The important thing to recognize about Shakespeare scholarship is that it is an industry. Scholars know that they gain fame and academic clout by “discovering” things in Shakespeare. If they edit textbooks, they even make money, which I, probably naïvely, do not believe is the salient point of scholarship. When a mourning poem attributed to Shakespeare was recently discovered, The Riverside Shakespeare brought out a second edition to include it. The ascribed threnody was a lugubrious mess; in the unlikely event Shakespeare did write it, he would have suppressed it himself! However, it allowed the editors of the Riverside to bring out a second edition and make everyone who used it in a class buy it. (I vastly prefer The RSC Complete Shakespeare because it is based on the collected plays in the First Folio of 1623. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s text does note the differences with other versions of individual plays published earlier in quartos, and sometimes those differences are remarkable, even including particularly famous lines.)
From an historical perspective, it has always seemed to me bonkers for a modern scholar to make up his own version of “Shakespeare” by picking and choosing the lines of various versions of his plays in folio and quarto to cobble together a version of the “best” play Shakespeare never saw. At least the “First Folio” of Shakespeare’s plays was a 17th century edition close to Shakespeare’s lifetime, and it was edited by two of Shakespeare’s fellow actors with access to Shakespeare’s King’s Company scripts. Giorgio Melchiori, in a book on Shakespeare’s plays referencing the Order of the Garter, suggests that we have in the quartos published before the First Folio a “snapshot” of a play that was subject to revision over time.
Not only may the plays have changed, but so do but theories of authorship. I begin my point with the difference between a writer in Shakespeare’s age and the modern celebrity author. Shakespeare, as a sharer in the profits of his theatre company, was not writing for posterity as much as for posteriors – bums on the benches of The Globe made him his fortune, not his published works. (He was one of the very few Elizabethan writers to get rich, and it was not by publication but by sharing in The Globe’s profits.)
There were no “heroic” living authors in Shakespeare’s England. When Shakespeare’s contemporary, Ben Jonson, called his published works “Opera,” or “Works,” he was mocked for apparently equating himself with, say, Cicero, whose antique opus deserved the title “Works,” not an upstart like Ben Jonson. The claptrap that the Earl of Oxford or Francis Bacon or even, mirabile dictu, Elizabeth I was the author of Shakespeare’s plays is, to me, egregious snobbery; writing for the pubic theatre was not something that would occur to an Elizabethan Earl, especially one whose own poetry is mediocre and whose motive for “slumming” in the public theatre is unclear. The historical plays, all products of “the Tudor Myth” making Henry VII and his descendants “gifts of God,” are pretty stock in the period, and one play that had dicey political overtones, Richard II, could have made real trouble for Shakespeare and the Lord Chamberlain’s Men when it was revived privately for the Earl of Essex. (Elizabeth I fully understood that she was in danger of being deposed, as Richard II was; her take on the deposition of monarchs was decisive: she beheaded her former favorite, the Earl of Essex.)
From his father’s career, Shakespeare was familiar with Stratford politics, and as “all politics are local,” he mainly had to dress ordinary politicians up as courtiers. It is amazing what a bit of ermine trim can do! Shakespeare was brilliant, but the thing is that anybody was able to have written Shakespeare’s plays. It did not take an earl.
Oxfordian, Baconian, and Royalist theories about Shakespeare as a stand-on for another author thus seem implausible. They require not only that testy Ben Jonson be in on the fraud, given his encomium to Shakespeare in the First Folio, but they also seem to argue contemporary writers were important in Shakespeare’s age. Nonsense. The first “heroic” artist was Michelangelo, largely because of Varsari;’s Lives of the Artists. Julius II treated Michelangelo almost like a mere workman. The first “heroic” composer was Beethoven, who rightly got more rounds of applause than were reserved for the Imperial Family, and his funeral was a major event in Vienna. We have to get to Byron before we have “heroic” writers, though Dante was pointed out as the “man who went to Hell” in his lifetime.
Shakespeare did have some collaborators; we have some idea who helped him. In any case, revision was, as Melchiori pointed out, quite likely when plays were revived. As for Marlowe as Shakespeare, I have read Marlowe’s plays, and Marlowe is, well, Marlovian. I find his work and Shakespeare’s very different, though that is not proof for or against some collaboration; however, he predeceased most of Shakespeare’s greatest plays. Shakespeare is more humane and good-humored than Marlowe; his tone seems vastly different. So, no more stealing Bacon; leave the lords alone!
Shakespeare is opaque as an individual, even though we know more “facts” about him then we do about most Elizabethan authors. Ben Jonson is absolutely recognizable, but except for the remark that Shakespeare’s wit was a swift English fighting ship against Jonson’s lumbering Spanish galleon, we still have few real certainties about Shakespeare the man. Was he Catholic or Protestant? He mirrors us so well that we cannot see him for himself! Part of this is his period, where writers were not subjected to People magazine, but part of it is that in his age he wrote famously rather than he was a famous writer! I will say this, after his treatment of forgiveness in the late plays, if he were an atheist, then Sir Thomas More must be as well!