The Dread Pirate Roberts Theory of Authorship I love this because I knew exactly what he was talking about the minute I heard it.  Fan’s of geek fantasy movie “The Princess Bride” should recognize the reference as well – that no matter how great the legend, there is no one “Dread Pirate Roberts.”  It is a role, filled by rotating players. One answer to the authorship question does suggest exactly this, that “Shakespeare” was more a brand than a person, and numerous playwrights took turns (for whatever reason) writing under that name. I don’t know that it has any more merit than any of the other theories, but it does seem the most flexible.  When the facts don’t fit for play X by playwright Y, just insert a different playwright!

11 thoughts on “The Dread Pirate Roberts Theory of Authorship

  1. >I don’t know that it has any more merit than any of the other theories, but it does seem the most flexible. When the facts don’t fit for play X by playwright Y, just insert a different playwright!

    Hey, Geek, flexibility is meritorious! But I didn't adopt the DPR theory because of play X and playwright Y not matching up, but simply because common sense is standing on the hill screaming:

    Common sense being meritorious, as well, we know that Elizabethan plays, including Shakespeare's, were in most instances collaborations. We also know the writing style, specifically the poetical abilities, of the writer we call Shakespeare varied in such a way as to stagger all credibility. Um, what's that guy Occam shave with?

    Also thanks again for the hits. You sure got a lot of readers.

  2. I think we don't tend to asribe the Famous Victories to Shakespeare because it's not very good, it doesn't sound like him, and it was never published under his name in the period. So that would be a couple of other things to consider.

    The True Tragedy of Richard III is a better play, although still (to my thinking) not an especially good one, and I think it has a cobbled-together look to it. There are passages in rhymed fourteeners, for instance, which is hardly Shakespeare's MO. I have always thought, though of course there is no way to prove it, that TT was a bit of a rush job commissioned by the rival Queen's Men to capitalize on the popularity of the Henry VI plays (performed by Pembroke's Men) before Shakespeare could get Richard III finished. Shakespeare then repaid the compliment by taking a couple of choice plums from the True Tragedy, such as Richard calling for a horse on Bosworth Field. But that's just speculation.

    Collaboration was certainly common in the period, and I think scholarly consensus would be that Shakespeare collaborated on a number of his plays. But what is also striking is that most of the _great_ plays of the period are not collaborative: Tamburlaine, Faustus, Edward 2, Volpone, The Alchemist, The Revenger's Tragedy, The White Devil, The Spanish Tragedy, Friar Bacon and Friar Bungay, and so on. Similarly, Shakespeare's widely-acknowledged or suspected collaborations include The Two Noble Kinsmen, Henry VIII, Timon of Athens, and 1 Henry VI…hardly the A-list stuff.
    Beaumont and Fletcher produced some good stuff as a partnership, but, in general, collaborative plays strike me as more likely to be mediocre. The one great one I can name is Middleton and Rowley's The Changeling.

    Frankly, I find it baffling to assert that Occam's razor calls on us to prefer a vast, decades-long conspiracy and an ever-shifting committee of writers operating under the name of a prominent London actor and theatrical manager to the idea that the fellow with his name on the plays wrote them. –And this committee of writers was able to consistently attain a unity of style, theme and power that is elusive in other Elizabethan collaborations. But, okay, whatever.

  3. 🙂 Though I agree that collaboration was the order of the day back then. However, I think many of us (myself included) like to think that it was about 98% Shakespeare and 2% everybody else, if you know what I mean. There's true collaboration where everybody's a coauthor, and then there's collaboration like your high school science project where there nerdy kid did all the work and the football jock just stuck his name on it.

    Your "Dread Pirate Roberts" theory, to my mind, suggests that there really is no one single person playing that central genius role, that they've all got an equal crack at it, they're merely sharing the legend of the name.

    Although that then begs the question of where the legend began? It's not as if a couple of random playwrights, not finding success on their own, suddenly decided to start calling themselves Shakespeare and took the world by storm. The "used his name" theory may work better for later in Shakespeare's life, after his name meant something, when perhaps he was nearing his retirement and a little more open toward sharing the workload with his fellow playwrights.

    At least, that's how I like to think of it. I don't mind thinking about the great tragedies as evolving works by a man who constantly updated them, but I do like to think that, overall, they were mostly the creation of a single imagination.

  4. Hi Duane,
    Just so you know, my Shakespeare is more beautiful than your Shakespeare (I see you're sporting the Cobbe look). Me I got the de Vere/Sanders model.

    I do feel there is a central genius throughout much of the work, but I just disagree in the percentages of collaborations. I take Shakespeare, the brand name, to have come about via the history plays, which common sense would assume were commissioned. I think "Shakespeare" emerged from this project, turned poet, and made his name. But I think he was made up of an entire tableful of secretaries, poets, playwrights, wits, etc, who migrated in and out of de Vere's Fisher's Folly. Mary Sidney was running a similar stable of hot-shot writers called the Watson Group out on the Avon. There was a conscious effort underway to establish English literature. They were hellbent on it. Both Oxford and Mary Sidney were a big part of this movement.

    I also think there are plays we credit as being Shakespeare that are hardly his at all, while there are real plays of his, such as The Famous Victories of Henry V and The True Tragedie of Richard III, that we like to pretend aren't his (because they don't fit the Stratford chronology).

    Also I suspect there's a lot of Tom Nashe in Shakespeare's language early on,and I sense that this voice slowly fades away from the plays and then is gone entirely. I think Nashe is the unsung hero of Shakesapeare. It's impossible to read the Prince Hal plays without being constantly reminded of Nashe (many times in the actual footnotes). Nashe had by far the best verbal skills of all the university wits (minus Marlowe).

    100 Years Ago today Mark Twain insisted on publishing a book called, Is Shakepeare Dead? It argued passionately against the Stratford lad (as did the writings of Walt Whitman). Shakespeare, though not dead, is ever evolving, but anyway I still hold to the central genius theory.

  5. I don't spend much time researching the authenticity of authorship. For me,the work stands on its own–and on its own–it's enough to research. So I never have very much to say of import regarding the matter. But I am, at times, intrigued, as well as dismayed, by what appears to be a single minded devotion on the part of some when it comes to this issue.

    But when Craig mentioned Shakespeare's versification MO, and "fourteeners", I was reminded of the findings published by Richard Flatter in the late 40's, subsequent to his analysis of the patterns of meter and verse in the 1st Folio and "good" Quartos. Dr. Flatter found, without exception I believe, that out of all of the playwrights plying their trade at that time, Shakespeare's work alone bears evidence that it was written expressly for the sole purpose of performance on the stage. Citing examples from Ford, Fletcher, Jonson, et al., he illustrates how their form, when it came to allowing for entrances, exits, stage business, asides, etc., left no room at all, in terms of verse pattern, for the aforementioned. He attributes this, rightly or wrongly, to their concurrent concern with prosody–and hence, it would seem, publication.
    Shakespeare seems to have been entirely unconcerned with the latter, and indeed, works attributed to Shakespeare, singular bad boy that he was, all bear the characteristics of performance pieces, with those dastardly incomplete, half–or unfinished–lines. (These egregious errors by Shakespeare were soon– and of course, continue to be– "emended".)

    This evidence might speak contrarily to some aspect of the collaboration theory. Exactly what it might say to its proponents, I leave to them to decide.

  6. There's a wonderful play by Amy Freed called "Beard of Avon," which talks about this idea, & ends with the real Will Shakespeare–who had been flattered, bribed, coerced, etc into collaborations and into producing de Vere & Elizabeth & etc's plays under his name–finally saying, "Enough! I'm writing my OWN PLAYS already!"
    It's a funny & well-done play, but for me it also illustrated pretty well the impracticability of such a venture. I think I have to agree that Occam's razor actually leads me toward Shakespeare writing this stuff–with plenty of collaboration, of course (I fully believe that he sat around in pubs hashing things out, & I also fully believe that Marlowe called him out on plenty of things in the early days. :))

  7. ren girl wrote: " I think I have to agree that Occam's razor actually leads me toward Shakespeare writing this stuff–with plenty of collaboration, of course"

    This seems to me to be the most logical take on what "might" have happened.

    It's only when we step into the realm of probability with the definition of "plenty" (of collaboration) left undefined that speculation can begin to be colored by prejudice. That prejudice usually take the form of an accusation re: Shakespeare's literacy and erudition. The question then leads back to establishing the extent of the collaborative "help" (in this case) Shakespeare might have needed to write anything. He apparently needed no help in writing epic poems or a hundred or so sonnets. And if so much of this collaborating was going on, why is it that the other authors of the period are deemed to have gotten along fine on their lonesome? Sort of like Lincoln, Shakespeare must have done a little studying on his own.
    As I said at first, the idea of collaboration–especially on in-production vehicles–makes perfect sense. How much of that and exactly what form it might have taken, is another question altogether.

  8. Of the Famous Victories: "…since he used every scene in it, without exception, in his Prince Hal trilogy. "

    Of course, he did nothing of the kind. I didn't take the trouble to read the entire play this evening, but I can't help but notice that Scenes 2, 3, 4 and 5 of Famous Victories are not to be found in Shakespeare's plays, and elements of Scene 1 can only be admitted with the greatest generosity. (I ended my little survey at Scene 5, so can't give the full tally.) That leads to one of the more curious features of Henry IV, Part 2, which alludes to some of the events in those scenes, even though Shakespeare didn't dramatize them himself.

    Perhaps it seems like nitpicking, but this is the road I always end up going down when the talk turns to authorship–extravagant claims that simply are not backed up by the documents referenced. That Shakespeare used FV as a significant source for his plays is obvious. That he "used every scene, without exception," doesn't stand up to five minutes of research.

    I emphatically reject your thesis that "it's all speculation," so your theory must be as good as anyone else's. From there, we might as well believe that the Second Tetralogy was written by my cat, Henry, as his fantasy autobiography.

    It's late, I'm cranky, and perhaps we'd best leave it there.

  9. Hey it's all speculation. Y'all don't know that Marlowe wrote a single play alone. Y'all don't know if the Spanish Tragedy was written by Kyd or Whistler's Mother. It's a shell game when you accuse somebody else of specualting in authorship issues. (Stratfordians have made a industry out of speculating, the latest installment being Greenblat's hypotheical Will of the World.) But as to Occam's razor, look at the later plays of Shakespeare and count how many of them are attributed to multiple authors? All I'm saying is that, in our desire to romanticize Shakespeare, I think it's very possible that we over emphasize his individuality.

    Heads I'm right, tails I'm wrong: but it's all speculating.

    Nevertheless I will try to see Shakespeare's Beard, which sounds interesting. Thanks for the tip.

    Craig, just once I'd like to hear a Stratfordian say something nice about The Famous Victories of Henry V. Seems Shakespeare liked it plenty, since he used every scene in it, without exception, in his Prince Hal trilogy. He liked the characters, too, and the tone. Strange how the most influential of all of Shakespeare's source plays can suck so badly. Myself I quite liked it. And I'd love to see it performed, because it's geared toward a rowdy audience.

  10. Extrapolating to a hypothetical conclusion based upon extant, known information (or even a fanciful conclusion; a realm into which many attempted "life documentaries" have strayed, it's true) is not the same as hypothesizing to a conclusion despite the same documented evidence already laid upon the table.
    It amazes me how prima facie evidence is discounted, simply dismissed, as so much "bunk", by those ready to 'prove' theories against Shakespeare's authorship,while little, if any, is ever offered up in the same form by the prosecution as evidence against that prima facie "bunk". Painting any and all inquiry with the same brush in an attempt to level the playing field of argument is, in that respect, to refute the logical process of investigative inquiry itself . It's not ALL pure speculation that's coming from both sides of the fence.

    P. S. Malvolio: I wrote this before I saw your post in which you said: "And I didn't say it's all speculation, therefore my theory is as good as anybody's. I said my theory has much to back it up as anybody's does, and I admitted that it's speculation: there's a difference, yes?"

    I believe I brought up speculation as an issue to which you replied:
    "Hey it's all speculation. Y'all don't know that Marlowe wrote a single play alone. Y'all don't know if the Spanish Tragedy was written by Kyd or Whistler's Mother. It's a shell game when you accuse somebody else of specualting in authorship issues."

    Whistler's Mother and shell games (if that's not speculation I don't know what might be). Again, what does any of the hard evidence we have say about the authorship issue? And where is the evidence to prove, precisely, that Shakespeare was incapable of producing the body of work that bears his name?–you know the same guy Jonson wrote epistles, the guy listed as actor–playwright, known to his fellowes–that guy.

  11. Craig,
    From Ramon Jimenez's essay on Famous Victories on

    "The fifty-seven scenes in the Henry plays are a logical expansion of the twenty scenes in The Famous Victories. Thus the anonymous play might be seen as a rudimentary skeleton within the full body of the trilogy.

    In 1954 C. A. Greer published a short essay in which he detailed Shakespeare's debt to The Famous Victories (238-41).

    He cited fifteen plot elements that occur in both the anonymous play and in the Henry trilogy. Here are some examples: the robbery of the King's receivers; the meeting of the robbers in an Eastcheap Tavern; the reconciliation of the newly-crowned King Henry V with the Chief Justice; the new King's rejection of his comic friends; the gift of tennis balls from the Dolphin; Pistol's encounter with a French soldier (Derick's in The Famous Victories). Not only are all fifteen plot elements common to The Famous Victories and the Henry plays, they all occur in the same order.

    Greer also listed forty-two specific details of action and characterization that occur in both The Famous Victories and in Shakespeare's trilogy. For example: the total of ten comic characters in each — six who are partially duplicated and four who are exactly duplicated; Gad's Hill as the name of both a robber and the place of robbery; the reference to Prince Hal boxing the ear of the Chief Justice (dramatized in The Famous Victories and referred to in Henry IV, Part 1); Prince Hal's theft of the crown at his father's deathbed; the arrogance of the French in saying that Englishmen cannot fight without beef.

    Again, not only are all forty-two specific details common to both, they occur in the same order. In fact, there is not a single scene in The Famous Victories that is not repeated in the Shakespeare plays."

    And that's according to Stratfordians!

    And I didn't say it's all speculation, therefore my theory is as good as anybody's. I said my theory has much to back it up as anybody's does, and I admitted that it's speculation: there's a difference, yes?

    Famous Victories rocks!

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