William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was an English poet, playwright, and actor. Shakespeare was credited with writing approximately 38 plays and 154 sonnets. But was Shakespeare the one true author of all those works? In this informational text, I will discusses various theories that question the true identity of this great writer. As you read, take notes on how people support their claims that Shakespeare was not the one true author of his work.
William Shakespeare is regarded as one of the greatest writers in the English language, if not the greatest. But did you know that some people don’t believe that he wrote the works attributed to him? Not a lot is known about the man whose work has come to mean so much to the world. Other than his written work, there is very little historical evidence that exists about him today. William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and died in 1616. Not much is known about his upbringing or education. The period between 1585 and 1592 is known as the “lost years,” as he left few historical traces during this time. A marriage certificate, a will, and two portraits are about all that remains. Even his exact birthday is unknown, though it is generally observed on April 23. This lingering1 mystery has led many to believe that Shakespeare may not be the true author. There are two main theories shared among those who question whether Shakespeare was, in fact, the true author of his works. One theory proposes that there were multiple authors. The other claims that one man borrowed Shakespeare’s identity to protect his own.
The controversy around Shakespeare’s true authorship first emerged in the 1800s. American writer Delia Bacon published a book in which she proposed that Shakespeare’s works were not written by one person but by several. Supporters of this theory claim that “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym3shared by many authors. They may have used it because they could not publicly claim authorship for reasons of social status, politics, or gender. For authors of noble status, having their work appear in print instead of being restricted to private, courtly audiences would have led to disgrace. For authors involved in matters of state, writing plays that referenced current politics would be damaging to their career, if not treasonous. And of course, female authors at this time would have been considered shocking; women weren’t allowed to act in plays, let alone write them.
To Delia Bacon’s credit, there is a grain of truth to this theory. Collaborative fiction was not unheard of in Shakespeare’s time. Shakespeare was also inspired by various sources, as well as by his fellow dramatists. Julius Caesar was based on a translation of Plutarch. Romeo and Juliet was inspired by an Italian tale of a similar name. Troilus and Cressida borrowed heavily from Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Regardless of the truth behind the “group theory,” Shakespeare did not write his plays in a vacuum.4
What’s in a name?
Over the centuries, more than 80 historical figures have been singled out as the “true” author of Shakespeare’s work. The most popular candidates for the “single author theory” include the following:
• William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby
• Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
• Sir Francis Bacon
• Christopher Marlowe
William Stanley and Edward de Vere were educated noblemen and theatre patrons. They would have had intimate knowledge of the court that a commoner would have lacked. People who support the alternative authorship theory see this as proof that Shakespeare must have secretly been a nobleman since many of his plays feature nobility. Since the 1920s, the Earl of Oxford has been considered to be the number one candidate; there was even a movie made about this theory in 2011 called Anonymous. Before the Earl of Oxford, Sir Francis Bacon was considered the leading candidate. Sir Francis Bacon was a scientist, lawyer, and a great intellectual figure of his time. Many comparisons have been drawn between his writing and Shakespeare’s. Bacon supporters argue that some of Shakespeare’s plays include legal references that would have required the writer to have expertise in the law.Furthermore, Bacon was skilled with ciphers, and supporters claim to have found hidden codes in the plays that attribute the work to Sir Bacon. Finally, perhaps the most fantastic theory points to Christopher Marlowe. Marlowe was a popular poet and playwright who influenced Shakespeare. Marlowe and Shakespeare were born in the same year, but Marlowe died under mysterious circumstances in 1593. Supporters of this theory believe that Marlowe faked his death to escape a trial and then wrote under Shakespeare’s name.
To thine own self be true
The theory that Shakespeare was not the true author of his works has gained popularity over the past 150 years. However, the majority of Shakespearean scholars remain unconvinced. It is widely seen as a fringe belief, and the supposed evidence of alternative authorship is viewed as exaggerated. There are accounts from Elizabethan actors and writers that identify Shakespeare as the author of his work. The fact that there are few historical documents about the man himself does not mean he did not write his sonnets and plays. Shakespearean scholars argue that this is a type of flawed logic: that the absence of evidence is evidence of absence.
Shakespeare continues to shape how we communicate, as well as the types of stories we tell and the popular culture we enjoy. His influence knows no bounds. For some, it can be hard to believe that one man could have such impact. What do you believe?