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The notion of a grand literary deception surrounding the works of William Shakespeare is probably one of the less offensive conspiracy theories in circulation. Within literary academia, however, it’s absolute heresy. Yet many writers and thinkers, from Walt Whitman and Mark Twain to Henry James and Sigmund Freud, have long insisted that there’s more to the tale of The Bard than the conventional historical account. The world of Shakespeare Truthers opens up a litany of enticing possibilities. Who really was Shakespeare if not Shakespeare? A collection of unattributed writers? A disgraced contemporary? A woman? Elizabeth Winkler, author of Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies joins The Chris Hedges Report for an overview of the taboo world of alternative Shakespeare theories.

Elizabeth Winkler is a journalist and book critic. Her essay “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”, first published in The Atlantic, was selected for The Best American Essays 2020.

Studio Production: Adam Coley, David Hebden
Post-Production: Adam Coley
Audio Post-Production: Tommy Harron


Chris Hedges:  There’s scant evidence from what we know about William Shakespeare’s life that he authored the plays and sonnets attributed to him. But questioning the authorship is an unacceptable heresy among Shakespearean scholars who liken it to believing the moon landing was faked. These scholars have built their academic careers on the foundations of the Shakespearean myth, writing long biographies that are almost all based on hypothesis and conjecture. They’re the guardians of the one true church and like grand inquisitors, arrogantly dismiss intriguing arguments to be made for other authors, including Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, Francis Bacon, and others.

Or perhaps like the King James Bible published in 1611 after several years of work by a committee of 47 scholars and clergymen, the plays were a collaborative effort by several talented writers and poets. Even the most adamant defenders of Shakespearean authorship concede that some of the plays attributed to him, such as Pericles, contain the work of other writers. What is not in dispute is that even raising this issue is a literary taboo. But this is not an idol question, for a writer’s past and experience illuminate his or her work despite what the postmodernists preach. The Shakespearean narrative fits perhaps too neatly into popular mythology, the story of a poorly educated glover’s son who arrives in London from a rural village and conquers the stage, and writes the most immortal verse in the English language.

Joining me to discuss the debate is Elizabeth Winkler, a reporter at the Wall Street Journal and the author of Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, How Doubting the Bard Became the Biggest Taboo in Literature. Let’s begin with what we do know about Shakespeare. We do know that Shakespeare existed. We don’t know whether he actually authored any of the plays but we know precious little and even less about Shakespeare being literate or a literary figure. So lay out –

Elizabeth Winkler:  Sure. His life is actually fairly well documented in terms of the number of records we have for him. So you have his baptismal records, burial records, the baptisms of his children, financial records, and business records. He was often in court suing for small sums of money, so legal records. He was a shareholder in the theater company in London. He seems to have been an actor for some period of time but inclined more towards business pursuits. His life is actually really well documented, better documented than other writers of the period. But what skeptics point out is that it’s missing the evidence you would expect from someone who supposedly spent their life writing.

For other writers, you can find things like letters in which they refer to their writing: My verses yada dada da. Or payment records paying them for writing, or when they die, you can find something like eulogies or mentioned notice of their death: Our poet, Edmund Spencer, died last Saturday and was buried at Westminster. So that stuff, that testimony, that paper trail for a writer’s life isn’t there for Shakespeare in the same way. Then there are documents where you would expect to find something like his will, where you’d think there’s some mention of his legacy, his works, his literary interests and there’s nothing; No mention of poems or plays or manuscripts or literary life of any kind. That’s part of what raises the questions.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you also raise the point, you ask, how could a writer, any writer, let alone the greatest writer in the English language, be indifferent to the literacy of his children?

Elizabeth Winkler:  It’s another bizarre thing. What’s fascinating about this subject is how many problems there are, how many different problems. His one daughter signed her name with a mark, which was generally a sign of illiteracy in the period. Most women of the period were illiterate unless they came from a fairly wealthy household. Another daughter signed with a signature described as painfully formed, which was probably the most she could do with a pen. So it’s a strange thing. The women in the plays of Shakespeare are highly erudite. They’re writing letters, they’re composing sonnets, they’re reading Ovid, they’re strong, really intelligent women, and then his own daughters appear to have been functionally illiterate. It’s the sense that somehow the glass slipper doesn’t fit the man and the works. There’s something off here.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you raise a lot of questions about both authors that he refers to like Ovid, knowledge of, for instance, Italian literature, and you juxtapose that with what we know of his own education.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Right. There’s an assumption that he attended the local grammar school in Stratford. The records don’t exist, so we don’t know if he actually did. But the grammar schools, they were provincial, one-room schoolhouses that taught Latin grammar and arithmetic and even Shakespeare scholars have said Shakespeare’s knowledge of classics and philosophy is puzzling. The scholar E.K Chamber said an education at the grammar school doesn’t explain it because they’re absolutely brimming with new learning, renaissance humanism knowledge of Greek drama and political philosophy and French and Italian literature, European geography, and French court politics. They’re so knowledgeable and there’s no trace of how he acquired this knowledge. It’s miraculous.

One scholar, Samuel Schoenbaum, a very famous Shakespeare scholar, said Shakespeare was superhuman which is hilarious as an explanation because, of course, it’s not an explanation at all. There’s this mystery around how the plays were created and scholars acknowledge that. The Folger Shakespeare Library edition of the plays says how this man or any man came to write these works is one of the world’s great mysteries. But instead of prying into the mystery or questioning or trying to dig deeper, there’s this sense that you should let it be, and revere the mystery.

Chris Hedges:  Well, it’s worse than that, Elizabeth. You ask that question, as you know, and let’s talk about that. You write, “The authorship question is, in the fashion of religious wars, a messy, ugly dispute. No one takes kindly to the denial of his god. Shakespeare scholars – Which is to say the Shakespearean priesthood; the ordained and professionalized ranks of Stratfordians – Decry the snobbery and the view that a glover’s son could not have written the works of Shakespeare.” You interview a lot of these scholars and to be frank, they don’t come off very well. But let’s talk about the priesthood and why they’re invested in it. They’ve written whole tome biographies of Shakespeare, and you quote from it, which is almost completely conjecture. But let’s talk about the priesthood.

Elizabeth Winkler:  The priesthood. It’s a bizarre phenomenon. This is why as a journalist, I was so intrigued. How has this belief, which is essentially religious in nature, this faith that he did write these works persisted in the modern university system among scholars who are supposed to teach critical thinking and yet aren’t really applying it to their own field? To understand Shakespeare scholars, you have to understand the whole history of English departments and how beliefs about Shakespeare developed. In the 18th century, pilgrims started flocking to Stratford-upon-Avon to pay homage to the poet. They would drop to their knees at the birthplace which was the purported sight of his nativity. They would cut relics from the local mulberry tree like pieces of the tree cross. They sang odes to Shakespeare.

Chris Hedges:  This was the tree in front of his house that supposedly was there when he lived there or something.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Yeah. So Stratford-upon-Avon became an English Bethlehem and Shakespeare became this Christ figure. You can ask why was this happening in the first place. It has to do with the deep tensions in Britain between Catholicism and Protestantism and the back and forth in the country during the Reformation. Shakespeare becomes this unifying figure that the whole country can get behind and this is also the period of expansive imperialism, and Shakespeare is held up as an icon. He’s the national poet. He’s proof of Britain’s cultural superiority and of its right to rule so Shakespeare and Britain rise together. There was a philosopher, Thomas Carlisle, in the 1840s who said Shakespeare would be the indestructible rallying sign to unite all the English-speaking peoples of the world and he calls him the universal Church of Shakespeare and of all times.

So this sense that Britain and Shakespeare become intertwined, the nation and its poet, the empire, and its hero-god, and the mythologies become inseparable. So really you can’t separate Shakespeare from the idea of Britain which is why in Britain it’s still so hard to talk about this subject because there have been centuries of national investment in this belief. But to go back to Shakespeare scholars, English departments began to develop in the mid-19th century. They’re a fairly modern phenomenon. They haven’t been around that long and they developed during this period of bardolatry, that’s what George Bernard Shaw called it, this period of extreme veneration, when Shakespeare was held up as a god, a secular god and ideas about Shakespeare that were enshrined during this period have essentially been passed down from one generation of scholars to the next.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you have whole academic careers that are invested in the figure of Shakespeare, and let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about some of the modern scholarship and why – Because this is not a book that claims that Bacon or somebody wrote Shakespeare but it’s the fact that you’ve even raised the question that has triggered a deep animus, which I want you to talk about. – But first I want you to talk about how these professors at Harvard, some of whom I had, have built their careers on Shakespeare as a literary figure when we know almost we have no proof, as you said, that he was in fact literary in any way.

Elizabeth Winkler:  There are a lot of psychological dynamics at play. Groupthink, to which academia is not immune, refers to the phenomenon of a group cohering around a core belief that’s not questioned and excluding anyone who deviates from that group doctrine. Shakespeare scholars will have interpretive disagreements about the plays, and how you want to read them, but they do, for the most part, adhere to this core belief of the authorship and it really unites them against the outsiders, the anti-Stratfordians. That’s the one thing that draws them all together. Other dynamics like confirmation bias, and the need to win approval from your department chairs, peer reviewers, journal editors, and colleagues, encourage a dynamic of conformity and you’re not going to win the grants or get the promotions, get tenure if you’re raising this question about the authorship –

Chris Hedges:  Well, you write about an academic in the book who did raise the question.

Elizabeth Winkler:  There are renegades, there are –

Chris Hedges:  But they get pushed right to the margins.

Elizabeth Winkler:  It’s a funny thing. After I published an article on this topic in The Atlantic a few years ago, one professor at a very prestigious university reached out to me and he said, look, yes, of course, Shakespeare could be a pen name or a scam or a committee of various people but he didn’t want to be on the record and he clearly wasn’t going to say this publicly himself because it’s not worth it. You get so attacked as a conspiracy theorist, a Shakespeare denier, compared to anti-vaxxers or Holocaust deniers, purveyors of disinformation, and bad actors. It really becomes a moral taboo to question Shakespeare. So that’s not worth it. No one wants to go through that. No fun. So they don’t go there. Even if they do have doubts about the authorship, let it go, focus on the plays, and analyze the plays. As he said to me, he said, we have enough cutout for ourselves in figuring out what the plays are doing in themselves. Though, of course, you wonder if understanding more about their author might not help with that.

Chris Hedges:  Well, at the end of the book you interview … is it Marjorie –

Elizabeth Winkler:  Marjorie Garber.

Chris Hedges:  – Garber. Taught at Harvard. It’s a really interesting interview.

Elizabeth Winkler:  I’m so glad you enjoyed it. Some people have misunderstood that interview.

Chris Hedges:  Why don’t you talk about it? I thought it was fascinating.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Thank you.

Chris Hedges:  I’ve totally concurred with your reaction.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Okay, interesting. Marjorie Garber is a very famous Harvard scholar. She actually retired from Harvard a year or two ago and lives now in England. I met her at her home in Hampstead. She has written some 20 books on Shakespeare. She hasn’t touched the authorship. She hasn’t written a Shakespeare biography the way someone like Steven Greenblatt or James Shapiro has. She has said interesting things like Shakespeare is present as an absence which is to say as a ghost or so much seems invested in not finding the answer. She’s dancing around the subject in some of these statements. She’s a postmodernist. She trained at Yale in the ’80s. She draws on Derrida and Freud and Foucault and theory. So she’s really –

Chris Hedges:  All the people who’ve destroyed literary studies.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Her take is really the supremacy of the text, the text is what matters, the author doesn’t matter, the very death of the author. I wanted to try to pin her down on her position on this topic. When I spoke with her, she kept saying, I’m interested in the plays. I’m interested in the characters. I’m interested in the language. I’m interested in how they’ve been interpreted by actors. I’m interested in how they’ve been read. I’m interested in Shakespeare and how the text influenced modern culture. She was interested in everything to do with Shakespeare except who wrote the works, which is so telling, isn’t it? It’s so fascinating.

We went around and around and I said, well, look, if it came out at some point that the author was someone else, wouldn’t that affect how you interpret the plays since it’s the interpretation that’s so important to you? She said, well, I don’t think of them as coming from a person; I think of them as a text. I said, well, okay, but the text doesn’t appear out of thin air and she said, well, sometimes it does. And she listed anonymous texts like the Rosetta Stone or medieval morality plays, which seem to come out of thin air because their authors are unknown to us. I realized that she essentially treats the plays like anonymous texts, as though they don’t have an author, even though she calls the author Shakespeare. It was baffling to me because how can you, as a scholar, devote your whole career to these works? She clearly cares about Shakespeare so much. She’s fascinated by the plays. She said I rethink my interpretation of the plays every day.

How can you be not a little bit curious about where they came from? Or who this person or people were, what the influences were in their life? How do these works come about? How can you not want to know that, even if you’re not going to write a biography? It was jaw-dropping, I thought, but also extremely telling because it was as though she had put on blinders and would look at everything but she wasn’t going to go there.

Chris Hedges:  It was a cost.

Elizabeth Winkler:  She kept saying she wasn’t interested in it. Okay, but I leave it to the reader to decide what to make of that exchange. Is it because she knows it’s too dangerous or because some people would say, oh, she knows it’s going to change at some point, so maybe she doesn’t want to get pinned down as believing whatever? You can interpret that in all sorts of ways. But she took this position of being indifferent to the authorship. And a few people reviewing the book have said that it ends on a note of, who cares? But that actually is not the point I’m making. I’m holding her indifference up for critical appraisal. Here’s a Shakespeare scholar who says she doesn’t care. How bizarre.

Chris Hedges:  Well, at the end of the book are you asking, how can you be indifferent?

Elizabeth Winkler:  Yeah.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about the biographies of Shakespeare, one of my favorite parts of the book.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Sure. They’re amazing. They’re hilarious.

Chris Hedges:  Maybe some examples of the exchanges that you had because you were in dialogue with these people. Let’s talk about the biographies and then also there was this debate between the Supreme Court justice. So talk a little bit about the biographies and then the reaction to those questions by the Stratfordians.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Shakespeare biographies have been called biographical fiction. One of the big examples I use in the book is Stephen Greenblatt, Harvard Scholar’s bestselling biography Will in the World, How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare. These books essentially try to explain the mystery of how Shakespeare became Shakespeare, and it is a mystery. There was a gathering in 2016 of scholars at the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC, and it was called Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography. They were all wringing their hands about how difficult it is to piece together Shakespeare’s life and how he came to write these works.

One of the scholars said the biggest lacuna of all is the mystery of how he ever became a writer in the first place. They don’t know but this vacuum is incredibly productive for them because it allows them to imagine. The biographies, if you take out a highlighter and circle as you go, you’ll find they’re full of, he must have, he could have, should have, maybe, probably, surely, no doubt. They’re speculation and so they all come up with different variations of this tale, what he was doing in the years before the works appeared. They’re highly imaginative. They’re often compelling because they read like fiction. They’re fun, they sell well, but they’re not historically accurate, and scholars know this. They know it’s a problem with the biography but for some reason, it doesn’t make them question.

The funny thing about that conference, Shakespeare and the Problem of Biography, was they didn’t consider that the problem of biography could be that they have the wrong biography. It’s a very funny thing. Greenblatt’s book begins, “Let us imagine.” It sums it all up right there. Let us imagine. The tale of Shakespeare is this rags-to-riches story, an archetypal hero’s journey of a boy who comes from very humble beginnings and miraculously becomes the greatest writer in the English language. It’s a beautiful story. We love stories like that. The rags-to-riches tale, George Lakoff said, is one of our deep narratives he calls it. Because you find it in religious stories, in fairytales, in the narratives of charismatic politicians. I came from nowhere and look where I am now. It’s a very compelling narrative structure.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about some of the confrontations, and I don’t want to forget that we should bring up Mark Rylance, one of the greatest contemporary actors. But I’ll let you go from there. But let’s start with some of these confrontations, which frankly are hilarious.

Elizabeth Winkler:  I’m glad you found them entertaining. Well, let’s see. I spoke with Michael Whitmore, the director of the Folger Shakespeare Library in DC and he occupies a diplomatic position because they want to welcome everyone to the Folger, scholars as well as skeptics, and lovers of Shakespeare, of all stripes. When I asked him about the authorship, he said, I follow the scholarly consensus, and then he added, when it comes time to, I’ll know my cue. I leaned in when it came time to what? What do you mean? Do you think the pendulum’s going to swing? What’s that all about? He clammed up and said, are you going to quote me? And he didn’t want to talk about the authorship anymore. That’s the reaction you get from some scholars. He was happy to talk about the Folger Library, but not going to talk about the authorship.

I went to Stratford-upon-Avon to interview Sir Stanley Wells, who’s Britain’s knighted Shakespeare authority, and one of the leading Shakespeare scholars in Britain and the world. He is an interesting person because he has written on the authorship and engaged in the authorship debate. He edited this book called Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, where he’s trying to slam down any questions, and say there’s nothing to doubt here. So I had to talk to him, I had to interview him. He’s been engaged in the discussion and he tried to cancel our interview the evening before we were supposed to meet. He wrote to me something like, I’ve discovered that you’re an anti-Shakespearean, which is this phrase they use for anyone who questions.

Chris Hedges:  So you tour the shrines in Stratford.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Yeah, I should prefer not to meet with you. So I tried to write back convincing him, I’ve read your books. Let’s have an interesting conversation. I used the time right to explore the shrines in Stratford. It’s an amazing tourist industry there where they tell you, this was where Shakespeare was born. They’re all fraudulent sites and that’s known, people have written over the years about that.

Chris Hedges:  You have a picture of the original house renovated –

Elizabeth Winkler:  Totally renovated.

Chris Hedges:  – Three times the size.

Elizabeth Winkler:  To look much more attractive. That whole history is really interesting. It’s the invention of tradition.

Chris Hedges:  Well, it’s a big industry. The RSC has a theater there. I’ve been there, I’ve been there.

Elizabeth Winkler:  It’s a major tourist industry for Britain.

Chris Hedges:  It’s a big industry.

Elizabeth Winkler:  It’s an English Bethlehem nativity site. It’s very funny. They’re pedaling a fraudulent history. That’s a strong term to use but I eventually convinced Professor Wells to meet with me. I said, If you don’t like my questions, you can chuck your tea at me, and he agreed. What I wanted to talk to him about were some of these allusions to the writer Shakespeare that were made during the Renaissance, and a number of them, he’s described them as cryptic or others he ignores. But some of them seem to be suggesting that there were rumors about this poet and speculation that maybe it was someone writing under a pseudonym essentially, a discussion about who this person really was. When I tried to discuss some of this evidence with him, he was very evasive.

It was, I don’t know. I don’t remember that. I don’t have any theory, for instance, about really important texts in the first folio where Ben Jonson is discussing Shakespeare and says, those of seeliest ignorance, blind affection, and crafty malice are going to misconstrue the praise of this name. It was one of the most important texts in the authorship debate and he didn’t really have anything to say about it, didn’t have a theory, he said. It was a shocking conversation. I had expected to hear all sorts of interpretations of these pieces of evidence but I didn’t expect to encounter a scholar who was saying, I don’t know. I don’t have anything to say about any of this. It was an abdication of his authority as a scholar.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk quickly about what happened to Mark Rylance.

Elizabeth Winkler:  What happened to Mark Rylance. Mark Rylance was the founding director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London and was openly skeptical of the authorship, which really angered a lot of people. Because the Globe should be a bastion of orthodoxy and what was this heretic? Heretic at the Globe he was called in the London papers. Stanley Wells tugged on his beard, scolding him for being a naughty boy. He was a brilliant, brilliant actor and director. He was considered incredibly successful tenure at the Globe. He drew in huge audiences in this Elizabethan theater, which a lot of people were skeptical at first, skeptical whether it would succeed and it did incredibly well. But there was so much criticism, and he felt abuse – That’s the word he used in my interview with him – Towards him for asking questions about this. He’d go on stage, perform Hamlet, and then be pulled into a back room and scolded and told what he could and couldn’t say about the authorship.

Chris Hedges:  But he left over this issue.

Elizabeth Winkler:  He did eventually leave after – He was there for the better part of a decade, maybe seven years or something. He felt he had enough. There was perhaps also a feeling that other people wanted him out, were pushing him out.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about some of the candidates, Marlowe, of course, being one. Bacon. Run through some of the ideas that people have had.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Sure. Francis Bacon was the first alternative candidate put forward in the 19th century and he seemed to fit the profile of what people thought the author should be like: Someone highly educated, well-traveled, moving in the court circles of Elizabethan society, connected to the politics of Europe, philosophy, a genius. He was a philosopher and a statesman. Then the other thing in the 19th century was people were realizing how much legal knowledge there was in the plays. Lawyers were looking at the plays and saying, Shakespeare seems to almost speak in legal phrases. This is an author incredibly knowledgeable about Elizabethan law and Bacon was a high-ranking lawyer in the court. So that seemed to somehow fit the profile. People create a criminal profile, if you will, of the qualities the author must have had, and they look for people who fit that. So Bacon was quite popular for a while, and there were attempts to show how his philosophical works and phrases match the plays but they are very different writings and so there’s no smoking gun, so to speak.

Chris Hedges:  Well, at the end of the book, you have comparisons of the writing and Bacon doesn’t really fit. The closest existent writing that was contemporaneous is Marlowe.

Elizabeth Winkler:  That’s right. That’s right. So other candidates have been put forward since then. Marlowe is one of them because his writing so closely mirrors, and resembles, some people even say Shakespeare haunts Marlowe’s expression. Shakespeare is so shaped by Marlowe. So some people thought, well, Shakespeare is so similar to Marlowe because Shakespeare must have been Marlowe. And the circumstances of his death are very –

Chris Hedges:  He was a government agent. We won’t get into it but it was murky how he died and who examined his corpse, et cetera.

Elizabeth Winkler:  – Right, exactly. He died under mysterious circumstances in 1593 and the coroner’s report, when it was discovered, looks like it could be a coverup. It claims that he was murdered in a tavern brawl and some people believe that, and then other people think it was some assassination. So did he really die then? Did he go into hiding?

Chris Hedges:  Highly educated, did not come from a wealthy background. He was gay, probably.

Elizabeth Winkler:  He was accused of being an atheist and a sodomite, all these things at the time. Whether that was true or attempts to smear his reputation, it’s hard to tell. But yes, the interesting thing about Marlowe is he was born in the same year as Shakespeare and comes from a similarly humble background. He’s a son of a cobbler but he goes to the prestigious king school on scholarship and then wins a scholarship to Cambridge. You can actually trace the course of his development and it’s not a great mystery. You can see how his genius was nurtured by education. Same thing with someone like Ben Jonson. We know he went to the Westminster School. He credited his tutor, William Camden, for being the person who taught him everything he knew, he said. For other candidates or other writers of the period, I should say, you can trace the course of their development and their education, and that’s what’s missing with Shakespeare.

Chris Hedges:  Great. Let’s stop there. I want to thank The Real News Network and its production team: Cameron Granandino, Adam Coley, David Hebdon, and Kayla Rivara. You can find me at

Speaker 1The Chris Hedges Report gets some extra time now with a few minutes of bonus material with Chris and his guest.

Chris Hedges:  Let’s talk about women because that’s a big theme in your book.

Elizabeth Winkler:  It is.

Chris Hedges:  About women characters and how the characters in the plays are really revolutionary for the time.

Elizabeth Winkler:  They’re radical in a lot of ways. I studied Shakespeare as a student, as an English literature major in undergrad and then graduate school, and I was really interested in Shakespeare’s women. Juliet Dusenberry, the Cambridge Scholar, says Shakespeare’s drama deserves the name feminist for in his place the struggle is for women to be human in a world that declares them only female. There’s this question of, how did Shakespeare come to write feminist drama? Another scholar, Anne Barton, says Shakespeare has an uncanny understanding of women that’s missing in the work of most of his contemporary playwrights, so where did this uncanny understanding of women come from? There’s a thread that runs over the centuries of feeling there’s something weirdly female about Shakespeare. Orson Wells said Shakespeare was clearly tremendously feminine. Virginia Wolf talks about his man-womanly, androgynous quality.

Even in the 17th century, a philosopher named Margaret Cavendish remarked, oh, Shakespeare must have metamorphosed from a man to a woman. How did he create these female characters? A lot of people have remarked on this. In 1931, someone suggested that Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, might have been a contributor to the plays and a group authorship theory. She was the first female candidate put forward earlier in the 20th century. It’s interesting to think about; was a woman somewhere in the mix here? Especially because Shakespeare’s female characters are so often disguising themselves as men and there’s a long history, of course, of women using male pseudonyms, concealing themselves behind male names.

Chris Hedges:  Well, we should also throw in that for many women who were writing, there’s also, at that time period, evidence of pseudonyms that they used to publish.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Sure, of course. There was a stigma around women publishing works under their own names. There’s a very funny poem in the period where a writer talks about a woman who powders a sonnet as she does her hair and then prostitutes them both to public air, which is to say a woman publishing a sonnet is immoral, immodest, prostitution to sell your words in the marketplace. But women were writing. We know they were highly educated upper-class women, at least. They were writing, they were interested in theater. In France and Italy, we know they were writing plays and Italian theater troops traveled to England to perform at court, so it’s hard to believe that women in Europe were writing and producing works.

Marguerite Navarre was writing but English women weren’t. The scholar Phyllis Rakin has said the ideological constraints in which women in England operated make it more likely, not that they weren’t writing but they weren’t attributed. They weren’t acknowledged for their writing. It’s a really hard thing to pin down the undocumented nature of women’s work. But it was what got me first interested in the authorship question, this possibility of whether a woman had a hand here.

Chris Hedges:  What is it that struck you? There were a few plays or scenes that you cited, but what is it that particularly struck you about certain female characters?

Elizabeth Winkler:  They’re so radically modern and they’re crying out against the patriarchal constraints of their society. And they’re critiquing the thick-headedness of male figures around them. They’re so smart. They’re outwitting the male characters. The scholar Ann Barton says when things end happily, it’s because the values of the women triumph, which is to say – This is putting it crudely but – In the comedies, they get the better of the men. When things end in a more humane understanding world it’s because these feminist values come in and correct some of the injustice that they’re suffering in the plays.

One character that stands out, especially in our post-Me Too era, is Isabella in Measure for Measure. She’s the judge. Angela threatens to rape her and she says, if I did tell this, who would believe me? It’s such a modern line, this deep understanding of women’s experiences and frustrations and play, which there’s no real explanation for how a 16th-century male playwright or this particular man had that sympathy with an understanding of women, except the explanation which scholars give for everything is that, well, he was a genius.

Chris Hedges:  I want to touch on – Shakespeare’s son Hammett died in 1596 and people have always played on the name Hamlet and Hammett.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Hamnet.

Chris Hedges:  And that you write the years immediately following Hamnet’s death saw the production of some of the most cheerful Shakespearean comedies: The Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, then around 1600, Hamlet. You go into that popular mythology that the death… and you even ask a question, why would you memorialize your –

Elizabeth Winkler:  Well, people try to draw that connection between Hamnet and Hamlet because there’s this desperation to somehow fit this man’s life to the plays when in fact there is no fit actually. That’s one of the things scholars and historians have remarked on. The Oxford historian Blair Warden says there can be no other writers since the beginning of printing for whom we’re unable to demonstrate any relationship at all between his life and the works. But the Hamlet thing, Hamlet is a 13th-century tale. Vita Amlethi was originally written in Latin, and so the play Hamlet is adapting this very old tale for the English stage. It’s not connected to a boy named Hamnet, which was a popular name, and Shakespeare seems to have been named for Hamnet and Judith Sadler, who were the Stratford neighbors of William Shakespeare and his wife, Anne Hathaway.

Stephen Greenblatt attempts in his biography to make this leap which most other scholars don’t accept at all, that Hamlet was somehow inspired by Hamnet. But it doesn’t make any sense because would you memorialize your dead 11-year-old as a depressed man who contemplates suicide and the murder of his uncle? It’s a bizarre train of thought but there’s a popular misconception there which isn’t helped by novels like Hamnet. I don’t know if you know that novel by Maggie O’Farrell. It was very popular a few years ago.

Chris Hedges:  You also point out that people, especially in that era, they stole whole passages. Plagiarism was unknown. But you say there are some passages in the plays that closely parallel passages in ancient Greek tragedies for which English translations likewise didn’t exist.

Elizabeth Winkler:  At that point in the book I’m talking about the incredible knowledge in the plays, and scholars have pointed out, Greek scholars, that Shakespeare seems to be closely mirroring lines in Escalus but it wasn’t translated into English in the period. But knowledge of Greek without – Greek was a language of the universities and of highly educated nobility. The author also knows French and Italian. These languages weren’t taught in the grammar school. They have no idea where he acquired this knowledge.

Chris Hedges:  Well, you write about Love’s Labour’s Lost – Which I acted in in college, played Berowne – Which is set at the Court of Navarre in Southern France. Displays fidelity to the most minute details of historical truth in local color. It would seem likely that its author had spent at least a few months moving in high French society, wrote the critic Emil Montagu. Is that how it is? Abel LeFranc, chair of the French literature of the College de France and a member of the academy. Dan [inaudible 00:40:25] agreed, noting that the characters correspond to historical figures of the French court in 1578 when Shakespeare was a 14-year-old in Stratford. I thought that was really fascinating.

Elizabeth Winkler:  That’s jaw-dropping, isn’t it? Love’s Labour’s Lost is one of those plays that it’s an early play, it’s knowledgeable about what’s going on at the French court in the late 1570s, and early 1580s when he’s still a boy in Stratford. Incredibly erudite wordplay. French scholars, who have looked at it, have said, come on, this is absurd. Obviously, it was written by someone else. And it’s one of those instances in which outsiders not in English departments can come in and be critical of this belief but even some Shakespeare scholars have acknowledged how amazing, ludicrous, I don’t know, it is. The scholar Jay Dover Wilson said to believe that a boy with nothing more than a grammar school education wrote this play requires you to either believe in miracles or disbelieve in the man from Stratford. He was a major Shakespeare scholar, but they have sustained the belief in miracles.

Chris Hedges:  I want to close, it was a figure that you had in the book, between 1475 and 1640, more than 800 authors are known to have published anonymously. The flexibility of anonymity and the multiplicity of meanings that it evokes make it difficult to interpret today, but this flexibility also made it especially popular in early modern England. She’s quoting North, the scholar of the Renaissance.

Elizabeth Winkler:  That’s this idea of false attribution that a writer may have used the name of a real living person. That’s something people struggle with. They say, oh, well, Shakespeare was a real person, so it’s not a pseudonym. Pseudonyms were very popular in the period, making up fake names because there was no freedom of speech in Elizabethan England. But so were allonyms and an allonym is using someone else’s name. It’s a useful cover.

Chris Hedges:  Well, we should be clear with Marlowe, as you write in the book, for Marlowe to reappear was to put his life in jeopardy, clearly.

Elizabeth Winkler:  Right. That’s one of the arguments for Marlowe. Exactly. Yep.

Chris Hedges:  Great. Thanks, Elizabeth. That’s Elizabeth Winkler, author of Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, How Doubting the Bard Became the Biggest Taboo in Literature.

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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.