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Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies

How Doubting the Bard Became the Biggest Taboo in Literature


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About The Book

An “extraordinarily brilliant” and “pleasurably naughty” (André Aciman) investigation into the Shakespeare authorship question, exploring how doubting that William Shakespeare wrote his plays became an act of blasphemy…and who the Bard might really be.

The theory that Shakespeare may not have written the works that bear his name is the most horrible, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature. Scholars admit that the Bard’s biography is a “black hole,” yet to publicly question the identity of the god of English literature is unacceptable, even (some say) “immoral.”

In Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, journalist and literary critic Elizabeth Winkler sets out to probe the origins of this literary taboo. Whisking you from London to Stratford-Upon-Avon to Washington, DC, she pulls back the curtain to show how the forces of nationalism and empire, religion and mythmaking, gender and class have shaped our admiration for Shakespeare across the centuries. As she considers the writers and thinkers—from Walt Whitman to Sigmund Freud to Supreme Court justices—who have grappled with the riddle of the plays’ origins, she explores who may perhaps have been hiding behind his name. A forgotten woman? A disgraced aristocrat? A government spy? Hovering over the mystery are Shakespeare’s plays themselves, with their love for mistaken identities, disguises, and things never quite being what they seem.

As she interviews scholars and skeptics, Winkler’s interest turns to the larger problem of historical truth—and of how human imperfections (bias, blindness, subjectivity) shape our construction of the past. History is a story, and the story we find may depend on the story we’re looking for.

“Lively” (The Washington Post), “fascinating” (Amanda Foreman), and “intrepid” (Stacy Schiff), Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies will forever change how you think of Shakespeare…and of how we as a society decide what’s up for debate and what’s just nonsense, just heresy.


Prologue Prologue
In England in the summer of 1964, an unusual case came before the courts. It involved a squabble over the will of Miss Evelyn May Hopkins and the authorship of the works of William Shakespeare. Miss Hopkins had died, leaving a third of her inheritance to the Francis Bacon Society for the purpose of finding the original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays. She referred to them as the “Bacon-Shakespeare manuscripts,” believing the true author of the works to have been Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan philosopher and statesman. The aim of finding the manuscripts was to prove that Bacon was, in fact, the author of the works attributed to Shakespeare. Her heirs were not pleased. Naturally, they preferred that the money go to themselves. Seeking to reclaim their inheritance, the heirs brought a suit against the society, arguing that Miss Hopkins’s provision should be set aside on the grounds that the search would be a “wild goose chase.” To support their case, they solicited the testimony of scholarly experts. The Right Honorable Richard Wilberforce, a justice of Her Majesty’s High Court, presided.

Counsel for the next of kin “described it as a wild goose chase; but wild geese can, with good fortune, be apprehended,” observed the justice. Many discoveries are unlikely until they are made, he pointed out: “one may think of the Codex Sinaiticus, or the Tomb of Tutankhamen, or the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Wilberforce was a stolid Englishman, a former classics scholar at Oxford University who rose through Britain’s legal ranks to become a senior Law Lord in the House of Lords and a member of the Queen’s Privy Council. Having reviewed the evidence submitted to the court, he summarized it as follows:

“The orthodox opinion, which at the present time is unanimous, or nearly so, among scholars and experts in sixteenth and seventeenth century literature and history, is that the plays were written by William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, actor.” However, Justice Wilberforce continued, “The evidence in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship is quantitatively slight. It rests positively, in the main, on the explicit statements in the First Folio of 1623, and on continuous tradition; negatively on the lack of any challenge to this ascription at the time” of the First Folio’s publication. Furthermore, the justice found, “There are a number of difficulties in the way of the traditional ascription… a number of known facts which are difficult to reconcile…. [S]o far from these difficulties tending to diminish with time, the intensive search of the nineteenth century has widened the evidentiary gulf between William Shakespeare the man, and the author of the plays.”

The justice went on to consider the testimony of the scholarly experts. Kenneth Muir, King Alfred Professor of English literature at the University of Liverpool, supported the plaintiffs, Miss Hopkins’s aggrieved heirs. He considered it “certain” that Bacon could not have written the works of Shakespeare. Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius Professor of Modern History at the University of Oxford, departed slightly from his English literature colleagues, taking what the justice deemed “a more cautious line.” Though Professor Trevor-Roper “definitely does not believe that the works of ‘Shakespeare’ could have been written by Francis Bacon, he also considers that the case for Shakespeare rests on a narrow balance of evidence and that new material could upset it; that though almost all professional scholars accept ‘Shakespeare’s’ authorship, a settled scholarly tradition can inhibit free thought, that heretics are not necessarily wrong. His conclusion is that the question of authorship cannot be considered as closed.”

Justice Wilberforce agreed. The question was not closed. The evidence for Shakespeare was too slim, the problems too many. The scholars might be wrong. Even if Francis Bacon was unlikely, new material might show someone other than Shakespeare to have been the author. Whoever wrote them, the manuscripts of Shakespeare’s plays had never been found. Their discovery would be “of the highest value to history and to literature,” Wilberforce proclaimed. Indeed, he added, to the consternation of the plaintiffs and the Shakespeare scholars, “the revelation of a manuscript would contribute, probably decisively, to a solution to the authorship problem, and this alone is benefit enough.”

Miss Hopkins’s bequest to the Francis Bacon Society was upheld.

Reading Group Guide

1. The Shakespeare authorship question is “the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature,” according to Elizabeth Winkler. What circumstances led to this?

2. Winkler becomes the target of online harassment after writing about the Shakespeare authorship question in The Atlantic. Discuss these reactions and the lack of debate in Shakespeare scholarship. How do these behaviors stifle the field?

3. In Chapter 2, Winkler examines the Shakespeare biographies, noting they are “riddled with speculation...they muse, conjuring baseless scenes and elaborating tenuous theories in an attempt to connect the man to the works.” Discuss the function of these biographies in Shakespeare scholarship, and why Shakespeare serves as the “’perfect container for our desire and creative empathy?’”

4. In Shakespeare’s day, it was common for authors to use pseudonyms for a variety of social and political reasons. Consider the evidence that Shakespeare may have been a pseudonym with the instances of deception and illusion in the author’s works. Do you think of these literary devices differently if the author was using a fake name?

5. Chapter 5 traces Shakespeare’s evolution from celebrated writer to venerated God. How did Shakespeare attain this status, and how does the religion of Shakespeare impact the authorship debate?

6. Discuss the historical figures who have engaged in the authorship debate, from Walt Whitman to Henry Folger. Do their reputations and accomplishments make you think about the authorship question, and its critics, differently? Why or why not?

7. Chapter 6 explores the rise in Shakespeare’s popularity with the birth of “the institution of English.” How were Shakespeare’s works, and the Stratford man, used to maintain political and social control in Britain?

8. The Oxfordian theory highlights an uncomfortable question for scholars: was the author a member of the upper class, like the Earl of Oxford, or a man of the people, like the Stratford man? Discuss the classist arguments used by Stratfordians and how this impacts your perception of the authorship question.

9. The feminine elements of Shakespeare’s work suggest there might have been female influence, or a female author, involved in its creation. Consider Mary Sidney and Emilia Bassano’s candidacy alongside the assumption that “the recorded truth is the complete truth.” How might their contributions, and those of other women writers, been erased?

10. Consider the Stratfordians and anti-Stratfordians the author interviews in the book. What characteristics define each group? What do they value most when it comes to the Shakespeare authorship question?

11. After exploring the Shakespeare authorship question, do you have a theory? Do you think it’s important that the authorship question be answered definitively, and why?

About The Author

Pam Perez

Elizabeth Winkler is a journalist and book critic whose work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Economist, among other publications. She received her undergraduate degree from Princeton University and her master’s in English literature from Stanford University. Her essay “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”, first published in The Atlantic, was selected for The Best American Essays 2020. She lives in Washington, DC.

Why We Love It

“If you love Shakespeare, you’re going to be obsessed with this book! Because Elizabeth Winkler shows the authorship question to be the most entertaining drama the Bard never wrote: a delightful comedy of errors starring rogue theater directors, ruthless academics, and a handful of eccentrics with the courage to seek out forbidden answers…and maybe, just maybe, find them. Playfully irreverent and charmingly nerdy, Winkler makes studying history and literature feel like such illicit fun! And her adoration for Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays comes through beautifully on every page.”

—Megan H., Editor, on Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (April 23, 2024)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781982171278

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Raves and Reviews

“An extraordinarily brilliant and scholarly work, written with an unyielding sleuthing instinct and sparkling with pleasurably naughty moments. This page-turner is mesmerizing.”
—André Aciman, PhD, New York Times bestselling author of Call Me by Your Name

“A fascinating detective story… whose irreverence is part of its appeal.”
The Guardian

“Elizabeth Winkler is blessed with the clear-eyed wit of a heroine in a Shakespearean comedy. Her undoing of the fools in the forest of the authorship question is iconoclasm As You Like It—joy to behold, lesson for us all.”
—Lewis Lapham, founder of Lapham’s Quarterly

“As a literary-investigative reporter, Elizabeth Winkler… pursues her quarry with tenacity and grips it like a dog with a bone.”
The Wall Street Journal

“Lively…. Winkler is a crackerjack researcher, deftly laying out the myriad questions, arguments and mysteries swirling around Shakespeare.”
—Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

“Elizabeth Winkler’s Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies is one of the most engaging, riveting, scholarly, and challenging whodunits anyone with an interest in theater, human psychology, literature, and history can hope to read. Following in the footsteps of Henry James, Mark Twain, Mark Rylance, and innumerable other skeptics, Winkler writes about what has been essentially a centuries old theological dispute about the origins of Shakespeare’s astounding body of work like a Shakespearean drama itself: full of complex characters with false reputations and deceptive appearances.”
—Bessel van der Kolk, MD, New York Times bestselling author of The Body Keeps Score

“No, Elizabeth Winkler doesn’t reveal the true identity of the writer Ruth Bader Ginsburg termed “the literary genius known by the name William Shakespeare.” But she does explain how we’ve wound up with, among an army of others, a republican Shakespeare and a monarchist Shakespeare, a Shakespeare who hated his wife and one who loved his, a Shakespeare who wrote all the plays and a Shakespeare who could not write at all. Along her intrepid way, Winkler charts, with refreshing clarity, the much-contested ground underfoot, studded with flinty convictions, gnarled fictions, and a surprising number of land mines.”
—Stacy Schiff, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Revolutionary

“Fascinating and often delightful…. Shakespeare Was a Woman may represent something of an “emperor’s-no-clothes” moment for academia.”
Winnipeg Free Press

“A perfect introduction to a world of unbridled passion, retribution, and intrigue—I refer of course to the Shakespeare authorship question. Brilliant and mind-blowing.”
—Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of Booth

“A fascinating read. Winkler boldly pushes against traditional boundaries of gender and identity to show that meaning can be constructed in many different ways.”
—Amanda Foreman, PhD, internationally bestselling author of Georgiana

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