Shakespeare Really Write Shakespeare?
There is an academic minority view (held
by perhaps a handful of serious scholars at any time) that
somebody besides Shakespeare
wrote the plays, but I don't see much evidence to support
this "Renaissance conspiracy theory." Those scholars
who disagree would argue that the academy has a large stake
in "Will Shaxbear" and thus can't properly assess
their beliefs, but I'll do my best to summarize the main
and offer a quick rebutal.
Though many of these arguments date back to the turn of
the century, this controversy continues despite the dismissive
reaction of anyone who actually studies Shakespeare professionally.
The gist of the arguments is that Shakespeare was himself
too low-born, too uneducated, or too unlikely a source for
the play. Instead, some educated noble or Renaissance scholar
wrote the plays himself (or herself), and then paid Shakespeare
to claim they were his works, or invented Shakespeare as
an imaginary character. Playwriting, after all, is not a
suitable job for a nobleman or for a lady, so if this person
wanted to write drama and have his works performed, it would
be necessary to ghost-write them, according to this argument.
A commoner from Stratford would be unable to write good
All anti-Stratfordians base their argument
on the impossibility of "the man from Stratford" writing
the plays due to his lack of education, his anonymity and
knowledge of the law, the battlefield and the court. How
could a mere commoner (feel the condescension dripping
in the air?) ever write such works, or know about politics,
French and Italian vocabulary, or
allude to Greek and Latin sources? Many point to educated
Renaissance men like Sir Francis Bacon, or Edward de Vere
(the Earl of
Oxford) as more likely authors. De Vere did have a degree
from Oxford University and a solid grounding in the law
would explain the number of Tudor legal phrases in Shakespeare's
plays. He also lived in Italy for a few months--the setting
of many Shakespearean plays such as Othello and Romeo
and Juliet. He served as a soldier, and he was the nephew
of a literary pioneer who helped popularize the sonnet
English. Another of de Vere's uncles translated Ovid's Metamorphoses,
the source of many allusions in the Shakespearean plays.
Again, this line of thinking ignores the fact that we know
Shakespeare attended the Stratford Free School, where the
curriculum was heavy on Greek and Latin and foreign languages.
The textbooks used there covered much of the same material
Shakespeare refers to. The Taming of the Shrew even
contains a reference to the standard Latin grammar textbook
used at the Stratford Free School. The anti-Stratfordian
camp also ignores the way French and Italian grammar books
mass-printed at comparably cheap prices, and assumes that
a person who has never been on a boat, or a battlefield,
in a court-room is incapable of asking other people who had
been in these places for realistic details. Jonathan Bate,
the author of The Genius of Shakespeare, retorts: "What
is much harder to imagine is an aristocrat like Oxford reproducing
the slang of the common tavern or the technicalities of glovemaking," both
of which are found in Shakespeare's plays such as Twelfth
Night, Romeo and Juliet, and Henry VIII.
Other have argued from incidentals about
de Vere. Edward de Vere's crest has a lion holding out
a paw and shaking a
spear (thus a pun on "Shakespeare"). His copy of
the Geneva Bible has passages underlined in it that also
in the Sonnets, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and a Falstaffian
speech. Again, these are suggestive bits of circumstantial
evidence, but the evidence here is no stronger than that for
Shakespeare's own punning crest (a rooster shaking a spear).
For the dozen or so scriptural examples like the ones mentioned,
many more biblical passages appear in Shakespeare's
plays without any special annotation in de Vere's Bible.
The hardest part to swallow is that de Vere died in 1604.
Shakespeare's later plays, such as The Winter's Tale,
were only licensed for performance in 1610, and The Tempest
was almost certainly inspired by a shipwreck off Bermuda
in 1609. Shakespeare was still turning out plays in conjunction
with other writers (such as The Two Noble Kinsman)
as late as 1613. The Oxfordian camp argues that all these
plays are misdated, meaning that about 70 or so historical
documents relating to these plays have been forged, or
the Earl somehow managed to write the plays earlier, and
hide them, and then give Shakespeare instructions to publish
them after de Vere's death on a staggered schedule. Likewise,
the Oxfordian camp must go through extraordinary--and entertaining--contortions
to explain why Shakespeare's good friend and literary rival
Ben Jonson eulogizes Shakespeare in an encomium in the
version of the First Folio. (Again, "part of the conspiracy" is
the response the Oxfordians give to any of the historical
documents that link Shakespeare to his own work.)
A nobleman would have the education and experience to write
these plays, but he would have to hide his hobby to avoid
If nobles produced their works under their own names, they
would face a certain social stigma from their peers. It's
unseemly for a gentleman to dabble in entertainment for the
rabble. At least that's how the argument goes. So, some aristocrat who wrote the plays must have done a cover-up, hiring this nobody from Stratford to pretend to be the author.
This line of
thinking ignores the fact that King James, Queen Elizabeth,
and Edward de Vere also wrote quite a bit of poetry publically,
under their own names. Many Renaissance noblemen have
written literature without any discernable fear of "improper" behavior.
Unless anti-Stratfordian scholars can show me any historical
document indicating a strong stigma against noblemen
writing literature, and explain to me why so many other noblemen
published works under their own names, I'm not sure this
Most of the alternative candidates for
the title "author
of Shakespeare's plays" are nobles of one feather or
another. Historically, Sir Francis Bacon has been the name
most often mentioned in past centuries, but in recent years,
anti-Stratfordians have favored Edward de Vere. This viewpoint
has been particularly popular, especially since the current
Earl of Oxford is a fervent supporter of the movement, and
he has supplied funding to scholars who can provide evidence
it was his ancestor who wrote the plays rather than Shakespeare.
De Vere's popularity as a candidate may also be due to the
newer crop of scholars wanting to disassociate themselves
from earlier crackpot "scholars" like Ignatius Donnelly
Another problem is that we have surviving
copies of de Vere's poetry. It is, as Helen Gibson describes
yet uninspired," and resembles "juvenelia" (quoted
page 75 in Time, February 15, 1999). Alan H.
Nelson at the University of California notes, "The Earl
of Oxford was perhaps the most egotistical and self-serving
person of his day in England. It would have been out of character
for him to write the plays and then keep authorship a secret.
Many Elizabethan noblemen wrote and published" (ibid).
Other proposed authors include Queen Elizabeth herself and
Sir Walter Raleigh. In the case of Queen Elizabeth, the argument
is that it is improper for a woman to write poetry,
and therefore she served as a patron for Shakespeare in order
to ghostwrite his works. (Again, Queen Elizabeth wrote some
of her own poetry under her own name--so it seems doubtful
that she was shy about her writing.)
Anagrams in the plays suggest someone else
wrote these works.
Some arguments are based on anagrams or hidden messages
in the plays. Cryptography and anagrams are especially popular
with the Baconian school. Dr. Isaac Platt, by extracting
certain letters from a famous line from Hamlet, "The
funerall baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage
tables," comes up with an anagram of "FR. BACONI
NATI," which according to his unusual Latin means that
Francis Bacon wrote the plays. Again, I don't buy it for
two reasons. First, Platt's phrase would literally be translated
as "Of the birth of Fr. Bacon." The more proper
phrase we would expect to find as educated Latin speakers
would be "FR. BACONUS ME FECIT," ("Fr. Bacon
made me"), which is the conventional way of expressing
creatorship of a work. The second reason I don't buy the
argument is the anagram doesn't even match the words very
well. And a third reason would be that, if we read enough
of Shakespeare's lines from his forty or so plays, we will
almost certainly stumble across an anagram by sheer statistical
chance, as evidenced by the Gertrude
Stein anecdote below.
Another anagrammatical argument was proposed
by Ignatius Donnelly, one of the most famous of the Baconians.
a complicated cipher to drag "More ... low ... or ...
Shak'st ... spur ... never ... writ ... a ... word ... of
... them" and other similar messages out of the text
of the First Folio. Most modern scholars try to distance
from Ignatius Donnelly--given that he relied upon techniques
of uncertain scholarship to gather evidence, including mediums
at seances and liberal use of ouija boards.
Maria Bauer uses an "anagramatic code" in
her book Francis Bacon's Great Virginia Vault to
find amazingly prescient messages scattered through the
of the plays. She writes, "In the Shakespeare works
there is frequent mention of the date June 9, 1938, which
marks the beginning of the collapse of the Shakespeare myth." As
it turns out, this date is exactly when Bauer herself first
came across evidence of the Great Virginia Vault,
a mausoleum located in Virginia (not in Britain!) which
she claims houses the manuscripts of all the plays and
other neat things as well dating from the 1500s. Unfortunately,
these fascinating archeological relics have never been
by anyone other than Bauer, who refused to disclose the
exact location of this particular grave vault. Much excavation
in graveyards in Jamestown and Williamsburg unfortunately
turned up nothing to support her unusual claims.
Two other Baconian scholars, Hoffman and Delia Bacon (the
greatest of the Baconians) also ended up digging in crypts
and graveyards, with similarly unreproducable results.
A certain Victorian dabbler in literature, Mrs. Windle, in
1881 sent to the British museum an unsolicited manuscript
called Report to the Trustees of the British Museum.
She used a rather different cipher pattern to reveal the "under-reading" of Othello,
which begins, (I quote): "A tale,
oh! I tell, oh! / Oh dell, oh! What wail, oh! / Oh hill,
What willow! / What hell, oh! What will, oh! / At will, oh!
At well, oh! /I dwell, oh!" She claims this is "suggestive
of the spirit presence of the [true] author." The "To
the Reader" poem which fronts the First Folio is a favorite
target of such investigations; one critic discovered that
by highlighting and rearranging the so-called significant
letters in the poem one gets "Franciscus St. Albanus."
another more recent observer has found that by pulling
out different "significant" letters you
can get "Gertrude Stein writ this Great Work of Literature."
(Which again, goes to show you that if you look at enough
lines and try to "decode" them, you can find almost
any result you want.)
Another argument is that a nobleman wrote
the plays, but for a different reason from shame at dabbling in common art. According to this argument, the plays were meant to be read as political
each character corresponding on a one-to-one basis with real
political figures. The nobleman-playwright (be it Edward de
Earl of Oxford, or Queen Elizabeth, or Walter Raleigh, or
whoever) had to hide his identity so that the writer could
denounce the current regime or certain political enemies
direct backlash. Thus, Hamlet's dying order to Horatio, "tell
my story," takes on incredible significance if you know
that Horatio is the false Shakespeare and Hamlet is the true
one--be he Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, Queen Elizabeth, Marlowe,
or whoever. Thomas Looney's main argument in 1920 for Edward de Vere,
Earl of Oxford, is that Oxford was the closest approximation
to a royal prince at the time; he is therefore Hamlet, and
thus Shakespeare as well. Similarly, Henry Pemberton argues
that Shakespeare is really Walter Raleigh, as Hamlet's line
describing Claudius as "Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous,
kindless villain!" could only be spoken by someone who
hated the current king as much as Raleigh did.
Such identification of the main character of a play with
Shakespeare himself is normally considered unwise in modern
literary theory, but it was a very popular practice in the
nineteenth century. The problem is these interpretations
often based on a single line in one play or another. It's
as if Faulkner made a passing comment on life in New York,
and suddenly a gaggle of scholars spring forth claiming Faulkner
must not have truly written his own works--it must be a
York writer pretending to be a southerner because no southerner
would ever mention events in New York City.
Argument 5: Other arguments
that are just plain strange--practical jokes and homosexual
If Shakespeare did not write his plays, and someone else
did secretly, that deception must have a motive behind it.
The intricate stories devised to explain why the imposture
took place are bizarre. Wallace Cunningham, author of The
Tragedy of Francis Bacon, Prince of England (1940),
demonstrates that Shakespeare's plays were written by
a group of about
twenty famous writers (all Freemasons, incidentally), including
Ben Jonson, Walter Raleigh, Christopher Marlowe and Edmund
Spenser. They called themselves "The Wild Goose Club" and
would meet for dinner once a month at a particular inn where
William Shakespeare was their usual waiter. Shakespeare's
plays were thus all an elaborate practical joke designed
by the nefarious secret society on some unfathomable lark
over twenty years of collective labor (labor which continued somehow to produce plays long after the deaths of the purported perpetrators of the hoax, apparently).
Calvin Hoffman, in The Murder of the
Man who was "Shakespeare," argues that
Christopher Marlowe did not die in a knife fight in 1593
(as listed in historical records). The whole affair
was a hoax created by Marlowe's alleged homosexual lover,
Thomas Walsingham (who is somehow equivalent to the "Mr. W. H." to
whom the sonnets are dedicated), who thought that Marlowe
was likely to be executed for atheism. Once believed dead,
Marlowe could assume the nom de plume of "Shakespeare" and
keep writing while he was hidden away on Walsingham's
estate in a secret love-shack. Hoffman based his argument
in part on a study that determined the average word length
used by Bacon, Shakespeare, Marlowe and a bunch of other
This was accomplished by counting the letters in over two
million words in their writings. His shocking discovery?
Shakespeare and Marlowe averaged exactly four letters per word,
which he suggests is an extraordinary result. (Incidentally,
the average length of words generally in common English writing
is about 4.2 letters--you and I probably average about four
letters per word in our writings, much like Shakespeare, which is why I have hard time taking this argument seriously.)
More recently, Joseph Sobran in his 1997 book, Alias Shakespeare,
argued that de Vere wrote all the sonnets as part of a homosexual
wooing of the Earl of Southampton, all hidden within the guise
of courting her daughter. How this explains the plays, however,
is not accounted for satisfactorily.
The popular film Anonymous, set for release on October 28th and which revolves around a conspiracy in Shakespearean authorship, will no doubt stir up discussion again, even though no new evidence in the last ten years has appeared to bolster the claims of anti-Stratfordians.
The academy is covering up the truth!
The anti-Stratfordians argue that those who mock their beliefs
are largely motivated by professional investments. The
academy refuses to listen to arguments because traditional
scholars have a huge financial stake in printing Shakespeare
books, holding tenured positions, and maintaining intellectual
prestige, which would all be lost if someone proved Shakespeare
was not the author. Thus, Shakespearean scholars
in orthodox institutions become narrow-minded and protective
of their territory. This coverup has been dubbed "bardgate" by
Peter Dickson, a CIA official turned amateur revisionist
Elizabethan scholar. Let me assure you, if I or any other
young ambitious scholar had convincing evidence that Shakespeare
didn't write his own works, you can bet we would have a
motivation to publish it! It would make our academic careers!
The one who revealed the hidden truth would be as revolutionary
in literary studies as Einstein was in physics! The problem
is this evidence just doesn't exist as far as I can tell, and those who claim Shakespeare wasn't the author haven't produced any particularly convincing evidence--merely conjectures of conspiracies and occasional circumstantial connections that look forced or coincidental to my eyes. Such weak evidence logically must fall before Occam's Razor.
I agree with Peter Dickson that much of Shakespeare's plays
and poems contains passages that are mysterious and inexplicable.
But that seems to me to be insufficient evidence that he didn't
write the plays himself.
For more information from folks who disagree with me, you
can look at Shakespeare
- Earl of Oxford? This site explores the two-centuries
old Shakespeare authorship debate. The purpose of the Society
is to document and establish Edward de Vere as the universally
recognized author of the works of William Shakespeare, so
their website is diametrically opposed to my own argument.
Read it, and weigh the evidence yourself.