Who was Shakespeare?

Who was ‘Shakespeare’? The truth is, we don’t quite know. Although we attribute 38 plays and 154 sonnets to a man named Shakespeare, there exists very little evidence of his literary propensity. Take for example the fact that Shakespeare had, at best, a very limited education and yet, he often wrote about classical literature and demonstrated an impressive familiarity with several languages. Or, the fact that no trace – particularly of any plays or poems – exists in Shakespeare’s hand besides six signatures (1). Anyway, the prospect that Shakespeare did not write the canonical works attributed to him is very real – and disquieting.

But could we be focusing on the wrong question? Simply echoing the plaid conundrum, “who was the real Shakespeare?” yields a more or less static answer consisting of all of the usual suspects: Sir Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, an occult group of writers, even Queen Elizabeth herself. However, what if we looked at the question from another perspective? Clearly, we are interested in knowing the origin(s) of Shakespeare’s works, but the real mystery is why?

We may be surprised to discover that medieval communities did not adhere to today’s ideology of authorship – in fact, it is quite likely that the concept of authorship was not really a concern in Shakespeare’s time either. As such, our modern quest for the real Shakespeare becomes “a pseudo-problem, an artefact of a different era” (2). Indeed, a deeper delve into history shows that every era re-constructs the Shakespeare question in a way that is most suited to its social and material circumstances. It is, therefore, no coincidence that the largely text-less medieval communities did not care much about distinguishing between authors while the text and image based societies of the 19th and 20th centuries had a highly valued history of authorship.

Yet, how should we define authorship and is it truly useful in the reading of a work? Catherine Belsey describes the role of an author’s biography as “not an aid to reading, but a substitute for it” (3), which “reduces the complexity that drew us to the work in the first place” (4).” How dependent should we be upon an author’s persona in order to be able to read his or her texts?

Victor Hugo’s statement that every literary work has two authors: the creator and the people (5) further adds to the complexity surrounding authorship. If a multitude of readers now have access to Shakespeare’s works are they to be considered authors, too? Today, even virtual monkeys attempted their hand at reproducing the works of Shakespeare (they came 99.9% to being complete) but does that mean that they ought to receive partial credit for his work?

Given our society’s ideological (i.e. open source and the Creative Commons) and technological (i.e. internet and mobile) developments it follows that we should be moving closer toward a co-creative and perhaps, author-less environment. This free-er exchange of ideas resembles the medieval communities that had no particular affinity for authorship and begs the question whether our attitude toward authorship is cyclical. Does history, indeed, repeat itself?

And yet, products like the new blockbuster film titled ‘Anonymous – was Shakespeare a fraud?’ highlight the other side of the coin: namely our capitalist society’s support for the cultural industry and fascination with intellectual property. Either way, once we reframe the focus of our Shakespearean investigation, it becomes possible to see that the authorship question is dynamic in character, which is precisely why it is still relevant and intrigues us today. Therefore, our understanding of ‘the master’ reveals as much about his being as it does about ours.

Photo: Shakespeare Games by anatoly on Picasa

(1) Maley, W. (2010) Malfolio: Foul Papers on the Shakespeare Authorship Question. Shakespeare and His Authors: Critical Perspectives on the Authorship Question. Pg. 23-40.

(2) M. Irvine, personal communication, October 14th, 2011

(3 and 4) Belsey, C. (2009). The death of the reader, Textual Practice, 23 (2), 201-14. Quotes from pages 212 and 211, respectively.

(5) Hugo, V. Wikipedia page: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Victor_Hugo

Katerina Girginova

Katerina holds a BA in Communication Studies from The George Washington University, in Washington D.C. Upon graduation she immersed herself into the world of work at the National Geographic Channel and is a former MA in the CCT program at Georgetown University. Katerina's academic interests include innovation, intercultural communication, rhetoric and media - she enjoys good ideas and great people.

  • Anonymous

    I really like this post, Katerina! One of my classes is now talking about the historical development of authorship and readership, and we read an article about ‘Anonymous – was Shakespeare a fraud?’. And I think the intellectual property of authorship really deserves more attention. There has been a discussion on protecting the intellectual property of authorship and meeting the public demand of literuture with little or no cost. That’s very interesting! – Shu

  • Maryz

    A very intellectual discussion Katerina.The authorship issue has been contested to the point of obsession.It makes me think?!? – Mary