William Shakespeare, the man known to history as the Bard of Avon and celebrated as the greatest playwright that the world has ever known, is at once a familiar yet elusive figure. Whilst there are few people on Earth who have not heard of or come across one of his plays, or at least one of his famous sayings, there is an enigma at the heart of Shakespeare’s character. Very few hard facts are known about the man, which has led to endless speculation about who exactly he was and how he came to write verse which is just as popular now as it was when it was first written, almost five hundred years ago. Some have even questioned the very identity of Shakespeare as the writer of the plays which made him so famous, pointing to the incredible breadth, variety and quality of his work as proof that an uneducated commoner could not have been behind them. Over the many centuries since Shakespeare’s death numerous theories have been put forward concerning the provenance of his plays, the true identity of their writer(s) and the reasons for the elaborate cover-up, if such existed. Hollywood got in on the act as well with the recent film Anonymous, which cashes in on one aspect of the Shakespeare conspiracy. There is, however, far more to tell, including facts which are even stranger than anything which ever appeared in Shakespeare’s plays.
The theory that Shakespeare’s plays were not actually his own work was first aired in the 18th century by a clergyman named James Wilmot. Wilmot grew suspicious when, after making enquiries to find any papers that might have belonged to Shakespeare, he came up with nothing. Searching far and wide he found no evidence of first drafts, early manuscripts or anything else which one might quite reasonably have assumed that a writer as prolific as Shakespeare might leave behind. From the close study of Shakespeare’s plays, Wilmot had concluded that he must have been a man of wide learning, and must therefore have possessed a considerable library. Following a diligent search over the course of many years, however, Wilmot found absolutely nothing – not a single volume that might have belonged to Shakespeare. The fact that the Bard’s personal papers seemed to vanish in the fifty years or so after his death has been noted by many Shakespeare scholars. It is almost inconceivable that, when he returned to Stratford in his mid-forties, having by then become one of the most popular writers of the time, Shakespeare did not bother to take a single printed copy of any of his works with him. Surely, if nothing else, he would have taken a few copies with him to distribute to his friends and family? Eventually Wilmot became convinced that the man called Shakespeare was not the author of the plays attributed to him and that the real playwright was Francis Bacon, who, incidentally, possessed all the relevant qualifications for this role. The plays of Shakespeare seemed to reveal a man with knowledge of medicine, law, botany and foreign countries, as well as court life. Where would a butcher’s son from Stratford have the opportunity of gaining such knowledge? Francis Bacon, on the other hand – philosopher, essayist and Lord Chancellor – was known as one of the most erudite men of his time…
Part of the problem is that, because of his social status as a commoner, the low esteem in which his profession was held and the general disinterest of the time in the biographies of writers, few personal biographical facts about Shakespeare survive. Most biographical information about Shakespeare’s life and death is based on public/secondary instead of private/primary documents and other sources, many of which embellish or interpret the facts. By the mid-nineteenth century, Shakespeare was regarded as a godlike genius, whose feeblest lines were regarded as beyond criticism. It was probably this kind of uncritical veneration that lay at the root of the various conspiracy theories that began to spring up at that time regarding the identity of the author of Shakespeare’s plays. The theory of Bacon’s authorship gained the support of eminent literary figures such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Henry James and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as well as the British Prime Minister Lord Palmerston and the Duke of Northumberland. What they found particularly convincing was the discovery in 1867 of a folio volume belonging to Francis Bacon which appeared to contain early drafts of several plays that had been attributed to Shakespeare. The authenticity of this folio has been hotly debated ever since, but it did much to sow the seeds of suspicion. The question of Shakespeare’s authorship had been raised, and now many others took it up.
The most influential of all the works of the Shakespeare conspiracists was Ignatius Donnelly’s The Great Cryptogram. Donnelly’s book put forward the astonishing theory that Bacon had hidden ciphers about himself in the plays of Shakespeare to prove his own authorship, and cited many examples of this. In 1891 an archivist named James Greenstreet wrote a series of articles suggesting that Shakespeare was the Earl of Derby, William Stanley. The dramatist Christopher Marlowe was another candidate, a theory first advanced in 1895 in a book by William G Ziegler and then revived in 1955 by an American scholar, Calvin Hoffman. Although Marlowe was murdered in a quarrel in a tavern in 1593, Hoffman’s theory was that he was actually spirited away to Europe and that another man was killed in his place and buried in his grave, after which Marlowe went on to write the plays of Shakespeare. The reason for this was that Marlowe was suspected to be a secret agent in the pay of Queen Elizabeth I’s spy-master, Sir Francis Walsingham, and that his ‘death’ was a cover for continuing his activities in espionage. The theory that the film Anonymous was based on was that of the unfortunately named John Looney, who in 1920 decided that only one man possessed the right qualifications for writing Shakespeare’s plays: Edward de Vere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford. Perhaps the strangest theory of all, however, is the one that the ‘real’ Shakespeare was not a man at all but a woman: a nun from Temple Grafton named Anne Whateley, who was apparently in love with both William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway!
In the end the problem with the various Shakespeare conspiracy theories is that, while many of them can be highly convincing in places, inevitably the whole argument always seems to be less than the sum of its parts. Neither Bacon, nor Derby, nor Oxford, nor Marlowe, nor even Anne Whateley finally emerge as a more convincing candidate than the man from Stratford. As for Shakespeare himself, personally I have always found it a little difficult to accept that a man whose father and children were illiterate, who could not even be bothered to keep copies of his own books, and who could not possibly have had time to gain all of the expertise and experience, in so many different areas, demonstrated so deftly in his plays by the time that he first became famous in his late twenties, could have written the likes of Hamlet and King Lear all on his own (let alone every single one of the 38 plays, 154 sonnets and several other poems that are attributed to him). All the other candidates may appear a little absurd, but anyone who has studied the entire body of Shakespeare’s work in detail cannot help having the nagging sense that there is something a little amiss about the Bard of Avon. Whilst the proposition that he stole someone else’s identity may be a little far-fetched, the possibility that he had one or more collaborators who have never received the credit they deserved certainly cannot be dismissed.