In the Bard’s Defense: Debating Shakespeare’s Authorship

by Anne Mielke |

“Time shall unfold what plighted cunning hides.” –King Lear, I.I.

The Apollo 11 moon landing on July 20, 1969 was an elaborate hoax devised by NASA to gain support for their work. Adolf Hitler did not die on April 30, 1945 as people are led to believe, but is alive and well to this day. Area 51 houses real evidence that aliens do exist, including the infamous alien discovered at Roswell, New Mexico. The terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 were, in fact, an inside job, planned by high-level officials in the U.S. government. All of these statements have one thing in common: they are all conspiracy theories that have been disproved numerous times, yet somehow they still persist. Another intriguing conspiracy theory is that William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, did not write any of the plays that are attributed to him. Is this merely an outlandish conspiracy theory like the others mentioned, or does it hold some believability? Evidently, there is ample proof that Shakespeare did indeed write his plays, that he was the only one who could have written his plays, and that this theory is just that: a theory.

The Shakespeare Authorship Question, the phrase coined to describe this theory, first appeared in print in the 1856, when Delia Bacon published a book which she titled The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded. In this book, she contests that William Shakespeare was not the author of his plays, but instead her namesake, Sir Francis Bacon, was the real author (Gross 39). Not only did she have no evidence to support her theory, but it has been proven that, although she shares the same surname as the illustrious Sir Francis Bacon, she was not in fact a descendent of him. Above this, she even spent the last years of her life in an insane asylum (Bryson 186). Nevertheless, her claim somehow caught the eye of the public, and over the next hundred and fifty years, more than fifty other candidates—the Earl of Oxford, Christopher Marlowe, Mary Sidney, and the Sixth Earl of Derby to a name a few—have also been put forward as the true author of Shakespeare’s plays. Eventually, a name was coined for those who questioned Shakespeare’s authorship: Anti-Stratfordians. Arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship vary widely, from his educational background to the belief that the real author had to have been a nobleman—or noble woman. A close examination of the evidence offers reproof for most of these claims, as well as discredits any popular candidates put forward.

Perhaps the most infamous assertion is that Shakespeare could not be the author because he merely had a grammar school education. The Anti-Stratfordians claim that Shakespeare could not have written such works of wonder with the little schooling he had received. However, Ben Johnson, among many other prominent poets and playwrights of the time, also never went to university and yet no one accuses him of not writing his works (Bryson 193). Joseph Pearce makes a perfect point when he says, “As for the presumption…that Shakespeare’s ‘humble origins’ would have precluded him from being able to write the plays, one need only remind these proponents of the supercilious elitism that great literature is not the preserver of the rich or the privileged” (26). As Pearce points out, by believing that Shakespeare could not write his plays merely because he was not rich or powerful, Anti-Stratfordians possess an attitude that the rich are somehow superior. If they are right, there go many of the greatest writers in history who come from humble origins: Daniel Defoe, Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, and G.K. Chesterton.

Also, the Anti-Stratfordian argument against him on this point rides completely on the fact that a grammar school education is not enough. This, however, is not the case. There are many modern authors who started publishing books while still in their teens, such as Christopher Paolini, who was nineteen when he published Eragon, or Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, who published In the Forests of the Night at age fourteen. Surely, these authors had no more than a high school education. Besides, Shakespeare didn’t just go to any grammar school. In fact, there is documentation that he was a student at Stratford Free School, where he learned how to read and write, and studied Latin as well as Plautus and Terence, Seneca, Ovid, Plutarch, and other classical works—clearly, he was not an uneducated man (Gaines 18). Thus, the Anti-Stratfordian argument in this area seems to depend completely on a supposition that ignores any examination of the facts or logical reasoning.

Another allegation against Shakespeare is that his works demonstrate that he must have been well-traveled, as many of his plays take place around the world. His settings vary as widely as Rome in Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, to Vienna in Measure for Measure, and many other places. As there is no documentation of William Shakespeare having traveled, he could not have written his plays without being there. Right? Wrong. As I talked to Nancy Shih-Knodel, a Shakespeare instructor at North Hennepin Community College, she explained that travel writing was catching on at the time, as England became the superpower of the world after defeating Spain’s armada in 1588. “Some people say because England is this little island,” she said, “they had to get out.” People started writing about different parts of the world, and Shakespeare read those books. Therefore, he did not have to travel to know about the world. For example, if I wanted to write a book about China, I would not have to travel there. I could just read about it in books, magazines, and other forums. The same goes for Shakespeare.

The most ridiculous assertion in the Anti-Stratfordian argument is the idea that Shakespeare could not be the true author because many of his characters were noble people and, as he certainly was not noble, he would not have been able to write about them. Many times, however, the opposite is the case. In Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, there is a group of peasants putting on a play, including a weaver, carpenter, and bellows-mender, and Shakespeare tells in detail about their characters. How would someone like Sir Francis Bacon, a noble himself, or any other candidate know enough about the lower class to demonstrate full understanding of them? Also, the plays feature detailed description of leather work, and oddly enough John Shakespeare, William Shakespeare’s father, worked as a glover for many years (Ackroyd 23). How would any noble know so much about this? On the other hand, Shakespeare would have been able to learn much more about the upper class, as they garnered a great deal of attention from the public. It is much easier to examine the rich if you are poor, than to examine the poor if you are rich. Perhaps this is because the poor have a chance to see the rich in their grandeur, whereas the rich view the poor as too below their notice. Either way, Shakespeare’s plays are more likely to have been written by a commoner with knowledge of nobles, than a noble with knowledge of commoners.

As mentioned earlier, Sir Francis Bacon is probably the most famous candidate for being the author of Shakespeare’s plays. He was certainly the noble that Anti-Stratfordians seem certain Shakespeare must have been, but there is one point on which their theory completely falls apart—Sir Francis Bacon hated the theater. He hated it so much, in fact, that he “attacked it as a frivolous and lightweight pastime in one of his many essays” (Bryson 188). Why would a man who despised the theater with such fervor write plays? Besides, there is no documentation that Sir Francis Bacon even had any connection to the plays, save for an apparently random anagram in Shakespeare’s play Love’s Labor’s Lost, that reads “Honorificabilitudinitatibus.” This nonsensical word, the proponents of Sir Francis Bacon state, is really hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi, a Latin phrase which translates to “these plays, F. Bacon’s offspring, are preserved for the world” (McCrea). If the Anti-Stratfordian argument is merely supported by one random phrase in one of Shakespeare’s plays, their theory is completely unreliable.

Sir Francis Bacon, however, is only one of many candidates put forward as Shakespeare. Another popular candidate is Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. At first, the Oxfordians—the name coined for those who rally for the Earl of Oxford—seem to have put forth a decent candidate. He was the right age to have written the plays and, unlike Sir Francis Bacon, he did not despise the theater. However, there is one critical point of evidence that discounts the Oxfordian theory—Edward de Vere died in 1604, before many of Shakespeare’s plays were first performed, including Macbeth, Hamlet, and many others. His proponents try to counter this point by saying that he could have written the plays before his death. This makes no sense, however, considering that the plays sometimes refer to incidences that took place after his death, such as the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (Shih-Knodel). Unless he could see into the future, there is no possible way that he could have written those plays. Moreover, in his book Shakespeare: The World as Stage, Bill Bryson talks about how the Earl of Oxford was a highly arrogant man. Certainly, such a prideful man would not be content with having another man take credit for his plays.

There are many other candidates as well that deserve some mention. The first is Christopher Marlowe, a renowned playwright and dramatist of the late sixteenth century. It is surprising that he is even in the running as a candidate, considering that he died in 1593, eleven years before the Earl of Oxford’s death. If the Earl of Oxford could not have written the plays, neither could Marlowe. Despite this, proponents of the Marlovian theory—the theory that says Marlowe wrote Shakespeare’s plays—claim that Marlowe did not die in 1593, as records show. They argue that he faked his death and lived in hiding for over twenty years, in which time he wrote Shakespeare’s plays (Barber). Marlowe’s supporters account for everything—from the unreliable death certificate to the epigrams in Shakespeare’s play that prove Marlowe is the author—but they seem to forget that Christopher Marlowe would have absolutely no reason to fake his death. There is no evidence that he was in debt, or in danger, or that he had any other desire to vanish from the public eye. Until Marlovians can account for this, there is no sufficient proof that Christopher Marlowe is the real author of Shakespeare’s plays.

Of course, candidates for Shakespeare do not stop at wealthy men. Mary Sidney, the Countess of Pembroke, may be a less popular candidate for Shakespeare, but she is also one of the few female candidates. She was young, beautiful, and many people in her family were poets and patrons of poets. As Bill Bryson says, “All that is missing to connect her with Shakespeare is anything to connect her with Shakespeare.” If there is nothing to connect her to Shakespeare, how could Anti-Stratfordians believe she could even be a plausible candidate? This brings up another outrageous candidate: Queen Elizabeth I. Between governing England, fighting the Spanish Armada, and persecuting those who disagreed with her, it seems Queen Elizabeth was busy writing Shakespeare’s plays. Not only is this irrational, but it shows how illogical the Anti-Stratfordian movement is to consider anyone in their desperation to disprove the most obvious candidate: Shakespeare himself.

Perhaps it is time, then, to examine William Shakespeare himself as a candidate. It is easy to say Shakespeare wins by default, having excluded all of the other candidates. However, in order to do him justice, the more difficult proof must be given to validate that he is undeniably the author of the plays attributed to him. The first, and possibly the most important, proof that Shakespeare wrote his plays is the sheer number of people who credited his plays to him after his death. People who had known him during his life must be taken as reliable witnesses. Such witnesses include John Heminges, Henry Condell, and Richard Burbage, who were all actors and writers in The King’s Men—a theatrical company to which William Shakespeare belonged (Shih-Knodel). It was they who requested the first ever compilation of Shakespeare’s work in Mr. William Shakespeare’s Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies. If Shakespeare was not the author of his plays, every single member of the King’s Men would have had to keep his secret. The chance of this is minute, especially with how famous Shakespeare was during his lifetime. If something is a secret, it has an uncanny way of coming to the limelight with surprising urgency. Yet proof that any of these people were lying about Shakespeare’s identity has never been evidenced. Either they are exceptional liars, or Shakespeare is indeed the real author of his plays.

Shakespeare’s plays are probably the best witnesses to his authorship. After all, they are the works penned by his own hand, and therefore must attest to the genius behind them. As mentioned earlier, his plays show he was familiar with leather work, as his father had worked in the trade for years. Above this, his plays also spend time examining the hardships of the poor, as when Romeo says in Romeo and Juliet, “Famine is in thy cheeks, Need and oppression starveth in thine eyes, Contempt and beggary hang upon thy back; The world is not thy friend nor the world’s law…” (5.1.76). This is only one of the many examples of Shakespeare’s understanding of the poor. He was raised around the destitute; in fact, his father lost his wealth to debt when William was a very young man (Ackroyd). This only gives credence to the fact that he wrote the plays.

Another theme that occurs in many of his plays is that of the theater. After all, one of his most famous phrases from As You Like It is, “All the world’s a stage…” As Shakespeare himself worked as an actor as well a playwright for many years in The Chamberlain’s Men and later The King’s Men, it seems fitting that his experiences in theater should weasel their way into many of his writings. His plays not only give witness that he is the author but, more importantly, they show the character and ideals of the man behind the genius.

Even common sense dictates William Shakespeare must have written his plays. Not only does every Shakespearian expert agree that Shakespeare is the author (Shih-Knodel), but every contradiction that the Anti-Stratfordian community offers can be as easily disproven as claiming that the sky is green. Certainly, one would merely have to look up at the sky to see that it is not green, but, if one refuses to lift their eyes to the heavens, how would one know if the sky is not green? Similarly, the proof championing Shakespeare is right in front of their noses; they just refuse to see it. The arguments I have provided have just touched the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more information out there which needs to be used in Shakespeare’s defense. If Shakespeare is being discredited, does that not suggest that any author might be in danger of someday being questioned about their work, merely because their life was not documented in detail? Thus, William Shakespeare must be defended as the true author of his plays.

With so many allegations against Shakespeare, one might wonder whether the question of his authorship will ever cease. Unfortunately, it probably won’t. People are always looking for surprises and the unexpected, and are often not easily convinced by the most obvious answer. Like every other conspiracy theory, the Shakespeare Authorship Question has caught on, not because it holds any believability, but because people want an explanation that will astonish them. William Shakespeare, the Bard of Avon, was an actor, a playwright, a father, and a husband, but he was not the glamorous noble people want the author of Shakespeare’s plays to be. The Anti-Stratfordians crave for the author to be a person of wealth and privilege, and as a result they have ignored any proof that contradicts their delusion. Not only is there no factual evidence that he did not write his plays, but there are numerous proofs that he did write them. Consequently, it can be concluded that Shakespeare did write his plays, and every expert of Shakespeare would concur. However, there will always be writers, actors, and brilliant minds who believe otherwise. For, as Cassius so eloquently put it in Julius Caesar, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” By his words, William Shakespeare could no better have defended himself than if he were alive today. Perhaps, in a way, he himself is his greatest defense.

 Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. Shakespeare The Biography. New York: Nan A. Telese, 2005. Print.

Barber, Rosalind. “Shakespeare Authorship Doubt in 1593.” Critical Survey 21.2 (2009): 83-110 Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 April 2014.

Bryson, Bill. Shakespeare: The World as Stage. New York: Harper, 2007. Print.

Gaines, Barry. “Biography of William Shakespeare.” Critical Insights: King Lear (2011): 18- 24. Literary Reference Center Plus. Web. 17 Mar. 2015.

Gross, John. “Denying Shakespeare.” Commentary 129.3 (2010): 38-44. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.

McCrea, Scott. The Case for Shakespeare: The End of the Authorship Question. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2005. Print.

Pearce, Joseph. The Quest for Shakespeare. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2008.  Print.

Shakespeare, William. As You like It. New Haven: Yale UP, 1954. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Julius Caesar. New York: E.P. Dutton, 1935. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Louis B. Wright. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. New ed. New York: Washington Square, 1959. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Tucker Brooke. The Tragedy of King Lear. New Haven: Yale UP,
Print.

Shih-Knodel, Nancy. Personal Interview. 20 Mar 2014.

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