Who Wrote Shakespeare's Plays?

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Charles Boyce in his reference work Shakespeare A to Z calls the authorship controversy “a minor sideshow of the literary world, and it will doubtless continue to get publicity.” Have students informally debate Boyce's contention as a preliminary workout before their trial.

In discussing the principles of sound argument, stress the importance of thorough preparation. Encourage students to gain familiarity with both sides of the Shakespearean authorship controversy.

Set up a group of students to search for proceedings of trials by which they can learn the procedures for holding one. If possible, invite an attorney, judge, or paralegal to meet with students to discuss trial preparation and procedures. Have students search the Internet for possible sources of mock trials and other trial preparation information. PBS's Web site The Shakespeare Mystery may help in this search: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shakespeare/.

Give students adequate time to prepare for their roles in the mock trial: judges, attorneys (defense and prosecution), jury members, witnesses, and the “defendant” himself. Divide the class into two groups: one working for the prosecution, one for the defense. All students might gather evidence for both parties involved in the trial. Students who don't take primary roles during the mock trial could report the proceedings through writing, sketching, or video for news media.

Be sure to urge students to review any plays or scenes to be introduced as evidence during the mock trial.

Urge students to assess the pros and cons of the cases of several famous persons who have been nominated as the “genuine” author of the Shakespeare canon. Include Francis Bacon; Christopher Marlowe; Edward de Vere, the earl of Oxford; the earls of Essex, Derby, and Rutland; and Queen Elizabeth. Suggest that they rank the “nominees” from high to low according to probability of authorship.

Allow students autonomy in making the major decisions about how the trial will work. Provide guidance when necessary.

As in other activities of this nature, be sure to help students organize their tasks in preparation for the trial. Activities of this type can easily go astray and fail to work smoothly. Allow students as much autonomy as they can handle in setting up and carrying out this activity.

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