My friend and fellow geek writer, Rich Handley recently asked on Facebook if anyone had opinions on the whole “Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare?” thing.
Oh boy, do I have opinions on it. I’ve been noodling around with an idea for a novel with William Shakespeare as the main character for a decade or so, and as a consequence done a fair amounting of reading on-and-off about The Bard. There’s around 35 different volumes on him sitting in my library currently. If you’ve got a spare hour or two I can drone on about the authorship question at tedious length. But my net takeaway from years of reading around the subject is yes a guy from Statford called Shakespeare wrote most of the plays attributed to him (although not always on his own). – Let me expand on that.
My take is I don’t think Shakespeare saw himself primarily as a “writer” but that it was a means to an end. I think he was first an foremost an entrepreneur who first made his money as a theater shareholder in London, and after retiring to Stratford moved in to real estate and wool trading.
He started out as a moderately successful actor who wrote a couple of things to give himself roles then realized he had a talent for it and found some patrons who’d pay for some flattering and occasionally risqué sonnets.
As far as plays went, there was no such thing as copyright or sense of authors owning the work. Plays were written for the company who staged them. When he became a shareholder in a theater company they needed plays to perform, and the more the better, and instead of paying someone he did it himself. He drew from many sources; rewriting his own versions of plays already in circulation (Hamlet), Roman ancient history (Ceaser, Anthony & Cleopatra), British ancient history (Lear, Macbeth), recent history (The hollow crown cycle), folklore (Midsummer Nights Dream), all things that would appeal to the crowds.
He never wrote for print or permanence. Bits would be rewritten to include topical references or in response to audience reactions (Merry Wives of Windsor is a Falstaff spin-off because the character was popular). That’s the reason they are examples of different texts – there is no “definitive” correct version of a Shakespeare play, because there was never intended to be one.
There was however a growing recognition that a Shakespeare play meant more ticket sales, so I believe that as he get older, busier, and richer other people were drafted in to help out and keep the “Shakespeare” brand going (there is definite evidence of collaboration), and that he probably helped out others (adding a little cache to their efforts) but it was a fluid arrangement – because after all it was the play that was the thing, not the manuscript.
All of the above is a very simplified personal viewpoint, but Rich’s post promoted me to actual put it down in writing for the first time.
So did Willy do it? – You bet he did, but maybe not for the reasons later scholars would have us believe.