Keep Questioning Shakespeare’s Identity

Debating the authorship of the bard’s plays can only expand appreciation for his work, a Shakespearean actor writes.

Dean Conger / Corbis Historical / Getty
Editor’s Note: This article is one in a series of responses to Elizabeth Winkler’s article, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?,” in the June issue of the magazine.

Curiosity is one of the most permanent and certain characteristics of a vigorous intellect.
—Samuel Johnson

If we did not know how Vincent van Gogh learned to paint, we might ask how such remarkably original paintings came into existence. If we did not know that Mozart was exposed to music at an early age, we might ask how such heavenly music came into existence. If Serena Williams had arrived on an international tennis court with little or no evidence of ever having swung a tennis racket, we would definitely be asking how she was capable of her amazing serve. In fact, in all of these examples we do know how these events came to be, and still sometimes we ask: How did they do that?

Questions arise naturally around remarkable events in human history. Did you see that? Did you hear that? Can you believe that? Some people, perhaps the wisest, are happy to say, “It’s a mystery.” Some seek to explain and understand. Inevitably, people who are trying to do the same thing—in these cases, artists, composers, tennis players—study the evidence carefully. Mike Tyson charged across the ring with the force of a raging bull partly because he had studied for hours and hours all the masters of the ring who had come before.

I am an actor of Shakespeare. I also like to create new drama in the theater and on film and television. I fell in love with Shakespeare in an American high school when I was 16, and since that day have considered the Shakespeare plays to be the greatest drama humanity has ever created, the masterpieces in my field. I have been extremely fortunate. At 22, I was acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon; at 28, I was playing Hamlet and Romeo there. At 35, I was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, in London. I have appeared in more than 50 different productions of plays by Shakespeare and his contemporaries. These works, more than any other art that exists, have transformed my life and introduced me to a myriad of people all over the world who love Shakespeare as I do, many of whom ask the same question I do: How were the works of Shakespeare created? Naturally.

That is the natural response when something remarkable happens. It has been vital to my survival as an artist to understand how they were created.

Now, the work of Shakespeare is all the more remarkable than, say, the work of van Gogh or Mozart or Williams, because though you can be born with genius, you cannot be born with book learning or life experience. As Samuel Johnson says, “Nature gives no man knowledge, and when images are collected by study and experience, can only assist in combining or applying them. Shakespeare, however favoured by nature, could only impart what he had learnt.” In Shakespeare’s case, we have no evidence of any education, or of the extensive reading in many languages and the wide experience of life apparent in the works. When I seek answers for this unorthodox situation outside Shakespearean orthodoxy, I am not, as I have been accused, “biting the hand that feeds me.” I am trying to grasp it.

Recently, The Atlantic published an article by Elizabeth Winkler, who has carefully researched another remarkable aspect of the authorship apparent in the works of Shakespeare. The women characters, of all ages and classes, comedic and tragic, are fantastically well written, far surpassing the writing of women by any contemporaries. In fact, I have come to believe Shakespeare’s women far surpass in their variety and humanity the writing of women characters by any other dramatist, including Ibsen, Chekhov, and, indeed, Euripides. What do you think?

So now, for me, however the works of Shakespeare were created, the creator had not only extensive book learning, languages, vocabulary, and life experience, but also the greatest understanding of women any playwright has ever displayed. What would be the next question you might ask? Naturally.

Winkler and The Atlantic have been attacked so virulently for daring to ask whether a woman might have been involved in the creation of the works of Shakespeare that I feel I must enter once again this fray, where I know I too will now be attacked and insulted for asking such a question.

You may not like the way I act Shakespeare—only McDonald’s hopes everyone loves their burgers—but I can with all honesty say that being uncertain about how the works of Shakespeare were created and who was involved has in no way endangered, diminished, or restricted in any fashion my love, my understanding, or my ability to make a living playing Shakespeare. I would argue, on the contrary, that it has opened my consciousness to a much wider awareness of the universal beauty and multicultural, multidimensional appreciation of the work of Shakespeare that exists in so many different people in so many different ways—even in Tolstoy, who hated Shakespeare! How wonderful is that?

The play I wrote at 47, a comedy of identity crises called I Am Shakespeare, concluded with many members of the audience standing up and shouting, “I am Shakespeare!” Yes, you’re right. The music from Spartacus was swelling to a crescendo behind them. I had shown them a clip of the film and compared the authorship question to that famous moment when Kirk Douglas, as Spartacus, is hidden among the slaves, unidentifiable. Lawrence Olivier, as Crassus, demands that they reveal the true Spartacus to him, or he will slaughter them all. As Douglas does the honorable thing and begins to rise and surrender himself, Tony Curtis (playing Antoninus)—and eventually all the other men—rise to shout, “I am Spartacus,” confounding the authorities. I believe whoever wrote Shakespeare’s work hid himself—or herself—purposefully to allow each of us to be a creative author ourself rather than subject to a presiding authority. Either the man from Stratford did it, never writing or receiving or keeping any letters or books, etc., or someone else did it, attributing the works to him.

Anonymity, the search for identity, is at the heart of the work. Our uncertainty about who wrote these plays is a very positive aspect of them. It allows us to identify deeply with them.

Since 1989, when my doubt was born, I have been trying to understand the self-righteous anger that occurs whenever anyone questions the identity of the author of the works of Shakespeare. It doesn’t occur everywhere, of course. You can imagine all kinds of things about the identity, and be paid good money to assert them, as long as you stick to the name of William Shakespeare.

All sorts of liberties are allowed within the rules of the academic publishing world. William Shakespeare can be Catholic or Protestant. He can travel here and there or stay home and learn everything from travelers in a pub. He can be gay, or straight, or bisexual; a schoolteacher, a lawyer’s clerk, someone who held horses outside the theater. You can spend the year of 1599 with him in London. As Mark Twain so aptly wrote, “Shall I set down the rest of the great Conjecture which constitute the giant Biography of William Shakespeare? It would strain the Unabridged Dictionary to hold them. He is a brontosaur: nine bones and six hundred barrels of plaster.”

We know so little about his life, especially the decade before the writing appears, that he, William Shakespeare, could have been and done almost anything. But if you ask a question outside this “groupthink” … oh, no, no, no, no, no. That’s as offensive as questioning the truth of the Holocaust, according to a London Times writer, who has associated Winkler and The Atlantic with the company of all sorts of slanderous conspiracy theorists.

I have witnessed this genre of journalism for 20 years—ad hominem attacks delivered in a condescending moan as a defense of what is presented as legitimate Shakespearean scholarship. When will the serious scholars I know and admire step forward and distance themselves from these bullying tactics, this literary thuggery? My respected friends, Stephen Greenblatt, Marjorie Garber, orthodox scholars everywhere—where are you? Why the need to attack and suppress a question you are now asking yourselves anyway: “Who else might have been involved?”

Isn’t this how we learn? By asking questions? By probing with our imagination? These attacks are being made in your name, in the name of orthodox Shakespearean scholarship. If you remain silent, you risk increasing loss of faith not only in Shakespeare as the author, but in academia as a place to question and learn. It’s time you stood up for reasonable doubt and debate about a wonderful, vital mystery. Because if the greatest works of drama weren’t created alone by an apparently ill-educated, litigious small-town genius through some kind of supernatural act of imaginative channelling, but were actually made by a collaborative effort among artists—if that effort  included different women and men working together over a period of years—that has huge cultural significance for the arts, for drama, for all society. To carefully explore this honest question from the past might truly enlighten future relations between men and women—as Shakespeare, whoever he or she was, surely intended the work to do.