Teaching "Shakespeare": The Authorship Question in the Classroom

Curator's Note

 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. 







A timely observation: "The author becomes a collaborative social production rather than a lone genius." This applies not only to the function of the author, as pointed out in the post, but to the power of the concept of anonymity at our moment (per the clip). Anonymous connotes not only the stakes of tracking down an identifiable author (from Shakespeare to Bin Laden), but also the power of distributed intervention: the public as author, invisible, unindividuated, yet doing the work of the civil actor ( the anonymous, retro- future of a Guy Fawkes everywhere and nowhere).

Excellent post. And timely, as Jen Boyle has noted. The longstanding author fetish coincides with an equally dense history of the whistleblower’s place in culture, specifically literary culture. If Shakespeare has been toted as the author “not of an age, but for all time,” Anonymous serves as a useful reminder of the whistleblower’s anxious situatedness within the politics and particularities of specific ages and times. The culture of paranoia as marked by whistleblowers is just as secure as is Shakespeare’s identity as the author whose authorship is always a matter of news. The irony of course is that both fetishes propagate the theory of a direct relationship between authorial identity and authorial responsibility. The questions you raise at the end of your post are crucial because they invite us to explore the pedagogical possibilities (also the problems and questions) that reclaim the reader’s/viewer’s power and place within what Edward Soja might refer to as the “trialectics” of the real and imagined reader, author, and meanings.

As a fellow Shakespeare teacher and editor, I agree with you as to the value of denaturing the idea of the Romantic genius and resituating Shakespeare as an operator in a larger context of shifting capital. My students and I answer these questions by turning to questions of source study, collaboration, editorial theory, adaptation, book history, and contemporary performance practices -- as do many of my fellow Shakespeareans -- just to point out that there are other ways of addressing the monolith Bard that don't rely on the duality of Bloomian reverence or anti-Stratfordian sentiments. What has always been the value of the authorship question for me is the way that the so-called authorship "controversy" offers opportunities for students to engage in a critical analysis of the cultural biases about status that underlie these questions: why does it matter that Mark Twain or Oscar Wilde thought that Shakespeare wasn't Shakespeare? What kinds of stakes do various players have in this fight? Why are conspiracy theories so compelling?

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