At the beginning of Shakespeare at Yale (SaY), a semester-long program designed to showcase the Shakespearean riches we have at Yale (and oh, what riches!), I thought I’d write something about the question I enjoy being asked least as an English major: Did Shakespeare write his own plays?
On the surface, this is a simple question: We accept the validity of the claims made on Shakespeare’s behalf, or we start looking for another authorial candidate.
The problem, unfortunately, is that we imagine authorship differently today than it was imagined 400 years ago. Authorship now is clear cut: You write something, and you own it. Your publisher has a stake in what’s published; you split the profits. But it is your name that appears in big letters at the beginning of the book, play or poem.
Shakespeare’s plays were originally published without his name and continued to be, on and off, for the better part of his career. Later, though before his death, his name was attached to plays we know he didn’t write. As Shakespeare became a more prominent playwright, his work increased in commercial appeal, and so his name became a marketing device. Unless we discover a mythical “Shakespeare” diary, we will have to construct our own narratives of the reasons behind the plays’ publication in various forms.
The story of the plays’ publications is tied not only to the contentious history of whether the plays were ascribed to Shakespeare in their own time, but also to the form in which the plays were presented to the general public. An act of last resort for an acting company going out of business would be selling their scripts to a stationer or printer; otherwise, the texts were closely guarded. Often, play texts were retranscribed from memory by audience members, or an acting company would reconstruct, using their knowledge of their own parts, as much of the play as they could remember. These processes present innumerable opportunities for mistakes and alternative texts to become published gospel.
This pattern explains why the folio and quarto versions of Shakespeare’s plays are sometimes at odds. It also explains why actors and scholars continue to struggle with which version is closest to what would have been performed or what Shakespeare himself intended. We are left with works of genius that came to us through imperfect processes.
For Shakespeare and his contemporaries, collaboration was the norm. We know that Pericles, for instance, was written by Shakespeare and someone else, and we can identify parts that one or the other writer worked on. The stitching between the different parts of the text can be difficult to unravel. Publishing practices, combined with these collaborative writing efforts, led to an even more nebulous sense of authorship.
The good news is that through sophisticated methods of textual evaluation, we can confirm that one writer — the man we call Shakespeare — wrote the majority of the 37 plays ascribed to him. We can identify, in large part, his collaborators. The question becomes, then, not who wrote Shakespeare’s plays, but how and why.
The tradition of ascribing the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays to a man other than Shakespeare is grounded in what I can only call snobbery. During Shakespeare’s lifetime, no one raised alternative authorial claims. A whole slew of plays not written by Shakespeare were added, briefly, to the Shakespeare canon, but it wasn’t until the mid to late eighteenth century that scholars latched onto the notion that someone other than Shakespeare — usually a playwright of better birth or a nobleman — crafted the most famous plays in the world.
But none of the major contenders hold up under scrutiny. Both Christopher Marlowe and the Earl of Oxford died before all the plays were completed and performed; other writers had radically dissimilar writing styles to Shakespeare. What we are left with is the magic of the story of the man who became Shakespeare: a country boy, moderately well-educated, who grew into a wealthy man and the greatest playwright of all time due to his ingenuity and imagination. Shakespeare was impossible to predict, a one-off. His story is one we should celebrate because it represents a triumph of meritocracy — and the fact that history is full of surprises.
I hope as we move into this semester of SaY that we start asking the right kinds of questions about Shakespeare and challenge the traditional ways we read him, no longer reading his plays through the lenses of snobbery or modern publishing practices but, instead, as works that teach us — in the words of Harold Bloom — not only about our humanity, but also about our history.
Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.