20/08/2013 12:55 BST | Updated 20/08/2013 12:55 BST

Shakespeare by No Other Name

I might have started my journey with Shakespeare as an anti-Shakespearean. Well, at least, that's what anti-Shakespeareans believe will happen to you if only you open your mind and let the enlightening rays of truth in. I clearly remember the first lecture on Shakespeare at university. Open swung the door and in came the lecturer waving in her hands a journal with Shakespeare's signatures and portraits and out flew, self-consciously, the first sentence: "Shakespeare never wrote those plays!" What followed was a dismissive rant about Shakespeare and Stratford-upon-Avon. Luckily, I never had enough imagination to be turned into an Oxfordian. I was bored at the lectures. Shakespeare's creativity with language, the simpleness, subtlety and ludicity of his texture was what really tickled my mind.

The so-called authorship controversy has been around for a good while to annoy academics, confuse newcomers to Shakespeare and to promote tiring ideas about a hollow version of alternative history. Anti-Shakespearean theories make devout efforts to create an anti-historical truth where everyone else is worthy of being Shakespeare but Shakespeare himself. Where they preach about a "better" author with a better education, academics and Shakespeare professionals are dubbed "Establishment" protecting Shakespeare of Stratford. Reason and respect are expected for theories so utterly unreasonable and disrespectful.

Recently, a number of esteemed Shakespeare professionals have produced a comprehensive and informed book on the topic. Shakespeare Beyond Doubt: Evidence, Argument, Controversy is edited by Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells and published by Cambridge University Press.


The need for an organised response arose after the release of the widely sensationalised epic failure of a film called Anonymous which should fairly much irritate even the Oxfordians by its overdone distortion of history.

If it [Anonymous] had followed its own plot to its logical conclusion, then Oxford would have conducted a homosexual affair with the Earl of Southampton, Oxford's own biological son by an incestuous union with his own mother. ... these implied relationships do not prove that Oxford was William Shakespeare, but they do prove that he was John Milton, for how but by personal experience could Milton have conceived the variously incestuous trio in Paradise Lost, Satan, Sin and Death? -- Alan H. Nelson

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt consists of three parts. In "Sceptics", the authors take a close look at the roots of anti-Shakespeareanism which started in 1856 when an American lady named Delia Bacon became determined to prove Shakespeare was, in fact, Francis Bacon. Like bubonic plague, the idea infected many others and today there are over 70 candidates promoted for a post they will never get. Among other prominent candidates are Marlowe, Edward de Vere - 17th Earl of Oxford, and Elizabeth I.

Mathematically, each time an additional candidate is suggested, the probability decreases that any given name is the true author. -- Matt Kubus

In "Shakespeare as Author", the scholars expand on interesting topics like extant allusions to Shakespeare to 1642, Shakespeare's collaboration with other playwrights, his schooling. The chapter by David Kathman on Shakespeare's Warwickshire connections and the Warwickshire words in his plays is especially noteworthy.

In general, anti-Shakespearians' depictions of sixteenth-century Stratford-upon-Avon and Warwickshire are rooted in distortions, driven by an irrational hatred of William Shakespeare of Stratford and all he represents. Those who would deny Shakespeare's authorship and disparage his home town must turn a blind eye to a mountain of evidence showing that Stratford's leading residents, including Shakespeare's closest friends there, were educated and cultured by just about any standard. -- David Kathman

MacDonald P. Jackson shows how stylometric analysis of Shakespeare's texture proves the collaborative nature of the works. Anti-Shakespeareans, instead, automatically deny this evidence by favouring a proposition that a single author with a better formal education penned the canon.

In the final part of the book, "A Cultural Phenomenon: Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?", the scholars ruminate on the cultural, political, fictional treatments of Shakespeare's authorship. Stuart Hampton-Reeves looks at the bombastically named Declaration of Reasonable Doubt which invites signatures from people doubting Shakespeare's authorship. The website triumphantly lists the merely 470 people of "academic status" - whereas ironically, it is usually the academia which is under anti-Shakespeareans' attack for supposedly deifying Shakespeare. The statistics Hampton-Reeves presents only go to show how few are the academics out there interested in promoting anti-Shakespeareanism in formal education.

The book ends with a logical and conclusive Afterword by James Shapiro. The selected reading list provided by Hardy M. Cook and the Notes speak about the highly professional level of the essays in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt.

Among other Shakespeareans, Paul Edmondson's intelligent and organised regular responses to anti-Shakespearean (ad)ventures are particularly rewarding. I have repeatedly used the term anti-Shakespearean, and not anti-Stratfordian, throughout the review. The former is a more precise term which Edmondson has put into current use. As Edmondson similarly observes, to consider the playwright's roots as unworthy of his creations is to deny Shakespeare himself.

Shakespeare Beyond Doubt shows, once more, that the fickle authorship controversy still exists not because there is no evidence that Shakespeare was Shakespeare but because anti-Shakespeareans refuse to acknowledge it and prefer the creative route of constructing an imaginary and speculative truth. History does not work like that. It is not a Hollywood movie.

Those who fail to be able, for snobbish or other 'ignorant' reasons, to locate the genius of the work in Shakespeare of Stratford, have failed to do what the editors of the First Folio in their prefatory epistle demanded: which is, that we should 'Read him.' -- Barbara Everett

... Time has passed. My former Oxfordian lecturer is a colleague today and, as I have discovered of late, favours Roger Manners - 5th Earl of Rutland, now. It speaks volumes about anti-Shakespeareanism, doesn't it?