James Shapiro on why skeptics believe someone other than William Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.
There are more than a few very famous Shakespeare skeptics. Who is the most remarkable or disappointing among them?
Smart people often think and say dumb things, so I don’t find it remarkable that Henry James, Helen Keller, Mark Twain—and more recently Supreme Court Justices Scalia and [John Paul] Stevens—have come out against Shakespeare. Most disappointing? Freud, but he would be the first to admit that when you take big swings you often strike out.
Who are the leading candidates proposed as the true authors of Shakespeare’s work?
For the first 70 years of the controversy the leading candidate was Sir Francis Bacon. Since the 1920s the Earl of Oxford has had the most support, though Christopher Marlowe is currently rising in popularity. But there are over 50 others, all with avid supporters, many with Web sites. And a new candidate surfaces every year or two.
How has the Internet given this controversy new life?
By the 1970s the authorship controversy was on life-support, and the anti-Stratfordians admitted as much. But the Internet has breathed new life into the movement. Wikipedia provides a level playing field, not to mention a bitter battleground for opposing sides. If you look into the controversy online you’ll discover that anti-Stratfordians are way ahead of mainstream scholars in promoting their cause.
Why is the authorship question taboo among Shakespeare scholars?
For most scholars, “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” doesn’t register as a serious question; it’s like asking a lunar scientist whether the moon is made of green cheese. What’s to discuss? Also, nobody ever got tenure writing about the authorship question.
What are the major arguments against Shakespeare being the author of the plays?
First, that there’s not a lot of evidence about Shakespeare’s life, education, and learning, and even less evidence linking him directly to the plays. If you look at all this from a modern perspective, it certainly looks suspicious. That leads to the second major argument, which is also grounded in a modern perspective: that there must have been some kind of conspiracy to cover up the true authorship of the plays. There’s a third argument, and not surprisingly, this too is grounded in how we think about writing today. If we assume that the plays are autobiographical, then the life we find in the works corresponds a lot more closely to those of rival candidates than it does to the life of Shakespeare.