The professor messaged the journalist on the down-low.
He was--to be blunt--afraid. Despite all his learning, despite his post at a most prestigious university, still, the credibility of this man, perhaps all he had worked so hard to attain, was potentially fragile. All might collapse beneath him, if he publicly broke the taboo.
Under seal of a journalist's confessional, though, he was willing to speak the truth: in his opinion, those iconic works we know as Shakespeare's plays might not, in fact, have been composed by William Shakespeare (1564-1616) of Stratford-Upon-Avon.
The two connected on his near-empty campus while the new plague lay heavy on the land. The professor led the journalist to a nearby restaurant for a "distanced lunch." There questioned, he laid out the bind:
No aspiring academic could afford to query Shakespeare's identity; its charter was far too strong. And if a curious student finally clears the academic gantlet, gaining the haven of tenure? By then, they would be locked into their place in the established structure of scholarship. Small chance of divagation then.
The professor himself took the stance that the poet-playwright's identity can never be known for certain, and doesn't matter. We have the plays themselves; that is what counts.
Yet, when the writer spoke of a project she was mulling--a possible book on the "authorship question" as it stands today--the professor didn't waffle.
The journalist in the case, Elizabeth Winkler, was meeting with this anonymous professor because back in 2019, she had unwittingly pulled the pin on a grenade.
Questioning the identity of the author of Shakespeare plays has long been a hot button in literary studies.
The first person to publish a detailed theory of alternate authorship, an American woman named Delia Bacon, proposed that--because writing plays was considered a low-class pursuit--the polymath and prolific writer (no relation of hers) Sir Francis Bacon had employed the name of "William Shakespeare" as a pseudonym.
Delia Bacon's theory attracted some impressive support in the Anerican literary community. She also had the misfortune to die, many years later, in a lunatic asylum. Ever since, the whole topic--later taken up by other amateur enthusiasts espousing different theories--has been marked by connotations of insanity.
(It didn't help that another prominent candidate, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was championed by a man who bore the surname Looney.)
There is much more to the story than that, however. Denied, disparaged, but never quite extinguished, inquiry into the "authorship question" continued bubbling away. Continued to entrain some quite intelligent people. And sometines produced, as a byproduct, genuine discoveries.
So Winkler, a Princeton graduate with an M.A. in English literature from Stanford, had the nerve to speculate, in a 2019 piece for the Atlantic magazine, on whether Shakespeare's plays--long noted for their sensitivity towards women's feelings and experience, despite the supremely male-centric ethos of the era--might just possibly have been written by a woman. Specifically, a woman named Emilia Bassano.
Winkler wrote "in a spirit of inquiry"--and was by no means the first writer ever to suggest a woman author, or even this woman author. Let alone the first to address the whole authorship subject in mass media during our lifetime.
The explosion shook her. Within two days, Winkler relates,
...I was besieged by a (mostly male) army of Twitter trolls...the sudden, jarring buzzing [of her phone]...sending little jolts of dread through my fraying nerves.
...[T]he outrage flowed fluently off the platform and into several attack articles....[A] British journalist...accused me of "conspiracism," associated me with Holocaust deniers...and called for the Atlantic to retract....Shakespeare Magazine suggested I suffered from "Shakespeare derangement syndrome." [Another critic] found that I was in the grip of "neurotic fantasies."
One award-winning professor and Shakespeare biographer equated any questioning of the authorship with "conspiracy theories."
Fortunately for Winkler, support arrived as well, from some distinguished names. In the end, the Atlantic issued only one minor correction.
And Winkler meditated. The verbal assaults made her reflect. Did this extrene reaction in itself deserve a closer look?
The result: that meeting on campus. And a book.
Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies: How Doubting the Bard Became the Biggest Taboo in Literature. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2023.
What a read she has made of it. A tapestry. History. Historiography. Philosophy. Psychology. Academic politics. Social history. Interpersonal drama.
Geographically, the journey took her from the U.S. eastern seaboard to the English countryside, as well as London.
Sociologically, from the ahistorical "kitsch" that was almost all Winkler could find in Stratford-Upon-Avon, to the 16th-century farmhouse of a scion descended from two English aristocracies--one literary, the other historical and linked to three different Shakespeare candidates: Alexander Waugh.
Through time, from the 1500s, with lookbacks into the Middle Ages, and station-stops in every century since.
The tidy, "almost spartan" home of a professor at a historically Black college in Maryland, Roger Stritmatter, who earned his Ph.D. for a dissertation that analyzed handwritten notes in an antique Bible--and from them, argued that the Shakespeare plays most likely were authored by de Vere.
The "secret jewel-box" house of a London scholar, Ros Barber, who received her Ph.D. for a thesis enshrined in a verse novel, suggesting that "Shakespeare" the author could have been a man thought dead before a word was published under Shakespeare's name: the brilliant and scandal-plagued shoemaker's son, poet and playwright and probable spy, Christopher Marlowe. (But that was an exercise concerning facts and narrative; Barber's not doctrinaire about it.)
The imposing Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., whose collection, far too large for any one person to know what is there, quite possibly contains hidden treasure--somewhere. A monumental stately home, now a tourist and film-set site, where once upon a time, another proposed "Shakespeare" candidate, Mary Sidney Herbert, formed the center of an unparalled literary circle.
The Brixton home of actor-director Mark Rylance and musical director Claire Van Kampen, formerly leaders at the reconstructed Globe theater in Southwark. Rylance left the Globe after 10 years as its founding artistic director, "deeply mourned," Winkler reports, but, "exhausted by arguments with the Education Department and the literary community," as to whether doubts about the authorship deserved even mild acknowledgement. One of England's most notable defenders of "Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare" literally pulled Rylance's beard. The actor was compared to "lizard people" conspiracy theorist David Icke.
Of the "heretics" Winkler met on her voyage (whether "anti-Stratfordians" or agnostics), many described how they began with typical acceptance of the standard Shakespeare narrative.
[A]ll the doubters I know love Shakespeare. It is their love that makes them look too closely. (p. 123)
And they were welcoming to a journalist who merely wanted to survey the field.
Eminent "Stratfordians," on the other hand, proved standoffish, once they understood Winkler's mission.
Sir Stanley Wells, much-decorated Stratford native, Shakespeare editor, author and former honorary president of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, at first agreed to an interview, canceled on learning who Winkler was, then agreed again reluctantly. "Academic rock star" and best-selling Shakespeare biographer Stephen Greenblatt put off Winkler for several months, finally spoke to her via Zoom from Italy, and abruptly cut off the call after 20 minutes. Jonathan Bate, another highly lauded Shakespeare authority, of Oxford University, never answered her interview request.
Winkler found the two Stratfordians she did interview unacquainted with historical details that "anti-Stratfordians" have uncovered and consider, at the least, strongly suggestive. The same was true of "one of the most powerful women in the academic world," Shakespeare scholar and author of 20 books, Marjorie Garber, who told Winkler, "That's [meaning biography] not what I do."
Bottom line: "Stratfordians" in general were dismissive and declined to address specifics. Dissidents, if willing to go on record at all, proved forthcoming and generous with their time. Another sort held the whole topic gingerly at arm's length.
But if Stratfordians don't choose to use precious time in talking over alternate theories with dissidents or random journalists, is that bad? Perhaps such persons do, in fact, have nothing to contribute worth anyone's attention?
Suppose that's true. Even then, Winkler's book remains interesting. It is full of detail that engages in itself, an array of tendrils connecting to writers and philosophers through the centuries--and a set of footnotes itself worth exploration.
But in fact there is no warrant for dismissal even of enthusiastic amateurs as a class. Some, of course, are out of their depth. But
"I'm hard-pressed to think," [University of Illinois history and theater professor Carol Symes] told [Winkler], "of another realm of scholarly discussion in which real, interesting scholarship is being done by people outside the academy, which is threatening to people in the academy." (p. 18)
She runs through the Stratfordian version of events that most of
us grew up with, noting--as scholars have done for generations--the lamentable dearth of documents connecting "the Stratford man" with his presumptive output. She adds a critique of those snippets of anecdote composing much of the man's legend (deer poaching, libel, holding men's horses at the doors of taverns and so on), when they originated, and with whom, and how each propagated. Once this is done, and some leaps of logic in the interpretation of cryptic references pointed out, no question, the metaphorical portrait does appear to consist of more holes than canvas.
She takes us through time, illustrating how doubts about "the authorship" appeared quite far back. Poor Delia Bacon was far from the first to question--or seemingly, hint--that something was "off" about the attribution.
How Shakespeare became "deified" as an exemplar and symbol of Englishness itself, and why, is another interesting subject.
Much is owed, Winkler explains, to public relations in the form of a special event engineered by the celebrated actor and self-publicist David Garrick in 1769. His Shakespeare Jubilee proved something of logistical flop, much more successful when reenacted, several times, by Garrick on the London stage.
Now, once a year, a near-religious festival repeats. As part of it, some schoolboy ceremonially renews, with a fresh feather, the quill that Garrick first placed the the hand of Shakespeare's half-length effigy in the parish church. An odd apparent palimpsest of a monument, where Winkler bestowed some time in contemplation.
The history of English studies as a discipline sheds another sidelight.
From its small clergyman-led beginnings in the early 1800s, Winkler relates, English literary studies were promoted as a counterweight to political dissidence; a means to instill "pride in the cultural riches of Britain and the achievements of their countrymen" (p. 149 ). Such studies including, above all, the reading of Shakespeare, were considered especially suitable for women, as opposed to more "masculine" disciplines such as classical languages and mathematics. Texts were expurgated to protect childish and feminine modesty. Shakespeare found his way into the burgeoning Empire's civil service exams, definining even for native applicants the very quintessence of what it mean to belong.
The standard biography served these purposes well.
Born and died, according to canon (filled out by surmise) on the feast day of England's patron, St. George. Beginnings respectable, but so typical as to go barely recorded. Minimal education. "Lost years," mistily filled with dubious anecdote and speculation. Sudden appearance in London, fully feathered. Rising to pole star of the English stage. Personal tragedy. The plays and poems, expressing so much they seem to speak for all of us on some level, so full of linguistic virtuosity, layers, and enigma.
Attainment of a family crest, restoring honor to a humbled parent. Retirement to his village roots. Near-apotheosis. Immortal fame. A triumphant, secular variation on the medieval play of Everyman. Anyone, any Englishman, at least, might grow up to be a phoenix. How could one not be proud to share in such a heritage?
And most of us default to that story, less from close inspection than through familiarity. We've heard it over and over. We learned it from people with authority. We learned it from people we trust.
Here's the aspect that I enjoyed most of all in Winkler's tale: the "meta" mystery of how--in general--we do, or do not, know what we know.
It is the selfsame question that besets us in the fields of news gathering, public affairs, and even science. Through Winkler's lively quest, the abstract query is vividly embodied.
What various positions people in this field have taken on the same or overlapping evidence! Certainty, alternate certainties, uncertainty, openness, playfulness, outright dismissal of the whole question: "That's not what I do," or even, "It doesn't matter."
There surely are some things in the Shakespearian canon, and personal history, that seem hard to explain. Why, as a single example, should the characters in Love's Labors Lost just happen to duplicate, in some detail, events in 1578, at the court of Navarre? How did the playwright apparently get access to numerous unpublished manuscripts from which he evidently drew? How did he seem to know in such fine-grained detail the geography of Italy, and aa well the "gear and tackle and trim" of so very many trades, including the law and alchemy? Why is the grave in Stratford--per last eyewitness report--apparently empty?
What is the threshold for a historical inquiry, or hypothesis, to be taken seriously? When can it legitimately be tossed on the dung heap, as "fake news"?
The hidden history of women writers in Renaissance England--still in emerging--comes in for Winkler's attention in this regard. Why would whoever "wrote Shakespeare" even need a pseudo identity? Like members of the aristocracy, women could not pen plays publicly without censure. But recent evidence shows some did.
So, too, the period's love of literary puzzles, emblems, riddles, anagrams, and masked social commentary a clef. Students in the past went wrong by falling for a fallacious "Shakespeare code"; their error, however, does not exclude other kinds of covert communication, potentially capable of decryption. In the end by what criteria do we distinguish sly intent from our own projective imagination?
How does our own psychology create certain preferences in the forms of stories? Example: Stratfordians are apt to disparage Baconians and Oxfordians on the grounds of class prejudice, for denying that a youth from such humble background could have transmuted Stratford straw into gold at the Globe. Adherents on the other side reverse the accusation, on the grounds of baseless class prejudice against the idea that an aristocrat might also reveal brilliance as an artist. But in either case, how far does the presence of motivated reasoning in itself invalidate a particular argument?
One of the emerging stories I personally find attractive concerns a "policy of plays" as well as a "crew of courtly makers" referred to by contemporaries. Were at least some of the Shakespeare plays created as propaganda pieces under government direction? It would not be the first such enterprise. They have certain functioned so, since. Might we envision a workshop under patronage of some member of the nobility, drawing upon the knowledge and creativity of several writers? A workshop in the style of Renaissance painters? (But then--my own prejudice might sway me, after a career in government public communications.)
Can AI help to answer some of these questions? For a time it seemed so. Ros Barber, however, has analyzed programs that seemed to identify this or that collaborative hand in Shakespeare's works. She concluded that these programs are mathematically unsound.
The poet and playwright sometimes seems, as Winkler notes, more absence than presence, a perfect vehicle for readers to hallucinate what they will. How extraordinary is that?
I can see Winkler's book as a potentially interesting supplement in undergraduate studies of history, philosophy, and perhaps other disciplines, where students need to prepare themselves for the pleasures and pitfalls of evaluating evidence--while being aware of the complexities of their own, and other people's, possible mental blinkers.
Maybe the journey is the point. Maybe quest for truth can teach us most of all.
"A beautiful question," Rylance called it.
So Winkler found that around this topic there is fear. There is anger. Avoidance. Combative indignation. Contempt.
But also, in the shadows, a sense that something might just possibly be shifting.
At an exclusive private club in Washington, D.C., a social group formed to study the Shakespeare authorship came to outnumber a parallel group, engaged in traditional Shakespeare studies, producing internecine quarrel.
At Brunel University in England, "bog standard" Shakespeare
scholar William Leahy openly discarded the traditional attribution in the 2000s and created a Shakespeare Authorship Studies program, facing down a complaint to the university chancellor by Sir Stanley Wells.
Ros Barber created a popular online course on the authorship question, in which more than 13,000 people have participated. Though she stepped away herself when the labor--and online abuse--became over-burdensome, it continues to run.
Mark Rylance authored a play, I Am Shakespeare! in which each of several candidates get their say. On opening night, the audience stood spontaneously at the end, just as in the film Spartacus, and half of them voted for Mary Sydney--who confesses, "It was all of us!"
A poll in 2007 revealed that some 17% of U.S. English professors then entertained at least some doubts about the authorship question.
Is it possible that a shift could be in the offing, like the one that turned continental drift from a baseless fringe opinion into the science of plate tectonics?
And Winkler herself?
Having spent time with the adherents of all these varying viewpoints, Winkler wrote,
I was struck by the enigmatic perfection of the sonnets. They could be read as literary exercises of 'Will.' Turn them over, and they were Oxford's autobiographical confessions. Shift the light again, and they become Marlowe's. I had read interpretations of them as Mary Sidney's poems: a woman writing to a young man. And still others that saw a little clique of poets exchanging sonnets back and forth in conversation with one another. (315)
She still propounds no settled opinion.
"I'm continuing to write essays and book reviews, and I'm thinking about my next book project," Winkler replied in answer to an inquiry from me. "It will be another work of literary nonfiction, probably interview-based (I really loved doing the interviews for this book), but not on Shakespeare!"
Or I shall live your Epitaph to make,
Or you survive when I in earth am rotten,
From hence your memory death cannot take,
Although in me each part will be forgotten.
Your name from hence immortal life shall have,
Though I (once gone) to all the world must die,
The earth can yield me but a common grave,
While you entombéd in men's eyes shall lie.
Your memory shall be my gentle verse,
Which eyes not yet created shall o'er-read,
And tongues to be, your being shall rehearse,
When all the breathers of this world are dead.
You still shall live (such virtue hath my Pen),
Where breath most breathes, even in the mouths of men.
Elizabeth Winkler's website.
Winkler's 2019 article in the Atlantic.
A friend who sent me Winkler's book and persuaded me to write about it.
Elizabeth Winkler, for graciously answering a few questions. If I have anywhere mistaken her, the fault is mine.
All readers of whatever Shakespearian persuasion.
The Spirit of Inquiry; semper vivat.
The great world of Shakespeare enthusiasts, scholars and amateurs, actors and directors, poets and critics, historians and antiquaries, everyone through the ages who has kept these remarkable works alive....and most of all, whoever wrote them. :-)