Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
KPBS Midday Edition

Debate Over Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays Won't Get Settled At San Diego Library

Pictured is the title page of "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies" with a Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare.
Shakespeare First Folio, 1623. Folger Shakespeare Library.
Pictured is the title page of "Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories & Tragedies" with a Droeshout engraving of Shakespeare.

Debate Over Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays Won't Get Settled At San Diego Library
Debate Over Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays Won't Get Settled At San Diego Library GUEST: Bryan Wildenthal, professor, Thomas Jefferson School of Law

Who wrote Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet? Most everyone says William Shakespeare, but there have been serious and then not so serious skeptics. If you think about Shakespeare you think about a man basically with the education second grade, wrote some great portrait, I think maybe not. I'm wondering around after a couple of beers knocking on doors going, is this to be or not to be. That was Robin Williams on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. One of the most earnest doubters is Bryan Wildenthal. A professor at the Thomas Jefferson school of Law. He is speaking at the central library tomorrow night at 6:30 PM about this literary mystery. Bryan Wildenthal joins me now. Welcome. If we have Shakespeare is not the author of Hamlet, a fellow, Romeo and Juliet, who do you think we in Shakespeare wise? There was a guy named William Shakespeare, usually spelled like SHA KS PERB who did live in Stratford and is pretty well documented that he was a businessman, pretty mobile, successful, a Fairmont of evidence that he got involved in the theater business that he was an actor, a player is the college. Probably an investor and manager in the theater business. The question which people call the Shakespeare authorship question is whether he indeed was the writer who produced these works that were published under the name Shakespeare, spelled as we know it today. Spelling difference that may not matter too much but it's one among many interesting puzzles that do at least create some reasonable doubt in some people's opinion. This argument has been simmering on the sidelines of the mainstream collar ship for hundreds of years. At least 100 years. Why is that? Many people over the centuries when they read these works of Shakespeare, they've got the impression that there is a tremendous amount of learning and philosophical depth in the place, the knowledge of Latin, French, Italian and Greek, a lot of the plays are set in Italy so there has been a tendency to wonder if that fits that while with this successful upwardly mobile businessman from Stratford who had most, probably had more than a second grade education, that would be going too far, he probably went to grammar school which is like a middle school and they did learned Latin, but never went to university or traveled outside of England. That raises some question and got the ball rolling for some people to dig further. What is one basic puzzle that you think throws everything into question about whether we in Shakespeare was the author of these plays? One thing is a lot of the plays are set in Italy, not just historical place like Julius Caesar but Romeo and Juliet, and merchant of Venice, two gentlemen of Verona, and people have look closely these plays including Italian scholars and said, whoever wrote this really knew intimately the geography, art and culture of Italy. There are indications that the Italian form of theater was a major influence. That was a being performed in England in the 1500s. You had to go to Italy and get immersed in it and watch it. The judicially presumed author no one has suggested he left England and it doesn't appear that he did. That raises a red flag for some people. Just a few weeks ago editors of the Oxford University press said that playwright Christopher Marlowe, who was a contemporary of we in Shakespeare was a co-author of three Shakespeare plays, Henry VI part 133. Is that a settled question? Apparently not. I have, as a law professor and my colleagues at Thomas Jefferson Law school had been amused about, how did I get into this branch. Many of us have been skeptical have been saying for years, there are questions and so our attitude is like, join the club. This in the chose that even the mainstream established scholars are recognizing that people like Marlowe, might have collaborated. Maybe some of these plays were have written in complete plays and some patch them up later. There are a lot of things we don't know. Skeptics would say there are a lot of unanswered questions. The favorite other Shakespeare is the role of Oxford. What convinces you about that? I'm not necessarily convinced totally. I think there are some strong probabilities and evidence that point to Oxford. There are connections between his biography in the place. If you look at characters in Hamlet, the plot of like all's well in swell which is all about a young son of a noble men whose father dies and he is sent off to live with the king as award. This is a real system in the Earl of Oxford this happened when he was 12 years old. It's not the kind of problem that most commoners would care about. They think like, I wish I had your problems. For a nobleman, if the father died, the sun would be at risk of losing his property, would have to go live in the royal court. In the beginning of all's well in swell this young man tells his mother I am evermore in subjection, I'm off to live with the King. That's a close parallel in DeVere's life story. We know that he traveled in Italy in the very cities where intimately discussed in Shakespeare plays. He was also known, his contemporaries praised him as a poet and playwright and yet we don't have any works were very few that are, have come down to us with his name on them. This is raised the issue of whether Shakespeare could be the missing works of this figure. Does it really matter who wrote these plays? They are beautiful, they have become part and parcel of English language and culture. What is a better? For many people who want to get a deeper understanding of the plays and maybe a -- figure out what passages mean, exploring who the author is opens up a dimension. It adds a third dimension perhaps. It's not something that everyone has time or interest to do. Those who enjoy it should explore it, and we should try to approach it seriously. There have been off-the-wall theories and I do tend to try to take a fact-based and scholarly approach. I'm a law professor and publish scholarship in law. There is a lot of law and Shakespeare so it's odd how law professors maybe tend to be unusually fascinated by some of these mysteries. Law professor Bryan Wildenthal will speak about the Shakespeare authorship question , tomorrow night at 6:30 PM at the San Diego central library. They cute. Thank you.

The Shakespeare Authorship Question

San Diego Central Public Library

Tuesday, Dec. 6, 6:30 p.m.

Most academics think it's a settled question, but there are still skeptics who don't believe William Shakespeare wrote "Hamlet," "Romeo and Juliet" and the dozens of other plays commonly attributed to the man from Stratford-upon-Avon.

There are several alternate theories, including that Edward de Vere, the Earl of Oxford, or playwright Christopher Marlowe were behind some of history's most famous writings. Editors at the Oxford University Press in October named Marlowe an official co-author for Shakespeare's "Henry VI" plays, based in part on new analysis of the similarities between Marlowe's writing and the trilogy.

Thomas Jefferson School of Law professor Bryan Wildenthal is in the Oxford camp and calls himself an "amateur Shakespeare enthusiast." He's speaking Dec. 6 at the San Diego Central Public Library about the centuries-long debate. And while they're not literature scholars, Wildenthal says several Supreme Court justices have expressed doubt about the Bard's identity.

"There’s no question a guy called William Shakespeare from Stratford was involved in the theater business and was probably an actor," Wildenthal said. "But the plays themselves seem to indicate a sophisticated use of legal metaphors. There’s no indication the presumed author would have the opportunity to get that legal training. Also he displays a knowledge of Italy that is difficult to square with the limited education he probably received."

The issue is still contentious; skeptics have been compared to members of the "Flat Earth Society." But Wildenthal says he finds Shakespeare's writings compelling and just wants to know more about the author behind them.

"The journey is the destination," he said. "This is a serious topic, but it’s fun. Everyone should relax and enjoy discussing this."

Wildenthal joins KPBS Midday Edition on Monday with more on what still puzzles him about Shakespeare's authorship and the legal connections in his work.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.