Shakespearean authorship

From Academic Kids

This portrait, called the , hangs in the . It is generally assumed to be a depiction of , but this identification is not universally accepted.
This portrait, called the Chandos portrait, hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It is generally assumed to be a depiction of William Shakespeare, but this identification is not universally accepted.

Around one hundred and fifty years after William Shakespeare's death in 1616, doubts began to be expressed by some about the authorship of the plays and poetry attributed to him. The term Shakespeare authorship normally refers to the debates inspired by these doubters, although it can also refer to less contentious academic debates about what exactly Shakespeare wrote in the collaborative world of the Elizabethan theatre.



In the 19th Century the most popular alternative candidate was Sir Francis Bacon. Many 19th century doubters, however, declared themselves agnostics and refused to endorse an alternative. The American populist poet Walt Whitman ( gave voice to this skepticism when he told Horace Traubel, "I go with you fellows when you say no to Shaksper: that's about as far as I have got. As to Bacon, well, we'll see, we'll see."

The most popular candidate in the 20th century has been Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. His case was put forward by John Thomas Looney in 1920 and Charlton Ogburn in 1984 whose works gave a impetus to the debate. The poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe has also been a candidate.

The belief of conventional scholarship remains that William Shakespeare, the author of the plays, is the same man as one William Shakespeare (or Shakespere) recorded as living in Stratford-upon-Avon, and professional scholars of Elizabethan history and literature largely scorn or ignore the question (although the establishment of the Authorship Studies Conference ( at Concordia University in Portland, Oregon is an attempt at legitimizing investigation of Oxfordian theory within academic circles).

Shakespeare: the pros and cons

The conventional view is that Shakespeare was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1564. He was a poet, a playwright, an actor, part-owner of the Globe Theatre in London and a member of the favoured acting company called the Lord Chamberlain's Men (later The King's Men). His father, and apparently his two daughters, were illiterate.

Those who question whether William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon was the author of Shakespeare's plays are called anti-Stratfordians. They call those who have no such doubts Stratfordians. ("Stratfordians" view the question of authorship as settled, and generally have no need for a name for themselves.) Anti-Stratfordians discussing the authorship controversy conventionally refer to the man from Stratford as "Shaksper" and the author of the plays and poems (whoever he may be) as "Shakespeare."

Shakespeare's life

Anti-Stratfordians say that we know little of Shakespeare's life, though mainstream scholars point out that we know more about him than we do about any other literary figure of that day other than Ben Jonson. In his lifetime Shakespeare was referred to specifically by name as a well-known writer at least twenty-three times, and his name also appears on the title pages of fourteen of the fifteen works published during his lifetime. Anti-Stratfordians contend that many of these references are simply to the pen-name of the true author. However, no contemporary document connecting any other person with the plays exists.

Shakespeare's education

Missing image
Shakespeare's signature, from his will, speaks against the theory that the "William Shakespere" of Stratford-upon-Avon was illiterate.

Anti-Stratfordians believe that Shakespeare was either uneducated or poorly educated. They doubt he could have produced the plays and poems that are critically acclaimed as sublime, and assert that the author of the Shakespeare canon must have been a man of better education and probably noble background, concealed behind a pseudonym in part because the writing of drama for the public stage was considered a disreputable activity for an Elizabethan gentleman.

William Shakespere of Stratford-upon-Avon is held by anti-Stratfordians to have been a bumpkin whose father was unable to write his own name. Indeed, his wife and his two daughters are also said to have been illiterate beyond signing their own names, and thus, they claim, the literacy of Shakespere himself is in doubt. How, they ask, could he have written the masterpieces of literature that we know as the works of Shakespeare?

It is known from information about land he owned that the Stratford Shakespere became a rich man. Anti-Stratfordians claim he amassed this wealth from his trading career. However, to be a successful trader at that time one would likely need to be able at least to read and write, though not, of course, to compose poetry and plays.

There are also several signatures from this time that are almost universally accepted to be valid. Anti-Stratfordians point out that the surviving signatures of Shakespeare show that he spelled his name in several different ways. However, it should be noted that there was no standardized orthography at the time (early editions of the works of the university-educated Christopher Marlowe spell his name as Marlowe, Marlo, Marlow, Marklin, and Marley).

Anti-Stratfordians point out that there are no records that William Shakespere of Stratford ever attended school at all. Mainstream scholars assume that Shakespeare was a student at the Stratford Free School, since he would have been entitled to attend it, and textbooks used at the Stratford Free School are alluded to in the plays. The are no surviving records of the school for the relevant period, for Shakespeare or anyone else.

What is universally accepted is that, unlike most contemporary writers of the day, Shakespeare had no association with a university. The universities of Shakespeare's day, though, were not intended as training grounds for professional writers. If a writer had a university education, it was for the purposes of some other vocation such as the priesthood or law.

Shakespeare's class

Anti-Stratfordians argue that a provincial glovemaker's son could never have written plays that deal with the activities of the nobility, which most of Shakespeare's plays do. They claim that the plays show a detailed understanding of courtly life.

Orthodox scholars point out that the glamourous world of the aristocracy was a popular setting for most plays in this period. They add that numerous English Renaissance playwrights, including Christopher Marlowe, John Webster, Ben Jonson, Thomas Heywood, Thomas Dekker and others wrote about the nobility despite their own humble origins.

Stratfordians also point out that Shakespeare was an upwardly mobile man. Like many playwrights, he was patronized by an aristocrat, the Earl of Southampton, and his company regularly performed at court; he thus had ample opportunity to observe courtly life. In addition, his theatrical career made him wealthy and he eventually managed to acquire a coat of arms for his family and the title of gentleman, like many other wealthy middle class men in this period.

It should also be noted that in the seventeenth century, Shakespeare was not thought of as an expert on the court, but as a rustic 'child of nature' who "Warble[d] his native wood-notes wild" as John Milton put it in his poem l'Allegro. Indeed, John Dryden, wrote in 1668 that the playwrights Beaumont and Fletcher "understood and imitated the conversation of Gentlemen much better" than Shakespeare, and in 1673 wrote of Elizabethan playwrights in general that "I cannot find that any of them had been conversant in courts, except Ben Jonson."

The poems as autobiography

Orthodox scholars assert that strong arguments exist against the claim of any rival author. The opening lines of Sonnet 135 are often cited as "strong evidence" against any alternate author, or at least any not named William:

Whoever hath her wish, thou hast thy 'Will,'
And 'Will' to boot, and 'Will' in overplus;
More than enough am I that vex thee still,
To thy sweet will making addition thus.

Orthodox scholars also have difficulty understanding why the poems (as opposed to the plays), if by a nobleman, would have been published under an assumed name. The Oxfordians, however, suggest that the contents of the Sonnets, as well as the narrative poems, touched on matters of political scandal which positively required the adoption of a nom de plume by the author. They cite Sonnet 76 as clear evidence of the author's confession of the need for such a ruse:

Why write I still all one, ever the same,
And keep invention in a noted weed,
That every word doth almost tell my name,
Showing their birth, and where they did proceed?

The writing of poetry was a skill expected of an Elizabethan courtier, and poems like The Rape of Lucrece or Venus and Adonis, long narrative works on classical subjects, were a prestigious and highly respectable form of composition, and in a completely distinct category from 'merely popular' plays. Orthodox scholars also argue that the poems' timing, having originally been published after a period when theatres had been closed by an outbreak of the plague, is also more consistent with composition by a professional writer looking for an alternate source of income than a rich dilettante coincidentally during a theatre closing.

Shakespeare's will

Some anti-Stratfordians bring up William Shakespeare's will. It is long and explicit, listing the possessions of a successful bourgeois in detail, but is remarkable for containing no mention at all of personal papers, manuscripts, or books (books were rare and expensive items at the time).

However, manuscripts of the plays would have, as was the ordinary practice, been owned by the theatre company of which Shakespeare was a shareholder. And books were not normally listed separately in wills at this time; despite their value, they were included among the house-contents. Known wills of other authors of the time often do not mention books either.


Ignatius Donelly, a US congressman, science fiction author and Atlantis theorist, wrote The Great Cryptogram (1888), in which he found encoded messages in the plays attributing authorship to Francis Bacon — encoded messages that Donelly alone could discern, however.

With the 19th Century authorial debate, the floodgates of doubt opened, and a new fad developed: discerning authorial cryptograms in Shakespeare's works. One of the most vigorous "cryptographers" was Mrs. Ashmead Windle. Elizabeth Wells Gallup examined Bacon's "bi-lateral cipher" (in which two typefaces were used as a method of encoding) and announced that Bacon was not only the author of the Shakespearean works but also the eldest child of Queen Elizabeth, the product of a secret marriage. Again, however, only Ms. Gallup could reliably distinguish between the "two" fonts.

One of the most convincing arguments against the cryptogram theories, and particularly the Baconian theory, was published in 1957 by William F. Friedman and his wife Elizebeth. William, considered by many to be the greatest cryptologist of all time, and Elizebeth, a noted cryptologist in her own right for her US Government work on "rum runners'" ciphers, demonstrated that the encrypted messages claimed to have been included in texts from one (or both) of these authors were entirely implausible cryptographically and in some cases impossible. Using the same methods, Friedman and several others produced cryptograms showing that Dante Alighieri, Shakespeare himself and Babe Ruth wrote the plays. They then went on to use statistical methods to demonstrate just how different Shakespeare's and Bacon's styles of writing were.

A common example of a word which looks like an encrypted message of some kind is the word honorificabilitudinitatibus, used in Love's Labour's Lost. Unfortunately for those seeing more than an unusual word, it had been used (though rarely) by other writers before Shakespeare. Honorificabilitudo appears in a Latin charter of 1187, and occurs as honorificabilitudinitas in 1300. Dante cites honorificabilitudinitate as a typical example of a long word in De Vulgari Eloquentia II. vii. It also occurs in The Complaynt of Scotland, and in John Marston's play The Dutch Courtesan (1605).

Curiously, a cryptogram is supposedly present in Psalm 46 of the King James Bible. This is supposed by some to be cryptographic evidence that Shakespeare had a hand in writing the King James Bible. The 46th word from the beginning of the psalm is "shake"; the 47th word from the end of the psalm, counting backwards, is "spear" (though if one omits the final word of the Psalm, this is the 46th word counting backwards). In the Bishops' Bible (published in 1568, when Shakespeare was four years old) '"shake" is 47 words from the beginning and "spear" 48 from the end. In the Geneva bible (1560), the numbers are 47 and 45. In Miles Coverdale's translation of the psalm, which appeared in the Book of Common Prayer of the 1540s, the numbers are 46 and 48. It has also been claimed that similar hidden cryptograms, supporting Shakespeare's authorship, can be found in the Sonnets. [1] (

Other evidence

There are no direct comments about veiled authorship in Ben Jonson's private Diaries of the time, nor in any of the known gossip reports of the time or the succeeding few decades (e.g., Aubrey's Lives or Pepys's Diary). Argument from absence is tricky and rarely compelling at best, but in this case certainly is supportive of the Stratfordian position.


The debate, such as it is, seems far from being resolved, with standard scholarship noting that the theories of ghost authorship began to develop two centuries or more after Shakespeare's death while anti-Stratfordians claim evidence of a "cover-up" during the lifetime of the author. The debate has gone on for several centuries, and, barring the sudden discovery of new evidence which disposes of the question, is unlikely to be settled in the near future.

Candidates and their champions

As early as the 18th century, unorthodox views of Shakespeare were expressed in two allegorical stories. In The Life and Adventures of Common Sense (1769) by Herbert Lawrence, Shakespeare is portrayed as a "shifty theatrical character ... and incorrigible thief" (Michell). In The Story of the Learned Pig (1786) by an anonymous author described as "an officer of the Royal Navy," Shakespeare is merely a front for the real author, a chap called "Pimping Billy."

Around this time, James Wilmot, a Warwickshire clergyman and scholar, was researching a biography on Shakespeare. He travelled extensively around Stratford, visiting the libraries of country houses within a radius of fifty miles looking for records or correspondence connected with Shakespeare or books that had been owned by him. By 1781, Wilmot had become so appalled at the lack of evidence for Shakespeare that he concluded he could not be the author of the works. Wilmot was familiar with the writings of Francis Bacon and formed the opinion that he was more likely the real author of the Shakespearean canon. He confided this to one James Cowell. Cowell disclosed it in a paper read to the Ipswich Philosophical Society in 1805 (Cowell's paper was only rediscovered in 1932).

These stories were soon forgotten. However, Bacon would emerge again as a candidate in the nineteenth century when, at the height of bardolatry, the "authorship question" was popularised.

Sir Francis Bacon

Sir  is often cited as a possible author of Shakespeare's plays.
Sir Francis Bacon is often cited as a possible author of Shakespeare's plays.

In 1856, William Henry Smith put forth the claim that the author of Shakespeare's plays was Sir Francis Bacon, a major scientist, a courtier, a diplomat, an essayist, a historian and a successful politician, who served as Solicitor General (1607), Attorney General (1613) and Lord Chancellor (1618).

Smith was supported by Delia Bacon in her book The Philosophy of Shakespeare's Plays (1857), in which she maintains that Shakespeare was in fact a group of writers, including Francis Bacon, Sir Walter Raleigh and Edmund Spenser, for the purpose of inculcating a philosophic system, for which they felt that they themselves could not afford to assume the responsibility. She professed to discover this system beneath the superficial text of the plays.

Bacon was particularly favoured as a candidate by advocates of cryptogram theories. As an example, some anti-Stratfordians have suggested that honorificabilitudinitatibus (see above) is actually an anagram for the Latin phrase hi ludi, F. Baconis nati, tuiti orbi (These plays, born of F. Bacon, are preserved for the world).

Other arguments in support of Bacon have been alleged similarities between the language of the plays and the sayings collected by Bacon in his notebook, the "Promus". Another link is the Northumberland Manuscript, a document that has both their names written together many times over on the same page.

Missing image
The Earl of Oxford, from the 1914 publication English Travellers of the Renaissance by Clare Howard

Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford

Main article: Oxfordian theory

The most popular latter-day candidate is Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. First proposed by J. Thomas Looney in 1920, Oxford is today the alternative candidate the majority of anti-Stratfordians have settled upon. Advocates of Oxford are usually referred to as Oxfordians.

Looney's 1920 work, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford ( persuaded Sigmund Freud, Orson Welles, Marjorie Bowen, and many other early 20th century intellectuals of the case for Oxford's authorship. Oxford rapidly became the favored alternative to the orthodox view of authorship.

In 1984, Charlton Ogburn Jr.'s The Mysterious William Shakespeare not only renewed the case for Oxford's authorship with an abundance of new research results but also engaged a trenchant critique of the standards and methods used by the orthodox school. "Doubts about Shakespeare," acknowledged Richmond Crinkley, then the Director of Educational Programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library, in his Shakespeare Quarterly review of Ogburn's book, "came early and grew rapidly. They have a simple and direct plausibility." Crinkley went on to acknowledge that Ogburn's critique of orthodox assumptions had a strong appeal: "The plausibility has been reinforced by the tone and methods by which traditional scholarship has responded to the doubts" (36: 518). Another direct result of Ogburn's book was the 1989 Frontline documentary, The Shakespeare Mystery ( a close look at the Oxford case narrated by Al Austin and Judy Woodruff.

Oxfordians argue that there are striking similarities between his biography and events in Shakespeare's plays. He was, for example, the son-in-law of Lord Burghley, who is regarded by some as the model for Polonius. His own daughter was engaged to Henry Wriothesley at about the time that most believe the first sonnets were written. The early sonnets encourage a young nobleman to marry, and Wriothesley has long been regarded as one of two candidates to be the young man in question. The acclaim of his contemporaries regarding his talent as a poet and a playwright, his closeness to Queen Elizabeth I and Court life, underlined passages in his Bible ( that correspond to quotations in Shakespeare's plays, and striking similarities of phraseology and thought between the plays and his letters (Fowler 1986) are cited among the critical elements of evidence supporting Oxford's authorship.

Supporters of the standard view would dispute most if not all of these contentions. For them, the most compelling evidence against Oxford is that he died in 1604, whereas about eleven plays by Shakespeare appear to have been written after that date, with the last being written in 1613. Oxfordians argue that orthodox scholars have misdated these plays.

Christopher Marlowe

 has been cited as a possible author for Shakespeare's works, but was assumed to be dead during most of Shakespeare's career.
Christopher Marlowe has been cited as a possible author for Shakespeare's works, but was assumed to be dead during most of Shakespeare's career.

The gifted playwright and poet Christopher Marlowe might seem qualified to write the works of Shakespeare - except that he was apparently dead.

A case for Marlowe was made as early as 1895, but the creator of the most detailed theory of Marlowe's authorship was Calvin Hoffman, an American journalist whose book on the subject was published in 1955. According to history, Marlowe had been killed in 1593 by men who had worked for the English secret service, as Marlowe himself had.

The theory is that Marlowe's apparent 'patron' Thomas Walsingham, cousin of Francis Walsingham (who directed the spy network), had Marlowe's death faked to protect him from charges of atheism and heresy being investigated by the Privy Council. Regardless of guilt the interrogation methods used would have been severe. Marlowe was then smuggled out of the country and wrote "Shakespeare's" plays and other work. Alternatively it has been hypothesized Marlowe was murdered to keep sensitive or embarrassing information he knew from the Privy Council. Either way, Marlowe's death and the investigation that followed does indeed appear suspicious.

Supporters of the Marlowe theory find it compelling that Shakespeare's career seems to have begun very shortly after Marlowe's supposed death. Marlowe is reported to have died March 30, 1593. Shakespeare's first published work, Venus and Adonis, was licensed for publication on April 4, 1593 (the date at which it was issued to the public is not recorded). The first edition carried a dedication to the Earl of Southampton, signed by "William Shakespeare." The first record of Shakespeare as an actor comes from December 1594.

Stratfordians maintain Marlowe's work is stylistically and intellectually quite different from Shakespeare's. Marlowe's half-dozen plays show little trace of Shakespeare's ability to create complex characters, his skill with prose or non-iambic verse, or his gift for comedy. However, since Shakespeare's early work was anonymous, these plays may well be experiments in a new writing style by a daring writer. Given Marlowe's controversial style and subject matter these differences would be expected from any writer, including Marlowe, seeking to stay away from the scrutiny of authorities. Numerous similarities of verses have been compiled between the authors, but this is hardly compelling evidence given Marlowe's fame during Shakespeare's youth. In 2001 the documentary Much Ado About Something ( by Michael Rubbo explored in detail the possibility of Marlowe's authorship. It has also been claimed that embedded references to Marlowe by Shakespeare are to be found in the Sonnets. [2] (


Other candidates proposed include William Stanley, 6th Earl of Derby, Sir Edward Dyer, Roger Manners, 5th Earl of Rutland and at least fifty others, including Queen Elizabeth (based on a supposed resemblance between a portrait of the Queen and the engraving of Shakespeare that appears in the First Folio). The American black radical Malcolm X argued that Shakespeare was actually King James I.

Academic authorship debates

The above refers to what might be termed the "popular" authorship debate, which revolves around the question of the identity of the true author the Shakespearean canon. There is, however, another authorship debate among academic scholars of literature. This is concerned with the issues of collaboration and revision of plays and the correct attribution of works.

The Elizabethan theatre was nothing like the modern theatre, but rather more like the modern film business. Scripts were often written under pressure of performance, and many were the product of collaboration, with plays often being rewritten by the actors as well as other writers. Some scholars, following a theoretical trend first set forth by Michel Foucault in his instrumental essay, “What is an Author?” also argue that the concept of the creative integrity of a single author, as we know it, did not exist at the time, and the unscrupulous nature of the Elizabethan book printing 'trade' complicates the attribution of plays further; e.g., William Jaggard, who published the First Folio, also published The Passionate Pilgrim by W. Shakespeare, which is mostly the work of other writers.

Many experts in the field who write about, and edit, Shakespeare for a popular audience are very conservative of the traditional ascriptions and continue insist that Shakespeare wrote most of the accepted canon, though it is universally acknowledged that Pericles, The Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII are collaborations; but it would be wrong to claim that their views represent a consensus. Most of these conservatives concede that even some of Shakespeare's greatest plays, like Hamlet and King Lear, are old plays that Shakespeare adapted, and it is well known that Shakespeare 'borrowed' all of his plots from earlier writers. Others believe that Shakespeare's dependence on other writers may have been considerable. There is some reason to believe that Shakespeare contributed to plays other than those he is traditionally assigned: these plays are known as the Shakespeare Apocrypha.

Recent work on computer analysis of textual style (word use, word and phrase patterns) has given some reason to believe that parts of some of the early plays ascribed to Shakespeare are actually by other (unknown) writers.

Meanwhile, some scholars have used computer analysis to attempt to "unearth" previously unattributed works whose syntactical and semantic signatures they believe may be uniquely attributed to Shakespeare's pen. These investigations prove somewhat strange to many, who wonder why we should care about work whose merits alone have not, over the centuries, suggested themselves as products of Shakespeare's unique — and possibly unquantifiable — insight and skill. Others, primarily scholars, point out that even a clearly substandard work by Shakespeare is of great interest because of the insight it gives into his better efforts.

The most famous example of computerized attribution is that of scholar (and forensic linguist) Don Foster, who attributed A Funeral Elegy for Master William Peter [3] (, previously ascribed only to "W.S.", to William Shakespeare, based on an analysis of its grammatical patterns and idiosyncratic word usage. A sign of the great interest taken in the authorship question even in today's era where Shakespeare's plays must compete with a vast array of other media for attention is the tremendous press attention paid to this discovery, which made the New York Times and other headlines.

Unfortunately for Foster, a later analysis by scholar Gilles Monsarrat showed Foster's attribution to be premature, and that the true author may well have been John Ford. Don Foster ceded to Monsarrat's argument in an e-mail message to the SHAKSPER e-mail list in 2002 [4] ( Since Monsarrat's analysis also relied upon linguistic analysis, rather than facts of historical record, however, it may be said that the idea of attempting to find a unique "linguistic signature" of Shakespearian authorship that is separable from a judgement of artistic merit — or even the possibility of eventual confirmation by historical record — has survived. Foster's "concession message," in referring to his experience serving as an expert witness in linguistic analysis in the American court system, provides an interesting take on this question:

"My experience with the anonymous documents in criminal investigations indicates that competent and trusted people — math professors, parents, biowarfare experts — often commit acts or write texts that you wouldn't expect of them."

See also: Shakespeare Apocrypha


  • J. Thomas Looney, Shakespeare Identified in Edward de Vere, Seventeenth Earl of Oxford ( (London: Cecil Palmer, 1920). (The first book to promote the Oxford theory).
  • H. N. Gibson, The Shakespeare Claimants (London, 1962). (An overview written from an orthodox perspective).
  • Charlton Ogburn Jr., The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Man Behind the Mask. (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1984). (Influential book that criticizes orthodox scholarship and promotes the Oxford theory).
  • John Michell, Who Wrote Shakespeare? (London: Thames and Hudson, 1999). ISBN 0-500-28113-0. (An overview from a neutral perspective, slightly tongue-in-cheek).
  • Irvin Leigh Matus, Shakspeare, in Fact (London: Continuum, 1999). ISBN 0826409288. (Stratfordian debunk of the Oxford theory).
  • Jonathan Hope, The Authorship of Shakespeare's Plays: A Socio-Linguistic Study (Cambridge University Press, 1994). (Concerned with the 'academic authorship debate' surrounding Shakespeare's collaborations and apocrypha, not with the false identity theories).
  • Diana Price, Unorthodox Biography: New Evidence of An Authorship Problem ( (Westport, Ct: Greenwood, 2001). (Introduction to the supposed evidentiary problems of the orthodox tradition).

External links


Anti-Stratfordian (general)




Other candidates


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