For centuries, the true identity of William Shakespeare has been shrouded in mystery. What if the famous playwright we all know and love was not who we thought him to be? The controversial theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was a group of women writing under one pseudonym has been gaining traction, raising fascinating questions about gender, authorship, and the nature of creativity. It's high time we examine the evidence behind this theory and explore its implications for our understanding of Shakespeare's legacy.
If I asked you to name the most famous playwright in history, you would almost certainly say Shakespeare. In fact, if I were to ask you to name the most famous people in history, Shakespeare would probably make the list! Whether you genuinely enjoy his writing, or you were simply forced to memorize his plays in English class at school, most people can confidently name at least a few Shakespeare works and their basic plotlines.
But the world of Shakespeare is not as innocuous as it may seem. Many prominent authors have actually posited the theory that Shakespeare was not just one man, but a group of multiple people acting under a common pseudonym.
Much evidence to support this invigorating theory has been uncovered over the last 50 years, and it’s easy to see why the idea has so much traction. For a start, the way Shakespeare describes both the life of royalty and the life of a serf in magnificent detail points to the fact that Shakespeare had access both to the upper floors and the lower basements of the noble British household – something absolutely unheard of in the 1500s. Maybe today we wouldn’t scoff at the concept of being able to truthfully describe the lives of both a sailor and a servant, a prince and a pauper, but if you consider the fact that during Shakespeare’s lifetime the majority of people never even left their own small hamlet, or met anyone more diverse than their own neighbors, it does seem odd that Shakespeare should have had such an intimate understanding of so many varied lifestyles. We’re talking about someone who didn’t have a car, a phone, the internet, or even access to very many books. We’re talking about someone who relied on excruciatingly slow snail mail to talk to anyone outside his immediate village. We’re talking about a time in which most people never set foot outside their own town, let alone their home country.
So how is Shakespeare able, in his plays, to describe all these diverse lives that he unquestionably should not have had access to? He depicts numerous countries in vast detail, despite the fact that during his lifetime he would have had neither the time nor resources to visit those places. Moreover, Shakespeare confidently describes the taste of an orange in Much Ado About Nothing, a fruit not found in his native England until decades after his death. It is unlikely that one person, even today, could have acquired such a wealth of experiences to write about, much less 500 years ago without access to the internet, or even, by modern standards, a well-stocked library!
How are we to believe that a middle-class man born in the provincial English town of Stratford gained the plethora of experiences needed to write the plays that we find in his anthology? Intimate knowledge of the Elizabethan court, the ability to write in multiple languages, understanding of law, astronomy, music, the military, other continents, and multiple cities across Europe? This is even more astounding when we realize that no proofs exist of him ever traveling outside England. Moreover, the language he used and vocabulary that he employed in his plays far exceeds what his abilities rightfully should have allowed, seeing as his only formal education ended at the age of 13.
If all that doesn’t convince you that something suspicious is happening here, maybe this fact will: After Shakespeare’s death, he left behind not one original writing or manuscript in his home, no proof that he had ever put a pen to paper, not one reference book, not one musical instrument (despite a seemingly innate familiarity of over 25 instruments cited throughout his works), and he also left nothing in his will to his daughter, despite the blatant feminism apparent in so many of his plays (a point worth bearing in mind for later!)
Most convincing in the quest to prove that Shakespeare was not actually a single entity, is the fact that the signature of Shakespeare appears throughout his manuscripts with seven completely different spellings, almost all of which were bizarrely found in unexpected locations or years after his passing with no way to trace them back to his hometown. Many forensic scientists have pored over the numerous differing signatures attached to his manuscripts and determined that they may not in fact all belong to the same person. Maybe Shakespeare simply forgot how to spell his own last name, or maybe something unexpected was happening…
The biggest question to ask upon receiving any new theory is always “why?” If you suddenly hear the sound of galloping, you can assume you’re hearing a zebra, but it is probably just a horse. There is, however, one obvious answer to the question of why multiple people may have wanted to write under a single presumed name.
Have you ever heard of the Bell brothers? Otherwise known as the Bronte sisters. What about George Eliot? Now known as Mary Ann Evans. Or A.M. Branard, who was actually Louisa May Alcott? I could go on and on, and by now you perhaps understand where we are going with all of this.
Women in the 1500s were scarcely permitted to speak their own truths, let alone write them down for public consumption! So, if there were hypothetically a group of female writers, seeking empowerment from their constrained existences, a collective name would be a great secret code to symbolize to those in the know that this work had actually been written by a woman. Shakespeare.
In case you’re still not convinced, let me explain. Perhaps today, a perceptive and well-educated man could write pretty decently from the perspective of a woman, as he is almost certainly surrounded by women who are willing to share their experiences and let him watch their feminine rituals. However, needless to say, this is a recent phenomenon entirely.
Thus, how Lady Macbeth and her sisters describe their femininity so accurately in Macbeth, a play supposedly written by a man, is perhaps a tad suspicious. Beatrice, in Much Ado About Nothing, rages in a uniquely perceptive way at the limitations of being a woman; and Rosalind, in As You Like It, alters her demeanor to appear more masculine and thus progress further in life, an act that surely only aggrieved women usually identify with; Isabella, in Measure for Measure, understands, as women unfortunately often did, that her word was less trustworthy than a man’s and consequently fears that no one will hear her pleas; and Emilia, in Othello, argues passionately for women’s equality – I am sorry to say it, but these accounts which so acutely describe the inner-lives and struggles of women, do not seem to have been written by a man.
“Why was Shakespeare able to see the woman’s position, write entirely as if he were a woman, in a way that none of the other playwrights of the age were able to?” asks Tina Packer, Founding Director of Shakespeare & Company, in her book Women of Will. There is one obvious reason that a group of playwrights would need to use a pseudonym in Elizabethan England: being female. “One would think that Shakespeare had been metamorphosed from a man to a woman,” wrote Philosopher and Playwright Margaret Cavendish.
It may seem slightly outlandish to posit the theory that ‘Shakespeare’ was the encoded pseudonym for an underground society of female playwrights, but this theory is actually becoming more and more widely accepted. In fact, it was discussed in detail at the International Shakespeare Convention last year, by some of the most renowned Shakespeare scholars in the world.
The writer John Ruskin fascinatingly pointed out that “Shakespeare has no heroes—he has only heroines.” And many of these heroines are seemingly quite feminist: At least ten Shakespearean women defied their fathers, eight disguised themselves as men, six led armies – this was far from the norm in male playwriting until probably the second half of the 1900s!
If more evidence is needed, an incredibly interesting little nugget is found in the works of Gabriel Harvey, a famous Elizabethan literary critic. In 1593, he mysteriously mentioned an “excellent Gentlewoman” who had composed three sonnets and a comedy play. “I dare not particularize her description,” he wrote. In 1593, Shakespeare wrote three sonnets and a comedy play.
At least one of the women often supposed to belong to this group, Emilia Bassano, was Jewish – yet another reason, amidst the raging antisemitism of the 16th century, to hide her real identity. Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Henry James, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, and Charlie Chaplin are amongst the many who propose lists of different women who may have belonged to the Shakespeare collective. Much of their theorizing is based on the fact that although Shakespeare’s life is well documented by any standards as an actor and theatre-owner, we have no proof that he ever actually put pen to paper: No letters mentioning him writing, no documents recording payments for commissions or plays, no journal entries proving that he ever wrote so much as a word. For example, despite his wife’s extensive journaling, she not once mentions that her husband was a playwright.
So, was Shakespeare a group of women from around the globe, writing under this pseudonym and thus displaying their literary brilliance far before society would allow them to do so? We may never know, but you can decide for yourself.
The National Library of Israel is one of only a select few institutions around the world who hold “The First Folio,” a collection of Shakespeare plays published in 1623. This unique piece, as well as other rare Shakespeare manuscripts, were anonymously donated to the NLI in the autumn of 2022. To mark the First Folio’s 400th anniversary, The National Library of Israel is organizing a series of lectures on William Shakespeare and his legacy, with leading Israeli cultural and academic figures. The series will be broadcast between May and July 2023.
Episode 1: Israeli Contemporary Theater and Shakespeare, with Yair Sherman and Dori Parnes. May 7, 2023.
Episode 2: Contemporary Translations of Shakespeare into Hebrew, with Dori Parnes and Ronen Sonis. May 28, 2023.
Episode 3: General overview on NLI’s Shakespeare collection and the Folio structure, with Dr. Stefan Litt and Dr. Micha Lazarus. Date to be announced.
Episode 4: The early modern English objections to Shakespeare, with Dr. Reut Barzilai. Date to be announced.
To see more and register for the free events, visit: https://www.nli.org.il/en/visit/events/theater-and-shakespeare