Shakespeare, despite being perhaps the best-known writer in the English language, is a tricky figure to pin down. A new film about the playwright and poet’s life offers just one of many fictional interpretations of his biography. Meanwhile, a heated scholarly debate (two sides of which were featured in The Atlantic’s October 1991 issue) over Shakespeare’s identity has taken a fascinating feminist turn: Could the real author of Shakespeare’s work be a woman?
The writer Elizabeth Winkler explores that theory below. Such questions of authorship fit in well with the themes of the playwright’s work: Twelfth Night, Much Ado About Nothing, and several other famous Shakespeare stories hinge on cases of dual or mistaken identity. Even words are double agents—Shakespearean puns are so plentiful that one scholar, David Crystal, created an entire dictionary to help actors and audiences appreciate them.
The complex and often contradictory characters of Shakespeare’s worlds are some of literature’s most psychologically astute, according to the philosopher Steven Pinker. And the professor Laura Bates has found that the dilemmas those characters face can help incarcerated people build themselves new lives.
Each week in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas, and ask you for recommendations of what our list left out.
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What We’re Reading
Was Shakespeare a woman?
“None of the candidates [in the authorship debate] has succeeded in dethroning the man from Stratford. Yet a simple reason would explain a playwright’s need for a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female.”
📚 Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier, the Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays?, by John Hudson
📚 Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum, by Emilia Bassano
📚 The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare
Shakespeare was one of the first and greatest psychologists
“In seven words, Shakespeare sums up a good portion of the findings of modern psychology: ‘most ignorant of what he’s most assured.’”
📚 The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker
📚 The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, by Steven Pinker
Why Shakespeare should be read in prison
“The themes and characters of Shakespeare’s plays—overflowing with ambition, greed, love, deceit, betrayal, and revenge—naturally have particular resonance for criminal convicts.”
📚 Such Stuff as Dreams: The Psychology of Fiction, by Keith Oatley
Such ado: the fight for Shakespeare’s puns
“In the 400 years since Shakespeare made his bawdy puns … the evolution of language—and of pronunciation, in particular—has eroded many of the embedded bits of wordplay that would have been obvious to Elizabethan ears.”
The many mutable identities of Shakespeare
“Whoever he was, it’s safe to say that no one loved a good case of mistaken identity more than he did.”
📚 Much Ado About Nothing, by William Shakespeare
The Reference Desk
Write to the Books Briefing team at email@example.com or reply directly to this email with any of your writing- or reading-related dilemmas. We might feature one of your questions in a future edition of the Books Briefing and offer a few books or related Atlantic pieces that might help you out.
This week’s question comes from Jessica Kwiatkowski, who’s worried that her lack of a bachelor’s or graduate degree is holding her back from publishing her work. “Aside from self-publishing,” she writes, “what else can a person in my (surely common) situation do in order to attract publishers?”
Jessica’s parenthetical is right—she’s definitely not alone. Your best option might be to seek out other writers, especially those with similar backgrounds, who can share advice and help alert you to new opportunities. In a 2017 Atlantic essay, the writer Anjali Enjeti described how writers’ communities, including virtual ones, can be “an aspiring author’s life jacket”:
Under the Twitter hashtag #amwriting, writers announce daily word counts, publishing successes, and link to articles about the industry. Facebook performs a similar function. “I’ve curated my Facebook feed so that it’s almost all writers and readers,” said Nayomi Munaweera, the author of the novels Island of a Thousand Mirrors and What Lies Between Us, who submitted [drafts] for seven and a half years before acquiring a book deal. “I get a great deal of affirmation and support there.”
Enjeti herself spent more than a decade trying to get a book deal, completing six manuscripts in the process. You can read on here for her story of why she kept trying, and how she changed her approach over the years in order to regain “a small amount of control in a process that has very little predictability.” And, in the meantime, don’t give up hope.
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