What Difference Authorship Makes: Thoughts on the Shakespeare Debacle

Ok, so I am currently taking a Shakespeare class, and one of our assignments was to consider the many possible authors of Shakespeare’s works other than the man himself. So there was a lot of reading of articles and watching of films, etc. And apparently there are a lot of other dudes in the running for authorship of the plays and poems we know and love. I have thoughts on this (as I generally do on issues of who wrote what and why it matters), which I wanted to share with all of you. And this is one of those posts which will profoundly suck without your feedback because it will just be me on my weird literary theories soapbox if you let it. So please, tell me what you think guys!

And with that:

What difference does it make?

Let us suppose Shakespeare did not actually write the plays we attribute to him.  The way that this information affects us has to do with the way that we view literature in general.  For instance, if we view a literary work as significant on its own, without anything having to do with its author playing a role in its significance, we will say that these plays are still great plays.  If we view the authorship of a work as just as important as the work itself, we will say otherwise.  In my opinion, Shakespeare’s plays are still relevant to students in today’s classrooms whether or not they were actually written by Shakespeare himself.  I say this because I think when we read Shakespeare’s works we should be learning from them and allowing them to impact our lives because they are great works, not because Bill himself wrote them.  That is because the timelessness of the great books lives without and separate from the timelessness of their authors.

The contributions of Shakespeare’s plays to language and literature thus should still live without proof that he is their author.  For instance, we can still declare that “fair is foul, and foul is fair” without having heard that Shakespeare wrote Macbeth; we can still recite Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy and feel the passion of those words without having to associate them with a man behind the pen.  Especially in terms of Shakespeare’s poetry, we can still value his sonnets as some of the greatest ever written and find meaning in their messages without saying that they are his.  I think that is what makes this whole issue of who wrote these works such a non-issue at that.  Would the author of these works want to puff himself up and demand that his name be placed on these works?  No indeed.  The author of these works would say “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

I will say that it does make a difference to me in some ways, however, whether or not Shakespeare wrote these plays.  I believe he did, because it is important to me that the historical and artistic contexts of these plays are as they are because Shakespeare wrote them.  This seems to contradict my above statement, but I do still hold that literature is significant as literature without an author.  I just mean to say that I find a personal significance in the fact that these plays were written during Shakespeare’s time and by a bard who wasn’t noble or elite.  So should it matter that he wrote them? Not at all.  The work does not change when written by someone else.  But the context and social significance of the work do change when they are put to a different name.  So the contributions of this work remain no matter who wrote them, but the way we interpret them as actually existing in time and with cultural context do not.

Here’s a shot of our chill reading time lately:


One thought on “What Difference Authorship Makes: Thoughts on the Shakespeare Debacle

  1. I think historical context is important when interpreting a work in a scholarly way. I think that specific authorship is important if we know enough about the man that it changes the historical context of the work. Knowing the name of a Medieval author, for instance, only changes the historical context of the work if we know his class, for whom he wrote, etc. To use Shakespeare as an example, his history plays were written, as I recall, at the behest of the dynasty under which England was ruled. This would obviously tint certain characters unfavorable to Tudor rule (Richard III anyone?). Or how about Virgil, who wrote at a time when Roman patriotism was only just recovering from two generations of civil war, and who wrote under the patronage of the first of the great Roman monarchs?

    So, history matters a lot when viewing a work as a scholar. It can also affect how one interprets, internalizes, and values a work on a personal level. But it need not. I, for one, adore the historical nature of old works, precisely because, through them, we may perhaps gaze at the world through often uncomfortably alien eyes, behind which are seated brains that are pulsing with assumptions we no longer take for granted, prejudices we have since disowned, and values that we no longer think are so worthy. Such a broadening of perspective is, I think, of no mean worth.

    But, as we have discussed before, such historicism is not necessary to gain an appreciation for a piece of literature. I don’t need to know anything, for example, about gender roles in Medieval France to get something out of the 13th century romance “Silence.” (Read that, btw. Woman raised as a man, becomes knight, and her name is Silence, waaaaht?!). Similarly, I don’t need to know anything, really, about Richard II–or how the Tudors thought of him–to get oodles and oodles out of that brilliant character study (shall we talk of graves, of wounds, of epitaphs?)

    The main thing is that we read, that we think, that we discuss, and that we don’t get to hung up on the worst facets of academia and rampant scholasticism.

    Good article. Mayhaps you could post a review of your favorite play? (So, Richard II…)

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