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William Shakespeare: The True Authorship of the Shakespearean Plays

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: English Literature
Wordcount: 3198 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Throughout history, there have been many famous authors, playwrights, and poets. Some are remembered more strongly than others, their work cited and interpreted over the centuries. William Shakespeare is arguably one of the most famous authors of all time. He was an actor and poet, a playwright. Some of Shakespeare’s most famous works include Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and The Taming of the Shrew. With such popularity there is bound to be some criticism, some questions along the way. Sadly, one such question comes into play regarding Shakespeare’s authorship of his many plays and poems. There are those who question whether or not Shakespeare was responsible for the many works studied today. Some say that other authors penned the now famous sonnets and plays. Henry James once said, “I am haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and the most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world.” (Hoffman, 1955, p 22) Some believe that William Shakespeare, though a real man, was more of a pen name for the many authors who wrote the plays the Bard is now famous for. In short, though some scholars think William Shakespeare may not be the true author of these incredible works, he is certainly the author of the plays and poems he is so famous for.

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 William Shakespeare (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616) was an actor and poet, a playwright born in Stratford-upon-Avon, England. He got his start in acting as a member of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men Company of players beginning in about 1594. While written records fail to provide much in the way Shakespeare’s professional life, many suspect his acting years fed his drive to write plays that deal with such a range of human emotions. Shakespeare wrote for roughly 20 years, from about 1590-1613. He wrote some 157 poems (estimated based on the two narratives, and 154 sonnets), and roughly 37 plays during the course of those 20 years. (Potter 131) Though there are many doubts that Shakespeare ever wrote the poems and plays credited to him, there are still those who firmly believe that there are influences in Shakespeare’s work that reflect his life and experiences. One such influence comes from his boyhood home in Stratford. John Drinkwater (author and Shakespearean enthusiast) cites the flowers, woodlands, and surrounding landscape in Shakespeare’s plays were inspired from the countryside where he grew up (Stratford). (Hoffman 107) Marlovian scholars are quick to cite the lack of evidence about Shakespeare and his life, the lack of documentation as a key reason that Shakespeare could not have penned such works by himself. Once such period is noted as the “lost years,” a period of time in which Shakespeare seems to have completely disappeared.

 There are seven years of William’s life where no record exists. These seven years follow the birth of his twins Hamnet and Judith in 1585. There is a great deal of speculation about where Shakespeare was and what he was doing for these seven years. There is no paper trail to document his actions, nor record to prove where he was. (Macguire & Smith 114) Some scholars suspect that Shakespeare had gone to London, arriving sometime around the mid to late 1580s. It’s not confirmed, but he may have sought employment, perhaps working in London theaters, perhaps working for local businesses as he studied his craft, wrote his first manuscripts.

 By 1592, Shakespeare’s “lost years” were at an end, and he resurfaced in London where he was earning a living as an actor and playwright. This is a moment of importance, of documentation in Shakespeare’s life. This emergence of the author in such a position (actor and writer) confirms that William was indeed writing during his “lost years.”  In September of 1592, an edition of the Stationer’s Register included an article by a London playwright named Robert Greene. In that article, Green takes a rather negative stance on Shakespeare. Green is quoted as saying, “…There is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tiger’s heart wrapped in a Player’s hide, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blank verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his own conceit the only Shake-scene in a country.” (Gieskes & Melnikoff  p 116) This article, though negative in nature, sets the stage that Shakespeare was both in England during the 1590’s, and that he was definitely writing, though it seems Greene was none to pleased with his work. This places Shakespeare in London, both a writer and actor. This would follow that he was as much a contemporary of the day as Marlowe, Nashe, or Greene. Was Greene was threatened by this “upstart crow” because he wasn’t as educated as himself (or Marlowe / Nashe)? It’s hard to say, though this certainly establishes Shakespeare as a blooming actor and playwright.

 As with Shakespeare’s professional life, there are precious few records about his youth, his education. Shakespearean scholars suggest that William may have attended the King’s New School in Stratford. He would have received lessons in reading, writing, and the classics. With no real documentation on his schooling, this only leads to further speculation on the authorship of his work, whether he penned such plays and poems. (Hoffman 111) As Shakespeare grew up, it’s documented that he married Anne Hathaway (November 28, 1582) who was 26 years old (and pregnant) to William’s 18. They had three known children. Their first child was a girl (Susanna) and two years later, Anne gave birth to twins (Hamnet and Judith). (Hofman 113) Some Shakespearean scholars note the death of Hamnet (died age 11) as impacting Shakespeare so greatly that his writing took a turn toward darker paths, potentially playing a larger part in his later tragedies. Sonnet 37 is said to be about Hamnet’s death, how it impacted Shakespeare as a father. (Hoffman 188) The feeling of mourning in the poem certainly lends credibility to the idea that Shakespeare authored it. The grief is clear in such lines as:

As a decrepit father takes delight
To see his active child do deeds of youth,
So I, made lame by Fortune’s dearest spite,
Take all my comfort of thy worth and truth; 
For whether beauty, birth, or wealth, or wit,
Or any of these all, or all, or more,
Entitled in thy parts, do crowned sit,
I make my love engrafted to this store:
So then I am not lame, poor, nor despised,
Whilst that this shadow doth such substance give
That I in thy abundance am sufficed,
And by a part of all thy glory live.
   Look what is best, that best I wish in thee:
   This wish I have; then ten times happy me! (Shakespeare, Sonnet 37)

 William wrote of Hamnet many times over the years, such inspirations seen beyond Sonnet 37.  Some speculate that William wrote about Hamnet to keep his memory alive, to preserve and remember his only son. In Sonnet 33, quatrain 1, Shakespeare speaks of the sun, comparing Hamnet to that which makes the world a better place. By the time you reach quatrain 3, Shakespeare speaks to the loss of the sun, perhaps referencing the loss of his own son Hamnet. He speaks of the shortened time the sun was his, perhaps alluding to Hamnet’s short life as the sonnet shifts in tone from speaking of the sun, now referring to a person.

“Even so my sun one early morn did shine,
With all triumphant splendour on my brow;
But out, alack, he was but one hour mine,
The region cloud hath mask’d him from me now.” (ll 9-12)

 With so much evidence pointing to Shakespeare authoring his sonnets (and the inspirations for them), Shakespearean scholars remain adamant there can be no question as to who truly wrote Shakespeare’s work. And yet, even with so many works to his name, the case regarding authorship of the sonnets and plays attributed to Shakespeare seems to stem from the lack of information about his life. What is known comes from written documentation, though such documentation is limited in scope to a few signatures, records of his marriage to Anne Hathaway, the birth of their children, a will, and some papers that are to do with business ventures, but have nothing to do with his writing career. (Murphy 17) The biggest justification for so much doubt about the authorship stems from the lack of “proof’ that he authored these works. Over the centuries there are many who have voiced their doubts, claiming that a man from such humble educational origins could never have composed such works, seeking to attribute these works to other authors of the day like Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe as likely candidates for the true authorship of such plays as The Contention and Caesar’s Revenge. (Murphy 49) Indeed, there are moments in plays such as Shakespeare’s I Henry VI where, “a co-authorship was detected with fellow writer Thomas Nashe.” (Murphy 3 p112)

  It wasn’t unheard of for playwrights to partner, to work together on a play. There are many examples of such co-authorships. According to Murphy, “Elizabethan-era playwrights sometimes worked together, as theater manager Philip Henslowe’s Diary attests. Indeed, scholars have detected co-authorship in Shakespeare’s I Henry VI (with Thomas Nashe), Titus Andronicus (with George Peele), Pericles (with George Wilkins), Timon of Athens (with Thomas Middleton), and Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen (both with John Fletcher). 4 Thus, the byline “Shakespeare” includes at least six authors. Any given play might be the work of more than one author, even when only one person received title page credit.” (Murphy 5) This could certainly explain why even though William Shakespeare’s name appears on the title page (receiving credit for the work), the influence of other writers, their voices, can be seen in so many of Shakespeare’s works. Plays were often revised, and the printed version of the play, the final version, may contain revisions by an author other than the writer. This could have occurred through editing, translations, or changes made over time by someone other than the original author. (Murphy 9) As writing styles change, it’s also conceivable that an author may have edited their own work, and this too could allow for changes in writing style. This could account for some of the changes to Shakespeare’s work. (Gibson 101)

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 Shakespearean scholars have long cited the changes to William’s work over the course of the years. Early on, Shakespeare’s plays were mainly histories, such as Henry VI (Parts I, II, and III), Richard II and Henry V. The lone exception to these histories was Romeo and Juliet, a single tragic love story, which still speaks to the destructive nature of power hungry rulers and base desires. Following the histories came the comedies, lighter plays like A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare’s plays changed noticeably after 1600, his new work focused on tragedies. In his final years of writing, Shakespeare wrote what are known as the Tragicomedies, tales of loss and human temperament interwoven with a comedic undertone (also embracing forgiveness, self discovery and emotional growth). The Winter’s Tale is such a play.  Coming back to co-authorship, it has been documented that while Shakespeare certainly worked on his plays, he did have co-authors. Vickers cites the idea that Shakespeare was the sole author of his plays came about in the First Folio, citing that, “it established the image of Shakespeare as the sole author of all the plays it contained, an image which persists to the present day.” (Vickers p 8) Without the publication of the ‘First Folio’ in 1623, many of Shakespeare’s plays (roughly half of them) would have been lost. We might never have known about such plays as Macbeth, Julius Caesar and The Tempest. The ‘First Folio’ is a critical piece of Shakespearian history. While Shakespeare did author his plays, it can be said he had a little help along the way. This theory is not true of all Shakespeare’s plays, but it can be shown that he had help with at least a few, such as Titus Andronicus, a partnership with George Peele. (Hoenselaars)

 Droeshout portrait. Title page William Shakespeare’s First Folio 1623

 These partnerships certainly confirm that though Shakespeare did indeed author his plays and poems, he (like many other authors of the day) likely had some help in editing, writing and producing the final product. Shakespearian authors cite William’s acting career as one of his key causes for success, the fact that his experience allowed him to keep an eye on theatrical fashions of the day. His acting experience allowed him to look at trends in wordplay, fashionable plays of the day. William was particularly skilled with adapting stories to the stage, rewriting materials from history, myth and legend, translating those stories into contemporary plays of the day that even the ‘common folk’ could relate to. (Vickers 2008) Shakespeare wrote for the same acting company, The King’s Men (formerly known as The Lord Chamberlain’s Men), for most of his career.

 For many years William and The King’s Men performed his plays at the Globe Theatre, perhaps the source for so much of William’s inspiration in writing. Shakespeare was able to observe first hand the successes of his work, and being an actor himself, he could alter or adjust his writing style to play to the crowd, to the trends of the day. This too could account for some of the differences in Shakespeare’s writing style over the years. As English evolved, so too did the wordplay in Shakespeare’s plays, designed to resonate with the crowds whose patronage kept the players afloat. Shakespeare was a part owner in The Globe, sharing ownership with other players in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Globe was eventually closed down in 1642 due to the Puritans, but the rich history of The Globe must certainly have inspired William. Here he had a testing ground to see how his plays were received, and it was not uncommon to adjust the scripts many times before the final printing was complete. (Vickers 2008)

 Shakespearian contemporaries can certainly see how the actors in The King’s Men influenced William’s writing, with more serious roles such as King Lear being written for Richard Burbage and the more comedic roles seemingly inspired by actors like Will Kemp and Robert Armin. These actors would have influenced William’s portrayal of such characters as Puck (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and Hamlet (potentially a character meant for Richard Burbage to play). With so much evidence pointing to Shakespeare’s as the true author of his work, there remain those who would naysay The Bard as the true playwright of so many successful plays.

 From his humble beginnings in Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare rose to find his place among the contemporaries of his day, authors such as Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe. William found his place among The King’s Men, and through innovation with fellow authors, partnerships and practice, Shakespeare emerged a worthy playwright and poet in his day. Regardless of education or family, Shakespeare proved himself to be dedicated to his craft, foregoing family time for his career. With the help of his colleagues collecting his plays, the ‘First Folio’ (published in 1623) introduced many to The Bard we study today. At a time when paper trails were scarce and documentation limited, the words of others speak to the man responsible for such plays as Romeo and Juliet and Henry VIII. Indeed, William Shakespeare not only authored his many plays and sonnets, but he laid the groundwork for a standard that many future authors and poets would aspire to.


  • Gibson, H. N. (2005). The shakespeare claimants : a critical survey of the four principal theories concerning the authorship of the shakespearean plays. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu
  • Gieskes, E., & Melnikoff, K. (Eds.). (2013). Writing Robert Greene: essays on England’s first notorious professional writer. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd..
  • Hoenselaars, A. J. (2012). The Cambridge companion to Shakespeare and contemporary dramatists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Pre
  • Hoffman, C. (1955). The murder of the man who was Shakespeare. London: M. Parrish.
  • Maguire, L., & Smith, E. (2012;2013;). 30 great myths about shakespeare (1. Aufl. ed.). GB: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Matz, R. (2010). THE SCANDALS OF SHAKESPEARE’S SONNETS. ELH, 77(2), 477-508. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40664640
  • Murphy, D. N. (2013). The marlowe-shakespeare continuum : christopher marlowe, thomas nashe, and the authorship of early shakespeare and anonymous plays. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu
  • Pierce, P. (2004, 05). The great shakespeare fraud. History Today, 54, 4-5. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu/docview/202817424?accountid=8289
  • Potter, L. (2012). Life of william shakespeare : a critical biography. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy2.apus.edu
  • Sonnet XXXIII. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/33
  • Sonnet XXXVII. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.shakespeares-sonnets.com/sonnet/37
  • Vickers, B. (2008). Shakespeare, co-author: A historical study of five collaborative plays. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.


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