Was Shakespeare a Woman?
May 12, 2019 8:02 AM   Subscribe

Was the father of English literature...its mother? The Atlantic’s Elizabeth Winkler makes the case for Emilia Bassano, the English daughter of Venetian immigrants, possibly Jewish; a poet; mistress to Henry Carey, Lord Hunsdon; and music tutor and educator.
posted by sallybrown (71 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
 
The Talmudic references in several works has always been tantalizing, not to mention the temporally atypical treatment of Shylock as more of a person than a stock villain. But consider this- Shakespeare was Shakespeare- but *he* was a converted Jew, or rather his family, rather than get expelled when the Jews were kicked out of England they converted and kept some of their traditions. Makes more sense to me then the latest "crypto-shakespeare" theory, even if this lady sounds hella rad.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 8:19 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


The "Authorship Controversy" is a conspiracy theory that requires a special kind of obtuseness. From the article:

What’s missing is any sign that he wrote. No such void exists for other major writers of the period, as a meticulous scholar named Diana Price has demonstrated. Many left fewer documents than Shakespeare did, but among them are manuscripts, letters, and payment records proving that writing was their profession. For example, court records show payment to Ben Jonson for “those services of his wit & pen.”

But then in the very next paragraph:

To be sure, Shakespeare’s name can be found linked, during his lifetime, to written works. With Love’s Labour’s Lost, in 1598, it started appearing on the title pages of one-play editions called “quartos.” (Several of the plays attributed to Shakespeare were first published anonymously.) Commentators at the time saluted him by name, praising “Shakespeare’s fine filed phrase” and “honey-tongued Shakespeare.

And some mumbo-jumbo about the difference between "attribution" and "authorship."

And yet somehow, anything can be evidence for your pet theory. Well-written female characters? Must have been written by a woman! Well-written noble characters? Couldn't have been written by the commoner Shakespeare!

There is no evidence except wishful thinking that Shakespeare was not the author of Shakespeare's plays.
posted by rikschell at 8:22 AM on May 12 [71 favorites]


Sigh.

She seems like a remarkable woman but she is definitely not the first. Here are the women already on The List.

Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
Mary Queen of Scots (1542–1587)
Hathaway, Anne (1555/6–1623)
Whateley, Anne (1561?–1600?)
Lanier, Emilia née Bassano (1569–1645)

Second of all, here is The List she is being added to. There comes a certain point where ... I don't know, a bunch of people are trying too hard?

Alexander, William (1568–1640)
Andrewes, Lancelot (1555–1626)
Bacon, Anthony (1558–1601)
Bacon, Francis (1561–1626)
Barnard, John (1604–1674)
Barnes, Barnabe (1571–1609)
Barnfield, Richard (1574–1620)
Blount, Charles (1563–1606)
Bodley, Rev. Miles (ca. 1553– ca. 1611)
Bodley, Sir Thomas (1545–1613)
Burbage, Richard (1567–1619)
Burton, Robert (1577–1640)
Butts, William (d. 1583)
Campion, Edmund (1540–1581)
Cecil, Robert (1563–1612)
Cervantes, Miguel de (1547–1616)
Chettle, Henry (1560–1607)
Crollalanza, Michelangelo (1564-?)
Daniel, Samuel (1562–1619)
de Vere, Edward (1550–1604)
Dekker, Thomas (1572–1632)
Devereux, Robert (Essex) (1566–1601)
Devereux, Walter (1541?–1576)
Digges, Leonard (c. 1515–c. 1559)
Donne, John (1572–1631)
Drake, Sir Francis (1540–1596)
Drayton, Michael (1563–1631)
Dyer, Sir Edward (1543–1607)
Edward VI (1537–1553)
Elizabeth I (1533–1603)
Ferrers, Henry (1549–1633)
Fletcher, John (1579–1625)
Florio, John (1554–1625)
Florio, Michelangelo (1515–1572)
Greene, Robert (1558–1592)
Greville, Fulke (1554–1628)
Griffin, Bartholomew (d. 1602)
Hastings, William
Hathaway, Anne (1555/6–1623)
Herbert, William (1580–1630)
Heywood, Thomas (1574–1641)
James VI and I (1566–1625)
The Jesuits
Jonson, Ben (1572–1637)
Kyd, Thomas (1558–1594)
Lodge, Thomas (1557–1625)
Lyly, John (1554–1606)
Manners, Elizabeth Sidney (d. 1615)
Manners, Roger (1576–1612)
Marlowe, Christopher (1564–1593)
Mary (1542–1587), Queen of Scots.[17]
Matthew, Sir Tobie (1577–1655)
Middleton, Thomas (1580–1627)
More, Sir Thomas (1478–1535)
Munday, Anthony (1560–1633)
Nashe, Thomas (1567–1601)
Neville, Henry (1564–1615)
North, Thomas (1535–1604)
Nugent, William (1550–1625)
O'Toole, Patrick
Paget, Henry (d. 1568)
Peele, George (1556–1596)
Pierce, William (1561–1674)
Porter, Henry (fl. c. 1596–99)
Raleigh, Sir Walter (1554–1618)
The Rosicrucians
Sackville, Thomas (1536–1608)
Seymour, William
Shirley, Sir Anthony (1565?–1635)
Sidney Herbert, Mary (1561–1621)
Sidney, Sir Philip (1554–1586)
Smith, Wentworth (1571– c. 1623)
Spenser, Edmund (1552–1599)
Stanley, William
Talbot, Gilbert (1552–1616)
Warner, William (c. 1558–1609)
Watson, Thomas (1555–1592)
Webster, John (1580?–1625?)
Wilson, Robert (1572–1600)
Wolsey, Thomas (1473?–1530)
Wotton, Sir Henry (1568–1639)
Wriothesley, Henry (1573–1624)
Zubayr bin William, Shaykh ("Sheik Zubayr")
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:31 AM on May 12 [58 favorites]


The history of the search for the real William Shakespeare was mostly based on skepticism of whether William Shakespeare was aristocratic enough

I don't believe that Shakespeare had to have traveled outside of England or received a long formal education. Someone of Shakespeare's talents could easily have been an extreme autodidact. An author's personal life doesn't need to be consistent in any way with their fiction. And I think we expect a sense of contemporary celebrity to exist around a great author/playwright that might be a bit anachronistic for the 16th century

But I am curious about the validity of this:
"In Othello, for example, Iago gives a speech that precisely describes a fresco in Bassano del Grappa—also the location of a shop owned by Giovanni Otello, a likely source of the title character’s name."
posted by knoyers at 8:32 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


It would take too long to correct all the errors and misstatements in this article, so let's keep this brief.

Was Shakespeare a Woman?

No.

Was I getting carried away, reinventing Shakespeare in the image of our age?

Yes.
posted by verstegan at 8:37 AM on May 12 [32 favorites]


I'll let the Shakespeare scholars on this site deal with this one, but the author comes from the usual crypto-Shakespeare position that anything in the text that seems out of whack with Shakespeare's social standing must be a sign that Shakespeare couldn't have written it. As opposed to "Shakespeare walked down the road and asked someone a question," "Shakespeare knew somebody who knew somebody," "Shakespeare borrowed all these details from a pre-existing play," or "Shakespeare picked up a random book."

I don't believe that Shakespeare had to have traveled outside of England or received a long formal education.

Shakespeare's grammar school education would have been pretty formidable by modern standards (including Greek and Latin, the latter of which he would have been able to write as well as read). One of Polonius' speeches in Hamlet, for example, is a straight-up parody of a standard rhetoric textbook (he manages to botch every rule).

Incidentally, the sympathetic female characters = female authors bit reminds me of a forgotten authorship controversy involving the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose novels someone ascribed to his sister-in-law for precisely this reason. (And for Will S not treating his own daughters well, perhaps: I introduce you to Percy Bysshe Shelley, important Romantic protofeminist, totally a jerk to every woman who had the misfortune to deal with him. Surely we've noticed by now that there's no necessary correlation between a text's politics and the author's real-life behaviors?)
posted by thomas j wise at 8:39 AM on May 12 [34 favorites]


Get in line, sister. Nobody was as good as Shakespeare, so everybody wants to claim him.
posted by pracowity at 8:41 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


Was Shakespeare a Space Alien? We need a History Channel series to explore this.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:42 AM on May 12 [21 favorites]


I don't believe that Shakespeare had to have traveled outside of England or received a long formal education. Someone of Shakespeare's talents could easily have been an extreme autodidact.

He wouldn't have to be all that extreme really. It only takes a little curiosity to learn a whole lot of stuff.

The "little formal education" thing is inevitable given that the whole conspiracy is a staple of people who have had far too much, but wow is it annoying.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:46 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]


I’m mortified that as a junior in high school, I wrote a paper on who Shakespeare “really” was.

I grew out of my literary classism and attraction to conspiracy theories. Always a little surprised when I see grown adults still spouting this stuff.
posted by greermahoney at 8:51 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Was Shakespeare a Space Alien?

You refer, of course, to Wil'yam Shex'pir, the greatest playright of the Klingon people.
posted by Halloween Jack at 8:51 AM on May 12 [24 favorites]


No.
posted by Going To Maine at 8:51 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


The article does a really nice job of the calling out the extraordinary sympathy and perceptiveness that Shakespeare had for female characters ... but you could come up with a dozen examples from the male perspective for each of these in Shakespeare's work.

A lot of the "Shakespeare was X [name of person] [kind of person]" stuff is driven by an inability really to handle the awe in which they stand in front of his genius. They'd probably be pushing conspiracy theories about Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein if they had the math and science chops to appreciate what they'd done.
posted by MattD at 9:31 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Shakespeare’s works were obviously written by Lord Ockham, Earl of Razor.
posted by rikschell at 9:32 AM on May 12 [35 favorites]


OH MY GOD ANOTHER RIDICULOUS THEORY THAT SHAKESPEARE DIDN'T WRITE THE PLAYS HE WROTE!

So completely sick of this shit. Please, let's confine the conspiracy theories to space aliens and leave Shakespeare alone, ffs.
posted by ivanthenotsoterrible at 9:34 AM on May 12 [2 favorites]


It was me. I wrote ‘em.

you’re welcome.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 9:36 AM on May 12 [27 favorites]


You weren't even born!
posted by Kirth Gerson at 9:47 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Bassano is a major character in Sandra Newman’s novel The Heavens.

Here’s a really, really great thread that she wrote about Bassano on Twitter:
OK, this will be a historical thread about Emilia Bassano Lanier, thought by many to have been Shakespeare's mistress. She was also one of the first published female poets in England, a courtesan, a courtier at Elizabeth's court, and an Italian Jewess from a family of musicians.
posted by chappell, ambrose at 9:53 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Yeah, no. William Shakespeare isn't this woman for the same reason he isn't Christopher Marlowe.
posted by tobascodagama at 9:53 AM on May 12 [4 favorites]


It was me. I wrote ‘em.

you’re welcome.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon

You weren't even born!
posted by Kirth Gerson


Kirth, you protest only because you believe only men can time travel.
posted by otherchaz at 9:59 AM on May 12 [5 favorites]


If a missile launched in Germany in the 1940s can land in a Nixon-era American movie theater, then I can be the author of the plays attributed to William Shakespeare.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 10:27 AM on May 12 [7 favorites]


Nope.

I'm a former early modern researcher and an ardent fan of both Shakespeare and Bassano/Lanier/Lanyer. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is a brilliant piece and deserves more scholarly attention. Lanier also wrote what is likely the very first country-house poem (To Cooke-ham), beating out To Penshurst by Ben Jonson, who probably would be furious that he was usurped. Emilia is fascinating and extraordinary on her own without having to make her into Shakespeare.

I am inclined to believe that "Shakespeare" was indeed the guy from Stratford, who borrowed extensively from various source and worked both on his own and in collaboration with many other writers. (It would be extremely cool if Lanier was one of those writers, though there is no evidence to suggest that -- but there is still lots of work to be done in terms of his collaborators.) Ultimately, it doesn't really matter who Shakespeare was, only that he left this legacy of plays and works for us to enjoy.
posted by pised at 10:29 AM on May 12 [26 favorites]


I'm on team Dred Pirate Shakespeare.
posted by grumpybear69 at 10:31 AM on May 12 [8 favorites]


Thank you, chappell, ambrose. I read The Heavens but didn't remember the character's name and I was wondering if it was the same person.
posted by tofu_crouton at 10:38 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I find the Oxfordian case entertaining. It fell apart completely, however, when I took a look at some of the poetry the earl admitted to writing.

Here's a copy of Bassano's/Lanier's/Lanyer's oeuvre.

You want the glove to fit, go to the glover's son.
posted by BWA at 10:39 AM on May 12 [3 favorites]


You weren't even born!

Perhaps untimely ripped?
posted by pracowity at 10:57 AM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Bassano is a major character in Sandra Newman’s novel The Heavens.

Ooh thank you I can’t wait to check this out!
posted by sallybrown at 11:21 AM on May 12 [1 favorite]


i would like to take this opportunity to announce that i am running for shakespeare in 2020
posted by poffin boffin at 11:27 AM on May 12 [52 favorites]


pised: "Emilia is fascinating and extraordinary on her own without having to make her into Shakespeare."

This.
posted by chavenet at 12:03 PM on May 12 [11 favorites]


I'd seen this earlier and came mostly to dunk on the conspiracy nuts and may get back to that.

But I got distracted thinking about what proposing a plausible woman means for Viriginia Woolf's famous Shakespeare's Sister thought experiment and what that says about gender in the early 17th and early 20th century.
posted by mark k at 12:24 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


" country-house poem"
  1. I had never seen this term before — thank you for introducing me to it!
  2. I've been listening to Lil Nas X all morning, and so at first I completely 100% interpreted "country-house" as something analogous to "country-trap."
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:32 PM on May 12 [11 favorites]


My exploratory committee has strongly suggested I have what it takes to be Shakespeare 2020, let’s do this!
posted by Meatbomb at 12:51 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


So wait is Thomas Pynchon a woman?
posted by Jon_Evil at 1:03 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I recommend Bill Bryson's excellent "Shakespeare: The World as Stage" which, in addition to being a fun read, focuses on the scant historical facts we have about his life. I'm paraphrasing here, but he demonstrates that we don't actually know much about most people from that era and that all the existing evidence points at Shakespeare's authorship of his plays. Indeed, there is at least some evidence that Shakespeare wrote his plays; some that he co-authored a few; but none that anyone else wrote under his name in his lifetime.

Short of a time machine that would allow us to watch the plays being written (without Shakespeare gasping "oh my a time machine" and ceasing work on his plays), there's no way to convince conspiracy theorist that what evidence exists has long proven William Shakespeare wrote those plays.
posted by Joey Michaels at 1:12 PM on May 12 [4 favorites]


Alas, practically the only evidence we have that William Shakespeare wrote the plays of William Shakespeare is that they were credited to William Shakespeare in 1593 and 1598 and 1599 and 1600 and 1602 and 1603 and 1604 and 1605 and 1608 and 1609 and 1611 and 1613 and 1615 and 1619 and 1622 and 1623.

How ... scant?

Anyway, Emilia Bassano is a fascinating figure in her own right and should be talked about as a fascinating figure in her own right, not because of ridiculous theories about her. She's considered the first professional woman poet in the English language! Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum is viewed by many as one of the earliest feminist works in English literature!
posted by kyrademon at 1:34 PM on May 12 [22 favorites]


‘Shakespeare’ is simply the canonical label applied to certain texts. Whether there was a particular human being associated with that label - let alone which historical human being it might hypothetically have been - is quite irrelevant.
posted by Segundus at 2:08 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


So now that we've beaten this to death, I want to recommend to those who haven't seen it this definitive proof that David Mitchell (1974-) was Shakespeare.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 2:51 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


anything in the text that seems out of whack with Shakespeare's social standing must be a sign that Shakespeare couldn't have written it

My go-to reference for this is "BUT HOW CAN FALCON IF NOT POSH?".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:31 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


I was thinking of Bryson, and the book Joey M. mentions, when I saw this post. Near the beginning Bryson writes: “So we are in the curious position with William Shakespeare of having three likenesses from which all others are derived: two that aren’t very good by artists working years after his death and one that is rather more compelling as a portrait but that may well be of someone else altogether... Although he left nearly a million words of text, we have just fourteen words in his own hand — his name signed six times and the words ‘by me’ on his will... We are not sure how to spell his name — but then neither, it appears, was he, for the name is never spelled the same way twice in the signatures that survive. They read as Willm Shaksp, William Shakespe, Wm Shakspe, William Shakspere, Willm Shakspere, and William Shakspeare. Curiously one spelling he didn’t use was the one now universally attached to his name.”

Bryson also mentions, later in the book, that Sigmund Freud decided Shakespeare actually was a Frenchman named Jacques Pierre. Which he calls “an interesting but ultimately solitary delusion.”
posted by LeLiLo at 3:38 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]


Anyway, Emilia Bassano is a fascinating figure in her own right and should be talked about as a fascinating figure in her own right

Exactly. But I'd be willing to believe that some of Shakespeare's good lines came from listening to clever women at parties because while talent borrows, genius steals, and writers are always selling somebody out.
posted by betweenthebars at 3:41 PM on May 12 [14 favorites]


"Jesus is a woman too, he loves all of me & you..."
posted by ovvl at 4:02 PM on May 12


How very odd, Tell Me No Lies, that in your seemingly comprehensive list of possible authors of the works of Shakespeare, one searches in vain for the name of one of the more likely contenders, Mary Sidney Herbert.

About Mary Sidney –– Did a Woman Write Shakespeare?

The Case for Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, as the primary Author of the “Shakespeare” Plays

"For two decades, she developed and led the most important literary circle in England’s history, Wilton Circle, taking the mantle from her mentor, her brother Sir Philip Sidney, who died in the Queen’s Protestant war. Her work, the work of her brother, and the work of many of the writers in her circle were used as sources for the Shakespearean plays.

She was devoted to literature and to creating great works in the English language. This was a brave mission since English was not considered a significant language at the time; there were great works in Italian, French, Latin, and Greek, but few in English. Nor was English spoken anywhere else in the world—rarely even in Scotland, Wales, or Ireland.

She was fluent in Latin, French, and Italian, and is believed to have also known Welsh, Spanish, and possibly Greek. She was one of the most educated women in England, comparable only to Queen Elizabeth. She was politically involved and outspoken, although she disliked the fawning and superficiality of the royal court.

Mary was an energetic woman: She held large parties. She sponsored an acting troupe. She traveled, rode horses, hunted, hawked. She bowled (lawn bowling), danced, sang, was famous for her needlework. Mary participated in theatrical productions at the royal court and developed Ludlow Castle into a cultural center that included just about every known theatrical troupe in the country. She played the lute and the virginals, and—if we can believe a German report—the violin. This German report also describes a musical code she invented with which she would send letters to friends in the form of musical compositions, each measure representing a letter of the alphabet."

posted by tenderly at 4:06 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


How very odd, Tell Me No Lies, that in your seemingly comprehensive list of possible authors of the works of Shakespeare, one searches in vain for the name of one of the more likely contenders, Mary Sidney Herbert.

That is interesting. I encourage you to correct the Wikipedia page.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:31 PM on May 12 [7 favorites]


They'd probably be pushing conspiracy theories about Thomas Edison or Albert Einstein if they had the math and science chops to appreciate what they'd done.

Except that we actually know that a lot of the work attributed to Albert Einstein was actually done by Mileva Maric, while Albert was off reading patent applications all day.
posted by heatherlogan at 4:49 PM on May 12 [8 favorites]


Also, we know for a fact that some of what's attributed to Edison was, in fact, done by other people under contract that gave him the rights to their work.

It's certainly not true, as some Tesla fanatics claim, that Edison was a buffoon who couldn't invent his way out of a wet paper bag, but it's also true that we give Edison credit for a great many inventions that he hired other people to invent.
posted by sotonohito at 6:10 PM on May 12 [3 favorites]


‘Shakespeare’ is simply the canonical label applied to certain texts. Whether there was a particular human being associated with that label - let alone which historical human being it might hypothetically have been - is quite irrelevant.

In the Quest for the Historical Shakespeare, it is important to distinguish whether we're talking about the William of History or the Bard of Faith.
posted by straight at 8:39 PM on May 12 [2 favorites]


There's no reason to doubt Shakespeare was Shakespeare except snobbery.

And the argument that he couldn't have been him because he wasn't aristocratic enough (or educated enough?) fails because he made lots of mistakes in his plays.

Bohemia doesn’t have a coastline. Billiards didn’t exist in Cleopatra’s day. Aristotle was not Belgian. The central message of Buddhism is not "Every man for himself." Those are all mistakes, Willam. I looked them up.
posted by kirkaracha at 9:05 PM on May 12 [18 favorites]


Except that we actually know that a lot of the work attributed to Albert Einstein was actually done by Mileva Maric, while Albert was off reading patent applications all day.
No, we do not know this.
posted by kickingtheground at 9:12 PM on May 12 [6 favorites]


Christ, I am so sick of this.

Like Pised, I'm an Early Modernist, with a specialty in Renaissance drama. I'm a Shakespeare prof; did my doctorate at U of T; am tenured at a Canadian university; have been teaching Shakespeare since 2000. I am fed to the back teeth with this bullshit. What the hell is wrong with people?

Emilia Lanier is, as kyrademon says, a significant author in her own right. It's unlikely that she wrote for the theatre, as it was a working-or-middle class person's game, although she might have done -- plays were often written by groups of authors, as TV scripts are now, and a significant portion of surviving plays are anonymous or unattributed. But plays were the kind of thing you wrote to make a quick buck, usually -- and she was a courtier. Her published poems seem to have been written for status, not cash.

These kinds of arguments aren't ever based on actual information about the plays or the period. I think their current popularity is based on the decay in common knowledge of the Elizabethan period, its literature or its history. Because Shakespeare's the only Elizabethan author people have read or heard of, any author from the period can be offered up as a candidate for the plays. It's an argument from ignorance to ignorance.

And did I mention that I"m sick of it? Yeah, that.
posted by jrochest at 11:34 PM on May 12 [22 favorites]


Robyn Hitchcock from his song Uncorrected Personality Traits:
"Even Marilyn Monroe was a man
But this tends to get over looked
By our mother-fixated
Overweight, sexist media"
From the 1984 recording I Often Dream of Trains
posted by Metacircular at 12:48 AM on May 13 [4 favorites]


For me, the odd thing about the ‘Shakespeare must have been posh’ school of thought is it requires you to ignore the biographies of virtually every other great writer in English. There are a few university-educated poshos among them; courtly poets like Philip Sidney, and later people like Byron. But Marlowe and Jonson weren’t aristocrats. Dickens wasn’t, or George Eliot, or James Joyce, or Jane Austen. There’s a range of social status and amount of formal education, but ‘aspirational middle-class autodidact’ is about as typical as you could imagine.
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 1:15 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


For me, the odd thing about the ‘Shakespeare must have been posh’ school of thought is it requires you to ignore the biographies of virtually every other great writer in English.

Not to mention just the common sense of lived experience. Those at the top tend to know or care far less about how those below them live than the other way around. Attention is directed to those who control or influence one's fate and towards stations one might dream of holding, not towards those deemed irrelevant to one's life or to situations one holds at a purposeful remove.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:34 AM on May 13 [6 favorites]


Betteridge's law of headlines continues to hold true.
posted by FakeFreyja at 8:08 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


Because Shakespeare's the only Elizabethan author people have read or heard of, any author from the period can be offered up as a candidate for the plays. It's an argument from ignorance to ignorance.

I was a lit major for a few years at UC Santa Cruz. I have literally sat around in dorm rooms at 2am with a bunch of stoned undergrads saying "Hey, you know... what if Shakespeare wasn't, you know, *really* Shakespeare..."

That's my touchstone when this comes up.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:32 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


> "Because Shakespeare's the only Elizabethan author people have read or heard of, any author from the period can be offered up as a candidate for the plays. It's an argument from ignorance to ignorance."

And there are women -- Fanny Mendelssohn, Camille Claudel, Margaret Keane, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and others -- whose artistic work was possibly, probably, or definitely released to the world under someone else's (male) name. But knowing that and championing them requires knowledge and research rather than just making shit up.
posted by kyrademon at 9:05 AM on May 13 [3 favorites]


I don't even get the whole "Shakespeare didn't really write the plays" thing, just as a big plot to fool everyone. Seriously, what was the con supposed to be?
posted by holborne at 9:08 AM on May 13 [2 favorites]


I don't even get the whole "Shakespeare didn't really write the plays" thing, just as a big plot to fool everyone. Seriously, what was the con supposed to be?

I think some of the theorists believe that, since drama and writing plays was somewhat disreputable, some high-class Real Shakespeare needed a front person, in order to avoid scandal.
posted by thelonius at 9:20 AM on May 13


A much more fascinating recent read regarding Shakespeare is this Five Books post delving into his sources, and how he adapted, transformed, and transcended the material. Makes me want to read more Plautus.
posted by jetsetsc at 10:43 AM on May 13


One of the most frustrating things about this is that the idea that Shakespeare had a scanty education, relatively speaking, is itself a myth created by people who wanted to paint him as a sui generis genius for reasons of their own. We know nothing about his post-grammar school education. Nothing. This, combined with a couple of ambiguous comments made about him during his life, led some to make the assumption that he didn't have one. But it's nothing more than that. An assumption. Not knowing what happened is not the same thing as knowing nothing happened.
posted by kyrademon at 12:25 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


All the staunch Stratfordians here have read and digested Richard Paul Roe's The Shakespeare Guide to Italy (2011), I assume?

From the Introduction:

But Shakespeare was more than just an enthusiastic reader and translator of Italian literature. In the company of scholars such as Violet Jeffrey (Shakespeare's Venice) and Lewis Einstein (The Italian Renaissance in England), [revered Italian Shakespeare scholar Ernesto] Grillo is assured by the playwright's exhaustive knowledge of life on the peninsula that not only must Shakespeare have visited Italy, but [he] must have visited Milan, Verona, Venice, Padua and Mantua.

[...]

In response, for example, to Grillo's statement that The Taming of the Shrew displays such an intimate acquaintance not only with the manners and customs of Italy but also with the minutest details of domestic life that it cannot have been gleaned from books or acquired in the course of conversations with travelers returned from Padua, Roe expresses hearty agreement.

[...]

Authors such as Mark Twain, Sir George Greenwood, and Diana Price, as well as distinguished thespians Mark Rylance (the first Artistic Director of Shakespeare's Globe), Orson Welles, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, and the incomparable Sir Derek Jacobi are only several among thousands of Shakespeare aficionados who have long proclaimed what many others have been too timid to say: the thesis positing Will Shakspere of Stratford-upon-Avon as history's most formidable wordsmith, master dramatist, and ageless poet is simply untenable, for it is a faith-based conviction established not on evidence, logic, and commitment to the scientific method, but on sentimental legend, airy rumor, romantic fable, hearsay, and rank nonsense.


The Shakespeare Guide to Italy: Retracing the Bard's Unknown Travels
posted by tenderly at 1:15 PM on May 13


At the time, there wasn't really post grammar school education, except for specialties like lawyers and clerics. Shakespeare would have had an excellent education for his time, going by what we know of the local school. And really, all you need is the ability to read and write, plus a certain amount of grounding in logic and the classics is helpful to guide further self-education. A bit of skill at charming rich people into letting him borrow their books takes care of the rest, and the sonnets indicate he had noble patronage from very early on.

If there is anything that I suspect Shakespeare was exceptional at, it was having an excellent memory and ear for conversations.
posted by tavella at 1:36 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


The evidence that William Shakespeare never travelled to Italy (or travelled extensively in Italy) is exactly the same as the evidence that his education stopped after grammar school (or did not stop after grammar school) -- that is to say, none whatsoever. So trying to prove that the author couldn't have been Shakespeare because the author knew a lot about Italy is basically meaningless nonsense.
posted by kyrademon at 1:45 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


I've always liked the title of Douglas Hofstadter's monograph about reference, intensionality, and identity in language: William Shakespeare's Plays Weren't Written By Him, But By Someone Else With Exactly The Same Name.
posted by Harvey Kilobit at 1:51 PM on May 13 [5 favorites]


Not to mention just the common sense of lived experience. Those at the top tend to know or care far less about how those below them live than the other way around. Attention is directed to those who control or influence one's fate and towards stations one might dream of holding, not towards those deemed irrelevant to one's life or to situations one holds at a purposeful remove.

Yeah, really the key to Shakespeare's true identity is how accurately he depicted the lives of the lower class. That's the stuff he couldn't get from a book.
posted by straight at 2:03 PM on May 13 [3 favorites]


If human civilization survives, in 200 years there'll be a whole pseudo-academic industry of Obama Birtherism books.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:08 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Also... this isn't a particularly new theory. It's been kicking around for at least 20-30 years, almost as long as the other theory -- equally without a shred of evidence -- that Bassano/Lanyer was the "Dark Lady" of Shakespeare's sonnets.

Also, the article says that the authorship controversy is "almost as old as the works themselves," which is manifestly untrue. The authorship question didn't arise until about 200 years after Shakespeare's death.
posted by Saxon Kane at 7:14 PM on May 13 [1 favorite]


Well, she's an interesting candidate for the Dark Lady, it's just that there's not enough evidence to identify anybody at all. It just becomes fun speculation -- who was in the right circles? Was 'dark' a metaphor or literal? For Shakespeare, on the other hand, we have his fellow players and poets making a fuck-off big book of his work after his death and talking about how awesome he was in the preface. That's pretty definitive, and you'd have to have some really damn good evidence to even speculate it was anyone but the well-attributed member of the King's Men troupe. Which no one has even come close to, it always comes down to "He's just too good! He has to have *really* been of my favorite tribe, not that provincial boy!"

And there's the internal evidence, which suggests a playwright of great talent and ambition but also practicality. Writing parts to fit the talents of the players around him and changing them up as actors came and went, knocking together a lesser sequel with a much-loved character when commanded to do something to entertain the queen. Writing plays with more special effects to show off the capabilities of their shiny new Globe, popping dances into plays when it became the style. Which again, fits very well with the documentary evidence we do have.
posted by tavella at 8:29 AM on May 14 [4 favorites]


Let's also consider some of the greatest writers of the 16th-17th century:

Christopher Marlowe -- not an aristocrat
John Donne -- not an aristocrat
George Herbert -- not an aristocrat
Ben Jonson -- not an aristocrat
Ameilia Lanyer -- not an aristocrat
John Milton -- not an aristocrat
Katherine Phillips -- not an aristocrat
Andrew Marvell -- not an aristocrat
Samuel Daniel -- not an aristocrat
Edmund Spenser -- not an aristocrat
Robert Herrick -- not an aristocrat
Henry Vaughan -- not an aristocrat

Were there great authors who were aristocrats? Sure: Philip Sidney, Mary (Sidney) Herbert, Mary Wroth, Margaret Cavendish, Wyatt, Surrey, and some others, but by and large, 1) most of the writers we still value were from "middle-class" or lower gentry status; 2) those who were part of the aristocracy were generally not very high up -- minor courtiers like Wyatt, etc. Poetry was something nobles did to show off their erudition, but few took it all that seriously. Take a look at Edward de Vere's poetry -- the candidate the Oxfordians put forward as the true author -- it sucks! It's just not interesting verse. And you know, it's not like the greatest writers of the 20th & 21st centuries -- or really of any time in history -- were Earls and Dukes.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:14 AM on May 14 [5 favorites]


she's an interesting candidate for the Dark Lady, it's just that there's not enough evidence to identify anybody at all.

A.L. Rowse was the Shakespeare scholar who rediscovered Lanyer's work and put her forward as the Dark Lady. His argument basically consisted of the following:

1) Lanyer was briefly mistress to Henry Carey

1.1) Therefore, she was a slut

2) Lanyer was of Italian, possibly Jewish, descent, and therefore probably "Dark" by Elizabethan standards of beauty

3) Henry Carey was patron of Shakespeare's company

3.1) So Lanyer (could have) met Shakespeare through Carey

4) According to the sonnets, the "Dark Lady" is dark and a slut

Conclusion: Lanyer is the dark lady!

He doesn't use the word "slut," but his argument is explicitly based on the idea that if she had sex with one guy, she must have fucked tons of guys. It's just knee-jerk misogynistic assumption with no historical evidence.
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:20 AM on May 14 [4 favorites]


I was hoping this was going to be "Shakespeare was Shakespeare, but Shakespeare was transgender!" I wanted it to be "Shakespeare was a woman", not "Shakespeare was a different person, who was a woman".
posted by Galaxor Nebulon at 9:29 AM on May 14 [3 favorites]


Here's the thing:
To modern eyes, Shakespeare is fancy shmancy shit. He's difficult to understand, he's associated with high art & literature, people write books and teach classes about him, seeing his works performed can be really expensive, etc. etc.

But this only dates back to the Victorian Era. As has been pointed out ad nauseum, Shakespeare was popular, and often low-class, entertainment in his own time, and we have no evidence that he was interested in publication or literary posterity, outside of the Sonnets. (One can read moments in the plays as indications of a desire for literary immortality, but this is begging the question.)

Shakespeare was obviously appreciated in his time -- see the Folio dedications. But also during his time, Ben Jonson mocked him for his various poetic and narrative absurdities and lack of refinement. Robert Greene absolutely despised him as a hack thief. Milton loved him, but probably as a print writer, not as a playwright. Some of this -- esp. Greene's opinion -- can be attributed to professional jealousy, but critical opinion on Shakespeare in English letters continued to be mixed.

When the theaters were reopened after the Restoration of the monarchy, Shakespeare was part of the repertoire, but almost always significantly altered. Plots were changed. Characters added and cut. Speeches altered, cut, or invented. Songs and dance added. One of the major critical traditions about Shakespeare through this period was that he was a "genius," yes, but a "natural" -- that is, crude, untutored, unrefined -- genius. He had almost as many defects as strengths to some. Dr. Johnson praised him for his psychological insight, but found many faults with his poetry. His metrical oddities needed to be corrected; his excessive wordplay needed to be tempered; the ridiculous, embarrassing, shocking, and scandalous elements mitigated or excised; the plots made to conform to the (neo)classical principles of decorum and beauty. He was from a cruder time, and the crudities needed purging.

Shakespeare was deified first by Germany, not England. Because of the devotion of people like Goethe and Schiller, Shakespeare is still largely considered in Germany as one of their foundations of modern literature and culture. (I still find that wild. It's like the real world version of the Klingons' love for Shakespeare in ST6.) And the Hanover dynasty (beginning with George I and ending with lovely old Vicky herself) that ruled Great Britain from early 1700s to 1901 were Germans, and they brought their taste for Shakespeare with them, eventually enshrining at the pinnacle of English literature and culture. Also, the German historian Jacob Burckhardt was the first* to identify "the Renaissance" as a specific historical period, and to identify it as the birth of modern individuality, the rebirth of classical learning, etc. -- giving it a certain mystique that it still possesses.

Ironically, it was this elevation that also first provoked the authorship question. 19th Century English were intensely, pathologically, hysterically class conscious, and it was something of an embarrassment that their most celebrated author had the same background as their uncouth cousins from some backwards village in the countryside. Thus, the search for a more fitting candidate for adulation.

The literary culture that the Brits then seeded around the world was thus defined in some ways as fundamentally post-Shakespeare (and post-Renaissance), which also means that by default he'll be at the center of the canon, with all the praise and resentment that engenders. There are many other trends that feed the authorship conspiracy theory, but in part it's precisely because he's been placed at the center of English -- and in many ways, global -- literature.
posted by Saxon Kane at 8:19 PM on May 14 [10 favorites]


« Older "How are you on bras?"   |   The frontier was a myth, manifest destiny a crime Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments