William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon, England died on April 23, 1616. According to tradition, April 23 was also the date of his birth.
It’s fashionable to argue that the remarkable canon of plays and poetry long attributed to the hand of the man from Stratford was composed by someone else. Every crank has a favorite nominee. The leading contenders are:
Francis Bacon, first Viscount St Albans (1561-1626)
William Stanley, the Sixth Earl of Derby (1561-1642)
Edward Devere, the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford (1550-1604)
Shakespeare died in 1616. Some of his plays were published during his lifetime, and all of them were collected and published by people who had known him–and knew that he had written them–in 1623. Doubts about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays did not arise until 200 years or so later.
The 19th century saw the beginnings of textual criticism and the exploding of long-held ideas about the authorship of the Bible and the poems of Homer. Thanks to the enthusiasm of David Garrick, Shakespeare was rediscovered in the 18th century; by the 1850s, he’d become THE national poet of England.
The first challenge to authorship
Not surprisingly, the first broadside against the belief in his authorship of the body of work the English adored came from an American, Delia Bacon (1811-1859).
Although not descended from Sir Francis, Delia Bacon promoted the idea that the plays had been written by a committee headed by Francis Bacon. She published The Philosophy of the Plays of Shakespeare Unfolded in 1857 and the hunt was on. In 2012 the yapping continues.
The gist of the matter is that the anti-Stratfordians base their arguments against Shakespeare’s authorship upon absence of documentation, veiled references in the writing of contemporaries, and creative supposition.
Scholars consider the evidence
Scholars who support the authorship of William Shakespeare of Stratford base their case on existing documentation and study of the texts.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637), a playwright contemporary with Shakespeare, came from a similar background, but managed to acquire an excellent education. No one, as far as I know, has launched a crusade to prove that Jonson didn’t write the plays that bear his name on the title page.
Jonson knew Shakespeare. They wrote in very different styles—Jonson, in a conventional courtly style. At first, he was contemptuous of Shakespeare’s popular style.
After Shakespeare’s death, however, when Jonson helped edit the First Folio, he came to recognize the remarkable originality of the plays. And, as this excerpt from a poem Jonson wrote for the First Folio demonstrates, he did not doubt that the man who wrote the plays was William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon:
Sweet Swan of Avon ! what a sight it were
To see thee in our waters yet appear,
And make those flights upon the banks of Thames,
That so did take Eliza, and our James!*
But stay, I see thee in the hemisphere
Advanced, and made a constellation there !
Shine forth, thou Star of Poets, and with rage
Or influence, chide or cheer the drooping stage,
Which, since thy flight from hence, hath mourned like night,
And despairs day, but for thy volume’s light
*Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and King James I (1566-1625)
The Shakespeare-deniers continue to flourish in the 21st century. Conspiracy theories are meat and drink to a public that mistrusts just about everything, especially any form of learning that cannot be demonstrated to lead to “a good job.”
A thorough and readable summary of both sides of the controversy can be read here.
Read about the formidable Delia Bacon here.