Contested Will – An Irishman’s Diary about the Shakespeare authorship question

Conspiracy theory

 William Shakespeare: in certain circles, the Bard of Avon’s impending 400th will provoke conflict

William Shakespeare: in certain circles, the Bard of Avon’s impending 400th will provoke conflict


The centenary of the Rising will not be the only anniversary to provoke contention this coming April. In 1916, Easter Week coincided with the tercentenary of a certain famous playwright’s death, leading this newspaper to advise Dubliners to remain indoors and read their Shakespeare until the trouble blew over. 

But in certain circles, the Bard of Avon’s impending 400th will provoke conflict of its own – turning, if not brother against brother, then academic against academic, and Hamlet actor against Hamlet actor.  The cause – and it’s a cause in more ways than one for some –will be the so-called Shakespeare Authorship Question.

 It’s fair to say that even to consider this as a question is still a fringe activity among literary enthusiasts. The “Stratfordians”, as those who believe that Shakespeare wrote the plays and sonnets traditionally attributed to him are known, remain the overwhelming majority.  

Furthermore, those of them who can even be bothered to express an opinion on the matter tend to regard the doubters as having a level of credibility pitched somewhere between that of creationists and the Flat Earth Society.

Even so, the US-based Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, established some years ago with the aim of making scepticism on the issue academically acceptable by 2016, now claims 3,274 signatories for its “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt”. 

These include a former US supreme court justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, and at least two leading Hamlets – actors Mark Rylance and Derek Jacobi.

The likes of Britain’s De Vere Society, meanwhile, go further. While up to 80 alternative candidates for the true authorship have been advanced over the years, the runaway leader in the field is the 17th Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere. “Oxfordians” argue that he had political and other reasons to hide his literary light under a bushel, and that the bushel’s name was Shakespeare. The anti-Stratfordians do not have much in the way of proof. But that, broadly speaking, is their point. They suggest that the lack of evidence for Shakespeare’s literary career would be suspicious in the case of any major writer of his era, never mind the greatest that ever lived. He left no manuscripts, no letters, and the famous will, –the one that dealt with such important details as his second-best bed, makes no mention of literary possessions – poems, plays, or even documents to suggest he was a writer.  

Such absences bothered the novelist Henry James, a famous past doubter, who once declared himself “haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world”.

Similarly exasperated was Hugh Trevor-Roper, an Oxford professor of history who in 1962 marvelled despairingly at Shakespeare’s elusiveness:   “After all, he lived in the full daylight of the English Renaissance, in the well-documented reigns of Queen Elizabeth and King James I and […] since his death has been subjected to the greatest battery of organised research that has ever been directed upon a single person. And yet the greatest of all Englishmen, after this tremendous inquisition, […] remains so close a mystery that even his identity can still be doubted.”

 Of course the same historical vacuum that sustains the doubters has also been turned against them. In his 2007 book Shakespeare, Bill Bryson poured scorn on a sceptic who, in the New York Times, had suggested that the Stratford man “never owned a book”.

The statement couldn’t be refuted, Bryson admitted:  “But the writer might just as well have suggested that Shakespeare never owned a pair of shoes or pants. For, all the evidence tells us, he spent his life naked from the waist down, as well as bookless, but it is probable that was is lacking is the evidence, not the apparel or the books.”

Bryson went so far as to accuse the anti-Stratford faction (“all of it”) of “manipulative scholarship or sweeping misstatements of fact”.  

But the Oxfordians have since fired back. In 2013, one of their leading members, Alexander Waugh, claimed to have found a reference from 1595 linking de Vere to the use of Shakespeare’s name. His message to Stratfordians, as summed up by the Spectator: “Shakespeare was a nom-de-plume - get over it.”

There is no sign of the Stratfordians getting over it, however.

On the contrary, even the more modest initiative of their opponents – the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt – appears to have failed in its stated aim for 2016. Certainly, like another well-known proclamation with signatories, it remains a work in progress.