Shakespeare is back in the news, or not, depending on how you look at it. Last week a group of people in England with apparently nothing better to do with their time issued a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt", the doubt being that William Shakespeare wrote the plays of William Shakespeare. Noted among the signatories was actor Derek Jacobi, whom some people believe to be intelligent because he has played intelligent people on stage and screen from time to time. Many of the signatories favour Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford, who died in 1604, and are not deterred by the fact that many of Shakespeare's plays came out in later years. Others prefer the idea of a team of writers using Shakespeare's name, but all share the idea that someone else- anyone else, really- must have written these plays.
The main issue for them is, the guy from Stratford is just too low, too uneducated, and too boring, to have written such great works. A great author must have had a great life- where was Shakespeare's? Personally, I suspct someone who is busy living a "great life" probably wouldn't have the time to write 39 plays, over 150 sonnets, 2 major epyllia, other poems etc.
Shakespeare is targetted because of the size of his reputation. Issues of education and reading habits do not come up with, say, Webster, or Dekker, or Middleton, or Tourneur- in spite of the fact that they show a similar depth of knowledge as Shakespeare- because few care about them. In fact, I suspect a strong likelihood for many of my readers that this is the first time they have read those names.
Fundamental to the "Declaration" is the notion of authorship which we have today- that of one person, toiling away to produce their own work. This is not a notion which a writer of Shakespeare's time would have recognized. We see this in one of the more interesting developments of Shakespeare studies of our century: the study of the Thomas More Manuscript.
The manuscript was a play from Shakespeare's time, handwritten, but written in many hands. This was a play that was written, then added to, and subtracted from, many times over as it shifted from one person to the next, as various players and companies handled it. Most exciting of the manuscript to Shakespeare scholars was that one of the scenes was written in a handwriting style that matched Shakespeare's signatures. In other words, it was a scene written by Shakespeare himself.
This discovery both confirms and condemns the "anyone-but-Shakespeare" people. It shows that plays were often constructed by groups of people, as some of them suggest, but the handwriting indicates that, yes, William Shakespeare was an author of plays.
We can see similar additions in Shakespeare's plays. It is generally accepted that the Hecate scenes of Macbeth were later additions. Some scholars believe that there are scenes from the Henry VI plays added by various hands. And the later plays seem to have been collaborative efforts with Beaumont and/or Fletcher, who took over as the chief playwrights for the King's Men after Shakespeare retired and returned to Stratford.
Shakespeare is known to have based his plays on other plays, to have taken plays and reworked them as his own. He may have kept lines or scenes from the originals. He would not have recognized another writer as owning his play after it was written, any more than he expected others to recognize his. For this reason, Shakespeare does not seem to have been interested in publishing his works (with the exception of Hamlet) and his writings were not collected and published until years after his death. By then, several other hands could have made alterations to his plays, as was done to Thomas More.
Furthermore, these days we must also take into account the intentions of modern editors, who are often trying to piece together two extant versions of the plays (three in the case of Hamlet) and trying to overcome vagaries of spelling to create coherent (in their mind) plays. Recently, editors have taken to just publishing the variant editions, and letting the readers themselves decide what to do with it.
So, who wrote Shakespeare? In my opinion, mostly Shakespeare. The plays are mostly consistent in style and language, indicating one author for the most part. But I can agree in part with the Anti-Stratfordians. There are other hands, I admit. But to look for a pure authorship- either of a Shakespeare or a non-Shakespeare- from that period (with the possible exception of Ben Jonson) is to impose a modern idea upon a time that made no such assumption.