At Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a re-creation of an Elizabethan playhouse, you’d expect to see Shakespeare’s plays.
The theater’s managers, however, aren’t so sure. There’s a disclaimer on page 6 of the program: The work attributed to Shakespeare may have been written by someone else entirely.
While the authorship debate has plagued and fascinated scholars since the mid-19th century, a recent seminar at the Globe reached new heights with the introduction of the first woman suspect — Mary Sidney Herbert, Countess of Pembroke.
“This is an interesting time we live in. I don’t think this could have come out even 50 years ago — I think it had to wait until now,” says Robin Williams, a computer book writer who has researched Mary Sidney for the past 30 years. “I think that if they were a woman’s work they wouldn’t have come down through history.”
Believers in Shakespeare’s authorship joined in a spirited debate on a July weekend with advocates of some familiar alternatives: Edward De Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford; playwright Christopher Marlowe; and lawyer Sir Francis Bacon.
Mary Sidney, sister of writer Sir Philip Sidney, is esteemed as one of the most important women writers of Elizabethan times. Works definitely attributed to her include three poems, a variety of translations and metrical paraphrases of Psalms 44-150.
Williams was her sole advocate at the authorship conference.
“She developed the most important literary circle in English history. Right there that is more than any other candidate can claim,” Williams said. “She encouraged people to write, and she was the center of all the writers in the kingdom.”
Knowledge leads to increased skepticism
Skepticism surrounding Shakespeare is mostly rooted in the expansive knowledge base of the lowly actor, his fluency in five languages and the scant documentation of his existence.
The Globe’s project, now in its second year, is facilitated by the Shakespearean Authorship Trust, a charity committed to nonpartisan debate.
“We saw our job as an agnostic society with representatives or contacts from all the different authorship researchers,” Mark Rylance, actor and artistic director at the Globe Theatre, said. “Our job was to make a space for us to meet in friendship rather than debating in antagonism.”
This year’s debate was focused on “Measure for Measure.”
While Sidney’s introduction brought groans and head-shakes from some participants long committed to one authorship theory or another, others were open to new ideas.
“I’m looking to get as near the truth as I can,” said Michael Frohnsdorff, a scholar who spoke on behalf of Christopher Marlowe. “If the truth turns out to be unfavorable, if I discover something that doesn’t fit, I shouldn’t let people discard it. I should follow that through and see what it means.”
Frohnsdorff said he had no doubt Marlowe survived past 1593, the recorded date of his death, to write or collaborate in the Shakespearean works. Because Marlowe was known to be a spy for the queen, his disappearance was explainable, he argued.
Marlowe advocates introduced new computer technology able to compare authorship of work based on repetitive data found through a compression algorithm of the text. This study, performed most recently by a student, Ian Cummings, for a Discovery Channel science fair, linked the work of Marlowe with that attributed to the Bard. Many scholars presume there was some collaboration, meaning one genius was not responsible for Shakespeare, but rather a team of authors who seemed to speak from a single voice.
'One guiding genius'
“I think there is a case that can be made for collaboration, but at the same time, my own feeling is that there is one guiding genius in it,” Kevin Gilvary, an active member of the De Vere society, said. “If you look at films today and sitcoms, there is not just one person writing it but at the same time there is one guiding hand. Events in (De Vere’s) own life are reflected so much in different plays.”
Those who attended the conference seemed less focused on proving the identity of Shakespeare than generally appreciating the genius of the playwright.
“Even if you don’t agree with the final conclusion, you’re getting a picture of the society in which and for which Shakespeare wrote, rose and rose, and that’s the benefit for me,” said Rylance, who subscribes to the Baconian theory. “But I’m not partial in proving one author or another. I am interested in proving who he was speaking to and what was the interest of the society in which this grew.
“There’s rarely just one man — one white man — heroically creating the whole thing.”
The Globe’s openness may also generate more publicity, attracting younger people intrigued by an enigma.
“I think this is an issue that needs raising in profile, and I hope someone will take this to heart,” said Leonard Holihan, a member of the Shakespeare Authorship Trust’s board of trustees, which sponsored the conference. “It’s more relevant and more researched today, and let’s face it, the Globe is not trying to suppress it.”