which maintains that William Shakespeare did indeed birth the breadth of plays and sonnets we associate with him. Those who believe William Shakespeare did not pen the work are called Anti-Stratfordians; these scholars believe that Shakespeare’s “life doesn’t link up to his work.” They hold that only an aristocrat would have been able to pen such articulate and elevated prose.
The debate rests on one idea: that, quite literally “you are what you write.” Anti-Stratfordians ask, “How could an untutored, untravelled glover’s son from hickville understand kings and courtiers, affairs of state, philosophy, law, music—let alone the noble art of falconry?” But does writing really hold hidden clues about one’s private, personal life?
Professor Alan Nelson of U.C. Berkeley, has an answer.
"The reason there was an argument that it's not this man (Shakespeare) is that for all we know about this person, the legal documents don't provide a personality. In the general public, there's this enormous desire to know this personality, and therefore his works get attributed to people whose lives are better known. There's a wealth of legal documents about the man from Stratford (tax and property records, mention as a poet in manuscripts by his contemporaries, for example). The problem with the pieces of evidence is they don't create a personality. They create a poet, a playwright, but not a personality. Literature is imaginative. It's not autobiography.”
How do we know Shakespeare was Shakespeare? Is the real Shakespeare “to be,” and/or “not to be?” Well, that “question” has been answered by Stratfordian literary historians through several categories of evidence:
1. The name "William Shakespeare" appears on the plays and poems. Good evidence that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems bearing his name is the fact that his name appears on them as the author.
2. William Shakespeare was an actor in the company which performed the plays of William Shakespeare. From 1594 on, the plays of William Shakespeare were performed exclusively by the acting company variously known as the Lord Chamberlain's Men (1594-96, 1597-1603), Lord Hunsdon's Men (1596-97), and the King's Men (1603-42).
3. William Shakespeare the actor was William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon.
4. William Shakespeare the Globe-sharer was also William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare, the Stratford-born actor, was entitled to append "gentleman" after his name by right of being granted a coat of arms.
5. William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, the actor and Globe-sharer, was the playwright and poet William Shakespeare.
But…what does this all mean? How trustworthy is a name, and what if the Anti-Stratfordians are right? Filmmaker Roland Emmerich explores the Shakespeare authorship debate in his new political thriller Anonymous.
Set in the political snake-pit of Elizabethan England, Anonymous speculates on an issue that has for centuries intrigued academics and brilliant minds ranging from Mark Twain and Charles Dickens to Henry James and Sigmund Freud. Experts have debated, books have been written, and scholars have devoted their lives to protecting or debunking theories surrounding the authorship of the most renowned works in English literature. Anonymous poses one possible answer, focusing on a time when cloak-and-dagger political intrigue, illicit romances in the Royal Court, and the schemes of greedy nobles hungry for the power of the throne were exposed in the most unlikely of places: the London stage. Anonymous opens in theaters October 28, 2011.
- Sobran,Joseph. “Alias Shakespeare. Free Press, 1997.
- Conrad, Peter. “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? By James Shapiro.” The Observer. 3 April 2010.
- I-Chin Tu, Janet. “Alas, Poor Shakespeare!” Seattle Times. 10 October 1997.