Interview with Doug Stewart, Author of “To Be or Not to be Shakespeare”

Stewart tells how research shaped his opinion of Shakespeare and his work.

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"On which side do you fall in the authorship controversy—are you a Stratfordian or an Oxfordian?

I had a shift in the course of doing the research for this article. I started out as an Oxfordian. I had done reading over the years, and I'd been convinced that there was something implausible about the traditional Shakespeare story, the idea that Will Shakespeare of Stratford could have written all these plays. There were just so many implausibilities. One is that when he died there was no notice in London, the city didn't go into mourning and he didn't get a big funeral. And also his wife and at least one of his daughters and his father were illiterate. I thought, if this man was the greatest writer in the history of English literature, he'd want to at least teach his family how to read so they'd appreciate what he'd done.

What changed your mind?

As I started doing the research, as I got into it and started interviewing not only professors of English literature but historians, experts on daily life in Renaissance England, what had seemed really implausible seemed less and less implausible. One of the things that I learned is that since Shakespeare was a commoner it would have been unlikely for him to have kept a diary or written any letters. That's more an activity of the nobility, so of course we don't have anything that he wrote. Not a letter or a page of a diary. And he was not only a commoner, he was a commoner in a slightly disreputable profession. Being a traveling actor was like being a minstrel or a juggler. Today Shakespeare is venerated—he's a brand name, synonymous with literary genius—but in his lifetime he certainly wasn't viewed that way. Plays weren't considered literature, they weren't even set into type, even Shakespeare's. When you really try to imagine what life was like in 1600, it is very different from the sanitized way we imagine Shakespeare to have lived. I think that people want to imagine—they insist—that he must have had the signs of greatness when he was young, and a great education, great admiration from everyone he met. But clearly that wasn't the case.

Are you thoroughly convinced of the Stratford theory?

I wouldn't say thoroughly convinced, but I think that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. To claim that the Earl of Oxford or anyone else wrote Shakespeare's plays is clearly an extraordinary claim. The Stratford theory is believable enough that I can understand why professors aren't even interested in the authorship controversy.

Why is there a controversy at all, then?

It really comes down to what we want to see in the writers we love. And it's true of contemporary writers—we want them to have interesting and admirable lives. And here's this guy Shakespeare who's publicly accused, for example, of hoarding grain during a famine. It doesn't jibe with the way we imagine Shakespeare.

You mention that in the story—it's true that behavior like that doesn't quite fit with the personality of the plays.

Actually, he might in fact have learned from his mistakes, because a few years after the famine, when he was publicly accused of hoarding grain, he wrote Coriolanus, one of his later plays, and in the opening scene Roman citizens are joining in a revolt because there's a famine going on and a local nobleman is hoarding grain. So in a way that's almost better evidence for Shakespeare than against.

About Amy Crawford
Amy Crawford

Amy Crawford is a Michigan-based freelance journalist writing about cities, science, the environment, art and education. A longtime Smithsonian contributor, her work also appears in CityLab and the Boston Globe.

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