The Shakespeare Oxford Society’s The Oxfordian journal editor, Michael Egan, asked the SOS News Online to share an interview he conducted with Shakespeare Authorship Coalition Chairman John Shahan. The interview appears in the March 2010 issue of Forever Young, a Las Cruces, New Mexico consumer magazine that Egan founded and is editing.
Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare? An Interview with John Shahan, Chairman and CEO of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition
There’s an old joke that runs, “Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare. His plays were actually written by another man with the same name.”
It’s funny and maybe also true, because apparently there is some doubt about how a barely educated provincial boy could have grown up to become Shakespeare. We’re not just talking about a determined young man making a success of his life. William Shakespeare is the acknowledged genius among geniuses, the writer with the largest vocabulary of all time, the finest dramatist in history. In 2000 he was ranked the greatest Englishman who ever lived.
“If you read his plays without assuming that the man from Stratford-Upon-Avon wrote them, you can create a little ‘thought experiment,’” says John Shahan, chairman and CEO of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition. The SAC is dedicated to promoting the idea that there is ‘Reasonable Doubt’ concerning the identity of the author of Hamlet, Macbeth and other immortal works.
Shahan continues: “The thought experiment is to try imagining what kind of person wrote these master works, filled as they are with most amazingly detailed information about almost everything, botany, astronomy, music, the law. The writer seems to have been someone who knew the Elizabethan court and its politics inside out, was familiar with falconry, tennis, bowls and other aristocratic sports, and also fluent in Latin, Italian, French and perhaps even Greek! He knew how armies muster and encamp, how soldiers talk, understood ships and naval terms and must have travelled extensively in northern Italy. Fifteen of his thirty-six plays are set in and around Tuscany, and they’re full of detailed, first-hand knowledge.”
But, I asked Shahan, if Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, who did? “I don’t know for certain,” he answers. “I just know it couldn’t have been the grain-dealer from Stratford, who died without a single book in his possession—not one!—and allowed his children to grow up illiterate.”
Shahan adds: “Lots of people have been put forward as possible authors in his place. It isn’t hard to find candidates who seem a lot more likely than William of Stratford. The most popular candidates are Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe and Edward de Vere, the seventeenth earl of Oxford. But many other candidates have followers, such as William Stanley, sixth earl of Derby, Sir Henry Neville, Fulke Greville, plus at least two women – Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, and Queen Elizabeth I. Edward de Vere is the leading candidate, but nothing conclusive has turned up yet.”
I asked Shahan to describe the work of the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition.
“Well, the main thing we’ve done is write a definitive statement of the reasons to doubt the Stratford man. It’s called the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt About the Identity of Williams Shakespeare, and it’s posted on our website where anyone can read it, sign it, and download a free copy. It’s at http://DoubtAboutWill.org. Some of the most notable signatories include Supreme Court justices John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O’Connor, Charles Champlin, Arts Critic Emeritus of the LA Times, the actor Sir Derek Jacobi, and Mark Rylance, founding Artistic Director at the new Globe Theatre in London. Nearly 1,700 people have signed – eighty percent of them college graduates, thirty-six percent with advanced degrees, and 300 academics.”
Famous people in the past who have expressed doubts about the traditional Shakespeare include Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Henry James, Charles Dickens and Orson Welles.
Shahan considers the SAC’s Declaration of Reasonable Doubt a major step forward in what he calls the Authorship Debate. He explains: “Unfortunately, even today it’s not academically respectable to question the idea that Shakespeare of Stratford wrote the plays. Professors are quick to mock the idea and group it with alien abduction and conspiracy theories about JFK. So when famous people who are obviously not crackpots say they have their uncertainties it makes it harder for the professors to ignore the blanks and contradictions in their version. They’re forced to question their own assumptions, which of course they don’t like to do but is actually a very good thing.”
The matter of who did write the plays of Shakespeare will soon come to a head, Shahan predicted. In April, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro of Columbia University will publish his new book, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Already scholars are lining up for and against Shapiro’s conclusion that the case against Shakespeare of Stratford is a formidable one.
“Shapiro doesn’t exactly say Shakespeare of Stratford may not be the Shakespeare who wrote the plays and poems,” Shahan notes. “He’s an orthodox Shakespearean, after all. But after his book appears he really ought to sign our Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.”