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Who Wrote Shakespeare?

by Aoise Keogan-Nooshabadi, V form

March 2011

"I am 'sort of' haunted by the conviction that the divine William is the biggest and most successful fraud ever practised on a patient world."

-Henry James-

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Shakespeare is acclaimed to be one of the greatest poets and writers in history and his work has undoubtedly withstood the test of time. Scholars universally agree that Shakespeare lived and died in Stratford-upon-Avon. But some say this is false, untrue and due to their skepticism and questioning, many theories and ideas have been raised concerning the authorship surrounding his works. In this essay I hope to explore these concepts and through extensive study of these views come to a definite answer to a question asked by so many: Who wrote Shakespeare?

Thousands of works and articles have been published attempting to convince the reader that some other respected character wrote the works of Shakespeare. There were only 225 articles in 1884 on this matter, yet after a considerable rise in 1949, over 4,500 articles were newly published. Most articles seem to prominently lead towards one candidate: Sir Francis Bacon. I will be focusing primarily on Bacon not because I believe in his case more than any other, but simply because of the amount of information that can be found about him and also because of the masses that believe this information. The list of others is abnormally large and includes people such as Edward de Vere, Sir Walter Ralegh, John Donne, Robert Cecil, John Florio, Queen Elizabeth, Sir Phillip Sidney and King James. The list is constantly expanding, with more and more ideas, theories and conspiracies attacking Shakespeare and his authorship.

It may be worth discussing the reasons why Shakespeare as an author is so vulnerable to speculation. It is said that Shakespeare did not live in an age of memoir, with no more than thirty diaries from his time remaining. These diaries were generally more at a personal level, and diaries did not turn historical until some time later. Literary biographical was still in its embryonic stages; the word “biography” had not even at this stage entered the language, and didn’t do so until the 1660s.  The only plausible sources of information we have are manuscripts or official documents, both of which may have been lost, possibly destroyed, or simply remain to be found. State documentation regarding his baptism, marriage, tax records and death were found, but none concerning his education. The lack of evidence of education is another claim that anti-Stratfordians would make. Anti-Stratfordians instead parallel the lives of candidates such as Bacon and de Vere, to suit the personality shown throughout the works. A common claim that the Stratfordians use in defence is that records in the Stratford-primary school had been destroyed purposely to prevent any account of Shakespeare’s education getting out.

Samuel Ireland, a collector and engraver, while searching through Stratford-upon-Avon in 1794 was directed to the local Clopton House. On there he was told by the farmer who lived there:

“By god I wish you had arrived a little sooner. Why it isn’t a fortnight since I destroyed several baskets-full of letters and papers…as to Shakespeare, why there were many bundles with his name wrote upon them. Why it was is this very fireplace I made a roaring bonfire of them”

Thus from this, we can see the lack of reliable evidence has lead to doubt over Shakespeare’s authorship.

In what little amount we do have of Shakespeare now, there are several written signatures. The signatures found on the many title pages do not actually match his original signature. There is also an inconsistency in the spelling of his name across many of the manuscripts found. There were differences found in the literacy documents in comparison to the non-literacy documents. This thus gives the belief that these were two different people and the name used on the literacy documents was simply a pseudonym (a fictitious name) to replace the identity of the true author.

But what would be the point of this? There are several reasons why this may have been done. One suggestion was that the social status of the candidate needed to be kept hidden; this may be in the case of an aristocrat who doesn’t want to be associated with the lower classes reading their work, or it may have even been someone of the lower classes trying to avoid the prejudicial division. From both issues - the diverse signatures and the theories of “Shakespeare” simply being a false name - we can see why one may think Shakespeare is another person or group of persons.

Historians cannot set a date to mark the emergence of Shakespeare as a playwright. People like to think of Shakespeare’s formative time as the “Lost Years” (a period that does not present any records of Shakespeare). The “Lost Years” began shortly after his marriage to Anne Hathaway in the early 1580s and ended after a sudden reappearance in the 1590s. In any documents found, his return was not only an ordinary one, but he was now recognized as playwright and a poet. Yet these “Lost Years” some say is just another loophole in the unconvincing idea of Shakespeare as a playwright.

In his “contested will” of 1616, which still survives today, he simply left his wife nothing but his “second bed.” Many are not sure of the meaning behind this, but more alarming is the fact that there was not a single mention of works, manuscripts, or any books. This along with all the reasons above, would surely give rise to suspicion, and lead people to investigate the true author of these works.

The first person to really question Shakespeare was James Wilmot, an Oxford-trained scholar. While searching for some of Shakespeare’s works locally, came to find that he had not been accredited to any of his findings. He then came to the conclusion that Shakespeare had strangely nothing to do with them, yet he seemed to think that it was most likely Sir Francis Bacon. This is the first documented theory and dates back to early 1785.

Wilmot eventually passed away, burning all his papers, which therefore led to none of his ideas being published. Fortunately he had spoken near to the time of his death with a friend, someone who had helped him with his research, James Corton-Cowell. Cowell was part of the “Ipswich Philosophic Society” and after learning about this emerging idea shared it with his fellow members. He told them of Wilmot’s investigations into Shakespeare’s authorship and his conclusion that Sir Francis Bacon was the true author of Shakespeare. In 2002, after extensive research was carried out, it was shown that there were no historical records confirming James Corton-Cowell’s existence or even the “Ipswich Philosophic Society.” This has therefore discredited James Wilmot as the initial founder of the Baconian theory. Yet his theory has lived on and many to this day believe it.

"If we must look for an author outside of Shakespeare himself…the only possible candidate that presents himself is Francis Bacon. Had the plays come down to us anonymously – had the labour of discovering the author been imposed upon future generations – we could have found no one of that day but Francis Bacon to whom to assign the crown…He was all the things that the plays of Shakespeare demand that the author should be – a man of vast and boundless ambition and attainments, a philosopher, a poet, a lawyer, a statesman."

-Horace Howard Furness-

The Baconian theory has grown to be accepted by many and is argued at many levels. It suggests, that the works traditionally accredited to Shakespeare were actually written by Bacon, a lawyer, philosopher and scientist who concealed his identity in order to prevent his name having any association as a playwright. Bacon was the first candidate to be put forward as an alternate to Shakespeare himself. But why is it believed that he was the true Shakespeare? The theory itself has been updated as time goes on, with more “proof” being brought to the table, more reasons to believe that Bacon was the real Shakespeare.

In 1603, Bacon referred to himself in a letter as a “concealed poet”: this is one of the first documented suggestions that prompted him as a candidate. But it was William Henry Smith who took the initiative to investigate, writing a sixteen-page testimony entitled “Was Lord Bacon the Author of Shakespeare’s Plays?” In this he outlined the very letter that implied his authorship and others which did the same. It was a year or so later that Smith published a whole book explaining his belief that Bacon was the true author and his works were merely making philosophical ideas accessible.

Countless papers have been found which show both signatures, Bacon and Shakespeare, scribbled simultaneously beside each other. It is not known why this is, but historians dated these papers back to 1592, the earliest mention not only of Shakespeare as a poet, but also of Bacon.

 

It was noticed by Constance Pott that the language and phrases found in Shakespeare’s works were very similar to that of Bacon’s. She also discovered Bacon to be a member of the Rosicrucians, a secret society or philosophers, who created art, literature and drama. This is yet another form of evidence Baconians bring up, and but another update on the theory. It is said that the reason for Bacon wanting to conceal his identity was primarily to gain high office. He knew that any identity as a playwright would ruin his chances as this profession at the time was known to be a low-class one. But Bacon realized the importance of the profession and described it "as a means of educating men's minds to virtue.”

One thing that Baconians argue against Shakespeare is the lack of parallels shown between him as a human and a playwright. Baconians have found that Sir Francis Bacon’s life matches more fittingly to the playwright portrayed in Shakespeare’s work; they prove this by finding parallels. One parallel found was when Bacon rose to the post of Attorney General in 1613 which corresponded to the time that Shakespeare stopped producing work. Bacon’s evidence is not only said to be the most convincing but the fact that both Shakespeare and Bacon were alive at the same time, leads one to really dwell on matter more than any other candidate.

It therefore leads us to the question, why is Shakespeare typically said to be the author? No matter how many people convert to the Baconian view, there will always be a far larger amount who are faithful to Shakespeare. Anti-Stratfordians cannot believe that a man of such modest roots could create literary works considered to be the best of its time. In response to the argument that Shakespeare didn’t receive sufficient education, Stratfordians claim that this is in no way true. They say that his father, John Shakespeare was one of the wealthiest men in Stratford and that it was unusual to find parents of this status not sending their children to school. Stratfordians also maintain the idea of “Occam’s razor,” explaining that the simplest of ideas is most likely the right one. There is also a belief that the candidate said to have written Shakespeare, didn’t actually have the poetic capacity. In Bacon’s case, many have attacked his ability as a poet, Samuel Schoenbaum- author of “Shakespeare’s lives” said:

“…He (Bacon) was incapable of penning any of the poetry assigned to Shakespeare."

Hard, unchangeable facts are also on the side of Shakespeare. We know that Shakespeare existed. From records dating from 1594 to 1603 he was known as he Lord Chamberlain’s Men and from 1603 onwards as the King’s men. His first appearance was with the company was in March 1595 and is found on company lists for the next 15 years. He is listed as a primary tenant at the Globe Theatre and was also shown as a partial owner of the Blackfriars Theatre in 1608. Over his lifetime his signed name was found on over twenty different plays and several poems or collection of poetry.  

There are many tributes to Shakespeare, praising him for his work. One of which, dating back to the earlier years of Shakespeare’s career, was by Francis Meres who mentioned his “sugared sonnets among his private friends.” Later Ben Jonson, along with his famous tribute in the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays (1623), also said “I loved the man, and do honor his memory…” Leonard Diggs also referred to Shakespeare as “thy Stratford monument.” At present there is an actual monument in the church in Stratford that shows Shakespeare holding a pen, with inscriptions beneath it, comparing him to Nestor, Socrates and Virgil.

One thing that the anti-Stratfordians are known to do is take factual information and ignore it. An example of this was when Charlton Ogburn claimed that Shakespeare’s death in 1616 “went highly unremarked…in an age when the passing of noted poets called forth copious elegies from their fellows.” Although Ogburn said this, there were in fact many eulogies left for Shakespeare, one of which was the First Folio of 1623. Another specific piece of evidence that shows Shakespeare’s death was William Basse’s “On William Shakespeare” of which over several manuscripts survives today, all outlining Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Ogburn may dismiss these as they were not printed straight after the death of Shakespeare, but it must also be remembered that at this time this was only common for noblemen or church leaders. Poets’ eulogies usually take years to print, after the slow circulation of the manuscript. The seven-year period which it took Shakespeare’s to do so, is remarkably short compared to any other poet.

The “assumption” made by many scholars that Shakespeare is indeed the author had stood the test of time, but are still being harassed by anti-Stratfordians on what seems to be based on meaningless evidence and wishful-ideas. If all this is a conspiracy it is clearly one of the greatest of our time. It would be impressive, to say the least, if those anti-Stratfordians were right, and had unmasked one of the greatest literacy frauds of all time. But to come to a conclusion on the question of “Who wrote Shakespeare?” would be a significant decision, a momentous one, and one that would have been considered deeply, investigated thoroughly and completely convincing.

Bibliography

Shakespeare-An Analogy of Criticism and Theory 1945-2000 

-Russ McDonald

Contested Will -James Shapiro

Shakespeare – Bill Bryson

An Oxford Guide to Shakespeare -Stanley Wells and Lena Cowen Orlin

www.historytoday.com