It’s a hard life for biographers of Shakespeare, softened only by their royalties. Very little is known about the man himself, and what is known has been in the public domain for a long time. The most recent discovery with any significant relation to his private life (a deposition in a lawsuit contained in the so-called Belott-Mountjoy papers) dates back to 1909. Given that no letters survive and very few documents of a nonofficial nature do either, it is perhaps not surprising that speculation about the bard runs wild. What does at first seem puzzling is why this should so often extend to questioning not so much the verifiable facts of his life (such as his origins in Stratford-upon-Avon and his membership in a leading London theater company) but the authorship of his work. The plays modern readers know as Shakespeare’s were regularly attributed to him not only after his death, but also by a large number of his contemporaries. Since some of these contemporaries—including the cantankerous Ben Jonson—had close connections with the theater, the “anti-Stratfordians,” as those who dispute Shakespeare’s true identity are called, have to imagine some kind of conspiracy of silence for which the motives are not at all clear.
One reason speculation has taken this turn is that people have difficulty reconciling Shakespeare’s relatively modest social background, and the fact that he did not go to university, with the sophistication of his writing. This seems to be part of the stimulus for proposing Christopher Marlowe, who was a Cambridge graduate, or the 17th Earl of Oxford, whose claims to refinement are in his title, as the plays’ real author. While Emilia Bassano, the subject of Elizabeth Winkler’s recent article, “Was Shakespeare a Woman?” is a late entrant in this race, her candidacy appears to have been prompted by similar feelings of wonderment at what one discovers in Shakespeare’s writings, in particular the rare insight into a woman’s feelings. This argument hardly puts Bassano in pole position, but she has at least one obvious advantage over her two male contenders: She lived on for many years after Shakespeare’s death in 1616. That Marlowe was murdered in 1593, and the Earl of Oxford died in 1604, requires their supporters to perform feats of intellectual ingenuity that Winkler is spared.