One of the best-known disputes in popular conversation around Shakespeare is the question of who wrote his work. After all, someone must have written it, so it stands to reason that we need to find out who that someone was, and buy them congratulatory cake. One of the foremost candidates for the authorship of Shakespeare’s work is Oxford, and I’d like to address that idea in this blog post.
It is, surely, time for a clear-headed academic analysis of this issue, and with apologies, it all seems very simple to me: there is no way that Oxford can have written the work of Shakespeare. Oxford was clearly very brilliant, mercurial, famously well-endowed and at the centre of religious, literary and political debate in the country. I am willing to accept that there were probably very many brilliant people in Oxford at the time, but come on guys, a massive city or university is not going to be able to club together and write the works of Shakespeare. That’s just silly. And don’t even get me started on some of the other candidates. Bacon, for example. Bacon too did not write Shakespeare. I’ve seen a lot of bacon in my time, and not one rasher has betrayed the slightest literary gift. And anyway, I don’t care how overrated the work of Shakespeare is, you can’t go around blaming it on floppy bits of dead pig. Stop it.
So there we go, I am happy to exclusively reveal that neither Oxford not bacon wrote the works of Shakespeare. Please don’t write to me about this: the truth is not my fault. But if you really must write to me, why not get bacon or Oxford to do so on your behalf? You see? Difficult, isn’t it?
Historically speaking, Shakespeare is an odd candidate to attract conspiracy theories because a relatively large amount of work was attributed to him during his lifetime, though, as we’ll see, the earliest writing now associated with Shakespeare was often published anonymously. It’s really the earliest surviving playhouse plays, those published before around 1598, which ought to attract the most controversy since almost all of them are published without an author attribution. But instead, it’s exactly these plays which have been most often held up as standards of self-evident attribution: scholars speak of Kyd, Lyly, Marlowe, Greene, Lodge or Nashe as if these author’s authorship was readily manifest and secure. It’s the writers at work in the years just before Shakespeare whose authorship is most often muddied, invisible and difficult to trace, and yet most often used by scholars as navigating tools in assessing Shakespeare’s own authorship.
To give a few examples then: Richard III, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II are all printed anonymously before 1598. So are Tamburlaine and The Spanish Tragedy, plays that are not only central to the way we usually imagine this early period, but whose centrality is rooted in our perceptions of their authorship. So too is Galatea, a play central to the stories we’ve been telling across the work of our research project. We see these plays and think of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd and Lyly. That is apparently not how early modern playgoers or readers worked.
But some writers active in the early playhouses are represented as authors on play titlepages. This shows us that some readers did care about authorship, since titlepage attribution seem to be trying to sell their plays to bookbuyers on the basis of their writers. When such writers are named in this manner, it is not the people we might expect to see. As Amy Lidster has pointed out previously on this website, Robert Wilson is by far the most visible named author amongst the extant work of the first generation of play-makers. The Three Ladies of London, printed in 1584 and again in 1592, is each time described as ‘Written by R. W.’; its sequel, The Three Lord and Three Ladies of London, printed in 1590, is ‘by R. W.’ Whether or not this refers to the probable author, Wilson, he would go on to receive greater visibility in 1594 on The Cobbler’s Prophecy titlepage: ‘Written by Robert Wilson Gent’.
A few other writers are named on play title pages in this early period. Damon and Pithias is published in 1582, for example, and its titlepage describes it as ‘Made by Master Edwards’. And we could compare the cheerful anonymity of the majority of plays printed in this period with the 1590 edition of Gorboduc, which breaks down its authorship into sections in exactly the way that modern attribution often likes to do: ‘whereof three acts were written by Thomas Norton, and the two last by Thomas Sackville’. Gorboduc was probably not performed in a London playhouse, and Damon and Pithias may not have been either, but these writers get named on plays during the earlier years of the playhouses, as do writers and translators of closet drama in this period. So in summary: the names of Shakespeare, Marlowe, Kyd and Lyly do not seem to help to sell plays, whilst Wilson, Edwards, Norton and Sackville do. That’s quite a shift in our thinking about literary priority or advertorial value in this period.
In 1594, comparatively late into the period of the playhouses, we start to hear about at least some more familiar writers. A Looking Glass for London and England was, the titlepage tells us, ‘Made by Thomas Lodge Gentleman, and Robert Greene in artibus magister [Master of Arts]’. In the same year, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay is described as ‘Made by Robert Greene Master of Arts’ and The Wounds of Civil War as ‘Written by Thomas Lodge Gent.’ But Orlando Furioso, published in the same year and now often attributed to Greene, is not assigned an author on its title page. Also in 1594, Dido, Queen of Carthage is described as ‘Written by Christopher Marlowe, and Thomas Nashe Gent’, and Marlowe received his first sole-authored attributions for Edward II, ‘Written by Chri. Marlow [sic] Gent’ and (probably also that year) The Massacre at Paris, ‘Written by Christopher Marlow [sic]’.
This means that it is the work most often seen as peripheral to his output that is associated with Marlowe’s name. Dido and Massacre at Paris: these have traditionally not been seen as central Marlowe texts, and even Edward II, whilst hugely important to Marlowe’s modern reputation, has also been claimed as a deviation from Marlowe’s usual writing style. As I’ve suggested repeatedly on this website, then, it’s not especially clear how Marlovian Marlowe’s writing was. But from 1594 we do at least start to hear from Greene, Marlowe, Lodge and Nashe. But notice no sign of Kyd, Lyly, Peele or Shakespeare on a title page by this date, all of whom are now thought to have been active for several years by this date.
The first hint at George Peele’s authorship on the title page of a playhouse play is The Old Wives Tale in 1595: ‘Written by G. P.’ The first play to mention Lyly as author is The Woman in the Moon, which appears as late as 1597 alongside the first, anonymous editions of Romeo and Juliet and new, anonymous reprints of Tamburlaine. If this suggests a new awareness of the lucrative value of Lyly’s name as selling-point, then the message didn’t reach Cuthbert Burby, who published a new edition of 1598 of Mother Bombie and did not assign it an author. It is not until the 1598 reprint of Richard II that a play title page described itself as ‘By William Shake-speare’. Kyd, meanwhile, never appears on an early modern play titlepage, and one of the period’s best-selling plays, The Spanish Tragedy, like Mucedorus, sells itself to bookbuyers in the absence of any overt association with an author. We seem to be witnessing here profound cultural disinterest in names that now interest many of us very much:
Lyly’s absence from play titlepages is particularly surprising given that his non-dramatic writing, especially his two Euphues stories, were the very epitome of Elizabethan best-sellers. Indeed, many other writers scrambled to write their own Euphues books, and although some of them were very successful, none of them rivalled Lyly’s success in print. It is clear, then, that the name ‘Euphues’ needed the name ‘Lyly’ to achieve its success. If that’s the case, why wouldn’t a publisher name Lyly as author on a play titlepage?
This becomes more puzzling still when we consider that Lyly’s plays were the first to sell out and go into multiple editions. Three of his plays are reprinted in this manner, and Campaspe needs three editions in a single year, becoming the first play to do this until Ben Jonson’s Every Man Out of His Humour as many as sixteen years later in 1600. Lots of new Lyly plays get printed in 1591-92 by the same publishing team, which suggests that the publishers had invested in these particular plays because of their author: so why not name him on their titlepages? We should also set the titlepage anonymity of Lyly’s dramatic work against the multiple signs of authorship triggered by the plays themselves: although there is no such thing as euphuism in this period, some aspects of the plays’ writing strongly associate them with Lyly’s Euphues. The same is true of the plays’ subject matter: when Alexander the Great and Apelles walk onto the stage in Campaspe, they recreate scenes and situations explored repeatedly in Lyly’s prose fiction, and later plays encourage us to think of them as sequels, as Galatea does via its references to the plot of Sappho and Phao. Finally, multiple readers in the period, including Gabriel Harvey and Thomas Lodge, show us that they read these anonymous plays as by Lyly. As I’ve argued elsewhere, then, anonymity at the level of a book is not the same thing as anonymity at the level of a reader. But this only makes the situation stranger: if Lyly’s authorship mattered not only to readers but to publishers, why did the latter not sell their books to the former on the basis of their writer?
But the majority of plays published in this early period have no named author: Campaspe, The Arraignment of Paris, Sappho and Phao (all 1584); The Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune (1589); Tamburlaine (1590, and again in 1593); the 1591 reprints of Campaspe and Sappho and Phao, together with the 1591-2 first editions of Endymion, Galatea and Midas (all now attributed to Lyly); The Troublesome Reign of King John and Fair Em (1591); Arden of Faversham, Soliman and Perseda, The Spanish Tragedy (1592, and in subsequent reprints); Edward I, Jack Straw (1593); A Knack to Know a Knave, Titus Andronicus, 2 Henry VI, The Taming of a Shrew (and in subsequent reprints), Orlando Furioso, Mother Bombie, The True Tragedy of Richard III, The Battle of Alcazar, 1 Selimus, The Wars of Cyrus (1594); The Pedlar’s Prophecy, Locrine (famously described as ‘Newly set forth, overseen and corrected, by W.S.’), 3 Henry VI (1595); A Knack to Know an Honest Man, Edward III, Richard II, Richard III (1596); Romeo and Juliet (1597). Of the 40 plays performed at the playhouses and published before 1598, 32 were printed anonymously, as against eight plays printed with some kind of authorial designation (even if that’s just ‘R. W.’, for example). So why do we only treat a small number of these plays as anonymous, proceeding as though the authorship of, say, Galatea or Tamburlaine or The Arraignment of Paris or Romeo and Juliet were magically self-evident and obvious? And how have plays from this period come to function as the basis, even the epitome, for conversations about sole-authorship and self-evident attribution?
In summary, then, despite the authorial shortcomings of Oxford and bacon, it seems to me strange that it is Shakespeare’s work which now serves as a cultural triggerpoint for exploring, challenging and unpacking authorship, given that post-1598 editions of his plays are extremely likely to mention his name on their titlepages, and the 1623 collection of his plays makes his authorship such a major selling point, not only in title but in image:
Instead we might ask more often who Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, Lyly, Peele or Wilson were, and what they meant to playgoers and play readers. We treat many of these figures now as ways into this period, as preconditions of our performances of and research into plays in this period. Might we ask what these problems do to our least questioned, most apparently secure authorial attributions? In their editions of his plays, G. K. Hunter and David Bevington repeatedly describe Lyly’s writing as self-evident and beyond doubt: ‘Would that all attributions of authorship in Elizabethan drama were equally simple!’, Hunter jokes (in his 1991 edition of Campaspe, p. 5). How simple are our simplest attributions?
Marlowe, Kyd, Greene, Lyly and Peele are, if anything, distinguished by their apparent unimportance and surprising invisibility at the time, at least at the level of playbook attributions. Is it not therefore more interesting and productive to note that it is the writers least famous now who are most often advertised as authors then, and vice versa?