The Shakespeare authorship question—the theory that William Shakespeare might not have written the works published under his name—is the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature.
Among Shakespeare scholars, even the phrase “Shakespeare authorship question” elicits contempt—eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging. If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity. Someone else might get up and leave the room. Tears may be shed. A whip may be produced. You will be punished, which is to say, educated. Because it is obscene to suggest that the god of English literature might be a false god. It is heresy.
This is curious, because many of our greatest writers and thinkers have suspected that the name was indeed a pseudonym for a concealed author. “I am ‘sort of’ haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practiced on a patient world,” wrote Henry James.
“We all know how much mythus there is there is in the Shakspere question as it stands to-day,” Walt Whitman noted. Whitman, the poet of democracy, was no snob, but he was convinced that there was another mind behind the plays.
Mark Twain agreed. “So far as anybody actually knows and can prove, Shakespeare of Stratford-on-Avon never wrote a play in his life,” he wrote. “All the rest of his vast history, as furnished by the biographers, is built up, course upon course, of guesses, inferences, theories, conjectures—an Eiffel Tower of artificialities rising sky-high.”