The Shakespeare Question: An Interview with Professor William Leahy Part 2

This is the second part of Mark Ulrich’s interview with Professor William Leahy of Brunel University. The first can be seen at


Professor William Leahy will be delivering his talk on the Shakespeare Authorship Question at Uxbridge Library on Friday 6th May from 7.30 – 9.30pm. To book your place please contact your local Hillingdon library or e-mail

For more information visit:


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



A special copy of the first folio held at Brunel University’s Special Collection Library.


Can you explain the writing/publishing/commissioning process at the time the plays attributed to William Shakespeare would have been written?

In this time period a playwright would be asked to write a play, they would write it and then sell it to the theatre, for example The Rose or The Globe. They would get £6 for the play, and at that moment it became the property of the theatre. They would deliver it loose leaf, so that it could be distributed to the actors and the various parties, and then they would have no more involvement.


What seemed to happen was that, say there was a fight scene in a play and the actors and theatre didn’t feel it quite worked, they would then give it to a playwright who was known for fight scenes (for example Anthony Mundy) and they would improve it. None of that process is recorded. However, what we’re seeing with plays such as the first Henry VI, is that it seems like quite a lot of it was written by Thomas Kidd, some by Shakespeare and some by somebody else, we’re not quite sure who. So we’re assuming that’s the sort of thing that happened, rather than all three sitting in a room writing the play like in a modern form of collaboration.


It’s very possible that the actors would have had input. And even the theatre proprietor might have changed bits and pieces. Shakespeare was a theatre broker, he bought and sold plays, so he may well have had a go at various plays. The whole commissioning and writing processes were very different. Authors were much less important than they are now. This was before copyright laws so ownership was a much more opaque process.


I want people to understand that the whole thing is very messy. I think saying Shakespeare or any one person wrote the all plays is too neat. It was very messy, and we just have to accept that and live with it. I want to embrace the complexity. I think there’s a drive towards simplicity, I don’t mean to insult people, but we’re very fixated on the idea of the individual author. There aren’t that many very famous, highly regarded works by anonymous. We like an author and we really like Shakespeare to be the author. We really like the idea of a single individual genius working away, like in Shakespeare in Love, inspired by his muse. We love that romantic idea. Most writers would tell you that it doesn’t work that way. It’s hard grind.


Do you believe the phrase ‘Shakespeare’ works as a category to help us understand a great body of work?

I think that’s how it works. Shakespeare is essentially a category. When you’re faced with so many plays and the the complexity of his works,  you sometimes have to bend over backwards to make that category work. There’s 36 plays in the first folio. There are some really great ones in those 36, such as Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, but there’s also some that are not great, and even in the great plays there are bits that are not very good.


I can remember reading an article in The Guardian by Professor John Sutherland, maybe about 10 years ago, and he posed this question to himself: How do we explain that Shakespeare is so brilliant and yet there are bad bits?


His theory was that Shakespeare lived in London and he had a heavy social life, and so the bad bits were written when he had a hangover. Sutherland is imposing certain constraints on himself, instead of saying that there are some bad bits in the 36 plays so maybe there are some other authors involved. Given that there were so many authors collaborating at the time that seems like a much more logical explanation. If you just put these constraints on yourself then you are just stuck in there trying to explain all sorts of things. For example, how did he know so much about the law? How did he know so much about the court? How did he know so much about hunting? How did he know five different languages? I think if you just take away those constraints and say other people were involved, well, there’s your answer. It answers why these works are almost unbelievably complex.


One of the arguments sometimes used against Shakespeare as an author is that he might not have been able to amass all his knowledge at the Stratford Grammar School. Others have argued that he would have been. Can you explain your stance on that?

We don’t know that he went to the Stratford Grammar School. The records for the years that he would have been there have disappeared. They don’t exist. We know that he would have been eligible to go. If he did go it’s likely that he went for between four and six years. I don’t think it possible that he would have learnt five languages or all of this stuff about the law. Maybe it would have been possible.


What seems strange, however, is that for somebody, who we know didn’t go to university (because we have the records for Oxbridge and Cambridge) and had his background (which was relatively humble, although I wouldn’t say it would have been impossible for such a person to gain that knowledge), is that there is no paper trail. No record exists to show that that is what happened. People often say that Ben Johnson’s father was a bricklayer, and that Christopher Marlowe was from a humble background, and that’s true and they were great writers, but we can trace what happened to them. We know that Johnson got a scholarship. We know their trajectory. We hardly know anything about Marlowe, but we know that he went to university. For Shakespeare there’s nothing. That’s really the issue. It’s not whether somebody from his background could have achieved this, but that there’s no record that he did achieve this.


A genius would be very good at learning five languages but they are not born with the knowledge of five languages. They have to learn it. That’s the question really. Where is the evidence? There is no evidence.


A beautiful copy of an illustrated Shakespeare collection.

What would you ask people to keep in mind when reading Shakespeare?

They don’t need me to tell them how brilliant the plays are. Some plays are just fantastic. But if you take something like Macbeth, it’s fairly standard now to accept that Thomas Middleton had an input in that play. It’s fairly standard to accept that any number of authors had an input into some of the plays. And what I would say about plays like Hamlet is that there are records that go back to 1589 of Hamlet in performance, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet was published in 1603. What does that mean? There was a first edition and then a second edition. We’re familiar with the second quarto. The first was much shorter and not nearly as good. How did the second one grow out of the first one? I’d like people to think about those things.


What can we find with more evidence? Where would it take us? Come up with a number of ideas rather than focus on finding a way to prove that he wrote it. Part of the job description of a scholar is that we must be sceptical and posit a thesis and try to either prove it or disprove it. That seems to hold true for everything except Shakespeare.


It amazes me how scholars will accept as fact things that we know are not fact. For example, the idea that the Earl of Southampton was his patron. We’ve got no evidence of that. The notion that the Earl of Southampton gave him a thousand pound, there’s no evidence of that. There’s no evidence that they even knew or spoke to each other, but you’ll see that again and again in biographies by scholars. They do this rather than what scholars usually do which is ask where the truth is. Without wishing to sound patronising or pompous I would want people to let go, release.


What will the talk be like?

I’ll be exploring some of those issues. I haven’t got an alternative author, I’ve got a kind of semi-thesis about what may have happened, but it changes. Sometimes it changes depending on what I read, and what I’ve been reading recently is having an impact on what I think. But it is a bit like a mystery. And that’s great. There’s so many things about Shakespeare that people don’t know. And there’s so much that they do know that isn’t true. And like the website says, bring an open mind because I’m pretty open minded about it.


Uxbridge Library will also be hosting a special Shakespeare themed edition of the Open Mic Night on Saturday 23rd April at 6.30pm and a talk on Shakespeare and The Countess with Dr. Chris Laoutaris on Friday 29th April. Please visit to keep up to date with all our Hillingdon Library events. 


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