Some "riddles" or questions always seem to knock the socks of people when they're about 10 or 11 years old. "Who's buried in Grant's Tomb?" "What year did they fight the War of 1812?" "How long was the Hundred Years War?" Older kids get to play smart with these kinds of questions. For example, an older kid might point out that no one is 'buried' in Grant's Tomb. As it is a tomb, bodies are interred, not inserted in the ground. Thus – not buried.
To most people this question would be of the type beloved of the young folks:
Who wrote Shakespeare's plays?
We know there was a guy named William Shakespeare who was born and died in Stratford, England. We know he spent some of his life in London. His name is associated as an actor with a company under the protection of the Lord Chamberlain and then King James (the Lord Chamberlain's men and the King's men). We know this fellow made enough money to retire in some comfort financially. We know he was a share-holder in the company. We also know Shakespeare was a member of a group of investors involved in the leasing arrangements of the Blackfriars theatre.
And we have a collection of rather famous plays that we know Shakespeare wrote.
Or did he write them? Now we have the film Anonymous that poses the question of authorship. "Author" is linked to "authority." Already we're in political territory. It's useful as a corrective to think of the spelling of the word playwright – a "wright." A maker of plays. We know that the plays in question were derived from other materials – Holinshed, Chaucer, Ovid, you name it. The plays are made from other sources.
This question continues to perplex a small, but vocal segment of the population. According to some, the "man from Stratford" could not have written Hamlet, King Lear, or the rest of the plays we'd foolishly assumed were from Shakespeare. A group of alternates have been promoted over the years – from Francis Bacon to Queen Elizabeth. Some suggest ancient conspiracies in which Christopher Marlowe's death was faked for political reasons, and Shakespeare's name was used by Marlowe in an Elizabethan version of a witness protection program.
Arguments flourish about how a man from a fairly rural area like Stratford could not have been educated enough nor well traveled enough to have produced such theatrical masterpieces. And, certainly, a lowly actor could never have conceived such immortal poetry.
The essence of most of the arguments against Shakespeare as a playwright boils down to snobbery. Some people simply seem to believe an education in some formal academic setting is necessary to produce greatness. Such an argument, though, ignores the reality of genius without the assistance of formal schooling. In the American experience, we can point to the example of Abraham Lincoln. A simple-headed Westerner (or so some said at the time). A politician! Some of his contemporaries compared Lincoln to a gorilla. (Strangely, we don't remember those critics today. . . .) Yet few today would question the poetry of the memorial speech at Gettysburg or Lincoln's speech when he began his second term. A few years ago actor Sam Waterston read Lincoln's speech at Cooper Union at Cooper Union in New York City. The words of this "simple backwoods politician" held the attention of a modern audience for more than an hour – elicited appropriate laughter and vocal response. Lincoln serves as an appropriate example because his history and biography are verifiable. Since such a person with an amazing facility for language and human feeling happened once without formal schooling, could it not happen more than once?
People (even, curiously, some actors who are "anti"- Stratfordians) forget the sheer practicality of how Shakespeare's plays are put together. Undeniably, these plays portray amazingly complex characters and relationships. But people forget that the theatre game in Elizabethan England was a profession – a job. And we know that these plays were enormously successful in their own time. And they're written well enough that they can still put "butts in seats" in our own day. Thus, we come to a basic principle – however complex, these plays were written to attract multiple paying audiences.
Another fact of Elizabeth theatre was the economic factor of the shareholding system. The company of which Shakespeare was a member centered around a strong group of shareholders. These actors were the core of the company. When in doubt, who's going to get a bigger part in the play, a shareholder or a hired man? Does the question even need to be asked? Unquestionably a shareholder, since he has a larger stake in the business of the company, is going to be preferred to a guy hired in to help out. And economically and artistically, stability in the core group benefits everyone. If the core group of actors knows each other well, they have to spend less time in rehearsal. They will have more trust in each other on stage in performance. Relationships deepen. The audience has a trusting sense in seeing particular combinations of actors. (The reader can easily call to mind any number of such combinations in the present day from Hope and Crosby to Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the "Lethal Weapon" movies.) The economic benefits the artistic and vice-versa.
William Shakespeare was an actor who acted with the men for whom he wrote. We know Richard Burbage excelled at "mad" scenes. Is it a curiosity, then, that Hamlet, Lear, Othello, and Macbeth (to name only a few) have "mad" scenes? Or that Burbage's parts seem to have a 'break' a little after the mid-point in the play? (Hamlet goes to Britain. Lear disappears while we concentrate on the Gloucester sub-plot, etc.)
Or, look at such parts as Aaron in Titus Andronicus, Mercutio, Gratiano in Merchant of Venice, Borachio in Much Ado About Nothing. Tart talkers all. And all likely played by Augustine Phillips. Likewise Tybalt, Laertes, and Hotspur are all figurative and literal foils for Burbage's characters (Romeo, Hamlet, and Hal respectively) and played by Henry Condell.
Will Kemp – Master Kemp – played charming rustic clowns enormously well. From Bottom to Dogberry to his triumph as Falstaff, Shakespeare knew the strengths of the company clown. Kemp, a large Falstaffian man, left the company and was placed by Robert Armin, a short (almost dwarfish) man who had a lovely singing voice. Who appears as a clown? Feste. And, curiously, a character to seems to wander in and out of scenes and sings when necessary. Why wouldn't Shakespeare fashion a character to capitalize on the talents of a new company member? This type of work is not the result of some remote by-stander, rather the craftsmanship of a man involved in the daily work of acting in a company and working to show off his mates to the paying crowd.
Shakespeare also had the benefit of seeing the daily work of the apprentices up close. We know as a fact of Elizabethan theatre practice that females weren't on the stage. Women's roles were played by boys and or young men. We know that few Elizabethan playwrights wrote effective roles for women characters. Shakespeare's plays, by contrast, abound with amazing women characters. And we repeat a fundamental principle -- these plays were written to attract a paying audience. Thus, if the boys could not have effectively carried off such women as Lady Macbeth or Cleopatra or Juliet, audiences would not have paid the ticket prices to watch these plays.
Boys came into an acting company as apprentices to the main actors. Therefore, Richard Burbage would take on a boy (or boys) to train them in a trade. The same situation was common in many (if not all) professions. A master tailor would take on an apprentice tailor. A master printer would take on a boy to learn the trade. In an adult company, the young boy would play either a child or a woman.
Consider again the economics of the situation. An apprentice likely does not have the skill of a master. In professional theatre the producers don't want to have a performance ruined by inexperience. So, as a practical concern, we may look and see where children characters and women have stage time and how that stage time is constructed. Also, economically a master shouldn't have his time taken up in training another master's boy. (If I'm Condell, I don't want to waste my time helping Burbage train his boy or taking a lot of time rehearsing Burbage's boy. That's his job. I've got my own work to do.) Therefore, many women characters in Shakespeare's plays have much of their stage time with a particular male character – the master and the apprentice primarily act as scene partners.
Consequently, we may deduce that Burbage in particular was a pretty good teacher. By the time of Macbeth, Burbage's boy (playing Lady M) has shown the playwright that she can command the stage by herself. The two boys who play Portia and Nerissa (Burbage's boy and Phillips' boy, respectively) in Merchant of Venice have shown they can command the stage together for a scene without the assistance (supervision?) of a master on stage with them.
There's no reason to worry here about the anti-Stratford "numerologists" who believe they can prove the existence of a host of personal details and events through semi-mystical means.
As any actor knows who's worked on these texts in a rehearsal room – these plays work. They're tough. They seem to be able to withstand every possible configuration and context. These are not the plays of some remote academic. These are not the plays of some closeted noble amateur. These are the work of a man who knew how theatre works to the very marrow of his bones.
Why not a man of the theatre named William Shakespeare?