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A portrait thought to be playwright Christopher Marlowe.

Anglophenia recently ran a piece about Shakespeare authorship theories, occasioned by the release of the movie Anonymous, which argues that Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford wrote the work normally attributed to William Shakespeare.

We looked at just a few of the people who have been proposed as the true author of the Bard’s works – de Vere, Christopher Marlowe and Sir Francis Bacon have been the most frequently mentioned  – but there have been literally dozens of candidates over the last two hundred years.

Since we ran the piece, a number of readers have asked why there’s been doubt about Shakespeare and not about his contemporaries. We decided to put the question to literary scholars who study the period.

Here’s the question, as it was sent in to us by Angus H. Paul of Washington, DC:

“Why have people not doubted that Kyd wrote Kyd, Marlowe wrote Marlowe? Do some kinds of documentary evidence exist for Kyd, Marlowe, etc., that we don’t have for Shakespeare?”

And here are the answers we received, via e-mail:

• Stephen Greenblatt, author of Will in the World and professor of English at Harvard University:

“Very little at all about Kyd, who is a shadowy figure. More about Marlowe, but more about his spying/criminal activities than about authorship. Shakespeare was famous in his lifetime as a poet and playwright; for him we have, relatively speaking, quite a lot of evidence.”

• M. L. Stapleton, editor of the journal Marlowe Studies, co-editor of Christopher Marlowe the Craftsman and professor of English at Indiana University-Purdue University:

“Much less ‘documentary evidence’ exists to ‘prove’ the existence of Marlowe and Kyd, but because Shakespeare is so much more important to our culture than they are, no one much cares, or understands that for someone who wasn’t a king, prince, queen, courtier, &c., we know a relatively great deal about Shakespeare, certainly much more than about the two colleagues in the theater you mention.”

In a separate essay, Professor Stapleton offered these thoughts about authorship doubt — or, rather, the absence of doubt — for other famous writers:

“There are bigger strains on credulity in English literary history than a professional dramatist writing stage plays in early modern London, believe me, that no one ever mentions. John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, generally owned to be ‘just as good as’ Shakespeare, composes that epic of ten thousand lines while in hiding, fearing for his life at the Restoration, blind as a bat, dictating to his daughters. Nobody doubts that. Edmund Spenser, author of another ‘just as good as’ text, The Faerie Queene, an immense romance-allegory-epic, was also colonial governor of the province of Munster in Ireland, a country under siege, in an atmosphere not unlike our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Where‟d he find the time? Nobody doubts that one, either. Neither of them were aristocrats.”


Do you doubt any other writers wrote the work attributed to them?


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By Paul Hechinger