Shakespeare Wrote Insightfully About Women. That Doesn’t Mean He Was One.

To speculate about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays is to pursue conspiracy theories—and in this case, to obscure a sea change in how directors, actors, and audiences understand his depiction of women.

Edward Gooch Collection / Hulton Archive / 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.

For years, fantasists who peddle the fiction that Shakespeare didn’t write the plays attributed to him have failed to get Wikipedia to backdate doubts about his authorship. Wikipedia refuses to do so because scholars have demonstrated that two and a half centuries passed before this theory was first proposed, in the mid–19th century. That’s a fact. You can imagine the doubters’ joy when discovering that Elizabeth Winkler managed to publish this falsehood in the pages of The Atlantic, confidently assuring her readers that “doubts about whether William Shakespeare … really wrote the works attributed to him are almost as old as the writing itself.”*

With that claim, we have entered into an alternate universe, inhabited by conspiracy theorists. They have their work cut out for them, given the body of evidence confirming that Shakespeare wrote his plays. In promoting this conspiracy theory, Winkler recycles the stale and feeble arguments all too familiar to anyone who has dealt with this fringe movement: Hey, a lot of famous people have doubted Shakespeare’s authorship, so you should too! He was an actor and a moneylender, a profile that doesn’t match what we like to think a real writer should be!

It turns out that it’s possible to lend money and act and still write great plays. And, in fact, only an actor-playwright in the heat of composition, one who knew who would be cast in an unfinished play, might carelessly write in his “speech headings” the names of his fellow actors—Will Kemp, John Sinklo, Richard Cowley—rather than the names of the characters they were to play. Traces of this habit survive in early printed versions of Shakespeare’s plays, making it hard to imagine how anyone but a male actor-playwright—no women acted in the public theater—could have written them. Perhaps Winkler can explain away as well why in 1623 his fellow actors chose to preface Shakespeare’s plays with glowing tributes for his words from fellow authors, along with his portrait. Good luck with that.

In proposing that a woman may have been the true author of Shakespeare’s plays, Winkler seems to imply that Elizabethan women weren’t allowed to write and publish plays under their own names, so they had to do so surreptitiously (which I assume accounts for what she never otherwise explains: why a woman felt it necessary to borrow the actor Shakespeare’s name instead of using her own or making one up). Many of us who teach Elizabethan drama regularly assign The Tragedy of Mariam (1613),written,” its title page proudly declares, “by that learned, virtuous, and truly noble lady, E.C.”—Elizabeth Cary. The Tragedy of Mariam makes clear that there was no stigma attached to a woman writing or publishing a play.

Much of Winkler’s article explores the possibility that the plays were written by the Elizabethan author Emilia Bassano. I was more than a little surprised to get an email from Winkler (after she learned that The Atlantic had commissioned me to write a response), denying that she had ever claimed that Bassano wrote the plays. Her critics, she wrote, have “missed the larger point of my piece, which isn’t to assert that Bassano wrote Shakespeare. In fact, I never claim she did.” Well, she had me fooled. And apparently The Atlantic too, which described her argument as “The Case for Emilia Bassano.” Winkler could have saved everyone a lot of trouble if she had said so explicitly in the piece.

I once found conspiracy theories like this mildly amusing. I no longer do. Living in an era in which such theories have proliferated with awful consequences (from “Obama is a Muslim” to the spurious claims of anti-vaxxers), encountering a talented young journalist for The Wall Street Journal promoting one in the pages of The Atlantic is deeply disheartening. As Oliver Kamm of the London Times noted in his response to Winkler’s article in Quillette, journalists—writing at a time when the press is being falsely smeared by President Donald Trump for disseminating “fake news”—have a special obligation to steer clear of promoting conspiracy theories.

All this is a shame, because the Twitter-storm kicked up by her essay obscures a powerful insight at the heart of it, one that motivated Winkler’s account in the first place: a sea change in how we understand Shakespeare’s depiction of women, especially “all the remarkable female friendships.” But it doesn’t follow that because Shakespeare wrote insightfully about women he was one, any more than it does that because Shakespeare saw so penetratingly into the minds of homicides like Macbeth and Claudius he was a murderer, too.

So I hope that Winkler abandons her authorship fantasies and focuses her attention instead on those heroines whose words resonate powerfully for her, because she is clearly onto something important in drawing our renewed attention to “Beatrice and Hero’s allegiance” in Much Ado About Nothing and “Emilia’s devotion to her mistress” in Othello. Driven by a half century of feminist scholarship and further propelled by the #MeToo movement, her essay helps us see the depth of female friendship and of women’s refusal to kowtow to men in Shakespeare’s plays. What Winkler argues for here is also shaping how the next generation of playgoers is experiencing these works.

I’ve seen these changes up close in my role as “Shakespeare scholar in residence” at the Public Theater, in New York, where I get to observe rehearsals in which directors and actors are breaking through encrusted traditions, foregrounding a dynamic in the plays that has been downplayed for too long. This was brought home powerfully for me last summer, watching Heather Lind and Alison Wright in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s production of Othello at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park. The heartbreaking intimacy of Lind’s Desdemona and Wright’s Emilia—which transcended their differences in class, privilege, and wealth—put the relationship of these doomed women at the center of the tragedy.

I thought that might have been a one-off, but the three Public Theater productions I have worked on since then have all put female friendships front and center. Jenny Koons made the bond between Carolyn Kettig’s Hermia and Rosanny Zayas’s Helena a key feature of her Midsummer Night’s Dream. Laurie Woolery went even further in The Tempest, turning the central friendship in the play into one between women, regendering the roles and casting Myra Lucretia Taylor as Prospero and Nancy Rodriguez as Gonzalo.

And for the past month I have watched as the extraordinary solidarity of Danielle Brooks’s Beatrice and Margaret Odette’s Hero has gotten deeper and deeper in rehearsals of Kenny Leon’s production of Much Ado, moving the familiar play in a powerful new direction; audiences will understand in fresh ways why Beatrice weeps for Hero and demands that Benedick kill Claudio for humiliating her cousin. By late May that show will be in previews at the Delacorte, and I’m happy to invite Elizabeth Winkler to see it.

* We have corrected the relevant sentences in Elizabeth Winkler’s piece to state that theories positing others as the true author of the work attributed to Shakespeare emerged in the mid-19th century.