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Who Wrote Shakespeare
John Michell

Who Wrote Shakespeare
John Michell
Thames & Hudson
London 1996

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In defence of the question "Who Wrote Shakespeare?" John Michell says the following: "It is a harmless, stimulating and instructive subject to dwell upon, which is more than can be said for many other types of obsession." To translate this disclaimer, quibbling over the authorship of the Stratford works is a pastime less mad than UFOlogy, better for you than cocaine and more morally sound than bestiality – and at least it’s legal. Quite why Michell feels the need to defend this branch of scholarship as "harmless" might seem unclear. It would, on face value, seem to be a not very dangerous, and at worst quite trivial issue with which to occupy one’s time. However, as Michell points out, the "Authorship Question" has provoked debate between scholars which he describes as "extraordinarily acrimonious" and, at times, "vitriolic", the various factions involved hurling accusations of lunacy, and even of heresy at the opposition. Each party clings to his or her belief with a tenacity bordering on fanaticism and we are not long into Michell’s text before we begin to realise the peculiar passion that fuels the fire of the Authorship debate.

The traditionalists of the piece, whom Michell terms "Stratfordians" or "Orthodox", are determined not to relinquish the image of "the Bard", that stiff-collared and benign looking poet who has smiled (or smirked) upon us all from the covers of classroom editions. William Shakespeare as we know him is the linchpin of our literary heritage, the grand deity of English culture with Stratford as his shrine – and as Michell somewhat cynically points out, Will is a damn fine tourist attraction. As well as exploring the soundness of this position, Michell outlines and investigates a plethora of Authorship theories ranging from the ostensibly plausible Baconian argument to the clearly insane case for Elizabeth I. Sadly, the most convincing of the anti-Stratfordian positions seems to be that of "the groupists", those who believe the works of Shakespeare to be the product of a collaboration. This is quite an unpalatable doctrine for those of us who wish to cling to the ideal of Shakespeare as a kind of Renaissance über-bard, a universal man who knew everything about everything and expressed it through a semi-divine poetic. It is hard to dispel the attractive notion that the magic of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the bleakness of King Lear, the violent horror of Macbeth and the confessional passion of the Sonnets flowed forth from the same sacred pen. The image of a gaggle of smart, punning Elizabethan gentlemen having a communal stab at poetry under a collective pseudonym entirely undermines the glorious humanism of the Shakespeare mythology.

By the end of the text, Michell has not attempted to answer the question "Who Wrote Shakespeare?" He has explored the various answers and presented a valuable critique of them and as such has made a valuable contribution to the subject. For those wishing to approach the Authorship question whilst avoiding the inevitable bias of most research, this book is strongly recommended. Michell’s text is witty, concise, elegantly written and brilliantly constructed, equally suitable for a serious student of Shakespeare or a reader with a general interest in unsolved mysteries. I picked up this book with the idea that I cared very little how, or by whom Shakespeare’s work was created, being sure (so I thought) that it was the Works themselves that mattered. By the halfway stage, however, I noticed a distinct reluctance in myself to read any of the "alternative" positions as anything but conspiracist nonsense and by the end I was feeling distinctly unsettled. In other words I had discovered the latent Stratfordian within myself and that the authorship of the works actually mattered very much to me.

Questions about whether or not the identity of an author is of any importance to the work itself open up huge areas of philosophical debate and have troubled aestheticians for decades. Michell’s text shows that, whether we like it or not, our perception of an author’s identity plays a huge role in our perception and evaluation of a work. Despite what Beardsley and Eliot tried to teach us about the artist/poet being ultimately secondary to the work, it seems that we require art to have a "human" identity beyond itself. Despite extensive research, "the Artist commonly known as Shakespeare" remains elusive, and what Michell’s book reveals is the fascination of the mystery and the passionate minds that keep the mystery alive. The main achievement of this book is that its shows the question of its title undoubtedly to be worth asking.

Reviewed by Polly Rance


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