For nearly two centuries, there have been two William Shakespeares. The first is the “sweet swan of Avon,” untutored man of genius and inventor of “the human,” who, as secular saint to both the British and the world, has been inspiration to countless writers and artists and one of Britain’s most successful exports. The second is a fraud: a patsy and confidence man, through whom, according to some of our leading literary lights and intellectual contrarians (including Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde), the greatest scam in modern history was perpetrated. Both of these Shakespeares have been the subject of scholarship, fiction, and feature-length film (see Anonymous in the box to the left); only one, however, is currently taught in undergraduate classes. That is a shame.
Wherever you fall on the authorship question, there are strong pedagogical reasons for bringing the fraudulent Shakespeare into the classroom. Most obviously—and, in my experience, most immediately for students—the fraudulent Shakespeare helps de-naturalize and de-construct the Romantic conception of authorship. In place of a genius, requiring little more than his own inner light to guide him in the construction of his masterworks, we discover a man (or woman) whose work was the product of intense study, travel, and the gifts of social capital, license, and probably wealth granted by the ruling class. And in place of a model of publishing organized around a single man, where work moves from mind to paper to stage, we have a model structured around numerous intermediaries. The author becomes a collaborative social production rather than a lone man of genius. Not only is this the model of authorship that we as literary and media studies professors usually try to impart to our students, it also productively foregrounds for students the importance of social and historical context to textual criticism.
Addressing the fraudulent Shakespeare in the classroom also allows us to foreground for students the question of our affective relationships with texts. Why do we care who Shakespeare really was? What kind of alternate modes of identification and interpretation are opened by a female Shakespeare, a gay Shakespeare, a “scholarship Lad” Shakespeare, etc.? And what are the motivations, practices, and forms of community that organize and support “fans” of the fraudulent Shakespeare? Such questions are fundamental to Media and Literary Studies. We do a disservice to our students by suggesting they don’t apply to Shakespeare.