Letters: The Meaning of Shakespeare's Identity

Readers discuss the possibility that the person behind Shakespeare’s works was not the man buried in Stratford.

Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

Was Shakespeare a Woman?

The authorship controversy has yet to surface a compelling alternative to the man buried in Stratford. Perhaps that’s because, until recently, no one was looking in the right place, Elizabeth Winkler suggested in The Atlantic’s June issue.

I thank you sincerely for shedding a light on the literary work published by William Shakespeare. I feel chills as I reread the texts and think of a woman holding the pen, creating, imagining, challenging, and improving the English language. How fantastic would it be if we could demonstrate that the crepitating pulse that has made us dream for centuries actually came out of the creative genius of a woman?

Pável Uranga
Salem, Mass.

On the purported Shakespeare authorship question, there is no scholarly debate. There is a fascinating area of inquiry concerning Shakespeare’s collaborations with other dramatists both early and late in his career, but this is far removed from the fantasy that some romantic figure used a jobbing actor from Stratford as a frontman for works of literary genius. There are a mere handful of academics who give this stuff even the time of day, let alone credence, and Winkler has misrepresented the state of scholar­ship by insinuating that they are one side in a scholarly dispute.

Oliver Kamm
Excerpt from a Quillette.com post

“Was Shakespeare a Woman?” was a delightful reminder of the richness of the authorship field and the tantalizing possibilities it surfaces for answers to one of history’s great mysteries. Some are ready to heap vitriol on those who dare to entertain those possibilities. Specific points can always be debated, and unwarranted claims should be called out as such. But much compelling evidence and thoughtful analysis await those who approach the subject with an open mind and humble curiosity. Whoever he or she was, “Shakespeare” would enjoy the debate.

Marc Lauritsen
Harvard, Mass.

Elizabeth Winkler replies:

“Any worthwhile history is a constant state of self-questioning,” the author Hilary Mantel observed in her Reith Lectures for the BBC. It was in that spirit of skepticism that I undertook a provocative inquiry, exploring the possibility of a woman’s hand in the works of Shakespeare. Following the traditions of The Atlantic, I questioned uncritically held assumptions instead of treating pronouncements by authorities as truth. Consistent with journalistic duty, I distinguished academic opinion and received wisdom from fact as I explored terrain on which evidence has proved open to varying interpretation. In their often vitriolic zeal to condemn me for non­adherence to their position, some critics have misconstrued my careful formulations and denounced my endeavor as “conspiracism.” More troubling still, they’ve missed my very point of departure—that a woman writing under another’s name isn’t conspiracism; it’s a literary practice that we know has gone on for much of history.

The discourse around the question of Shakespeare authorship is plagued by this sort of anti-intellectual suppression of inquiry. The idea of a female author is speculative, to be sure, but the animating impulse of my essay was neither doctrinaire denial nor adamant certainty. It was self-questioning, fueled by a recognition of how women’s voices have been hidden. Careful readers will note that I never claim Emilia Bassano was the author; indeed, I charac­terize the evidence as “circumstantial” and note that Bassano’s style differs from Shakespeare’s. I wonder, too, about the possibility of collaboration. (If Shakespeare had co-authors, as scholars now concede, can we be sure a woman wasn’t among them?) Implied in all of this is the question of what other women might merit consideration in connection with English literature’s greatest—and startlingly feminist—plays.

The personal attacks and rhetorical dismissal that greet such questioning may be intended to stigmatize the questions, yet instead they reinforce their legitimacy. As the author of the plays recognized, history is a fragile construct, “a scribbled form, drawn with a pen / Upon a parchment.” Scholarly opinion isn’t fact; assertions by authorities aren’t truth; and the journalistic imperative to question orthodox thinking requires doubt. People are loyal to the first version of history they learn, Mantel notes: “If you challenge it, it’s as if you’re taking away their childhoods.” In this climate, accusations of denialism betray themselves as projections, and the impulse to skepticism emerges not as madness, but as the only rational and responsible approach.