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One of the premises of a new film, "Anonymous", due to come out in a couple of weeks, is that Shakespeare's plays were authored by Edward de Vere, instead of by Shakespeare. The producers have also created educational materials arguing that Shakespeare was a fraud.

The notion that de Vere was the author has been around a while, having first been proposed in 1920 by a schoolmaster named J. Thomas Looney.

But what's the evidence? Is there a consensus among historians who've looked into the topic? Were Shakespeare's plays written by Shakespeare, de Vere, or someone else?

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This question came from our site for scholars and enthusiasts of literature.

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    Interesting question but might take a whole book to answer (it has already generated a library's worth). Eg James Shapiro's Contested Will. Might be better to narrow scope by asking whether there is any hard evidence that suggests Shakespeare didn't write them. – matt_black Oct 18 '11 at 5:18
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    @matt_black: Indeed, but one could always point to the consensus of those books, or the scholarly community, on the subject. Establishing that there is a consensus among relevant historians should suffice. – Jivlain Oct 18 '11 at 5:27
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    Via Twitter comes this relevant message: “‘Anonymous’ is a film about how Shakespeare was really a no-talent hack, by the guy who made ‘Godzilla’ & ‘10,000 BC.’” – Konrad Rudolph Oct 19 '11 at 9:57
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    You might be interested in: amazon.com/Contested-Will-Who-Wrote-Shakespeare/dp/1416541632/… – Adam Rackis Oct 20 '11 at 14:21
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    For many people like me, the question is completly irrelevant, because I don't know Shakespear except from the writings. For me, the person who wrote King Lear is Shakespear. What his real name was is irrelevant for me. Of course, for a historian, who tries to know as much as possible about Shakespear, it isn't that irrelevant. For younger authors and their relatives, it is of course important, whether they were real or fraud. Did Lennon write Give peace a chance or somebody else? But Shakespeare is only the person behind the interesting production. It will not change it's meaning. – user unknown Apr 26 '12 at 17:44
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Shakespeare wrote the plays and the arguments that he didn't are mostly based on very implausible assumptions.

I hope I'm not misrepresenting any of the arguments against Shakespeare authorship, but it seems to me they all rely on just a handful of key assumptions. First, that the the plays and sonnets are about the author's life, and not primarily imagined. Second, that they are therefore coded references to the identity and experience of the author. And, third, that Shakespeare didn't have the relevant experience to write the content because he could not have had the necessary range of experiences.

I don't know how easy it is to definitively prove any point one way or the other, but it seems to be a big stretch to assume that an author cannot write fiction from their imagination rather than their life. Moreover it is a very modern assumption that everything is autobiography. According to James Shapiro's review of the evidence (In Contested Will) nobody at all made this sort of assumption about Shakespeare until 1780 at the earliest. And it was decades more before anyone used the assumption to build a case for a different author.

It makes no sense in general to assume that all fiction is really about the author or their experience. Did Thomas Harris have to experience cannibalism or psychopathology to write about Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs? Or did he do some research and imagine the character? How can we judge so long after his life that the author was writing from experience and not the imagination? And if we don't establish that he did, the other assumptions fall down. If the works emerge from the imagination, perhaps based on research, we can't use them to challenge authorship on the grounds the author didn't have the relevant experience. Even the literary evidence backs this up. As Shapiro summarises:

The evidence strongly suggests that imaginative literature in general and plays in particular in Shakespeare's day were rarely if ever a vehicle for self-revelation.

And there is concrete evidence in favour of Shakespeare as the author. Shapiro estimates that there were nearly enough extant copies of Shakespeare's works in London for every household to have one. He was extremely well known. Other writers talked about him and knew him well. No hint of alternative authorship appears in their writings. The plays were written to be performed not published and show many hints of an author intimately familiar with stagecraft (some versions offer stage directions with actors names instead of the characters they play, the sort of slip not likely to be made by a distant author but not unexpected of a fellow actor or director). Many other writers knew Shakespeare (and record their opinions of him) and some collaborated with him. It would require a monumental conspiracy to make sure no hints of another author appeared in these comments (all his collaborators and performers would have needed to be in on the conspiracy for a start).

In summary, unless we are prepared to make a leap of faith that the plays provide clues to the author's experience rather than his imagination, we have no basis to even start to question Shakespeare as the author. None of the other evidence in the plays even makes sense if we can't establish this assumption (and it's hard enough to judge even for authors still living).

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    The plays are not used to support Marlovian theory (but they don't contradict it, and they can support it too). Rather, Marlovians rely on stylometry, the same stylometry that excluded Bacon and DeVere. The reason people say Shakespeare didn't write the plays is because 1. He couldn't sign his name properly 2. his daughters were illiterate 3. his granddaughter said he wasn't a man of letters 4. no books of his provenance are mentioned or found later 5. he has no evidence of education 6. he doesn't speak the languages of the source material. Therefore I disagree. – Ron Maimon Mar 28 '12 at 3:29
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    @Ron: Whoever wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare was a literary genius. If he was a linguistics genius as well, he could have learned the languages of the source material (Latin, Spanish, French, Italian) reasonably easily–I have met somebody who knew 15 languages reasonably fluently and was learning another just for fun. So saying that Shakespeare couldn't have written the plays because he didn't know the languages of the source material is a very feeble argument. – Peter Shor Jun 17 '16 at 20:15
  • @PeterShor: Genius or not, you need access to the sources in Italian and Spanish, and access to schooling to learn these languages. We know for sure that Marlowe was fluent in French, as he lived in France, and wrote about events in France. We know he was fluent in Latin, as he translated Ovid. We have no reason to believe that Shakespeare would have any method to learn Spanish, Italian, French, and Latin, he should have been like Jonson, a self-educated genius with a style unrelated to the mainland. But he's not. He's just Marlowe part II, and that's because he's just a front for Marlowe. – Ron Maimon Jul 30 '16 at 1:48
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    @RonMaimon You assume that Shakespeare could not have written the plays without being fluent in a range of foreign languages or latin. But he was well schooled and that would almost certainly have included Latin. Moreover it is far from being obvious that the plays depend on those sources and that they could not have been written without them. – matt_black Aug 1 '16 at 7:14
  • @matt_black: He was not well schooled, as evidenced by his granddaughter's testimony, his abominable signatures, and his total lack of books (someone looked, and failed to find). There is no evidence of education, other than by working backward from the plays you assume he wrote. What the plays establish is that the author's favorite classical author was Ovid, that he read Italian, French, and Spanish, and that he knew obscure details about Italian locations, their churches, canals, which he couldn't get unless he was there, and he writes just like Marlowe. Obvious conclusion: it's Marlowe. – Ron Maimon Aug 4 '16 at 7:18
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This question has been the subject of a debate for (literally) centuries. Yes, as you mentioned from the film "Anonymous", Edward de Vere was one possible candidate.

Let's start with de Vere. He was the 17th Earl of Oxford. The bulk of evidence seems to be circumstantial, though plausible. Shakespeare was not a nobleman, so he was able to write sharp-witted parody without fear of repercussion e.g. getting exiled or executed for treason against HM Queen Elizabeth I. De Vere was certainly educated and well-versed in music, law, aristocratic sports and classic as well as contemporary Italian culture, which is a big part of Shakespeare's plays. Oxford wrote poetry and prose under his own name, and it was considered very good. If he wrote the plays, they could be interpreted as political satires of Court life and critiques of government. Final facts, which are suggestive but not conclusive.

  • Oxford died in 1604, and the last play was written shortly before that
    EDIT
    This is questionable as a supporting claim for Oxford, as there is much evidence that The Tempest was written approx 1610-1611
  • In 1623, Oxford's surviving family funded the first Shakespeare folio.

In 1920, the book Shakespeare Identified was published. It is the first modern reference to the Oxford theory of authorship.

The other candidate for authorship that I am most familiar with is Christopher Marlowe. Here is a rather focused website devoted exclusively to this subject, The Shakespeare Authorship Trust. Their list of possibilities include both de Vere and Marlowe, as well as Francis Bacon, Roger Manners, Henry Neville, Mary Sidney Herbert, William Stanley, William Shakespeare himself, or even a group theory of authorship, of one or more of that list.

The Shakespeare-Oxford Society (founded in 1957) also lists most of these individuals, as well as a timeline for why and when each was proposed as "the True Bard" and who believed it. For example, Sigmund Freud believed that de Vere was the real author, and came to that conclusion in 1926. Note that the Shakespeare-Oxford Society is

dedicated to... researching evidence that Edward de Vere (1550 – 1604) is the true author of the poems and plays of “William Shakespeare.”

  • I just rejected a suggested edit saying that "the Tempest is agreed by most scholars to have been written in 1610-1611", which would've gone against the point you're trying to make in your first bullet point. Can you fact-check the date of the last play and update your answer if needed please? Thanks! – Adam Lear Oct 23 '11 at 18:04
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    According to Wikipedia, 1610-1611 is the date according to "most scholars", but this dating has been challenged. – Joel Rein Oct 27 '11 at 2:42
  • @AnnaLear I'll check on that as you requested. I know that The Tempest was the shortest of Shakespeare's plays (and my favorite), but that's it off the top of my head. – Ellie Kesselman Oct 28 '11 at 18:12
  • @AnnaLear Done. I edited my answer in response to your comment. I'm not all that convinced that Oxford WAS the author of the plays, actually! – Ellie Kesselman Jan 6 '12 at 19:56
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    The major problem is that deVere's other work survives, and is neither stylistically consistent with the style or the genius of Shakespeare. Further, the idea that someone would hide his authorship of work of such great genius for such essentially trivial reasons (it wouldn't be seditious to publish any Shakespeare work) is laughable. The threat of torture and death is the reasonable answer, and this is the Marlovian answer. Further, Shakespeare cared about literary immortality, and having Faustus attached to the canon would have poisoned that possibility among religious people of Europe. – Ron Maimon Mar 28 '12 at 3:34
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There is no consensus, for example the author of this article claims that Shakespeare wrote the plays:

"The author of Willaim [sic] Shakespeare's plays was William Shakespeare."

Also several persons have been suggested as an author of one or more plays.

"And so, almost every prominent Elizabethan has been suggested at one time or another as the author of one or more of Shakespeare's plays: Ben Jonson, Christopher Marlowe, the Earl of Derby, the Earl of Rutland, the Earl of Southampton, the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh and of course, Francis Bacon."

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    The other authors (other than Marlowe) are just an attempt to make it sound like "anyone could have done it", and this is ultimately because Marlowe is associated with such demonic and masonic type enlightenment stuff, anti-clerical stuff, and wrote blatently anti-Jewish stuff too, that it would be contrary to God and good religion to promote this guy. Of course, as Shakespeare, he is the model of goodness and piety. I don't think this dynamic was lost on Marlowe. The Marlowe Marlowe work was lost until the 19th century, while Shakespeare was alive and well. – Ron Maimon Mar 28 '12 at 3:38
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Based on the preponderance of the evidence, neutrally evaluated, there is no conclusion that can be supported other than that the plays of Shakespeare were written by Christopher Marlowe.

Evidence

The best way to obtain evidence about this is stylometry. The stylometric evidence has been compiled by Farey, and it is found here: http://www.rey.prestel.co.uk . This evidence extends Mendenhall's idea, of using word-length distributions to distinguish authors. Farey used stylometries which were specifically chosen to distinguish Shakespeare from Marlowe (this is one of the most difficult tasks for a stylometry, for reasons that I think are obvious). He shows that in each case where a distinguishing feature is found, Shakespeare's work, if plotted in time, shows a trend, and that Marlowe's work fits this trend. It also conclusively shows that in the overlap region, of 1593 and the years around there, Shakespeare and Marlow are indistinguishable.

There are two plots here: http://www.rey.prestel.co.uk/appx6a.htm

and two more in this wonderful Hoffman prize winning essay: http://www.rey.prestel.co.uk/hoffman.htm

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    The big problem with this theory is that you have to somehow explain away what looks very much like a reference to Shakespeare in Greene's Groats-Worth of Wit, written six months before Marlowe died or disappeared. – Peter Shor Aug 28 '16 at 16:19
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From a historical or literary perspective, this is a fairly unsolvable problem that has been discussed (as others have mentioned) for quite a while. Unless someone uncovers a genuine letter saying "I am not the author of these plays!" I am afraid that people might make arguments, but do so without solid proof. It is commonly known that we know extremely little about Shakespeare's life as a whole, so we are going to know less about this.

From time to time, "anti-stratfordians" have put forth various possible "real" Shakespeares, namely: Bacon, Marlowe, and de Vere (the more popular choice now). There was even a claim that a pig wrote Midsummer Night's Dream! You can get an overview at wikipedia or James Shapiro's Contested Will. (Here's a review). Any evidence is circumstantial, which means it will be able to be argued over without concrete evidence.

The scientific-seeming approach by "stylometry," is far from exact. Computational Linguistics is a new and evolving field, so measures to determine authorship can differ greatly depending on who is conducting the search. Here is an article that conducts a stlylometric analysis of Shakespeare and Marlowe, discussing the methodology in detail (they conclude they were not the same person).

Proving, for example, that two authors use keywords with similar frequency, as the above answer references, proves little more than coincidence. For example, it leaves out whether Shakespeare also wrote like Middleton or Dekker, whether Shakespeare and Marlowe use the keywords in similar combinations, the frequency of metrical structures, etc. Here is an in-depth discussion of linguistic analysis and style, as well as the problems of applying it to this particular debate.

Among academics, there is a community of scholars who challenge the authorship of Shakespeare, but the status quo is solidly that he wrote the plays and sonnets.

Some of the information contained in this post requires additional references. Please edit to add citations to reliable sources that support the assertions made here. Unsourced material may be disputed or deleted.

  • Welcome to Skeptics! Please provide some references to support your claims. – Oddthinking Jun 14 '16 at 15:10
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    "We know so little about Shakespeare's life" - says who? "From time to time, "anti-stratfordians" " - says who? "Any evidence is circumstantial." -says who, and why is this a problem? "The most scientific-seeming approach by "stylometry," is far from exact" - says who? "Computational Linguistics is an evolving field," says who and why is this a problem? Physics is also changing. "measures to determine authorship can differ" - says who? "proves very little." - says who? "a community of scholars" - says who? " the status quo is solidly that he wrote the plays and sonnets." says who, and so what? – Oddthinking Jun 15 '16 at 4:04
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    Every significant claim should be referenced. – Oddthinking Jun 15 '16 at 4:04
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    @Oddthinking I added a good deal of citations in the answer above, but it still has a tag asking for citations. Can that be removed? – rougon Sep 4 '16 at 19:53
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    @Oddthinking I am sorry to bug you, but this is currently the most well-cited answer to this question and I don't think it deserves to still have that tag. – rougon Sep 9 '16 at 13:09

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