Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Debate Goes On Centuries later, doubts persist that William Shakespeare penned the works that bear his name. Skeptics include not only scholars but also famous folks, ranging from Orson Welles to Mark Twain.

Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays? Debate Goes On

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We heard yesterday about how in the mid-1800s Americans were so enthused about Shakespeare that a rivalry between the two foremost Shakespearian actors led to a riot. Well, there's something that makes modern day scholars of Shakespeare want to riot, and that's when anyone questions whether the man from Stratford really wrote the works that bears his name. It drives scholars mad.

Still, a host of brilliant minds have done just that. Sigmund Freud, Charles Dickens, Orson Welles are among those that didn't believe that Will Shakespeare could've penned those famous plays. This morning as the curtain rises on the man summer Shakespeare festivals across America, we bring you the case against the man from Stratford.

Mr. NIGEL (Tour Guide): Hello. My name is Nigel. I'm at the (unintelligible) lovely church, Holy Trinity. So welcome to everyone.

MONTAGNE: It opens at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-Upon-Avon during a typical tour for lovers of the Bard.

Mr. NIGEL: We've obviously come along to see William Shakespeare. We're standing right in front of his grave now. Let me just tell you a little bit about why Shakespeare is here, 'cause a lot of people come and tell us it's simply because he wrote all the plays and the stories and what have you, but no.

MONTAGNE: No. He's buried here because, according to church history, when he died in 1616, this prosperous citizen of Stratford had donated generously to the church. There's an epitaph carved on his gravestone which reads...

Mr. NIGEL: Good friend, for Jesus' sake, forebear; To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man who spares these stones, and cursed be he who moves my bones.

MONTAGNE: It's not exactly the poetry of Shakespeare but certainly the curse that worked.

Mr. NIGEL: It certainly did work, yes, absolutely. And we're very, very grateful for that too. 'Cause you know, we have people all over the world come and see Shakespeare.

MONTAGNE: Those who doubt that the man buried at Trinity Church is the great author Shakespeare point to this rough doggerel. How can it be from the man who wrote: And all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle. Life's but a walking shadow...

The epitaph is a small piece of what doubters say is a mountain of biographical material suggesting the man from Stratford wasn't a writer.

Professor DANIEL WRIGHT (Concordia University): We have been able to discover, over many generations, about 70 documents that are related to William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon, but none of them are literary.

MONTAGNE: Taking the stage, English Professor Daniel Wright who directs the Shakespeare Authorship Research Center at Oregon's Concordia University.

Prof. WRIGHT: They all speak to the activity of a man who is principally a businessman, a man who is delinquent in paying his taxes, who was cited for hoarding grain during a famine. We don't have anyone attesting to him as a playwright, as a poet. And he's the only presumed writer of his time for whom there is no contemporary evidence of a writing career. And many of us find that rather astonishing.

MONTAGNE: There are playbills that show William Shakespeare appearing as an actor in small parts, legal documents relating to his stake in the Globe Theater. He left a will distributing his precious goods, including, famously, his second-best bed.

But there's no record that this Shakespeare owned any books, wrote any letters, and the half-dozen signatures attributed to him are on legal documents only.

In other words, none of these signatures are signatures at the bottom of "Hamlet."

Ms. DIANA PRICE (Author, "Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography"): That's correct. If there were a signature at the bottom of "Hamlet," we wouldn't be having this debate.

MONTAGNE: Diana Price wrote the book that's become a bible for doubters, the meticulously researched "Shakespeare's Unorthodox Biography." In it she details all that Shakespeare would have had to know and be able to use effortlessly in metaphors and intricate puns: archery, astronomy, medicine, technical terms for falconry and royal tennis. The list is long.

She argues, to link any writer conclusively to the plays...

Ms. PRICE: We would certainly have to be able to support how he learned his languages, how he received his education, how he gained his exposure to the lifestyle of the rich and famous, how he had access to the court. And I don't mean as a servant in the court, but someone who actually was in there where the power-playing was going on. We cannot support any of that for Shakespeare.

MONTAGNE: Mainstream academics mostly deride efforts of independent scholars like Diana Price. It's a tad bit harder to shrug off challenges put - with great wit - by the likes of Mark Twain. Twain never could reconcile what was known about the man from Stratford with the writer who penned such stuff as dreams are made on.

Mark Twain even wrote a pamphlet poking fun at the Bard, called "Is Shakespeare Dead?"

Unidentified Man: It is surmised by the biographers that the young Shakespeare got his vast knowledge of the law and his familiar and accurate acquaintance with the manners and customs and shop-talk of lawyers through being for a time the clerk of a Stratford court; just as a bright lad like me, reared in a village on the banks of the Mississippi, might become perfect in knowledge of the Behring Strait whale-fishery and the shop-talk of the veteran exercisers of that adventure-bristling trade through catching catfish with a trot-line Sundays.

MONTAGNE: Mark Twain from 1909.

Now we bring onstage one of America's most esteemed Shakespeare scholars.

Professor STEPHEN GREENBLATT (Harvard University): Like most scholars, I think it's reasonably clear that the man from Stratford wrote the plays. But it's certainly a subject that doesn't go away.

MONTAGNE: Stephen Greenblatt, professor at Harvard, author of the best-selling biography "Will in the World."

Prof. GREENBLATT: He does seem like he did drop in from another planet. The level of achievement is remarkable.

MONTAGNE: Remarkable, says Greenblatt, but possible, even for a village lad if he was a genius. Greenblatt has little use for those who question the authorship of Shakespeare's works. He has in the past compared doubters to Holocaust deniers and those who don't believe in evolution.

And he says the most powerful evidence of authorship is the simplest. And that's that the name William Shakespeare appeared on some of the plays published during his lifetime.

Prof. GREENBLATT: It's hardly a trivial fact. The most significant fact about the publication, it's nothing that gives you the kind of certainty that can never be called into question. Anything can be called into question. But you'd have to have a very strong reason to believe that there was skullduggery or an alternative account.

But it's true, as you say, that there are no manuscripts and no letters, but we're talking about something a very long time ago.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Gentle listeners, I can hear your quill pens scratching out serious letters, scarce can I speak my collar is so great at the mere suggestion that Gentle Will is not the Bard. Those of you whose curiosity has been pricked, go to NPR.org for more skepticism from Mark Twain. Tomorrow we hear about one candidate favored to have written under the name Shakespeare and why he would have kept his own name a secret.

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