I take a very dim view of conspiracy theories alleging that William Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays. I have been reading and studying the Bard for nearly 30 years, and I have yet to find compelling evidence that he isn’t exactly who we think he is.
Historically, this idea has been based in the notion that nobody of such base birth as Shakespeare could have been erudite enough to pen the most insightful English ever written. I’ve never found this to be a compelling argument. This week, there is a new and novel one.
In an article for The Atlantic, Elizabeth Winkler argues that a Jewish woman might have written Shakespeare’s plays. It’s not really much more crazy-sounding than most of the conspiracy theories, but it is much more of the current moment. In fact, I give Winkler credit for wondering if she is gendering Elizabeth England in modern terms. It seems clear that she is. The woman Winkler believes could have written Shakespeare’s plays is a well-known figure of the time.
Emilia Bassono was a woman about town in Elizabethan London: smart, well-educated, and possibly of Jewish descent. Some Shakespeare scholars believe she is the mysterious dark-haired woman mentioned in the sonnets. It is attractive by contemporary feminist standards to believe that maybe she was the genius behind the work we call Shakespeare’s. Although it leaves me unconvinced of its major thesis, the article is well worth reading, and whether she wrote or collaborated with Shakespeare or not, Bassono is a fascinating person.
One question Winkler brings up is worth exploring a bit: How did Shakespeare write women characters so effectively and honestly at a time when this was exceedingly rare? In today’s intersectional age, it’s easy to see why some would jump to the conclusion that a woman must have written these parts, but there is a simpler explanation. Shakespeare wrote better women characters than his contemporaries because he wrote better characters of every kind than did his contemporaries. Women, kings, soldiers, Jews, Moors, fairies, and a fountain of other characters flowed from his pen, all revealing a new style and substance in English writing.
How did Shakespeare do this? How was he able to create all of these characters with humor and speech so much more naturalistic than came from the other writers of the time? As is usually the case with the Bard, the clues are in the plays themselves. In their 1913 book, “The Facts About Shakespeare,” William Allen Neilson and Ashley Horace Thorndike provide a very useful chart regarding the use of meter and rhyme in the plays. This chart reveals a sea change in how Shakespeare considered and used language throughout his career.
“Love’s Labour’s Lost,” one of Shakespeare’s early comedies, contains 2,789 total lines, of which 1,028 are pentameter rhymes — that is to generally say, lines with ten syllables and five strong stresses that rhyme. By the end of his career, in “The Tempest,” there are 2,068 lines, of which a mere two are pentameter rhymes. In “The Winters Tale,” also written late in his career, there are no pentameter rhymes.
What Shakespeare did throughout his career was move away from the strict use of meter that had dominated the world of Middle English plays. In doing so, he created characters that sounded far more like actual human beings.
There were good reasons for the use of iambic pentameter and rhyme, not the least of which was helping actors to memorize their lines, just as we use metered rhymes to remember things. But to write in such a way, an author must sacrifice what he thinks a character might actually say in order to fit the small confines allowed by the prose style. As in the great ancient epic poems, this leads to characters that feel more like archetypes than like actual people.
But how do we know that Shakespeare’s move away from meter and rhyme was an effort to achieve greater naturalism? Well, he basically tells us so. In the speech to the players in “Hamlet” when the Danish prince is training his actors for the play within the play, he insists that the purpose of theater is to “Hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature.” He chides the going style of the day, where actors “saw the air” and overplay their parts. “Hamlet,” and by extension Shakespeare, was not written with that style in mind, but rather with a goal of appearing natural, real, and true.
So it should be no surprise that Shakespeare is the first to write women who sound like women, because he was the first to write people who sound like people. Ultimately this is the source of all the conspiracies, the centuries’-old mystery, and the fervent belief among some that the plays of Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare. In retrospect, what he achieved seems almost impossible, too revolutionary to be real or the work of just one man of humble origin.
Here we must remember that although the best and most compelling evidence shows us that Shakespeare was the “author” of his plays, theater is a collaborative art form. Not only could interactions with actors help form the plays, so could conversations with writers and poets in London’s small literary circles, including Bassano. The reason that playwright is not spelled playwrite is that plays are not written; they are wrought. They are beaten out, shaped and hammered, not to exist merely in the mind of a reader, but to appear in full physical form on the stage.
In the 19th century, for some Englishman the idea that someone of low class and little formal education could have written so elegantly offended their sensibilities. Likewise for some 21st-century feminists the idea that Shakespeare could have so beautifully captured the soul and speech of women does not jibe with their belief that identity, whether it’s sex, race, or myriad others, makes us impenetrable to each other, and unable to express what lies in another’s heart.
Accusations throughout the centuries that Shakespeare did not write his plays have typically tended to tell us more about the accuser than about the identity of the playwright. Every age has its own set of biases that seek to explain the improbable nature of Shakespeare’s genius.
It is compelling to wonder at and question the authorship. It makes us feel like characters in a mysterious Umberto Eco novel, always on the verge of some great historical discovery that will change how we think about everything.
But really, it was Shakespeare himself who changed how we think about everything. It is why he still captures and confounds our imaginations. It is why he is a person that we can never quite completely fathom.