Interview with Shakespeare Scholar and Editor Stanley Wells

At the end of my Shakespeare week in Stratford-upon-Avon, I sat down with Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells. Professor Wells is the Honorary President of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Professor Emeritus at the University of Birmingham, the author of numerous books and articles about Shakespeare, and is general editor of the Oxford and Penguin Shakespeares. You can learn more about Professor Wells on his website, and you can follow him on Twitter.

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Photo ⓒ The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Professor Wells discussed the Shakespeare authorship controversy, speaking and pronouncing Shakespeare, and editing Shakespeare’s texts.

Professor Wells, you and Paul Edmondson have edited a book published by Cambridge University Press, Shakespeare Beyond Doubt[1] and written a free ebook called Shakespeare Bites Back[2], defending Shakespeare in what’s called the “authorship controversy.” Why have we gotten to the point where someone of your stature has to spend time answering conspiracy theorists?

Stanley Wells: Because the conspiracy theorists are vocal and getting a lot of publicity, partly through the film Anonymous[3]. It’s a bad film, very complicated, a silly story.

I’ve taken part over the years in a lot of events to do with authorship. The event at the Inner Temple [in London] in 1988 was a fundraising event for the Globe [Theatre]. I was at an event in the Theatre Royal in Bath some years later. I’ve often broadcast to the world through television programmes about it. I think anyone who’s interested in Shakespeare naturally wants to put the Shakespearean case against who don’t agree…

But the particular catalyst for the current campaign, conducted with my friend and collaborator Paul Edmondson, is because it’s spread to the academy. There are two universities now – one in America, one in England – where you can do courses in authorship [Brunel University in London, and Concordia University in Portland, Oregon].

The one in England claims that they’re not propagating the anti-Shakespearean case. They’re claiming that they’re just studying it as an intellectual phenomenon, which is a legitimate thing to do, and which has already been done by James Shapiro in his book Contested Will[4].

Why does it matter?

Stanley Wells: It matters because history matters, because truth matters. It matters because it’s wrong for university teachers to propagate theories for which there is no basis in fact.

It matters because history matters, because truth matters.

Why would it matter who wrote the plays if the plays are great on their own?

Stanley Wells: It matters a great deal who wrote the plays. Partly because the plays are inevitably the product of the community in which their author was born, similar to the way in which Dickens’s are rooted in London, perhaps not to that extent. It matters because young people shouldn’t be subjected to conspiracy theories as if they were truth.

It seems that the way people frame this issue is often naive.

Stanley Wells: What is it in their psychology that makes them question received truth? It’s an interesting psychological phenomenon. It’s not one to which I have any easy answer. In some cases it’s snobbery… which is often based on ignorance of the sort of education that you would get in a grammar school in England. Of course we can’t prove that Shakespeare went to the grammar school, because we can’t prove that anybody went to the grammar school…

What is it in their psychology that makes them question received truth?

Because there are no records.

Stanley Wells: Not until 1800. The obvious presumption is that the son of the bailiff of Stratford attended the Stratford grammar school. We know a lot about the syllabuses of Elizabethan grammar schools. Another thing they often deny is that Stratford was a place where there were literate people, but we have records of learned people, people from Stratford attended the University of Oxford, the schoolmasters here were Oxford graduates. We do know that.

Snobbery, then, is partly behind it, [the idea] that it must have been an aristocrat. A lot of it is ignorance of what sort of education he would have got.

The best scholarly book by a non-Shakespearean is Shakespeare’s Unorthodox Biography, by Diana Price[5]. I wrote several blogs recently[6] trying to refute her claims in that book. She knows a great deal; it’s just a great shame that her knowledge is put to such ignoble ends. The anti-Shakespeareans are not necessarily ignorant people, some of them know a great deal. Nevertheless there’s something in their psyches that compels or persuades them to deny what seem to me to be obvious truths.

I seem to recall reading an article in the New York Times a long time ago, on the internet, that said the “teach the controversy” idea of Shakespeare authorships studies is what led, indirectly, to the teaching of creationism in the United States.

Stanley Wells: Well, in that case, this is all the more reason why we should preach against the Shakespeare… heresy, as I call it. I’m told off by the anti-Shakespeareans for calling it “heresy.”

I’m told off by the anti-Shakespeareans for calling it “heresy.”

We’re also rebuked for using the term “anti-Shakespearean,” rather than “anti-Stratfordian.” We [Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells] were in Stratford, Ontario, a few weeks ago lecturing at the festival there, and we did a session on our book. Afterwards, some people who had been present in the audience wrote expressing resentment about the fact that we call them anti-Shakespeareans[7]. Paul’s point of view is that you’re an anti-Shakespearean if you deny that Shakespeare is bound up with the Stratford community in which he was brought up. We’re persisting in using the term anti-Shakespearean.

There are a number of prominent actors and directors who are, therefore, anti-Shakespearean.

Stanley Wells: This Brunel University in England, although they claim they’re not anti-Shakespearean, nevertheless has given honorary degrees to Derek Jacobi, Mark Rylance and Vanessa Redgrave. They give honorary degrees to the three anti-Shakespeareans who are most prominent in the public eye.

Some of them come out in favor of a particular candidate, and it’s interesting that Derek Jacobi was Marlowe until a few years ago until he was paid for being in the film about the Earl of Oxford. Mark [Rylance] is more circumspect. He’s more happy nowadays just to take the view that it wasn’t Shakespeare. Diana Price is the same. Her book does not propound any specific candidate, it’s just saying that the evidence is against Shakespeare of Stratford.

Let’s talk about Shakespeare. Are there any bad Shakespeare plays?

Stanley Wells: There are Shakespeare plays that are better than other Shakespeare plays. You might say that Two Gentlemen of Verona is a bad play. My very first published article on Shakespeare was called The Failure of the Two Gentlemen of Verona[8]. I interpreted its weaknesses to Shakespeare’s imperfect stagecraft, which is one of the reasons why I think it’s the earliest of Shakespeare’s plays, and why in The Oxford Shakespeare[9] we print it first, because the plays are in what we hoped was chronological order. Nevertheless, it has some lovely poetry, and the scenes with Lance and his dog are masterful comic writing.

There are Shakespeare plays that I’d rather see than others. I’m not wild about the Henry VI. If you’d asked me forty years ago, I would have said that Titus Andronicus was a bad play. But then I saw Deborah Warner’s production of it in 1987 which had Brian Cox as Titus. It made the play work in a way that I never thought it could. Now you may say that’s a director’s success rather than a playwright’s success; it was certainly partly an actor’s success. Have you seen the Titus here?

Yes, twice.

Stanley Wells: Well, that’s a decent production, I think, but the Titus in that doesn’t move me in the way that Brian Cox moved me, with some lines like “I am the sea,” or “I have not another tear to shed.” Those became great lines, they became Lear-like greatness when Brian Cox spoke them.

The one I wish I’d seen was Peter Brook’s production with Laurence Olivier, which was a very great performance, but interestingly, that was quite severely cut. Brook cut eight or nine hundred lines whereas Deborah Warner cut nothing. She made the whole play work.

This is where I’m saying that a director can make a play work. All we have are the scripts. Shakespeare was writing for performance and he could leave certain things to the performers.

All we have are the scripts. Shakespeare was writing for performance and he could leave certain things to the performers.

I noticed in the Hamlet last night[10] , that the play ends after Horatio says, “Why does the drum come hither?” The whole bit with Fortinbras talking about burying Hamlet like a soldier is missing.

Stanley Wells: I think it should be there. It is a bit odd that he should be regarded as a soldier, he’s a prince, after all.

Hamlet is exceptionally long. It’s almost always cut; Branagh’s film[11] is not cut. There have been some full-text Hamlets that have taken five hours. A recent production here, Greg Doran’s with David Tenant, cut everything after Hamlet’s death except Fortinbras made a visual appearance at the end, which is, to me, a very sentimental ending. It’s the way the Victorians… All the Victorian productions of the tragedies would end with the hero’s death, but Shakespeare never does that. Verdi does, Verdi’s Otello, which is a great opera. That ends with the kiss, but that’s a different matter. I think it’s wrong to cut out the postludes, as it were, to Shakespeare’s plays.

There’s a wonderful review by Bernard Shaw of Forbes-Robertson’s Hamlet[12] in which he expresses surprise that Fortinbras does appear at the end of that production. In fact, he had advised on the text, so his surprise is a literary affectation. But it’s a brilliant review, one of the finest pieces of theatre criticism ever written.

As you know, there are three separate texts of Hamlet. We don’t know whether the play was ever performed in its entirety in Shakespeare’s own time.

The RSC is using the First Folio version, aren’t they?

Stanley Wells: Well, they say they are, but don’t pay any attention to what they say. They have that very bad edition[13]… I’m opposed to Folio fundamentalism, and I’m opposed to the RSC’s edition. I think the Folio did harm to Shakespeare. Heminges and Condell… did a wonderful job of putting it together, if it was them who put it together, but at the same time the Folio distorts Shakespeare. Partly by dividing the plays into comedies, histories and tragedies, and partly by beginning to superimpose act and scene divisions on them.

I’m opposed to Folio fundamentalism

I was at an event at the Globe last Sunday about verse speaking[14]. I was dismayed to find how many theatre practitioners and teachers of drama subscribe to the idea that the Folio is a reliable guide to modern performance.

When Charles Laughton did Lear here in 1959, he got his wife, Elsa Lanchester to sit in the stalls with a copy of the Folio and tell him whenever a word was capitalized.

So he would stress those words…

Stanley Wells: It was a ridiculous idea. It shows total ignorance of typesetting and habits of compositors in Shakespeare’s time. Also, Giles Block, who is the “master of verse” at the Globe, he’s their advisor on speaking, referred disparagingly to all modern editions – which, of course, didn’t please me, as I’m an editor of Shakespeare – he claims that modern editions over-punctuate, for example. We try very hard not to in the Oxford Shakespeare, but it’s true any editor has to, to a certain degree, interpret the text that he’s editing.

Because you’re editing them for readers, not performers.

Stanley Wells: We tried very hard in the Oxford Shakespeare Complete Works to bear performers in mind all the time while making it readable. Indeed, one of my regrets about the Oxford Complete Works is that the texts in that edition have not been printed individually because no actor wants to take a complete works to the rehearsal room.

In the first place, half the plays were not first printed in the Folio; it’s not a hotline to Shakespeare. Half of them were first printed in the quartos. Any printed text of that period, its conventions are dictated more by printing exigencies than created as a reflection of the authorial manuscript.

…half the plays were not first printed in the Folio; it’s not a hotline to Shakespeare.

The other person who talked at the event was Abigail Rokison who has just published a book about speaking Shakespeare[15], and she very properly points out that the actors in Shakespeare’s time would not be using printed texts at all, they would have been using manuscript scrolls, on which all they had was their part plus a cue.

Was the cue the last line of the previous actor’s part?

Stanley Wells: Not even necessarily the whole of the last line. So you shouldn’t say that there are clues how you should speak in the layout of the verse on the page because those clues would not have been available to Shakespeare’s actors.

We have one or two of those parts; there are no Shakespearean ones, but there is a part of Alfonso of Aragon, a play by Robert Greene, and it’s about thirty feet long. It’s a scroll where the papers have been pasted together, and that just has the part of the actor in the lead role.

And Abigail also properly pointed out that the only manuscript which most people believe is Shakespeare’s manuscript – the three pages from Sir Thomas More – are very lightly punctuated, which is another indication that the printed texts are no guide to what the actors would have had.

How do you feel about original pronunciation?

Stanley Wells: I think it’s a gimmick. In the first place, I don’t think there is such a thing as Shakespearean pronunciation. Shakespeare wasn’t writing a script like an annotated music score; he was not producing stress marks, or phrasing, he was writing words. He was writing words for actors, many of whom would have had a wide range of accents.

I don’t think there is such a thing as Shakespearean pronunciation.

When I was editing the plays, I did look at pronunciation sometimes. There are two big scholarly books, one by Kökeritz, and another that takes an entirely different point of view by Cercignani[16]. Those are the two standard works on pronunciation in Shakespeare’s time. They both have different theories. There’s no way we can get to the pronunciation.

You can see certain lines that don’t rhyme the way we pronounce them today.

Stanley Wells: Yes. When I was editing the plays, I would consult those books when I was considering how to modernise the spelling of words that rhymed. It applies sometimes to the sonnets. It is of scholarly interest, but I don’t think that you’re doing a favour to theatre-goers by putting on a performance with the claim that what you’re doing is reproducing the pronunciation of Shakespeare’s company.


  1. Amazon.com, Amazon UK  ↩
  2. Shakespeare Bites Back; free download  ↩
  3. Amazon.com, Amazon UK  ↩
  4. Contested Will  ↩
  5. Amazon.com, Amazon UK.  ↩
  6. See Beyond Doubt for All Time and An Unorthodox and Non-definitive Biography.  ↩
  7. Stanley and Paul visit Ontario  ↩
  8. Wells, Stanley. “The Failure of The Two Gentlemen of Verona”, Shakespeare Jahrbüch West, 99 (1963), 161–173  ↩
  9. Amazon.com, Amazon UK  ↩
  10. Theatre Review: Hamlet by the Royal Shakespeare Company  ↩
  11. Film Review: Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet  ↩
  12. George Bernard Shaw, The Saturday Review 2 October 1897, in Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism, Stanley Wells, ed. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)  ↩
  13. The RSC Shakespeare: The Complete Works (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)  ↩
  14. Verse Speaking  ↩
  15. Shakespearean Verse Speaking: Text and Theatre Practice (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)  ↩
  16. Helge Kökeritz, Shakespeare’s Pronunciation; Shakespeare’s Works and Elizabethan Pronunciation, by Fausto Cercignani  ↩