An American magazine has published an article titled ‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’ In response, we have written an article titled ‘SHAKESPEARE DERANGEMENT SYNDROME’

The Atlantic, a US magazine founded in 1857, has published an article by Elizabeth Winkler titled ‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’. The answer of course is no, but while it’s deplorable that The Atlantic would do this, it’s not actually surprising. Elements of the US cultural elite, just like their counterparts here in the UK, have a long and inglorious history of Shakespeare denialism.

To cite just one example, no less an institution than the Smithsonian has had a particularly egregious advocacy of ‘Oxfordian theory’ on its website for as long as I can remember. So I’ve come to realise that rich, clever and sophisticated people are often complete and utter fruitcakes, and our American cousins are not exempt from this.

The Atlantic itself has published this type of thing before during its lengthy lifespan, and Winkler merely takes all the arguments routinely deployed by anti-Stratfordians over the past century and adds a feminist twist. Who knows, maybe she got the idea from the cinematic font of wisdom that was St Trinians 2.

However, I do think the Winkler article is also symptomatic of what’s happening in the culture at large. Because we should have evolved to the point where an article like this could no longer be published, except in the crankier recesses of internet obscurity. But we are living at a time when the media, the political class and the universities have veered so far off course that they are in danger of losing all credibility with much of the public. I think of it as The Great Derangement, and Shakespeare Derangement Sydrome is just one facet of the overall malaise.

Apart from its modish feminist gloss, the Winkler article reads like every other anti-Stratfordian screed I’ve ever trawled through. It’s quite old-fashioned. I say this without malice, as I’m quite old-fashioned too, but apart from a sprinkling of contemporary references, it feels like it’s coming from the 1960s or ’70s. It’s ironic indeed that for a woman who claims Shakespeare was a woman, Winkler herself writes like an old bloke.

Anyway, Winkler’s candidate for the authorship is Emilia Bassano. She’s been known by a number of names and a variety of spellings, so for clarity I will stick to this version of her married name: Emilia Lanier.

Reading the Winkler article, which is pretty long, I groan inwardly when she goes to meet Emilia’s “most ardent champion”, a geezer named John Hudson, who published a headache-inducing book on the subject in 2014. Winkler says “His zeal can sometimes get the better of him”, and she is not wrong.

In fact, Hudson is a textbook Shakespeare Conspiracy Theorist. The formula is always the same:

1. “There is a secret message in the works of Shakespeare revealing the true author!”

2. “I alone have cracked the code!” (“Because I am so much cleverer than everyone else…”)

3. “Here it is! Is it not amazing?”

4. “What? You don’t believe me? What manner of imbecile are you!”

The article continues with Hudson and Winkler parsing Shakespeare’s works for evidence of Emilia’s hand. The thing is, if you pick any person who was writing during Shakespeare’s lifetime (and quite a few who weren’t) you could similarly identify any number of references that made them the author. It’s an easy game to play once you get in the swing of it. Indeed, I’m surprised no one has thus far identified Pocahontas as the author of Shakespeare’s works. Watch this space.

Emilia’s advocates also believe she was Jewish and dark-skinned, so Winkler invokes Maya Angelou, deliberately misunderstanding the late author’s famous line to the effect that “Shakespeare must be a black girl”. [Read an excellent article on Maya Angelou’s love of Shakespeare here]

Finally, Winkler gets round to discussing Emilia’s own poetry. “Her writing style bears no obvious resemblance to Shakespeare’s” she concludes. Well, no.

With grinding inevitability, Winkler proceeds to her final destination, Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. I know it seems a bit like saying Buckingham Palace is a hotbed of anti-monarchism, but Shakespeare’s Globe has long been strangely ambivalent (at best) about the man from Stratford-upon-Avon whose name it trades under. In his 2007 book on Shakespeare, Bill Bryson describes the Globe under former Artistic Director Mark Rylance as “a kind of clearinghouse for anti-Stratford sentiment”.

At the Globe, Winkler attends the annual meeting of the Shakespeare Authorship Trust, which I imagine as being like a scene from Eyes Wide Shut. With Rylance as its figurehead, the Trust has considered the merits of dozens of authorship candidates over the years, before settling on… all of them! No, wait. The last time I checked, they were fighting an “Anyone But Shakespeare” campaign. In recent months they seem to have opted for an “Authorship By Secret Committee” theory, and have even given our mate William a seat at the table. How kind.

The Globe’s latest Artistic Director is Michelle Terry, and one of the first things she did was to commission a new play, Emilia, which features Shakespeare plagiarising from the titular heroine. There is no historical evidence for this, naturally, but it also occurs in Sally O’Reilly’s 2014 novel Dark Aemilia. Contemporary writers seem to love the idea of Shakespeare being a fraud. Presumably it eases the pain of knowing that the only reason anyone will remember them is as a footnote to Shakespeare.

Incidentally, I get the impression that these are troubled times for The Globe. It’s just announced a two-year delay to its ambitious ‘Project Prospero’ expansion scheme, and its current production of Henry IV Part 2 has reportedly been playing to half-empty houses.

Michelle Terry has previously stated that her tenure at the Globe has “a socialist agenda”. Hopefully she’s not using Venezuela as her model.

But back to Elizabeth Winkler and her article in The Atlantic. ‘Was Shakespeare a Woman?’ has already found an audience. The publication has quite a big following and dodgy Shakespeare clickbait has long been a reliable attention-grabber for a media that is running dangerously low on both ideas and integrity.

But at least some of The Atlantic’s readers will be thinking: “If they can be this wrong about Shakespeare, what else are they wrong about?” before arriving at the sobering conclusion: possibly everything.

In the article itself, Winkler dreams of her revelations dealing “a blow to the cultural patriarchy” so that women could “at last claim their rightful authority as historical and intellectual forces…”

It’s heady stuff, and any push-back by rational people will no doubt be decried as abuse, harassment, bullying and, wait for it, hate speech.

Because, while the leading fruitcakes of the Great Derangement are constantly telling us we’re living in the 1930s, we’re really not. We’re actually living in 4BC, with dozens of fervid religious cults all vying for supremacy. What this is really about is not that Shakespeare was a woman – he wasn’t. But it is necessary for the purposes of the cult that its adherents accept and proclaim that Shakespeare was a woman. Cults always demand that their followers believe the unbelievable, it is a means of uniting them against the world they wish to ultimately conquer.

We live in an age of identity politics, and almost every identity group I can think of comes with its own pet Shakespeare authorship theory and preferred candidate. So it is highly likely that the hacks at The Atlantic will be walking this path again.

To quote from the man himself, “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”

Shakespeare Magazine is an independent online publication for everyone who loves Shakespeare. Read our latest issue completely FREE here.

Buy Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro.

The Oxfraud website for in-depth debunking of anti-Stratfordian thought.

Book tickets for Henry IV Part 2 at Shakespeare’s Globe.


  1. richard denton says:

    Entertaining. A bit harsh on the Globe to focus on Henry part two when part one and Henry V are doing wonderfully well. But yes the authorship stuff is silly – I am trying to put together a project that in documentary terms demonstrates the idiocy of the debate. But many people influenced the man – most of all his cast obviously – and I don’t think it unreasonable to number Emilia among those he may have known ( or even admired) and that she occasionally came to mind. Will plagiarised from anything he could get his hands on – North’s transaltion of Plutarch being one obvious example and the Holinshed chronicles being another, page after page of stuff copied out and then “buffed up” And he was quite a “buffer”. One thing that became clear as day while making the “uncovered” series was that the author of the plays was a member of that company of actors, in those theatres, at that time. That being the case there is no reason at all to suppose it was anyone else – why on earth would they credit only one of their number?

  2. William Huber says:

    I wrote a somewhat whimsical piece on this topic a few years ago. No one would publish it. Here it is. Enjoy
    Will Shakespeare and the Jamestown connection
    Most everyone in the English speaking world could probably tell you that Will Shakespeare was an English playwright. One of his best works is The Tempest. Very few of those people have ever seen this play or any others by him performed. And only the most devoted fans of The Bard could tell you that this play is based on actual events that occurred just off our shores in Bermuda.
    The year was 1609 and a fleet of ships set sail from England for Virginia. These seven ships; Sea Venture, Falcon, Diamond, Swallow, Unity, Blessing, Lion, and two unamed smaller crafts, were loaded with much needed supplies and new colonists for the Jamestown colony. The flagship of that fleet was the newly constructed Sea Venture. This was to be her maiden voyage and also her last. The fleet encountered a great storm or hurricane and the Sea Venture was separated from the rest of the ships.
    The oakum caulking between the planks had not set and cured properly and the Sea Venture began to take on water. The island chain of the Bermudas was known to be close by and Sir George Summers himself steered for that as best he could. Having spent many years on the high seas myself, I know this is not an easy task. Sometimes you just have to point your bow into the storm and ride it out.
    So the ship was run aground on Bermuda and all the people and most of the supplies survived. The ship itself was unsalvageable and broke apart. Some of the wood from it would eventually be made into two smaller boats that the survivors used to get to Jamestown.
    In the ten months in between, there were numerous fights, mutinies, murders and executions. There were also happy times including two births and a marriage. One such birth was to the wife of John Rolfe. The girl child was christened Bermuda but soon died on the island she was named after. The wife, Sarah Hacker, died shortly after the group arrived in Virginia. John Rolfe went on to marry Pocahontas and was the first successful tobacco farmer.
    Aside from the murders and executions, and the births, the Shakespeare play contains all of these dramatic events. The characters of Antonio, the Duke of Milan, and Prospero, his brother and former Duke of Milan, have been compared to Sir Thomas Gates and Sir George Summers. They were the two highest ranking men on the ship and often at odds with each other. Christopher Newport, the actual captain of the ship, could be compared to the honest Lord Gonzalo.
    William Strachey chronicled all the events of the Sea Venture and the eventual arrival at Jamestown. He wrote all this down shortly after the events and sent the manuscipt back to England in 1610. He called it, A True Reportery of the Wreck and Redemption of Sir Thomas Gates. He returned to England shortly after that. There is no proof positive that Shakespeare and Strachey knew each other but certainly they must have known of each other. The parallels between The Tempest and A True Reportery are too numerous to have been coincidence.
    There are some really hardcore Shakespeare conspiracy theorists that claim they were one and the same man. Some others also claim that Shakespeare was Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. This is known as the Oxfordian school. I don’t subscibe to any of those schools of thought. I think Shakespeare was a real person and not a pseudonym for someone else. I believe that Shakespeare read Strachey’s work and borrowed heavily from it. Both of their lives are too well documented for them to have been the same man.
    The title of the first chapter of Strachey’s work is A Most Dreadful Tempest. Many other specific words and phrases are found in both works. For instance, Strachey writes about ”the sharp windes, blowing Northerly” almost exactly matches Prospero’s line about ”the sharp wind of the North.”
    Caliban could be seen as representing the Indians, especially those Powhatans hostile to the English, such as Opechancanough, King Powhatan’s brother. Powhatan himself would then have to be Ariel. That would make Miranda a representation of Pocahontas and Ferdinand a representation of John Rolfe. No one but me has ever made this comparison because the time line is all wrong. John Rolfe didn’t meet and marry Pocahontas, whose real name was Matoaka, until well after both Strachey’s story and Shakespeare’s play were written. According to the anthropologist Helen C. Rountree, Pocahontas “revealed her secret name to the English only after she had taken her new Christian name, Rebecca”
    The marriage of John and Pocahontas, now renamed Rebecca, didn’t last very long. She gave birth to their son, Thomas, and died in England shortly after. In fact, she died just as she and John were on a ship headed back to Virginia. But while they were married, there was relative peace between the Powhatans and the English. Rebecca/Matoaka was a guest of honor while in London and even met with the King, James the 1st.
    One can only wonder if upon first setting eyes on England and the English, did she say, ” Oh, wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world, That has such people in it?”
    Somehow, I doubt she said anything like that but we will never know for sure, will we?
    Bill Huber 2016

  3. @William Huber – Bravo!

  4. Henry Jansma says:

    A common theme in New Testament studies as well.

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