Did someone else write the plays of William Shakespeare? The real history that debunks the conspiracy
A name that does not need an introduction, William Shakespeare’s legacy as one of the most influential writers in history is assured. But does it deserve to be? In an episode of our podcast series Conspiracy, Rob Attar spoke to Dr Paul Edmondson about the multi-faceted belief that the Bard did not put quill to parchment at all
William Shakespeare is England’s greatest playwright and an enduring cultural icon whose work remains a constant presence in schools and theatres all around the world. From a modest start in Stratford-upon-Avon, he travelled to London and built a career as an actor, owner of a theatrical company – the Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later, the King’s Men) – and, of course, a writer of plays and poems.
From the last decade of the 16th century until his death in 1616, William Shakespeare wrote close to 40 plays. There were tragedies like Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet; the histories of Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III; and comedies, such as The Tempest, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While there are many gaps in our knowledge of the man himself, every detail of the Bard’s works is known intimately and been interpreted in countless ways.
The conspiracy claim: Shakespeare was not the true author
According to so-called Anti-Stratfordians, another writer hid behind his name to protect their own identity. In fact, around 77 nominees have been suggested as the playwright that should really be celebrated. The names most often heard are the polymathic statesman Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe (a playwright of Shakespeare’s time), and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, but theories have put forward for Sir Walter Ralegh, Fulke Greville, William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, and some even credit Queen Elizabeth I or King James VI and I.
- On the podcast | Dr Paul Edmondson discusses the alternative candidates that have been put forward as the author of Shakespeare's work:
What is the source of the theory?
“It really began with a highly intelligent American woman, Delia Bacon,” says Dr Paul Edmondson, head of research at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and author of numerous publications on Shakespeare and his works. “She could not accept that somebody of his social and intellectual background produced the work attributed to him.” Instead, she suggested a creative collaboration led by Sir Francis Bacon was responsible.
In a letter relating an 1853 visit to Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, philosopher and essayist, Bacon wrote of her disbelief that Shakespeare – “that booby” – wrote the plays with his name on, to which Carlyle let out a “shriek”. Shakespeare’s reputation had blossomed in the 19th century, but for all the adulation there were voices, like Bacon’s, questioning the legitimacy of the Bard’s legacy.
“A few years later, in 1856, she persuaded the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon to allow her to stay the night in Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was buried, with a pickaxe and spade because she wanted to open the grave, convinced of there being some document in there that would reveal the true identity of the author,” says Dr Edmondson. “She didn’t open Shakespeare’s grave, in the end: she was too frightened to do so. But she really set the ball rolling.”
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The reasons why the theory endures
A core tenet of the theory is that Shakespeare’s social background and education do not match the depth of genius evident in his works. Growing up in a small market town like Stratford-upon-Avon, how was he able to write about life at court, politics and foreign affairs so effectively? Without attending university, where did his way with words come from?
The nominees put forward as the true author did go to university, for example. After the case was made for Francis Bacon, other names started appearing. Christopher Marlowe was proffered in an 1895 novel by American Wilbur Gleason Zeigler. The fact that he had died in a tavern brawl in 1593 did not deter the theory, which expanded until Marlowe was a spy who faked his own death and went to Italy (which is why many Shakespeare plays are set there). To this day, the Hoffman Prize is awarded every year to the best essay about Marlowe as the real author of the plays, or about his relationship with Shakespeare.
Edward de Vere came into the picture in 1920, proposed by J Thomas Looney. As the earl of Oxford, it would not have been respectable for him to be writing for the theatre, but such was his love and skill that he wrote under the name of Shakespeare. This was the argument taken up by Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn in their book, This Star of England (1952), and succeeding generations of Oxfordians.
The issue of collaboration has been well explored too. A common practice at the time, there is evidence that Shakespeare had worked with other people on some of his plays, including with John Fletcher for Henry VIII, The Two Noble Kinsmen and the lost work Cardenio, so it has been argued that he was never the sole author of any work.
“One of the interesting things is the number of lawyers involved with the authorship discussion,” says Dr Edmondson. “In 1987, three justices of the US Supreme Court put Shakespeare on trial, as it were. And in 1988, lord justices met at the Inner Temple in London to do something similar. Both ruled in Shakespeare’s favour, but what astonishes me is that it even got as far as that.”
The evidence that debunks the conspiracy
Generally, it is a two-pronged approach: the first is to challenge the individual nominees being put forward in Shakespeare’s stead. In 1925 (after Zeigler’s novel), a coroner’s report of Marlowe’s death was discovered, for instance. De Vere also died before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written. Although it has proven difficult to date some of the works, Dr Edmondson points out that it is possible to identify “fashions of Jacobean playwrighting”, which could not have existed before de Vere’s death in 1604.
Meanwhile, the second prong is the wealth of corroborative evidence of Shakespeare being a major figure in the theatre at the time. His name appears on the title pages of his plays for one; contemporaries and early drafts of his own coat of arms name him as a playwright; and he was, of course, a shareholder in the Globe. In 1598, Francis Mears wrote a list of 12 plays attributed to Shakespeare, while the playwright Ben Jonson’s documented conversations with William Drummond in 1618–19 discuss his works in detail.
The funerary monument in Holy Trinity Church shows Shakespeare holding a quill and resting on a writing cushion, and it may well have been commissioned during his lifetime according to research by Lena Cowen Orlin at Georgetown University. That means it was something of a life portrait, suggests Dr Edmondson, “as he himself wanted to be remembered for posterity”.
No single thing can silence the theorists, Dr Edmondson says, but together the evidence overwhelmingly points to Shakespeare as the true author. “Each aspect, each piece of evidence must be refuted entirely and convincingly. You have to go through every one and say why it’s not the case before you can even think about the author being anybody else.”
As for the argument of Shakespeare’s education, Dr Edmondson explains that the Bard did not lack for a suitable degree of learning for his works at all. “The flourishing of English literature in Shakespeare’s time is thanks to the humanist grammar schools established under Edward VI,” he says. “Young minds that were taught to think, taught to meld language together for powerful effects, to realise that language is power: that’s the kind of mind that Shakespeare formed.”
Dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, and the author, co-author, and co-editor of many books and articles about Shakespeare, including the free e-book Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.