The Shakespeare Question:An interview with William Leahy Part 1

This is the first part of Mark Ulrich’s interview with Professor William Leahy of Brunel University.

Professor William Leahy will be delivering his talk on the Shakespeare Authorship Question on Friday 6th May from 7.30 – 9.30pm. To book your place please contact your local Hillingdon library or e-mail culturebite@hillingdon.gov.uk For more information visit our website

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview do not necessarily reflect the views of the London Borough of Hillingdon.

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The front page of the first folio. Some have speculated about the appearance of William Shakespeare in this portrait. These speculations have included the odd angle of the arm on the right, the lack of features to identify Shakespeare’s status as a writer and various features of the head.

 

What are your research interests?

My particular area of research would be broadly described as the Shakespeare Authorship Question. This is a very controversial subject area and many people, including academics, do not not regard it as a genuine area of research. It is somehow perceived as a marginal or crazy idea.

What interests me is not whether somebody else wrote the plays, but rather the Shakespeare Authorship Question as a cultural phenomenon. I’m interested in why it exists and why many academics and people are so resistant to it and find it to be some kind of conspiracy theory. I’m interested in the motivation of people, both those who believe and those who disbelieve.

Has the Shakespeare Authorship Question become more widely accepted?

I became involved in the Shakespeare Authorship Question in 2005. Once I understood it, and what it is as a cultural phenomenon, my end game was to get it recognised as a legitimate subject for study. I think there has been movement there.

I think there are still many people who don’t believe the question. I can’t see, personally, a very strong case for any alternative author. What I can see, which I think is being recognised now in academia, is that there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Shakespeare did not write all the plays and poems attributed to him, and there were lots of collaborators writing with him. Certainly a lot of computer analysis now shows that other writers were involved in the works of Shakespeare. That being the case, I would say that I achieved my aim.

Is the reluctance to accept the question because of the money invested into what we might term the ‘Shakespeare Industry’?

I think that’s a very small part of it, and I think that’s very much linked with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. They own five houses that are now museums, all of which are visited by millions of people every year and make a lot of money. So that’s one part of it.

I think a much bigger part of our reluctance is to do with a couple of things. Particularly in this country it’s to do with our national and cultural identity, which is linked to the notion that Shakespeare is the greatest genius ever. Deep down there is a feeling that that makes English culture somehow superior. English identity is interwoven with Shakespeare.

But a greater reason for the reluctance is that we adhere so much to the individual romanticised author; an individual genius working away producing brilliant work. Shakespeare in Love is a brilliant example of that. He has writer’s block, he falls in love and then he writes Romeo and Juliet. Not only that but he’s really good looking.

It’s a really powerful idea that has come from the Romantic poets like Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth. They looked at Shakespeare and what they found in Shakespeare they found in themselves. They found this highly romanticised individual who valued the imagination. That idea is really powerful. We are stuck with the idea of the romanticised author. We want to believe in heroes. We even want to believe in superheroes. So when I say that it was messy and that there was more than one author, it complicates that. Do you know he was a tax evader? Do you know he was fined for hoarding grain during a famine? People don’t like to hear that. In some way it takes away some of the heroic value that we associate with him and have invested in him.

What will change people’s perspectives on the Shakespeare Authorship Question?

A lot of scholarly work on Shakespeare is poor quality. It’s just reiterating the old realities. What I quite like about the question and reading about the other candidates is that while I usually reject the conclusion, a lot of the research is really interesting and useful. We know a lot more about Early Modern England through Authorship studies. Research is more than its conclusion, it’s the journey. I don’t know if that will have an impact. I think if the quality of the research is good enough, academia is opening up a bit to say “join us.”

What is the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt and what was your involvement with it?

I was involved in putting the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt together. I’m not linked to the The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition, but they drew up the declaration in 2007 and asked me to take a look at it. I made it less extreme in its views, and more open-ended and open-minded. My input was to not suggest an alternative candidate, but rather to say that there is enough evidence for there to be reasonable doubt that Shakespeare wrote all the plays attributed to him. The Shakespeare Authorship Coalition believe that there is enough reasonable doubt to suggest that he didn’t write any of them. I have a slightly different view, but I was happy to sign the declaration because, for me, it was broad enough. The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt can be viewed online at: https://doubtaboutwill.org/declaration

There are only two physical copies of the Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.This one was presented to Professor Leahy in 2007.

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The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt has been signed by various people. See William Leahy’s signature on the right hand side.

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Our thanks to the Brunel University Library Special Collection Service for their help with this article. For more information on the special collection service visit their website

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