London Library accused of hosting event claiming Shakespeare could have been a woman

Staff members Saba Chaudry (top) and Michael Booth make final preparations in the reading room at the London Library, in St James Square, London
The author is due to be in discussion with the Shakespeare actor Sir Derek Jacobi and critic Stephanie Merritt - Dominic Lipinski

The London Library has been accused of hosting an “anti-intellectual conspiracy theory” with an event that claims Shakespeare could have been a woman.

The 19th century institution in St James’s Square is running a panel discussion with Elizabeth Winkler, the author of a controversial book titled “Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies” which “explores who may perhaps have been hiding behind his name”.

An advert for the event, which has the same title, says that the Bard’s “biography is sketchy, to say the least, but to question his identity has become a literary anathema”.

But it has sparked complaints from some of the library’s biggest supporters.

Oliver Kamm, a journalist and author, has written to the chairman of the London Library Simon Goodwin raising concern about “this great institution’s promotion of a baseless and anti-intellectual conspiracy theory”.

‘Wildly inappropriate’

“It is wildly inappropriate for the Library to be hosting such an event and thereby promoting the hoary conspiracy theory that William Shakespeare was an allonym for some concealed author,” he wrote.

He said it was “a grave misjudgment” to host the event and that “to host a ‘conversation’ with Shakespeare denialists is a betrayal of the values of literary scholarship and critical inquiry that we hold to”.

Ms Winkler is due to be in discussion with the Shakespeare actor Sir Derek Jacobi and author and critic Stephanie Merritt in the London Library event on June 6.

Her book has proven highly divisive with its claims of a “literary taboo” surrounding the 16th century playwright, which it says could involve “a forgotten woman”, “ a disgraced aristocrat” or “a government spy” writing some of Shakespeare’s works.

The book has proven highly divisive with its claims of a "literary taboo" surrounding the 16th century playwright

The book claims to “pull back the curtain to show how the forces of nationalism and empire, religion and mythmaking, gender and class have shaped our admiration for Shakespeare across the centuries”.

But Mr Kamm said there was “zero evidence” that the 17th Earl of Oxford, the philosopher Francis Bacon or other historical figures are behind Shakespeare’s works, with the Bard’s name stated on the title page of the First Folio of 1623.

He said it was “absurd” to suggest that the Earl of Oxford was behind much of the scholarship as he died in 1604 before King Lear and Macbeth were written and Christopher Marlowe, another candidate espoused by Shakespeare critics, was murdered in 1593.

Mr Kamm called on the director of the library to add a Shakespeare specialist to the line-up such as Prof Emma Smith, an expert in Shakespeare studies at the University of Oxford.

Another critic of the event was Jonathan Beckman, editor of The Economist’s 1843 magazine, who said he had also written to the director because “the library is supposed to be a bastion of scholarship”.

‘There are so many gaps’

Ms Winkler, a 34-year-old American journalist, has previously responded to her detractors, telling The Guardian: “I don’t really like controversy. I don’t seek it out. There are some people that thrive on it and I don’t.

“I find it upsetting and distressing to see my work and my ideas misrepresented and twisted. It’s not fun.”

Insisting “there are so many gaps” in the Shakespeare story, she added: “In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespeare authorship question’ elicits contempt – eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging.

“If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity.”

Her book alludes to a mysterious letter written in 1603 sent by Bacon to a lawyer who was to meet the new King, James I, signing off: “So desiring you to be good to concealed poets”, which she notes could be a reference to either Bacon, the Earl of Oxford or Marlowe.

Baconian theories held the most sway in the 19th century, the Earl of Oxford surged in the 20th century and recently more people have paid attention to Marlowe’s role in Shakespeare scholarship, as well as pushing theories about covert female input.

The London Library did not respond to requests for comment.