shake‘Phantom Captain Shakespeare, the Rosicrucian Mask’

I have a new obsession – the identity of William Shakespeare.

As so often, I find myself straying into an area where inquiry attracts pejorative labels. Those who question the authorship of the plays, poems and sonnets of William Shakespeare are often dismissed as conspiracy theorists and crackpots. Jonathan Bate, the author of several of the most successful recent literary-historical works on Shakespeare, and a man who has built his career on the orthodox identification of the poet, dismisses such commentators and researchers as ‘fantasists’.

However, there are some powerful arguments against the orthodox view, and some famous names have sided with the doubters – including Sigmund Freud, Charlie Chaplin, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, as well, more contemporaneously, Mark Rylance, the director of the Globe Theatre in London, and Derek Jacobi, the most successful Shakespearean actor of our times, and plenty more.

It’s a fascinating debate, and highly entertaining to see those in the orthodox camp lose their rag in interviews and panel discussions, as the questions about the Stratford Shakespeare refuse to go away, and circumstantial and textual evidence continues to pile up around more charismatic contenders.

As I indulge myself in the summer holidays, reading copiously, watching documentaries and listening to lectures, I ponder how I might use this material in my teaching. It lies outside the scope of my literature class – the IB, like other examination boards, would not admit the relevance of biography to literary analysis, and so it would be a distraction and an unnecessary complication for literature students (and that’s a real shame). However, it might make an excellent topic for modelling the Theory of Knowledge Presentation.


The TOK presentation requires as its starting point the selection of a ‘real life situation’ – in other words a factually-based topic taken from an academic subject, or from current events or personal experience. The student has ten minutes in which to present the situation and explore some of the epistemological dimensions – the ‘knowledge questions’ – inherent within it.

Potentially, the ‘real life situation’ could be quite literally anything at all. The student is free to choose whatever he or she is most enthused by at the moment. For me right now that is the mystery surrounding the authorship of the most significant body of work in the history of English literature. How should I go about developing the topic into a penetrating presentation which cuts through the historical fog and illuminates the inevitable issues of knowledge implicit within it?


I think any TOK teacher should have the courage to have a go at the presentation and discover just how difficult it is. I have, and I know.

The most widespread problem is the difficulty of disciplining oneself to think in the detached, abstract fashion required. You choose your topic because you’re interested in it – but you’re not going to discuss it the way you normally would. You’re not going to try to answer the questions that got you interested in the first place. If the topic is connected to one of your academic classes, you’re used to discussing it within that disciplinary framework. If it’s something you argue about with friends, you’re going to have to forget about winning that kind of debate.

Whatever the topic is, you’re going to develop it from a new angle – you’re going to focus not on an answer but on the nature of answers, not on specific knowledge but on your awareness about knowledge – what it is, how we derive it, how we use it and abuse it, protect it or suppress it, and above all how we distinguish it from ‘mere’ belief.

The ten minute time allowance is horribly short, or so I’ve found when I’ve tried it. Maybe this problem is particularly pronounced for me! But if you’re talking on a subject you have thought about, the problem should certainly be fitting it all in rather than padding it out.

With the Shakespeare authorship controversy, I must remember the aim of the game is not to solve the question of who wrote the works of ‘Shakespeare’, but to distill from it, and then develop, some relevant and fertile questions about knowledge. So in developing the material, it’s important to keep reminding myself that this isn’t about Shakespeare – it’s about knowledge.

My first task, then, is to decide what is the most important or interesting knowledge question inherent within this topic of inquiry.

With the Shakespeare question, there are so many different directions I could go in. This part of the process – brainstorming ideas and knowledge questions – is a process you should describe in your presentation, by the way. You have an opportunity to demonstrate the breadth and creativity of your thinking at this stage. For one thing, it’s an important routine for thinking your way into an epistemological mindset, or onto the TOK level, if you like. By replaying this process in your presentation, you can sell your knowledge question. It is relevant, because it will help you to explain why you consider your ‘KQ’ to be worth asking, why it’s a good question, and an important one. Students should keep their brainstorms from this part of the process, and use them.


In the meantime, if you’re new to the Shakespeare authorship controversy, and you’d like an introduction to the question, there’s an excellent one-man show based on Mark Twain’s Is Shakespeare Dead? written and performed by the actor Keir Cutler, from the 2003 Winnipeg Fringe Festival – embedded below. Cutler also gives us the witty and penetrating polemic, ‘From Crackpot to Mainstream’ – also below. He reflects some of the heat and venom in the issue but in a stylish and witty fashion, and is a great place to start.

Be warned, though – the Shakespeare authorship question is addictive. If you get into this topic, you’ll be spending the next month watching documentaries and reading essays and blogs, going over every detail of Edward de Vere’s extraordinary life, musing about Sir Francis Bacon’s secret agendas, rereading all the sonnets, marveling at codes and anagrams and delving into etymologies and generally getting seduced by the intrigues and fascinations of London in the late sixteenth century.

Or is that just me?


Author: Paul Dunbar

I have worked in international schools for the past 15 years, teaching English Literature and Theory of Knowledge in Amsterdam, Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City. I'm also a musician, and a bit of a writer. Since 2001 I have come to question literally everything, the default position for an uncrippled epistemologist.


  1. As a human being who loves language I think about the Shakespeare identity debate and wonder in the end if it matters; the works exist after all and its richness edifies and delights us. As a teacher who mostly teaches children whose first language is not English I wonder about teaching it at all; even to native English speakers the language of Shakespeare is extremely difficult. Is it better to focus in our short time together on improving their experience in more accessible works? To further complicate matters there are the difficulties of getting students to the why of it all in a cultural and practical sense so that if there is this debate about his very existence and yet the evidence of the extant works is there, what is going on? Do we now connect with the mystery rather than the works? Do we connect with the drama, the psychological studies of people, the very things that make us human that are laid bare in the works, the weird tongue twisting language, the somewhat pompous pride of Anglophones in The Bard (if she ever existed and as if no other culture or race produced one)? Has Shakespeare become a chimera then? Argghhh I hear a ghost whisper from the arras!
    ‘ “Flout ’em, and scout ’em; and scout ’em, and flout ’em;
    Thought is free.These violent delights have violent ends…
    We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” ‘

    1. Yes, you have to make choices based on who you are teaching, sure. The ‘does it matter’ question is central, and that’s one of the directions in which I could take this. For me, it’s a question of the importance of the individual. If Shakespeare’s identity doesn’t matter, whose does? The author is not dead! And the authorship question, I find, is a great way of reconnecting with the work and seeing it afresh…

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