The Plays of Shakespeare Were Not Written by Shakespeare but by Another Man of the Same Name

Mark Twain? Oxford Student? Frenchman? Lewis Carroll? Schoolchild? G. K. Chesterton? Israel Zangwill? Charles Lamb? Benjamin Jowett? Aldous Huxley? Anonymous?

quill08Dear Quote Investigator: Determining the accurate provenance of famous plays and poems can be a contentious topic. According to tradition the composer of the Iliad and Odyssey has been referred to as Homer, but some question this ascription and wonder whether there may have been more than one “Homer”. The authorship of the works ascribed to Shakespeare has also been challenged for many years. Candidates for the Bard’s secret identity have included Francis Bacon, Edward de Vere, and Christopher Marlowe. The fractious arguments about origins have inspired a family of jokes. Here are two examples:

The Homeric Poems were not written by Homer, but by another person of the same name.

The plays of Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare but by another man of the same name.

These remarks have been connected to well-known humorists and literary figures, e.g., Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton, Lewis Carroll, Israel Zangwill, and Aldous Huxley. Would you please explore the history of these expressions?

Quote Investigator: Because these jokes can be stated in many ways they are difficult to trace. The earliest strong match known to QI was published in “The Spectator” of London in 1860. A news item by an unnamed writer discussed the possible discovery of a new planet and then made a joke about Shakespearean authorship theories: 1

This rivals the new discovery about Shakespeare,—that the well-known plays and poems were not by William Shakespeare, but by another person of the same name!

An analogous quip about Homer was published in a periodical in Oxford, England in 1874. Celebrated writers, such as Mark Twain and G. K. Chesterton, did employ versions of this joke, but they did not claim coinage. Details are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The disputation over the origin of the works attributed to Homer is complex. An article illustrating some of the nineteenth-century conjectures was published in 1840 in “The London Quarterly Review”. This type of analysis was not intended to be humorous, but it may have inspired later comical remarks: 2

… according to the opinion of divers great scholars…the man who wrote the Odyssey was not the same man who wrote the Iliad, but another of the same name, who lived a long time after Homer I., and wrote so exceedingly like him that almost all the world have confounded them together, like two single gentlemen rolled into one; and lastly, the same scholars, and many others, hold it clear that the man who wrote that book of the Odyssey, in which the above quoted passage occurs, was neither Homer I., nor Homer II., but another man again, whom we may properly call Homer III.

In 1860 the “The Spectator” published an instance of the joke as mentioned previously. Boldface has been added to excerpts:

This rivals the new discovery about Shakespeare,—that the well-known plays and poems were not by William Shakespeare, but by another person of the same name!

In 1868 “The National Quarterly Review” printed an instance of the quip attributed to an unnamed Frenchman. The name “Shakespeare” was spelled “Shakspeare” in the following: 3

This admission of the learned bishop’s, that the Apocrypha was not written by the apostle John but by an inspired man of that name, reminds us forcibly of the Frenchman’s criticism on the authorship of the plays usually attributed to Shakspeare, wherein after a careful review of the evidence pro and con, he comes to the conclusion that they were not written by Shakspeare but by another man of the same name!

In 1870 an article in “Harper’s Bazaar” included another instance of the expression using the spelling “Shakspeare”: 4

What have we gained when we have reached the conclusion that the plays of SHAKSPEARE were not written by SHAKSPEARE, but by another man of the same name?

In 1874 a version of the remark based on Homer was printed in a journal called “The Shotover Papers, Or, Echoes from Oxford”. The jest was credited to a community member of Oxford University, and this was the earliest evidence known to QI of the Homer variant: 5

The other day the witty D.C.L. listened gravely to a long debate among the dons at the High Table about the authorship of the Homeric Poems, and wound up the discussion thus: “I am much interested in the subject now before us, and I have come to the conclusion on hearing your arguments that the Homeric Poems were not written by Homer, but by another person of the same name.”

In 1883 an instance of the quip appeared in a New York periodical called “The Journal of Speculative Philosophy”. The words were attributed to an archetypal student: 6

Certainly the question of authorship is not the supreme fact in those works called the poems of Homer; for do they not remain the same, and offer us their problem, whatever be the way we spell the author’s name? Indeed, ought not this dispute to be forever settled in the answer once given by the puzzled pupil to his professor? “The poems of Homer were not written by Homer himself, but by another man of the same name.”

In 1885 an article in “The Cornhill Magazine” connected the jape to the famous children’s author Lewis Carroll: 7

‘I have my own theory about the authorship of the Iliad and Odyssey,’ said Lewis Carroll (of ‘Alice in Wonderland’) once in Christ Church common room: ‘it is that they weren’t really written by Homer, but by another person of the same name.’ There you have the Iliad in a nutshell as regards the authenticity of great works.

In 1887 Mark Twain published an article titled “English as She is Taught” in “The Century Magazine”. He reviewed a manuscript that presented numerous comical examples of errors made by schoolchildren in classrooms. The remark of one child was about the works written by Homer, and Twain reprinted it in his article: 8

Here are two or three miscellaneous facts that may be of value, if taken in moderation:

Homer’s writings are Homer’s Essays Virgil the Aneid and Paradise lost some people say that these poems were not written by Homer but by another man of the same name.

A sort of sadness kind of shone in Bryant’s poems.

Holmes is a very profligate and amusing writer.

QI believes that Twain was linked to the family of japes under investigation because of the passage above. In later years similar jokes about Homer and Shakespeare were directly attributed to Mark Twain.

Analogous comments were made about other authors. In 1887 “MacMillan’s Magazine” printed an article that included an elaborate facetious remark regarding the ancient Greek poet Theocritus: 9

As to whether the poems were composed by Theocritus, or by another man of the same name, or by the same man with another name, it need not concern us.

In 1891 “Poet-Lore” magazine published the recollections of a former mayor of Stratford-upon-Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. When the mayor encountered an individual who doubted the authorship of Shakespeare’s works he attempted to employ humor: 10

I remember when she first came and talked of her theory. I said in joke, I suppose if Shakespeare did not write his plays, it must have been some one else of the same name; but I soon found that this sort of things did not do, and that she was very serious, indeed.

In 1895 the British humorist Israel Zangwill writing in the pages of “The Pall Mall Magazine” used an instance of the quip, but quotation marks signaled that the remark was already in circulation: 11

I do not even care whether Shakespeare was written by Shakespeare or “by another man of the same name.”

In 1899 a novel titled “Shakespeare: A Revelation” by Henry Lumley attributed an instance of the quip to the prominent English writer Charles Lamb: 12

It’s a matter of indifference to me who wrote Shakespeare — whether it was he, Francis Bacon, or anyone else. I think it was Charles Lamb who said, “The Plays of Shakespeare were not written by Shakespeare, but by another man of the same name.” It is all the same to me.

In 1901 an illustrated weekly based in London called “Black & White Budget” attributed an instance of the Homer jest to the Oxford scholar Benjamin Jowett. The following passage used the spelling “Shakespere” for “Shakespeare”: 13

It was Jowett who made that famous reply to a lady who asked whether it was true that Homer really did not write the Iliad and the Odyssey after all. “No, madam,” he said, with a shake of the hand. “Homer did not write these books; but it was another man of the same name.” A similar wheeze is told of the Shakespere – Bacon controversy, when an aged wit was asked what he thought of the matter. “Of course,” he replied, “I do not know much about it, but if Bacon did not write those plays, he lost the greatest opportunity of his life.”

In 1907 the English writer G. K. Chesterton associated the jest with a contemporary skeptical viewpoint: 14

Many people have maintained the characteristic formula of modern scepticism, that Homer was not written by Homer, but by another person of the same name. Just in the same way many have maintained that Moses was not Moses but another person called Moses.

In 1925 the notable author Aldous Huxley included an instance of the Homer joke in his novel “Those Barren Leaves”: 15 16

‘It’s like the question of the authorship of the Iliad,’ said Mr. Cardan. ‘The author of that poem is either Homer or, if not Homer, somebody else of the same name.’

In conclusion, the earliest evidence known to QI of this family of jokes appeared in 1860, and the creator was anonymous. The mutability of the facetious remark makes it difficult to trace, and QI suspects that earlier instances exist. Mark Twain did repeat a version of the jest, but he attributed the words to a schoolchild. Other prominent writers such as Israel Zangwill, G. K. Chesterton, and Aldous Huxley used the gag when it was already in circulation.

Image Notes: Chandos portrait of William Shakespeare in the U.K. National Portrait Gallery. Quill pen image from Nemo at Pixabay. Photograph of bust of Homer in British Museum, London. Shakespeare and Homer images acquired via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to John Evans whose query led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to researcher-extraordinaire Stephen Goranson who located the earliest citation in 1860. Also thanks to discussion participants Jonathan Lighter, John Baker, Benjamin Barrett, Laurence Horn, and Joel S. Berson. Any errors are the responsibility of QI.)

Update History: On February 20, 2015 the 1925 Huxley citation was updated to indicate that it had been verified on paper.

Notes:

  1. 1860 January 14, The Spectator, Volume 33, The “New Planet” and Its Discoverers, Start Page 37, Quote Page 38, Column 1, Published by Joseph Clayton, Wellington Street, Strand, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1840 September, The London Quarterly Review, Volume 66, Article 2, (Book Review of “The Plains of Troy” by Henry W. Acland), Start Page 189, Quote Page 194, Column 1, American Edition Published by Jemima M. Mason, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1868 December, The National Quarterly Review, Volume 19, Number 35, Article 2: Early Christian Literature, Start Page 23, Quote Page 33, Edward I. Sears, Editor and Proprietor, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1870 May 21, Harper’s Bazaar, Volume 3, Meditations Among the Tombs of the Washingtons, by Gail Hamilton, Quote Page 322, Column 4, Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1874, The Shotover Papers, Or, Echoes from Oxford, Volume 1, (Special Commemoration Number), Arrowlets, Quote Page 112, (No date was specified for this issue; the previous issue 6 was dated May 30, 1874; the next issue 8 was dated October 17 1874), Publisher J. Vincent, High Street, Oxford, England. (Google Books Full View) link
  6. 1883 October, The Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Volume 17, Number 4, A Study of the “Iliad” by D. J. Snider, Start Page 367, Quote Page 367, D. Appleton and Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1885 March, The Cornhill Magazine, A Very Old Master, Start Page 254, Quote Page 256, Published by Smith, Elder, & Company, Waterloo Place, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  8. 1887 April, The Century Magazine, Volume 33, Number 6, “English as She is Taught” by Mark Twain, Start Page 932, Quote Page 935, Column 2, The Century Company, New York. (Google Books full view) link
  9. 1887 July, MacMillan’s Magazine, Volume 56, Theocritus in Sicily, Start Page 213, Quote Page 214, Column 1, MacMillan and Company, London and New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  10. 1891, Poet-Lore: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to Shakespeare Browning and the Comparative Study of Literature, Volume 3, Number 11, Notes and News, (Letter to the editors of Poet-Lore from Albert H. Smyth of Philadelphia dated September 20, 1891; Smyth’s letter relayed the written recollections of Charles E. Flower), Start Page 593, Quote Page 593, Poet-Lore Company, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Google Books Full View) link
  11. 1895 November, The Pall Mall Magazine, Volume 7, Number 31, Without Prejudice by Israel Zangwill, Start Page 472, Quote Page 474, Column 1 and 2, Editorial and Publishing Offices, Charing Cross Road, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  12. 1899, Shakespeare: A Revelation by Henry Lumley, Second edition, Quote Page 37 and 38, Skeffington & Son, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  13. 1901 November 2, Black & White Budget, Volume 6, The Sunny Side: On The Stage, Start Page 178, Quote Page 179, Column 2, Published by W. J. P. Monckton, London, Printed by Black and White Publishing Company, Limited, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  14. 1907 June, Putnam’s Monthly: A Magazine of Literature Art and Life, Volume 2, Number 3, The Book of Job: An Introduction by G. K. Chesterton, Start Page 351, Quote Page 352, Column 1, Published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons: The Knickerbocker Press, New Rochelle and New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  15. 1925, Those Barren Leaves by Aldous Huxley, Chapter 5, Quote Page 368, Chatto & Windus, London. (Verified on paper)
  16. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: William Shakespeare, Page 393 and 394, (Cassell, London), Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)