Pericles, Prince of Tyre: The Play(wright)’s the Thing

Finally! At last, at long last, I will talk about my mysterious name-drop of George Wilkins in my first blog and my continual hinting that something about it was coming. I wanted to save something special to share with you on opening night, so I’m very excited to finally talk about this with the half-dozen of you who didn’t either already know about it or just googled “George Wilkins Pericles” to find out what I was talking about. [Just kidding. My audience is barely a half-dozen people on a good day, and I know none of you would betray me like that -KH] By the way, if you hear something vaguely sinister while you’re reading this blog post, pay it no mind. It’s just me, putting on war paint and sharpening my knives for a …different discussion we’ll be having later on. But first Wilkins and the question of collaboration.

George Wilkins co-wrote Pericles with Shakespeare. This by itself is, while noteworthy, neither shocking nor scandalous. As I’ve discussed here before, theatre is a team sport. Even the smallest of shows rely on the actors working with the director working with the designers working with the producer…a whole roomful of artists working together to make the best show they can. This process is further compounded when the playwright is in the room, adding another vision and voice to the collaborative process. Shakespeare did not exist in a vacuum, handing down masterpieces from high in his ivory tower. He was an actor and company member in the Lord Chamberlain’s (later the King’s) Men, writing plays for specific people, his friends and colleagues. Early texts of his work occasionally replace character names with the names of the actors who would play them, most notably Will Kemp, the company’s clown. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility to assume that people like Kemp or Richard Burbage or Henry Condell or John Heminges, company members and artists in their own right, would have some feedback on the roles that they would be portraying. There is evidence that Kemp would improvise many of his lines, that Shakespeare would write into his final version. Moreover, Shakespeare was known to collaborate with other writers on both his writing and theirs: Two Noble Kinsmen has both Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s names attached to it, and textual analysis connects Shakespeare with Fletcher, Thomas Middleton, Thomas Kyd, and George Peele at the least. It is not unusual that Pericles would be co-written.

What IS unusual, however, is his choice of collaborators in this circumstance, and the nature of their cooperation. Shakespeare’s other known co-writers were all working writers and poets in their own right. Wilkins was a minor, poorly regarded pamphleteer and middling-successful tavernkeeper and pimp, whose greatest (indeed only) claim to fame was this very collaboration. The circumstances under which Shakespeare came to work with such a man, near the end of his career no less, are unclear. This confusion is amplified by a lack of clarity of HOW the collaboration worked. It is widely accepted that Wilkins wrote the first two acts, and Shakespeare the final three, but whether they wrote as a team, or one edited or re-wrote the other, is also uncertain. Wilkins wrote a novel version of the story, “The Painful Adventures of Pericles”, in 1608, which suggests to me that he also wrote the initial play and Shakespeare reworked it. The style of the writing shows a marked shift at this point, dropping many elements of the Fantastic Adventure I told you about last week and taking on the nascent characteristics of the Shakespearean Romance genre, particularly the separation and reunion of fathers and daughters. These distinctions can be clearly seen within the text itself; what cannot be seen is why or how they happened.

It Is a Mystery

While this mystery of Pericles’ authorship is certainly interesting, and well worth considering while watching the play, it is not really what I wanted to talk to you about. It was just a convenient and obliquely-related entrepot into the REAL discussion I wanted to have with you: authorship conspiracies. There are…theories regarding the veracity of Shakespeare’s claim to be the author of his own work. People question the ability of a countryside glover’s son to create the most compelling literature in the English language, and they have invented progressively outlandish explanations for how someone, ANYONE, who meets their rigorous criteria of “not being William Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon” was actually the writer. As you might imagine, I have Things to Say about that.

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From The Warriors, 1979.


First of all, Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare. End of discussion. Theories to the contrary are based largely on outdated classist assumptions about early modern education and culture. But it wouldn’t be a very informative or entertaining blog post if I just told you that and walked away, so I will dig into some of the prevailing theories a little bit and heap scorn upon them. They are designed (in the manner of conspiracy theories everywhere) to make their adherents feel superior and important, that they have discovered some tremendous mystery that has been kept a secret for hundreds of years. Generally conspiracy theories like this would also advance the interests of their own claimant, but every other name that is suggested was already famous in their own right and none of these theories started until the mid-19th century, two hundred years after everyone involved was dead. It’s worth noting, by the way, that no one denies the EXISTENCE of William Shakespeare the actor and landowner; there is too much extant evidence. Which means all of these theories feature Shakespeare as a willing co-conspirator, publishing someone else’s plays under his own name. These really read more like a smear campaign on Shakespeare than a revelation of hidden knowledge.

The top three conspiracy candidates for authorship are Sir Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, and Christopher Marlowe. The first two, Bacon and de Vere, would have been forced to hide their playwriting hobby from their peers, either to avoid humiliation for associating with low-class actors or (it is alleged) to shield themselves from blame for the treasonous and revolutionary content of the plays they were seemingly compelled to write (I’ll cover Marlowe’s reasoning in a second). The fact that two of them, de Vere and Marlowe, were dead for much of Shakespeare’s career is less of a deterrent than you might think. De Vere is handwaved with the excuse that the plays written after his death in 1604 had been completed earlier, and were released intermittently by other members of this ever-growing conspiracy, for reasons passing understanding. For Marlowe, who was stabbed in the head in a bar fight in 1593, it is alleged that…he wasn’t. That instead he killed his assailant that night and fled to Italy where he lived in exile, writing plays which he then sent to England to be published under the name of an actor he once knew there. [this is only one of several conspiracy theories associated with Kit Marlowe, and I unfortunately don’t have the time to get into all of them. Suffice it to say that he would have done this to escape assassins either because his cover as a spy was blown, or his Catholic OR homosexual leanings were discovered -KH] Astonishingly, of these three Bacon, the only one who was alive for the entirety of Shakespeare’s career, is the one whose cause is presently least championed.


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Charlie Day as Charlie Kelly. From It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, season 4, episode 10, “Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack”, 2008.


A major qualifying factor of all three of these candidates for anti-Shakespeareans is that they were university educated, while Shakespeare was not, having completed his formal education at the King’s New School in Stratford at around 14 years old. The education that he would have received at a grammar school certainly could not have prepared him to write so well, the argument goes. This argument underestimates the curriculum of an early modern English grammar school. Far from the middle school education it suggests to modern minds, this level of schooling would be heavy on memorization of the classics and include a grounding in Latin and Greek. Combined with working in the field and, you know, the ability to learn things outside of a formal university setting, there is no reason (aside from mistaken classist assumptions) to disqualify Shakespeare on the grounds of his education. [This also ignores the fact that other contemporary playwrights, including Ben Jonson, were ALSO not educated in a university, but no one casts any aspersions on their existence, making this conspiracy seem more and more like a hatchet job on Shakespeare -KH]

An argument that is not as outrageously inaccurate as the idea that they were written by either a dead man or a philosopher with zero indication of any poetic aspirations, but still staggeringly impossible, is that Shakespeare’s plays were written by a whole coterie of writers. This alleged rogue’s gallery of playwrights includes de Vere, Bacon, Jonson, Cervantes, and Queen Elizabeth I. On the one hand, there is solid and ever-growing evidence that Shakespeare was happy to collaborate. Deep textual analysis and orthographics offer proof that multiple people worked on any number of Shakespeare plays, as I said above, so it is not outside the realm of possibility that multiple people could cooperate to write. On the other hand, every single person that you add to a conspiracy makes the conspiracy that much harder to conceal. As Ben Franklin said, three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead. In order for ANY of these conspiracies to work the mystery author would have to swear to secrecy Shakespeare himself, all of his known collaborators such as Middleton and Fletcher, the members of his company, the publisher, their couriers, and who knows who else. To add an entire secret network of other writers, including a Spaniard and THE QUEEN…the complexity beggars the imagination. That secret would be out in a week. And for what?

Too Many Cooks

I unfortunately do not have the time to go through every single theory that has been posited, including those that mandate an author must experience personally everything that he would write about, that rely on cryptograms, ciphers, and Kabbalah-like word counting, or that suggest secret incest-children of Queen Elizabeth. Occam’s razor by itself should put paid to any theory more complicated than “the name on the manuscript is the name of the author”, but if that test is insufficient, ask yourself how anyone would benefit from the conspiracy, and how they could have kept it a secret for so long, especially if they included hints to prove to the sufficiently motivated that it was them.



If you’d like more information I would recommend this book, which as you can see I flagged so thoroughly while writing this blog post that the flags quickly became completely useless.


In case you forgot why I wrote this, like I did halfway through, it’s because we are opening our production of Pericles tonight! We are sold out for tonight’s show but tickets are still available for the rest of our run, so come check it out! And be sure to stay tuned next week, when my contract requires that I write something about the actual play that we are staging.