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.
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.
The cases for Francis Bacon and Christopher Marlowe are equally unpersuasive. The argument in favor of Bacon, Alan Stewart writes, rests largely on the premise that Shakespeare could not have written the plays because of his lack of education and wide experience. In addition to this, a paper book written in Bacon’s hand, discovered in 1867, contains a list of Bacon’s essays and two of Shakespeare’s plays, Richard II and Richard III. This is proof, Stewart notes, of Shakespeare’s growing fame, not (as the anti-Shakespeareans would have it) of Bacon’s authorship of the two plays. Moreover, while comparisons of Bacon’s and Shakespeare’s style yield some similarities, as would the comparisons of any two contemporaries writing in the same, often formulaic, Elizabethan English, they also show some important differences—most notably Bacon’s strong didactic bent, making it all but inconceivable that he was able to write plays such as All’s Well that Ends Well or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Marlowe’s biggest obstacle, as with Edward de Vere, was his death. Marlowe died in 1593, but anti-Shakespeareans have long suggested that he faked his death in order to escape courtly troubles and cuckolded husbands. According to official records discovered in 1925, Marlowe was stabbed in the eye by one Ingram Frizer following a dispute over the day’s “reckoning,” a “sum of pence owed for the day’s food and drink.” But in The Murder of the Man Who Was ‘Shakespeare’ (1955), Leo Hochman, using the pseudonym Calvin Hoffman, argues that Marlowe’s homosexual lover, Thomas Walsingham, arranged for Frizer and one other man to kill a sailor and claim that it was, in fact, Marlowe so that the beleaguered playwright could escape to the continent. The dead sailor, identified by Marlowe’s associates who were in on the hoax, was buried in an unmarked grave, while Marlowe spent the next 20 years in Italy writing plays and sending them to the uneducated actor, Shakespeare.
The problem with this theory, Charles Nicholl writes, is that it’s “mere invention. . . . [T]he homosexual relationship, the waylaid sailor, the body switch, the suborned coroner, even the unmarked grave” are all simply made up. The pattern of “authorship controversialism,” Nicholl notes, is speculative premise (“Shakespeare could not have written the plays because . . .”) followed by “invented evidence” that “plays a determining role in what is presented as genuine historical argument.” Over 80 alternative Shakespeares have been proposed to date, and no doubt more will follow, no matter how little evidence there might be to support them.
As other essays here make clear, the data we do have about Shakespeare’s life suggest that he was, indeed, the author of the plays. While Shakespeare did not attend university, he had an excellent secondary education provided to him by the position of his upper-middle-class father. Stratford-upon-Avon was no London, but it was a bustling market town visited regularly by traveling theater troupes. Many of Shakespeare’s hometown friends went on to serve in positions of prominence in the court and in London. And while it was unusual for a playwright not to have a university education, this might explain some of the early animosity he faced from other playwrights.
Furthermore, Shakespeare’s plays bear the mark of being written by a professional theater man. The author’s uses of doubled roles (so that 8 to 10 actors could perform a play of some 20 parts) and acute awareness of how long it would take to change costume or “execute a technical effect,” James Mardock and Eric Rasmussen write, would have been of little concern to courtiers like Edward de Vere or Walter Raleigh. Also, many of the plays’ parts seem to be written for actors who were members of Shakespeare’s company, most famously Will Kemp and Richard Cowley.
It is likely that Shakespeare collaborated on some of his plays—a common practice at the time—and particularly on the early ones, such as Titus Andronicus and all three parts of Henry VI. However, the majority of his plays written after the great success of Venus and Adonis (1592) were done without assistance.
If what evidence we do have points to William Shakespeare as the author of his plays, why are there so many theories to the contrary, especially as of late? One author suggests that the Internet has something to do with it: misinformation shared with a poorly educated readership. More telling, though, are the comments of Michael E. Egan, a respected Shakespearean who signed “The Declaration of Reasonable Doubt.” Asked by Stuart Hampton-Reeves why he signed it, Egan explains that he is an “agnostic” regarding Shakespeare’s identity and is prepared to “follow the evidence where it leads.” Yet, he states that ascribing the “astonishing range, wisdom and knowledge” of the plays “to genius is simply to invoke magic.”
In short, we live in a sadly reduced age that, nursed on the poisonous skepticism of poststructuralism, no longer believes in identity, much less genius. William Shakespeare’s genius seems “magic” because we are by comparison apes / With foreheads villainous low.
Micah Mattix is assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.