If William Shakespeare didn’t write Shakespeare, then who did?
By the end of the eighteenth century, by virtue of the publication of his plays in the First Folio, William Shakespeare had risen from being one of the best playwrights of his generation to the only and greatest Elizabethan author, in fact a divine poet, a secular deity, virtually worshipped as the spirit of England itself. However, while his plays and poetry were accessible to all, little was known about the man himself. The very concept of biography was foreign to his age, so by the time scholars began to look for evidence of his life, all those who had known him personally had long since died and his direct line was extinct.
What few documents surfaced gave little or no indication of his career as a writer, but instead cast him as a tight-fisted, money-hungry, small-time businessman. This image horrified his fervent worshippers and unfortunately led to the ‘discovery’ of dubious and outright forged documents to fill in the gaps. The dearth of information also led to scholars mining the plays and poems for insights into the man himself that were lacking from the documentary evidence. However, seek as they might, Shakespearean scholars could not find any parallels between the small-town businessman in the documents and the erudite, literary genius who had written the beloved canon.
By the mid-nineteenth century, a conviction had grown among some of Shakespeare’s most devoted adherents that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon could not possibly have written the Shakespearean canon, that he was not the ‘real’ Shakespeare who must be a man of noble spirit, deep scholarship and wide experience. They began casting about to find who this other man might be, and the Great Authorship Debate was born.
However, there was even less evidence of who else the ‘real’ Shakespeare might be than for the man from Stratford. First one candidate was discovered then another was put forward, until over the years a host of contenders have been championed by one faction of Anti-Stratfordians or another with a devotion equal to, if not more ardent, than that of any worshiper of the divine Bard.
Documentary research into the life of William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon continues to this day, and while more evidence has been found that fleshes out the picture of his career as an actor, writer and theatrical entrepreneur in a little more detail, huge gaps still remain. These gaps are filled by much fond speculation on the part of Stratfordians, and by doubts and queries on the part of Anti-Stratfordians.
I have addressed many of those doubts in my article Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Debunking the usual suspects. In this article I will be surveying the most popular contenders for the Shakespearean Authorship.
Probably the first and most well-known candidate for the ‘real’ Shakespeare is Francis Bacon (1561-1626), often called the father of modern science. A brilliant scholar, well educated in all the arts and sciences of his day, Bacon was sent to Cambridge University at the age of 12, but complained that the professors had nothing more to teach him. At the age of 15 he entered Gray’s Inn to study law, becoming a barrister at 21. He also studied law in Paris and produced plays for courtly entertainments. At the age of 23 he entered Parliament and in a long and successful political career rose to the level of Attorney General, Privy Councillor and Lord Chancellor under James I and was eventually made Viscount St Albans. Although the Earl of Essex was his pupil and patron, Bacon took part in his prosecution after the Essex Rebellion in 1601. Bacon ended his political career under a cloud after being imprisoned for a short time on charges of bribery and corruption.
Bacon wrote extensively on law, philosophy and natural science and his supporters, the Baconians, believe he is the only person among Shakespeare’s contemporaries who could possibly have had the breadth of knowledge attributed to him. At an early age, Bacon set for himself as his life work his Great Instauration, the recording and systemisation of all knowledge. This was to include human psychology, which, he wrote, could best be described by ‘poets and historians’. The psychology section of his Great Instauration never appeared under his name, but Baconians believe it can be found in Shakespeare’s history plays.
A case can also be made for his authorship of both the Sonnets and Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Like the writer of the Sonnets, Bacon was a lover of young men and was known to have unsuccessfully approached the Earl of Southampton to whom the two long poems were dedicated. Furthermore, in Bacon’s local tavern near his home in St Albans, on the walls of the very room he used for meetings of his Masonic Lodge, a beautiful wall painting was found. Dated around 1600, it depicts Adonis being mauled to death by a boar. In the ancient Greek mystery celebrating the cycle of life, the death of Adonis was an important symbol as it was in the teachings of the Rosicrucians, to whom Bacon is believed to have belonged.
Strong parallels have been found between the writings of Shakespeare and Bacon, in turns of phrase, in literary sources and in the habit of near-quoting from memory. However, even Bacon’s most dedicated editors cannot see any similarities in the style of the two writers as Bacon was a philosopher and no poet and Shakespeare was the opposite. Nor was Bacon ever a soldier or a hunter, both fields in which Shakespeare was considered to be well-versed.
The most eccentric Baconians, seeing a close affinity between Bacon’s own love of subterfuge and secrecy and that demonstrated in the plays, turned to searching for ciphers in Shakespeare’s works to prove their case, some even going to the extent of claiming to have found proof that Bacon was in reality the love child of Queen Elizabeth and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester. However, none of these cipher hunters have ever been able to prove their case to an impartial observer. The Baconian cause has also suffered from a re-evaluation of Francis Bacon’s character which has been discovered not to be the entirely the noble spirit revered by his adherents.
The Earl of Oxford
Perhaps the best-loved contender is Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) whose movement has eclipsed Baconism to become the mainstream Shakespearean heresy. De Vere also attended Cambridge University and in his own time was known as a great lyric poet and writer of comedies, but none of his plays and few of his poems survive. While Bacon was championed for his mind, it is Edward de Vere’s psyche that is seen in Shakespeare and one of his most influential supporters was Sigmund Freud who saw many psychological parallels between de Vere and Shakespeare’s most powerful characters.
Like Hamlet, de Vere lost his father at the age of 12 and resented his mother’s remarriage. There are also close parallels between the characters in the play and the people in his own life such as Polonius in whom can be seen Lord Burghley, the Queen’s careful advisor and de Vere’s guardian and father-in-law. De Vere can also be seen in Bertram from All’s Well That Ends Well whose youthful matrimonial misadventures parallel de Vere’s. De Vere travelled extensively in France and Italy and, again like Hamlet, was attacked by pirates on his way home.
There is a strong case for de Vere, one of the earliest exponents of the sonnet form, as the author of the Sonnets. The Sonnets were published in 1609 without authorization from the author, whoever it might be. However, their mysterious dedication can be deciphered to indicate that they were written by Edward de Vere and that the manuscript was purloined from his widow when she sold and cleared out their London home.
The writer of the Sonnets comes across as a sensitive aristocrat in his forties, suffering from a deep sense of disgrace and failure, an image which much better describes Edward de Vere than the up-and-coming young William Shakespeare. Again, strong parallels can be found between the people in de Vere’s own life and the characters in the sonnets – the fair youth as the Earl of Southampton who at one point was being urged to marry de Vere’s daughter and Anne Vavasor, de Vere’s acknowledged mistress, as the dark lady.
The biggest obstacle to de Vere’s candidacy is that he died before Shakespeare’s late, great plays were staged and, in order to accommodate their candidate, Oxfordians have to bring forward the dating of the canon by several years and claim de Vere died leaving many plays unfinished. Extending the story first put forward by the Baconians, some Oxfordians also claim that de Vere was not only Queen Elizabeth’s son by Thomas Seymour but also her lover and father with her of the Earl of Southampton. (This incestuous scenario is known as the Prince Tudor or Tudor Rose theory.)
The Oxfordian claim has enjoyed a resurgence in the last few years and a recent feature film, Anonymous, introduced by the renowned Shakespearean actor, Derek Jacobi, purported to put his case. However, the film relied so heavily on misrepresentation of the facts of history and the characters of de Vere’s contemporaries that it did the cause more harm than good. (See Anonymous: a fraud indeed.)
The Earl of Derby
Another aristocratic contender is William Stanley, Earl of Derby (1561-1642). A well-educated aristocrat, who attended Oxford University, studied law, spoke French and probably Italian and Spanish and travelled in France, Spain, Italy and around the Mediterranean, Stanley is strongly championed by the French who see in Shakespeare an aristocrat who must have been very familiar with the French court, the French language and the French character.
The major factor in William Stanley’s favour is the play Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the Court of Navarre. The play’s plot closely parallels actual events which, however, were not described in print until 1626. William Stanley was in France at the right time on an extended Grand Tour accompanied by a tutor who is also parodied in the play. If he was in Navarre at the time, he would also have heard a story with striking parallels to the story of Ophelia from Hamlet.
William Stanley was the hereditary King of the Isle of Man and Prospero’s island in The Tempest can be identified as the Calf of Man, a tiny island only a few hundred metres off its coast. Prospero himself is believed to be based on the mystical philosopher Dr John Dee, whom Stanley knew well.
Many of the contemporary poetic allusions thought to refer to William Shakespeare could just as easily and in fact in many cases more appropriately, be referring to William Stanley, who shared his initials. Unlike Oxford and Bacon, there is a connection between Shakespeare and Stanley as Shakespeare wrote for, and may have been a member of, his brother Lord Strange’s playing company. Earlier generations of the Stanley family are also favourably represented in Shakespeare’s history plays.
However, while the Stanleys were renowned for their patronage of the theatrical arts, except for a cryptic reference by a Jesuit spy who described Stanley as ‘busied only in penning comedies for the common players’ there is no evidence that he ever wrote plays or poetry and although he outlived Shakespeare by many years, no later writings by him have come to light. However, as his family seat was burned down during the Civil War, his writings, if they existed, may have been destroyed in the fire.
The only professional candidate for the role of the ‘real’ Shakespeare is Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593). Though his exact contemporary, having achieved an MA, Marlowe had all the qualifications Shakespeare lacked and, unlike the cases put forward for the more aristocratic candidates, we have definitive proof that he was a brilliant poet and playwright in his own name. (See William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe)
As a young Cambridge graduate, widely read and deeply immersed in the classics, yet rebellious and original, Marlowe took the London stage by storm in 1587 with his first play, Tamburlaine the Great, which was soon followed by a sequel and several more ground-breaking plays including Edward II and The Rich Jew of Malta.
In his biography In Search of Shakespeare, Michael Wood writes, ‘Shakespeare the poet was obsessed by concealment, role-playing and illusion… In Ovid, the supreme poet of illusion found a soulmate for life.’ As a published translator of Ovid’s poetry, believed to be a spy and a rumoured homosexual, Marlowe could also be described in the same terms.
The son of an ambitious shoemaker and raised in Canterbury, a cosmopolitan town steeped in history, Marlowe is known to have spoken Latin, French and Italian. He is believed to have been recruited as a spy while at Cambridge and sent to the Continent on secret missions several times, including an assignment that saw him come under fire from the Spanish Armada.
The Marlovian case falters, however, on one enormous obstacle. Marlowe is documented to have died in a fight in 1593, just before Shakespeare’s name first appeared in print. His candidacy depends on the claim that the coronial report into his death was faked and that Marlowe did not die on that fateful day in Deptford, but was spirited away to the Continent. There he is believed to have lived a reclusive life and sent his plays back to England, via his patron Sir Thomas Walsingham, to be produced in Shakespeare’s name. Although this theory might seem outlandish, close scrutiny of the coroner’s report raises a good many unanswered questions, giving rise to enough doubt to lead one to believe that events on that day did not and in fact, could not, have taken place as described, thus leaving open the possibility that Marlowe did indeed survive. (See A Fateful Day in Deptford: The ‘Death’ of Christopher Marlowe.)
Whether or not he wrote the plays, a strong case can be made that Marlowe, with his deep knowledge of Ovid and the Latin classics, wrote Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece which have strong similarities to Marlowe’s acknowledged beginnings of a long poem, Hero and Leander. A cogent case has also been made that Marlowe wrote the Sonnets from his exile in Europe.
Certainly, both Marlovian and Shakespearean scholars recognise Shakespeare’s debt to Marlowe who pioneered the blank verse style in which Shakespeare wrote. Some of the early plays such as Titus Andronicus have been attributed to Marlowe in the past and mainstream academia has finally accepted what many critics have argued for over a century, that Marlowe collaborated with Shakespeare on his early history plays. In fact, Marlovians claim that statistical tests have proven that Marlowe’s writing is indistinguishable from Shakespeare’s. Nonetheless, even if Marlowe is not Shakespeare, he certainly left an indelible mark on his writing.
The Earl of Rutland
Another aristocratic contender is Roger Manners, Earl of Rutland (1576-1612). Roger Manners also lost his father at a young age, became the ward of Lord Burghley and studied under Francis Bacon. He, too, went to Cambridge University, attended the University at Padua and travelled widely in Europe. While not as widely supported as other candidates, a strong argument can be made in his favour.
Manners was much younger than Shakespeare and to maintain his candidacy one would need to believe he was a child prodigy. However, Manners entered university at the age of eleven in 1587, which gave him ample time to write Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. Strong parallels have been made between his life story and Shakespeare’s writings, he had access to many of the literary sources and artworks referenced in the plays, and he died at the time Shakespeare retired. However, he would have been much too young to be the author of the Sonnets.
Nonetheless, there are some outstanding parallels in the plays that strongly implicate him. He attended the university at Padua at the same time as two Danish students called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and he visited Denmark on a diplomatic mission in 1603, after which certain details in Hamlet pertaining to Elsinore were corrected. Manners’ acrimonious relationship with his younger brother can also be seen in the relationship between Oliver and his younger brother Orlando in As You Like It.
Manners was deeply implicated in the Essex rebellion. Although only joining at the last minute and turning Queen’s evidence, he was condemned to death. His sentence was commuted to a fine of £30,000 (an enormous amount at the time when even an aristocrat could manage to live on £1000 per year) after the intervention of an uncle who knew the Queen well. While his fine was later reduced and then rescinded altogether by James I, this initial disproportionate punishment is believed to have actually been for writing Richard II, a play considered seditious by the Queen for the scene in which Richard is forced to give up his crown. At the instigation of the rebels, the Chamberlain’s Men played it the night before the rebellion, yet neither William Shakespeare, the acknowledged author, nor the company was punished.
A new candidate for the authorship has recently been proposed, Henry Neville (1564-1615). Neville attended Oxford University and was a highly educated and well-travelled diplomat and politician. A nephew of Francis Bacon by marriage, he was also distantly related to William Shakespeare and an exact contemporary. Descended from the Plantagenets who had been defeated by Henry VII, his grandfather and great-uncle having been executed by Henry VIII, Neville was in a precarious political position and, it is believed, could not afford to be seen writing politically controversial plays which showed his own ancestors in a favourable light. Neville was also implicated in the Essex Rebellion in 1601 and imprisoned in the Tower of London.
His supporters claim they discovered Neville’s identity by deciphering the mysterious dedication of the Sonnets. On further study they discovered that Neville’s travels closely paralleled the date of composition of the plays. While descended from royalty on his father’s side, he was also descended from trade on his mother’s side and much of his travel and correspondence covered international trade in Europe and the American colonies, including the manufacturing of iron weaponry which appears prominently in the canon. The Strachey Letter, which described a shipwreck in the Caribbean and is widely believed to have been the source for The Tempest, was actually a private document of the London Virginia Company of which Neville was a director.
Although never recognised as a writer during his lifetime, Neville was consulted by his contemporaries – including Beaumont and Fletcher and King James I – for advice on their own writing. His supporters also see similarities of style, vocabulary and word frequency between Neville’s private and diplomatic letters and Shakespeare’s plays and poems.
As well as the dedication to the Sonnets, which has been previously claimed for Oxford, Neville’s supporters also claim for him a piece of evidence that has previously been claimed for Francis Bacon – a manuscript page believed to have come from Bacon’s house on which Neville’s name also appears. The damaged and much scribbled on scrap of paper lists some of Bacon’s works together with Shakespeare’s and some others’. Someone has written the name William Shakespeare several times on the page using different handwriting and spelling, as though practising how to make or forge his signature.
However, Neville’s case is highly esoteric and circumstantial and relies on an idiosyncratic chronology of the plays. Moreover, ‘secret’ information that Neville was supposed to have access to about his ancestors was freely available from historical works such as Holinshed’s Chronicle.
While the adherents of each candidate have put their cases in exhaustive detail, none of their evidence ever rises above circumstantial or coincidental, so that none of the candidates can be proven to be the author of the canon beyond reasonable doubt. While strong arguments can be made that certain candidates wrote certain plays or poems, it is hard to argue that any of them wrote them all. Some died too soon or were born too late. Aspects of one candidate’s life or the other can be seen in some of the plays and poems but not in others. Evidential material is claimed as proof for more than one candidate. Some of the candidates had some of the specialised knowledge discerned in the canon, but not all of it. Some may display a personal connection to a wider range of the canon, but have otherwise shown no propensity for poetry or creative writing. Some might be published writers, but their style is entirely different to that of the canon.
Furthermore, as John Michell puts it in Who Wrote Shakespeare?
A feature in all of [these cases] is the claim that their [candidates’] respective lives and characters match those of Shakespeare – as deduced from his works… The significance of this fades away when the cases for other candidates are considered… These works are so universal that many different minds, careers and experiences of life can be read into them. Everyone’s life… is reflected in Shakespeare’s plays.
In other words, each case is cancelled out by every other case.
However, there may well be a way to reconcile all these claims, which is what I’ll be looking at in a follow up to this article.
© Pauline Montagna 2021
Michell, John, Who Wrote Shakespeare? Thames & Hudson Ltd, London (1996)
Rubbo, Michael, Much Ado About Something, The Helpful Eye/FFC (2001)
Shapiro, James, Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? Simon & Schuster (2010)
Wood, Michael, In Search of Shakespeare, BBC Worldwide (2003)
Wraight, A.D. Christopher Marlowe and Edward Alleyn, Adam Hart (1993)