Did you know that there are many scholars who believe that there’s a conspiracy surrounding the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare, and that Shakespeare didn’t actually write the works attributed to him? This Shakespeare conspiracy theory began almost two centuries ago and was recently inflamed by the production of Anonymous, which portrays Shakespeare as a semi-literate, scarcely talented minor actor paid by the genius de Vere, Earl of Oxford, to pass the plays off as his own, as it would have been impossible for a member of the aristocracy to be a playwright in Elizabethan and Jacobean England.
The main contenders for the authorship are Francis Bacon and Edward de Vere. But those who insist that Shakespeare could not have written the plays have mentioned such figures as Ben Jonson, the Earls of Derby, Rutland, Southampton and Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh and even Christopher Marlowe who died long before most of the plays were written. Have a look at our overview of the Shakespeare authorship candidates here.
The argument that drives the conspiracists’ position is that the plays contain too much knowledge of foreign and distant places and too much familiarity with court life and the affairs of court to have been written by someone so low down in the social order: the author writes with ease and familiarity about such aristocratic sports as hunting, falconry, tennis and bowling. Other arguments are that the plays have too wide a range of style to have been written by someone without the advanced education that most of the other contenders had, and that Stratford was too parochial and backward a place to have produced one of the greatest literary geniuses of all time. Indeed, the argument maintains that the other members of the Shakespeare family, including William’s parents, wife and daughters, were illiterate and it’s impossible that someone with such a facility for language could have grown up and lived a family life in those circumstances.
When the advocates of Shakespeare as the author of the plays point out that Shakespeare had a good education in the classics, the Latin language, rhetoric and mathematics at the local grammar school their adversaries say that there is no evidence of his attendance there. They insist on his having been illiterate. They use the fact that there is no evidence of his handwriting – no letters or documents written by him. There are only six authenticated signatures, which conspiracists refer to as an illiterate scrawl. They assert that there is no documentary evidence that Shakespeare was a dramatic writer. They maintain that the evidence supports the view of him as a businessman and property owner but nowhere as a writer. His will says nothing about his poems and plays and is phrased in flat, mundane language.
The question of who the author might have been is quite simple: almost all prominent Elizabethans have been mentioned and there are arguments made for their being the author by one conspiracist or another. Whoever is promoted by one of them is always provided with a reason why he couldn’t put himself forward as the author.
The Stratfordists fight back with their own arguments in favour of Shakespeare’s authorship. Their case is more than a series of arguments – it’s a huge body of evidence. It’s pretty weighty so I will summarise it very briefly. It’s significant that nearly all Shakespeare scholars and academics believe that the author referred to as ‘Shakespeare’ was the same William Shakespeare who was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564 and who died there in 1616.
Elizabethan London had scores of playwrights and most of them came from humble backgrounds, sometimes even more humble, like Shakespeare’s friend, Ben Jonson, the son of a bricklayer. No-one suggests that someone else wrote Ben Jonson’s plays, and neither Ben Jonson nor any other of Shakespeare’s contemporaries suggested that their colleague, William Shakespeare, whom they knew well, did not write the plays performed in his name. Moreover, not only did Shakespeare’s name appear on the title pages of poems and plays but he was referred to at least twenty-three times in different documents. Also, there is substantial documentary evidence attesting to the author having been the same Shakespeare whose home was in Stratford. For example, in 1598 Frances Meares named Shakespeare as a playwright and poet in his Palladis Tamia, referring to him as one of the authors by whom the ‘English tongue is mightily enriched,’ and he names twelve plays written by Shakespeare, including one, Love’s Labours Won, that has been lost.
A powerful argument in favour of Shakespeare being the author of the plays is that there are records from his lifetime of books of his plays being printed, his authorship being attested to by the official stationers. There are at least three such references, referring to the printing of Much Ado about Nothing, Henry IV Part 2 and King Lear, and also to their performances at the Globe.
Mainstream Shakespeare scholars maintain that the convergence of documentary evidence for Shakespeare’s authorship—title pages, testimony by other contemporary poets and historians and official records—is the same as that for any other author of the time. No such supporting evidence exists for any other candidate, and Shakespeare’s authorship was not questioned during his lifetime or for centuries after his death.
Surely there can be no stronger proof of Shakespeare’s role of playwright than records of the acknowledgement of that by his friends and colleagues. Score of actors and writers referred to him, identifying him as a writer. After his death there were several eulogies that spoke of his work by poets like Hugh Holland, Leonard Digges, and most convincing, Shakespeare’s friend and workmate, Ben Jonson: To the Memory of My Beloved the Author, Mr William Shakespeare and What He Hath Left Us, published in the First Folio in 1623.