Shakespeare’s plays – authorship evidence

Stratfordians are rather weary of the question/inquisition ‘who actually wrote Shakespeare’s plays?’

Some prominent actors/directors think that Shakespeare could not have written them (the same people have made a significant part of their careers being involved in these plays’). It is interesting to note that the fashion to decry Shakespeare as the author only began in the 1850s – in fact originated by an American, Delia Bacon: no-one in his own life or immediate aftermath doubted the authorship.

So, in brief, what is the evidence (with acknowledgements for some of this information to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust).

  • Plays were noted to be by William Shakespeare in the registers of the Stationers’ Company of London.
  • His name occurs on thirty nine title pages of sixteen of his plays – first editions and early reprints.
  • Dedications at the front of the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece have the signature ‘William Shakespeare’ (and were printed by his Stratford contemporary Richard Field, who would have known the author).
  • The 1609 version of the Sonnets has ‘Shakespeare’s Sonnets, never before imprinted.’ Note that ‘William’ is missing; showing he was famous enough to be known only by his surname. 
  • Shakespeare is frequently mentioned  by name as a writer of plays and poems by his contemporaries such as Henry Chettle, William Camden, Henry Willobie,  William Covell, Richard Barnfield, Thomas Freeman, William  Barksted, and the dramatist John Webster. In 1598 Francis Meres named 12 plays by Shakespeare (giving us the authorship dates).
  • There are original references to William Shakespeare being both actor and shareholder of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later the King’s Men, under James 1).
  • In 1618, Ben Jonson visited a William Drummond, and Drummond made notes of their conversations in which Jonson made a number of critical remarks, speaking of Shakespeare with a mixture of  affection and exasperation.

There is also posthumous evidence that Shakespeare wrote his plays:

  • Ben Jonson’s verse in the First Folio refers to him as the ‘sweet swan of Avon’, and this First Folio includes a letter to Shakespeare’s ‘Great Variety of Readers’ by John Heminges and Henry Condell (Shakespeare’s friends and fellow actors) who were responsible for gathering together the first collection of Shakespearian plays.
  • The second edition of the Folio published in 1632 includes a tribute to Shakespeare in the form of a sonnet by John Milton.
  • The verses on Shakespeare’s monument in Holy Trinity Church refer to him as a writer three times.
  • Lastly, Shakespeare’s will – at his death Shakespeare was worth a very considerable amount of money (over £1 million by today’s equivalent) – is this an amount that could have been earned by a jobbing actor – even one paid to be a nom-de-plume of another?

We might finally add that to deny a provincially educated schoolboy the authorship of these plays also puts into doubt masterpieces created by individuals growing up in similarly less privileged environments – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Durer, Dickens, Faraday, Herschel, Lincoln, Einstein, The Brontes, Tolstoy, and so on – maybe we should dispute the authenticity of the work of all of these geniuses, and more.