He was the greatest Western playwright of all time. His plays are still burned in our cultural memory and performed the world over. But William Shakespeare (1564-1616) has remained an elusive figure. He left little documentation — no letters, no handwritten manuscripts, few contemporary accounts, and only six signatures, all spelt differently.
The question about the real identity of ‘William Shakespeare’ — who wrote such celebrated plays as “The Merchant of Venice,” “Julius Caesar” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” -continues to haunt scholars with many trying to work out how a glover’s son from the countryside entered the literary world. Popular conspiracy theories suggest he was a ghostwriter or actually Bacon, an essayist; Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford or maybe Marlowe, another playwright from the same period.
- Francis Bacon was one of the first alternatives put forward, beginning in the mid-19th century. He was one of the creators of the scientific method, was a respected philosopher, and rose through the ranks of the Tudor court to become Lord Chancellor and a member of the Privy Chamber. But was he also the “real” Shakespeare?
- That’s the argument the Baconians make, alleging that Bacon wanted to avoid being tainted with a reputation as a lowly playwright, but also felt obligated to pen plays that secretly aimed at the royal and political establishment in which Bacon played a key part
- . Supporters argue that philosophical ideas originated by Bacon can be found in Shakespeare’s works, and debate whether Shakespeare’s limited education would have provided him with the scientific knowledge, as well as legal codes and traditions, appearing throughout the plays.
Edward de Vere
- Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, was a poet, dramatist and patron of the arts, whose affluence and position made him a high-profile figure in Tudor times.
- De Vere stopped publishing poetry under his own name shortly after the earliest works attributed to Shakespeare appeared, leading Oxfordians to claim that he used Shakespeare as a “front” to protect his position. They argue that an annual royal annuity De Vere received from the court may have used to pay Shakespeare, allowing De Vere to maintain public anonymity.
- De Vere had a lifelong love of history, particularly ancient history, making him well-suited to write dramas such as Julius Caesar.
- A chief criticism of this theory is that De Vere died in 1604 — but the accepted Shakespeare chronology indicates that more than a dozen works were published after his death. Despite this and other inconsistencies, De Vere’s defenders remain steadfast, and the Oxfordian theory was explored in the 2011 film, Anonymous.
- A celebrated playwright, bard and translator, Marlowe was a star of the Tudor age. His work undoubtedly influenced a generation of writers.
- Supporters of the Marlovian theory, first popularized in the early 19th century; argue that there are significant similarities in the two writing styles that cannot be overlooked, although modern analysis has called this into dispute.
- Like Shakespeare, Marlowe was from a modest background, but his intellectual ability saw him awarded both Bachelor and Master’s degrees from Cambridge University. Historians now believe he balanced his literary career with a concealed role as a spy for the Tudor court.
- Marlowe’s mysterious death in May 1593 has led to centuries of speculation. Although a coroner’s inquest conclusively concluded he had been stabbed during an argument in a tavern, conspiracies swirl that his death was faked. Possibly to avoid an arrest warrant for that anti-religious writing or to help hide his role as Cecil’s secret agent. Or, as the Marlovians believe, to allow Marlowe to assume a new literary career as Shakespeare, whose first work under that name went on sale two weeks after Marlowe’s death.
Several women have also been forward as potential candidates
- In the 1930s, author Gilbert Slater proposed that Shakespeare’s work may not have been written by a well-educated nobleman — but by a well-educated noblewoman.
- Drawing on what he saw as feminine attributes to subject matter and writing style, as well as the long list of strong, convention-breaking female characters, Slater declared that Shakespeare had likely been a front for Mary Sidney. The sister of poet Philip Sidney, Mary received an advanced classical education, and her time spent at the court of Elizabeth I would have provided ample exposure to the royal politics that played such a key role in Shakespeare’s work.
- Mary was an accomplished writer, completing a highly praised translation of religious works, and several “closet dramas” (plays written for private or small-group performances), a format frequently used by women of the era who were unable to openly participate in the professional theatre.
- Mary was also a noted arts patron, running a prominent literary salon that counted poets Edmund Spenser and Jonson among its members and providing funds to a theatre company that was one of the first to produce Shakespeare’s plays.
- More recently, Emilia Bassano has been the focus of renewed research. The London-born daughter of Venetian merchants, Bassano was one of the first English women to publish a volume of poetry. Historians believe Bassano’s family were likely converted Jews, and the inclusion of Jewish characters and themes, treated more positively than by many other authors of the day, could be explained by Bassano’s authorship.
- So, too, could the frequent settings in Italy, chiefly Venice, with which Bassano had close ties.
By Srijani Roy Chowdhury