Earlier this week, Yasmin (whose blog you can check out here) sent me this article,

It’s yet another in the recent rush to prove Shakespeare wasn’t Shakespeare before his upcoming anniversary, 400 years since his death to be exact, next year. This debate has come and gone for centuries now, fuelled by a number of reasons some jealous, some disbelief and a real range of other reasons sometimes seeking to disprove, others advocating for their “Shakespeare”. This isn’t simply a discussion dominated by academics or indeed delusional believers, but films like the (now infamous to many) Anonymous have opened up the debate still further. I wonder if someone conducted a survey of public opinion whether they thought Shakespeare was Shakespeare what the consensus would be. Although perhaps people might not think they care initially, dethroning Shakespeare could have wide reaching consequences. As the article Yasmin sent me points out, it might even put the name of the RSC into question.

And would the Shakespeare Institute by consequence become The-possibly-not-Shakespeare-Institute? (Probably not.) The Shakespeare industry while perhaps not something that affects everyone’s day to day lives is vast, his imprint on culture and society is significant enough that any change in state would have perhaps a similar impact to us doing away with a monarch. I’m not trying to push for the Shakespeare is god-like crowd, but just as people come to see the Queen at Buckingham palace, tourists also flock to Stratford and the land of Shakespeare and I’m not sure that many other literary figures have quite that draw, quite that claim to fame.

I wonder if it did turn out to be true, what would we do? Would he simply be replace by another cultural icon and would this icon need to be a writer, or more specifically a playwright and poet. How would the criteria for a new superhero be chosen. Would it be an already popular author – and popular in terms of public opinion or only for a handful of academics? Would they be Billed (sorry) as the new Shakespeare in the way that sometimes other early modern playwrights are?

In fact, we tend to set a cultural benchmark, and compare others to it which limits the canon of course ensuring prestige of existing authors, while not allowing new or recently discovered authors to be good in their own right. Why, for instance should the cover of Terry Pratchett’s The Colour of Magic announce proudly to me, under the title, ‘Jerome K. Jerome meets LORD OF THE RINGS (with a touch of Peter Pan)’ as a selling point? Nothing wrong with it in itself and it does give a rough hatchet idea of the kind of book we might be holding in our hands and yes, I know, it works on a similar principle as friend suggestions on Facebook or if you liked this you might also like, suggestions on Amazon. But it has its dangers as well as its merits. The same is true today of course, new authors are rarely billed as the new Shakespeare, but instead as the new JK Rowling or whoever happens to be high up on the best-sellers list. I imagine there are a number of books marketed as the new Fifty Shades of Gray – well you get the picture. To the authors being compared this is perhaps a blessing and a curse, great to be associated but why can they not be successful writers in their own right? i.e. not the new JK Rowling but rather, the new [insert name of new author here].

Intrigued about what others might think about Shakespeare perhaps not being Shakespeare I asked Yasmin what her take on this was.

When I first saw the Newsweek article, my first thought was “Here we go again…” followed by “This is kind of like a summary of my last Shakespeare lecture in uni”. That in itself indicated why this is such a long running topic. Shakespeare has sort of become mythicised: when people want to prove how well read they are they quote Shakespeare; Shakespeare was the only writer to have his own module dedicated to him when I was at university and similarly my first reaction to GCSE students telling me they didn’t have to do any Shakespeare was horror. Shakespeare is pretty much synonymous with literature at this point, a shining beacon of brilliance. Despite my degree, I still couldn’t tell you why. What I can tell you is that as I was reading the article (and indeed as I was sitting in that lecture hall) I could feel myself hoping he was “real”. That it really was Shakespeare that gave us such wonderful work (and such horrible headaches trying to finish our essays on time). And that I haven’t studied something completely different to what I was supposed to have studied. Also, I’m not a fan of conspiracy theories. Although that’s probably the same reason why there are people who believe that he wasn’t Shakespeare, or at least not the famous writer Shakespeare. Because how could one person possibly be so legendary right?

And what if they’re right? Well, if I’m being completely honest, my first reaction would most probably “holy s***!” Excuse my language but in a situation like that I’m not sure I could suppress my inner gossip. So while I might be slightly disappointed at how we’d been duped, well, I’d get over it. After all at least I’d have another writer to talk about. And one more writer to doubt, obviously.

I think she makes a number of interesting points, which highlight the impression Shakespeare and his work have left on society – the myth of Shakespeare is so prolific that there would truly be big shoes to fill were it to emerge that it was all a fraud and Shakespeare was a pen name under which a whole range of authors wrote (like the non-existent “Lucy Daniels” of the Animal Ark books – it’s really a whole bunch of different writers), or something similar. Equally, she’s right about why people keep digging, they’re desperate to prove that no-one could possibly be that legendary.

We continue to reinvent Shakespeare on a daily basis and perhaps a desire to prove that his works were penned by Mr/s possibly-not-Shakespeare is another version of this a rebooted version of Shakespeare, a sort of prequel based on the original (though if Star Wars are anything to go by this is not good news). But, as those arguing against the existence of the almost deified Shakespeare the playwright would stress, it is more than this. I can’t help but feel that this is all a little ironic, since what tends to frustrate such advocates is the mythologised and global phenomenon of Shakespeare, but by questioning the reality of this, it also serves to reinforce and refresh people’s memories of its existence.

Equally doubting and prying are necessary even if they simply reaffirm what we thought to be true, otherwise we would never test new theories, discover new knowledge and the ivory tower of supremacy would remain unshaken but also slowly, but surely, become fusty and outdated. In an attitude of the lyrics of Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger’ song, “what doesn’t kill a theory makes it stronger”. Research and subjects such as the existence of works and writers should continue to spark discussions and disputes, to get people engaged and excited in the sometimes mad but equally fascinating world of literary debate.

Whether the doubters are right, or the certain-he-was-Shakespeare crowd emerge victorious, thanks to regular adaptation, appropriation and research we will continue to be greeted by new Shakespeares, and hooray for that I say because boy wouldn’t it be boring if it all just stayed the same.


About Sarah Waters

I'm a PhD student at Oxford Brookes University researching female melancholia in Early Modern medicine, drama, and its resonances with our understanding of female depression today. I also have research interests in Shakespeare, Renaissance literature, Children's Literature, CS Lewis, and The Inklings.
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5 Responses to The-Possibly-Not-Shakespeare-Post

  1. Pingback: The-Possibly-Not-Shakespeare-Post | The Shakespeare Standard

  2. I tend to think that even if Shakespeare isn’t “Shakespear!”, the myth of Shakespeare still will be. It’ll be like Platonism or the Pythagoreans – sone of the work cones from the name sake, but the ideas are bigger, more influential, and possibly dofferent than just what the originator produced, and yet the name still sticks.

    • Sarah Waters says:

      Yes, I think you make an interesting point. It’s a little bit like how characters, independent of their fiction and their creator sometimes grow legs and become their own being independent of their original setting. Falstaff and Hamlet are perhaps some of the best examples of this but it’s certainly not limited to Shakespeare’s works and perhaps there’s something of this in Shakespeare himself. As you point out, like the almost mythical writers of past, they leave behind far more than their theory, or original works, they become something grander. As you say, an extension and perhaps something completely different, yet with some similarities, to their original. Yes, if it wasn’t that the ideas continued to be rewritten, much more so than the man himself, then the myth would remain only an obscure answer to a trivial pursuit question. That Greek God that no-one can recall! Shakespeare or not Shakespeare, I think you’re absolutely right the myth, or at least a version of the myth, will remain.

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