Atlanta world premiere ponders authorship of plays attributed to Shakespeare

Atlanta Shakespeare Company commissions new comedy.

Credit: Daniel Parvis

Credit: Daniel Parvis

Sigmund Freud had his doubts. As did Malcolm X and Charles Dickens. And Mark Twain, Helen Keller, Anne Rice and Sandra Day O’Connor.

They are among the many who have said they believe that the plays of William Shakespeare were possibly — or definitely — not written by the man who was born and buried in Stratford-upon-Avon and whose face has graced the covers of countless paperbacks.

So who then did write those 39 plays (not to mention the 154 sonnets)?

That is the question.

And it is the question asked, if not definitively answered, in “By My Will,” a new comedy that makes its world premiere at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse April 6.

The company commissioned playwright Douglas Post to write “By My Will.” (The very title is a Shakespearian-level pun, referring to both his name and his last will and testament, famous among Shakespeare buffs both for what is and is not mentioned in it.)

“This has been a topic of conversation since at least the mid-1800s, when his works started to become wildly popular,” says Post. “As people began looking into his history, there were a number of questions and curiosities.”

A few of the many curiosities:

Shakespeare’s plays show a wide and deep erudition. But he had a grammar-school education and left school at 15 to work as a glove-maker for his father, then moved to London to be an actor, a disreputable profession at the time.

He came from a family of illiterates, and his daughters were illiterate. He never went to university. He never traveled to Italy, but several of the plays are set there and show great familiarity with the country.

“When Ben Jonson died, (the Elizabethans) filled a book with the eulogies written about him,” Post says, referring to the famous playwright who was a contemporary and friend of the Bard. “When Shakespeare dies, it’s crickets for seven years until the First Folio,” the first published collection of his plays, in 1623.

And in Shakespeare’s will (that will again), there was no mention of his plays being part of his estate.

(For a more thorough recitation of why Shakespeare probably didn’t write Shakespeare, check out the Shakespeare Authorship Collective’s Declaration of Reasonable Doubt at

So if not Shakespeare, who then?

The most prominent alternate candidate is Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford. Among many other possibilities: Christopher Marlowe, Sir Francis Bacon, an Elizabethan contemporary named Aemilia Lanier (also a candidate to be the “Dark Lady” of the sonnets) and even Queen Elizabeth I.

This is not mere crazy talk, like people who think the moon landing was faked. In 2016, the Oxford University Press determined that it will now list Marlowe as a co-author, with Shakespeare, of the three “Henry VI” plays in its complete edition of Shakespeare’s works. About two dozen scholars contributed to that decision, which made headlines worldwide.

Jeffrey Watkins, however, is not among the convinced. He calls it a “cockeyed idea” and says he does not go along with the “conspiracy theories.” Watkins is president and artistic director of the Atlanta Shakespeare Company, which he cofounded in 1990, and the person who commissioned Post to write “By My Will.”

“I’ve never really had any doubt,” says Watkins. “I’ve spent most of my life in a working theater, and I’ve produced Shakespeare, and I’ve performed Shakespeare. I think Shakespeare is someone who spent every waking moment in a theater,” which fits, somewhat, the man from Stratford.

“But people are interested in the topic and would like to know more about it,” he adds. Many loyal Tavern patrons like to talk about authorship, he says, and one donor in particular is firmly in the Earl of Oxford camp. When that donor brought a group of fellow “Oxfordians,” as they are known, to a Tavern performance of “Richard II” in 2007, Watkins had 20 programs printed just for them as an inside joke reading “‘Richard II’ by Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.”

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Watkins commissioned Post, an award-winning playwright who lives in Chicago and teaches at the University of Chicago, to write the play. The two acted together in the speech and drama department at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.

“I gave him a couple of prompts, but the play we have doesn’t look much like what I imagined,” Watkins says.

Post plunged headfirst down the rabbit hole of the authorship controversy. “Everything I learned was interesting and surprising, so the trick was figuring out how much of this information could be supported within the structure of the script,” he says.

“I decided early on the play had to be a comedy because it is such a weighty topic. The only way to come at it is with as light a touch as possible.”

Watkins describes the play as “a dream within a dream.”

“By My Will” begins as Anne Hathaway, Shakespeare’s wife, discovers his will. “And she has discovered that she is an afterthought in that will, and all he is leaving her is his second-best bed,” Post says. “So she is furious and they argue. He falls asleep and when he wakes up he is in a very odd locale with a number of other playwrights, poets and regal figures.”

The Dramatis Personae: Shakespeare himself (Andrew Houchins); de Vere (Vinnie Mascola); Marlowe (Kevin Roost); Anne Hathaway and Queen Elizabeth I (doubled by Kathleen McManus); Aemilia Bassano Lanier and Eliza de Vere (doubled by Amee Vyas); Thomas Kyd (O’Neil Delapenha); and John Lyly (Kenneth Wigley). Kyd and Lyly were Elizabethan playwrights whose lives intersected with Shakespeare’s.

If Watkins believes in the traditional explanation of authorship, Post is more in the agnostic camp.

“I am very much in the territory of I don’t know,” he says. “I think there is reasonable doubt. In my play, I’m trying to come at it from a number of different points of view: That Will wrote the plays, that Edward wrote the plays, and then there are some other characters who get into this.

“The play, if I’ve done it correctly, will allow our audience to agree with the last thing that has been said. It’s such a fascinating topic. If you’re a scholar and you’ve devoted your life to this idea, you may feel, ‘My gosh, have I been living a lie all these years?’ "

He quotes Dickens, who was quite the Shakespeare buff and also looked into the question, coming up somewhat agnostic: “It is a great comfort, to my thinking, that so little is known concerning the poet,” he wrote to a friend. “It is a fine mystery; and I tremble every day lest something turn up.”

“By My Will.” Atlanta Shakespeare Company at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. April 6-30. $15-$45. 499 Peachtree St. NE Atlanta. 404-874-5299.