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Volume 26, Number 5 — May 2019

ETSU's Dr. Robert Sawyer examines who wrote Shakespeare's plays

August 12, 2013

JOHNSON CITY, TN — Whether William Shakespeare was the true author of the plays attributed to him has been a question deliberated for generations. By 1850, some 225 items documented doubts, and among famous skeptics are Henry James, Helen Keller and, on occasion, Sigmund Freud.

East Tennessee State University's Dr. Robert Sawyer, a professor of Literature and Language, has spent the last three years conducting research in libraries in the United States and the United Kingdom searching for pieces to the puzzle. While he has found evidence that Shakespeare, on occasion, collaborated with others, as was often the custom at the time, he found no evidence of any alleged ghostwriting of Shakespeare's plays by other writers, specifically Christopher Marlowe, one of the most mentioned alternate authors.

Marlowe, the greatest writer of the early Elizabethan stage, studied at Cambridge University, but died in a tavern brawl in 1593. Shakespeare did not attend college and was a country boy from the small town of Stratford-upon-Avon, England, yet his work suddenly superseded that of Marlowe.

In papers presented in Prague, Seville in Spain, Stratford and Boston, Sawyer argues that while there may have been some symbiotic connection between Marlowe and Shakespeare, there is no evidence that the college-trained playwright ever wrote a word of Shakespeare's plays. What Sawyer did discover is that the climate of conspiracy following the terrorist attacks of 9/11 has led to a new wave of "anti-Stratfordianism," those vocal proponents who still insist that Shakespeare could not have possibly written the plays.

In his essay "Biographical Aftershocks: Shakespeare and Marlowe in the Wake of 9/11," for example, he traces the effect of such thinking on the production of films like "Anonymous," as well as the BBC series "In Search of Shakespeare," which Sawyer believes resulted in part from the same sort of paranoid reasoning that birthed "The Truthers," the still active group that thinks 9/11 was an inside job.

As a result of his interest, Sawyer will offer a fall semester graduate course on the relationship of Marlowe and Shakespeare, as well as the entire "authorship controversy," which will encompass books such as Contested Will; films, including "Anonymous"; and TV series like the one by the BBC.

For further information, contact Sawyer at (423) 439-6670 or

A! ExtraTopics: Theatre