Who Wrote Shakespeare?
William Shakespeare is the Western world’s most famous playwright – but did he really write the plays and poems that are attributed to him?
There has been controversy over the authorship of the works of Shakespeare since the nineteenth century. The initial impetus for this debate came from the fact that nineteenth century critics, poets and readers were puzzled and displeased when they were presented with the few remaining scraps of evidence about the life of “Shakspere”, as his name was most commonly spelled. The author they admired and loved must have been scholarly and intellectual, linguistically gifted, knowledgeable about the lifestyle of those who lived in royal courts, and he appeared to have travelled in Europe.
These critics felt that the son of a Stratford glove-maker, whose only definite recorded dealings concerned buying property, some minor legal action over a debt, tax records, and the usual entries for birth, marriage and death, could not possibly have written poetry based on Classical models. Nor could he have been responsible for the wide-ranging intellectually and emotionally challenging plays for which he is so famous, because, in the nineteenth century world-view, writers inevitably called upon their own experiences for the content of their work
By compiling the various bits and pieces of surviving evidence, most Shakespearian scholars have satisfied themselves that the man from Stratford is indeed the legitimate author of all the works published under his name. A man called William Shakespeare did become a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the dramatic company that owned the Globe and Blackfriars Theatres, and he enjoyed exclusive rights to the publication and performance of the dramatic works. There are 23 extant contemporary documents that indicate that he was a well-known poet or playwright. Publication and even production of plays had to be approved by government officials, who are recorded as having met with Shakespeare to discuss authorship and licensing of some of the plays, for example, ‘King Lear’.
However, two Elizabethans who are still strongly defended as the true Shakespeare are Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, both of whom would have benefited from writing under the secrecy of an assumed name.
Marlowe’s writing is acknowledged by all as the precursor of Shakespeare’s dramatic verse style: declamatory blank verse that lifted and ennobled the content of the plays. The records indicate that he was accused of being an atheist: denying the existence of God would have been punishable by the death penalty. He is recorded as having ‘died’ in a street fight before Shakespeare’s greatest works were written, and therefore it is suggested that he may have continued producing literary works while in hiding from the authorities.
De Vere was Earl of Oxford and an outstanding Classical scholar as a child. He was a strong supporter of the arts, including literature, music and acting. He is also recorded as being a playwright, although no works bearing his name still exist. However, in 16th century England it was not acceptable for an aristocrat to publish verse for ordinary people, nor to have any personal dealings with the low-class denizens of popular theatre.
To strengthen the case for their respective alternatives, literary detectives have looked for relationships between the biographies of their chosen authors and the published works of Shakespeare. However, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, there was no tradition of basing plays on the author’s own life experiences, and therefore, the focus of this part of the debate has shifted to the sonnets. These individual poems of sixteen lines are sincerely felt reactions to emotionally charged situations such as love and death, a goldmine for the biographically inclined researcher.
The largest group of these poems express love and admiration and, interestingly, they are written to a “Mr W.H.” This person is clearly a nobleman, yet he is sometimes given forthright advice by the poet, suggesting that the writing comes from a mature father figure. How can de Vere or Marlowe be established as the author of the sonnets?
As the son of a tradesman, Marlowe had no aristocratic status; unlike Shakespeare, however, he did attend and excel at Cambridge University where he mingled with the wealthy. Any low-born artist needed a rich patron, and such is the argument for his authorship of the sonnets. The possible recipient of these sonnets is Will Hatfield, a minor noble who was wealthy and could afford to contribute to the arts; this young man’s friendship would have assisted a budding poet and playwright. Marlowe’s defenders contend that expressions of love between men were common at this time and had none of the homosexual connotations that Westerners of the twenty-first century
may ascribe to them.
The Earl of Oxford had no need of a wealthy patron. The object of De Vere’s sonnets, it is suggested, is Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, whose name only fits the situation if one accepts that it is not uncommon to reverse the first and surnames on formal occasions. De Vere was a rash and careless man and, because of his foolish behaviour, he fell out of favour with Queen Elizabeth herself. He needed, not an artistic patron, but someone like Henry to put in a good word for him in the complex world of the royal court. This, coupled with a genuine affection for the young man, may have inspired the continuing creation of poems addressed to him. Some even postulate that the mix of love and stern advice may stem from the fact that Henry was de Vere’s illegitimate son, though there is no convincing evidence of this fact.
SECTION 3 Question 27–40
You should spend about 20 minutes on Questions 27–40, which are based on Reading
Passage 3 below.
Choose THREE letters A – G
Write the correct letters A – G, in boxes 27–29 on your answer sheet.
Which THREE of the following are given as reasons for the arguments that someone else
wrote Shakespeare’s works?
A Shakespeare did not come from Stratford.
B We have little information about Shakespeare’s life.
C We know that Shakespeare did not go overseas.
D Shakespeare went to prison for owing money.
E Shakespeare spoke only the English language.
F Shakespeare’s life appears to have been limited.
G The plays suggest that the writer was familiar with a high-class lifestyle.
Complete the table below.
Choose NO MORE THAN TWO WORDS from the passage for each answer.
Write your answers in boxes 30–35 on your answer sheet
Evidence for Different Authors
[table id=1 /]
Choose the correct letter, A, B, C or D.
Write the correct letter in box 36 on your answer sheet.
The sonnets are useful for researchers because they are
A shorter and easier than the plays.
B all written to the same person.
C more personal than the plays.
D addressed to a lower-class person.
Complete each sentence with the correct ending, A–G, below.
Write the correct letter, A–G, in boxes 37–40 on your answer sheet.
37 W.H. was probably a young man because
38 W.H. could have been Marlowe’s friend because
39 W.H.’s name could have been Henry Wriothesley because
40 W.H. could have been De Vere’s friend because
A W.H. had some influence with important people.
B the poems are addressed to the writer’s child.
C the content of the poems strongly suggests this.
D W.H. was able to provide financial support.
E W.H. had been to Cambridge University.
F W.H. had a lot of high-class enemies.
G the poet may have changed the order of his initials
27 B in any order
28 F in any order
29 G in any order
30 exclusive rights
31 government officials
32 an atheist
33 street fight
35 ordinary people