MERCER-GOLDEN: Imagining Shakespearean authorship

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


  • The Anti-Yale

    The current Earl of Oxford was a student a Bread Loaf School of English circa1992 when I was there. He offered a talk one summer evening about the theory that his ancestor, the 17th (?0 Earl, “the Oxford man” not “the Stratford man,” actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

    What was fascinating was not his theory, but the unbroken silence with which Breadloaf’s distinguished faculty (drawn from Ivies and sub-Ivies, and Ox ford itself) greeted the young, balding Earl’s talk.

    Few faculty attended and of them no one engaged him. It is as if the heresy fell stillborn from the Earl’s priviliged lips.

    In the name of loyalty to American egalitarianism (the notion that a glovemaker’s son certainly COULD have written those 37 plays, not an aristocrat) their silence was a form of patronizing, elitist rudeness cloaked in the politeness of indifference in an academic community which prizes itself on intellectual debate.

    I was appalled.

    Paul D. Keane

    M. A., ’97

    Middlebury College

    (Bread Loaf)

  • River_Tam

    > Those who devote themselves to the hapless suggestion that Shakespeare did not write Shakespeare are secret, perhaps unknowing resenters of his cognitive and imaginative power. The greatest of all converts to the Oxford lunacy was Dr. Sigmund Freud, who could not acknowledge that his masterly forerunner had been a rather ordinary young man out of Stratford-upon-Avon. The Earl of Oxford, dead before Shakespeare’s last twelve dramas had even been composed, left behind some commonplace lyrics, not worthy of rereading. Those who resent Shakespeare always will be with us; our only response should be to return to the plays and the Sonnets.

    – Harold Bloom, who is a terrible human being but nevertheless correct on such matters.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” . . . who is a terrible human being . . . ”

    Judge not lest ye be judged.


    • River_Tam

      Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?

  • The Anti-Yale

    “Ye shall know them by their fruits.”

    By their FRUIITS. (Not by gossip, not by hearsay, not by rumor, not by innuendo, not by political fashion.) Unless one saw something with their own eyes, all else is filtered through the needs of the storyteller’s emotional repertoire, i.e, it is not factual.


    • River_Tam

      Do his execrable writings on Mitt Romney quality as his fruit? For my part, I am disinclined to believe Naomi Wolf’s telling of her story – I suspect she liberally borrowed from the experiences of other women with Professor Bloom.

      (edit: also, his opinion on Harry Potter pretty much puts him in Death Eater category for me).

  • The Anti-Yale

    Now with names waving in the wind we have descended into gossip. I refuse to participate.

  • Branford73

    “I thought I’d write something about the question I enjoy being asked least as an English major”

    Ouch. Why write about a question people rarely ask you, even if you enjoy the rarity of the question?

    Are there editors at YDN who read articles accepted for publication? Or at least the lead paragraphs? Even a mere PoliSci major such as I can recognize a misplaced modifier.

  • The Anti-Yale


    Harold Bloom has done more for the LDS religion than the Broadway play “The Book of Mormon”. He put their sacred book among the 350 works he chose for “The Western Canon.”

    What Bloom does in his piece on Romney and Mormonism is expose some of the bric-a-brac of theology which decorates the interior of most LDS believers’ skulls.

    As a citizen, I want to know what theological contraptions are rattling around in the skull of anyone seeking to be “CEO of [our] America.”


    M. Div. ’80

    • whatwhat

      quoted from Yale12’s comment in the posted article

      “Just because he recognized a religious text’s influence on Western culture doesn’t mean he’s not bigoted against the people who believe the text is holy. I don’t know how you can say a Mormon is unfit for presidential office because of their religion and NOT be bigoted against Mormonism.”

    • River_Tam

      > Harold Bloom has done more for the LDS religion than the Broadway play “The Book of Mormon”. He put their sacred book among the 350 works he chose for “The Western Canon.”

      Plenty of racists think Michael Jordan is the best NBA player of all time.

    • penny_lane

      Religion is only worth knowing about if it would affect how the candidate performs in office. Religion as practiced by Bachman/Perry/Santorum and their ilk is scary to me, because it would affect the way they choose to govern. I am less concerned about this with Romney (though I am concerned by his pandering to the religious right). Judge the man by his actions, not his faith.

      Catholicism was the Mormonism of JFK’s day, after all.

  • whatwhat

    i rest my case.

  • The Anti-Yale

    Read David Brooks op-ed piece in the NYT today.

    I’m a bit troubled by all the “commands” from LDS leaders which Romney’s not so distant ancestors “obeyed”.

    I think it’s this deference to commands and the religious structure which presents them as “divine” which Mr. Bloom is pointing toward in his article.


    M. Div. ’80

  • The Anti-Yale

    There’s no way to know until it happens.

    Who woulda thunk Nixon would go to China or Reagan to the Evil Empire?

    Once a man (or a woman) hits the TOP ECHELON they start thinking “legacy”.

    I just hope Romney’s ain’t “divine.”


    M. Div. ’80


    This article was about Shakepeare many posts ago. But since Shakespeare is about power and human frailty, we’re not too far afield.