The mystery of Shakespearean authorship is back in the news. No longer is anyone who questions the authenticity of the notion that the plays were written by a man from Avon considered to be a crank. Even the BBC is now discussing the matter seriously. In Cracking the Shakespeare Code, a recent, four-part documentary on the Timeline series, historian Dr. Robert Crumpton joins forces with Norwegian code breaker Petter Amundsen to investigate the secrets buried in Shakespeare’s first folio and to decipher a coded map that may lead to one of history’s greatest treasures, perhaps on America’s mysterious Oak Island. As fantastic as the story may sound, it is not because there is any shortage of intriguing evidence, and not because the subject is in any way a new one.
One hundred and fifty years after the death of Shakespeare, England’s greatest secret was first exposed. William Shakespeare did not write the works attributed to him. Instead, strong evidence now indicates that a handful of much more educated men and at least one woman penned the sonnets and plays. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise for several reasons. The first was that Shakespeare could not write.
His parents were illiterate, he was illiterate, his children were illiterate, and even his granddaughter could not write. When he died, not a single book was found in his possession, no notes, no correspondence, no copies of the plays attributed to him and only six signatures were ever uncovered, all different from one another. The author of The Tempest had included the line: “Knowing I lov’d my books,” but apparently Will Shakespeare hadn’t much love for them.
The true author, or authors, of the works were versed in English, French, Italian, and Latin; understood Greek and Roman history. They read works in Italian and French and incorporated plots from these works in the plays. They were educated in law, in medicine, in military tactics. They were adept in falconry and horsemanship. They used insider terms found only in Cambridge. A Cambridge educated student might have a vocabulary of four thousand words. The genius behind the pen of the plays displayed a vocabulary of over twenty thousand words and even invented many words and phrases that still exist today.
Shakespeare himself started life as a butcher’s apprentice, graduated to poaching, and was most likely forced into a marriage. He abandoned his family for years, not even returning for his young son’s funeral. He returned as a businessman who was fined for hoarding grain in a time of famine, who collected taxes, and, according to one writer, was a loan shark as well. How did this man get credit for the works attributed to him?
Writing for the stage in Elizabethan England was considered beneath the dignity of Dukes and Earls. Poets and playwrights were regularly arrested for satire and possibly treasonous works. It was actually against the law for women to publish. This presented no small problem for those who wished to write.
Sir Francis Bacon was one such writer. In Gray’s Inn he formed a secret society dedicated to the goddess Athena. She wore a helmet that allowed her to be invisible and she shook her spear, which allowed her to be invincible. When the poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe met the man named Shakespeare, he introduced him to his literary circle. He may have thought it would get a laugh from Bacon, but, it is now clear, the man was used instead to act as a shill for the true writers.
When the Earl of Southampton, Henry Wriothesley (one of Francis Bacon’s close associates), became a patron of the works that would be staged at the Globe Theatre, he paid the man Shakespeare to present the works as his own.
When Oxford-trained scholar, James Wilmot, decided (in the 1780s) to write a biography on one of his two favorite authors, William Shakespeare, he moved to Warwickshire, near Shakespeare’s home, and traveled to Stratford-upon-Avon to collect stories about his subject, only to discover that none were to be found. Wilmot ultimately came to the conclusion that the true author was Sir Francis Bacon. Well versed in languages, Bacon had studied law and was educated at Gray’s Inn at Cambridge. He was capable of writing the histories and, indeed, he wrote other plays as moral lessons against ambition, crime, and greed. While Shakespeare possessed no copies of the plays, Bacon did.
Ben Jonson, a contemporary of the playwright, who became England’s first poet lureate, referred to Shakespeare as “a Poet-Ape.” One of the first important scholars to challenge the standard Shakespeare narrative, was French author François-Marie Arouet (aka, Voltaire, a leader of The Enlightenment) who bluntly called the supposed author of the plays a ‘drunken savage.’ The first important English scholar to challenge the conventional Shakespearean wisdom was Wilmot. Later, in America, nineteenth century American school teacher Delia Bacon was a pioneer on the subject of alternative authorship. Born in a log cabin, she became, nevertheless, well read and well connected. One of her friends Samuel Morse, inventor of the Morse code, discovered that there were certain codes in Shakespeare that he believed could have been created only by Sir Francis Bacon. Mark Twain subsequently picked up the banner, publishing a book by Ignatius Donnelly on the coded language within Shakespearean texts.
Baconians, as the believers in the conclusions of Wilmot (and others), point to The Promus by Bacon. It is a collection of notes and phrases that are found in the plays. His ideas, expressions, metaphors and writing characteristics are cited as proof. In the plays, St. Albans, Bacon’s home, is mentioned several times, while Stratford is never mentioned. Bacon’s possessions included some of the plays attributed to Shakespeare. Bacon’s motto was Occulta Veritas Tempore Patet meaning “Hidden truth comes to light in time.” A contemporary of Bacon’s referred to him as “a concealed poet.”
The Earl of Oxford
Another faction in the debate is called the Oxfordian. The seventeenth Earl of Oxford was Edward de Vere, who also studied at Gray’s Inn at Cambridge. He, like Bacon, was adept at statecraft, traveling extensively in France and Italy, which was the setting for six of the plays including Two Gentlemen from Verona and Romeo and Juliet. He spoke and read French and Italian. He had both military and naval experience. He was active in aristocratic sports. Following his death King James I had eight of “Shakespeare’s” plays performed.
De Vere had another title—he was the Viscount Bolebec and his coat of arms for that title was a rampant lion shaking a spear.
Sigmund Freud was in the Oxford-as-author camp. Challengers say he could not have written The Tempest because it was based on a shipwreck that happened in 1611, years after the Earl died. This might simply mean he didn’t write all the plays.
The Earl of Rutland
Another candidate is Roger Manners, the Earl of Rutland. He was well educated and spent seven years at Cambridge. He would have been aware of those Cambridge terms. He also traveled extensively. For five years he lived in Europe, mostly in Italy, where he continued his studies at the University of Padua. He played tennis and would have been aware of the tennis terms in Henry V. He was an active hunter and engaged in falconry. He was a friend of both the Earl of Southampton (which might explain the dedication in Venus and Adonis and the Rape of Lucrece to Southampton) and the Earl of Pembroke (William Herbert) who might have been the “W.H.” in the dedication of the Sonnets. His family home held a copy of Corregio’s Io and Jupiter, a painting referred to in The Taming of the Shrew. He served as an ambassador to Denmark and visited the castle at Helsingor that became Elsinore in Hamlet. Rutlanders, as those who propose that the Earl wrote Shakespeare, point out that he died in 1612—the same year Shakespeare left London and retired from the playwriting business. Was Will simply a front for Rutland?
A fourth faction is the Marlovian. Christopher Marlowe was born the same year as Shakespeare. He was a leading literary figure of his day and acquainted with many of England’s poets and playwrights. Many of his own works were picked up in Shakespeare. The Passionate Shepherd to his Love has some of the exact lines as Merry Wives of Windsor, written seven years later. His The Jew of Malta was later mirrored in the Shakespeare text The Merchant of Venice. Marlowe and two close friends were accused of heresy. One was tortured to death and Marlowe was arrested but, eventually, allowed to go free. At a lunch with two others, there was a fight over the bill. Marlowe was stabbed and killed. Or was he?
The theory is that Marlowe’s death was faked to stop his threat of exposing others. The ‘others’ included members of Sir Walter Raleigh’s so-called School of Night that was also accused of atheism. It is believed that Marlowe was shipped off to Italy where another man claimed that he nursed an aging Marlowe at the time of his real death. Another theory is that Marlowe hid out closer to home. That home was the estate of Mary Sidney Herbert.
The Countess of Pembroke
Until recently, arguments that a woman could be an author of the Shakespeare plays were not considered. There is, however, no small amount of evidence pointing to Mary Sidney Herbert, the second Countess of Pembroke, whose marriage to Henry Herbert had been arranged by Robert Dudley and Sir Henry Sidney. She was only thirteen at the time so the couple waited until she was fifteen to marry. The Earl was forty-three. The 14,000-acre property owned by Henry Herbert was called Wilton House, and it served as a college to some of England’s most important writers of the day. It was a time when women would not be admitted into universities. Cambridge finally allowed women in the late nineteenth century. So Mary had her own literary network. Ben Jonson, Samuel Daniel, Michael Drayton, Fulke Greville, Edmund Spenser, and Sir Philip Sidney all met at her home, and Mary instructed all on the art of writing. She was devoted to writing and was fluent in several languages, was involved in politics, and sponsored an acting troupe. She was involved in the aristocratic sports and hunted, rode horses, hawked, and played musical instruments. She was trained in medicine, and she maintained an interest in alchemy. Her assistant was Adrian Gilbert, Sir Walter Raleigh’s half brother.
Like the Queen’s wizard, Dr. John Dee, she was very interested in musical codes and invisible ink. She sponsored other writers and had her own literary endeavors as well. One of her works was uncovered in 2010. What role might she have played in Shakespeare’s “works”? A letter found in the archives of her home that she sent to her son in 1606 declared “we have the man Shakespeare here.” Was it Will Shakespeare or was she referring to another who might have penned work attributed to him?
It is estimated that at least two hundred books had characters, plots and phrases found in “Shakespeare.” Shakespeare had no books; Mary had five thousand.
The First Folio (of Shakespeare) was published years after Will Shakespeare was dead. It was dedicated to her sons William and Phillip. They had never been acquainted with Shakespeare. Ben Jonson would be involved with publishing the First Folio and would write a eulogy: “To the memory of the Beloved, the AUTHOR.” Jonson refers to her as the Sweet Swan of Avon. Her symbol was the Swan, and she had an estate on the Avon. Legend has it that Marlowe lived at her home, after his so-called “death.”
The Wilton House of Mary Sidney Herbert may have been the center of the collaboration of writers that could have worked privately or in tandem with each other.
The one idea that might tie all of these theories together is that the plays were actually a group effort. After all, most Hollywood screenplays today are collaborations, where many contribute to create the final product. Bertram Fields wrote Players—The Mysterious Identity of William Shakespeare and covered the possibilities of Bacon, Oxford, Roger Manners, and Marlowe. He even examined the possibility of Queen Elizabeth playing a role. In the end, though, he dismissed the possibility of a group collaboration arguing that a group can’t keep a secret. Maybe not in the twenty first century, but things were very different when the plays were written.
There is little doubt that secret societies, such as the Masons and the Rosicrucians, kept many secrets that remain hidden to this day. Of course, we do not know what we do not know; but in Shakespeare’s day, it was considered beneath the dignity of Dukes and Earls to write for the stage, and it could, doubtless, be very dangerous. One would have had to keep the secrets, or die.