Bard, by any name, is still sweet

July 22, 2005

It's a noble idea that a team rather than one man wrote the works of Shakespeare, says William Leahy

The announcement by Michael Boyd, the artistic director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that the RSC intends to perform the entire canon of Shakespeare's works in a year from April 2006 has generated much excitement.

There is, however, a problem with Boyd's proposal, one expressed by the Shakespeare Authorship Conference, chaired by Mark Rylance and held at the Globe earlier this month. The conference, attended by about 100 delegates from within and on the fringes of academia, pondered the question: "Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?" This question, daft as it seems to many, was taken seriously by the conference and is taken more seriously by a growing number of academics.

Rylance, chairman of the Shakespeare Authorship Trust, believes that "the man from Stratford" would simply have been incapable of writing the plays.

He did not go to university and could not have written in such philosophical depth using original source material in Latin, Greek, French, Spanish and Italian. Rylance's group believes the plays could have been composed by a writing team chaired by Francis Bacon that included figures such as Edmund Spenser and Edward De Vere, Earl of Oxford. While this may seem unlikely to most of us, Rylance et al state that this is a possibility that merits further investigation.

Some interest groups who attended the conference posited the most fantastic theories, arguing for Christopher Marlowe or, indeed, De Vere as the secret, sole author of the entire canon. The possibility of an alien having written the plays was also mooted...though only in fun.

Many would say that such fanciful theories are no threat to the status of Shakespeare as author because they are simply preposterous. This is true in many cases. However, another theory raised at the conference poses a far greater threat to the status of the Bard, not least because it has increasing support from academics. This view states that many, if not all, of the plays attributed to Shakespeare were not written by him alone but were, as was common practice at the time, written in collaboration with one or a number of other playwrights.

As it stands, The Two Noble Kinsmen and King Henry VIII are believed to be collaborations between Shakespeare and John Fletcher, who took Shakespeare's place as "playwright-in-residence" when he retired. But the authorship of many more of the plays, including Pericles , Titus Andronicus, Timon of Athens, Henry VI and Macbeth , is increasingly being questioned. A close textual analysis of Pericles reveals that the author of the first two acts writes very differently from the author of the final three. In this case, it is believed that the largely unknown George Wilkins was the author of acts I and II.

Many of those who question Shakespeare's genius merely wish to put another genius in his place, be it Marlowe, Bacon, Darth Vader or someone else. But many others find that the notion of collaboration produces a better understanding of the plays and the culture that gave rise to them. There is something noble and humane in the idea that the profound matters discussed in the plays were the products of many minds, perhaps working together in an attempt to contemplate concerns pertinent to the commonality within society, rather than those of a "man before his time".

William Leahy is director of English studies at Brunel University.

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