Shakespeare authorship question

Portraits of Shakespeare and four proposed alternative authors

The Shakespeare authorship question is the argument that someone other than William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the works attributed to him. Anti-Stratfordians—a collective term for adherents of the various alternative-authorship theories—believe that Shakespeare of Stratford was a front to shield the identity of the real author or authors, who for some reason did not want or could not accept public credit. Although the idea has attracted much public interest, all but a few Shakespeare scholars and literary historians consider it a fringe belief, and for the most part acknowledge it only to rebut or disparage the claims.

Shakespeare's authorship was first questioned in the middle of the 19th century, when adulation of Shakespeare as the greatest writer of all time had become widespread. Shakespeare's biography, particularly his humble origins and obscure life, seemed incompatible with his poetic eminence and his reputation for genius, arousing suspicion that Shakespeare might not have written the works attributed to him. The controversy has since spawned a vast body of literature, and more than 80 authorship candidates have been proposed, the most popular being Sir Francis Bacon; Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford; Christopher Marlowe; and William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby.

Supporters of alternative candidates argue that theirs is the more plausible author, and that William Shakespeare lacked the education, aristocratic sensibility, or familiarity with the royal court that they say is apparent in the works. Those Shakespeare scholars who have responded to such claims hold that biographical interpretations of literature are unreliable in attributing authorship, and that the convergence of documentary evidence used to support Shakespeare's authorship—title pages, testimony by other contemporary poets and historians, and official records—is the same used for all other authorial attributions of his era. No such direct evidence exists for any other candidate, and Shakespeare's authorship was not questioned during his lifetime or for centuries after his death.

Despite the scholarly consensus, a relatively small but highly visible and diverse assortment of supporters, including prominent public figures, have questioned the conventional attribution. They work for acknowledgment of the authorship question as a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry and for acceptance of one or another of the various authorship candidates.