Did Shakespeare Write Shakespeare?
November 04, 2011, 06:19 PM
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A perennial controversy is over who really wrote Shakespeare`s plays. Rather than get into the endless details, I got to wondering whether there are any other controversies over who really wrote something. For example, 1984 was actually written by a man named Eric Blair, but we know that. 

What I`m wondering is whether there are any other controversies over who wrote famous works of literature. If they were fairly common, then that would seem to make the anti-Stratfordian case seem more plausible. It these controversies are very rare, then the likelihood that there just happens to be a controversy over the most famous of all writers would seem lower.

By way of analogy, when I was a kid, there was a controversy over whether Paul McCartney was dead. If there had been other raging controversies over which musicians were dead, such as whether ? of ? and the Mysterians (96 Tears) was dead, then the Paul Is Dead brouhaha would have seemed more plausible: "Oh, rock stars are always dying and not telling anybody, so it`s perfectly likely that Paul is dead." On the other hand, if the only controversy involved the most famous band of all time, then it would seem more likely to be just some stupid idea that obsessive potheads made up.

Similarly, lots of people believed that Elvis, Jim Morison, and Tupac Shakur weren`t dead. But that seemed like wishful thinking. If lots of people were going around saying stuff like, "You know, The Big Bopper? Chantilly Lace? I never really liked him, but I thought this was interesting: he didn`t really die in that plane crash with Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens. He was actually on the bus with Waylon Jennings and just used the plane crash to skip out on some IRS trouble and a statuatory rape rap *. I don`t really care about the Big Bopper, but I thought that was interesting," well, that would make it seem a little more plausible that fanatical fans of Presley, Morison, and Shakur were denying their heroes` deaths: Rock stars are always disappearing. That`s what they do.  

Of course, there are a lot of questions about whether bestsellers written by celebrities were ghostwritten. For example, Michael Jordan is said to have written more books than he has read. Jack Cashil argues that Bill Ayers wrote Barack Obama`s autobiography for him. Nobody doubts that Karen Hughes wrote George W. Bush`s autobiography for him. 

But what about real books? The only recent such controversy I can think of involves the 1965 Nobel Laureate in literature, Mikhail Sholokhov. In the 1960s, Soviet dissidents, Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the right and Roy Medvedev on the left, argued that the Stalin Prize winner had plagiarized the manuscript for And Quiet Flows the Don from a dead Cossack officer. Looking at Wikipedia, it appears that most of the more recent evidence points toward Sholokhov as being the actual author, although who knows who cares enough about this dusty controversy to edit Wikipedia.

If you go farther back in time, there may be more such controversies. One that I`m aware of involves the epistles of Ivan the Terrible, first Czar of all the Russias. Wikipedia writes:

D.S. Mirsky called Ivan "a pamphleteer of genius". The epistles attributed to him are the masterpieces of old Russian (perhaps all Russian) political journalism. They may be too full of texts from the Scriptures and the Fathers, and their Church Slavonic is not always correct. But they are full of cruel irony, expressed in pointedly forcible terms.


Stalin apparently liked Ivan the Terrible`s style.

The shameless bully and the great polemicist are seen together in a flash when he taunts the runaway prince Kurbsky with the question: "If you are so sure of your righteousness, why did you run away and not prefer martyrdom at my hands?" Such strokes were well calculated to drive his correspondent into a rage. "The part of the cruel tyrant elaborately upbraiding an escaped victim while he continues torturing those in his reach may be detestable, but Ivan plays it with truly Shakespearian breadth of imagination".[37] These letters are often the only existing source on Ivan`s personality and provide crucial information on his reign, but Harvard professor Edward Keenan has argued that these letters are 17th century forgeries. This contention, however, has not been widely accepted, and other scholars, such as John Fennell and Ruslan Skrynnikov continued to argue for their authenticity. Recent archival discoveries of 16th century copies of the letters strengthen the argument for their authenticity.

On the other hand, note that this is the opposite of the Shakespeare controversy. With Ivan the Terrible`s letters, the question is whether this important and famous man wrote these works, or whether somebody`s lower ranking`s work is attributed to the Czar. With the Shakespearean controversy, the standard view is that the plays were written by an obscure hustler from Stratford, while the heretics argue that they were written by somebody more important and high-ranking, such as the Earl of Oxford, Francis Bacon, or King James (the candidate of Malcolm X).
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* Warning: Don`t believe anything you read here about ? or The Big Bopper.