Who Wrote The Plays Of William Shakespeare? The Real History
William Shakespeare is England’s greatest playwright and an enduring cultural icon, whose work has had a constant presence in schools and theaters around the world. From humble beginnings in Stratford-upon-Avon he traveled to London and made a career as an actor, owner of a theater company – Lord Chamberlain’s Men (later King’s Men) – and of course as an author of plays and poetry.
From the last decade of the 16th century until his death in 1616, William Shakespeare wrote almost 40 plays. There were tragedies like Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet; the stories of Henry IV, Henry V and Richard III; and comedies such as The Storm, Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. While there are many gaps in our knowledge of the man himself, every detail of the bard’s works is well known and has been interpreted in myriad ways.
The conspiracy claim: Shakespeare was not the real author
According to so-called anti-Stratfordians, another writer hid his name to protect his identity. In fact, around 77 nominees were suggested as the playwright who really deserves to be celebrated. The names most commonly heard are polymath statesman Sir Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe (a playwright of Shakespeare’s time) and Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, but there are theories for Sir Walter Ralegh, Fulke Greville, William Stanley , 6th Earl of Derby, and some even attribute to Queen Elizabeth I or King James VI and I.
- In the podcast | dr Paul Edmondson discusses the alternative candidates that have been proposed as the author of Shakespeare’s work:
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What is the source of the theory?
“It really started with a highly intelligent American, Delia Bacon,” says Dr. Paul Edmondson, Head of Research for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and author of numerous publications on Shakespeare and his works. “She could not accept that someone of his social and intellectual background could produce the work attributed to him.” Instead, she proposed a creative collaboration led by Sir Francis Bacon.
In a letter about a visit to Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish historian, philosopher and essayist in 1853, Bacon wrote of their disbelief that Shakespeare – “that oaf” – wrote the plays with his name, at which Carlyle gave a “scream”. Shakespeare’s reputation had blossomed in the 19th century, but for all the adulation there were voices like Bacon’s who questioned the legitimacy of the Bard’s legacy.
“A few years later, in 1856, she persuaded the vicar of Stratford-upon-Avon to allow her to stay at Holy Trinity Church, where Shakespeare was buried, with pickaxe and spade, because she was convinced that the tomb would open.” there is a document there that would reveal the true identity of the author,” says Dr. Edmondson. “In the end she didn’t open Shakespeare’s grave, she was too scared to. But she really got the ball rolling.”
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The reasons why the theory holds
A central tenet of the theory is that Shakespeare’s social background and education are inconsistent with the depth of genius evident in his works. Growing up in a small market town like Stratford-upon-Avon, how was he able to write so effectively about court life, politics and foreign affairs? Where did his path with words without going to university come from?
For example, the nominees proposed as true authors went to university. After the case was made for Francis Bacon, other names surfaced. Christopher Marlowe was offered in an 1895 novel by American Wilbur Gleason Zeigler. The fact that he had died in a pub brawl in 1593 did not deter the theory, which stretched to the point that Marlowe was a spy who faked his own death and went to Italy (which is why many Shakespeare plays are set there). To this day, the Hoffman Prize is awarded each year for the best essay about Marlowe as the actual author of the plays or about his relationship to Shakespeare.
Edward de Vere came into the picture in 1920, suggested by J. Thomas Looney. As Earl of Oxford it would not have been respectable for him to write for the theater, but such was his love and skill that he wrote under the name Shakespeare. Charlton and Dorothy Ogburn took up this argument in their book: This star of England (1952) and subsequent generations of Oxfordians.
The question of cooperation has also been well studied. A common practice at the time, there is evidence that Shakespeare had worked with other people on some of his plays, including with John Fletcher for Henry VIII, The Two Noble Relatives and the lost work Cardeniothus it has been argued that he was never the sole author of a work.
“One of the interesting things is the number of lawyers involved in the authorship discussion,” says Dr. Edmondson. “In 1987, three US Supreme Court justices put Shakespeare on trial, so to speak. And in 1988 Lord Justices met at the Inner Temple in London to do something similar. Both have ruled in Shakespeare’s favour, but what amazes me is that it has even come to this.”
The evidence that exposes the conspiracy
In general, it’s a two-pronged approach: the first is to challenge the individual nominees who are proposed in Shakespeare’s place. For example, in 1925 (after Zeigler’s novel), a coroner’s report of Marlowe’s death was discovered. De Vere also died before many of Shakespeare’s plays were written. Although some of the works have proved difficult to date, Dr. Edmondson suggests that it is possible to identify “fashions of the Jacobean playwright” that could not have existed before de Vere’s death in 1604.
The second pillar is the abundance of corroborating evidence that Shakespeare was a major figure in the theater at the time. On the one hand, his name appears on the title pages of his plays; Contemporaries and early drafts of his own coat of arms name him as a dramatist; and of course he was a shareholder of the Globe. In 1598 Francis Mears wrote a list of 12 plays attributed to Shakespeare, while playwright Ben Jonson’s documented conversations with William Drummond in 1618–19 discuss his works in detail.
The funerary monument at Holy Trinity Church depicts Shakespeare holding a quill and reclining on a writing pad, and may have been commissioned during his lifetime, according to research by Lena Cowen Orlin of Georgetown University. That means it was something of a life portrait, suggests Dr. Edmondson before, “because he himself wanted to be remembered for posterity”.
Nothing can silence the theorists, says Dr. Edmondson, but taken together the evidence points overwhelmingly to Shakespeare as the true author. “Every aspect, every piece of evidence must be fully and convincingly refuted. You have to go through each one and say why that’s not the case before you can even consider that the author is someone else.”
As for the argument from Shakespeare’s education, Dr. Edmondson that the bard was not at all lacking in an appropriate degree of scholarship for his works. “The flourishing of English literature in Shakespeare’s day is due to the humanistic grammar schools established under Edward VI. were established,” he says. “Young minds that have been taught to think, that learn to blend language together for powerful effects, to see that language is power: this is the kind of mind that Shakespeare shaped.”
dr Paul Edmondson is Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and is the author, co-author and co-editor of numerous books and articles on Shakespeare, including the free e-book Shakespeare Bites Back: Not So Anonymous