Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Samantha. Samantha Wonders, “Did Shakespeare really write his plays?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Samantha!
With nearly 40 plays and over 150 sonnets to his credit, William Shakespeare is considered one of the world's greatest writers. In fact, his collective body of work is often referred to as the greatest in the history of the English language.
But should Shakespeare get the credit? That is the question that some historians and scholars have posed since the mid-19th century.
Known in academic circles as the "Shakespeare authorship controversy," some people believe that Shakespeare didn't write the plays and sonnets that bear his name. Shakespeare's critics include several famous people, such as Orson Welles, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and Charlie Chaplin.
Historical documentation of Shakespeare's life is quite scarce. Historians have found records of his marriage to Anne Hathaway, the birth of their children, a signed will, and a few business papers to writing.
Unfortunately, no papers have been found that document the writing of his many works. Despite searches by historians over the years, no one has ever found any handwritten notes or manuscripts by Shakespeare.
Most historians believe that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He was a commoner who was educated at a free school. Despite a humble background and without an advanced education, he moved to London where he was both a writer and an actor.
For over two centuries after Shakespeare's death in 1616, no one questioned his authorship. In fact, the first time it was suggested that Shakespeare might not be the author of his works was in 1848 — and it was a joke.
A Lutheran scholar named Samuel Schmucker compared academic efforts to cast doubt upon the existence of Jesus Christ to someone arguing that Shakespeare never existed. Nevertheless, questioning Shakespeare's authorship caught on and has continued ever since.
Over the last century, over 70 other people have been suggested as the "true" author of Shakespeare's works, including Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe. However, the favorite candidate as the "true" Shakespeare over the last century has been Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford.
There are many different arguments people use to suggest that someone else wrote Shakespeare's works. The most popular tends to be that it's simply not possible that someone with such humble origins and education could have written so eloquently about complex political and legal matters.
This is perhaps why Edward de Vere is such a popular candidate for the "true" Shakespeare. His position as the Earl of Oxford would have given him the intricate knowledge of life in the English court that some people believe the "real" Shakespeare must have had. People who argue that de Vere is the real author of Shakespeare's works believe he concealed his identity because writing plays was considered a lowly occupation.
William Shakespeare's supporters (known as "Stratfordians"), however, believe the authorship controversy is nothing more than a farfetched conspiracy theory. They point out that some of Shakespeare's most famous works were published after Edward de Vere's death in 1604.
They also note that Shakespeare's name is on all of his works. Many plays during Shakespeare's time were published anonymously. If someone wanted to hide their identity, why would they claim to be Shakespeare rather than simply publishing their works anonymously?
Stratfordians also note that Shakespeare was a well-known playwright and actor during his lifetime. Other writers wrote reviews of his works and mentioned him by name as one of the best writers of his era.
Without a breakthrough discovery of historical documentation, the Shakespeare authorship controversy will likely continue to be debated far into the future. No matter which side of the debate you fall on, you can still enjoy the many fantastic works of Shakespeare…whoever he may be!