By Mia Hodorovich
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, Mia Hodorovich 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
- 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 lady doth protest too much
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
- Linger (verb) to be slow in leaving or disappearing
- Controversy (noun) a dispute or disagreement
 Supporters of this theory claim that “Shakespeare” was a pseudonym3
shared 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,5
and supporters claim to have found hidden codes in the plays that attribute the work to Sir Bacon.
 Finally, perhaps the most fantastic6
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.
- a fake name, especially used by an author
- separate from outside influences
- Fantastic (adjective) very strange or imaginative
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 fringe7
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
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?
- Fringe (adjective) not part of the mainstream; unconventional
Directions: Brainstorm your answers to the following questions in the space provided. Be prepared to
share your original ideas in a class discussion.
- Do you think that William Shakespeare was the true author of his work? Why or why not?
- In the text, the author describes the controversy surrounding William Shakespeare’s work
as lasting centuries. Why do you think it is so important for people to know the identity of
the author responsible? Why do you think some people are reluctant to believe that
Shakespeare is the true author of his work?