08 November 2023

"Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies"

Several years ago I offered a recommendation for the best book about the Shakespeare authorship controversy.  Elizabeth Winkler is not the first to suggest that perhaps Shakespeare was a woman or that there were multiple authors of "Shakespearean" works.  What she does do is offer very well-informed presentations of all the candidates, incorporating her own interviews with conventional Stratfordian and modern "heretic" advocates.

The chapters that I found most interesting were the ones presenting the case for Christopher Marlowe as the author of many of the plays.  He had all of the necessary intellectual, educational, and social attributes, and in addition was deeply involved in the administration of Queen Elizabeth's governance.  Many modern scholars believe Marlowe was a spy for her.  The Marlovian theory of Shakespeare authorship notes that his death came after a supposedly drunken brawl which involved two other persons now considered to have been spies for Elizabeth.  The supposedly fatal blow was from being stabbed in the eye by a knife - an injury that might have disguised the actual identity of the body, which was examined not by a public coroner, but by one of Elizabeth's appointees.  After this public "death" (and the pardon of the supposed murderers!), Marlowe is suspected to have then traveled anonymously to the continent, where he could continue his spying under an assumed identity.  Curiously, just 13 days after Marlowe's "death" the first works of "Shakespeare" began appearing.  See the links for more details regarding Marlowe as the author - a suggestion that is repellant to "Stratfordians" and unappealing to "Oxfordians," but which is interesting to ponder.


  1. These Shakespeare theories can be fun, and I am interested in this book, but I wanted to share this counterview from Michael Lutz, early modernist and Shakespeare scholar at MIT: https://cohost.org/lutz/post/3264852-i-m-gonna-go-long-on

    Some highlights:
    "[i]n his time no one thought Shakespeare the greatest poet who ever lived. In his own moment and for the century or so after his death he was considered a "natural genius," which is to say, a guy with great talent but no discipline--his verse gets messy, he mixes generic modes too much, etc. For context, to call someone a "natural" in this time was equivalent to saying they had an intellectual disability!"

    "Shakespeare does not attain the superstar status we still currently attach to him until the late 1700s, with the advent of Romanticism, an aesthetic movement that is extremely antagonistic to the formalist prescriptions about artwork that Jonson subscribed to and which, up until then, were in fact the standards by which all European art was judged"

    "The first person to advance the hypothesis that Francis Bacon (and perhaps a few others) wrote Shakespeare's plays was a woman named Delia Bacon (no relation). Her basic argument was that the plays were so philosophically insightful and scientifically interesting a philosopher or scientist had to have written them. Crucially, nobody prior to the Romantic turn thought this way..."

    "How could a common tradesman like this Shakespeare possibly know so much about the works of Kings and Queens as demonstrated by his plays? (Note: plays are not reality! Everyone in Shakespeare's cohort wrote about royalty even though none of them were themselves aristocrats!) How could someone with so little schooling write something as philosophically complex as Hamlet? Clearly someone of great learning did it instead! (Note: people historically felt Hamlet was a fun character but thought the play was a fucking mess, not a philosophical treatise! And anyway, you don't have to be 'educated' to be thoughtful, curious, or philosophical!)"

    1. Oh, I'm quite familiar with the argument that being anti-Stratford is being "classist." That is a standard way of mocking the opposition. I'll write more about various aspects of this in the future. But do give the book at least a quick browse.

  2. Oliver Fuller (R.I.P. 2019), who went by the name of Oliver Elfhost, had a theory that the sonnets and plays of Shakespeare were actually written by Sir Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, but it didn't end there. Oliver could go on about it to fill any time available, involving real-time life connections between de Vere, western novelist Louis L'Amour, and Roy Orbison. He wasn't kidding; he was serious about every last facet of it. One time in the early oh-ohs he called me at KMFB to talk about this (KMFB, R.I.P. 2011). In the course of the conversation I asked him, "But didn't these people live hundreds of years apart?" He replied, "Do you have any idea how sabotaging that is, when you do that."

    When I went to get my shots at RiteAid last month I ran into the woman Oliver used to get arrested in the 1990s for beating up. That was when I found out he was dead (some kind of cancer), and also the baby they had together grew up and died, with a horrible story attached to that. It's weird getting old. The stories within stories about all the people you've known seem more and more like A.I.-generated nonsense, or like the theories about who wrote the works we formerly in our ignorance attributed to Adolf Shakespeare.

  3. To regard "Shakespeare" as signifying a person -- any person -- is a category error. "Shakespeare" is a body of work, whose value emerges from its unity, variety, and depth, and from the fact that much of it (perhaps not exactly all) speaks with one voice, and that voice is a distinctive one, not an anonymous of-the-time-and-place voice. So "Shakespeare" is also a metonymy for that voice, but it does not follow that it must also signify a historical individual, and particularly not that it must be possible to align it, milestone by milestone, with the (minimal) footprint that that person left in the embryonic public record. That is a 19th-Century-onward attitude toward biography and toward the typology of creative artists.

    The flip side of all this is that, if one finds a discrepancy(*) between "Shakespeare" the oeuvre and William Shakespeare a documented individual, it is not at all necessary, indeed not at all appropriate, to, as it were, emergently, as if shoring up a collapsing earthwork, slam another documented individual into the "empty" place. It isn't a place, and it isn't empty. We value "Shakespeare" for having been (mostly) written in one voice, and even more so, that voice one that understood its obligation to speak directly. Nothing else about the person behind the work is interesting, or would be interesting even if we knew it.

    (*) I find no discrepancy, but that is just me. I base my attitude upon being myself a creative artist, a composer. I know just enough about the differences between the ways in which lives and careers were documented in the 16th and 17th Centuries, versus the 19th and 20th, to understand that those differences cause most of the confusion. We would not believe in Samuel Johnson were it not for Boswell, and there are many other examples.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...