Will's quill or not Will's quill...

...that is the question, but scholars are arguing over whether they should ask it. Matthew Reisz reports

September 29, 2011

Author, author? Anonymous has helped to reopen old scholarly wounds

"No might nor greatness in mortality/Can censure 'scape; back-wounding calumny/The whitest virtue strikes," observes Duke Vincentio in Measure for Measure.

Yet when William Shakespeare wrote the lines (if indeed he did), he could not have foreseen what he himself would suffer at the hands of those who doubt his genius.

Now, with a Hollywood film poised to drag the question of Shakespeare's authorship back into the spotlight, the two sides of the debate are squaring up like Romeo and Juliet's warring households - although perhaps without the dignity.

Roland Emmerich's film Anonymous, scheduled for release next month, makes the case that the works of Shakespeare were in fact written by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. In a pre-emptive response, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust has launched a website on which scholars, actors and enthusiasts give 60-second presentations asking "Was Shakespeare a Fraud?"

However, William Leahy, head of the School of Arts at Brunel University, was startled to discover one contributor questioning the "intellectual justification" of "degrees awarded to those doubting Shakespeare's authorship at Brunel and Concordia (Oregon) universities".

Such institutions, argues Victoria Buckley, a PhD student at the University of Sussex, "seek to disprove the research of generations of scholars and are in danger of obfuscating long-established critical approaches to the history and literary production of the period".

Dr Leahy has responded that such "trashing" of "a fully approved academic programme being run (in good faith) at a fellow UK higher education institution" is "a step too far". Not only does it shut down legitimate debate, he said, but also misrepresents the nature of Brunel's MA in Shakespeare Authorship Studies on the basis of a single unit and "a quick glance at some promotional material".

"Though it has certainly attracted some crazy views, I think that the Shakespearean authorship question is a major political, cultural and social phenomenon, which deserves serious investigation," he added.

Dr Leahy describes himself as a "sceptical Stratfordian" who rejects alternative candidates such as Oxford or Francis Bacon, but never-theless "finds it problematic that Shakespeare wrote all of the plays and poems attributed to him".

Whether through collaboration, revision, buying material from others or even what we would now call plagiarism, he believes Shakespeare is "an amalgamation of authors".

Ms Buckley told Times Higher Education that she has "yet to meet an early modern scholar who genuinely believes that someone, or a group of people, was pretending to be Shakespeare".

"Universities simply can't discuss every question," she said. "Scientists don't wish to debate with people who think the Earth is flat, nor historians with those who would have us believe Elizabeth I was a man."


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