English crime novelist Agatha Christie once wrote, “The simplest explanation is always the most likely.” This adage hasn’t stopped thousands of people from believing in more complicated explanations of seemingly undisputed events. From Neil Armstrong’s 1969 moon landing to Barack Obama’s birth certificate, Americans have discussed and propagated conspiracy theories for decades. However, just like any other element of popular culture, some theories get more media attention than others. While controversies surrounding the deaths of JFK, Princess Diana and Tupac Shakur have been thoroughly explored, conspiracists have often neglected to discuss a theory surrounding one of the greatest writers in the English language. As 2016 denotes the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, it also marks nearly two centuries of quiet skepticism concerning the Stratford man’s authorship.
Starting in the 19th century, a handful of doubters began to question the true origin of the plays and sonnets attributed to William Shakespeare. Believing that Shakespeare could not have written these works, the doubters distinguished themselves as the Anti-Stratfordians. While these individuals were initially disregarded in the academic community, their ranks have increased over the years. Almost 300 declared Shakespeare skeptics signed a “Declaration of Reasonable Doubt” created by the Shakespeare Authorship Coalition. This conspiracy theory pleads to be taken seriously. And, while this army of Anti-Stratfordians may be small, it includes numerous canonical authors like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain and Edgar Allen Poe. Even Sigmund Freud and Helen Keller publically rejected the glover’s son as the true author of this widely-regarded body of work.
At the heart of their skepticism lies the lack of evidence surrounding Shakespeare’s life and occupation. While scholars agree that a man named William Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon, acted on the Elizabethan stage in London, married Anne Hathaway and ultimately returned to Stratford for retirement, beyond that the theories differ. Anti-Stratfordians argue that although Shakespeare was an actor, there is no evidence he was also a playwright. Moreover, they doubt that the Stratford man was even literate. Books are not mentioned in his will, and no letters or definitive manuscripts exist today. In fact, the only example of William Shakespeare’s handwriting is six signatures, seemingly composed with great difficulty. According to the Oxford Authorship Site, Shakespeare’s parents, wife and daughter were all illiterate. In his hometown, less than a third of the nineteen town officials could even write their names.
Similarly, skeptics also contend that a man born in the countryside to a working-class family could not have possessed the understanding of classical literature, the military, biology, foreign landscapes and aristocratic life that the plays highlight. It is this discrepancy that has led many doubters to rally behind the idea that highly educated aristocrats and scholars are the true playwright or playwrights. While written documentation is as scarce for these suggested authors as it is for Shakespeare himself, these theories look to the texts for answers. In one of the many comedies accredited to Shakespeare, “As You Like It,” the melancholy Jacques declares, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. One man in his time plays many parts.” Nearly 400 years later, conspiracists still ask: Was Shakespeare merely a part played by someone else?
Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford
The first theory is one of the most well-recognized and supported. Famous advocates of this theory include three U.S. Supreme Court Justices, numerous scholars and writers and the 2011 historical drama “Anonymous.” While this hypothesis lacks physical documentation, it focuses on comparisons between the Shakespearean plays and the lifestyle of the seventeenth Earl of Oxford.
Unlike William Shakespeare, Edward de Vere was born into English nobility. From an early age, Oxford was well versed in aristocratic sportsmanship and academic pursuits. In addition to entering the University of Cambridge at age eight, about seven years before most students were accepted, Oxford grew up in a cultured family. His uncles were prominent poets and scholars, and his father employed a personal troupe of actors. According to Oxfordians, this exposure to the stage paved the way for the Shakespearean plays’ allusions to classical works. When Oxford was 13, a man named Arthur Brooke published a poem called “The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet.” Even Stratfordian scholars believe that this work inspired the play “Romeo and Juliet.” Since nothing is known of this author, Oxfordians believe that Arthur Brooke was the young Earl’s penname. They contend that the poem was an outline or prelude to the play Oxford would write decades later. Likewise, while Stratfordians argue that previous works shaped many of Shakespeare’s plays, Oxfordians believe that Shakespeare (or Oxford, as the case may be) actually wrote these earlier works as well, refining them as he matured.
Along with Oxford’s classical education and supposed body of work, theorists also discuss his knowledge of continental Europe. According to Oxfordians, the plays’ intimate knowledge of Italy and Greece require the author’s first-hand observation of these landscapes. While there is no evidence that the Shakespeare from Stratford ever left Britain, Oxford spent more than a year touring the Continent.
The final, and arguably most important, question pertaining to Oxford’s authorship is why he chose to use a pseudonym. The Oxford Authorship Site describes how noblemen could not publically appear as playwrights. To avoid disgracing his family, Oxford published his plays under another name. Oxfordians also provide evidence for the selection of the name Shakespeare, describing how a speech before the Queen’s court may have influenced Oxford’s decision. When the Earl was 28, Gabriel Harvey allegedly told him, “Thine eyes flash fire, thy countenance shakes spears.” A notable Oxfordian, Charlton Ogburn, asserts that Oxford derived the pseudonym from this speech.
Although this last piece of evidence may seem convincing, Shakespeare historian David Kathman argues against the pseudonym theory. It was the name of a person who actually lived during that time and the historical record shows no indication that anyone ever suspected it to be a pseudonym. Likewise, Kathman points out that there is no evidence connecting Oxford to the production of the plays. He argues that while a William Shakespeare from Stratford held shares and an acting position in the Globe Theater where the plays were produced, Edward de Vere lacks any association with the performances of the plays he supposedly wrote.
The second theory focuses on Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright, Christopher Marlowe, one of the foremost writers of the Elizabethan era. Marlowe even plays a role in the 1998 romantic comedy “Shakespeare in Love.” Starring Gwyneth Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes, the film depicts a young William Shakespeare trying to write a fictitious play, “Romeo and Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter.” When he’s overcome by a serious case of writer’s block, Christopher Marlowe suggests, “Romeo is Italian, always in and out of love. Ethel is the daughter of his enemy. His best friend is killed in a duel by Ethel’s brother. Or something. His name is Mercutio.” By crediting Marlowe with the actual play’s plot and characters, the film conspicuously references the Marlovian authorship theory. While “Shakespeare in Love” does not provide any factual evidence linking Marlowe to the plays accredited to Shakespeare, the Marlovian offshoot of Anti-Stratfordians presents its own case.
This theory asserts that the vast body of literature, written in Marlowe’s own name, illustrates his “literary pedigree.” These theorists argue that Marlowe’s “Tamburlaine the Great” invented the blank verse that Shakespearean plays incorporate. Likewise, Marlovians argue that there are striking similarities between Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” and Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” They also find parallels between Marlowe’s chronicle history, “Edward II,” and Shakespeare’s “Richard II.” In contrast, while Robert Stefanek, a Colorado College Professor of Literature, is willing to accept the possibility that Marlowe and Shakespeare collaborated on some of the works attributed solely to Shakespeare, he is certain that no one “familiar with the work of both playwrights could mistake one’s for the other’s.” He adds, “They are just too different in tone and content.”
Stefanek also points out a major loophole in Marlowe’s potential authorship. Renaissance scholars agree that Marlowe died in a drunken brawl in 1593. Since 33 of Shakespeare’s 37 plays were written after Marlowe’s death, Stratfordians argue that his authorship is not even possible, let alone probable. Marlovians, however, assert that his death was staged. They contend that in order to avoid going to prison for being an atheist, Marlowe faked his own death. His supposed murderer was a lifelong servant, the three named witnesses were all conmen, and the “death” took place in a government safe house, from which he fled to the continent. This convenient disappearance gave him the time to write the body of work attributed to Shakespeare, as well as a reason to publish these works under a pseudonym. Like many Strafordians, Stefanek finds it hard to “believe that Marlowe staged his death and then had a happy afterlife writing Shakespeare’s plays.”
Lady Amelia Bassano Lanier
If it was disgraceful for aristocratic men to write plays, it was completely forbidden for aristocratic women to do so. Lady Amelia Bassano Lanier was the daught of an Italian-born, Elizabethan musician. She entered the spotlight over three centuries after her death, when British historian A.L. Rowse suggested that the young Englishwoman was the famous “dark lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Rowse argued that with her dark, Mediterranean complexion, Bassano had the “raven black” eyes and “dun” skin that the sonnets describe. Shakespearean scholar, John Hudson, takes this theory a step further, asserting that Bassano actually wrote the sonnets, as well as the plays attributed to William Shakespeare. In fact, Hudson so thoroughly believes in Bassano’s authorship that he formed a theater company called “The Dark Lady Players.” Stationed in New York, his company aims to perform the plays as Bassano intended.
In addition to Bassano’s alleged appearance in the sonnets, Hudson links her Jewish and Venetian background to similar themes in Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” He believes that one of the main character’s name, Bassanio, was written as a tribute to the lady’s own namesake.
Hudson cites Bassano’s literary past as additional evidence. According to Anti-Stratfordians and Stratfordians alike, Bassano was the first Englishwoman to publish a collection of original poetry. She was also the long-term mistress of Henry Carey, a major patron of the theater. Notably, Henry Carey supported William Shakespeare’s theater company, “The Lord Chamberlain’s Men.” However, Stratfordians argue that he did not begin investing in this company until two years after the affair ended.
Joshua Engel, a Shakespearean director and actor, also finds Bassano’s authorship hard to believe. Along with declaring, “One generally does not write love poems to oneself,” Engel believes that Bassano’s Venetian background precludes the possibility of her authorship. Engel says “Shakespeare’s understanding of Italian geography is laughably weak: Milan is landlocked, contrary to “The Tempest” and “Two Gentlemen of Verona,” and his depictions of the structure of Italian society are completely fictional.” This also contradicts the Oxfordian theory, as a well-traveled person like Oxford would have known better when writing such scenes.
The last candidate is none other than the man himself. In an effort to disprove the Anti-Stratfordians’ assertion that Shakespeare was illiterate, historian Kathman discusses analyses of the countryman’s handwriting. He calls this specific type of writing “secretary hand,” comparing his signatures to the manuscript of the Elizabethan play “Sir Thomas More.” While no original manuscripts of Shakespeare’s singular work exist, linguistic and handwriting analysts believe that this play was a collaborative effort.
Since the 1870s, scholars have suspected that Shakespeare, writing as “Hand D,” contributed to the manuscript. Alfred Pollard’s 1923 collection, “Shakespeare’s Hand in the Play of Sir Thomas More,” compared the handwriting, spelling, vocabulary, and imagery of “Hand D” with that of Shakespeare’s works and signatures. He found a significant amount of evidence that supported the Stratford man’s role in the collaborative play. Creative Writing and Literature Professor Steven Hayward cites a similar study in which a digital analysis of Shakespeare’s work illustrated that the plays and sonnets “likely came from a single mind.” This structural and stylistic pattern, or, as Hayward describes it, “a coherence of imagination,” supports Shakespeare’s authorship for all 37 plays and 154 sonnets.
While solid evidence about Shakespeare’s authorship such as this case study may be hard to find, Professor Stefanek provides another way of looking at the authorship question. Subscribing to Occam’s Razor, Stefanek explains, “On one side, we have a lot of historical evidence that a person named William Shakespeare was a shareholder, actor, and playwright in a company called “The Lord Chamberlain’s,” and later “The King’s Men.” On the other side, we have conspiracy theories that say all this evidence is a lie, and that we should instead trust this other fragmentary and circumstantial evidence that Marlowe or Oxford wrote them.” He adds “Shakespeare as the true author is the hypothesis that requires the least assumptions.”
Professor Hayward counters the Anti-Strafordians’ assumptions that a countryman could not have written such an impressive body of work. Hayward insists that the “famous English grammar school system” allowed Shakespeare to surpass the illiteracy of his social class. According to Hayward, “Shakespeare is the product of a great school system that created a literate working class, who were equipped with the learning of an aristocrat...The result of this system was English literature as we know it today.”
Hayward cites Ben Johnson as another example of the school system’s success. The son of a bricklayer, Johnson attended Westminster School, where he received an education similar to Shakespeare’s. After enlisting as a soldier in the Netherlands, Johnson returned to London and began to write for the theater. Despite his humble beginnings, Johnson is now regarded as the second most important Jacobean dramatist, only after William Shakespeare. In “Twelfth Night,” when Shakespeare writes, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and others have greatness thrust upon them,” he may be alluding to his own ascent to greatness, despite his birth.
Stefanek rejects the assumption that Shakespeare could not have been familiar with the royal court. Stefanek explains that Shakespeare’s patrons, including the Earl of Southampton, the Lords Chamberlain Henry and George Carey, and King James I, likely introduced him to the conventions of the court.
“We even have evidence to suggest that Shakespeare and the rest of his company were in attendance of the Spanish ambassador in 1604 as the King’s Men,” says Stefanek.
Hayward asserts that, actually, it is “wrong to think we admire Shakespeare for his inside knowledge of the court. It’s the more quiet, pastoral and rural moments that point to his early boyhood in Stratford.” According to Hayward, the texts reveal a small-town, provincial author, rather than an aristocratic one.
The Guardian’s Robert McCrum says, “Even the anti-Stratfordians must concede this point. [Stratford] words are scattered through his lines, like poppies in a wheat field.”
The final, and arguably most convincing, evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship lies in the publication of the first folio. Hayward sees the collection of plays as a posthumous commemoration put together by Shakespeare’s friends and coworkers. Describing Shakespeare as a “company man,” Hayward says, “It would be as if, when someone gets married, you have a wedding. When someone dies, you have a memorial. This is Shakespeare’s memorial.”
Reaching for a worn copy of the massive first folio, Hayward adds, “The best evidence is that the people who knew Shakespeare, the people who acted with him and held shares in his company, they put together this collection of his plays.” He flips through the book to show the names of all of the people who helped publish the collection years after Shakespeare’s death. “That didn’t just happen. It was done by people who knew him and knew he existed and knew he wrote those plays.”
So, what’s in a name?
Theorists have considered over 66 potential Shakespeare candidates since the nineteenth century. But what exactly about this conspiracy theory has allowed its survival for nearly two decades? Stefanek thinks this obsession comes from the fact that “we all like a good story and conspiracies let us feel like we have access to the real truth and that the people who took the blue pill do not.” This mirrors Hayward’s assertion that “People love the romance of conspiracy—of thinking that there is a Wizard of Oz, a mask to rip away.”
BBC’s Paul Hechinger gives another root cause for the conspiracy, writing, “Shakespeare’s achievement is so enormous that it’s hard to believe that anybody wrote it all.” In order to make sense of this astounding body of work, Hechinger poses this dilemma: “If you think Shakespeare didn’t write his plays, you have to believe in vast arrays of impossible plots, and, if you think he did, then you have to believe in an impossible talent.”
Hayward explains this paradox: “People don’t like the idea of genius or talent. Maybe they’re suspicious of it. Shakespeare’s work is inexplicable. But so is a lot of great art.” Deborah Warner, a modern-day Shakespearean director, believes that the value of Shakespeare’s work transcends its author. She says, “What Shakespeare does—whoever he was—is make you proud to be human.” On that note, perhaps, Shakespeare by any other name would sound as sweet.