Will the Real William Shakespeare Please Stand Up

Despite Centuries of Investigation, Many Questions Remain Unanswered


Born the son of a glove maker in 1564, William Shakespeare eventually moved to London, where he joined a troupe of actors known as the Lord Chamberlain’s Men at their Globe Theater. Having reached forty-nine years of age, Wil­liam retired with his wife, Anne, and daughter, Judith, to his birthplace at Stratford-upon-Avon, where he died 25 April 1616.

That is virtually everything history has to say about a man whose work forms the greatest contribution to Eng­lish-speaking theater. It seems then hardly surprising that questions concerning his identity haunted the so-called “Shakespeare plays” for almost as long as their roles have been enacted upon the stage. To be sure, the controversy is by no means new. Even some of Shakespeare’s contemporaries expressed their doubts concerning his authorship.

Less than fifty years after his death, an admirer dissatisfied with paltry biographical information traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon in the hope of learning something more. Arriving during the spring of 1662, the Reverend John Ward traced the whereabouts of William Shakespeare’s granddaughter, who told him her “grandfather was not a poet.” Her statement seemed borne out by the man’s death certificate, which refers to him only as a “gent,” not a dramatist or “poet.” Moreover, she was illiterate, as was Shakespeare’s own wife, daughter and father. That the most gifted master of the written word would have been contented with family members unable to read his own work seems incredible. Ward then located Shakespeare’s last will composed in March 1616. It listed no books—costly items during the seventeenth century—or manuscripts, things the Bard might have been expected to own.

Immediately after William Shakespeare’s death, his widow commissioned a life-like monument to her late hus­band. It depicted a prosperously attired gentleman resting his hand upon a sack. Contemporaneous memorials of this kind invariably portrayed the deceased with the symbol of his trade, in this case, a merchant’s sack, an object not as­sociated with the theater. One hundred years later, with renewed popularity of the Shakespeare plays, the same statue was altered, when its sack was removed and a quill inserted into the fingers of the hand. This is the same statue point­ed out to Stratford-upon-Avon visitors by tour-guides, who invariably fail to mention the important change. Several early seventeenth century illustrations of the same memorial all show Shakespeare with his hand, minus quill, rest­ing on the missing sack of goods.

These and numerous, related discrepancies convinced Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Walt Whitman, John Keats, Ben Johnson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, John Galsworthy, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry James, Orson Welles, Sir John Gielgud, Leslie Howard, Michael York, Jeremy Irons, and numerous other writers and performers that the shadowy figure famously referred to as “Shakespeare” was not responsible for the plays associated with his name.

While several convincing candidates for the Bard’s seat of honor have been suggested, two stand above the rest as the most likely candidates. The more famous of contenders is Sir Francis Bacon, founder of the scientific method, philosopher, diplomat, essayist, statesman, attorney general. Surely, only someone of his intellectual stature could have been capable of composing the Shakespearean masterpieces, proponents of Bacon as the Bard argue. For exam­ple, the plays feature a vocabulary of about twenty nine thousand different words, far beyond the scope attributed to a sixteenth century commoner with no university education, yet unrealistically well versed in English language and lit­erature, as well as a number of other disciplines, including politics, law, medicine, astronomy, and foreign languages.

Serious doubts were raised as long ago as 1781, when James Wilmot, a Warwickshire clergyman and scholar inti­mately familiar with the works of Francis Bacon, concluded that “Shakespeare” was a subterfuge and front. But not until the publication of The Great Cryptogram more than one hundred years later did the controversy rise to the lev­el of international debate. Author and Minnesota congressman Ignatius Donnelly was already world-renowned for At­lantis, the Antediluvian World, which gave him a global audience for his arguments on behalf of Bacon as Shake­speare. The Great Cryptogram pointed out in 1881 an inordinate number of similarities between the Shakespearean plays and those appearing in Bacon’s Promus of Formularies and Elegancies. This was a private, unpublished note­book unknown to the outside world for more than two hundred years after Bacon’s death. When in it he wrote, “Now toe on her distaff then she can spynne/The world runs on wheels,” eight years later, Launcelot says in Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, “Then may I set the world on wheels, when she can spin for her living.”

Part 2 of Shakespeare’s Henry IV’s “O, that right should o’rcome might! Well of sufferance, comes ease” was pre­ceded six years by “Might overcomes right/Of sufferance cometh ease” in the Promus, just as Bacon’s “Galens’ compo­sitions, not Paracelsus separations” foreshadowed “So I say both of Galen and Paracelsus” in Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

These and numerous, other parallels suggest that Bacon sketched out some of his ideas for the so-called “Shake­speare plays” in the Promus of Formularies and Elegancies.

The first known performance of The Comedy of Errors was given in 1594 by the Gray’s Inn Players. The dedica­tion to a masque by Francis Beaumont performed at Whitehall in 1613 describes Bacon as the “chief contriver” of its performances at Gray’s Inn, where he was treasurer of the Gray’s Inn Players.

In 1867, a number of original source materials belonging to Sir Francis Bacon were accidentally discovered in the Northumberland House library. Among the bundled documents were outer sheets for missing copies of the plays Richard II and Richard III repeatedly scrawled with the names of “Bacon” and “Shakespeare.”

Writing of all the Shakespeare plays abruptly stopped forever as soon as Sir Francis Bacon became Attorney Gen­eral in 1613. In another happy “coincidence,” the “Shakespeare” plays’ First Folio was published between 1621 and 1626, the same period when Bacon for the first time enjoyed abundant free time following his loss of public office.

Bacon’s intention to conceal his identity surfaces in a private letter of 1603 to the barrister and poet, John Davis, of whom Bacon was “so desiring you to be good to concealed poets.”

But his Shakespearean disguise appears to have been something of an open secret, at least among some of Bacon’s colleagues. In their Hall-Marston satires, poets Joseph Hall and John Marston poked lewd fun at Shakespeare’s lengthy poem of 1593, Venus and Adonis, when they ask, “What, not mediocria firma from thy spight?” Bacon’s fami­ly motto was mediocria firma, “Moderate things are surest.”

According to the preeminent Shakespearean scholar, Horace Howard Furness, “Had the plays come down to us anonymously—had the labour of discovering the author been imposed upon future generations—we could have found no one of that day but Francis Bacon to whom to assign the crown. In this case, it would have been resting now upon his head by almost common consent.”

Although now known mostly to scholars of Elizabethan history—even his grave has been lost—Edward de Vere, seventeenth Earl of Oxford, may also have authored the stage works and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare. Unlike his famous namesake, de Vere was a highly educated courtier, world traveler, sportsman, patron of numerous dramatists, and sponsor of at least two acting companies, plus a company of musicians—credentials uniquely suited for a playwright of such unmatched stature.

More specifically, events in the well-documented life of Edward de Vere closely parallel the so-called “Shakespeare plays,” suggesting to some investigators that he actually wrote them. For example, Oxford was the victim of a late six­teenth century ponzi scheme, when he invested in a fraudulent attempt to find the Northwest Passage to India. The Bernie Madoff-type who ran away with his three thousand pounds was a merchant named Michael Lock, memorial­ized as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. “Shy” was a euphemism in Elizabethan English for “shady,” “unscrupu­lous,” “double dealing,” and “untrustworthy.”

After de Vere’s beloved father died under suspicious circumstances when Edward was only twelve years old, the boy’s mother hastily remarried a man named Charles Tyrell, who the young earl hated so much, he appears to have had him portrayed as Tyrell, the child-murderer, in Richard III. While still a minor, Oxford was tutored by Lord Burghley, well known as a pontificating windbag, later satirized as Polonius in Hamlet.

Although de Vere wrote a few plays under his own name, only the titles of some survive: The History of Errors, Titus and Giusippus and The Famous Victories of Henry V. Their close resemblance to A Comedy of Errors, Titus An­dronicus and Henry V is apparent. The Oxford dramas were written between 1576 and 1580, when the historical Wil­liam Shakespeare was a butcher’s apprentice in his early teens.

The Earl of Oxford crest, composed of three griffins, was printed on the frontispiece of the First Folio of Shake­speare plays, was lost for more than three hundred years; then reappeared with a vengeance as recently as 1940. No less a prestigious publication than Scientific American reported that newly invented infrared photography of a por­trait of the Bard owned by Washington, D.C.’s Folger Shakespeare Library revealed an interesting discovery. The late sixteenth Century artwork had been altered some time around 1800, when the triple-griffin crest of the Earl of Ox­ford had been painted over.

But if he was the true author of the Shakespeare plays, why did de Vere shun the limelight? Many of them bristle with thinly veiled satire aimed at some of England’s most powerful persons during a time when even subtle objec­tions could easily land a critic in the dreaded Tower of London. Moreover, de Vere had no choice but to publish under “Shakespeare” as a pseudonym, because writing for the public theater was considered disgraceful for an aristocrat. Cover was supplied by an illiterate merchant named William Shakespeare, a successful businessman who dabbled in the theater as a sometime actor.

During his personal fact-finding mission in 1662, the same Reverend John Ward who found William Shakespeare’s grand-daughter recorded in his notebooks that Shakespeare “supplied the stage with two plays every year, and for that had an allowance so large that he spent at a rate of a thousand pounds a year.”

In 1928, Captain V. W. Ward (not a descendant of the inquisitive, seventeenth century Reverend) found a privy seal warrant signed by Elizabeth I dated “June 1586,” allocating Edward de Vere an annuity of one thousand pounds. The warrant continued in effect throughout the rest of her reign and was re-confirmed by her successor, James I, when he assumed the throne in 1603.

During that extended period, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford did nothing obvious to earn what was then a very substantial royal income from a monarch notorious for her stinginess. At the same time, historians of the Elizabe­than Era know that de Vere was funding acting companies busy in the production of nationalist stage works—such as Henry V—written as government propaganda to inflame the English masses with patriotism, thereby psychologically preparing them for their Queen’s upcoming war with Spain.

While both Sir Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere are convincing possibilities for the real William Shakespeare, they may have been less contenders than co-conspirators. Some investigators, such as the acclaimed British actor, Derek Jacobi, conclude that the question is not: Did Bacon or de Vere write the Shakespeare plays? Instead, the an­swer could be: they both did. In other words, either man belonged to a group of important personages who wrote anonymously for the stage, open association with which would have irreparably damaged their reputations and risked their powerful positions, if not their liberties and lives.

This conclusion is suggested by George Puttenham, an insider at the English court when the Shakespeare plays were being staged. In his The Arte of English Poesie from 1589, Puttenham confessed, “I know very many notable gentlemen in the court who have written commendably and suppressed it again, or else suffered it to be published without their own names to it, of which number is first that noble gentleman, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.”

Debate concerning the questionable identity of the Bard still rages nearly four hundred years after his death. As recently as September 2007, Derek Jacobi, who made his own Shakespearean debut as Laertes opposite Peter O’Toole in the National Theatre’s 1963 inaugural production of Hamlet, publicly proclaimed a “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” concerning the authorship of Shakespeare’s work. He presented it to London’s Brunel University, following the last matinee of I Am Shakespeare, performed in Chichester, England. The play dramatized some of the leading ar­guments concerning Shakespearean origins.

Endorsed by more than fifteen hundred signatories, including two hundred seventy five academics, the “Declara­tion of Reasonable Doubt” urged new research into that perennial question: Who really was William Shakespeare?

By Frank Joseph

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