History of the Question

Close to 150 years have gone by since the question of who wrote the Shakespeare canon was first raised in a public forum, yet, despite the rise of one candidate after another, the question has not yet been answered to everyone’s satisfaction.  There are many reasons for this: inertia, politics, the monolithic nature of the orthodox biography; but part of the problem is that Shakespeare, however important, is only one factor in a much larger problem, namely the authorship of all the works of the imagination written during the English Literary Renaissance, roughly 1590 through 1640.  Until Shakespeare’s role is seen in the full context of the politics and cultural constraints of the period , the truth about the authorship will continue to elude us.

Not Shakespeare alone

The fact is that the handful of scholars scattered far and wide at universities around the world who interest themselves in the lives and works of, not only Shakespeare, but all the authors of his time, have always known that an authorship question dogs most of the important works of the Early Modern period, and that of all the works of this period, only a handful can be attributed with complete security to a particular author.  Even the authorship of works traditionally attributed to Shakespeare are continually questioned by scholars of the language and usage of the time, with some of the works originally attributed to him removed from the canon, others added, with parts of some plays attributed to co-authors or later editors.

The English Departments ignore this, to some extent out of bad faith, but more often out of ignorance, for those scholars who concentrate on Shakespeare simply accept and pass on what  is told them by those who concentrate on the others.  Imagining that it is their chap alone whose authorship is so problematic, they tend to hide this when discussing their subjects with fellow scholars and certainly when writing about them.  Because of this, awareness of how prevalent is the authorship issue among all the writers of the Early Modern period never gets spread about among the very circles who are in a position to resolve the question, or rather, questions.

Who translated the King James Bible?  Who created the immensely important Book of Common Prayer?  Who wrote the crucial Spanish Tragedy?  No one has any doubt (nor do I) that Christopher Marlowe wrote Tamburlaine, yet there’s no definitive evidence of his authorship.  Other works that appear to the common reader to be unquestioned can often be seen, on closer examination, to be assigned their authors by way of a contemporary rumor, a comment made in passing long after the author’s death by someone who might have known him, or a decision made later by scholars to simply assign the work to the one or ones they felt best qualified to have the credit.  The reliability of the major source, the title page of a published work, frequently evaporates on closer view.  Why?  Because for most of these works of early modern literature it’s stand alone evidence, unbacked by any second or third party source.

A tradition of anonymity

As any student of the arts of the Middle Ages, (roughly the 6th to the 13th centuries) whether of painting, sculpture, architecture, science, invention, or text will confirm, identification of the creator of a particular work, if not an out and out impossibility, can be questionable at best. The 16th- and early 17th-century English Literary Renaissance, of which Shakespeare is regarded as the primary architect,  was a transition period.  During this time the medieval tradition of artistic anonymity was only just beginning to shift into the present commercial reality, which must accept that professional writers, like other craftsmen, depend upon self-identification for their careers and livelihoods.

Like any large-scale cultural shift, however, this did not occur overnight.  The individualism that we prize today, the human rights that we’ve discovered and promoted over the past two hundred years, must be seen against the vast backdrop of a time when individualism was not only not good, it was dangerous.  From our earliest beginnings in tribes barely distinguishable from animal herds it was only as an accepted member of a group that we could rely on getting food, shelter, and protection.  To be singled out was dangerous, to be cast out, shunned, excommunicated, was to be very soon dead.

“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.”

The history of art before 1400 or so––painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, music––is utterly without the names of individuals.  We know particular styles as that of the Master of Cologne, the Master of the Strauss Madonna, but there’s rarely enough recorded evidence to make a more specific identification.  Shakespeare and his fellows arrived during the transition period that brought such utter anonymity to an end, but it was far from over.  We are shocked that he seemingly eschewed fame, but that would not have surprised anyone in his own time, or for centuries before.  It is from this point of view that Harvey pummels Nashe as “St. Fame” for his seeming thirst for notoriety, what today would be seen simply as necessarily enterprising.

Another factor in this discussion that is often brushed aside or ignored is the prevalence at the time, and for centuries to follow, of the use by writers of pseudonyms when publishing their work.  Writers used them then and well into the 19th century, and even today, as a means of hiding their real identities from too avid readers, critics, and unfriendly governments.  There must have been moments during the 1990s when Salman Rushdie wished he’d hidden his authorship of The Satanic Verses under a pseudonym and thus escaped a decade of far more stressful hiding.

Only in modern times has writing become strictly a matter of earning a living.  For centuries the wealthy and educated elite used publishing purely as a means to further their projects, whether political, artistic, or scientific.  Disdaining to appear in the same class as professional writers, they used pseudonyms or borrowed the name of a friend or a servant.  Throughout the centuries––most notably during the 18th and 19th––professional women writers used male pseudonyms, partly just to get published, partly to be taken seriously.

In other words, unlike today, during the Early Modern period, people frequently did not know who created a particular work, and, what is more significant, they did not expect to know.

Two revolutions at once

Unlike the nations of continental Europe, England experienced the Renaissance in full force after, not before, the Protestant Reformation.  This is an extremely significant fact, forcing us to rearrange almost everything we’ve been taught about the period,  nevertheless it’s fundamental to a true understanding.  While on the Continent the arts continued to bloom like hothouse flowers throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, in England they lay dormant while the nation wrestled, first with the upheavals of Civil War, then with the upheavals of the German/Swiss Reformation.  Thus by the time the Renaissance managed to put out a few frail shoots in England, it must needs do so in the face of the Reformation, which, by then, had been in force for most of four decades, well over a generation.  There can be no other explanation for the total lack of any development of English pictorial and plastic arts.  It is certainly the explanation for the anomalies that continue to dog this first chapter in the history of early modern literature.

The drab era

When the Renaissance in Art did finally flower in England in the late 16th century, the impulse to create works of great and lasting beauty  would come almost totally through non-visual channels, through music and literature, yet even here there were immense constraints to overcome.  For, in fact, the period leading up to Shakespeare’s was possibly the dreariest in all of English literary history.  Dubbed by C.S. Lewis “the drab era,” it produced some of the most dreadful stuff ever written.

Dumbed down by the cultural ravages of the Reformation, the poets and writers of this period were up against two major barriers.  First was the nature of the language itself.  Unlike the nations that were flowering with Renaissance art, the literature of Italy, Southern France and Spain drew easily on source texts in Latin, the language in which so many of the recently rediscovered works of antiquity were written and the common parent to all three.  But English was a mixture derived chiefly from the northern languages of Gaelic, Anglo-Saxon, Danish, and Norman French, all from different roots and with very different sounds and rhythms.  In rendering into English the great works of antiquity, the creators of modern English had a much more difficult task than Dante, Ronsard and Cervantes, the Shakespeares of Italy, France and Spain.

The second barrier was the near demonic hatred of Art that possessed the more fervent Protestant reformers, driving them to destroy most of England’s heritage of Church art.  Fueled by the puritanical belief of the most violent of the reformers that Art was a tool of the Devil, the destruction of church art that took place during the period immediately preceding Shakespeare, the smashing of the statues of saints and stained glass windows, the tearing down and burning of the carved rood screens and paintings of religious scenes, the whitewashing over of painted frescoes on the walls, in fact the destruction of anything that the radical reformers saw as vehicles for pagan idolatry, was hardly conducive to the kind of inspiration that was producing the arts on the Continent.  The situation was only a little less stringent for writers.  Driven to publish by the exciting potential for acquiring a reading audience, yet constrained by a culture that was inclined to regard poetry as, at best, a waste of time, at worst, a path to damnation, poets of the 1540s through the 1570s clung to the limitations of dull, outworn models and vocabularies.

The situation was less problematic for composers and musicians.  Having stripped the Church of its gold and silver, its festive calendar, its processions, vestments, incense, and rituals, the reformers left the boys choirs untouched––probably due to the Queen’s love for music.  Churches swelled with the glories of Morley, Byrd, Dowland, and Gibbons while the Court community eagerly adopted the lutes and virginals, the madrigals and dances of the Italian courts.  During the later years of Elizabeth’s reign and throughout that of James, English composers rose to dominate western music for the first and only time in history (that is, until the Beatles).

So when the breakthrough finally came in the 1580s, the men and women who launched the glorious Literary Renaissance in England did so in the face of serious constraints, the same constraints that utterly eliminated the pictorial and plastic arts as fields of English Renaissance endeavor.  This overwhelmingly  negative attitude towards imaginative or creative literature can easily be found in every form of documentation available to scholars.  Why then have academics paid it so little heed?

Between two stools

This is probably due to the gaping gulf that separates the English and History Departments at the universities.  History professors tend to regard literature, particularly fiction, as a separate subject,  though it may occasionally impinge at certain points on history, like, say, Rousseau’s Emile did during the leadup to the French Revolution or Uncle Tom’s Cabin did during the leadup to the American Civil War.  Meanwhile, most English professors see mainstream history as a backdrop in which literary themes endlessly repeat; the only history that interests them is how a particular plot, trope, or style may have passed from one artist to another.  In other words, neither discipline is particularly interested in how Literature affects History or how History affects Literature, while scholars who do see a connection tend to get marginalized by both.

The result for Shakespeare studies is that when it comes to examining the truth about the author’s life, the rigors of history are missing.  History requires that all theories that involve real persons and events be based on confirmed dates and facts, and that where important areas lack proper documentation, conjectures must be based on extrapolating scenarios from similar situations from other places and times in history.  The harsh realities of social revolutions with their attendant coups, martyrdoms, conspiracies, and obliterated or falsified records, are all but missing in most discussions of literature, that is, except in cases where the literature in question obviously derives from a revolution, such as that of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Maxim Gorky, or Vaclav Havel.

The effect of the upheavals of the social revolution known as the Reformation, the ways in which it constrained the Renaissance in England, the fierce efforts by the reformist element in Elizabeth’s government to quash or control the emergence of a new literature, all this is either ignored or minimized by English Departments whose silence on the subject suggests that they have simply not studied enough history.  Where we should be seeing a landscape much like that in which Solzenitzen, Gorky, and Hamel struggled to speak to their communities, we see only a fuzzy picture of cheerful groundlings––cracking nuts and bantering with the players at the Globe and the Rose.  The truth is a good deal darker––and also a good deal more interesting.


The history of the period has everything to do with why Shakespeare and at least two other important writers of the time, hid their identities.  Although it’s not the only reason, it may be the one that requires the most background, one that, until now, has been hidden or minimized so thoroughly that our understanding of the entire period, not only its literature but also its history, has been skewed out of compass.  Like most important anomalies, the misidentification of Shakespeare was not due to history alone but to a variety of causes that converged in one place and time.  It’s time we took a look at all of these.

Let’s begin with the biggest problem of all, the name itself.

One thought on “History of the Question

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s