Shakespeare Wins the Debate: Part 2

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On Monday (3 June) I was the opening speaker at a debate held at the English-Speaking Union headquarters in London at which the motion was ‘This house believes that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays and poems attributed to him’. The other speakers in favour of the motion were Paul Edmondson and Michael Dobson; opposing were Roland Emmerich (the director of the film Anonymous), Charles Beauclerk (descended from the Earl of Oxford) and William Leahy, who runs a course in Shakespeare Authorship Studies at Brunel University. Each of us was allowed five minutes; I kept pretty strictly to factual matters in order to set the scene. The event was attended by a full house of some 120 people including other academics, students and press – also Janet Suzman – who took part in a question and answer session. It was live streamed on the internet. There was no formal vote, but we were declared the winners by acclamation. Here is my speech:

‘Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to explain in brief the grounds for my conviction that, give or take a few collaborations with other professional dramatists, the works currently attributed to William Shakespeare are the work of the townsman of Stratford-upon-Avon whose baptism on 26 April 1564 is recorded in the town’s parish registers and who is memorialized in the parish church with a bust and with tributary verses written in both Latin and English.

First, the publication evidence. During his lifetime many plays were attributed to William Shakespeare in the registers of the Stationers’ Company of London and on 37 title pages of first editions and reprints of published versions of these plays. The dedications to the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece bear the signature ‘William Shakespeare’, and the volume of Sonnets published in 1609 describes these poems as ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets, never before imprinted.’ That is the primary evidence.

Second is the evidence afforded by references in works surviving either in print or in manuscript. During his lifetime Shakespeare is mentioned by name as a writer, sometimes in general terms, at other times explicitly as the author of works now attributed to him, by writers including Henry Willobie, William Covell, Richard Barnfield, John Weever, Thomas Freeman, Anthony Scoloker, the anonymous author of the Parnassus plays (in which a character wants a portrait of him as a pin-up) , Henry Chettle, William Camden, William Barksted, Leonard Digges, and the dramatist John Webster. Most significantly in the current context, Francis Meres, in 1598, not merely named 12 plays as having been written by William Shakespeare but did so in the same paragraph as a separate allusion to the Earl of Oxford as a writer of comedies. The fact that the names of most of these writers are little known today does nothing to devalue their evidence. After Shakespeare’s death there are most conspicuously the remarks about him made by Ben Jonson in conversations with William Drummond of Hawthornden.

There also exist numerous references to William Shakespeare as an actor and shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s, later the King’s Men including references to his having acted in plays by Ben Jonson.

These facts alone, I submit, are enough to demonstrate beyond doubt that, on evidence supplied by many of his contemporaries and in theatrical records, William Shakespeare was a poet, a dramatist, and an actor, and that works currently attributed to him were written by a man of that name.

Whether this man was the William Shakespeare baptized in Stratford in 1564 might seem to be of only secondary importance, but even so there is unimpeachable evidence that he was. First is the evidence supplied by the memorial verses on the monument to the man of Stratford which compare him to great figures of classical antiquity – Virgil, Nestor, and Socrates – which declare that he now inhabits Olympus, and which claim that ‘all that he hath writ / Leaves living art but page to serve his wit.’ Then there are the verses printed in the First Folio by Ben Jonson which allude to the author of the works in that volume as a ‘swan of Avon.’ Applied to a local wool or malt merchant, however successful, these terms might appear to be improbably hyperbolical. Lines in the Folio by Leonard Digges refer to its author’s ‘Stratford monument.’ An elegy on Shakespeare by William Basse first printed in 1633 links him with the dramatist Francis Beaumont and the poets Edmund Spenser and Geoffrey Chaucer and refers to him as a ‘tragedian’, which could mean both an actor and a writer of tragedies. One of the numerous manuscripts of this elegy is headed ‘On Mr William Shakespeare he died in April 1616′ and in another ‘On William Shakespeare buried at Stratford-upon-Avon his town of nativity.’

Some of this evidence, ladies and gentlemen, is posthumously derived. Anti-Stratfordians frequently dismiss all such evidence, using the phrase ‘in his lifetime’ as a mindless mantra, as if posthumously derived evidence were ipso facto inadmissible. But if we accepted only evidence derived from a subject’s lifetime we should not know, for example, how Christopher Marlowe died in Deptford, or of Charles Dickens’s relationship with the actress Ellen Ternan, or how Anne Frank lived and died in hiding during the Second World War.

This and more, ladies and gentlemen, I submit, amounts to unimpeachable evidence that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon did indeed write the works attributed to him, and that attempts to deny this fly in the face of historical fact in favour of improbable – nay, impossible – fiction.’

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Dominic Hughes

    I wonder if you could direct me to a list of the 37 title pages of published plays attributing the authorship to Shakespeare during his lifetime. So far, I have only been able to come up with 30 such plays.

  • Boswell~~~

    Royals were always mentioned first in any such list. Like it or not, the First Folio was dedicated to Oxford’s daughters husband, and to the brother-in-law of Susan Vere, who was close friends with Ben Jonson. If the family of Oxford paid for the folio, which was a risky and expensive project, can you deduce why? If it was beneath Oxford’s station to be a playwright, doesn’t the plausible deniability of a mask make sense to you? After all, we do know that Oxford solves the problems that created this controversy and debate, and the debate started 75 years before the identification of Oxford as candidate for being the true author. Oxford was a poet, he had acting troupes, he was tutored by Ovid’s translator, his uncle Arthur Golding, as well as Sir Thomas Smith, vice-chancellor at Oxford, and Lawrence Nowell. Oxford went to Italy, and came back having seen comedia d’ell arte plays, and a bad experience with a Venice money-lender. He fits Hamlet to a T, a manic-depressive self-possessed prince reading a book by Castiglione on suicide and other musings, which just happened to be paid for by Oxford himself, who is on the dedication page by Sir Thomas Bedingfield. Kindly read the letter Oxford wrote him, denying him the request not to publish Cardenas Comforte. It was written when Oxford was 23. It is very Shakespearean in content and style. You will enjoy it. Beware of anyone who tells you not to doubt authority, or that history cannot be questioned. The Stratford Tourist Industry is paying Dr. Wells. He has a dog in the fight, and it shows. Read up on the 17th Earl of Oxford. It’s a fascinating story. Granted, he’s a scoundrel of sorts, high strung, obnoxious, and self-centered. Very Hamlet like character, Edward de Vere was. I’ve tried to poke holes in the Oxfordian theory, and I have not. The less you know, the easier it is to dismiss his close links with the canon. After all, he had both Anthony Munday and John Lyly as personal secretaries. Writing these works was not a part time job. It took a world class education, and associates, as well as acting troupes, and protection from the Queen in order to lampoon the Court for her amusement. The more I read (10 years and 5000hours), the more absurd the Stratford Myth becomes. I wish you the intellectual curiosity to read up on Edward de Vere. All the best, boswell

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  • Wjray

    There are two faulty assumptions that perpetuate and becloud this subject.  The first error is embodied in Mr. Holling’s note, that the name William Shakespeare and the money-lender/investor from Stratford were one and the same individual.  Nothing in the record supports that.  The pseudonym preceded the latter. The second faulty assumption is that the actual artist’s autobiography–his life and mind–have no meaning vis-a-vis the Shakespeare canon.  ‘Shakespeare’s writing reflected detestation for the aught-greedy, money-hungry in our modern idiom.  Getting money was Shakspere’s only ambition.  His seventy legal records reflect nothing else.  But, of this Professor Wells had nothing to say.  He merely touted his book to a fan.

  • Stanley Wells

    Thank you. I think Shakespeare’s name comes first primarily because he is the author of the plays in the volume..
    Glad you like Shakespeare and Co. Shakespeare, Sex, and Love has appeared more recently.

  • Peter Holling

    Well said. Why do they persist in it. They are all “cream faced loons.” as MacBeth said.

  • Peter Holling

    A wonderful defence of Shakespeare’s authorship. Why do all these people persist in going totally against the facts? Derek Jacobi ought to know better. Has he too much time on his hands?

    I would welcome Professor Wells’s opinion on my belief that in the list of actors at the front of the First Folio, where William Shakespeare is the first on the list, that to me implies that William is the most important person in the the Company as Sharer and house playwright and not as an actor.

    Are there any more fascinating books in preparation Professor? I loved your ” Shakespeare and Co.”

    Keep up the good work

  • Roger Stritmatter

    Rather than accept Richard Nathan’s tinsel-thin defense of a decrepit orthodoxy via the Shakespeare will, I recommend that critical readers consult Bonner Cutting’s detailed analysis (probably the most detailed critical study ever done) of that document, here:

    More generally Nathan’s comments place the theatre entrepreneur/actor Shakespeare/Shaksper within the same circle as Hemming and Condell, which is no surprise and rather begs the question of whether he is responsible for the plays. Clearly he was an appropriately placed front man or we would not be be having this discussion. Nathan follows the standard routine (by now you would think he might know better) of attributing straw man argument to his critics when he writes that “It is absurd to believe, as many anti-Strats do, that no one in Shakespeare’s lifetime ever thought the actor was the writer.”  Simple logic suggests that just because some people may have been taken in by the ruse even during the alleged author’s lifetime, that is hardly proof that he was. Consult some statistics on the reliability of eyewitness identification in the 21st century if you don’t understand the inconclusive and misleading nature of this argument. 

  • Anonymous

    There is no Stratfordian position.  It is a belief.  Readers wishing to see its most biased expression are directed to the Wikipedia page on the Shakespeare authorship. Reedy is chief officer of the Politburo there. 

  • Tom Reedy

    A good example of why anti-Stratfordian theories are rightfully dismissed as delusions of the lunatic fringe. With arguments like these, the Stratfordian position is secure forever.

  • Clay Buerkle

    Such hyperbole Richard! 
    Granting that the Stratford Shakspere wasn’t totally illiterate, as
    Baconians have already done, does not at all admit that he was then capable of
    writing Hamlet and the rest of the canon. Also, just speaking of the Blackfriar’s
    playhouse, for a tiny bit of the evidence against the Stratfordian position:


    In 1635 the players of the Globe and Blackfriars theatres
    were engaged in a dispute with the leaseholders over the division of the
    profits. (see E.K. Chambers, William
    Shakespeare, Vol. 2, pp. 65-6, and The
    Elizabethan Stage, Vol. 2, pp. 57, 414 and 509). The players alleged that
    the leaseholders received too large a slice. The dispute was referred to the
    summary decision of the Earl of Pembroke as Lord Chamberlain. An answer to
    the petition was filed by Cuthbert Burbage (brother of the late Richard Burbage
    who had been Shakspere’s fellow actor), Mrs. Winifred Robinson (widow of
    Richard, now remarried) and Richard Burbage (son of the late Richard). The gist
    of their answer was that their shares were fair by reason of all the late
    Richard had done for the theatres. They told how Cuthbert and his late brother
    had built the Globe with money borrowed at heavy interest, and added (as
    another point in their favour): “to ourselves we joined those deserving men
    Shakspere, Hemings, Condell, Phillips and others”. Speaking of the
    Blackfriars theatre Cuthbert said of himself and the late Richard: “We
    purchased the lease with our money and placed men players which were
    Hemings, Condell, Shakespeare etc”. Having thus twice attempted to
    strengthen their case by invoking the good name of those players, one might
    have expected Cuthbert to remind Pembroke that both theatres had been helped to
    prosperity and prestige by staging the Shake-Speare plays, the First
    Folio of which had been dedicated to none other than Pembroke himself and his
    brother. To describe Shakspere only as a “deserving person” and a man player
    seems unduly belittling, if he was Shake-Speare. Though the Shake-Speare plays
    meant far less to his contemporaries than to us, some of them had been popular,
    not least with Queen Elizabeth and King James. Of course, if Shakspere was Shake-Speare,
    Pembroke already knew that or assumed it. But he also knew already that
    Shakspere, Hemings and Condell were deserving men. An advocate does not refrain
    from making a good point because it is already known to his audience. So it
    remains a little odd that it speaks only of Shakspere as a player; one would
    have expected him to be given a more imposing designation, if he was


    Please try examining much more of the evidence at

  • Anonymous

    I must correct Mr. Nathan regarding Shakspere/Shakespeare’s will.  It does, by interlineation, refer to money for rings for Burbage, Condell, and Heminges. (Who knew nothing of editing a huge work of their Master.) However, a law suit by Heminges’ daughter in law in 1615, concerning stock in the Globe Theatre, refers to Shakespeare being a deceased stock-holder.  Thus, she appeared to have considered someone else, not the living Shakspere/Shakespeare, as the Globe stock-holder. [His name only began to display the spelling Shakespeare in 1596, after Venus and Adonis and Lucrece declared “William Shakespeare” as their author in 1593-4.]  As corroboration, there is no mention of Shakspere/Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre stock in the Shakespeare will, strengthening doubt that he was the Globe stock-holder, as opposed to Heminges and William Ostler, Heminges’ daughter’s deceased husband, and a few others.  Under these suspicious circumstances, the money for rings to the three actors, post facto, only stealthily connects Shakspere to the plays.

    And to mention something that Stanley Wells seemed to preen proudly of, that the will’s inventory page was missing, implying it would have included the genius’ books–Bonner Miller Cutting did an extensive survey of Elizabethan wills, and their inventories did not list books, which were considered so status-worthy that they were listed in the will proper, just as the Bible would have been.  In the upper class, books or full libraries were disposed of beforehand, personally. The inventory listed such as horse tack, tools, fencing, supplies, buildings, and stock.  In brief, Wells claims certain evidence from absolute lack of evidence, which claim is anyway unjustified by the  wills and inventories of the times.  This is the typically illogical thinking of a critic/author who is out of his depth dealing with an historical inquiry.  Wells is not alone.  Virtually every English author in this field is unprepared for the considerable study necessary to familiarize oneself with the nature of the times, exclusive of the written literary texts.  Only a seeker of truth would set himself that task, and professional scholars have full schedules already. For instance, a major error begins when the English scholar asks how on earth could a play company stage plays by “Shakespeare” and have an actor/stock-holder of that generic name, and expect confidentiality concerning the pseudonymous author?  Because many if not most plays of that time were anonymously authored, it was not unusual that the audience would not know the playwright or care to know.  If the playwright used a pseudonym, this would not cause a stir, since it also happened frequently. Political advertisement followed the same pattern, giving freedom to the anonymous or pseudonymous, with little risk of exposure.  Authorship was not a point of vocal public interest, in particular when it might be controversial.  In an atmosphere of secrecy, to divulge such information would be risky to the speaker as well as to the object.  The underlings preferred safe silence, and the aristocrats would not lower themselves to discuss a declasse aristocrat slumming with the mass. And anyone having knowledge of the aristocrat with a pseudonym would have no confusion of playwright versus the money-lender Shakspere.  That was ridiculous, as shown in Jonson’s EMOOHH.

    The longevity of such pseudonymity is proven by a few names in Professor Wells’s confident listing of authors praising Shakspere of Stratford at the “debate”.  He mentioned Thomas Freeman (pseudonym for Edward Veer, Oxford’s bastard son by Anne Vavasour); John Webster (who was Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke’s front); and Henry Willobie (which was a pseudonym Oxford used, staring us in the face: Will O be).  O was a cue to Oxford, in that O, or nothing, alluded to the “Nothing truer than truth” motto of the Vere line.These numerous  literary gentlemen never praised Shakspere of Stratford.  They praised only the writer Shakespeare, and in Willobie’s pseudonymous case, the reference was to yet another pseudonym and finally to the author. 

    Far from being an illiterate yokel, Shakspere evidently capitalized on his name, first to charge Oxford to use the name, and second to claim keeper’s rights to publish plays, since it was ‘his’ name.  Oxford could do nothing, or be shamed as the aristocrat who craved money from a low tradesman.  Shakspere did not have that sensitivity to class humiliation.  It was business.  Extortionists do not have to be literate.  They need only be clever.

  • William Ray

    It is saddening to see and read Stanley Wells pontificate that there is positive evidence that Shakspere of Stratford and the playwright name William Shakespeare were one and the same person.  The evidence he presented is not positive evidence of anything but consistency in the use of the playwright name, but associated by him and his crew with Shakspere, on their never-proven presumption that the one was the other.  That is the beginning point of the status quo error touted as truth, a primary logical error which in turn buttresses the Gloriana history of Shakespeare and Elizabeth and the age. Similarly, the corroborations by other literary figures which Professor Wells confidently listed in the “debate” are confirmation of praise upon that playwright author named William Shakespeare, again begging the question, who was behind the name. Wells wasn’t interested.  In point of fact, the names he listed were friends, associates, or employees of the Herbert brothers or Jonson or both the Herberts and Jonson. This indicates a fabrication of some sort.  The reconstruction of Shakspere’s father’s cenotaph is another suspicious but ignored fact. Wells never bothered to mention that the Herbert brothers (noble paire of brethren) were in-laws of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, the outstanding writer and poet of that era, whose life perfectly parallels the plays associated with Wells’s William Shakespeare.  This gives me the idea that Wells and his henchmen have not a single iota of motivation to inquire into what Emerson called, “this first of all literary questions.”  To claim that they won the debate by acclamation is factually false.  By voice vote, there were more shouts by men for the status quo figure and more shouts by women for the Oxford contention.  Louder is not winning anything.  This issue will not disappear with a professorial dismissal of the matter.  Wells was most disappointing in the studied boredom concerning the issue. He ploddingly trotted out the cliches, as though it were his duty as a priest with the ancient catechism.  

  • Richard-Nathan

    There is other evidence that ties William Shakespeare of Stratford to William Shakespeare the actor/playwright.  Most notably, there is Shakespeare’s will.  Shakespeare of Stratford leaves money to three other actors from the King’s Men in his will.  This is one of many additions in the will, so the Anti-Stratfordians often claim it is suspicious.  However, the will also mentions the Blackfriar’s gatehouse – and this is NOT an additon.  The  deed to the Blackfriar’s gatehouse includes the signature of either Hemming or Condell  I forget which at the moment.  Hemmings and Condell were members of the King’s Men.  So Shakespeare of Stratford is clearly the actor.  It is absurd to believe, as many anti-Strats do, that no one in Shakespeare’s lifetime ever thought the actor was the writer.  How can you have an actor named William Shakespeare in the company that put on Shakespeare’s plays, and have the plays credited to William Shakespeare, and argue that no one ever  thought they were the same man?  Yet, that is exactly what many anti-Strats argue.  If you believe, as Emmerich does, that the actor took credit for the plays, it is absurd to believe that someone utterly incapable of writing “Hamlet” was able to convince so many people he wrote “Hamlet.”  If you’re going to have a front, why choose a front who is incapable of convincing anyone????   If anti-Strats are willing to concede that Shakespeare of Stratford was NOT an illiterate yokel who was utterly incapable of writing “Hamlet,” then their entire argument goes up in smoke.

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