Yes, Shakespeare Really Was Shakespeare

Yes, Shakespeare Really Was Shakespeare
Shiladitya Sen has a PhD in English, specializing in Renaissance Drama. He teaches in the Writing Studies Department and in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies Program at Montclair State University.

What’s in a name?

When someone first asked me who actually wrote William Shakespeare’s plays, I was genuinely confused. I already possessed a BA and an MA in English from India but had never encountered any such question—until I came to the United States to do my doctorate. 

I soon encountered the notion that Shakespeare’s plays were secretly written by someone else, which has similar popularity to equally false stories such as Elvis’s immortality or 9/11 being an inside job. 

To address or not address this issue, that is the question which I face every time I teach Shakespeare. 

As I point out to such questioners, the Shakespeare authorship question is essentially non-existent among the substantial majority of literary scholars and historians of his works and period. Yet, it persists due to the vocal nature of its believers, leading to websites and some popular media that help propagate the theory (for example, the 2011 movie Anonymous, which was an execrable, misogynist flop). 

And so it is that scholars and teachers of Shakespeare are forced to address it, just as other experts are forced to comment on whether the Roman Empire was completely white (nope), whether aliens built the pyramids (also nope), and whether the Moon landing was fake (so much nope). 

In fact, it took a good two centuries after Shakespeare’s death in 1616 for the question to emerge. In his lifetime and long afterward, there was no uncertainty that his plays had been written by their author—who was considered an excellent English dramatist but not the preeminent one. 

However, in the 19th century, bardolatory arose, or the idea that Shakespeare is the greatest writer in the English language or in any other language. This, combined with increasing analysis of the authorship of canonical texts (e.g., the Bible and especially the Pentateuch, which resulted in the discovery that the latter was composed by multiple writers), almost inevitably caused people to study Shakespeare’s identity. 

But, perhaps the primary element that led to the idea that Shakespeare, the middle-class Stratford man, could not have created the plays attributed to him was the elitism and class consciousness that was a key part of 19th century society in both England and the US.

That elitism still lurks at the heart of questions about Shakespearean authorship. 

Those who advance the conspiracy theory are invariably fixated on the idea that a commoner from a small town in England, educated at a grade school, could never have created the elevated language and complex philosophical ideas of Shakespeare’s plays. They argue that only someone (or ones, for those who believe it was a secret group of writers working in unison) of equally elevated social status, with easy access to the throne and to the high society of England, could have created such texts. 

Evidence of this supposition is obvious in the list of potential authors who are trotted out, such as the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon, or even Queen Elizabeth herself (whose royalty allows her to be the sole woman who is considered capable of such works). There may be a rare commoner, such as Christopher Marlowe, who is considered a possibility, but the potentials are almost exclusively English nobility. 

This elitism is rooted in tremendous misunderstandings (or willful ignorance) toward the historical realities of Shakespeare’s time.

Contrary to our present-day veneration of Shakespeare as an exemplar of ‘serious’ Literature, playwriting for the public theater was among the least socially elevated forms of writing. It was what professional playwrights—many of whom were also actors, ranking socially somewhere between vagabonds or criminals and the servants of the nobility—did, catering to people ranging upward from apprentices and fishwives all the way to the monarch. 

Plays contained elevated language and references to Classical literature, but they also contained penis and fart jokes, and were performed for anyone to enjoy. These were not plays written by and for the nobility, but instead a truly democratic form, catering to all classes alike. It is unsurprising that the greatest English playwrights of the time were mostly middle-class men, dwelling in London in circumstances that allowed close contact with the many classes to whom their works catered. 

Similar lack of historical awareness is evident in the idea that Shakespeare lacked the education which would allow him to compose his plays. 

While, for the uninitiated, it seems odd that a man with a grade-school education could compose Hamlet or Macbeth, any genuine awareness of Elizabethan education should disabuse us of the notion. In grade school, Shakespeare would have been trained in Latin (especially) and Greek to a degree that a modern student with a Master of Arts in Classics might not be. 

Shakespeare’s education would only be lacking in comparison to Elizabethan university students. Some blame for the idea of an undereducated Shakespeare can be ascribed to the contemporary playwright Ben Jonson’s snarky comment that Shakespeare had “little Latin and less Greek.” Yet Jonson (arguably the most learned playwright of the time in both his reading and the nature of his plays) himself was the son of a bricklayer and never attended university, which underlines how strong early education of the time was.

Buttressed by the heavy reading that he evidently subsequently did, Shakespeare’s education would have set him up perfectly for creating the plays he wrote, drawing often on Classical sources but without the heightened awareness of them we find in Jonson’s plays or in the writings of the nobles who are brought up by the anti-Stratfordians (i.e., those who believed that William Shakespeare of Stratford was not the author of the plays) as possibilities.

Anti-Stratfordians argue that we know far too little about the historical figure of Shakespeare, which they see as evidence that he could not simultaneously be as important as he is and so anonymous. 

This argument ignores the fact that Shakespeare, in his time, simply did not bestride the literary world like a colossus. It also overlooks historical factors that make our knowledge of nobles and monarchs greater than of commoners from the period. 

Considering his background and social status, we know more about Shakespeare than virtually any other commoner of his time. We know where he was born and educated, where he lived and worked, who his friends and companions were, what books he read, and what debts he accrued. We have paintings of him, stories about him from his contemporaries, and a large collection of documents (not just literary, but correspondence and legal papers). 

These extant artifacts identify William Shakespeare as the person who was also a well-known playwright and actor. And now, as we develop more technology and sophisticated methods for analyzing texts, we have evidence that his plays were written by one person, whose style and language do not match up with any of the anti-Stratfordians. Since collaboration was popular and openly done in his time, small segments of his plays are written by other playwrights, whom we can also identify. For example, Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Nashe are considered to have contributed small segments to Shakespeare’s early play Henry VI, Part 1.

In short, we know for a fact, as much as is possible for events four centuries ago, that Shakespeare’s plays really were written by Shakespeare.

Does any of this really matter? Maybe not. 

The obvious argument is that it is handy to be accurate about the truth, especially in a time when, in many places around the world, historical awareness and accuracy are being sacrificed at the altar of political propaganda. But beyond that, acknowledging the reality of Shakespeare’s authorship is only a first step in appreciating the fascinating history and nature of his plays—arising from particular historical circumstances and written and performed for all classes, not written by a royal or noble, but by a middle-class man raised in humble surroundings. 

Shakespeare’s work is now performed and adapted and loved (or, admittedly, especially in many high school classes, hated) by people across the globe whose languages and cultures are dramatically different. 

This is a more complex and richer story than that of the anti-Stratfordians, revealing the ways in which language and storytelling and imagination link us as humans. It is, as someone once wrote, such stuff as dreams are made on.

Shiladitya Sen has a PhD in English, specializing in Renaissance Drama. He teaches in the Writing Studies Department and in the Gender, Sexuality, and Women Studies Program at Montclair State University. 

Art by Michelle Huang. Michelle read this piece and designed an original painting for Conceptions Review. Michelle is an artist from Sugar Land, Texas, now based out of New York, New York. She specializes in oil painting, known for her expressionist style in both figurative and abstract work. Her website is

Launched in March 2021, Conceptions Review is interested in the ideas people have about society and the consequences of these ideas. We seek accessible and standalone articles about conception-bending ideas and popular misconceptions. We are open to fields ranging from musicology to history to mathematics to insectology and everything in between.