Out damned 'snobs'! William Shakespeare wasn't born great, but he achieved greatness - 23 April 2013

All the world may be a stage, and all the men and women players, but there is only one playwright.

Out damned 'snobs'! William Shakespeare wasn't born great, but he achieved greatness

Today's news, tomorrow's lesson - 23 April 2013

All the world may be a stage, and all the men and women players, but there is only one playwright.

To mark the 449th birthday of William Shakespeare, a new book, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, aims to eliminate any questions surrounding the authorship of the Bard's plays.

Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells, of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, have edited the volume, which includes contributions from eminent Shakespeare scholars. The book addresses claims that other 16th-century writers – most notably Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford – were responsible for penning the plays.

Shakespeare's reputation has been subject to the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune for some time. But what prompted Professor Wells to take action was the fact that questions over the authorship of the plays are now entering the academic and cultural mainstream.

Brunel University in London offers an MA degree in Shakespeare authorship studies. And Concordia University in Oregon, US, houses a Shakespeare Authorship Research Centre. An online document, declaring "reasonable doubt" about the authorship of the plays, has garnered more than 2,500 signatures, including those of actors Derek Jacobi and Jeremy Irons.

Hollywood director Roland Emmerich, who also signed the declaration, was responsible for the 2011 film Anonymous, which presented Shakespeare as an illiterate buffoon and the Earl of Oxford as the true author of the plays.

Many of these claims have their root in the suspicion that only those to the manor born are capable of producing great literature. "Who thinks Shakespeare couldn't have been a good writer because his father was a tradesman? Snobs, that's who," said historian Alex von Tunzelmann.

And, in a letter to The New York Times, Harvard English professor Stephen Greenblatt said that teaching about the authorship controversy was "the exact equivalent of current arguments that intelligent design be taught alongside evolution… Should claims that the Holocaust did not occur also be made part of the standard curriculum?"

But William Leahy, head of Brunel University's school of arts, insists that Shakespeare could both a borrower and a lender be. He claims that the plays and poems were written by a number of people, including the man himself. "I receive hate mail on a regular basis," he added.

This is not the only Bardic debate currently raging. Organisers of the Titchfield Festival Theatre in Hampshire this week claimed to have evidence that Shakespeare worked for three years as a schoolmaster at their local school.

Questions for discussion or further research:

  • How much do you already know about Shakespeare? How many of his plays can you name?
  • How far is your appreciation of a work of art affected by what you know about its creator? Does it matter who the writer of a text is?
  • What do you think of the suggestion that only well-educated people from good families can be great writers or artists?
  • What is 'great literature'? How do we decide and who makes the decision?

Resources for you

Life and times of William Shakespeare

  • A brief introduction to the life and times of our great playwright, from TES partner the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Shakespearean language

  • An extensive presentation on Shakespeare's linguistic techniques from TESEnglish.

Shakespeare by the RSC

  • Watch extracts of performances by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and interviews with members of the cast.

For more lessons, quizzes and activities check out the TES Shakespeare collection.

Further news resources

First News front page

  • Help your pupils understand the features of the front page of a newspaper.

Write all about it

  • Get students creating their own news report with this step-by-step guide.

What is the News?

  • A sociological and media perspective on what makes an event 'newsworthy'.

On the box

  • Help pupils to write their own TV news broadcast with this handy PowerPoint.

Structuring stories

  • A scheme of work to help students structure news stories.

In the news this week

The behaviour of professional footballers has come under the spotlight once again after the actions of Liverpool striker Luis Suárez this weekend.

Parents who show their children regular love and affection can smack them occasionally to no ill effect, new research has found.

President Barack Obama faced a major setback in his quest to reform gun control laws in the US this week when politicians blocked a measure designed to restrict sales.

The funeral of Baroness Thatcher took place today, with thousands of people gathering in central London for the event and much of the UK capital brought to a standstill.

In the news archive index