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.

Do you think the authorship debate is about literary snobbery on the one side and people who see Shakespeare as a working-class hero on the other side?

Definitely, there's an aspect of that. To one extent it is a leap of faith, and the reason people choose to believe one thing or another often is emotional rather than a careful sifting of evidence. But I think it's more broadly a question of misunderstanding what life, and specifically the theater world, was like 400 years ago, and trying to apply modern assumptions to the Renaissance, such as that there was something incongruous about Shakespeare trying to make money selling grain.

It's probably love of a puzzle too.

Yeah, and it'll never stop.

What would happen if we got concrete evidence that pointed to either side?

Well, first of all, I don't think it will happen. In my own mind I think, what's the difference? I enjoy the plays, and I actually attended lots of plays, very different kinds of productions, during the course of my research. I didn't enjoy every production, but I have tremendous admiration for Shakespeare and his liveliness and sense of humor and drama. But I actually don't care about his private life—I don't care if he hoarded grain, and I don't care if he knew Queen Elizabeth personally. That's the way I look at contemporary writers—I always feel guilty reading a biography of a writer. Some professors' analysis of the plays is based on knowledge of Shakespeare's life and times and seeing the works in context, and I think it would devastate some scholars if it could be proven that Oxford wrote them. But it wouldn't devastate me, because I prefer not to look behind the plays.

Shakespeare's plays don't seem to need the context of his life and times anyway—is that why they can be staged so well in different settings and eras?

Yes, I saw Othello a few months ago in Boston—a terrific performance put on by Boston Theatre Works, directed by Jason Slavick—and they were improvising, and you think, oh, how blasphemous! How dare they change the bard's words! And Iago would sit in the audience part of the time and catcall and heckle his underlings. The actor who played Iago, Jonathan Epstein, was just incredible—he's going to go far. It just goes to show what great raw material a Shakespeare script is for an inventive director and a talented actor. I think in Shakespeare's day there was a lot of that—things were much more raucous. Shakespeare and his words weren't treated so respectfully, and I think we're probably too respectful today.

What's your favorite play? Did you discover anything good that you hadn't read before as you were researching this story?

I enjoy the mistaken identity comedies. They kind of run together sometimes, which is another thing you're probably not supposed to say today—you want to think of these as 38 masterpieces. I did want to read the two long narrative poems he wrote, Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, because actually he was better known for those in his lifetime than he was for the plays. I figured I'd better read them, but I couldn't really get through them, because they were so melodramatic. So I got an acoustic version from eBay and listened to them both. I think we're too quick to say everything attributed to Shakespeare bears the work of genius. You read The Rape of Lucrece, and it's titillating, it's really bloody, it's definitely appealing to popular tastes, and it was indeed a bestseller in its time. As a former editor, I wouldn't have minded going into that and cutting it down a whole lot—although you're not supposed to say that today.

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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