It has become increasingly popular to question whether or not Shakespeare wrote the majority of the plays attributed to him despite the fact that there is little evidence to suggest he didn’t.
Over at The Weekly Standard, I review a book defending the Bard as author. Many arguments against Shakespeare begin with the assumption that the man of Stratford-upon-Avon could not have written the plays because he lacked the education or experience to do so. But:
While Shakespeare did not attend university, he had an excellent secondary education provided to him by the position of his upper-middle-class father. Stratford-upon-Avon was no London, but it was a bustling market town visited regularly by traveling theater troupes. Many of Shakespeare’s hometown friends went on to serve in positions of prominence in the court and in London. And while it was unusual for a playwright not to have a university education, this might explain some of the early animosity he faced from other playwrights.
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays bear the mark of being written by a professional theater man. The author’s uses of doubled roles (so that 8 to 10 actors could perform a play of some 20 parts) and acute awareness of how long it would take to change costume or “execute a technical effect,” James Mardock and Eric Rasmussen write, would have been of little concern to courtiers like Edward de Vere or Walter Raleigh. Also, many of the plays’ parts seem to be written for actors who were members of Shakespeare’s company, most famously Will Kemp and Richard Cowley.
Others argue that Shakespeare alone could not have written the plays because they are works of genius, and we all know that genius does not exist. To believe in genius, as one respected Shakespeare scholar put it, “is simply to invoke magic.”
But is it? Genius is a slippery, subjective word, no doubt, but it is a useful shorthand for exceptional works or writers, which, in turn, can be debated and qualified.
What’s odd—and this is characteristic of the constructivist approach to literature in general—is that instead of qualifying “genius,” some anti-Shakespeareans, who pride themselves as being hard-nosed rationalists and empiricists, follow the zaniest theories to ridiculous ends to hold on to the theory that genius is an illusion. And instead of arguing that Shakespeare was not a genius, it is argued that he wasn’t even a playwright. There’s no middle ground, it’s all or nothing.
Sounds like a religion, and an irrational one at that.
Some new evidence might come to light at some point, but until it does, it is safe to say that Shakespeare wrote the plays, not Christopher Marlowe (who would have had to fake his death, move to Italy, never return to England to bask in the fame and fortune that were rightfully his), not the second-rate poet and courtier Edward de Vere, nor anyone else.