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Bard of Honor

Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare? Of course he did.

Mar 17, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 26 • By MICAH MATTIX
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Questioning the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays has long been the domain of amateurs, and Delia Bacon was one of the first. An American schoolteacher, and mostly frustrated writer, she argued in her Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded (1857) that the middle-class and grammar-school-educated Shakespeare lacked the training and courtly experience to write plays that engaged “the highest literary culture of the age.” She suggested, instead, that the plays were written by Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh, and other members of the Elizabethan court.

Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford in ‘Anonymous’ (2011)

Rhys Ifans as the Earl of Oxford in ‘Anonymous’ (2011)

Reiner Bajo / Columbia Pictures / Everett Collection

Delia Bacon managed to interest Ralph Waldo Emerson in her theory, and she met with Thomas Carlyle and Nathaniel Hawthorne in England. (Hawthorne was consul in Liverpool at the time.) Both were cordial, but critical. Hawthorne nevertheless supported the publication of Philosophy, perhaps in part because Bacon had won over his sister-in-law, Elizabeth Peabody. But the book failed miserably. 

Hawthorne wrote that the “ponderous octavo volume .  .  . fell with a dead thump at the feet of the public and has never been picked up.” Part of the problem was style: Bacon alternates between invective and long, tangled, close readings. More than one critic has called it “unreadable.” It was also simply unconvincing; it was rigorously critiqued (and occasionally censured) by outraged Shakespeareans. Bacon, who did not have an easy life, went mad and died in an asylum two years after the book’s publication. 

Had Delia Bacon lived today, things might have turned out differently. Never have anti-Shakespearean theories, as they are called, been more popular—even gaining some traction among academics for the first time. First published in 2007, the “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt”—which, as the title states, proposes that there is a “reasonable doubt about the identity of William Shakespeare”—has since garnered the signatures of Derek Jacobi and Alexander Waugh, along with various professors of English, theater directors, and performers. In 2011, the film Anonymous brought to screens J. Thomas Looney’s theory that the Earl of Oxford, Edward de Vere, was the real author of the plays. Anonymous was not a success, but it marked a growing interest in anti-Shakespearean theories.

Now, in Shakespeare Beyond Doubt, Paul Edmondson and Stanley Wells write that Shakespeareans have tended to view the question of authorship as “a topic unworthy of their attention, even as a supreme expression of human folly.” Not any longer. Due, in part, to the events described above, this volume, composed of brief, accessible essays (most of them just over 10 pages) by international Shakespearean scholars, addresses various aspects of the authorship question. And while Edmondson and Wells strike a cordial note in their introductory remarks, writing that the “authorship discussion is a complex intellectual phenomenon well worthy of objective consideration,” these essays make clear that it is, frankly, as silly as ever to suggest that anyone but William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon wrote the plays attributed to him.

Take, for example, Looney’s argument that Edward de Vere was the “real” Shakespeare. Alan H. Nelson provides a number of reasons why de Vere couldn’t have written the plays. He was a poor poet—“not bad for a courtier [but] an embarrassment to his proponents”—who owned his own theater company, Oxford’s Men, which performed none of Shakespeare’s plays, an odd decision if the plays were indeed written by de Vere. Oh, and he died in 1604, seven years before The Tempest was written. Supporters of Looney’s theory get around this problem by suggesting that de Vere faked his own death, or that The Tempest was written earlier; but there is no evidence to support either claim.