How did the skeptics get the idea that Shakespeare did not write his own plays?

The shadowy actor of whom we know so little, with whom we credit the pinnacles of English literature, has been the object of veneration, gentle skepticism, and the most bitter abuse.

The camps are divided, the theories myriad. Some worship the poet as a god; others denounce him as an illiterate, drunken rustic, usurer, and lousy actor.

A first, stealthy suggestion that Shakespeare was not the true author of his plays was made in the 18th century, but full-scale, international controversy did not erupt until the mid-19th century. It continues to this day, with well over 50 candidates proffered as the true Shakespeare.

The debate has given rise to thousands of articles and books, in 1947 Professor Joseph S. Galland of Northwestern University compiled a bibliography on the subject running to more than 1,500 pages of manuscript, which no one could afford to publish. The work has since been stored on microfilm.

Most of the arguments against Shakespeare as the true author arise from a lack of information about his life, and the apparent incongruity of the genius of his plays with his unexceptional social position and limited formal education.

It is not known whether Shakespeare went to university, reports of his education are scant, yet the plays are undoubtedly the work of one intimately familiar with the classics, the sciences, various languages, and the arts. Anti-Stratfordians (as the skeptics are called) focus especially on the professional knowledge of the law exhibited in the plays, the brilliant, supple use of legal language that could only have been provided by a lawyer.

Other critics argue that the author of the plays must have traveled widely, to Spain, France, Italy, Denmark, and Scotland (there is no record that Shakespeare did), and have known well the aristocratic life within courts and palaces (Shakespeare was a commoner). Yet another theory is that if Shakespeare were the genius behind these laudable works, much would have been documented about his life, whereas, in fact, there is surprisingly little. Literary historians point to parallels in thought and style between Shakespeare’s works and those of suggested candidates—Francis Bacon, Ben Jonson, and Christopher Marlowe, for example. And another camp has delved into a complex study of cryptograms—ciphers hidden within the text that purportedly reveal Bacon as the true author and, even more fantastic, that he was the son of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Leicester.

Even granting the skeptics their theories, one still wonders why the true author (assuming it was not Shakespeare) would go to such lengths to disguise his identity. The anti-Stratfordians are armed with a reply, which holds for most of the different theories of authorship: the noble lord who was furtively churning out these masterpieces could not have owned up to them without loss of stature.

Although there were exceptions, Bacon included, generally it was not considered proper for an aristocrat to release poetry and plays to the public during his own lifetime. Furthermore, Shakespeare’s historical plays inevitably took a political stance, and if it happened to anger the government, the author, claim the anti-Stratfordians, risked imprisonment or execution. Richard II did in fact enrage Queen Elizabeth, but no one was punished and this was a rare incident; her master of revels took care to censor all that came before her.

By the late 18th century, faith in Shakespeare had gone untainted for 200 years, and disbelief in his genius was nothing short of heretical. No wonder, then, that the author of the first outright statement discrediting Shakespeare subsequently burned his notes. This was the shy and retiring Reverend James Wilmot, rector of Burton-in-the-Heath near Stratford, who in 1785 concluded that Shakespeare lacked the necessary education to have written his plays. He went on to suggest Sir Francis Bacon as a more credible author. As a scientist, Bacon would have known about the circulation of the blood, alluded to in Coriolanus, whereas Shakespeare certainly would not. Wilmot noted, too, the names of three ministers at the Court of Navarre in Love’s Labour’s Lost; while Bacon’s brother lived there for a time, we find no record that Shakespeare ever traveled there. Although Wilmot burned his notes, he confided his thesis to J. C. Cowell, whose records turned up in 1932.

In 1848 New York lawyer Joseph C. Hart, a colonel in the National Guard, kindled the debate with his strangely titled book The Romance of Yachting. Hart asserts that Shakespeare was “a vulgar and unlettered man,” who secretly bought plays and put them on stage after lacing them with “obscenity, blackguardism and impurities.” Hart named no other candidate, but the vituperative tone of his attack became characteristic of the strongest and largest group of iconoclasts: the Baconians.

In 1856 a frail New England lady named Delia Bacon (no relation to Sir Francis) published an article, “Shakespeare and His Plays: An Inquiry Concerning Them,” the first of a torrent of articles culminating in her 543-page The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded, with a preface by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The fanatical Miss Bacon decried the tradition by which mankind was “condemned to refer the origin of these works to the vulgar, illiterate man who kept the theatre where they were first exhibited, condemned to look for the author of Hamlet himself, the subtle Hamlet of the university, the courtly Hamlet, ‘the glass of fashion and the mould of form’, in that dirty, doggish group of players, who come into the scene summoned like a pack of hounds to his service.” She looked beyond the crass “deer poacher” to “ONE, with learning broad enough, and deep enough and subtle enough, and comprehensive enough, one with nobility of aim and philosophic and poetic genius enough, to be able to claim his own, his own immortal progeny.”

This “ONE” became a group of Elizabethan scholars, of whom Bacon was only one. With him were Edmund Spenser, Sir Walter Raleigh, and several others, noble philosophers who carefully guarded their sacred gift of learning for the deserving and discerning, the ardent seekers of truth.

Miss Bacon’s arguments became increasingly convoluted and esoteric. Her admirers fell by the wayside, and the possessed spinstress sat alone in her unheated room in the home of a Stratford shoemaker, setting to paper her cryptic theories. While her book was being prepared for publication she haunted Shakespeare’s grave, determined to prove her theory once and for all, for she firmly believed that buried with the poet were archives of the noble Elizabethan group. She went so far as to get the vicar’s permission to open the grave, but at the crucial moment fears or doubts prevailed, and she turned away. Miss Bacon’s hold on reality had perhaps been tenuous; with the publication of her book she became violently insane and ended her days in an asylum.

William Henry Smith was a somewhat more rational Baconian who in 1857 published a small book, Bacon and Shakespeare. His argument stems from our lack of knowledge of Shakespeare’s life and from evidence of Baconian wit in the plays. The main platform of the Baconians, however, maintained throughout the 19th
century and into the 20th, was the familiarity with law, both in terminology and in imagery, evident in the plays. Stratfordians and Elizabethan scholars counter that in the Tudor period there was a craze for the law, that people of all classes acted as their own lawyers and were well versed in legal procedures. Many other plays of the period show an equal, even superior, command of the field.

The Baconians went on to find parallelisms between Bacon’s and Shakespeare’s thoughts, and convoluted reasons why Bacon would publicly protest the theater while secretly writing for it. They hold up as “deadly evidence” the postcript of a letter from Sir Tobie Matthew to Bacon in 1624: “The most prodigious wit that I ever knew, of my nation and this side the sea, is of your lordship’s name, though he be known by another.” Other miscellaneous items too numerous and esoteric to mention here add to the Baconian testimony, and some wild enthusiasts go so far as to credit Bacon not only with all of Shakespeare’s works, but with those of Marlowe, Peele, and Kyd, as well as Spenser’s Faerie Queene and Montaigne’s Essays.

The cryptologists, who are by far the most bizarre members of the Baconian school, have made exhaustive searches for clues in the pagination and the designs of chapter headings and title pages. They find messages in the form of ciphers and anagrams concealed within the text by the true author, who, some believe, wished to be known by posterity.

All the leading systems of cryptology endorsed by the Baconians are outlined, and ultimately found lacking, in an authoritative work by William and Elizebeth Friedman, The Shakespearean Ciphers Examined. They review at some length the involved system of Ignatius Donnelly (1831-1901), an American lawyer and devout Baconian who believed that messages were to be found within the text of the plays.

Working with the First Folio (which would have been available to Bacon), he scanned the text for a significant word. He then counted the number of words from the beginning of the first column to this word; one would expect the next key word to fall the same number of words after the first. But since this did not always work out, Donnelly tempered the system with “modifiers” or extraneous figures that could be added or subtracted at whim. He was inconsistent, too, in his treatment of hyphens and brackets. And when the problem really looked sticky, Donnelly supplied his own “subordinate root numbers” and computed until it worked out. In effect, what Donnelly did was find the message first, “Shak’st, spur never writ a word of them,” for example, and then work backward. Proof of the arbitrariness of the system was made by the Reverend R. Nicholson, who, working with Donnelly’s selected passage and following his system precisely, discerned five times the message “Master Will-I-am Shak’stspurre writ the Play and was engaged at the Curtain.”

Since World War I, Shakespeare skeptics have found scores of other champions. In many cases, their arguments parallel those that endorse Bacon. For example, J. T. Looney, an English schoolmaster, taught The Merchant of Venice year after year and concluded that its author must have had firsthand knowledge of Italy. Since Shakespeare failed, as far as is known, to meet this requirement, Looney searched for an Elizabethan poet of a similar style. He came up with Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, who certainly knew well the kings and queens of England. The fact that no plays acknowledged to be by the Earl survive did not dampen Looney’s spirits. He found incidents in the plays that might have been a part of the Earl’s career, and thereupon published his theory in 1920. Professor Gilbert Slater subsequently expanded the authorship to include not only the Earl of Oxford, but the Earl of Derby, Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, the Earl of Rutland, the Countess of Pembroke, and Christopher Marlowe. William Shakespeare, for once free of scornful abuse, was said to have been the middleman who negotiated with the theaters for production of the plays.

Popular in France is the claim made by a Frenchman in 1919 that William Stanley, the sixth Earl of Derby, was the true author. This nobleman was allegedly present at the Court of Navarre at Nerac in 1583, when certain events that appear in Love’s Labour’s Lost took place.

Finally, a more recent and in some ways the most outrageous claim is that made by Calvin Hoffman in 1955 for Christopher Marlowe. His argument resides in similarities between Marlowe’s acknowledged works and Shakespeare’s. That is all very well and is no surprise. But, according to the verdict of the Queen’s coroner, Marlowe died in 1593 in a drunken brawl, long before many of the plays were written. Hoffman remains undaunted.

We know the Privy Council was concerned about Marlowe’s atheistic views, and that Marlowe had a wealthy patron, Sir Thomas Walsingham of Kent. From this and some prodigious digging, Hoffman speculates that Marlowe and Walsingham were lovers and that Walsingham, fearing for Marlowe’s safety in light of government disapproval, staged the murder of a foreign sailor and bribed the coroner to name him as Marlowe, while the playwright was smuggled safely to Italy! There Marlowe continued to write; he sent his manuscripts to Walsingham, who arranged for their performance through none other than the humble actor William Shakespeare, who obligingly agreed to sign his name to them as well. Such are the lengths to which the discreditors of Shakespeare have gone.

The curious obsession with concocting theories to denigrate William Shakespeare has occupied lifetimes. Hundreds have pursued it passionately, fanatically, their reasons varied and not always clear. Ironically (for those of us who believe in William Shakespeare), this speaks for the genius of the poet, for nothing less could have inspired such fascination, ardor, and unrest.